Eamon Flack and the bigness of spirit

Sometimes you encounter a piece of theatre which seems to shine with its own light, theatre which reaches out into the darkness of the auditorium and gently holds you, slips its fingers under your skin and doesn’t let go for a very long time afterwards. It was March 2012, and Rita Kalnejais’ Babyteeth was playing in Belvoir’s Upstairs theatre; billed as “a mad, gorgeous, bittersweet comedy about how good it is not to be dead yet,” it was filled with a warmth, a big-heartedness, and an almost-visible hum, and was – still is – one of the most beautiful new plays I’ve ever seen.
Babyteeth was directed by Eamon Flack, Belvoir’s Associate Director – New Projects. I don’t make a secret of being a strong admirer of his work as a director, in particular his work at Belvoir. Following his recent appointment as Belvoir’s new artistic director from 2016, I sat down with Flack at the beginning of the year for what became an in-depth discussion about the classics, dramatic and historical context, his intentions as incoming artistic director, and about the need for compassion.


Elektrafying: Belvoir’s Elektra / Orestes

In uncertain times, we often turn to myths and classic stories to help us make sense of what we are seeing in the world around us. Despite their age, the Greek tragedies still maintain their appeal, and perhaps more so than before, are currently experiencing a new breath of life in often radically-reimagined settings and versions. In the past year alone in Sydney, we have seen versions of Antigone, Phaedre, Oedipus Rex, with a version of the Oresteia still to come, no doubt among countless others. And while I’ve never really been a particular fan of the Greek plays, there is something in their cyclical nature, in the way they routinely invoke powers larger and more vengeful than anything we can imagine as humans that is intoxicating and affecting.
Enter Belvoir’s Elektra / Orestes, a kind of double-bill about two members of the house of Atreus, told with verve and boldness by Anne-Louise Sarks and Jada Alberts. Rather than a double-bill in the traditional theatrical sense – two plays in repertory, often playing back-to-back on one night – here we have the same story told from two different perspectives, literally from either side of a wall. In many ways – thematically, mythically – it is a companion to Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired from 2013: where that was first and foremost about people and relationships, Elektra / Orestes is about actions and consequences, and is a good old fashioned revenge tragedy.


There and back again: Spectrum NOW’s Orfeo ed Euridice

Produced without adornment, Shannon Murphy’s staging of Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice as part of the inaugural Spectrum NOW festival is a treat to savour. Staged within the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ entrance hall, restaurant and old courts, it is a moving processional presentation of one of Gluck’s reform operas which seeks to invigorate and reform our perception of opera itself, what it is, can be, and can be capable of, and it succeeds with an elegant simplicity and ingenuity which is beguiling.


See me, feel me: Griffin Theatre Company’s Caress / Ache

In 2005, Nguyen Tuong Van was executed in Singapore, having been convicted of drug trafficking. Immediately prior to his execution, the Singaporean government declared that he could not hug or be hugged by anyone, including his mother. Inspired by this event, playwright Suzie Miller wrote Caress/Ache, a play which in its world premiere season at the hands of Griffin Theatre Company gains a new and pertinent resonance by the pending fate of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in Indonesia. However, for a play about the need for connection and touch between people, there is a curious lack of connection between text, performers, and our emotions.


Our song: MTC’s What Rhymes with Cars and Girls

When Tom Stoppard’s radio play Darkside – based on Pink Floyd’s seminal album The Dark Side of the Moon – premiered in Britain in 2013, Sydney Morning Herald music writer Bernard Zuel wondered whether it might be time we saw an Australian version of the project, suggesting “Brendan Cowell adapting You Am I’s Hourly Daily; Hannie Rayson taking on Paul Kelly’s Gossip; Andrew Bovell diving into Sarah Blasko’s What The Sea Wants, The Sea Will Have; [or] maybe, David Williamson and Kylie Minogue’s Impossible Princess…” It’s almost as if playwright Aidan Fennessy heard Zuel’s challenge and decided to raise him one, as a year and a half later, What Rhymes with Cars and Girls opens at the Melbourne Theatre Company.
Very much inspired by – as well as emerging from – the fabric of Tim Rogers’ 1999 solo album of the same name, What Rhymes with Cars and Girls is the story of Johnno, a hapless pizza delivery boy, and Tash, a smart-mouthed singer who’s running from everything. While featuring a live three-piece band (led by Rogers himself), Cars and Girls is not so much a musical as “a play with songs” in the mode of Poor Boy, albeit with more charm and heart. But where Poor Boy’s songs were somewhat outside the action on stage and became ghostly musical refrains, Rogers’ songs here become integral to the play’s success and charm and, as in a musical, come to express the characters’ thoughts and feelings in a slightly heightened form.


Backstage in the forest of Arden: Bell Shakespeare’s As You Like It

As You Like It is a bit of a mad old cornucopic delight. It has everything Shakespeare has to offer – political intrigue, danger, love, mistaken identity, a smattering of philosophy, a few songs, (not to mention a spot of cross-dressing and disguise), and it is full of the kind of whimsy and mad-logic that Shakespeare specialises in. In many ways, it’s not so much concerned with a complex plot, or a plot’s complexities (as, say, in Hamlet or Twelfth Night), but rather the interactions and relationships between characters, the ways in which these interactions explore the play’s themes and issues including (but not limited to) love, identity, and self-expression.
Bell Shakespeare’s current production of As You Like It is a strange old beast. Played out against a backdrop of old canvas dropsheets, with several concealed exits and entrances (as befits the oft-quoted set-piece speech), it is characterized by a peculiar languid energy, a strange “holiday humour” where time slows, love is professed, declared and role-played with varying success, and magic can happen if only they’d let it. Directed by co-artistic director Peter Evans, this Arden is full of ideas, as are all his other productions, but somewhere in the transition from the page to the stage, some of Shakespeare [and Rosalind’s] effervescence is lost, and I don’t think it finds it again, if at all.


A fertile promontory: Sydney Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet

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. For director Steven Hopley, this explanation is simple: to be the first production staged on Fort Denison in Sydney Harbour, and what a treat this is. We are met near the Opera House by a small water taxi and ferried across to the island; the scene from Shakespeare in Love with Shakespeare crossing the Thames in a similar boat immediately comes to mind – “I’m a bit of a writer myself…” The sun sets over the city, we step onto the island, and we are in another place: Elsinore, Denmark. Here, now, then; always.
We are met at the jetty by two guards in red coats, ghosts from a much earlier time, who demand to know how goes there. From our midst comes the answerer, Horatio, and we are thrust into the middle of a world of secrecy, lies, madness, appearances, and two families whose fortunes and fates are inextricably intertwined. As the scenes progress, and we move from the jetty to the tower, the powder rooms, the forecourt and the promenade, we get a very real sense of Hamlet’s Elsinore, we become part of the play itself, observers and conspirators to confessions and murders, and it makes a normally ponderous play seem fresh, new, and exciting.


The impossible dream: Squabbalogic’s Man of La Mancha

Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote is one of those books which, like its titular character, has assumed a life much larger than anything its author could have dreamed of upon writing. It’s a sprawling beast of a tome, written in two parts, and published ten years apart in the early seventeenth century, and is very much about stories, telling stories, living stories, and ultimately, becoming a story ourselves. It’s a mercurial book, too, constantly shifting and changing, dropping in and out of layers of metatextual conceit like Russian dolls or Chinese puzzle boxes; just when you think you’ve got a handle on the narrative, it twists, disappears, and journeys on to another adventure. In brief, it is the story of a man who believes he is a knight errant by the name of Don Quixote, and along with his squire Sancho Panza, journeys forth to right wrongs, and restore justice and order wherever he goes. In one sense a satirical riposte to the proliferation of chivalric stories at the time, it quickly becomes much more than just that, and becomes a rhapsody upon life in all its complexities and contradictions. Ever since reading the book two and a half years ago, I’ve had the impossible dream of wanting to see it come alive, to watch the pasteboard knight gallivant across the Spanish mountains with as much presence and life and aliveness as he has in the book.  
Enter, then, Squabbalogic and their production of Man of La Mancha. Written by Dale Wasserman (originally as a one-act teleplay), with music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, and premiered in 1965, it is not so much a musical of Don Quixote or a musical of the life of its author Cervantes (though it certainly draws heavily on elements from both), but rather a musical based on the world of Don Quixote. Taking a page from Cervantes’ own book and methods, the musical opens in a Spanish prison some time in the late sixteenth century, with Cervantes and his manservant charged with foreclosing on a monastery unable to pay debts. Accosted by the inmates, Cervantes pleads guilty to the charges laid against him, and seeks the opportunity to offer his defense in the only way he knows how: a story – a play – acted out by the inmates themselves. The story of the man of La Mancha.