30 June 2015

Review: Shit

Dee & Cornelius
26 June 2015
Southbank Theatre, The Lawler
to 5 July

Shit is the shit. The fourth show of the 2015 MTC Neon Festival of Independent Theatre screams louder and stronger than the women it's about and inspires us to make our support for independent theatre as louder than possible.

Writer Patricia Cornelius says, "Really good independent theatre is radical. It is actually going to shock you. It is actually going to make you think differently." Shit is astonishing independent theatre. 

I don't understand why every theatre company in the country (and beyond) isn't competing to get the next Patricia Cornelius and Susie Dee play. From their days with the Melbourne Workers Theatre to their 2103 award-winning and independently-produced Savages, their consistent accolades somehow don't translate to commercial demand.

Shit is about three women who have been arrested and are locked up. Their crime isn't revealed until later – and shown remarkably with Marg Horwell's design – but the act isn't what the work's about.

Nicci Wilkes, Peta Brady, Sara Ward

Sam, Bobby and Billy are women whose stories are rarely told on our don't-upset-the-subscribers or our let's-talk-about-me stages. If we do see them, they are characters to laugh at; they are not "us" who go to the nice theatre. They are women who punch and fight. They are women who have never felt safe and joke about having a bed room door with a lock, wanting a bed with sheets and a doona cover, or remembering if someone ever hugged them as a child.

Their stories are confronting and raw, but not because of who they are. They confront who the audience are. The talk about being on public transport and knowing that all it takes to make someone get off is to yell at them. I would, and if I saw them at the train station, I'd get in the safe and crowded front carriage. This is theatre that lets us see ourselves through someone else's eyes; eyes we may never have thought of looking through.

Cornelius's writing leaves me shaking. Her dialogue sounds natural but it isn't like spoken language. She makes the profane poetic and lets language be so much more than words with assumed meaning. Her text has shape and rhythm and feels like it's beating to the heartbeats of her characters. It makes us listen to every "fuck" and "cunt" – and there are many – and really hear what they mean. And she only tells what needs to be told, leaving the subtext and the untold as the voice on stage that sneaks into your guts and doesn't let go.

This text is given life by Susie Dee's direction. Dee lets the actors be everything their character asks, while still working as one. She finds ways to make the shape of Cornelius's words become visible. She take us from violent gutter back to the stage and reminds us that we are watching theatre and, as such, are complicit in creating the world and the lives we see.

All of which is nothing without Peta Brady, Sarah Ward and Nicci Wilks as Sam, Billy and Bobby. Each embody the pain and anger that fuel these broken women while never letting the audience feel pity. They put up walls but the truth seeps out as they show us why we're laughing at the type of darkness and violence that can only be laughed at to save yourself from despair.

This Shit is why we go to theatre. This Shit is real. It's what can happen when a creative ensemble are given the resources to work together and not be concerned with pleasing or fitting criteria. It's astonishing theatre that needs to be presented as far as it can be seen. It's unmissable.

This was on AussieTheatre.com . 

26 June 2015

Sometimes Hobart: Orlando interview

Dark Mofo
The Rabble

12 June 2015

It was cold in Hobart last night. The sun’s out today but tonight promises to be colder, darker and weirder as the third Dark Mofo festival opens and this gorgeous city celebrates art that’s made for icy dark nights. A highlight of the theatre program is The Rabble’s Orlando, which opens tonight at the Theatre Royal and finishes on Sunday. I flew down to Hobart for the festival and spoke to members of The Rabble as they rehearsed in Melbourne.

Orlando. Mary Helen Sassman & Dana Miltins. Photo by Sarah Walker

This is the third production of Orlando. The first was at the 2012 Melbourne International Festival and it was part of the Brisbane Festival’s independent theatre program in 2014.

Emma Valente, co-founder, with Kate Davis, and director of The Rabble, says that festivals “provide such an important context for our work. During a festival audiences are more adventurous, they are more likely to see something that they may never chose otherwise and they are excited to see something different. They are also an important meeting place for artists, a place where you can talk with and see work from artists from all around the country and the world.”

With renowned performance artist Marina Abramović as part of Dark Mofo, The Rabble are ideally placed to welcome audiences who are eager to embrace original creative voices.

No one makes theatre like The Rabble. They leave some critics – like me – and audiences raving with love; while others have stormed out in fury.

The first time I saw them was Special at La Mama in Melbourne in 2011. I took a friend who said she’d see anything as long as it wasn’t contemporary dance. At the end of this show, she looked at me and said, “I wish it had been contemporary dance”.

The stage was mouldy green with a toilet-paper back curtain, a mound of earth and an exercise bike. Actor Mary Helen Sassman was eight months pregnant and wore a native American headdress and a pink stretchy dress, when she wasn’t naked. With 60+ actor Liz Jones, the work explored the sometimes hilarious and mostly painful and warped relationship of parental resentment. It was like watching a dream that you thought (and maybe wished) you’d forgotten.

No one makes theatre like The Rabble dare to make.

Orlando is based on a deep and layered understanding of Virgina Woolf’s 1928 novel about a young man who doesn’t grow old but becomes a woman and lives for three centuries. Woolf’s story is on the stage, but there’s very little of her text.

I think that the truth of any work is in its subtext: the words that are never spoken or written, the scenes that are never seen. Meaning is found in the white spaces between words on pages and the silence and empty space on a stage. It’s why we can read the same books and see the same shows and argue for hours over the truth about what creator was sharing.

A Rabble work is formed in that empty space. Their work lets us get lost in the white void where words disappear and meaning becomes clear.

It’s difficult to describe the experience of seeing their work, so I asked Dana Miltins, who plays Orlando, to explain it.

“Oh my gosh I find this question really hard as well… I can’t fully answer it.

“To me, The Rabble have a unique way of distilling a novel that captures its spirit without telling the story as it reads, blow by blow. If you’ve read Orlando then I don’t believe you’ll feel ripped off by our version – the themes and ideas that exist within and behind the narrative are all there; but, the play exists on its own as well and is very much The Rabble’s Orlando.”

Orlando. Dana Miltins. Photo by Sarah Walker

The process of how it becomes The Rabble’s Orlando is as fascinating as the result.

Actor Sassman (who plays Orlando’s lovers, along with Angus Cerini) describes a Rabble rehearsal.

“A typical rehearsal starts with a 30-minute high intensity workout – usually circuit training but not always. I’m confused as to whether this is done as a bonding/unifying tool or to encourage competitiveness amongst the cast – either way we often find ourselves comparing abs and keeping a lunges tally. Once we’ve all broken a cool sweat we start to work. It’s always physical, very little discussion. Just on the floor and getting on with it. Emma and Kate work us hard. We love it.”

The work involves hours of improvisation and exploration of character and text, most of which never make it to the stage. The finished product is a distilled and clarified version of the results of this process.

Sassman talks about how they met through La Mama about nine years ago, although Valente and Davis met at Swinburn University earlier.

“Thank goodness! For Emma, Kate, Dana and I, our four-way working relationship was forged in blood, sweat, baby’s tears and breast milk (Mary Helen and Dana have performed while pregnant and Kate’s baby is due in July) as we made and toured shows on shoestring budgets – us with huge ideas and small CVs.

“I think we surprise each other, inspire each other and above all we truly trust each other to approach the making of the work with full integrity. Now with this Orlando we have Angus on board – fearless, eerily gifted and generous, he fits in just fine!”

The company are never afraid to share their admiration and trust for each other. At the end of the first Orlando season, I asked Miltins how she worked with director Valente to create her emotionally fearless and physically demanding performance. She simply said, “Emma’s a genius”.

Dana goes on to describe Kate as a genius. Davis and Valente work together to create each new work but while Emma directs (and lights), Kate designs. What’s most striking about her design is it’s use of colour and texture.

Orlando begins in a world that’s milk and semen white. With pebbles, fur, tulle, cotton and water, it’s a world that begs to be touched, felt and rolled naked around in.

Miltins says that Davis creates sets “we have to exist in, as opposed to on. There’s generally quite a lot to negotiate on her sets and I see them sometimes like an additional character. You have to interact with them and respond to them; they affect you and your performance. I love working in these environments and I think Kate’s a genius.

“I love most the element of danger that comes with it. To me, that element is what puts the sizzle in live theatre. Just the idea that anything could happen.

“The slipperiness, the way you have to lift you feet to clear the water when you walk, the way it changes your balance, and of course the cold. Her sets make you exist in the present because they demand attention and focus just to physically negotiate the terrain. And really that’s all any actor wants, to be truthful and present in the moment.”

There’s a pool of water on the Orlando stage. Dana is “praying, seriously praying” that the plans to heat it for this season come off.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

And please read Josephine Giles's interview with soprano Allison Bell.

06 June 2015

Review: North by Northwest

North by Northwest
Melbourne Theatre Company
4 June 2015
Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 20 June

MTC North by Northwest. Photo by Jeff Busby

The MTC's much-anticipated North by Northwest will be a sold-out hit. This re-telling of Alfred Hitchcock's 1959 much-loved film is slick and fun and doesn't detract from its source material. While it skims the surface of what makes Hitchock's films so watchable, it's pretty cool to watch it skip, make ripples and get safely to the other side.

The film, about advertising man Roger O Thornhill being mistaken for a cold-war super-spy, was made for a 70 mm film telling with huge settings – from New York to Mount Rushmore – that declare it a work that belongs on a huge screen. Director Simon Phillips is the co-designer with Nick Schlieper and they have created a telling that belongs on a stage.

Along with the cast of 12, who seem like hundreds, and the rights to the film's music, the design has moments of theatrical mastery as many of the iconic big-screen scenes – including the crop duster and the climb over the stone faces – are made with the help of their own big screen. What makes them a joy is that there's no secret as to how the effects are created. With a wink to the early days of screen miniatures and models, the cinema effects are made live by the cast, but the live action of the characters is always kept as the focus.

The cast reach to the film portrayals, but bring enough of themselves to make them more than an impersonation. Matt Day's Cary-Grant-cum-Thornhill, Amber McMahon's Eva-Marie Saint-cum-femme-fatale-Eve and Deidre Rubenstein's Jesse-Royce-Landis-cum-Thornhill's-mother are especially wonderful.

What the stage hasn't re-created is Hitchcock's pace and suspense. His changing point of view techniques create too-scared-to-blink tension, when the audience are just ahead of the characters (know what's about to happen), and jump-in-your-seat fright, when they are with the character (find out what happens as the character does). His close ups and fast cuts trap his characters and give them no choice. The stage gives characters literal and figurative space to make choices, which gives the audience space to question the MacGuffin.

Hitchcock popularised the term MacGuffin as character motive that's never really explained or given its place in the narrative logic. This technique excels when the audience don't have time to think; when all that matters is "what happens next?".

A lot of this show's "what happens next?" comes from assumed familiarity with the film and wanting to know how they are going to make each scene, rather than from the tension of the plot.

As there are so many surprises on stage, this is its own tension and its own story – as long as MacGuffin's friend doesn't tap you on the shoulder and ask "Why are we telling this story?" or "Is this excellence, Mr Brandis?".

As such, it's easy to compare it to the Olivier Award–winning re-telling of Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (2008 MTC) and to Kneehigh Theatre's production of the 1945 film Brief Encounter (2013 MIAF), which both reflected the mannered UK societies when they were made. Steps was spoof and Encounter was homage, but North by Northwest tries to be both, which leaves it tonally confusing and, at times, a bit lost when in-jokes overcome the pace of the story.

None of which is going to make it any less popular. It's a show that's found the road between the crushing-cliff wall of safety and the sharp-edged plummet of originality.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

05 June 2015

Review: Ned

Groaning Dam Productions and Capital Venues & Events
22 May 2015
Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo
to 31 May

Ned. Photo by Marty Williams

Ned (A New Australian Musical) opened on Friday night at the new Ulumbarra Theatre in Bendigo. The choice of opening show was inspired: a musical about a story that infuses Australian identity and culture. The choice to open with an untried new work was a risk. It hasn’t paid off. Ned tries so hard to be a “hit musical” that it’s never allowed to find its voice or tell its own authentic story.

However, being in the new theatre is worth the easy trip to Bendigo (about two hours from Melbourne).

It’s a re-development of the Sandhurst Gaol that opened in the 1860s and was only closed in 2006. Ulumbarra’s a Dja Dja Wurrung word meaning “meeting place” and the theatre reclaims the grim building and the surrounding space with light and warmth. The entry hall is lined with the unchanged cells. The thick concrete doors are open, but it’s not easy to step inside one; it feels too like being buried alive. It’s nicer to stay in the plush and new with its easy-to-see exits. It’s creepy but so welcoming and positive that there must be lots of confused ghosts wandering around with us.

Away from the cells, the 1000-seat theatre and has donor plaques on seats and a “new theatre” smell that evokes anticipation. With a huge stage, comfortable seats, great sight lines and good leg room, this is a regional space that will be hosting the world’s best companies and shows.

A new telling of Australia’s world famous bushranger and prisoner is perfect to open this new space.

Kelly’s story is one that continues to shape contemporary Australian culture. It’s a big white story about a young man who unwittingly claimed his space as a hero, even if the facts don’t hold firm. His armour (that’s also currently in Bendigo) is an iconic image, his dictated Jerilderie Letter means we know what he thought and how he spoke, and his plaster death mask haunts like no photo can. This story has been explored and re-told countless times; his was the first story told in Australian film, Sidney Nolan’s series of Kelly paintings are recognised by people who don’t see visual art. The material is endless and the opportunity to explore this legend from today’s point of view is unmissable.

Which all leave this new work empty and insipid.

Photo by Marty Williams

When Ned opens with Kelly about to be hanged and a projected image of his death mask, there was hope that it was going to be a story that stripped away the myth and looked at the man whose plaster face closed his eyes on the world. The hope begins to drain as the ensemble sing “How did you die?”.

The cast and ensemble are the highlight of the show. Many of the young cast are recent VCA Music Theatre graduates and there are exceptional voices and heartfelt performances that never let the material overwhelm them.

But Ned doesn’t work as a musical, a story, or an exploration of Kelly or the society that created and continues to re-tell the Kelly story.

It sounds like a “musical”, especially as the Les Miserables references abound. The songs are singable, but are missing thematic connection to character and connection of music structure to story structure. And, apart from the nod to Irish music, there’s little musical reflection of 1800s Australia. As it was being presented in its 1880s context – with an historical accuracy that’s as clean as the men’s moleskins that still have the leather labels on their bums – I was listening for hints of bush music or the memories of the first European Australian songs, which were ballads about bushrangers.

None of this might matter if the songs did what songs in musicals do. At the most basic level, songs move action forward or tell something unknown. At their best, songs reveal the soul and heart of the characters. This is what makes music theatre so astonishing. The ridiculous notion that people burst into song makes sense because they are singing what they can’t say, sharing their secrets like a soliloquy. The songs in Ned say what we know, stop the action and the rhyming-dictionary lyrics have no sense of the rhythm and poetry that make lyrics soar.

Again, I keep thinking of Australian bush ballads. It’s a template begging to be used.

And the songs may be better than the book. Facts aren’t story. Making goodies and badies isn’t story. Story is watching someone fight for, and sometimes fail, on the way to reach the goal that will change their life. It’s understanding why people make the wrong choices. It’s dilemma and tension that only breaks when impossible choices are made. Story is taking what we know and telling it in a way that makes us re-think our knowledge and opinions.

It was Ned’s shooting of the police officer that killed the story for me. This is the end of Act One turning point – the moment that should propel the story to its inevitable conclusion and make the audience clamour to get back to their seats. It just happened. I have no idea why he was shot. A writer makes story out of plot. That copper could have been about to kill Ned’s brother. Ned could have tried everything to stop him and been forced to shoot. On stage, Ned holds the man he shot and puts him out of his pain, but this heroic moment means nothing if his choice to shoot wasn’t an impossible one. It’s a story-changing scene that should be filled with the type of tension that has the audience hoping against hope that the copper will walk away this time and that Ned won’t end up choking and swinging in Melbourne Gaol.

Writing aside, the first appearance of the Kelly gang in their armour was the moment everyone was waiting for. It should have silenced the room. We’re allowed to see the creation of one of Australia’s most recognisable images. It’s a time to slow down the action and let the audience see it through eyes that have never seen anything like this before. Instead, it’s quick and dull and the armours need some WD40.

Not far from the the theatre is the Bendigo Gallery and the Imaging Ned exhibition. The first thing in the exhibition is Ned Kelly’s armour.

THE armour. The icon. It’s disconcertingly moving to see it with its rust and bullet holes, and I wasn’t the only person who touched its glass case because the urge to touch it is so strong. Maybe comparing that feeling to “WD40 the costume” isn’t fair, but the appearance of that armour on stage should have felt something like that, but big enough to fill a 1000-seat theatre.

The first room at the exhibition is about popular culture with films, books, playing cards, post cards, sheet music and chocolate boxes that told their version of the story. Each reflected the values of the time and the people that re-told it how they wanted to hear it. Ned made me feel like we are still a society that believes a story told on chocolate box lids.

Next is a room with some of the Nolan, and Tucker, series. I heard the Ned designer was influenced by the Nolan paintings. How could you not be! I don’t know what he saw, but it wasn’t the colours, shapes, space or composition of Nolan. I looked at the wallpaper design that Nolan used for the Kelly home, the connection to horses (without Ned‘s “mounting from behind” joke), the exaggerated black of the armour, the occasional glimpse of a human inside the armour, the connection of human to natural space, the colours of gum tree bark, the creation of myth with the square of black; they are astonishing – and if any of it is referenced on the brown and balanced Ned set, I couldn’t see it.

There are also Kelly images by Chinese, queer, female and Indigenous artists; those voices that are so missing from the great white Kelly narrative.

Everything in this exhibition questions the Kelly narrative and how it’s changed by the communities and people that re-tell it it. It made me feel and made me want to know more and question what I thought I knew. It made me read the Jerilderie Letter on the train home. It did what Ned didn’t.

We forget what we see in shows, we forget details and story and design – but we don’t forget how they made us feel.

Ned is a by-the-discarded-book show that fails to question or place this story anywhere in today’s Australia and it left me feeling nothing.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.