All’s well that ends well: Shakespeare’s Romances as restoratives

Thou met’st with things dying,
I with things newborn.
Old Shepherd, The Winter’s Tale (III.3)

Of the four genres that Shakespeare’s plays can be broken into, it is the final group that is perhaps the most maligned and misunderstood. Yet it is this very same group that perhaps holds the keys to unlocking the humanism at the heart of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. These four plays, the ‘Romances’ – comprising Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest – are generally believed to have been written between 1608 and 1612. When viewed together, they form a valediction to one of the most consistently human and moving bodies of work in the modern-English literature canon, and are characterised by their almost fairytale-like plots and structures, and almost-absurdly contrived turns of events that carry them from one incredible scene to the next. Read as a progressive series of Chinese boxes, this quartet (or quintet, as I shall suggest) forms a coda to the plays, poems and sonnets that have come before them. There is a restoration of balance at their heart, a distinct sense of regaining an inherent aesthetic equilibrium, one that sets out to right wrongs; like Prospero at the conclusion of The Tempest, they seem to be asking readers and audiences alike, “As you from crimes would pardon’d be, Let your indulgence set me free.”


2013, the verdict


Event(s) of the Year
Peter Pan; Forget Me Not – Belvoir
Henry 4 Bell Shakespeare
The Merchant of Venice – Sydney Shakespeare Company
Songs with Orchestra – Lior & Nigel Westlake, with Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Honourable Mention
Angels in America – Belvoir
Rust and BoneGriffin
BushpigBagabus inc (part of Sydney Fringe Festival)
Top Girls – New Theatre

Best (New) Play
Forget Me Not, Tom Holloway
Hinterland, Jane Bodie

The Flat Award
PhédreBell Shakespeare
Persona – Belvoir
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Bell Shakespeare
Hamlet (with Toby Schmitz) – Belvoir
The Almost Award
Jerusalem – New Theatre
Return to EarthGriffin

The ‘Love Me Tender’ Award
Small and Tired – Belvoir

The Game-Changer


The Playlist: 2013 at the theatre

If you've followed my blog or read any of the theatre reviews throughout this year, you might have seen – at the bottom of the page – a song, numbered from 1 to 39. They form what I call ‘The Playlist,’ the idea being to find a piece of music that encapsulates either the production or my response to it (or sometimes both). Some selections may differ from those posted in the reviews; if so, it’s only because of a further reflection upon the production on my part. So here, altogether for the first time, is The Playlist for 2013.


This is now: Belvoir’s Coranderrk

A man walks onto a blank stage, a possum-skin cloak wrapped around his slight body. His hair and beard frame his face. He speaks, first to the space, then to us. And with a simple gesture, a few chairs, and the drop of a screen, we are in a Victorian parliamentary enquiry from 130-odd years ago. Yet we’re in a small theatre in Surry Hills, watching an important (albeit unapologetically forgotten) piece of our nation’s indigenous history presented to us by indigenous actors; it is their own story as much as the people of the Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve on the 1880s. Drawn from the official transcript of minutes from the enquiry, Coranderrk is more than just a re-enactment or a piece of verbatim theatre; it’s a story about people, about the land – their land, and about a collective dreaming, a connection that you cannot replace. It’s about belonging, about home. It’s a story that takes place in the 1880s while simultaneously occurring here, now; today.
Originally performed in 2011 by Melbourne-based indigenous theatre company ILBIJERRI, in a piece comprised entirely of official transcripts, it was presented in 2012 at the Sydney Opera House, before being presented with Belvoir in its current incarnation. What is alarming, though, is how similar many of the attitudes of the white European people depicted in the piece are to the current way of thinking; how little things have changed in a century and a half, in over two hundred years of white settlement in Australia. What Coranderrk gives us, is a glimpse into how it could be, how it should be.


A game of thrones: RSC’s Richard II – Live in Cinemas

It will come as no surprise to many that I am quite the fan of Shakespeare. I’m also quite the fan of David Tennant, both as the Doctor and out of it. So when the Royal Shakespeare Company announced plans to broadcast their production of Richard II, I leapt at the chance. While there is no substitute for sitting in a darkened theatre with 1500 others, seeing it in a cinema with two dozen others is perhaps the next best thing.
The first play in Shakespeare’s History cycle, Richard II dramatizes the last months of the monarch’s reign, from 1398 – 1399, and begins, historically speaking at least, at “one minute to midnight.” Grounded in a very medieval world of godliness and saintliness, righteousness and morality, Shakespeare’s play is not to be mistaken for ‘capital-H’ history; while they are relatively faithful in terms of the progression of their events, Shakespeare’s History plays are instead dramatic analogies for the socio-political climate of Elizabethan England (dealing with issues of succession, rebellion, and wise counsel) and are structured in a way, reminiscent of medieval mystery plays with their clear-cut vices and villains, heroes and everymen.


Waiting for the man: STC’s Waiting for Godot

First performed in Paris in 1953, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is one of those cultural phenomena that can be endlessly referenced, adapted and mimicked by just about anybody and yet none of its original power or intent is lost. Essentially the story of two displaced people, tramps we could suppose, it is, famously, a play where ‘nothing’ happens, twice over. Initially opening to hostile reviews in London in 1955, Beckett’s play went on to break the mould of the “star-actor’s theatre,” and pushed the boundaries of what could be achieved in playwriting and in theatre, both linguistically, performatively, in a script, as well as “the expectation of success from stardom.”
The story of Vladimir and Estragon, Waiting for Godot is a perhaps a kind of Groundhog Day for these two tramps, an endless succession of phrases and ideas, actions, beats and moments, that never really seem to mean anything at all. And yet amongst this nothingness, there is a kind of warmth, a kind of shared humanity between us and Vladimir and Estragon, the hapless Lucky and the rotund Pozzo, the messenger boy. Presented here by Sydney Theatre Company, and directed by Andrew Upton (after Tamás Ascher was rendered unfit to travel), this Godot is a treat to behold.


Debauched with the wind: Griffin Independent & Sisters Grimm’s Summertime in the Garden of Eden

Imagine Gone With The Wind. Now add hanging baskets of flowers, biblical allusions to Eden, a dash of gender-blind casting. Throw caution to the wind, stir, and perform. Only then might you come close to Sisters Grimm’s Summertime in the Garden of Eden, currently playing at Griffin Theatre. It’s gloriously colourful, a riot of stereotypes and clichés, a relentless assault on the Southern (as opposed to the Western), and it’s an absolute treat.
Written by Ash Flanders and Declan Greene (the Sisters Grimm), Summertime in the Garden of Eden is a melodrama in the fullest sense of the genre, gloriously played to the hilt but never to excess. Performed in their home-cultivated brand of “queer DIY drag-theatre” (as perfected in their previous shows), the Sisters Grimm are a pair of cult theatre-makers with imaginations that would make Lewis Carroll blush. A bit like a pantomime and a gender-blind costume drama, it is a ridiculous amount of fun, even if beneath its ludicrously homemade aesthetic lies the uncomfortable an unavoidable reality of the gender, race, sexuality, and cultural-political issues of the Southern. Skewing and perhaps ridiculing them whilst simultaneously drawing attention to them makes for unsettling viewing, but the relish and delight with which the cast play out the story is enough to make you forget the sting of the play’s subject.


Very Saturday tea-time: Chasing the magic of Doctor Who

“It all started out as a mild curiosity in the junkyard, and now it’s turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure.”
– The Doctor, The Sensorites (1964)

A letter to Who,

When you exploded back onto our screens eight years ago, your Northerner’s voice asked us to join you on an adventure. “Do you want to come with me?” you asked us, before issuing a caveat. “Because if you do, then I should warn you – you’re going to see all sorts of things. Ghosts from the past. Aliens from the future. The day the Earth died in a ball of flame. It won’t be quiet, it won’t be safe, and it won’t be calm. But I’ll tell you what it will be: the trip of a lifetime.” We followed you then, thousands upon thousands of us, faithfully, blindly; trusting you with our own lives and our Saturday evenings. We followed you to the end and back again, many times over, and you never let us down. 


To be, or Not Toby: Belvoir’s Hamlet re-Daned

On 25th October, Belvoir announced that Toby Schmitz would be leaving the role of Hamlet early due to a scheduling conflict. Schmitz was to be replaced by Ewen Leslie, another of Simon Stone’s usual cast members. Like Schmitz, Leslie had previously played Hamlet, for Melbourne Theatre Company in 2011, and would be stepping up to the mark from 19th November. Curious to see how recasting the titular role would affect the production, I went along. And it was actually better the second time around.


Bell Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors

From his earliest plays, Shakespeare was transfixed by the ocean and its capacity as a catalyst for change and or rebirth. Plays such as The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Pericles and The Tempest are all infused with the rhythms and responses to such a vast unfathomable body of water such as the Mediterranean, and The Comedy of Errors is no different. One of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, The Comedy of Errors was written in 1594, and draws its inspiration from two of Plautus’ plays, Menaechmi and Amphitruo. However, Shakespeare – being Shakespeare – sees the inherent theatricality in Menaechmi’s separated identical twins, and doubles it, thus creating a scintillating whirlwind of farce, comedy, identity, tragedy and pathos and his now trademark humanity and warmth.
In Bell Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, however, the farce is perhaps overplayed, the action too breakneck, the whirlwind too impossibly fast that we lose sight of the people at the centre of Shakespeare’s play. A comedy in name and style, The Comedy of Errors – like every other of Shakespeare’s comedies – walks the knife-edge between comedy and warmth, and tragedy and sadness, and I couldn’t help but think there was something missing from Imara Savage’s national tour production for 2013.


Food for thought: Belvoir's The Cake Man

Set against a backdrop of an old tarpauline, a ring of old packing boxes and crates, jerry cans and metal drums are set around the tiny Belvoir Downstairs space. As items are bought on – a cardboard box, an iron, a chair, table cloth, blanket – we see the beginnings of a house emerge. It could be a stage anywhere, a makeshift space made from whatever is at hand, and it seems perfectly suited to the warmth and intimacy inherent in the space. The first scene – a clever and sly depiction of a pre-invasion culture – soon gives way to a heated and politically-charged vision of Christian missionaries in Aboriginal communities, and we are thrust into the middle of The Cake Man’s grist, its political and social backdrop writ large upon its face.
A co-production between Belvoir and Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company, The Cake Man was written by Robert J. Merritt in the 1970s, and was the first full-length play staged by the National Black Theatre in Redfern. In the intervening forty years, we are ashamed to realise perhaps how little has changed, how racism and intolerance is still ingrained in our way of thinking no matter how much we’d like to think to the contrary, and The Cake Man becomes a sly indigenous perspective on white paternalism.

Leap of faith: STC's Vere (Faith)

Here are three facts:
In January 1836, Charles Darwin, naturalist, stood at Govett’s Leap in the Blue Mountains and first speculated that the Earth had evolved over millions of years.
In 1957, Vere Gordon Childe, archaeologist, fell to his death from Govett’s Leap, in an act that is considered by many to have been suicide.
In a university somewhere, a physicist at the top of his game is given a devastating diagnosis and his world falls apart.
In a co-production between the Sydney Theatre Company and State Theatre Company of South Australia, playwright John Doyle has used these three facts to create a timely and ultimately quite moving, eloquent and human meditation on science, faith, dignity and love. Vere (Faith) is indebted as much to Darwin and Hawking as it is to the strength and reflexive defensiveness of familial ties, as well as to Doyle’s wit and skill as an educator and broadcaster.


Honk if you’re Hamlet: Belvoir’s Hamlet

It’s surely the most well-known play in the English language. If not in its entirety then from its conglomeration of famous lines. By its very nature, Hamlet needs no introduction – as a play or as a character – yet each successive staging seems to require a justification, an explanation of its resonances and relevance. Virginia Woolf once said that “to write down one’s impressions of Hamlet as one reads it year after year would be virtually to record one’s own autobiography, for as we know more of life, so Shakespeare comments on what we know.” Perhaps taking a leaf from Woolf’s sentiments, director Simon Stone has fashioned a compelling new interpretation of Shakespeare’s play, and turns it into a chamber piece for eight actors, a pianist and a singer.
Belvoir’s Hamlet, as with all of Stone’s production, is set upon a plane of dark and light, black and white. Costumed by Mel Page in variations on formal attire, these inhabitants of Stone’s Elsinore seem to inhabit the background of each others’ scenes, giving the play an oddly disconcerting and ghostly presence, which it of course already has, but Stone’s staging concept amplifies it.


Crossing the line: Griffin’s The Floating World

Written in 1974, and first performed at Melbourne’s Pram Factory theatre, John Romeril’s The Floating World has become something of an Australian classic. Very much concerned with the devastating effects of war and trauma upon individuals and societies long after the event has passed, The Floating World seems almost prescient in its relevance, nearly forty years later. Set on board the 1974 Women’s Weekly Cherry Blossom tour ship, itself a converted troop ship, Romeril’s The Floating World is the story of Les Harding’s decline and fall from grace. “An electrifying descent into one man’s wartime nightmare,” it is a discomforting and harrowing story as we follow Les’ journey towards Japan, and we watch, sometimes in horror, as his grip on reality soon falls away.
Directed by Sam Strong, it is a robust and startlingly contemporary story, one that still shocks, confronts and unnerves, forty years on. This is in no way a bad thing. If anything, it is all the more alarming, to see how little we have changed in many respects, despite convincing ourselves otherwise. Attracted to its unruliness and its determination to not stay on the page in a neat and civilised manner, Strong describes how Romeril’s script is a rampage through many wildly different narrative modes (comedy, satire, irony, political drama), along the way violating several ‘rules’ of theatrical storytelling: a second act which is longer than the first, and ending with a twenty-minute monologue. But it is perhaps because of this unruliness, because of this determination to not stay in one fixed place, that The Floating World is still as successful as it has been.


No holds Bard: STC’s Romeo and Juliet

Alongside A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet is surely one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays. Yet out of this gross familiarity comes a complacency borne of contempt and over-saturation of two lovers drawn from feuding families, whose “misadventured piteous overthrows / do with their death bury their parents’ strife.” Enter, then, Kip Williams, with his production of Romeo and Juliet for Sydney Theatre Company. Tired of the age-old story of two warring households, Williams has (boldly) shrunk the scale of the play’s cast and scope to a mere ten players, focusing the story on Capulet, his expectations for his daughter Juliet, and her own conflicting choices and desires; how much of a toxic mix this is, then as now.
It’s a bold move, and one that may very well set a cat among the pigeons, just as Tybalt explodes amongst Romeo and his friends in the town square. Struck by the “underlying similarities” between houses Capulet and Montague, Williams’ production gives us our own world back at us, a world where “vacuous narcissism” and “old money” is “steeped in unquestioned tradition.” A world where “violence is born of boredom, habit, alcoholism and ego.” In doing so, he loses none of the play’s lyricism and intoxicating poetry; in fact, his staging only serves to heighten it, and by the end – almost three hours later – I dare you not to be left speechless in your seat, the full weight of this spectacular, crisp, sharp production like Tybalt’s knife in your gut.


Oresting: Belvoir’s Small and Tired

The first thing you notice is the smell. The moist wet earthy smell of dirt and grass. A garden, a backyard. Flowers. It smells fulsome, vaguely animal, like a children’s petting farm. Like lambs. And I’m instantly, eerily, reminded of Company B’s production of Love Me Tender Upstairs in 2010, of Colin Moody standing on that little slither of grass holding the lamb in his arms, staring out at the audience. It’s a curious reminder, too, since both Love Me Tender and this play, Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired, share the character of Iphigenia, drawn from Greek mythology.
Set now, in a world we could safely say is our own, Brookman’s play unfolds with an intoxicating mix of warmth, humanity, gentle humour and a strangely compelling sense of being part of something much bigger and uncontainable. Loosely adapted from the myth of Orestes, Clytaemnestra, Electra, and Agamemnon, Small and Tired tells the story of Orestes’ return following his father’s death, and the tensions and conversations he has with his family that erupt and flare and conflagrate over his arrival back into their lives after half a lifetime’s absence in one way or another.


Still orbiting: Griffin Independent & ARTHUR’s Return to Earth

Two years ago, after Lally Katz’s Neighbourhood Watch wove its magic at Belvoir, I set about trying to find as many of her plays as I could find, either in performance or in script form. When Griffin announced their 2013 season a year ago, I was very keen to see Katz’s Return to Earth, in its Sydney premiere, as I had heard mixed reviews of its premiere season in 2011 at the Melbourne Theatre Company. Presented here by ARTHUR as part of the Griffin Independent season, Return to Earth is very much a Lally Katz play, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or otherwise.
Return to Earth is about Alice, a thirty-something year old woman who returns to her family home in the sleepy coastal town of Tathra in NSW, and the impact her return has on her family, her friends, and the people she meets. In typical Katz fashion, the surreal and whimsical smashes right up against the poignant and heartfelt, yet it feels as though there is an elephant in the subtext of the play which no one is addressing.


Over the edge: Belvoir's Miss Julie

On the heels of Simon Stone’s previous work, I was admittedly dreading his adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, with its reputation as a “hallmark of the misogynist theatrical canon,” as director Leticia Cáceres puts it. In Cáceres’ hands however, this production of Miss Julie transcends its superficial labels and becomes a harrowing piece of theatre, one that problematises its subject matter and tries to unpick it, works to present a solution to it.
One of theatre’s ‘great’ feuding couples, Miss Julie is the story of Julie, the sixteen-year-old daughter of a prominent politician, and Jean, the man hired by her father to look after her. In the mode of writers like Chekhov or Shakespeare, Miss Julie is all at once about class and transcending the limitations of your class, while also not being about class at all but rather about lust and desire. It’s a toxic play, intense and unrelenting, but in Stone’s version – freely adapted from Strindberg’s 1888 play – there is something else, too. There’s almost a humanness that ripples through its two-hours running time, and in light of his previous work in Sydney over the last several years, it is something of a welcome relief, perhaps a maturation of his style. Of course, it could also be the hand of Leticia Cáceres, the production’s director, which has helped to balance out Stone’s trademark style into something more probing and pertinent than what it could’ve been if he’d been directing it himself.


Songs from the Wood: New Theatre’s Jerusalem

Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem is a twenty-first century pastoral hymn to a mythic England, a country fast disappearing under the greedy clutches of urban sprawl and gentrification, and is filled with an anarchic sense of life and carpe diem, of grabbing life by the horns and riding it until it stops. Consider, then, that the play was written in 2009, and despite being the subject of four subsequent seasons in London’s West End and on Broadway, this is it’s Australian premiere production at Newtown’s New Theatre.
Jerusalem tells the story of Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, a man who has lived in his caravan in the Wiltshire forest for close to thirty-odd years, becoming in the meantime something of a local legend, a rite of passage, and a surrogate father-figure to many local teenagers in his time. But on the morning of April 23, St George’s Day, a reckoning has been heard – he has twenty-four hours to vacate the land he is squatting on, or risk forcible extraction and imprisonment.


Pelican dreaming: STC's Storm Boy

We’ve all grown up with the story – the boy who raises three orphaned pelicans – and it’s become a steadfast Australian classic, a touchstone of our childhood and growing up. Growing up, I read Colin Thiele’s elegant story first in the edition accompanied by Robert Ingpen’s haunting weather-beaten illustrations. I read it again, several years later, in an edition illustrated with stills from Henri Safran’s 1976 film. And while I haven’t read it in something approaching a decade, the chance to see it on stage seemed too good to miss. In what could be considered a fiftieth anniversary productionfn, Thiele’s Storm Boy has been brought to the stage in a poetic and emotional co-production between Perth’s Barking Gecko Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company.


Uncertainty is the normal state: STC’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Ros. What are you playing at?
Guil. Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.

I’ve often found myself dumbstruck at the sheer ridiculousness of the largeness of Tom Stoppard’s capacious intelligence and the wit with which his plays hum and shimmer. There’s a capriciousness and cheekiness that seems to dance over and under and through his words and language with a barely containable verve. It’s a virtuosity that has made him a favourite of critics and audiences. But underneath his distinctive stylistic flair and mannerisms, there is a serious engagement and interrogation of not so much issues but ideas. However disorienting and impenetrable his works may seem on the surface, “the plays are highly ordered and underpinned with logic and a point of view;” nothing is accidental, arbitrary or apologetic in Stoppard’s work.
In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, written between 1964 and 1966, and first produced in 1966, Stoppard takes Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and asks what the relatively minor and interchangeable characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are doing throughout the course of the play while they’re not on stage. It’s been variously described as being ‘Beckettian,’ ‘absurdist,’ or ‘absurdist existentialism,’ but the truth is neither – rather, it’s Stoppardian, and therein lies the key to this, his most celebrated and produced play. A lot of the existential anguish which seems to run through Stoppard’s work is not, as has been assumed, indicative of a lack of meaning in the world. Rather, it is a lack of adequate comprehension of the world and its persistent niggling questions, and this is not critical but merely human.


The quality of mercy: Sydney Shakespeare Company’s The Merchant of Venice

Written in 1596, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is generally classified as one of his comedies, along with masterpieces such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing. While there certainly are comedic elements to Merchant, it is not altogether a comedic play in the definition generally used to classify Shakespeare’s work. While it does encompass many scenes of focused around the idea of love, the titular merchant is accosted by Shylock, a money-lender, because he defaulted on the loan of 3,000 ducats and is thus required to pay the bond – the infamous pound of flesh.
It’s a dark play, full of politicking and financial matters, but underneath it all is that wonderful Shakespearean sense of humanity and life, the very lifeblood that has made him and his works what they are today. In the hands of the Sydney Shakespeare Company, their Merchant of Venice is a clear, honest and simple telling of this problematic play, one which fills the tiny sixty-five-seat TAP Gallery theatre with a warmth and generosity of spirit which is often lost in the hands of others.


Hempen home-spuns: Bell Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream is certainly one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. I don’t think there’s barely a day that goes by without another production opening somewhere in the world. Yet despite its popularity, there is a robustness to it that withstands this very proliferation – no matter how many cuts or omissions are made to it, the inherent magic of it still stands, still transports audiences to the “palace wood a mile without the town” where the Rude Mechanicals, the four lovers, and a host of wayward fairies converge upon a midsummer’s night.
Presented here by Bell Shakespeare for a schools audience, it is characterised by cocooning warmth and a very earthy, tactile aesthetic. From the curved wooden wall of Teresa Negroponte’s set, almost like a ruined ship’s hull turned on its side, to the costumes and the actors’ physicality, the robustness of Shakespeare’s script bounces back at you, even if it is somewhat truncated and reshaped.


The reality of television: Griffin’s Beached

At eighteen years old, and weighing over 400 kilograms, Arthur (Arty) is the world’s heaviest teenager. With his gastric bypass surgery scheduled for 259 days’ time, he is assigned a Pathways to Work officer and put on a strict diet, while his every move is followed by a ravenous reality TV crew from a show called ‘Shocking Fat Stories.’ This is the world of Melissa Bubnic’s 2010 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award-winning play, Beached.
Directed by Shannon Murphy, Bubnic’s play is an unapologetically satiric and pointed look at the obesity epidemic, and tries to unpick “society’s insatiable appetite for human misery.” Murphy’s direction is bold and ambitious, her staging audacious and inventive, as she (ingeniously) shows us the artifice behind the ‘reality’ of reality television. In a set constructed like a television studio, two patterned walls create a corner in which Arty sits, while cameras, lights, backdrops and costumes hang from the rungs of a cage-like scaffold which moves around him, encasing and restricting his movement and freedom.


Nightmares in white: Belvoir's Persona

Belvoir’s presentation of Adena Jacobs’ theatrical reimaging of Persona is a hard pill to swallow. First performed by Fraught Outfit in Melbourne in 2012 to strong critical reviews, it takes Bergman’s 1966 film of the same name, and uses Bergman’s dialogue but reconceives it for the stage. Similar to Simon Stone’s staging of Bergman’s Face to Face for Sydney Theatre Company last year, Persona seems to be more distant and removed than it needs to be, and seems to occur in some kind of unengaging vacuum rather than the “consummate theatrical close-up ” Belvoir advertises in their season brochure.


Her-story: New Theatre's Top Girls

Written in 1982 when Margaret Thatcher was at the height of her game following the Falklands War, Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls was an incendiary and urgent play about women in power, women with power, and women and power. Now, thirty-one years later, with Thatcher’s passing and the end of Julia Gillard’s prime ministership closer to home, Churchill’s play – revived here by New Theatre – seems almost prescient.
While Top Girls can (naturally) be considered to be a ‘period piece’, borne of the social and economic transformations brought about by Thatcher’s election, it is more than a mere foretelling of the 1980s; it is an ashamedly revealing work which shows with alarming accuracy just how little we have come as a society since that time, as Lyn Gardner wrote in The Guardian in 2002.


Countdown to ignition: subtlenuance’s Rocket Man

Which child doesn’t, at some point or another, dream of reaching the stars? It’s an idea that’s been floating around the place lately, for perhaps a year or two, at least noticeably since ‘the man on the moon’ Neil Armstrong passed away in 2012. In Paul Gilchrist’s play Rocket Man playing at Darlinghurst’s TAP Gallery theatre, the idea of reaching for the stars is spun into another cosmos, a personal intimate universe of relationships, storytelling, the nature of playing and the theatre.


All the little lights: Griffin Independent & Just Visiting's This Is Where We Live

On the bare Griffin stage, there’s a little bit of magic that happens every time an audience enters the space, every time the lights go down and an actor walks on stage. This time is no different. On the tiny stage, painted a deep blue, the story of two teenagers – Chris ‘Odd Boy’ and Chloe ‘from the Underworld’ – plays out in a vivid and hypnotically potent concoction of words, in Vivienne Walshe’s This Is Where We Live.
Winner of the 2012 Griffin Award, This Is Where We Live is “a love story that conjures Orpheus leading his Eurydice out from the underworld of small town hell,” and amongst all the pain, and the shit, and the awkwardness of being a teenager, let alone being a teenager in a small town, there is a light that seems to come from the stars, and it seems – at least, for a while – that anything is possible.


Broken mirrors: STC's The Maids

I thought perhaps this time Benedict Andrews’ mise en scène would make sense, that his staging techniques and or Effects would be justified by the production’s context and or the text’s demands. Being the fourth production of Andrews’ that I have seen – Measure for Measure (Company B Belvoir, 2010), The Seagull (Belvoir, 2011), Every Breath (Belvoir, 2012) – I thought that perhaps I had seen it all (in many respects, I suppose I have), but The Maids only confirmed the fact that Andrews is perhaps on a different planet to most people, especially myself.
In some ways, I think I understand what he is trying to do, it’s just that his execution and implementation – his deployment and reliance upon– of Effects end up distracting from any kind of message or examination he could be trying to make or conduct. For instance: I understand the notion of constant surveillance that pervaded Measure for Measure (and now The Maids), but the live-video-feeding cameras on large screens on either side of the stage meant you were watching them not the actors on stage. I understand the idea of the storm in The Seagull, but to have ‘ash’ falling from the heavens and not be referenced at all in the dialogue seems clumsy, immature. To depict (frequent) sex acts on stage seemed to negate any point he may have been making, and turned Every Breath into a farce. So now in The Maids, when we have glass walls on either side of the stage, mirrors, a live video-feed from seen and unseen cameras dotted around the stage perimeter and dressing; when the set is destroyed (to an extent) and sex acts hinted at though never fully realised; when characters seem to actually use an on-stage toilet, it really does feel like we have seen it all before. And I guess we have.


It’s all Greek to me: Bell Shakespeare’s Phèdre

Untranslatable is a word often used to describe Racine’s plays, we are told in the program to Bell Shakespeare’s latest production, Phèdre. And watching the play, part of me cannot help but wish it had stayed thus, however much it hurts me to admit it. Based on the Greek myth of Phèdre, Racine’s play is a downward spiralling tragedy, much like Shakespeare’s own Macbeth and Hamlet, until at the end, tragedy befalls everyone, and Theseus and Théramène are left to pick up the pieces.
If Anna Cordingely’s set was anything to go by, the production should’ve been sumptuous. A decaying room, perhaps in a French palace, it consisted of an elongated octagonal room with the front walls removed – stairs tiled in black and white, six large windows at the rear, a ceiling with a hole smashed through it (due to a god’s intervention, perhaps?), a chaise divan and two similarly-upholstered chairs… a picture of faded elegance. The space was lit effectively by Paul Jackson in bolts of harsh fluorescence, gentle gold, and electric blue, and added to the former grandeur of the play’s location. Kelly Ryall’s sound design and ‘score’ were both effective in unsettling the audience from the opening salvo of scratching susurrations to the final blackout, almost as if the gods somewhere were spinning disks of thunder and lightning. It was used in scene breaks too, and in tiny unobtrusive blurts when a character entered via the stairs, and though my description of it sounds somewhat disparaging, it was one of the production’s strongest points, and complemented the set in its depiction of a once-faded decadence, something familiar now in disarray, beyond repair. However, when you added the cast – headed by Catherine McClements as Phèdre – something inherently 'magical' disappeared.


More life: Belvoir’s Angels in America, Parts One and Two

It’s one of the biggest plays of the late twentieth century, perhaps one of the last entries in the American canon, one of the newest classics, and it’s not without its own kind of grandeur. Written as two plays, and billed as “an epic double-comedy of love and hate, heaven and earth, past and future,” Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is set in 1985, and revolves around a group of “marginalised individuals in New York in the last years of the Cold War,” as the AIDS epidemic sweeps them all up in its path. To see the two plays in sequence on consecutive days is by turns compelling and grueling, and I don’t think it would be any easier seeing them on the same day.
Staged within a beige-tiled atrium, Angels in America is directed with a vitality and cleverness by Eamon Flack, and to use a character’s analogy, it’s all a bit like an octopus with its eight arms waving about, trying to keep track of every character, every actor, each plotline, and still keep everything in the scope of the bigger picture. Now a generation old (as a complete play, it is a year or two younger than I am), whether you realise it or not, it’s “actually a play about the beginning of the era we’re now in the thick of.”


Clash over the classics: A perspective on the adaptations vs. new works debate

There’s an interesting article in the Review section of today’s The Weekend Australian, about adaptations and their prevalence in Australia’s current theatrical landscape. Rosemary Neill asks if it is “a sign of the bankruptcy of original ideas, or [if] it heralds a confident approach to great works of drama?”
In the past two years in Sydney alone, audiences have been given the opportunity to see numerous classic plays in ‘updated’ or ‘new versions’ by various writers and directors (and writer-directors). Productions of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, Gorky’s Vassa Zheleznova (as The Business), Chekhov’s The Seagull, Seneca’s Thyestes, Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Euripedes’ Medea, and the forthcoming interpretation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, have all been rewritten, adapted or reinterpreted from their original texts. While these have resulted in many critical and popular successes, is it hinting at a wider, more alarming problem – a dearth of ‘large-scale’ Australian works?


Night at the museum: Griffin’s The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars

As many a child does, I loved mythology, and all the many intricacies of which god sired who with whom, who did what where; all the gods, demigods and deities, heroes and heroines running around the place felling monsters and accomplishing miraculous feats… I don’t know if it was that I grew out of it or just stopped being obsessed by it all, but somewhere along the line it no longer held the appeal it once did. It’s all still in my head somewhere, all the stories about the gods and the apples, the world tree, the goat-men and the epic wars, all connected (like so many other things) by that wonderful red string. And then along comes this play, Van Badham’s The Bull, The Moon, and the Coronet of Stars at Griffin theatre; with its adaptation of the story of the minotaur into a contemporary context, it’s a bit like playing hide and seek in a labyrinthine museum of myth – you’re aware of something bigger going on in the story, but at the same time, you’re trying not to get caught up worrying about it all, because you still want to be told a story, you still want it to work its magic on you.
Like friends or lovers telling the story of how they met, the play’s genesis had many beginnings (as told on the Griffin blog in three parts). It was originally written as a short play inspired by a shard of pottery in Oxford’s Ashmolean museum; it started life as a double-dare between two good friends (the other half of the dare became Dance of Death for Melbourne’s Malthouse theatre); it started as a story told millennia ago, about a man who slew a bull, a woman who helped him find his way out again, and a man who loved frivolity a little too much. It’s an enchantingly beautiful play, told eloquently by Badham’s poetic language and performed superbly by Matt Zeremes and Silvia Colloca. Something strange is happening in the museum where Marion and Michael work. As Michael keeps guard, a monster appears along with an impossible situation. Marion flees, only to become infuriated by Mark, a sommelier, and have her world turn upside down as her emotions betray her. To quote the season book, “it will lure you into an orgy of antiquity, cupcakes and beachside frivolity [in] this delightfully debaucherous fairytale for adults.”


The new Elizabethans: Bell Shakespeare's Henry 4

I’ve never been a huge fan of Shakespeare’s History plays; they’ve always seemed a bit dull, a jumble of big speeches and set pieces interspersed with a lot of bickering and fighting amongst political factions. With Bell Shakespeare’s production of Henry 4, however, that has all changed. John Bell calls it Britain’s ‘national poem,’ and you could almost extend that to Australia, I guess. From its opening cacophony of drums and guitar, to the breaking of the set, the raucous rabble of the taverns and the streets, the political manipulating and the ultimate redemption at the end, I don’t think I’ve seen a Shakespeare play done as viscerally and as hauntingly poetic since Bell Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in November 2010.
Written in two parts performed in 1596 and 1597 respectively, Henry IV was based on Holinshed’s Chronicles and an anonymous play, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. Part One deals with the rebel problem in the North, and Prince Hal’s rebellion against his duties; Hal, spurred into action by his father’s scorn, kills Hotspur at Shrewsbury, proving himself somewhat. Part Two sees Hal fall back into his old ways with his friends, while Falstaff is sent away to gather soldiers; upon the illness and death of Henry IV, Hal assumes the crown and becomes Henry V, banishing his old acquaintances. However so much the play appears to depict historical events, “to call any of [Shakespeare’s] plays ‘histories’ is somewhat misleading, because historical events and personages are so heavily fictionalised,” John Bell wrote in The Australian. “To the Elizabethans, history was a mix of myth, legend, folklore, moralising and propaganda. Historical figures and events [illustrated] moral treatises, patterns of behaviour, warnings of consequences and character archetypes.”


On Reading, Part Three

The reason why there hasn’t been one of these for a while is not that I haven’t read anything, the truth couldn’t be further from it, but the fact that nothing I’ve read has been truly stand-outish, anything particularly noteworthy. Sure, there have been enjoyable books and mediocre books, but none of them truly rated a mention here. One exception is, of course, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.


I waited for you: Belvoir’s Forget Me Not

I’ve long admired Tom Holloway’s work, not least the way he writes. Ever since I saw Love Me Tender at Belvoir in 2010, I’ve been struck at the muscular and yet beautiful and poetic way in which he uses words to create pictures, how he writes and uses punctuation to create characters, how the characters speak, how the dialogue sounds, how the play works, the inherent rhythms and repetitions that are built into the play itself. I love the way he fragments and fractures speech, cuts it up into bits, chucks it amongst these crazily beautiful lyrical snatches and creates these haunting word pictures which you cannot shake from your head. Yet, underneath the language is a tender and rather large beating heart which especially comes through in his latest play, Forget Me Not, a co-commission from Belvoir and Liverpool’s Everyman and Playhouse Theatres.
When Belvoir announced their 2013 season, I initially thought this would be like Oranges and Sunshine on stage. And the premise indeed sounds similar: “Gerry is almost 60, and he is going to meet his mother for the first time since he was three. His daughter Sally has had it up to here with him and his problems. The old lady lives somewhere in the UK. Liverpool, according to the records. So Gerry is going there to find out what made him who he is.” But the comparison actually does Holloway’s play a disservice, in that it hints at a bureaucracy and governments that betrayed their people. What the play does, instead, is show the personal struggle with trying to reconcile who you are with who you think you are, who you thought you were. And it’s not lightly that I make the claim of this being one of the most harrowing and yet simultaneously beautiful pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen.


VHS Productions' One Scientific Mystery or, Why did the Aborigines eat Captain Cook?

“But why did the aborigines eat Captain Cook?
It is unclear and the science is mute
The answer’s simple, that’s the way I look
They were just hungry and ate Captain Cook!”
 – Vladimir Visotsky, Why Did The Aborigines Eat Captain Cook?

Late on a midwinter night in St. Petersburg, Rhys returns to his freezing apartment to find his brother-in-law, Ben, unconscious and a naked woman about to jump out the window. The ensuing play is a little gem, by turns a comedic romance, a mystery, and something quite raw and beautiful, and it’s a play very much written from the centre of one’s soul, with its beating kicking heart on show, bared for all to see.
Playing at Darlinghurst’s TAP Gallery theatre, One Scientific Mystery, or Why did the Aborigines eat Captain Cook? is the first play from Victoria Haralabidou, and is about three people and their lives, played out over the course of a night, as they collide in an apartment; it’s about the moments we share with and glean from each other, the glimpses of someone else behind the person we see in front of us, the brutality of intimacy, and the unexpectedness of wanting to stay despite the odds.


Hiding in plain sight: Griffin Independent & Collide’s Girl in Tan Boots

TAN BOOTS: To the girl in tan boots who always gets on at St Leonards, you are my angel of the morning. My daily fix of heaven. – Man in Grey Suit.
How can someone disappear from full view, from one of the busiest train stations in the country? How do you stay visible in a big, busy city? They’re the questions that lie at the heart of Tahli Corin’s Girl in Tan Boots currently playing at Griffin Theatre as part of their Griffin Independent season. To quote the season book, “Hannah is 32, single and slightly overweight. Hannah has eczema and lives alone with a cat named Cupid. Hannah reads the love messages in the commuter magazine religiously, hoping one day, one day, there will be one just for her. But when Hannah goes missing while waiting for a mystery man at a Sydney train station, her friends and family are left to question whether their actions played a part.” 
It’s a dark play, certainly, there’s no denying it. But it’s also quite delicate and touching, quite beautiful and funny at the same time. There’s a loneliness that sits at its heart that seems to bleed through, into the characters’ lives, into the staging, into the set, even the performances at times, and it’s quite powerful and affecting stuff.


Suicides and seagulls: Understanding Chekhov’s The Seagull

Two years ago, I saw Benedict Andrews’ production of The Seagull at Belvoir Street Theatre, and fell in love with the play, with the aching emptiness and fragility that seemed to run underneath its neurotic chaotic surface. While I ultimately didn’t like the production on quite a profound level, I think Andrews was getting at something he couldn’t quite articulate effectively enough. And it got me thinking about it, about Chekhov’s play, about the production; about why these sorts of plays last, why they are called ‘classics.’ Before I go any further, I want to make a distinction clear: in theatre, there is a difference between the play and the production. While the two are often used interchangeably, the play more pedantically refers to the script, while the production connotes the specific envisioning of the script by the director, designers, actors and technicians.
In a letter to a friend in 1895, Chekhov described the play he was working on as “a comedy – three f., six m., four acts, a landscape (a view of a lake), much conversation about literature, little action, and five tons of love.” While it is a rather simplistic reduction of the play, it is nonetheless quite a succinct summary. If you were to examine the play, peel back its layers and try to get inside each of Chekhov’s characters, you’d find that ultimately it’s a play about love in all its different guises; yet, at the same time, in true Chekhovian fashion, it’s not particularly ‘about’ anything, except perhaps Life.


Being Lally Katz: Belvoir’s Stories I Want To Tell You In Person

I’ve admired Lally Katz’s anarchic but gently optimistic view of the world ever since I saw Neighbourhood Watch at Belvoir in 2011. There was something unique, something indescribably wonderful about the play that captured something that is the experience of theatre-going for me. Since then, I’ve tried to read and or see as many of her plays as possible (with varying degrees of success) to try and see how everything fits into this Katzian world she’s created across the Australian theatrical landscape in the past decade.
The story of Stories I Want To Tell You In Person began at Belvoir following the success of Neighbourhood Watch. Commissioned to write a new play for them, Katz decided to write about the global financial crisis, something she confesses she knew nothing about. Having spent her commission on seeing various fortune tellers and psychics in New York (numerous times), she wrote the play in twenty-four hours and sent it off. After feeling like Theatre had dumped her in the gutter, quite literally it seems, Katz had an idea that perhaps all was not lost. And what seems like perhaps one of the most perilous undertakings for any creative – to explain where their ideas come from – has become a quite surreal and deliciously entertaining seventy-five minute piece of theatre in Belvoir’s tiny downstairs space.


The year my voice broke: reflections on a year of critical thinking

I started the spell of waking hours a year ago as a way to legitimise the writing of the longer-form pieces I found myself writing, as a way to build up a personal style, to experiment with different ways of expressing my thoughts and ideas; a way to think critically about the passions, the tangents, and the trails of thread I found myself chasing, pursuing, relentlessly enjoying. When I embarked upon this voyage of discovery, I had no idea what would happen to it, what I would write, how I would write, how it would evolve. But now, a year later, with just on one-thousand hits, it has become one of the more rewarding things I have ever done, creatively-speaking. In the process, I’ve learnt how to write a review, how to write well; how to develop and articulate a point, back it up with evidence, and how to stand by that conviction.
In the thirteen months I’ve been developing this blog, I have finished university (for the time being) and have begun trying to find something I’m passionate about. In many ways, my blog is the answer to a question that I ask myself after every book, film, play, after every project – why should I/we care about what is being presented to me/us? In keeping this blog, I’ve been trying to uncover the something that ticks at the heart of every thing I encounter, the ‘why’ that keeps me going back time after time for more. While I don’t suppose we can ever truly find the answer, in some small way, I think I’ve found my niche. 
I guess the only way to find out is to keep following that red thread through the labyrinth, to keep going back asking for more. 


On Reading, Part Two

“Books don’t offer real escape but they can stop a mind from scratching itself raw.”
– David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

A little while ago, I mentioned how I was – am – interested in making connections between books and films, connections that may be implicit or explicit, thematic, character-based or mood-based, connections that may or may not make sense to anyone other than me. Like Dirk Gently, I often feel as though I’ve ‘triangulated the vectors’ and the conclusions have pointed me towards making these connections whether I’ve been conscious of them or not. If you were to look at my bookshelf, you’d see a version of this in practice already:


Casual misogyny: Belvoir’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

MAGGIE: You know what I feel like? I feel all the time like a cat on a hot tin roof.
BRICK: Then jump off the roof, Maggie. Jump off it. Cats jump off roofs and land uninjured. Do it. Jump.

It’s one of the core plays in the American dramatic canon, and yet there’s something distinctly unsettling about Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, directed by Simon Stone at Belvoir. Written in 1955, the play is about a family on a Mississippi plantation whose magnate, Big Daddy, is dying, drawing everyone into the maelstrom. Described as “a powerful social critique of family breakdown, gender roles and relationships,” it is about the end of an era and the next beginning, a portrait of two generations, “one [that] doesn’t want to die, [while] the other feels crowded out, confused, and desperate to inherit whatever it can get before it’s too late.” But like its fellow plays in the canon – Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire – it is also a deeply unsettling, troubling, problematic play, not least because of its portrayal, characterisation and function of women.