27 February 2011

Guest Review: Nixon in China

Nixon in China
New York Metropolitan Opera
22 February 2011
Nova Cinema
to 3 March

Review by Josephine Giles

Cinema Nova has been showing the Met Opera in HD series since its launch a few years ago. The seasons always contain many well known and popular operas, showcasing singers, orchestras and directors that are unarguably the best of the best. But, for me, the real value of the program lies in the opportunity to experience operas that are rarely, if ever, presented in Australia.

Nixon in China is one such piece, and is a must see for anyone interested in opera, or even theatre for that matter. My disappointment at the mediocrity of much contemporary opera leads me sometimes to the point of giving up hope for the survival of the art form, but Nixon is an antidote to such despair. Long term collaborators Peter Sellars and John Adams, through their intelligent and superlatively creative treatment of a world changing event, successfully answer the perennial question “why opera?” with “this could only be an opera”.

First produced in Houston in1987, Nixon in China has taken 24 years to reach the Met stage, and this production, recorded just two weeks ago, marks 39 years to the month since the historic event of the title. Director Peter Sellars (yes, the one who was simply too big for the Adelaide Festival) suggested the subject matter to Adams and produced the premiere season. Since then the production has not been significantly altered, but progressively tinkered with to take into account changes in the cast plus the varying requirements of opera theatres around the world. This simulcast essentially recreates a 2006 English National Opera production, with adjustments made for the massive stage, expanded chorus, and the extra resources available at the cashed-up Met.

Sellars also directs the simulcast. Its seamless mix of full-stage shots and close-ups left me wondering just how many cameras it took to film this stage production in such detail – and where the hell did they hide them all? More lingering though is admiration for the absolute focus of the performers, keeping in mind that a simulcast leaves no chance for retakes if one is to blink or cough at an inopportune moment.

Running at almost 4 hours (with 2 intervals), this opera would appear to be not for the faint hearted. However my exhaustion at the end owed more to do with the emotional power of the opera than its length. Composer and conductor John Adams, with librettist Alice Goodman, has created an opera that communicates a profound humanism – not easy when you’re dealing with polarising political leaders like Richard (Tricky Dicky) Nixon, Kissinger, Chairman and Madame Mao, and Chinese Premier Chou En-lai.

As with Adams’s other masterpiece, the opera Doctor Atomic (about Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project), Nixon in China starts with, then moves  beyond the well documented facts of the historical into a poetic imagining of the inner lives of the protagonists. It begins with comparatively theatrical naturalism, accompanied by the now familiar harmonic and rhythmic patterns of Glass inspired minimalism: the staging progressively becomes more surreal, as the music – sometimes surprisingly lyrical – takes on different flavours, including wistful references to the music of the 40s. This all culminates in a moving meditation on the nature, responsibility, and cost of power. The final scene, exploring the doubts and frailty of the leaders, all of whom were on the brink of their political or physical demise, is devastating. I would never have imagined I could be moved to tears of sympathy for such a bunch – but I admit – I wept.

Heading the cast is baritone James Maddalena, who created the title role in 1987. Now in his mid-fifties, Maddelena at times struggles with the prolonged vocal demands of the music, but he embodies the character of Nixon so perfectly it is impossible to imagine any other singer in the role. The other principals unfailingly match Maddelena’s high standards, with spectacular singing and detailed, nuanced acting.

The only criticism I have of the simulcast is the now ubiquitous interviews with the singers as they exit the stage at interval. Akin to thrusting a microphone in to the face of someone who has just swum a 1500m Olympic Final and asking how they feel, these interviews are embarrassing and cringe-making.  I just wish they would leave the poor singers alone so they can get back to their dressing rooms for a pee, or even a stiff drink, if that is what they need. I can see the Met is trying to humanise opera singers in the minds of the public, and it can be interesting to hear these singers talking in accents far removed from their stage personas. Fascinating too are the shots of backstage at the Met between acts. However, in a piece as profound as Nixon in China the interviews are a regrettable interruption of the magic created on stage.
This review appears on AussieTheatre.com

22 February 2011

Do we really still care about David W?

Oh dear, Don Parties On and On and On has opened in Sydney and we have to start caring about David again. Gee, thanks super political writer  Annabel Crabb and lovely Ms TN Alison Croggon for responding.

Haven't we got better things to do? I saw some amazing shows this week and they're not getting a squillionth of the national media attention.

But then, if I'm to believe David Williamson, I'm one of "a handful of self appointed cognescenti" (dumbfucks in the more common vernacular) who want "to prevent the public from enjoying what they happen to enjoy now." 

David didn't like the Crikey.com review of his latest cash cow and told the reviewer so. And if any one needed a tall horse that week, it was a tough find, as many joined David on their own high equus.

When I first read the comments on Crikey, I thought it was a a satirical genius pretending to be a pompous, verbose playwright who was really hurting because a web reviewer didn't like his play. I was wrong as. It really was David. He even gave a formal reply (you have to be a Crickey subscriber to read it, but there is a free trial).

David, if you want to convert us who didn't break a rib at DPO, please get this voice onto the stage. If  Don and his mates chatted with such indignation and hurt, I would have been rolling off my seat and giving dirty looks to anyone who dared write a nasty pasty word about you.

We've been told, by you David, that we (anyone who didn't like DPO) are too dumb (or up our own self-important bums) to understand the satire.

Ok, so you're holding up the satirical mirror, but instead of the fluro-lit circus mirror that makes these folk look like pock-marked wobbly freaks, you've dimmed the lights and chosen one of those skinny mirrors that makes you look so good that you want to carry it around with you and insist that people only look at your reflection.

The silly old boomers Don and Kath still shag, still look pretty hot, have a brilliant house, luxury cars, an articulate grandchild who reads books and an adult son who still comes to them for advice. 

Why thank you David, yes we are lucky and would you care to join us for supper so that you can write us into your next play? We're opening the Rockford's Basket Press from the cellar and Richmond Hill cheese box will be at room temperature by 9.30.

Next thing you'll be writing about a 40-something red head who wears too much Laura Ashley (always from the half price rack), isn't keen on leaving the inner city, admits she votes Greens because it's the easiest option, gets most of her political knowledge from QandA (yes David, I saw you on it) and claims that she can tell the difference between an oaked chardonnay and an aged semillion in a blind tasting. 

Clearly the reviews didn't close the show and I suspect that anyone who chose to give DPO a miss based on my opinion, probably did so because we have similar thoughts about theatre and life (and they can taste varietal differences in plonk).

But for balance, please read what Alison, Richard and Martin thought.  Naturally, also read the ones David said were good. Here's the one from Variety and The Herald Sun is meant to be a rave, but all I could find was this one.

Of course, the above reviewers will be meeting in a secret spot later today to decide what we want to stop the public enjoying next week. I'm suggesting that cup cakes be banned from children's parties, cinema choc tops be filled with hot sand and post-sex cuddling be restricted to 60 seconds.

White people love David
DPO review
A much better boomer show on at the same time
Let the Sunshine review

Nixon in China at the Nova

A screen will never capture the experience of live theatre, but I didn't get to New York for the Met's recent revival production of Nixon in China and I was too poor to see it when the original came to the Adelaide Festival of Arts in 1992. Given I saw Einstein on the Beach in the same year in Melbourne, I've regretted missing Nixon ever since.

But the Met have been filming their operas and Nixon is on at the Nova for the next week or so. I'm excited.

The exceptionally wonderful Peter Sellars is the director and John Adam's score is a minimal masterpiece.

If you loved Tomorrow in a year at last year's MIAF and Philip Glass's operas, Nixon in China is a must.

I saw it this morning (Jo Giles is writing a review). BEST four hours I've spent in a long time. Even on a screen, it's an experience that left me not wanting to breathe in case I missed something. This is what opera is meant to be. And you get to see what the Met is like backstage. I'd see it again.

Here's some info about it.

Here's how to book.

This is the kind of production that might change your expectations of what theatre, music and opera can be.

21 February 2011

Review: 'Tis Pity She's A Whore

 'Tis Pity She's A Whore
Malthouse Theatre
19 February 2011
Merlyn Thearte
to 5 March

I'm looking forward to Marion Pott's first program at Malthouse. To date, everything I've seen her direct has excited and inspired me and even if 'Tis Pity She's a Whore didn't leave me dancing in the streets, I certainly enjoyed it.

John Ford wrote Whore in the seventeenth century, not long after the popular playwright Shakespeare died.  Potts loves the complex and centuries-old language that often alienates our lazy contemporary ears and what I love most about Potts's direction is that she shows the emotional intent of the language and tells the straightforward story without dismissing the poetry and sound of the original words.

Some performers, like Laura Luttuada as Putana, shone because they spoke as if it were written today, while others suffered by concentrating too much on presenting the language or relying on the wonderful music that supported the emotional truth of work.

Potts also uses sound and music to bring a deeper emotional depth to her productions and the original music by Andree Greenwall, sound design and live music by Jethro Woodward's and the glorious sound of the wandering angel soprano Julia County ensured Whore's consistency and delicately intertwined the sounds and morality of the seventeenth and the twenty-first centuries.

I haven't read Ford's text, but know Potts cut characters and script to reveal its bones and those bones are a story about incest. The production tried to distance itself from the brother/sister romance to focus on the consequences of the taboo act and the inconsistent morality of everyone else. It's no revelation that the presentation of women as virgins, madonna mothers or whores hasn't changed too much since, neither has the double sexual standard of men and women – which is handed to the awesome Chris Ryan as a one person bogun-stud chorus.

I would have loved to see the love between Annabella and her brother Giovanni at the centre of tale. To have their romance as irresistible as teen lovers Romeo and Juliet and to make the audience hate themselves for wanting these two together, blessed by their family and loving their baby (who would have all its chromosomes). Just as Ford's world was clinging to ideas of absolute rights and wrongs – those Puritans had some impact – so is our world. Incest is an almost a universal taboo. We still joke about Tasmanians marrying their cousins and loathe to reveal any great grandparents who were first cousins. To have an audience blubbering at their deaths (of course they die) instead of feeling relieved that the problem is solved would have been a far more interesting conclusion and emotionally disturbing night of theatre.

So, 'tis pity that this Whore confirms our morality, rather than questions it – but I still look forward to the seeing whatever Marion Potts directs.

This review appears on AussieThearte.com

Photo by Jeff Busby

Review: Save For Crying

Save For Crying
La Mama
20 February 2011
La Mama Theatre
to 6 March

"Nice people make matter," says Luv in Save For Crying. Call La Mama NOW and book because it's beautiful and uncomfortable and funny, because it will be sold out and because it's a gut kick reminder about why theatre matters.

Angus Cerini wrote and directed Save for Crying. Cerini writes about people and lives that educated, inner-city, latte-drinking theatre goers (like me) are more comfortable avoiding, ignoring or buying a Big Issue from. He says he writes about bad stuff and what we do about it and tries to answer it in the "art stuff" he makes. Like the bad stuff in life, there isn't a clear answer and Cerini never gives ones. Instead he leaves his writing in a much stronger and more disturbing position where we question our own lives and the bad stuff we turn away from.

Walking into near darkness, it's easy to feel uneasy and also easy to distance ourselves from the action of these people in a cell who are not "one of us".   The genius of this work is how is it creeps up on us until there's no comforting distance and it has become our story.

Luv (Peta Brady), and Alfie (Ben Grant) have their share of bad stuff. They know that five dollars isn't enough for fish and chips, but they can keep it from Ratspunk (LeRoy Parsons) who "everyday he does the not nice things". Each performer is so embodied in their character that there's no time to admire their acting; so much that their "real" selves final bow is a sharp jolt back to reality.

The artistic collaboration on this work has made an astonishing script an unforgettable show. As the actors create broken souls, the design (Marg Horwell) and lighting (Rachel Burke) hide and reveal action and characters in ways that the mere words of a script can never achieve and Kelly Ryall's astonishing music and sound design is almost inseparable from the words.

And Cerini's words are as beautiful as they are disturbing and terrifying. He writes with a language that plays with word order and strips away everything that isn't needed. In the wrong hands, it could feel forced, but it sounds natural in this world. It's a language that is pure emotion and makes us feel the pain, hope and humiliation that these people are trying so hard to block from their lives, without forcing us to justify, over-think or even completely understand what's going on.

Save For Crying is confronting theatre told with humanity and guts. Don't regret missing it.

This review appears on AussieTheatre.com

17 February 2011

Review: Invisible Atom

Invisible Atom
Full Tilt presents 2b theatre company's production
5 February 2011
Fairfax, the Arts Centre

Invisible Atom has toured widely since 2004 and had  its 100th performance in Melbourne, on the day when it rained a lot.  Canadian company 2b from Nova Scotia say that their work reflects the urban intellectual climate of their city with five universities, so it's no wonder that Atom was instantly at home in Melbourne in the Full Tilt program.

Atom (as in bomb, not apple) is at an apex; he has to fall. Looking as undistinguished as any suited office worker, he tells his story of the wealth, love and success that suited folk generally aspire to. When a bomb destroys his workplace, he explores his past to discover he's at the end of long line of bastards, that include Adam Smith and Issac Newton, and is given a way to regain success. He jumps at the chance and, of course, there's an unmeasurable moment until he plummets.

Anthony Black wrote and performs Atoms's tale,  developed with Christian Barry and Ann-Marie Kerr.  As a story about an over-educated wealthy man in a brown suit, he's not an instantly sympathetic character, as he talks about physics and economics with no doubt that we understand him. Yet, in a timeless box of light, he deftly draws us into his world and makes us hope that he makes one good decision and that search and fall will end happily.

Written and explored intellectually, 2b transform their process to a piece of theatre that almost transcends their process. It takes knowledge of Smith and Newton to understand the details, but anyone with a heart will understand the story and wish they could change the laws of physics to help Atom stay in his unmeasurable moment.

This review appears on AussieTheatre.com

Review: Honey Bunny's Sagittarian Full Moon Finale

Honey Bunny's Sagittarian Full Moon Finale
3 February 2011
Northcote Town Hall

Writer and director Julian Hobba says that Honey Bunny's Saggitarian Full Moon was inspired by a night with friends in 2002. The resulting work captures the energy and mood of a 20-something party, but is far more than a glimpse of a gen Y gathering.

A group of friends gather in an empty backyard for a housewarming. With a gift of gilded bunny, they find something to pay homage to as they try to avoid the truths and secrets that they know they have to face.

Just as Ys distant themselves from Xs, generations will always claim to be unique – I'm sure the first kids to move out of the family cave to live in a bark hut scoffed at the dated Cavers. Honey Bunny's characters (and cast) broadly represent their generation, but are based on more than generalisations and it's easy to see, and feel, that their selfishness, pain and hope are no different from anyone else's. With such an understanding of archetypes, and a quote from Jungian scholar and legend Marie Louise Von Franz in the show, it's a work also influenced by Jung.

Hobba's writing freely uses moon, tide and blood imagery and plays with language without letting it get in the way of his story.  Directing his own work, he is supported by his totally watchable cast (Brendan Barnett, Alicia Beckhurst, Emma Breech, Marcus McKenzie, Ben Andrew Pfeiffer, Michael Wahr and Drew Wilson) and a design team (David Samuel, Lucy Birkinshaw and Chloe Greaves) who all ensure a balance between the drama and the gentle surreal beauty and horror that their full moon brings.

Near the end, characters wonder if they can see moonlight tears or water, and with such lovely writing, I have no doubt that we'll soon see more of Hobba and everyone who bowed before Honey Bunny.

This review appears on AussieTheatre.com

photo by Pia Johnson

PS: Some reviews that disappeared in the weekend of flooding are now floating to the surface...

14 February 2011

Taylor Mac's here until Wednesday

I've just got back from seeing the exquisite and glorious Taylor Mac at the Recital Centre. The raving review will come, but not in time to catch him.

Anyone who saw The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac in 2008 knows that he must never be missed again.

Compared to many, but incomparable, Taylor is the kind of performer who stopped caring about what people "wanted" and let himself become his own authentic creation. There's a lot of glitter and sequins in his finery, but none shine as much Taylor himself. His performance isn't technically brilliant, but it grabs your heart in ways that remind you who you really are and proves that if you let your true and honest self onto the stage (even if it's exaggerated), you will find love and connection with your audience.

Book at www.melbournerecital.com.au. There are only a few seats left for each night.

PS: This afternoon as I put on make up I grabbed my favourite gold glitter eyeshadow, then put it down because I had to make an appearance at somewhere that wasn't a theatre and went for the matt browns. Never again. Taylor has made me promise that I will wear glitter when and where ever I want.

Review: Smoke and Mirrors

Smoke and Mirrors
the Arts Centre
12 February 2011
the Famous Spiegeltent
to 25 February

The Famous Spiegeltent is back at the Arts Centre forecourt and it's already hard to get tickets for  Smoke and Mirrors, the show that sold out in Sydney, blew Edinburgh away and won a pile of Helpman Awards.

With the velvet-voiced gender-challenging rock god iOTA is at its centre, fans like me know that we have to see it. Leaving out his genre-defining performances as Hedwig and Frank 'N' Furter, his original albums and solo shows leave all who experience them wondering why (and rejoicing that) we can still see him in intimate venues.

Smoke and Mirrors isn't all about iOTA and surprises with the wholeness of its story, the collaboration and input from its remarkable and diverse artists and the mesmerising mood that refuses to let its audience go.

Describing it as a live concept album, Craig Ilott and iOTA devised Smoke and Mirrors specifically for the Spiegeltent; an old place that travels the world and makes countless performers and freaks feel like they belong. With a sexy-as-hell design by Nicholas Dare and dramaturg guidance by Sakia Moore, it captures the momentary ecstasy, passing connection and lingering darkness of travelling performers and draws the audience into a surreal world where time and memory hold no truth.

 iOTA is a ringmaster of sorts whose songs dream about running away to the circus. Visited by the ghosts and memories of forgotten circus act,  he is soon caught in a lost vaudeville world where acrobats refute all laws of gravity, a cheery tap dancer sings in a brown houndstooth suit, a bearded lady seduces and an old school magician makes us believe the trick is real. With a live band, who redefine rock and sex, he is drawn into acts and his presence leaves each in an place they never expected.

From mind blowing numbers like "Fuck me into my happy place" and  pin-drop moments like Queenie Van de Zandt's bearded reprisal of the ringmaster's "I'm just a simple girl" (Tina Harris as musical director has to be mentioned – and she looks mighty fine in her shorts and braces), the completeness of Smoke and Mirrors shows how cabaret and vaudeville are art.

This review appears on AussieTheatre.com

photo by Jamie Williams

03 February 2011

Review: Song of the Bleeding Throat

Song of the Bleeding Throat
The Eleventh Hour
28 January 2011
The Eleventh Hour Theatre
to 12 February

David Tredinnick (writer), Brian Lipson (director) and Neil Pigot (actor) are some of my favourite Melbourne theatre creators. I'm adding actors Ann Browning, Richard Bligh and James Saunders to the list as their performances in Song of the Bleeding Throat were remarkable, but I have no idea what this show is trying to say.

In his program notes Lipson says that when he first read the play he could "barely comprehend it" and eventually understood that it was written to be performed. As someone watching it performed, I could barely comprehend it and wouldn't mind a read so I might begin to understand it.

The tsunami of text, which includes quotes from Marx (Karl) to Barnum, is so overwhelming that it  becomes noise. The creators familiarity and understanding of it is clear, but as an audience we are coming to it for the first time and it's a struggle to keep up.

The opening scenes mimimally replicate Tait's Chealsea Interior painting of Thomas and Jane Carlyle with their dog, and with Pigot as the most delightfully dry Absurd-like stage manager of sorts, a mood of comic anticipation is set. There are wonderfully original and funny moments throughout, but its completeness drowns in the words – even with the welcome catch up space of drugs and farts.

The second half turns literally turns the theatre around and Pigot is Abraham Lincoln, Bligh is Walt Whitman, Saunders is John Wilkes Booth and Browning is the statue of Liberty. Again, the performances are superb, the staging and design are immaculate and the final "I sing the body electric" moment (the Fame, not the Whitman version) made my heart glow with ironic nostalgic joy, but I still had no idea what it was about or who it was talking to and was glad that it was over.

For all it's exquisite technique, intelligence and super well-read cleverness that rightly deserves to be admired (and maybe envied), this is the kind of theatre that makes you feel like an uneducated twat if you don't understand it. It reminded me of going to a Walt Whitman lecture in 1987 from a professor determined to show how much he knew and how little smart arse undergrads knew. I only chose American Lit because Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was on the reading list ... although part of me must have listened because I recognised Whitman quoting Whitman and had a burst of over-educated smugness. But I had to Google Tait and the Carlyles.

This review appears on AussieTheatre.com