31 August 2013

Review: Mein Kampf

Mein Kampf
La Mama
24 August 2013
La Mama
to 25 August 2013

"Calm yourself, Hitler!"

Mein Kampf isn't Hitler's autobiography, but a farce about Hitler's imagined friendship with Jewish bookseller Shlomo Herzl when Hitler lived in Vienna hoping to be accepted into the Viennese Academy of Fine Art. He wasn't. And it's no wonder, his paintings are all technique and no style; they're dull and reveal a man who seems incapable of seeing – let alone creating – art or seeing real beauty.

It was written by George Tabori in the 1980s to belittle Hitler. Is there anything more humiliating than being laughed at?

Tabori lost nearly all of his family in Auschwitz. Born in Hungary, he was working in Berlin in the early 1930s and fled to London. Here he had novels published, wrote scripts for the "control freak" Hitchcock, was rejected by Hollywood, but discovered theatre in 1947 when he translated Brecht for the American stage. His first play was performed on Broadway, but he was blacklisted by McCarthy, possibly due to his friendship with Arthur Miller.

In 1969, his real breakthrough came with Cannibals, a play set wholly in Auschwitz, but his biggest hit was, and remains, Mein Kampf.

It's a tough one to get right; Hitler and Holocaust jokes aren't easy at the best of times and the danger of laughing too hard at faith or the Jewish characters, who's future we already known, is difficult. But director Beng Oh and his consistently wonderful cast balance the line and gleefully topple into absurd hilarity, rebalance and slip into the pain and horror that it has to acknowledge.

And all takes place in a design by Peter Mumford that embraces the La Mama fireplace so that its ongoing burning creates a tension and fear that it's almost hard to laugh over, and the costumes by Amaya Vecellio support the filth, cold and ridiculous beauty.

Glenn van Oosterom's raging and impotent Hitler is hilarious and Mark Bonanno, Stephania Pountney, Uschi Felix and Samuel Macdonald are just as memorable, but it's Mark Wilson's Schlomo who never leaves the stage. From his drawing of the La Mama raffle at the beginning, Wilson sets the tone and pace from outrageous hilarity to I-want-to-look-away-but-I-can't horror. He's the one who lets us laugh when we want to be horrified and reminds us that the only reason we're laughing is that the truth is still too hard to take in.

Let's hope that Mein Kampf gets another life. Mainly because it's bloody great theatre (with real blood), but also because it tells a story that we all know but often seem to forget.  As our federal election approaches, we're being forced to accept policy that's based on the irrational and unfounded fear and threat of people fleeing persecution, and, as we flick past photos of 100s of dead in Syria, it's important that we remember what happens when we give in to unjustified fear or become complacent because it's not happening to us.  I know we can't get Krabbot and co along to a performance, so it's up to us to recognise the words and actions of people who will do anything to maintain their power.

This was on AussieTheatre.com

Photo by Sarah Walker

27 August 2013

Review: night maybe

night maybe
Stuck Pigs Squealing, Theatre Works
17 August 2013
Theatre Works
to 1 September

There's no maybe about it; night maybe is a must. Stuck Pig's Squealing are consistently a bit awesome and this new work by writer Kit Brookman is as beautiful as it is disturbing and leaves its audience happily lost somewhere between unknown and certain.

On a dark night, Sasha and her brother Tom are in park. She has torches and Nutella sandwiches, but he still abandons her. As she heads into the darkness where others are hiding, each new encounter brings her dangerously closer to safety.

Like in his recent work Heaven, Brookman writes about young adults without forcing the judgment, logic or fear of adults-who-know-better onto them. His night world hides the unknown, embraces the supernatural, but is never clear what, if anything, is real.

Sarah Ogden, Tom Conroy, Marcus McKenzie and Brian Lipson perform like it was written for them. They let each character keep their truths to themselves and never share what they saw in the darkness. This deepens the mystery with every moment and brings us closer to characters who we want to be safe, but still want them to stay in dark until they let us in on the truth.

And all is made more astonishing with the exquisite design by Mel Page (set and costume), Richard Vabre (lighting) and James Brown (sound). From its black and foggy opening, the sight of real grass and trees offers hope of a picnic-perfect conclusion in the sun, but it gets darker and colder as the light creeps into the menacing shadows.

Director Luke Mullins brings all together in a work that's impossible to look away from and difficult to stop thinking about.. By holding back, it never screams its meaning and whatever you walk away with believing is right for you. Just don't miss it.

Photo by Sarah Walker

This was on AussieTheatre.com

26 August 2013

Review: Savages

18 August 2013
to 8 September

At the end of Savages, I had to joke about hoping that no one sees it on a first date because it was too uncomfortable to talk about its content.

Walking into 45downstairs, a sea of paper streamers and an imposing slanting deck beg for sunshine and a party, but I felt a heaviness in my belly the moment that George, Runt, Rabbit and Craze boarded their trip-of-a-lifetime cruise because I thought of Dianne Brimble. I didn't know that Savages was based on this case.

In 2002, 42-year-old Brimble took her daughter on their trip of a lifetime where she died from a combination of alcohol and the drug GHB, known as the date rape drug. There were eight men from Adelaide involved. There have been trials, but none have served gaol time for the death of the fat, old "ugly dog". One judge said that their suffering since her death is as bad as time incarcerated. I wonder if it would be the same if it had been one of the pretty young things the men had playfully harassed who had ended up face down and naked in the tiny cabin.

I struggle to find sympathy or understanding for these men and the people who support them.

This is what's so remarkable about Patricia Cornelius's new play; she tells a similar story from the men's point view. She doesn't justify, judge or even confront their behaviour, but tries to understand how men behave in a group; how nice-enough guys follow the pack and behave in ways they might never consider if they were alone.

This four (Lyall Brooks, Luke Elliot, James O'Connell and Mark Tregonning) are 40ish and have been mates for years. Before boarding they abandon their usual baggage of the women, exes and kids so that for a few days they can be the men they are meant to be. On board, there's nothing unusual about how they compete, share and exaggerate and each might easily pick up if they didn't expect to attract the attention of the gorgeous young or fear being judged by their mates.

Despite their constant guard, Cornelius writes men who are funny and vulnerable and real. She reveals secrets that help to understand them and lend hope that each will be man enough to walk away from his pack or lead them somewhere safe. But this isn't a safe story. It's one that needs to be told and talked about, because these are men aren't freaks or monsters. It's this that's so confronting and unsettling; they are men just like men we all know.

Director Susie Dee ensures that this is theatre that exposes the bigger picture by telling the smaller story. She guides her cast – who are all exceptional in roles that, I hope, are difficult to inhabit – from playful pack to broken men who need to re-claim power. This supports Cornelius's language that's bloke-on-the-street vernacular, but is heightened with a rhythm and delightfully self-conscious rhyme that reminds that it's telling a more important story.

And it all takes place on a set (Marg Howell) that makes the space feel as huge and isolated as a ship so far from land that the unspoken rules of civilisation don't apply. And with Kelly Ryall's sound and Andy Turner's lighting, it's raised and steeply slanted deck creates a world that's always moments away from toppling into the waves.

Savages is theatre that bites and barks at the end of a chain that's about to break, but we don't know if the escaping animal will attack or roll over for a tummy rub. Its telling is theatrically beautiful as it holds firmly to the belief that we – men and women – have to get closer to this problem if we're ever going to understand it and change ourselves so that the packs and everyone near them can feel safe.

This was on AussieTheatre.com

25 August 2013

Mini review: Fewer Emergencies

Fewer Emergencies
Elbow Room
23 August 2013
The Owl and the Pussycat
to 31 August

Elbow Room are a company that I've somehow managed to miss, until now. And hopefully I won't miss them any more.

Fewer Emergencies is three 20-minute plays that are told in a disconcerting mix of third person narrative (she said) told by the characters themselves, who are in turn being questioned by others. The script lists the characters as numbers and it takes time and re-reads to discover what it's trying to do and say. It also leaves all interpretation and sense of narrative (or not) up to those who perform it; no wonder the company are declaring it "Elbow Room vs Martin Crimp".

Crimp's plays tend to feel like a confrontation with the writer, and as an audience there's rarely a moment to sit back and enjoy the story, which leaves it up to the performers to find the compassion and empathy that draws an audience into the world.

But this work not a fight, it's more a challenge to see what they can create from this mass of words in the tiny box theatre at The Owl and the Pussycat.

And what they've done is make an hour of intimately intense theatre that's so sharp you should check for bleeding when you leave. And if you feel lost looking for the story, don't worry because you'll walk out remembering what you need to; it's one of those scripts where it's best to put your trust in the performers (Dean Cartmel, Emily Tomlins, Edwina Samuels and the company's artistic director Marcel Dorne) and enjoy the experience. And if you're lucky, someone might even hold your hand.

Their design is the wooden boxes supplied by the venue and a red cloth, but it's the lighting (by the company and Jason Cavanagh) that creates the atmosphere and makes the room feel like we're trapped in a world that's out of our control. It's also some of the most evocative (read: best) lighting I've seen in a small venue.

Fewer Emergencies is on for another week. If you love Martin Crimp, you've probably already gone. But, love Crimp or not, see it to be reminded that the best resource to make great theatre is terrific people

23 August 2013

Mini review: Delectable Shelter

Delectable Shelter
Critical Stages and The Hayloft Project
22 August 2013
Northcote Town Hall
to 22 August 2013
or it's on at Moonee Ponds 23 and 24 August

The Hayloft Project's Delectable Shelter has been touring the country and finishes back home in Melbourne with a two-night visit to Northcote and its final shows tonight and tomorrow at the Clocktower Centre in Moonee Ponds.

Five, rather white and privileged, folk have an underground bunker to themselves, which isn't as bad as it seems because the human race has been destroyed; they'd got beyond the point of help. In 350 years, the air will be safe and their descendants can join the descendants of the other bunkers. Except they find out that there are no other bunkers. Lucky they are punny (Scott of the arced octet!), fertile and have ergonomic chairs, an 80s love song sheet music and some Bach to keep them on track to the new world that will be full of "nice things".

Benedict Hardie wrote and directs this bitterly delicious post-apocalyptic trip (and I mean trip in the psychadelic way).  From its eye-hurting design to a note-perfect cast, it's hilarious and the only thing stopping me laughing was fear of missing something and the deep-down terror that it was too true to be fiction.

Photo by Pia Johnson

21 August 2013

Review: The Cherry Orchard

The Cherry Orchard
Melbourne Theatre Company
15 August 2013
Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
to 25 September

So that young hipster Simon Stone has gone and had his wicked way with another work of theatrical literary genius. Hooray! If you're reading all the hoo ha about Adaptors V Playwrights and the snooty comments about the laziness of adapting, stop wasting your reading time and get along to The Cherry Orchard.

The Cherry Orchard is awesome theatre. It's funny (if you didn't know that Chekhov is hilarious,  you've been reading him wrong), it's about us, it's surprising, it's moving and it's almost too easy to sit though its four acts.

Stone hasn't re-translated the text, rather he's re-told the story and told it in a way that's as close to what Chekhov wrote in 1903 as it gets (or as close to my Penguin translation). Structurally it's as-written and the dynamic and rhythm Stone's re-worked language is glorious proof of how much Stone adores Chekhov. There are new bits that are very liberally translated, but it's more like he's making the subtext and subtlety clear: of course young Lopkhin kept Ranevskaya's blood and snot covered hanky, and surely it had to take a bit more than a hug to make Dunyasha break a saucer.

Orchard's the story of a wealthy family losing their land because they didn't want to cut down an orchard for the newly emancipated to holiday at, or, in this case, for the newly cashed-up bogans to build McVillas. It's set in the 1970s, but with a language and tone that's now, so the 70s are seen more as a time of societal change rather than a time-specific analogy – and are much easier to relate to than revolution-cuspy Russia. And the era lets designer Alice Babidge go wild with character-perfect costumes and furniture that everyone who lived through the 70s is regretting not keeping.

And it all takes place in a stark white box where the astro turf may be lush and inviting in its plastic, bindi-free falseness but it's impossible to hide. (Unless, you want to hide from people sitting on the end of rows; but, let's leave the "design and direct from the worst seat in the house" discussion for another time because this show's too good to waste time on quibbles.)

Pamela Rabe is Ranevskaya, the matriarch who knows she's not old enough to be so and who's lost so much that moving on in life isn't an option. If everything else in this show wasn't as beautiful as it is, it would still be worth seeing for Rabe's performance. But to notice her above the rest of the cast is unfair as there's not an out-of-tune or -tone note on the stage.

Stone's style is naturalism turned to 11. Chekhov's director was Stanislavski – the dude who gave us method acting – so there's no surprise in style, but this director turns up the intensity just enough to make us aware of how exquisite each performance is. Each actor brings the complexity and honesty of each character to the stage and lets us see their whole lives in a moment. It's so subtle, but this is the difference between laudable acting and being captivated by the characters and their stories.

I don't care if a work's an adaption or brand new; I want to care about the story I'm seeing, and know that being in the theatre is better than anything else I could be doing. This is the first time I've seen a Chekov on stage and wanted to re-read his work so I can re-see it with such a fresh eye. Isn't isn't that what adaption should do?

(As theatre is expensive to produce, tickets to see The Cherry Orchard cost more than going to a movie, but if price is an issue the MTC have discounts available.)

This was on AussieTheatre.com

19 August 2013

Review: Stories I Want to Tell You in Person

Stories I Want to Tell You in Person
Malthouse Theatre and Belvoir
13 August 2013
Beckett Theatre
to 25 August

I fell in deep fuzzy love with the Apocalypse Bear and Lally Katz's writing in 2007 when the bear appeared in a short play set in near Kew at fortyfivedownstairs. My love was affirmed at the Melbourne Festival in 2009, when writer Lally Katz gave him a trilogy of hilariously dark wonders in Apocalypse Bear Trilogy. He's also in Lally's Stories I Want to Tell You in Person; so, there's no way that I could not adore this show.

Lally's also in it, which makes it more awesome.

Stories is what happens when a playwright has to figure out if it's possible to have a career and a fulfilling personal life while working in theatre. And what better way to share this experience than by getting onto the stage (without acting experience) and telling us what she did to overcome the problem of success and loneliness in an industry that loves you as easily as it forgets you.

Lally's adorable as a storyteller. While her writing is dark with emotional dangers lurking in its shadows and subtext, in person she's light and welcoming and the only danger is that she's happy to be extremely honest to make the story better and risks being judged. It's one thing to be judged for your work, but something else to be judged as a person.

But it's often hard to make this distinction. And Lally's Stories shares this so well.

So what does a playwright do when she has more money than she's ever had before? (And earned that money from a play that every critic in the opening-night audience had written less-than-positive reviews about. Part of me wanted her to quote the worst, but luckily she knows what to leave out in her stories.)

What does anyone do when they have more money than they've ever had before? Spend it, of course.
And so begins a tale of expensive psychics in New York, coconut hair shampoo, the dangers of a Ouija board, $400 crystals, being Jewish on your father's side, a pushy bear, a positive dolphin, going against Robyn Nevin's advice, and the problem of having a cursed vagina.

With the help, love and cynicism of director Anne-Louise Sarks and the shiniest design by Ralph Myers, Lally's story is too honest to be true, too outrageously wonderful to be made up and too marvellous to dare miss.

Photo by Heidrun Lohr.

This was on AussieTheatre.com

18 August 2013

Mini review: Travelling Worm Show!

Hey! Yeah! It's Molly's Travelling Worm Show!
17 August 2013
The Tower, Malthouse Theatre
to 24 August

The undoubtable appeal of Hey! Yeah! It's Molly's Travelling Worm Show! is its embracing of all things crap.

It's based on the true-enough story of Melita Rowston's search for the “best damn crap tourism destination" that she discovered in her adventures around the world. But it's not about her adventures, it's about her crappest of the crap: the worm festival held in the 1970s and 80s in the tiny Gippsland town of Korumburra. Here the area's unique three-metre worms were celebrated, celebrities like Daryl Somers were crowned Worm King and local kids came to Melbourne for the Moomba parade with a giant worm puppet called Karmai. You don't get much crapper than than.

So this show, where Melita's now Molly, starts with a love of crap as its artistic guide. Molly arrives in a dodgy motel, having kidnapped a famous ostrich and crow puppet. She goes a bit meta with explaining that they're in a motel in a theatre and that their quest is to find Karmai's puppet master.

With help from performer Narda Shanley and puppeter Benito Di Fonzo, there are some very funny moments and the nostalgia oozes, but there's a fine line between celebrating crap and falling into it.

If this were a half-hour, late-night Fringe show, the worm could be a squirmy hit, but this version is too long, gets lost in its own story, isn't sure who its audience is and doesn't feel sure about what it's trying to share. There's something very lovely about Molly's worm adventure, so it's hard to totally dismiss it, but its genuine delight is still buried in the compost and needs some extra time with the worm bin.

16 August 2013

A night at The Container Festival

The Container Festival
MUSTMonash University, Clayton
2–20 August
Facebook page

When Rob was King

As armageddon wind blew Monash Uni a bit closer to the city, I rugged up for a night with MUST and The Container Festival and highly recommend you try and do the same before it ends next week.

My night started in the Container Hub, where there was no wind, a good bar, cheap food and public art wonder Saryraphin Lothian (from the  Pop up Players) was testing a new game called Monarch of Melbourne. King Rob Reid set the standard, but was quickly displaced. Reigns were short and bloody until Queen Fleur decided to extend her rule by knighting the likes of Sir Sarah.

Who's Queen?

And that's before seeing any shows.

The first was Fleur Kilpatrick's Braves. Only 15 people can fit into the festival's  shipping container theatres, which makes for an intimacy that leaves La Mama feel distancing and creates an instant connection between audience and performer. 

Accompanied by Roderick Cairns on strings, Fleur wrote it and performs as Molly. Molly sings and tells us how she married her high-school sweet heart, the boy she lost her virginity to. It didn't work out for ever and she asks if it's even possible to be so brave at 16 to face a truth you don't understand. 

With its delicate, sad but hopeful story and its musical interludes, it reminds me of Daniel Kitson's The Ballad of Roger and Grace (one of my favourite shows ever). Fleur and Daniel are nothing alike, but they both know that the real magic of theatre is telling a story directly to your audience.

Sarah Walker and Fleur Kilpatrick

Next was 6", Uncut. I was a bit sad that I wasn't seeing Taylor Mac at the Recital Centre tonight, but I still got to see a ukelele playing man dressed in his finery with a leopard coat, beige wedge heels and underwear made for adjusting. Bunny Hutch (Jack Beeby) hates love and shares his confusion through ukelele songs, Dr Grin (Grindr) performance poetry, and stories like the first time he was fisted and the importance of telling lovers what you ate that morning. This is a new show that's getting its first outing in a shipping container, but is so adorably filthy and funny that it has to be seen more.

Jack Beeby as Bunny Hutch

It was then a rainy rush to S. Rules, a show that has caused the words like "censorship" and "how dare you" to be bandied about the university this week. I respond with "boring", "prude" and "as if you haven't done similar or at least thought about it". Ok, I take the last one back, because in the 15 minutes  I spent with a young lady (Tom Wells) called Slut, I saw things I hadn't thought about. If you're likely to be shocked about S-E-X and hilarious incest and abortion stories, you might not like Slut. But I got to end my night cradling a dragged-up Slut in my lap as she masturbated to a photo of Jonbenet Ramsey; I haven't done that before.

If it wasn't such an insane theatre week in Melbourne, I'd have happily spent a few nights at The Container Festival. This is an amazing chance to see independent artists and students experimenting and reaching out to see if there's an audience for their art and voices. And everyone gets to hang in a cool club, have a drink and draw a penis or some breasts (there's an art wall that just screams undergraduate).

The festival finishes on 20 August, but there's a gala tomorrow night (Saturday) that will let you catch up on some of the 200 performances and events you've missed. And King Rob is directing a rehearsed reading of Bacche Rising (60s New York meets classics) on Monday. The program is here.

14 August 2013

Review: Equuas

Mockingbird Theatre
3 August 2013
Mechanics Institute
to 17 August

Mockingbird Theatre continue to produce theatrically significant plays whose influence continues to be seen and felt in contemporary theatre. And there's no better way to understand these works than by seeing them. Reading a play is one thing, but plays are not created to be read, they are created to live and be shared with an audience. Mockingbird are currently sharing Peter Shaffer's Equus.

Written in 1973, the UK production of Equus (Shaffer's 12th significant work) went to Broadway and won Shaffer a Tony, Drama Desk and New York Drama Critics' award.  Shaffer's next work was Amadeus, which also won him awards. Equus most recently returned to Broadway in 2009 (and is mostly known because Harry Potter got his kit off).

It's a Freudian play about a uncovering why a young man violently blinded six horses in a stable. Seen from the perspective of the jaded middle-aged shrink treating the boy (Martin Dysart), it explores distorted and confused religion, passion and sexuality, and the writer is more certain about where to lay blame than the fictional psychologist is.

Chris Baldock directs a strong production that respects the text and reflects its famous productions. Its theatrical world is a stable where characters wait and watch the unfolding drama, while surrounded by the six horses who reflect the subconscious of the young man (Alan Strang) whose passion for the horses went so very wrong. It remains in the 1970s of the text, which helps to date the psychology practice and social attitudes (I doubt a contemporary Equus would resonate), while not detracting from any of the pain, confusion and desperate hope.

Highlight opening night performances were Soren Jensen (as Alan's dad), Maggie Chretien (as Alan's potential girlfriend) and Amanda McKay (as Alan's mum). The horses were also terrific. Some performances were still settling into the size and intimacy of the space and felt controlled by the actors, rather than the characters, especially when characters should be listening and reacting to what they hear rather than to their cue.

If you haven't seen, don't know or simply love Equus, see this production; it's a far better experience than reading the play and it's a far better work than many of the shrink dramas that it inspired. And with an overwhelmingly positive reaction to its first shows, it's already selling out, so booking is the best idea.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

12 August 2013

Review: Jazz Angel

Jazz Angel
Birnam Wood Theatre, akAA Productions
7 August
The Athenaeum
to 18 August

F Scott Fitzgerald and Earnest Hemingway met in Paris in the 1920s and hung with the, newly-named, lost generation gang of artists that so many artists wish they could have hung out with (even before Woody Allen made Midnight in Paris). Amedeo Astorino's Jazz Angel starts with the known facts about Fitzgerald and Hemingway's friendship, between their meeting in 1925 and Pappa H's death in 1961, and imagines their conversations.

I don't know if Fitzgerald gave Hemingway a completed draft of what was published as The Great Gatsby in a Montmartre cafe after a few drinks but it makes a great story. There was a lot of drinking in the fictional and real stories and lives of these men and Jazz Angel is fuelled by alcohol and the conficting passions and impotences of both men.

Lliam Amor (Hemingway) and Justin Hosking (Fitzgerald) breath convincing life into the men who we know best through their writing. We have photos, newspaper gossip, many letters and bios but the legend of these writers has been created by their never-out-of-print writing.

"All you need to do is write truly and not care about what the fate of it is." Hemingway wrote this to Fitzgerald in 1934 after the publication of Fitzerald's Tender is the Night. Hemingway didn't care much for the novel and seemed to want to convince his friend to stop worrying about readers and to write from his heart. It's written by a man who knows the other almost too well and has the freedom to be honest.

Under Shannon Woollard's direction, both actors start with the men imagined from their work and try to break through the masks to find the honesty and truth of their relationship and its deterioration. It's a tough ask, as both were intimidated by the other's skill and in a different situation, they may never have chosen to be friends.

Astorino is obviously a huge fan of both writers, but what makes it far more than a fan fiction bio is LuLu, a woman who appears at each meeting. It's up to the audience to decide who or what she really is, but she's the heart of the piece and Katharine Innes plays her with a lightness and strength that often makes her far more interesting than the men who woo her. Perhaps it's because she's allowed to be herself, without any shadow of greatness holding her back.

Not having read Fitzgerald and Hemingway won't hurt an understanding of Jazz Angel, but a lot of it assumes that the audience know as much as the creators. We're endlessly fascinated by the private lives of artists and this glimpse into their world is fascinating for fans and will surely encourage those who haven't read them to do so. (I now want to read the Sons of Maxwell Perkins, letters between editor Perkins and Fitzgerald/Hemingway.)

And, the bonus treat is that Jazz Angel is on in the upstairs theatre of Melbourne's gorgeous Athenaeum. The building was already old in the 1920s, but it's easy to imagine Melbourne's literarti meeting in the library and moving to the plush meeting rooms for a snifter and discussion about the new books by those Americans.

This was also on AussieTheatre.com.

Review: The Bloody Chamber

The Bloody Chamber
Malthouse Theatre
6 August 2013
Merlyn Theatre
to 10 August

Alison Whyte's irresistible performance of The Bloody Chamber is reason enough to see it before it finishes on the weekend. It's like being tucked into bed and read a fairytale that lulls you into wanting to sleep with the lights on forever, but finally leaves you safe and comfortable in its blood-soaked darkness.

Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber is a re-telling of French Bluebeard story where a new young wife discovers the fate of her much older husband's former wives. It's from her 1979 collection of re-told fairy tales where women and girls don't end up as dead or eaten as they are in traditional tales, have and want sex, and are capable of being their own heroes.

Van Badham – who might be my favourite Tweep (@vanbadham) – has adapted this text from Carter's novella.  It's still told by the young wife (who's now an older woman) and glories in Carter's graphic and bloody imagery that's guided by an under current of sexuality and power that's belies any dull gender stereotypes.

Director Matthew Lutton creates a curious balance between telling and showing a story. The stage has a delightfully eerie atmosphere with three live harpists and a water-stained space where three huge black chambers hide secrets. And Anna Cordingley's design of black boxes, a bed and just enough red reveals little, but forces the audience to imagine the shining jewels, turning tide and bloody horrors. (However, I was sitting at the back and couldn't see all of the early revelations.)

But it's all about Whyte, whose telling (with some help by Shelly Lauman) evokes the story's ghosts in all of the stage's empty spaces. She may not be the innocent narrator imagined by some readers, but it's still like she strode out of the pages to make us really understand what she went through, rather than leave it to the unreliable imaginations of the readers.

This was on AussieTheatre.com

06 August 2013

Review: Einstein on the Beach

Einstein on the Beach
Arts Centre Melbourne, Pomegranate Arts
31 July 2013
State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 4 August

Since its first production in 1976, there have been endless reviews for Einstein on the Beach,  but if you’re looking for reviews to decide if you should go, all I can say is that if you have the means and opportunity to see Einstein on the Beach, you must.

I saw it in 1992 at the Melbourne Festival. I was 24. I’d been working in and studying theatre since I was a teenager and had already seen countless shows. This production changed how I saw theatre. Somewhere in the four-and-a-half hours (no breaks for me), my theatre brain gently re-arranged itself.

It’s the same production on in Melbourne this week and I was worried that I’d see it very differently after 21 more years of theatre and music, including a good chunk of work by 80′s, 90′s and 00′s Phillip Glass (composer) and Robert Wilson (director); I was scared I’d see the faults.

Again, I sat for four-and-a-half hours without a break (most people did the same) and felt my brain re-arranging.

Describing Einstein is dangerous. It’s a reflection on genius that sits on the knife edge between genius and madness – and it wasn’t created to be understood. There’s no story, plot or characters. The singers are treated like instruments and most recognisable sounds are numbers. There’s no dialogue, but poetry that is more words and sounds than meaning. Personality is stripped away from the performers and each are treated identically on the stage. The design is sparse and simple (although in 1976, it was  whizz bang). It’s repetitive and languid and there are times when change takes place so slowly that you only realise what’s happened after it’s happened.

But it’s precise and ordered and the wholeness of the picture, sound and movement is so complete that nothing less than perfect ever feels right again.

I see a lot of opera and theatre that have excellent stories, astonishing performers and gorgeous designs, and too many of them are clock-watching boring because they rely on the crutch of story, performer or design. It’s hard to dance, let alone fly with a crutch.

There is also a lot of theatre, opera, dance and music that claims to be like Einstein on the Beach; it’s not. The only way you can say you’ve seen something like Einstein on the Beach is by experiencing Einstein on the Beach. And this time, it really is going to be your last chance, or at least your last chance while Glass, Wilson and choreographer Lucinda Childs are still alive and able to re-create it.

This was on AussieTheatre.com

Photo by Belinda Strodder.

05 August 2013

On Writing: Patrick Pittman

Arts House, Meat Market
9–18 August

Patrick Pittman is a writer, editor and radio broadcaster who loves pushing magazines to feature more about development politics. Based in Perth, he was the editor of the interview magazine Dumbo Feather and is the Melbourne correspondent for Monocle magazine and Monocle 24 radio.

Prompter is his first play, which has its premiere season at the Arts House Meat Market from 9 to 18 August.

Taking place in a “surreal newsroom studio and merging theatre, dance, performance art and digital media, Prompter explores the ethics and conflicts of today’s media, journalism and digital culture.

In this series about writers and writing, Patrick talks  about what it was like to create his first work for theatre, learning from playwright Stephen Sewell and how all writers should know about The Paris Review.

What made you want to write this play?
I didn't know Sam when he first approached me to collaborate on Prompter, and I'd never written theatre (that anybody had read) before. He'd heard me on Perth radio, and seen me read some of my sad short stories at a Perth spoken word night I co-organised. I had (and have) this obsession with writing in left-behind post-colonial spaces, to look at the effects of conflict, and how our understanding of these worlds is mediated. Which is pretty much what he said he wanted to do a play about, and it was going to have a teleprompter. That was the brief, and we figured out the rest from there.

How long did it take you to write/re-write it? 
We've been working on this off and on for about four years. Now that Sam and I are on opposite sides of the country, we've only been getting together to work on it maybe two, three times a year. Every time we do, though, we have a tendency to kill off characters, or scenes, or plots. I think we finally got it to something we were happy to call finished just before it became a running joke amongst our friends.

What was it like having Stephen Sewell as a writing consultant?
Stephen was brutal, honest, and encouraging. He could clearly tell I was an amateur at this theatre game, but never patronised, and got deep inside the world of the play with Sam and me. I was as thrilled by what he didn't like as what he did, and it was a rare privilege to get such a crash course in the art, spending day after day drawing elaborate plans together on the walls of Sam's studio.

As a journalist, what led you to play writing? 
I was approached to work on this; my long-held desire to write for the stage being something I'd pretty much kept to myself. But my shelves have always been stacked with theatre, from Beckett to Brecht, and Shepard to Sewell. You'd often find me, while trying to figure out in my earlier years what it meant to be a writer, poring over David Mamet's various treatise on the subject. I love the risk of the stage and, as I've learnt over the past four years, I love the capacity to throw out the rules of representation and narrative and instead focus on engaging with an audience on a completely different level. Theatre is the best!

How are journalism and play writing similar?
Well it's all storytelling, isn't it? I'm not a news journalist, I don't do much in the way of straight reporting. I wish I had those skills, but I figured out pretty early on that that's a different breed of person, and so I merely admire them from afar. My work outside of radio has been a fair bit slower: feature writing, long languid 20-page interviews and that kind of thing. But for me, in whatever I'm doing, I'm just trying to tell stories about how I think the world works. Sometimes that's flying to a developing country to write about its economic policies and interview a head of state. Sometimes it's writing about Australian food politics and speaking to farmers. Other times, it's sitting in a dark room with headphones on trying to rewrite lines of dialogue. That's been my past couple of weeks, and somehow it all fits together.

This work seems to be inspired by the explosion of social media. What’s something that you love about social media?
Instant connection to writers and creators and politicians and activists and heroes and villains. Foraging through the tangled webs of conversation, sometimes just watching them fly by, without participating, can be invigorating.

What’s something that you hate about social media?
Hating on social media seems like a waste of energy. I am deeply ambivalent towards the slacktivist tendencies it encourages in people, and don't have much time for protest by hashtag. But, it's had more profound social and political impact than we could have possibly imagined, so I don't think there's much point in harping on that. If the play has anything to say about social media, it's not that it's "good" or "bad", it's to look at how all of these different modes of communicating we have at our disposal shape a story and shape our selves.

What’s it like collaborating with your director and co-writer Sam Fox?
We didn't know each other at all when we started out, but we've developed remarkable collaborative rhythms over the years. Put the two of us in a room for even half a day and we'll be off building whole new worlds. We often passionately disagree (one of us likes to be more didactic than the other!), but from those arguments, some of the best stuff has come.

Who wins if you disagree?
I can't think of a single disagreement that wasn't somehow mediated to something that was the best of both points of view. Maybe that's my time chairing boards that makes me think that way. That said, Sam has probably changed the script entirely during rehearsals in some kind of final victory over my opinions.

Apart from this play, what other writing of yours are you most proud of?
It's not one a lot of people have read, but I think a piece I wrote for a friend's magazine, Stop, Drop and Roll, a few years back, “The Government Game”, would have to be a candidate. It's the only time I've written properly about my own family heritage, on an abandoned island off of Newfoundland. One day, I'll write a lot more about this, but I felt it was important to at least start to tell the sad story of its resettlement.

What playwright do you read when you need inspiration?
You probably won't pick much of it up in this play, but I think I'd have to say Sam Shepard. Somewhere in the vast space between Buried Child and The Tooth of Crime, you'll find me curled up and cosy.

Any hints to over come writer’s block?
Refuse to accept that it exists, for a start. Don't bother with internet blocking software; if your mind is wandering and you want to read Buzzfeed lists, just do it. The energy will come when it comes. But in the end, try to write every day. And when deadline looms, strap on that great pair of headphones you spent too much money on and fill your ears with either Max Richter (if you want sad and mournful and beautiful undertones) or Fuck Buttons (if you just want to write more efficiently than you've ever written before). Also, stop trying to write in Word. And, when trying to figure out how to make things work, just go read any one of The Paris Review's marvellously craft-focussed interviews on writing from over the years, and figure out how somebody better than you does it. I particularly recommend Joan Didion's, but Gay Talese's advice on when to wear a tracksuit is also worthwhile.

Do you ever hand write or is everything on screen?
I was born with the kind of hand tremor that makes everybody think I'm all nerves, all the time. As a result, my handwriting is illegible even to me. I write on screen, almost exclusively using the beautiful minimalist Mac writing app Ulysses, which removes all of the dreck and the clutter from the process and lets you focus on words, words, and words. I've found the Fountain format incredibly liberating for script work – it's let me stay in my plain text editors and not have to go anywhere near the Word and Final Draft beasts.

How does it feel when you’re sitting in a theatre audience watching your play?
I'll tell you in August!

Who do you go to for feedback about your writing?
My wife, Josephine Rowe, is a phenomenally talented fiction writer. She knows more instinctively about how to write than I will learn in this life time, and I happen to believe I'm okay at it. She makes me a better writer every day.

Do you think actors and directors should be able to change something you’ve written? (Is the playwright always right?) 
Yes. The best part of this work has been developing it in collaboration with not only Sam but also the actors. We built this work together, and just as I'm happy for a magazine editor to make changes to my work, I'm happy for anything that makes something better. If you make it worse, though – run.

What’s your advice on taking criticism?
Well, many years back, in the street press era of my glittering career, I used to review theatre. One time, I had to review a show when I was the only audience member, and they knew I was the critic. They stopped at the intermission and asked me if I'd like them to go on. After that, I just couldn’t review another thing – except movies, because they’re all far away and magical. Once in Perth, it is rumoured in rock and roll lore, a band looked into taking out a hit on me.

But, as I would be advised to remind myself when the reviews come in for Prompter, when I was negative, even when I was brutal, it was only because I saw potential and knew the people involved could do better. That band went on to be one of my favourites. There are critics out there who are just mean, sure, but you can ignore them. The ones you shouldn't ignore are the ones who have something to say; a good writer is always learning how to be better. That's a project that's never finished.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

04 August 2013

On Writing: Fleur Kilpatrick

The Container Festival
Monash University, Clayton
2–20 August
Braves: 8 August at 8.00pm, 15 August at 6.00 pm, 16 August at 6.00 pm

Fleur Kilpatrick was 17 when she was the co-winner of the State Theatre Company of South Australia’s Young Playwrights Award. She’s since completed a theatre degree at Monash University in Melbourne, studied directing at VCA and competed a Masters of Performance Writing at VCA. She’s worked as an assistant director for Bell Shakespeare and Red Stitch; is artistic director of independent company Quiet Little Fox and her most recently performed play, Insomnia Cat Came to Stay, was nominated for best theatre at the 2013 Perth Fringe, won audience and critical support at its Adelaide and Melbourne seasons, and is part of the 2013 Brisbane Arts Festival program in September.

She’s written her newest work, Braves, specifically for The Container Festival at Monash University in August. It’s a cabaret-style piece that was motivated by her hatred of homophobia and inequality and one of its biggest challenges was creating a piece that would suit the intimacy of a being performed in a shipping container.

She talks about how finding the right collaborators is vital for theatre writers; how playwrights should read plays, newspapers and children’s books; and how the only way to over come writer’s block is to keep writing.

What made you want to write Braves?
Braves took up residence in my head a long time ago. I used to have conversations with my beloved grandmother in which she would tell me how “there are such a lot of gays in the world today” and I point out that there were just as many in her youth but they were all in unhappy marriages. Braves is the story of one such marriage. My grandmother is not around to see it but, in a way, it is a loving jab at her and a not-so-loving punch in the face of homophobia. I believe that the effects of such bigotry are more far reaching than many would have us believe. Bullying damages not only the bullied. By not standing up to homophobia, even the straightest of us are doing ourselves a disservice and allowing our community to be shaped by intolerance and fear. That’s what made me write it. Then I threw in songs, the occasional laugh and a dig at some of the worst lyrics in the history of musical theatre.

How long did it take you to write it/how many drafts? 
I tend to think of myself as quite a slow writer and usually take months to approach anything like a first draft, but I actually wrote the majority of this in a two-week binge. It is still being drafted and, as a new work, I will be looking at this initial season at The Container Festival as a development rather than a finished product.

Did you write it specifically for The Container Festival?
I did. I am so proud of MUST for curating this season and, as alumni, I was delighted to be given the chance to create something new for them. That said, I’m certain this will go on to have a life outside of the festival, but it felt like a wonderful chance for me to try something quite different.

Why are festivals like this so important?
I love festivals of all shapes and sizes. For artists, there is something so invigorating about getting to create and perform work alongside your fellow creatives but festivals like The Container Festival are sometimes even more exciting than the big city ones. For us, it is a chance to do something different and make a truly intimate piece of theatre/cabaret – something to fit into a shipping container. I make my living off of my art but I love working without the pressure of having to make money. It is so rare to just be able to take some risks and I think it brings out the best us all. The Container Festival has not even begun and already there is a sense of breathless, manic creativity in the air at Monash.  I am returning to MUST for the first time since 2008 because I want in on that!

As you’re a writer, performer and director, is Braves a piece you’d like to hand over to an actor or is it something just for you to perform?
Ha! I do have a habit of writing things for myself then handing them on to other actors!

This piece may well end up going the same way of Insomnia Cat Came To Stay, which began with me multitasking as writer/director/actor before I handed it over to director Danny Delahunty and actor Joanne Sutton (along with an incredible design and animation team). I’ve no doubt its next stage of development will see Braves with a new director and a couple of the incredible actors from Quite Little Fox have already put bids on the role of Molly, but it has been really special to get to work in this in a paired back way. I am actually incredibly excited to perform the role. I write best when I really understand the voice I am writing for and I think this was the reason this piece wrote itself with such ease; it has been a long time since I have written for myself but I haven’t forgotten my voice. I am also more ruthless with my own writing than any director I have yet encountered. Plus actor Fleur is very understanding when writer Fleur cuts whole pages so I think it has been invaluable for this process.

What’s it like working with Roderick Cairns on this piece?
Working with Roderick is just a joy. Like all my favourite collaborators, he is extremely multitalented (in addition to his outstanding musicianship, he is a WAAPA-trained actor) which makes him the perfect collaborator for a new work.  He has a lot of input into all elements of the production and I really appreciate this. This is my second collaboration with Roderick Cairns and he brings such a unique sound to the work and plenty of opinions, which I love.

Can you remember when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
I was the co-winner of the South Australian State Theatre Company’s Young Playwrights Award when I was 17. Part of the prize was having our scripts workshopped and given a rehearsing reading by the company. My script was embarrassing but the process absolutely blew my mind. This was my first introduction of the collaborative nature of writing for theatre and I just fell in love. All those individual minds working to bring a single, unified artwork to the stage! I was smitten. I initially trained at VCA as a director, but I think from that moment on I always knew that writing and directing would be of equal importance to me.

What playwrights do you read for inspiration? 
Who ever I can get my hands on. Here in Australia we have such outstanding writers and I learn so much from them on every read. Daniel Keene, Raimondo Cortese and Patricia Cornelius each take up a fair bit of my bookshelf. I love what comes out of the Royal Court Theatre in England and have a fairly decent collection of American plays, but I think our own writers are world class. They are pushing the art form to its limits and exploring with true subtly and insight our ever-changing national identity.

Apart from plays, what else do you love reading?
I have a particular love of children’s books. Those authors know how to capture the imagination in an opening line and hold the most hyperactive of audiences spellbound. They feed the reader’s imagination and create imagery so powerful that years later, we still know what it felt like to climb into a wardrobe, have snow crunch beneath our feet and coats give way to the branches of trees. We know the way to Neverland: “Second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning”. These stories stay with us.

Any hints to overcome writer’s block?
Just keep writing. Fill page after page with terrible writing and eventually you will break through and find the gold again. But I would also add that playwrights have a unique advantage: we work in a collaborative art form. I am so blessed to have a strong, supportive company around me and, when I get stuck, it is often their input that helps me find a new path forwards. Find your collaborators. Find the people who will read your work to you and, for the price of a cup of tea, will help you untangle the mess you have made for yourself.

Do you ever hand write or is everything on screen?
All my first drafts are handwritten. There is something so tactile and private and immediate about sitting down with just a pen and an empty page. It unlocks a part of my brain that a screen and a keyboard seldom can.

How does it feel when you’re sitting in a theatre audience watching your play?
I love it. In theatre we need to relinquish our words. They become something greater than us. It never stops being nerve wrecking but I write plays to seen by an audience and there is nothing like hearing your words hold an audience spellbound.

And how does it feel when you’re performing your own work to an audience?
Oh gosh. I try to forget just how sick performing Insomnia Cat made me and this will be the first time I have performed since then, so I’ll get back to you on that one. But I do think Insomnia Cat was quite a different thing because it was about my own battle with insomnia and what a failure I felt like for not being able to do something as simple and fundamental as sleep, so hopefully Braves will be a very different experience! I am playing a character instead of myself and I have always loved performing cabaret as it is just so immediate and intimate. Plus I love that I have Roderick Cairns up there with me so I’m actually incredibly excited.

Who do you go to for feedback about your writing?
I am so fortunate in this regard. This part of the process is so vital. New writing is a fragile thing and I am so lucky to have a group around me who encourage when encouragement is needed and butcher when butchery is called for. Frequently I am writing with a cast and crew in mind and so the actors and creatives can have a say from the very start of the play’s life. I am drawn to actors who have a bit of a dramaturge brain and their generosity and insight never ceases to amaze and humble me.

Do you think actors and directors should be able to change something you’ve written? (Is the playwright always right?)
The playwright isn’t always right and the director and actors will definitely discover new things in the room. I am quite irreverent with my words and am almost always eager to change things if they seem to not be working on the floor, but I don’t believe they should make major alternations to the words without involving the playwright.

What advice can you give to emerging playwrights?
Find your people. Revel in collaboration. See and read as much theatre as possible. Plays are written for the stage and you need to understand your medium. Never underestimate the value of a good story and always remember that you are writing words for an audience. A script is to be spoken aloud and it needs to evolve and grow beyond the page. You must give it room to grow.

What do you suggest emerging playwrights read?
The newspaper. Look for where your own downfalls are (say structure or character or dialogue) and seek out playwrights that do these things exceptionally well.

Do you read your reviews?
I don’t seek them out but I read them when people send them to me. Even with my most devastating reviews, I usually end up agreeing with a reviewer eventually. I try hard not to give reviewers opinions more weight than those of any other audience members but it can be hard and I’ll admit to being able to recite Cameron Woodhead’s  (The Age) most damning review almost word for word. Sometimes a good memory is a curse.

What’s your advice on taking criticism? 
There is an art to taking criticism and there is also an art to giving it. Find the people that know how to critique a play in a way that starts a conversation rather than ends it. As brutal as it may be, criticism should make you want to race back to your desk and keep working. If it is crushing your love of the story then perhaps you are valuing the wrong opinions. Criticism is so important for our growth as artists, but it can hurt a lot. What makes us good at our jobs is that we really, really want to be good at our jobs so it will always be hard but when all else fails, go and watch Tim Minchin’s ‘Song For Phil Doust’ and swear along with him. Then have a cup of tea and go write your next play.

Can you tell readers how easy it is to get to Monash University for The Container Festival?
By car, it is the easiest thing in the world! Just jump on the Monash Freeway and go see some art. Public transport has not been kind to Clayton but this festival will be worth the travel. Container after container packed with theatre, cabaret, music, dance, visual art, games, burlesque, poetry, puppetry, exhibitions and more. The festival runs from 2 to 20 August, so come and get some art in you!

Headshot by Sarah Walker

This was on AussieTheatre.com.