In The Blood

Suzan-Lori Parkes’s play ‘In The Blood’, Belvoir’s B Sharp’s latest production, uses Nathaniel Hawthorne’s literary classic ‘The Scarlet Letter’ as a springboard to the contemporary tale of its of its main character, Hester La Negrita. The play is Hester’s story, the story of a homeless mother bringing up five children, Jabber, Bully, Trouble, Beauty and Baby. Hester falls through the cracks of the welfare system, and in her poverty has to confront sterilisation, hunger, living under a bridge, and rejection. Her dark, strong sense of humour keeps her from going under.

‘In The Blood’ slots in as political, feminist theatre of the strongest kind. Its a tough play about the failings of the American welfare system that even breaks down the spirit of a woman as tough as Hester. Everywhere where Hester turns for help she is let down, manipulated, abused. Her welfare worker wants sexual favours, as does her thundering priest.

It’s heartbreaking stuff no more so than when Hester receives a gentleman caller of sorts. One of her ex partners, and the father of one of her children, arrives. He is dressed smartly, says he is now a successful businessman, and wants to set up home with him. Hester sees a bit of light at the end of her tunnel. Then that bit of light is taken away from her when all her chidren come back from playing to see her. He is no longer interested!

This Queensize production did Park’s powerful play justice. Tanya Denny’s direction was incisive and fast paced right from the start with Hester ‘s kids doing a rap performance. Candy Bowers of the Hip Hop act Sista She was strong as the lead, supported by a good cast. Kim Bowers and artists from the Creative Youth Initiative, established by Mission Australia in 1993 as a way of engaging homeless and at risk youth in creative expression, came up with the sound design.

A Lot Like Love

A LOT LIKE LOVE

Slot in ‘A Lot Like Love’, the new American film, as a a fun romantic movie, a good date film. The film charts the course of the friendship/relationship between two young Americans- in their twenties-Emily Friehl and Oliver Martin over a seven year period. From its quirky beginning, with Emily seducing Oliver in an aeroplane loo, their relationship goes in many different directions. The mark of their friendship is that they always end up turning to each other when life goes bitter.

What makes ‘A Lot Like Love’ work within such a popular and demanding genre?! Colin Patrick Lynch’s script is well written with plenty of clever ideas. Nigel Cole’s direction keeps the film moving at a good pace backed by a pulsating rock soundtrack. The foundation of the movies’ success lies with two winning performances by the leads. Amanda Peet is vibrant as Emily in a role that sees her character go through many changes. Ashton Kutcher charms as Oliver. The chemistry between them works.

There is an old, golden quote that love is what one has gone through with someone. Emily and Oliver go through a lot, and my favourite memory from ‘A Lot Like Love’ comes down to when they are driving along city streets and Oliver is recounting to Emily stories from his latest heartbreak. Emily, who’s behind the wheel, starts singing the classic Chicago song ‘If You Leave Me Now’ to try and distract Oliver from his ranting. As Oliver continues his depressing monologue, Emily’s singing becomes louder and louder. Finally Emily does break down Oliver’s melancholic rave and they both start laughing. It was a great moment in an endearing film.

A Common Thread

A COMMON THREAD

In the new French film ‘A Common Thread’ headstrong Claire learns that she is five months pregnant at the age of 17. Claire decides to give birth in secret. Her passion for embroidery leads her to seek out the revered Madame Mlikian, an embroiderer for haute couture designers. Madame Melikian is initially reluctant to take on Claire, but Claire soon proves herself and has her refuge. A bond soon develops between the two women.

This is a quirky, warm, tender film.

I fell under the films’ spell with ease. It was a lovingly realised film, well directed by Eloenere Faucher, with a sparse, eloquent script, and immaculate performances by its two leads, Lola Naymark and Ariane Ascaride.

This was a gentle, subtle film as reflected in its delicate soundtrack and the films’ milieu, Madame Melikian’s home factory, and the many scenes showing the two women working on their tapestries. ‘A Common Thread’ worked principally because Faucher and her cast communicated so clearly to the audience the type of people these two women were and the emotions they were going through. Naymark’s portrait revealed a vivacious, tough young woman, determined to keep her life together. She communicated the ordeal of a woman having to cope with adult responsibilities far too soon.

Ariane’s portrayal of Madame Melikian revealed a reserved, uptight, capable middle aged woman battling depression as a result of losing her son. Ariane’s performance conveyed Melikian’s anguish but also the new sense of life that having Claire’s companionship gave her.

A big plus for ‘A Common Thread’, and one can’t say this about that many films, is that it has a strong ending, quiet, emphatic and resonant.

The Lightkeeper

It is in the nature of lighthouses that they have a mystical quality. There is definitely more than a few plays to be had about lighthouses. Currently playing at the Stables theatre is Verity Laughton’s play ‘The Lightkeeper’, a play that has been commissioned by the Mainstreet Theatre Company and its Artistic Director, Teresa Bell.

In Laughton’s play the fine Melbourne actor Ian Scott plays lightkeeper Jack Power, an ex sailor from the closing era of the great wooden sailing ships and for the last twenty years the assistant lightkeeper at an unnamed lighthouse. He has the last watch of the night and there is a boat out on the stormy Southern Ocean that seems to be in trouble. As he watches and waits, Jack announces what brought him the lighthouse all those years ago- the widow Agnes Mary Taylor and her small son, Henry.

My Arm

Year after year Belvoir’s B Sharp program continues to come up with interesting theatre. The latest offering is ‘My Arm’, a local production of a fringe play from Britain. Tim Crouch originally wrote and performed ‘My Arm’ in the UK, and now the Group Theatre has put on a production with Travis Cotton doing the performing honours and the production being directed by Iain Sinclair. Sinclair is a local director who is getting a lot of work at the moment, also directing ‘Hurlyburly’ at the Stables Theatre.

‘My Arm’ was an ever so simple and effecting piece of theatre. It featured just one young man on stage, unassuamingly, sitting on a chair, and smiling quietly at people as they streamed into the theatre. He asked each member of the audience to give something from themselves, from their wallet or anywhere, that he could use during the performance.

The lights went down, and with just the help of a small video camera and a toy man, Travis Cottheld the audience in the palm of his hand as he told the audience the poignant tragic story of a boy who came from a dysfunctional family and had a very slim grip on life. He spends his life trying to come up with something that will see him noticed, that will have some impact on the world around him. At the age of ten he stumbles on an action that gives his life some meaning, he puts his arm above his head and leaves it there. For over thirty years, and despite the various permutations of his life, he continues to leave his arm sky-bound.

Yes, it is theatre in the absurdist tradition but heck ‘My Arm’ has a theme as old and universal as the hills. There have always been human beings who have done outrageous things just to be noticed, just so that they can feel important. Travis Cotton’s charming performance, complete with his incorporating audience paraphenalia within the narrative, was the icing on this theatrical fare.

Willenbrock

I saw the new German film ‘Willenbrock’ at the German Film Festival and, as yet, has not received a commercial release.

Where to fit this in on the radar map?! A corker of a psychological drama with the thriller element in it as well.

Alex Prahl gave a towering, seminal performance as the lead character, East German Willenbrock. Willenbrock is set up as a tough, hard hearted businessman who has his life firmly under control. He owns a flourishing used car dealership, has a lovely wife, and owns a house in the suburbs as well as one in the country. His very comfortable life starts to unravel when members of the Russian criminal element stage attacks on his dealership as well as his home. His wife is freaked out by the attacks, and Willenbrook’s marriage is put under further strain by his continuing promiscuity, including his fervent pursuit of a pretty but fragile university student.

Scenes from the film come flooding back, the strength of which comes down to showing the characters’ stark vulnerabilities. Two scenes that come to mind show Willenbrock cruising down the highway with the radio going full blast and him pretending to be Joe Cool. The other scene that comes to mind is the scene where Willenbrock has taken his young University student to his weekender to seduce. There’s a perfectly captured moment where we see the young woman looking out from the living room as Willenbrook is coming in the garden, contemplating the situation she has found herself in.

Democracy

The Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Michael Frayn’s ‘Democracy’ at its new Sydney Theatre has been one of the best things in theatre this year. British director Michael Blakemore came out to direct the play as he did with a previous Frayn play ‘Copenhagen’.

‘Democracy’ studies the life and times of charismatic German Chancellor Willy Brandt who led the first left wing government in post war Germany and that of his shadow Gunter Guillaume. The time is 1969 and the start of a five year reign for Brandt and his government. In a claculated move to improve the Government’s public image, a yound advisor, the affable Guillaume, is brought in. He soon rises to become Brandt’s indispensable right hand man and confidant. Guillaume harbours a drak secret- one so explosive that it has the potential to bring down Brandt’s government and create serious trouble for both East and West Germany.

These were my notes: ‘Democracy ‘ was another fine Frayn play. What does it have going for it?! It’s an evocative portrait of Brandt with so many angles to choose from. A charismatic political leader…a man who struggled with sometimes severe depression…a politician who made a habit of profound, understated gestures that moved his public so much and which his colleagues found so hard to fathom…

YOUNG ADAM

The arthouse Scottish film ‘Young Adam’ had a high reading on the drama/thriller meter.’Young Adam’ is set in the Glasgow of the early 1950s. The film is basically a four hander. The main character is Joe, a rootless, aimless young drifter who finds work on a barge owned by the down to earth Les and his enigmatic wife Ella. One afternoon Joe and Les happen upon the corpse of a young woman floating in the water, a chilling discovery that has huge repercussions.

The film is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Scottish Beat writer Alexander Trocchi. ‘Young Adam’ has been written and directed by David MacKenzie, and takes place on the canals between Glasgow and Edinburgh during the 1950’s. The cast is an impressive one with Ewan McGregor in the main role,supported by Tilda Swinton, Peter Mullan and Emily Mortimer.

‘Young Adam’ worked, above all, because the film felt so real and authentic. I believed Adam’s story… a young drifter going from job to job, trying somewhere along the line, to stumble upon himself. He spends his time drifting between the canals of Glasgow and Edinburgh however he also has dreams of going to China. Perhaps typical of this type, much of the trouble that Adam gets himself into, revolves around his numerous entanglements with women.

I enjoyed Ewan McGregor’s portrayal in the lead role. He played him as an an ordinary kind of bloke who is dealt a horrible twist of fate and copes in the best way he can. I think it was Adam’s very ordinariness, intellectually, morally, that gave the film much of its power.

Million Dollar Baby

It is one of the biggest films of the year, and took out three of the major awards at this year’s Academy Awards; Best Film, Best Director and Best Actress. I’m ofcourse talking about ‘Million Dollar Bay’. Is the film worthy of such accolades?! Well, put it this way, it is a very fine film and what gives it its strength is some great central characters, realised in strong performances.

Hilary Swank is Maggie, a woman in her twenties from a deprived, working class background. She works long hours waitering tables. She has always held a dream that she could make a career out of boxing. Maggie starts working out at the gym of one of the legendary boxing coaches, Frankie Dunn. Maggie is angling for Frankie to take her on. At first, Frankie doesn’t want anything to do with her but, in the end, relents. Maggie now has a taste of her possible future, and moves like an unstoppable force, determined to realise her dream at any cost. Maggie’s pursuit of her dream is the heart of the story to ‘Million Dollar Baby’.

Swank gives a memorable performance. There was, of-course, the sheer physical demands of taking on such a role. (It does engender some great performances…one only has to think of Robert De Niro in ‘Raging Bull’). More to the point however is Swank’s rugged, determined quality which is perfect for her role. Maggie may have come to boxing relatively late in life however she has been a fighter all her life!

Just as Swank has an inherent rugged, well travelled quality so does Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood who is well cast as fight coach and manager, Freddie Dunn. Eastwood’s complex and evocative portrayal reveals a multifaceted man; proud, hard bitten, defensive, and a lover of fine poetry. He is also a troubled man, unable to come to terms with his fractured relationship with his daughter who has cut him out of her life.

Morgan Freeman plays the film’s narrator, and active character, Freddie’s gym assistant, Scrap-Iron Dupris. Freeman’s character lives and breathes Freddie’s gym, a wise old hand who watches over everyone. He was a good boxer in his time though he never made it to the top. As Scrap, Freeman does what he does best, playing a genuine, salt of the earth character.

There’s one other performance that caught my eye, Jay Baruchel as Danger, a regular at Freddie’s gym. Baruchel nails a good minor role, his character is something of a village idiot, who is ‘looked after’ at the gym. His name is an anomoly , he couldn’t hurt anyone, much less can he box! Baruleb mixes comic flair with pathos.

A note to end with. ‘Million Dollar Baby’ is a longish film but stay with it. Unlike Maggie who liked to land her best blows in the opening round, director Eastwood delivers some knockout scenes as the film relentlessly draws to its close.

Blonde, the brunette and the vengeful redhead

There are times when theatre is quite simply just a little bit of magic. Such is the case with the Glen Street Theatre’s presentation of Melbourne playwright Robert Hewitt’s ‘The Blonde, The Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead’, a one woman show starring one of our most celebrated actresses, Jacki Weaver.

About the storyline. An assault takes place within a shopping complex, and the victim of the assault dies. The play takes us inside the heads of seven people who are affected by the tragic incident, and give some very different perspectives.

It amounts to an interesting but not particularly original narrative. What gives the play its spark, is the way the story is done, and this has something to do with Robert Hewett’s playwriting philisophy. I read an article in the Age which came some way to describe it.”I believe that creating good roles for actors is a crucial part of the playwrights’ job. I come from an actor’s background, so I know how good actors can be. It’s what drives a night in the theatre along. The audience loves to see actors tap-dancing away, showing all their skills’.

And this is certainly what Jacki Weaver does in ‘The Blonde. The Brunette and The Vengeful Redhead’. She performs seven vignettes, playing each of the characters, as they say out loud what they think about the tragedy, unknowingly revealing themselves. Weaver’s transformations from one character to another are carried out in full view of the audience at two dressing tables, at either side of the stage, replete with costumes, wigs and make-up. Emotions were so close to the surface. One moment the audience was in stitches, laughing at Weaver playing an old yobbo, and the next there was a hushed silence as Weaver played the guilty woman, talking from behing bars. This was no frills theatre of a kind, stripped of any technical effects, drawing all of its power from the quality of the actor on stage and the quality of the words given to her. And it worked a treat!

VIOLET HOUR

About ‘The Violet Hour’, currently playing at Kirribilli’s Ensemble Theatre. This is a contemporary play written by Broadway playwright Richard Greenburg, and Kate Gaul is directing its Australian premiere.

Greenburg sets his play in New York City in April, 1919 and the action takes place in the office and anteroom of fledgling publisher, John Pace Seavering. Seavering, has two manuscripts, but lacks the funds to publish both. Which work will he choose as his imprint’s first title, his lover’s (Jessie) memoirs or the novel by his best friend (Dennis)? Life is further complicated by the arrival in his office of a mysterious machine, that turns out pages of books from the future. Seavering learns how posterity views him, and he must decide whether to destroy his friend’s and lover’s hopes or grit his teeth and face the future.

It has been a while since I have seen a director and cast have as much fun with a play as with ‘The Violet Hour’. Where does this play fit in within the theatrical landscape? It is a witty, inventive, daring theatrical romp, and the cast play it to the hilt.

As John Pace Seavering, All Saints regular Mark Priestly headed the cast. He does well in a challenging role, playing a businessman, trying to make the best of his new venture, and being pressured by friends demanding a piece of the action. Priestly takes on board the role’s two main elements, the implicit angst and the comic,fast paced, farcical edge.

Nicholas Papademetriou made the most of what was perhaps the best role in the play, playing Seavering’s assistant, Gidger. Papademetriou got the opportunity to use all his comic flair in a part that required him to be overworked, frenetic and zany. He sparked whenever he was on stage.

Thomas Campbell, a 2002 NIDA graduate, did some good work as Seavering’s best friend, Dennis McCleary. His character is a wimpy, needy sort of person who wants to be a great writer. He has found a new girlfriend, Rosamund, who he thinks is his great love, and with whom is sharing his ‘Violet Hour’. The only problem is that he has told his girlfriend that his book has already been published and now Seavering is saying he might not publish it. He leans on Seavering in a big way!

Genevieve O’Reilly has a great time of it as Rosamund. Replete with a blonde wig and flowing costumes. O’Reilly strikes all the right notes, looking gorgeous and being outrageously flirtatious, a bit of a sex bomb. Genevieve Davis played the role of Jessie Brewster, and contributed glamour, and a nice, light touch.

Kate Gaul’s directed ‘The Violet Hour’ with plenty of flair. The tone of the production was set early with the taped vaudeville piano music and a set (designer Cat Raven) where everything is twisted and askew. With full theatrical license Gaul has pages from the future printing machine pouring down on characters from above in intermittent bursts.

Love: a multiple choice question

‘Love: a multiple choice question’ is the show currently playing at the Stables theatre. This is, in no way, your average show, having come all the way from New York with a colourful history. It is the creation, back in 2003, of Jamie Jackson and SoHee Youn, two students from the New York University’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing program. They devised a one man show based around Jamie’s hometown and family, submitted it to the New York International Fringe Festival, and the play was accepted. Their show received a warm response, and two years later and with some fine tuning, ‘Love: a multiple choice question’ has come to the Stables.

The play tells a simple, eloquent narrative. Jamie plays a guy who has decided to break up with his long time girlfriend. He feels that the relationship is going nowhere, and always finds himself checking out other women. We see him having him the big confrontation scene with his girlfriend, who fights to keep him, and then the play shifts focus. He is, so to speak, pulled out of the big bust-up scene and thrown back into his old hometown and family and friends, where he goes on a journey of self discovery, and to find the true meaning of love. The play ends with him being thrown back into his dialogue with his girlfriend, and having to decide what to do.

The Stables theatre proved the right venue for this intimate production. SoHee took her seat by the piano at the back of the stage, and played gently in the background. Jamie Jackson had the rest of the stage to weave his magic. The piece went for about an hour twenty, and featured some 10 songs.

‘Love: a multiple choice question’ proved to be a showcase for Jackson’s talents, showing off his strong voice, and considerable acting talents as he brought to life many characters from his past. The theme that Jamie and SoHee wove through the work, came through easily, love involves depth and commitment.

Influence

A new David Williamson play is always an event! This year, thus far, the Ensemble Theatre has already produced a new Williamson, ‘Operator’, in which the playwright’s son Rory played the main role of Jake, a ruthless young businessman. Now at one of Sydney’s premiere venues, the Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House, the Sydney Theatre Company is presenting another new Williamson piece, ‘Influence’.

In ‘Influence’ John Waters plays Ziggi Blasco, a high rating Sydney talk back radio DJ who is courted by politicians and public figures, a man who has the ability to influence public opinion with his hard line views on everything from terrorism to political correctness. His private life is different, he is a man who is finding his power, his sphere of influence, is waning. His relationship with his wife is strained and his adolescent daughter is a bit of a mess. Then there’s just the small issue of personal hypocrisy, Ziggy rants and raves on his radio program about there not being such a thing as the working poor and yet his very housekeeper is a struggling migrant woman trying to keep her family together. Will Ziggi be able to keep the contradictions in his life from destroying him?!

‘Influence’ was a typical Williamson play, flowing over with contemporary issues. Here’s just a list that I made on the run…The play looks at the world of talkback radio…political correctness…the racial tensions…the rise of Muslim extremism, the Serb/Croation and East versus West conflict…the Israel/Palestine conflict…psychology, in particular theories on depression and a psychological term called self stereotyping. It was heady stuff and there was of-course Williamson’s trademark one-liners.

John Waters played the lead, Ziggi Blasco. It’s an excellent part and Waters does it justice. He gives a credible, strong performance as troubled Ziggi, and transverses his characters’ public and private worlds effortlessly. When he does his schtick in his recording studio , swinging between callers, one really believes that he is one of the talkback emperors of the airwaves.

Zoe Carides has the most difficult role as Ziggy’s Turkish/Muslim housekeeper. She does well and manages to imbue a role that could have fallen so easily into dull stereotype with grace and dignity. Her strongest scene is when her character gets to tell Ziggy’s father to turn off the radio in the living room because she finds Ziggy’s vitriolic racist remark’s offensive.

David Williamson also gave veteran actor Edwin Hodgemann a difficult role. Hodgemann played Ziggi’s Dad who comes to stay for a time with his son. He is a veteran of the second world war and during the play reveals a dark past. Hodgemann manages to encompass the fine balancing act in terms of sentiment that the part requires. Williamson makes use of the contrast between father and son. Ziggy’s Dad’s worked all his life as a concreter to support his family whilst Ziggy makes a motza out of shit stirring on the airwaves.

Genevieve Hegney gets the next best role as Ziggi’s wife, and also gives a strong performance. Hegney goes to town with her character. She plays an egocentric, impatient, wilful woman, some might say a perfect match for her equally egocentric husband. During the course of the play we see her endeavouring to salvage her brilliant career as a ballerina that she was forced to give up. Further reiterating this characters’ journey, Lawrence Eastwood’s set includes an exquisite ‘photo’ of her as a ballerina in the prime of her career.

Vanessa Downing plays the part of Ziggy’s psychologist sister. She’s fine in a role that doesn’t give her much range. Her character spends most of the play being a pacifier, trying to ease family tensions, and trying to explain clinical behaviours. Octavia Barron-Martin has a juicier role as Ziggy’s wayward teenage daughter. There’s plenty of range here…at one moment her character is in the midst of turbulent adolescent depression and those nobody love me blues and then in the next moment she is in top of the world telling her father how to invest his money. Yes she’s bi-polar girl…I think Andrew Tighe was hard done by in his role of minder Tony… his only defining trait was his weird presence.

About the production values. Bruce Myles direction was fast paced and tight. I liked Myles’s work with set designer Laurence Eastwood in creating smooth transitions between Ziggy’s public and private worlds. In the background was Ziggy’s recording studio, in the foreground Ziggy’s family home. Eastwood set was outstanding with Ziggy’s ultra modern, recording studio dominating the stage. Paul Charlier’s sound design suited the piece well.

The Sydney Theatre Company have already advised that they are extending the play’s season. It would appear that they have another Williamson hit on their hands. This was stimulating, entertaining theatre.

Faustus

The Working Group’s adaptation, by writer Robert Couch of Christopher Marlowe’s 1605 work ‘Doctor Faustus’, was the first play in this year’s B Sharp season at Belvoir Street.

It is 1581 in Wittenberg, Germany. Meet John Faustus, the greatest genius ever. At only twenty two he’s read every book in the world. Meet Mephistophilis; provocateur, cynic, Satan’s personal assistant. Faustus sells his soul to Mephistophilis in exchange for ever increasing knowledge.

This however isn’t your every day purchase. The titanic clash of these two opposites explodes over medieval Europe. Impestuous and passionate, Faustus shatters every barrier the wily devil could create. Defiant to the end, he fights for existence itself.

This Working Class production, its second production as part of a B Sharp season after ‘Knives in Hens’ in 2002, was a vibrant, colourful night at the theatre. About the two leads…I loved one..wasn’t too keen on the other . Amie McKenna was great in her primary role as Mephistophilis (all the actors doubled at some time during the play). She was a feisty, cunning devil. (I loved her bright, bright red high heeled shoes). I wasn’t too keen on Eden Falk as Faustus. This was too big and showy a performance for such an intimate space.

The material to the play was basically serious but director Joseph Couch incorporated some nice comic touches especially through actor Paul Ashton who played Robyn. Couch also imbued the play with a strong theatricality with the use of a large prop box on stage which actors could ‘dip’ into to change or add to their roles. There was some poignant scenes such as when Mephistophilis confronts Faustus with a war scene. It is a problem scene for Faustus who wants to see and know everything, and yet confronted with a dark scene from life isn’t too impressed.

I enjoyed the play’s slow reveal of how cunning Mephistophilis is and how much of what she puts Faustus through has been staged by her-in fact it is a source of much of the play’s fun. This dynamic that runs through the play is rounded up exquisitely at the end with Amie McKenna as Mephistophilis coming to the centre of the stage, and folding her arms and saying ‘well’.

Summing up, The Working Group’s production ‘Faustus’ represented a good start to Belvoir’s B Sharp 2005 season.

Breath Of Life

I caught David Hare’s play ‘The Breath of Life’ as it passed through Belrose’s Glen Street Theatre in mid March whilst in the midst of its national tour (Hit productions). The production has been directed by Kate Cherry and stars Helen Morse and Kirsty Child. It is interesting to note that fhe London premiere of the play, Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith were the featured players.

With ‘The Breath of Life’ the brilliant British playwright chose a highly charged situation, featuring the meeting of a wife and the other woman. Helen Morse plays the other woman, Madeline Palmer, a retired curator and self reliant woman who has her own place on the Isle of Wight. The action begins when the wife, Frances Beale, played by Kirsty Child, pays a visit to her. Beale is a novelist who has recently had a lot of success with her writing. Through the course of a single night, the two women sift through their memories,dreams, regrets and decisions, unearthing answers to painful questions they would have prefered to leave alone.

I enjoyed Kate Cherry’s production of yet another fine David Hare play. What were the elements that stuck out?! I thought Adam Gardnir’s set was quite beautiful with its depiction of Madeline’s plush, velvety Isle of Wight apartment. I lound Kate Cherry’s direction tight, and enjoyed the way the play on an emotional level started quietly but built up to a really strong climax.

Both performances were strong. Helen Morse received the main billing but I felt that Kirsty Child’s performance was just as strong and effective. There were some especially ice-breaking moments in this production. There were two moments that came to mind, and they were both given to Kirsty Child.

A scene has Frances describe in painful detail to Madeline the time when she had a major confrontation scene with her husband over his affair. Frances described in vivid detail how her husband saw Frances as a kind of perfect modern woman and how much she felt betrayed by him saying it. How could he idealise this other woman when she was doing so much for him, being a loving wife and raising their children?! One felt sure that a lot of women in the audience would be able to relate to the feelings of this woman on stage!

Frances, towards the end of the play, expresses a feeling to Madeline that crystalises a feeling that many middle aged people have. She described how when she was young she fell in love so easily and she could be spontaneous and plunge into love. Now in middle-age she felt much more reserved. there was much less impulsiveness, much more guardedness. The feelings just weren’t the same. There was too much history.

Summing up, I found David Hare’s ‘The Breath Of Life’ a touching. reflective play that was given a strong and eloquent local production.

Lawyer Lawyer

Popular fringe playwright Tony Laumberg has a new play on in Sydney. The play, his fourth, is ‘Lawyer Lawyer’ and is playing the Tap Gallery in Darlinghurst. Laumberg returns to writing comedy after ‘The Lucky One’, a drama wriiten in memory of his late father, who survived the horrors of the Holocaust.

In ‘Lawyer Lawyer’ Holly Logan (Guro Brand) is a bright young lawyer in a big city law firm who can’t help telling a white lie in order to meet the firm’s newest mega-client, wealthy Italian industrialist, Marcello Rossi. As the play unfolds Holly’s life spins out of control as she desperately tries to cover up the fact that not only can’t she speak Italian but that she’s managed to lose Rossi as a client.

‘Lawyer Lawyer’ fits in to the current Sydney theatre scene as good natured, fast paced farce.
The play features Laumberg’s plethora of one liners and his trademark, anarchic humour.
in his last play, ‘The Great Divide’, the playwright had a couple of characters playing a bizarre game of Twister within the play, in the current play he has a character’s arm go out of control in a similar vein to Jim Carrey’s çlaw in ‘Liar Liar’.

Guro Brand played Holly, a woman just starting a legal career, and contending with an over-protective mother. Guro gave a natural, charming, winning performance. Jared Housemann played Danny Myers, a wannabe actor with attitude, and a man who reckons that he is a gift to the female race. This was the most richly comic role, and Jared impressed. There was some good work between Jared and Guro, as some romantic by-play happened between their characters.

Mark McCann is always a pleasure to watch, and he was effortlessly good as Holly’s boss, Bruce Dawson, and has to work hard to keep up with the feverish pace of the farce. As did Peter Demlakian as Marcello Rossi, an over sexed and over temperamental Italian businessman.

‘Lawyer Lawyer’, well directed by Richard Cotter, is playing a four week season at the Tap, and is due to close on Sunday 3rd April. It looks set to have a successful season, and should bring some healthy chuckles to audiences.

SEDUCING DR LEWIS

The French Canadian film ‘Seducing Dr Lewis’ was one of my favourite films of the year thus far.
Francois Pouliot’s direction was first class, and the cast backed up their director with strong performances. The scenario had a lot of appeal- a small town, battling seaside community is desperately in need of a lift. A corporation has offered to build a new factory for the town, with all the jobs that that would offer, if they can organise a Doctor to work full-time within the community. The quirky local mayor and the towns’ people get in on the case to seduce a Doctor to take on the onerous role. Thieir target is quirky Montreal general practitioner, Dr Lewis.

The feature of this film was its effortless charm. Just to give you a taste of what I mean there is a scene where the locals, who have no knowledge of the game, stage a game of cricket for the benefit of Dr Lewis just to make him feel at home. It becomes more than a little problematic when the good Doctor wants to join in!

‘Seducing Dr Lewis’ has been compared to the American film ‘Doc Hollywood’ starring Michael J. Fox. Sure the two films have a similar storyline, both depicting a marginalised community who go out of their way to entice a Doctor to service its community. (I guess it shows how contemporary cinema tries to reflect social issues). More to the point however, for its charm and deft touch, this French- Canadian production comes out well ahead.

Short and Sweet 2005

Sydney is in the midst of short play fever at the moment with the annual ‘Short and Sweet’ Festival that reaches a climax on Friday 25th February with a Gala Final and Awards night. I caught up with the Festival at the Seymour Centre in the last week of January.

Program B Week 1 featured some eleven plays of widely varying subject matter, a mixture of hits and misses. My hit list….one of Sydney’s best actresses Kate Mulvany came up with a clever , anarchic, comic piece, ‘Naked Ambition’. The ambition of a pretty, young woman is do a streak of the cricket ground for Australia. Kate Box gives a great performance as the peculiar woman who covers herself with the Aussie flag but also has a crush on Brian Lara! …Another strong comic piece was Christopher Johnson’s piece ‘The Bar’. Guro Brand plays a young woman trying to fight her partner’s – a wonderful Mark McCann, addiction to chocolate. The pace is frenetic as McCanworks himself into a lather trying to enjoy his chocolates.

Our playwrights came up with some other interesting material; Chloe Schwank’s ‘Playing Dirty’ used as its springboard the gang rape crisis that swamped the Bulldog Rugby League team last year. The difference is that with Schwank’s play the genders are reversed with the players/rapists being women. Then there was Yasmine Clement’s quirky comic piece, ‘The Waiting Room’. How was this for an original scenario?! The play starts with a bridal party sitting patiently in the emergency ward of a local hospital waiting to hear about the fate of their Maid of Honour wounded in a struggle for the bride’s bouquet during the reception.

Summing up, the night featured some imaginative stuff from local writers combined with some good and committed acting. It will be interesting to see whether any of the night’s short theatre bytes will make it into the final and be voted the sweetest on the 25th.

Warren Mitchell and Alf Garnett in…..

If there is such a thing as a sure thing then the Ensemble Theatre has one with its new show ‘Warren Garnett and Alf Mitchell in…’. The show amounts to an evening with the great British comedian and raconteur Warren Mitchell.
The play was divided into two distinctive Acts.
Act 1 was Alf Garnett in full force. The performance started with the old warhorse ranting and raving about all things racist and narrow minded, seated at a desk that was covered with a British flag. Pianist Arnold Butcher shared the stage with him, and provided occasional backing.

The ‘reincarnation’ of Alf Garnett was a hit with the audience. I imagine that many people will come to see the show just to have one more contemporary ‘hit’ of Alf. Alf’s strange, illogical view of the world has become ever more obnoxious and embarrassing.

After the break, Warren Mitchell walked out on stage in ‘something more comfortable’, a pair of shorts and a short sleeve shirt. This was Warren Mitchell as himself without his gruff alter ego. Act 2 did it so much more for me than Act 1. The show flowed so much better, Mitchell, one of the best raconteurs around, entertaining the audience wih anecdotes from his theatrical life, and recounting some of his favourite jokes with immaculate delivery.

The audience left with warm smiles on their faces. It had been a touching night in the theatre. Mitchell did not share any of his personal philisophies, still he left such a strong impression. Here was a gritty, pugnacious man, who coped with life with his resilient humour.

Mitchell spoke about how last year he suffered a stroke. The effects of the stroke were there for everyone to see. When he got up from his chair to walk around, he staggered around with the help of a walking stick. He told how, after being in hospital for two days after his stroke, he discharged himself, determined to get on with his life. His action kind of said it all, like bad old Alf, Warren Mitchell was no pushover, no man to mess around with. Formidable, and what a great showman!

Operator

As a general rule, there is at least one new David Williamson play each year at the Ensemble Theatre. The Company has started the new year with the master’s latest play simply titled ‘Operator’. There was a special quality about this year’s premiere, one of the playrights son’s, Rory Williamson, played Jake, the title role.

As the play’s action unfolds it soon becomes clear that Jake is more of an Operator than the smooth operator that Sade wrote about it in her hit song. (I noted that ‘Smooth Operator’ was the song that was played through the theatre as the audience streamed out of the theatre after the performance). Not only was Jake a smooth operator with the ladies he was also a manipulative and dishonest operator as he climbs up the work ladder. His rise is meteoric, from winning a job as a salesman in a company that supplies exercise equipemnt through sheer bravado, he manages to become the office manager and then is headhunted to work in a managerial role with a larger company. He does it in not a particularly original way…..by stabbing everyone in the back!

The bottom line is that Williamson junior has to play a nasty, perverse character. Well.. actors are supposed to enjoy the challenge of meaty roles, so I guess he has to thank his Dad for the chance…What’s more, Rory is no novice actor, with a background that includes having graduated from NIDA in 1999. Rory shares the stage with a fine group of actors; Henri Szeps plays the Company’s CEO, Douglas, Amanda Crompton is Douglas’s slinky personal assistant, Francine, Melissa Gray plays Douglas’s niece and office worker, Irena, Michael Ross is office manager, Alex, and Katrina Milosevic plays Jake’s co-worker, Melissa. The Ensemble’s Artistic Director Sandra Bates has again taken up the mantle and adds another Williamson play to her directing credits.

It is common knowledge in theatrical parlance that a new Williamson play is box office gold. Prior to opening night the play’s season was already well booked. There was a strong, positive response to the play on its premiere, with both the playwright and the director being brought onto the stage to share the warm applause from the audience.

It is the night after the ‘euphoria’ of opening night and I have had time to pare down my own thoughts about the play. I rate the play as a clever, solid, entertaining example of popular theatre, aided by a strong production. It didn’t have that x factor to make it memorable. There was nothing particularly new in the story Williamson told. The story of a ruthless corporate climber brought back flashes for me of Louis Nowra’s ‘The Temple’ at the Sydney Theatre Company that starred Colin Friels. There was, in fact, something quite melodramatic about the play and Jake’s character, and it felt at times the audience were on the verge of hissing and booing. Jake’s character wasn’t so far removed from say Charles Dickens’s Uriah Heep’ or Moliere’s ‘ Tartuffe’. The thing that made the play work was the skill with which Williamson told his story, and of-course there was his flair with his one liners.

A play is not a Williamson play without our most popular playwright firing some broad-shots at selected targets. With ‘Operator’, Williamson has plenty of jibes at the shonkiness ofd the fitness industry. I loved it, and one could sense the audience enjoying the frequent reference to the latest fitness equipment that came out on the market, promising the world, selling like hotcakes, and then people getting cold feet when they realise it really doesn’t make a difference. Another Williiamson target was popular psychology. There was a number of scenes where a characters attempted to have a showdown with another character and started with, ‘when you do this…it makes me feel’, and the response by the other character is, ‘you’ve done a course haven’t you’. Sure, the line got laughs, but personally it was more than a little cheap and cynical.

To end up, a note about the performances. Rory did rise to the occasion and gave a confident, charged performance as the Maciavellian Jake. The stand-out for me however was the performance by Michael Ross as Alex. Michael has been a regular performer at the Ensemble for many years. Always a reliable performer, his work on opening night showed him at the top of his craft.

Daylight Atheist

The Sydney Theatre Company has kicked off its 2005 season with New Zealand writer Tom Scott’s play ‘The Daylight Atheist’, directed by Adam Cook.
The play is a one hander featuring Max Cullen, one of our most celebrated actors. Cullen plays Dan Moffat, a bitter and bombastic drunk who, despite having been married and having sired six children, ends up living out his life in a bachelor room. The playwright has written the play out of his childhood memories and has based the character of Moffat on his late father.

The audience sees Moffat reflecting on the journey of his life from his childhood in Northern Ireland, migration to New Zealand, service in the war, work in the shipping industry, and his difficult marriage and family life. The plays’ title refers to Moffat’s dislike of night and darkness from his childhood. As Moffat says, during the day I don’t need God, at night I need him desperately.

I’ll say straight off that this was not one of my peak experiences in the theatre, it was more in the mid range. I found Max Cullen in fine form, though he stumbled over his lines are a little. Cullen is one of our theatrical treasures, and has that trait that all good performers have, he holds an audience in the palm of his hand. I found the portrait of Dan Moffat to be a poignant one. It was the study of yet another man broken down by alcohol abuse. The tide of his life went against him. He was faced with his unhappy marriage, and didn’t have the nouse to turn things around.

I didn’t find Moffat a very sympathetic character. More to the point, I found him quite an insulting person. I’m really put off by men who put down their own wives, calling his wife Dingbat, and one of his own children, Egghead. When I heard these nicknames, part of my heart separated from the play and never returned! Scott’s a good writer, if only he had written about a more appealing subject, but then perhaps he had to exorcise the demons!

The most remarkable feature of the production was Dean Hill’s outstanding set design that so brought home Moffat’s desolate existence. The rain coming through the holes in the ceiling… the crooked blinds…the power cables running everywhere in the room, and continuously having to switch power points on and off to get simple things to work, such as boiling the kettle. In the Sydney Theatre Company’s program it is noted that Hill’s inspiration for the set was the late, great artist Francis Bacon’s studio apartment.

Talk to Her

In Pedro Aldomovar’s typically unorthodox and striking ‘Talk to me’ two men, Benigno and Marco, struggle to fight against the forces of desire and mortality.
Much of the power of Aldomovar’s Academy Award winning film comes from paralleling the behavior of two men trapped in the same situation.
Benigno and Marco befriend themselves when they met in a private clinic where they are both tending their women, Alicia and Lydia, who lie prostrate, in hospital beds, in comas. Benigno is a nurse at the clinic whilst Marco spends all his time there.
The men are desperately in love with their women. Benigno loves the beauty and delicacy of ballerina, Alicia, whilst Marco is subsumed by the uncompromising, wild spirited nature of bullfighter Lydia. The men display a primal tenderness to the women.
Somewhere along the line, and this is where the films mystery lies, Marco manages to cut himself distance from Lydia, whereas the boundaries between Benigno and Alicia tragically dissolve.
My take on ‘Talk to Her’, a fine and sensitive film from one of contemporary cinemas finest directors.

Taking Sides

A couple of years ago Marian Street theatre (sadly no longer) put on a powerful production of British playwright Ronald Harwood’s ‘Taking Sides’. Paddington’s Chauvel cinema has been running a successful season of Istvan Szabo’s film version that cuts even deeper.
Szabo, most famous for the Academy Award winning ‘Mephisto’, has always been fierce and uncompromising. No wonder, he chose Harwood’s play!
In the Allies post Second World War attempt to bring guilty Germans to justice, American Major Steve Arnold (Harvey Keital) is given the commission of investigating whether the brilliant German conductor Dr Wilhelm Furtwangler (Stellan Skarsgaard) has a case to answer for. How far did his allegiances with the Nazi Party go?!
In a small office high up in what was the old Opera House, Major Arnold, along with associates, Lieutenant David Wills and secretary Emma, is desperate to disrobe the Emperor, Dr Furtwangler. Furtwangler was a leading figure during the Nazis period. He was one of the Nazi pin-up boys, their leading conductor.
As I sat through ‘Taking Sides’ it struck me how angry Harwood’s story was. Through the narrative it is established that Furtwangler did have a lot to answer for. More than anything it was his superior attitude that Major Arnold rages about. Like many artists before and after him, Dr Furtwangler had the attitude that he was a class above the rest of humanity.
Like a burst of lightning, Arnold strikes at the conductor that the burden of guilt for the massacres that took place in the camps rests on his shoulders as much as anyone else’s. We are all responsible for each other.
In the leading role, Harvey Keital gave one of his strongest performances, in a role that was clearly close to his heart.

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