25 March 2011

Review: Howie the Rookie

Howie The Rookie
Red Stitch Actors Theatre
18 March 2011
Red Stitch Theatre
to 16 April

Red Stitch first brought the bloody incredible Howie The Rookie to Melbourne in 2002. I wasn't here, but am among the many who are thrilled to see this new production, which is part of a program celebrating the tenth anniversary of the independent company that regularly puts our funded companies to shame and brings us the scripts and the performances that Melbourne audiences deserve to see.

Mark O'Rowe's an Irish writer rightly won a stack of for his 1999 epic of redemption and loss. With language scooped from filthy Dublin gutters, it's told through two monologues with a present tense immediacy that drags us into a world so violent, devastating and fucking funny that we can't imagine how we ever thought that bashed boys with scabies or obese scrags in white leggings could be anything but beautiful. It's the kind of writing that makes me hurt because it's so good.

Paul Ashcroft (The Howie) and Tim Ross (The Rookie) attack each half with the kind of guts and energy that would let them win a Dublin pub fight. Ashcroft's physicality is frighteningly confronting, while Ross brings out the humour that could so easily get lost in the mess of piss, blood and scabies cream.

Greg Carroll's direction lets his actors draw deep and fill the stage with an energy that sparks. But I would have loved to see him trust the text a bit more, as there were moments that felt like they were underlining what was already bolded and hightlighted. It's so well written that the audience don't need to have it drawn so clearly; especially at the end of part one, which was given away too early. Don't warn us with mood; kick us in the guts as hard as Howie has been.

Even if our lives will never reflect the world of this play, the story has so much heart and goddam humanity that we have no choice but to know their rough and damaged souls. And this is where I get frustrated with Red Stitch. Some shows are so caught up with creating an authentic "them" (and showing the astonishing skill it takes to create "them") that the story struggles to be ours. We're so busy watching and admiring that we don't get lost in the world and have that inexpressible connection and understanding that every artist and audience longs for.

If it sounds like I'm being excessively picky about a company that I love, it's because sometimes they are so close to brilliant that the tiniest distractions can seem huge.

And don't you dare let it stop you seeing Howie The Rookie; it's a night of theatre that drags you into those filthy gutters, stabs your heart and leaves you breathless.

Photo by Jodie Hutchinson

This review appears on AussieThearte.com

13 March 2011

Terrific Writing Tips #4: read Amy's blog

Tell us your story
Aim to Change BLOG

The more I learn to write, the more I get that it's just telling our stories.  Amy would blush if I called her a writer, but her story is inspiring.

Sharing what happened to us (even through fictional worlds and folk) is when writers, performers and people connect with other people. How amazing is it to see a play, read a book/article/blog/poem on the back of a toilet door and feel that it was written for us? Of course it wasn't and the writer has no idea who we are, yet we recognise ourselves in their work because their writing comes from something real.

This is such a different experience from respecting or acknowledging the wordy aptitude or dictionary knowledge of a writer, but ultimately being a bit bored. Writing that isn't from some part of our selves doesn't connect.

It's hard and brave to write from the heart and it's something I'm still working on. It's easier to hide in words that are composed to tell anything but our truths.

So, I want to share the story of a young woman whose words have been inspiring others for three years.

I read Amy's story after I had a bit of a health hiccough,  saw a couple of horror photos and realised that I wasn't the hot and healthy 30-something I imagined myself to be. Seeing the word obese next to your name is hard and I felt as angry and frustrated as I did when I was a miserable and lonely fat teenager. For all the talk of accepting people for who they are, being a chubster still sucks.

So, it was off to the doctor and time to acknowledge that my clothes really didn't shrink in my wardrobe. And it's going well. I'll never be the size 12 I was in my 20s (for a few weeks), but I won't be heading to diabetes either.

Amy is a stranger who has inspired me and convinced me that giving up isn't an option. This is the beginning of her blog called Aim to Change.

She's already lost over 80 kg as a member of the online Biggest Loser Club (yes the TV show one) – and let's not argue the rights and wrongs of reality TV.

Amy has been a member for three years and in that time has been active in the forums. Here people (mostly women) share their stories and frustrations.  Some are heartbreaking. It's sometimes easier to tell invisible strangers how you feel than to tell your closest and most loved.  Amy is one of the most supportive and encouraging people on the forums. Her advice is always positive and never judgemental (so we know she's not a reviewer) and she's beginning to realise just how much sharing her story has helped people.

I sometimes chat on the forums and am continually inspired by the support and encouragement that strangers – who often have nothing in common except a struggle with weight – give to each other simply by sharing their experiences. (I don't even care that some don't care about spelling and grammar or think that Comic Sans is an acceptable font.)

Even if weight isn't your issue,  read Aim to Change. It's a story about overcoming the overwhelming by taking lots of small steps and reaching out when you need help, by a writer who is brave enough to be honest.

Today it was announced that Amy will appear on the finale of the TV show, which will take her from being a hero to a small group of people to being an inspiration to thousands. I've never met her, but couldn't be more proud and excited for her.

Review: Cafe Scheherazade

Cafe Scheherazade
12 March 2011
to 3 April

Should I be sad because I already know too many people who never went to Cafe Scheherazade in Acland Street? After 40 years, it closed in 2008 and is fading into memory as St Kilda evolves into a different place.

Therese Radic's Cafe Scheherazade is loosely based on Arnold Zable's book and lets us share writer Martin's experience of listening to and writing about the stories he heard at the famous and loved cafe. Dramatically, I'm not sure that there's enough to draw a non-familar audience through, but there are enough generations who remember the "old" St Kilda to love a re-visit and its strength and vitality is its reflections on memories and the importance of telling our stories.

With live Klezmer music,  Laminex tables and the room's pillars covered in the very familiar brown and gold flowered wallpaper, it's easy to be back in Acland Street. I even had a pang of jealousy because Martin (based on Zable) was served a vegetarian meal, even with the jibes. I never had a famous Scheherazade schnitzel, but I'm drooling at the memory of the plum dumplings.

The owners and customers Cafe Scheherazade share their stories about being Jewish in Europe in the 1940s. Sometimes they are reluctant as some experiences "can never be understood". We have heard similar stories , but this work reminds us how they must keep being told. As too many people don't know how good a cream cheese blintze is with black coffee,  many haven't heard first-hand stories about fleeing Europe. As this generation dies, their stories and voices have to remain.

It's not easy to listen to something that is so far from our own experiences of life, but the discomfort is more ours than the teller's. Our unease is shared by Martin who is compelled to hear how this generation of strangers ended up in beach-side Melbourne, but knows that he cannot ever really understand; even in his imagination he has to stop at the gates of the ghetto.

His unease continues with his reluctance to share his stories. "A story must be answered with another story"; we can't just be listeners.  Even if its facts are twisted to make the teller look good, it's those "wonderful lies" that reveal the real truth.

I live in a Melbourne suburb where there are still more bakeries that sell Challah than there are Baker's Delights, it's easy to buy dairy-free chocolate and there's no such thing as a bagel that hasn't been boiled. Here, European Yiddish culture is as Aussie as a pie at the footy, but there is still palpable distance. This is touched on as a man talks to Martin about "you Australians" and still having no sense of belonging here, even after 50 years.

Fleeing your home and seeing atrocities that even the secular pray never happen again is so hard to understand if you've grown up safe. Perhaps we forget that many refugees (wherever they are from) didn't imagine their futures in Australia. Even if they are welcomed with open arms and minds, "These people are not us" and many came because they had no choice.

Avram and Masha opened a cafe and gave us a taste of bohemian Europe and Black Forest cake, but Cafe Scherherazade gave many a memory of home, where they could "sit and eat like civilised men" and know that they were with others who understood why sometimes their stories were wonderful lies or left untold.

Cafe Scheherazade is nearly sold out, but there are some matinee tickets still available. If you miss the cafe, it's almost as good as being there and the stories told remind us why they must never be forgotten.

photo be Jeff Busby

This review appears on AussieTheatre.com

Guest Review: Wagner and Me

Wagner and Me, with Stephen Fry
Cinema Nova
2 March 2011

Review by Josephine Giles

Stephen Fry is a rightly celebrated performer who manages to combine light entertainment with his unabashed celebration of intelligence and his insatiable curiosity.  Until I saw this documentary, I felt I couldn’t get enough of the man. However, in Wagner and Me, the dominance of Fry’s personality (and his bad shirts) detracts from this reasonably informative exploration of the music and politics of the German composer.

Wagner and Me is apparently an extended version of an hour long documentary made for the BBC, and the lower production values are evident in the beginning scenes with sweeping camera shots that made me feel a bit sick. Things settle down though, as self confessed Wagner tragic Fry breathlessly introduces us to preparations for the next production of The Ring Cycle at Bayreuth – the spiritual home of Wagner and the site of his famous purpose built opera theatre.

What follows is essentially a course in Wagner for Dummies – justifiable on the grounds that most theatre-goers know little about this ground breaking composer, except perhaps that his operas are ridiculously long, and that Hitler was his number one fan. And I am always pro to any attempts to educate the masses in the magic of my favourite art form.

A narrative tension is created by the conflict between Fry’s passionate love of Wagner’s music, and the well documented facts of Wagner’s (and his heirs’s) anti-Semitism – which Fry, having lost relatives in the Holocaust of WWII, feels duty bound to explore. The documentary gets really interesting when we are shown photos of Hitler appearing at a window of Bayreuth, waving to hoards of delirious fans; and scenes of Nuremburg, where we learn that Wagner sing-alongs often preceded the famous Nazi rallies. Another powerful moment is when Fry talks to a survivor of the Auschwitz, a cellist whose survival depended on playing for officers of the SS.

Behind the scenes peeks at rehearsals, both at Bayreuth and at a very interesting looking production of the Ring in St Petersburg, are interspersed with the historic and political, but most of the music scenes are too short to be really satisfying. While  the shrieking women of the Valkyries are always a hoot, the musical  highlight is a whole scene played on piano which demonstrates the magic of the “Tristan Chord”, and the way that Wagner uses an unresolving musical motif to keep the audience emotionally on tenterhooks until the final chord – some five hours later.

Fry’s love of Wagner’s music, and his delight at being backstage in the master’s theatre, are infectious. But he sabotages identification with this enthusiasm through constant self-deprecatory remarks - “You must think I’m mad” being a common one. As well as being intensely annoying, it destroys the mood that has just been set up – maybe by some sublime music – and here we are in Stephen Fry land again. God knows we get enough of that on the box every week.

This doco could have been, in someone else’s hands, an interesting exploration of whether it is possible to separate our appreciation of a genius’s creativity from our knowledge of their politics. Unfortunately, it comes across here as lip-service by Fry to counter the criticism that his slavish devotion to Wagner’s music will inevitably provoke.

Opera Australia recently announced, to great fanfare, they will be mounting a new production of the Ring Cycle in Melbourne in 2013. If you want to know what all the fuss is about, Wagner and Me is a good place to start. But, honestly, I’d wait for the DVD.

This review appears on AussieThearte.com

11 March 2011

Review: ... or Comparison is Violence

The Ziggy Stardust Meets Tiny Tim Songbook or Comparison is Violence
Taylor Mac
Melbourne Recital Centre
14 February 2011

Taylor Mac. Photo by Tim Hailand

I spent my Valentine's night with Taylor Mac. We didn't snog or share sparkles, but it was still so much better than V days I've spent with other men.

The last time gorgeous Taylor was in town, he was at the Famous Speigeltent with The Be(a)st of TM, and it was love at first "play" for most of the audience. He's not the best singer, musician, writer or dresser, but his refusal to let any of that shit matter is what makes him so unforgettable and so loved.

This time, the coloured glass and swaying velvet of our favourite tent was replaced by the acoustically perfect grey box of the Melbourne Recital Centre. The venue was odd, but it took Taylor a breath to remove any residual stuffiness and ensure that every chamber musician that plays there will wonder why they always leave with a bit of glitter on them.

The Ziggy Stardust Meets Tiny Tim Songbook or Comparison is Violence is Taylor's first real cabaret show and it's not too different from the personal "plays" he is known for, except there are more cover songs and a bit (only a bit) less personal material. As I feel compelled to compare, he also seems more confident as an artist. If his Be(a)st was asking if we liked him (we did), Comparison says "fuck you, I like me and that's what matters".

This cabaret is songs by David Bowie (as Ziggy) and Tiny Tim, because these were the artists that lazy (his word) journalists kept comparing him to. Ziggy because of the makeup, glitter and homosexuality and Tiny because of his ukelele. Neither is a fair, accurate or worthy comparison, but the result is finery that includes glittery tulip makeup and enough purplely-pink, colbolty-aqua and shiny-gold crochet to make my inner-six-year-old seethe and my 40-something self remember that black isn't always cool.

It also lets him blow our minds as "Starman" transitions to "Tip Toe Through the Tulips" and he reminds us that the subtext of any comparison is a criticism that we're not as special as we thing we are.

Taylor's authenticity is inspired by others but naturally incomparable. He shares stories of his favourite cabaret queens and how seeing John Cameron Mitchell's astonishing Hedwig and the Angry Inch (he was auditioned when Ali Sheedy took over as Hedwig) left him in tears as he recognised a world that was his and realised that shows, drag and life don't need to be a compromise.

There is no compromise this stage. He knows that life isn't all rainbow colour, but his black moments – like comparing AIDS to glitter – show that that even the vilest parts of life can be shine with some work. And much of his stage shines with his drag. Whereas drag is often a way to hide, he uses its extreme divineness to reveal himself and find those moments of comparison that unite an audience. He also defines drag as the personas we choose. It's rare that anyone sees our selves that appear when no one is watching, so why not make our drag as wonderful as we'd love ourselves to be.

Dammit Taylor Mac, I love you as much as I love David Bowie and John Cameron Mitchell and think of you every time I wear glittery eyeshadow.

This review appeared on AussieThearte.com

Photo by Ves Pitts

This a fabulous recent interview with him about the show.

07 March 2011

Review: The Wau Wau Sisters' Last Supper

The Wau Wau Sisters Last Supper
the Arts Centre
2 March 2011
the Famous Spiegeltent

If the Wau Wau Sisters end up in hell for being sacrilegious, well I'll be there with them. So will you if you're reading this; and the good folk who got in upstairs because the thought of going down on God or their sister was too much for their sensibilities will be looking for a loophole that gets them down below for the fun.

At The Wau Wau Sisters' Last Supper in the holy temple of the Speigel, I had my first communion wafer in many years – from a scantily clad schoolgirl with glittery stigmata. I felt almost pious. So much that I was almost jealous that one sister had Jesus coming in her room.

As the sisters say, they're not dirty; they're fucking filthy. Filthy meaning fucking hilarious, sexy as all-go-get and so taught and bendy that you really want to take them home to play with.

The last time I sat at the temple of Wau Wau, I thought their awesome acrobatics outshone their comedy and am thrilled to say that The Last Supper leaves me choking on such a statement. Their material is now as tight as their abs, but feels as free as their onstage morals.  Throw in one of the best double trapeze acts around and audience participation that left reluctant participants dancing, there's no wonder they now sell out wherever they go.

And, where can we get those Fuck Yeah undies?

This review appears on AussieTheatre.com

Review: The End

The End
Malthouse Theatre presents a Belvoir production
25 February 2011
Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse
to 11 March

Samuel Beckett said that "Words are all we have." I'm a word lover and if it weren't for theatre makers, I would have missed too much of Beckett's astonishing writing.

As Coner and Judy Hegarty Lovett showed me the painful bliss of the Beckett's Molloy novels at the 2010 Melbourne International Arts Festival, performer Robert Menzies and director Eamon Flack have convinced me that Beckett's plays are just a hint of his genius.

The novella The End was written in 1946 (originally in French), before Waiting for Godot (1953) and Beckett's Nobel Prize for Literature (1969). His first person storyteller is kicked out of an institution and back on the streets he knows too well. Conned out of his rent money, he heads to the country and finally returns to the suburbs "... beyond the stupid hope of rest or less pain". Beckett's characters are usually in despair, but they show us a light so dim that it's often uncomfortable to laugh – and Beckett wanted us to laugh.

On a bare wooden floor with a cross to mark his place, it's performed as written. Beckett's language is so compelling that the story, for all its drama, can become secondary. Reading Beckett is about the words and language and I don't hear the narrative voice when I read him.  What Menzies's remarkable performance does is turn the wordy narrator in to a character so unforgettable that the words become the music to his story.

Menzies and Flack have created a telling of The End that surpasses the words and creates an experience where the emotion overwhelms the admiration – and the admiration floods in after. This isn't a show to miss.

This review appears on AussieThearte.com

The End is in this book

03 March 2011

Back to Booktown program released

Back to Booktown
14–15 May

Readers and writers love a good book festival, and if you've been heading to gorgeous Clunes for the last few years, you might not want more people to know about this gem.

The workshops and talks are always worth the trip, but what excites every visitor is the streets filled with book shops and stalls. Yep, streets full of new,  pre-read and hard-to-find books – without a Kindle in sight.

Director, writer and Clunes local Tess Brady says, "Our town is building a future on books – books as valued objects, that people want to pick up and keep on their bookshelves, pass on to their family and friends and dip back into. Despite the seeming doom and gloom in the industry we do see that quality printed books will continue long into the future."

For all the current hoo ha about online shops killing physical bookshops and electronic books destroying the printed ones; we know that we still love experience of holding and reading a book – and that isn't going to change. (This is a great blog about it all.)

The workshops are already nearly sold out, but there are plenty of free talks, workshops for children (including a look at the lovely Mannie and the Long Brave Day by Martine Murray and Sally Rippin), food stalls, cafes for afternoon tea and you will go home with more of those things we put bookshelves, read on the tram and pile up next to our beds.