Little Nell

The story that the late, great British playwright Simon Gray tells with his last major piece, ‘Little Nell’, paints a very different portrait of one of the great figures of English literature, Charles Dickens. Through his many great works such as ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Great Expectations’, Dickens came across as a much lauded figure of the Victorian age, and a holder of the high moral ground, ‘Little Nell’ takes him off this pedestal, and brings him crashing down to earth.

Gray’s play, a dramatisation of Claire Tomalin’s biographical work, ‘The Invisible Woman’, gives an account of Dickens illicit affair with young actress, Nelly Ternan. The affair started when Dickens, at 45, was already a celebrated author, and Ternan was just 17 years old. Dickens fell for Ternan whilst she was acting in one of his plays entitled, ‘The Frozen Deep’. After the season finished, Dickens set Nelly up as a ‘kept woman’ in a house in Slough, and sent his wife away, claiming that she was mad, and brought in his sister-in-law as the housekeeper and carer of his ten children. The secret affair between Dickens and Little Nelly lasted some 13 years.

Gray deftly structures the play around a meeting that Nelly’s son, Geoffrey, arranges in the chambers of lawyer Sir Henry Dickens, of Charles’s sons, some years after his mother has died. Geoffrey has arranged the meeting to try and uncover the truth as to what was the real nature of the relationship between his mother and the legendary author. Geoffrey gets more than he bargained for!

The play features a split level set designed by Brian Nickless. The audience sees the meeting between Sir Henry and Geoffrey unfold on the upper level whilst on the ground level major scenes from the past are played out. The centerpiece of Nickless’s set was a painting of the London-scape of the time, that ‘hung’ in Sir Henry’s chambers.

Mark Kilmurry’s production for the Ensemble Theatre served Gray’s strong drama well. The style was welcoming with vivacious actress Olivera Jovanoska, playing a working class woman of the times, welcoming audience members into the theatre, and providing something of a narrator role over the course of the play.

Mark Lee and Katie Fitchett performed strongly as Charles and Nelly, aided well by a good supporting cast with Drayton Morley, in particular, impressing, as the unfortunate Geoffrey whose curiosity is cruelly satiated.

‘Little Nell’ is playing the Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli until March 14.

AFTERPLAY

During mid January NIDA’s Parade Theatre has been home to the Gate theatre, Dublin’s two week long celebration of the work of premiere Irish playwright, Brian Friel.

The season featured three of Friel’s finest plays, ‘Faith Healer’, ‘Afterplay’ and ‘The Yalta Game’.

The standard of these Gate theatre productions was high.

My season favourite was ‘Afterplay’. This was a beautifully performed chamber piece of a poignant scenario.

In the appropriately titled ‘Afterplay’, Friel brings together two characters from two separate plays from the great Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov. They are Sonya, Uncle Vanya’s devoted niece, and Andrey, the henpecked brother of the three sisters. Sonya and Andrey meet in a rundown café in Moscow.

Their encounter shows two lonely, unhappy people connecting, and there seems to be some hope for them, and then the opportunity is lost. ‘Afterplay’ has a typically Chekhov scenario where his characters aren’t tough and resilient enough to tackle their demons or to achieve their dreams!

The two actors from the Gate Theatre, Dublin produce hypnotic performances. Niall Buggy’s performance was deeply etched, depicting a broken, middle-aged man, trying to make the most of his life that hasn’t worked out the way he wanted it to.

Francesca Annis’s portrayal of Sonya was also moving. Francesca portrayed Sonya as a woman tragically unable to move forward with her life, still living in the past with her unreturned love for Dr Astrov.

Robin LeFevre directed Friel’s chamber piece to perfection. Liz Asroft created a stylish set design of the Moscow café that included a beautiful ornate over-hanging chandelier.

The Gate Theatre’s production of ‘Afterplay’ plays the Parade theatre, NIDA, until the 1st February, 2009.

War Of The Roses

Care Blanchett in ‘The War Of The Roses’

The Sydney Theatre Company’s contribution to this years’ Sydney Festival is Benedict Andrews’s epic production of William Shakespeare’s The War Of The Roses, played in two parts, in an adaptation prepared by Andrews and Tom Wright, Associate Director of the Company.

Presented as four distinct acts and performed in two separate parts, (that can be seen in one long sitting or over two consecutive nights), War Of The Roses spans almost 100 turbulent years of English history by condensing eight of Shakespeare’s interrelated history plays. The play charts the course of English royal history from the melancholy of Richard 11 to the catastrophe of Richard 111.

Benedict Andrews helms a typically confronting and distinctive production. Interestingly, most of the roles of the kings are played, and played with tenacity, by actresses. The production featured a large, bare, stage, in Andrews words, ‘the ‘bare stage being the metaphoric garden where history is played out’.

The production was heavily atmospheric and symbolic with both parts of the show starting with showers of flecks raining down from the roof of the stage to adorn the hair and clothes of the tolerant cast, – in Part 1 flecks that looked like golden leaves, and in Part 2, snow-like flecks that appeared to turn dark on landing.

The play was something of a killing field’s experience, as the body count steadily rose. The killings were carried out in a highly stylized fashion, with morbid actors carrying around small flasks of red fluid as they stalked their prey, and then spraying their victims with it, signifying the killing.

The rewards of this production lay mainly with the actors who worked together well in a strong ensemble. Stand outs were:-Cate Blanchett who was compelling as the melancholic King Richard 11 who saw his power and wealth gradually slip away from him, Robert Menzies as Henry Bolingbroke, Marte Dusseldorp was striking as Margaret, and most of all, Pamela Rabe who was extraordinary in an outstanding, full blooded performance, in Act Part 2, as ‘that dog’ King Richard 111.

My main reservation lay with Andrews taking excessive liberties, especially in a scene depicting oral sex between inebriated men – that is nowhere to be seen in the Bard’s text.

Grim..very grim. ‘The War Of The Roses’ was unremittingly dark, confronting theatre. The body count just kept on climbing up over the seven hours plus of theatre. It gave credence to the Bards maxim, ‘uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’, surely a tainted chalice if ever there was one. Some who brave it may find it a challenge to last the distance.

The War Of The Roses is playing the Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay until 14th February. Bookings Sydney Theatre Company on 92501777 or sydneyfestival.org.au

The Pianist

One of the highlights of this years’ Sydney Festival theatre program is ‘The Pianist’, a stage adaptation by Mikhail Rudy from the memoirs by Wladyslaw Szpilman, currently playing upstairs at Belvoir Street theatre.

Many people are already familiar with Szpilman’s memories from the 2002 film adaptation by Roman Polanski, from a screenplay by Ronald Harwood, which took out three Academy Awards. The tagline to the film summed it up. ‘Music was his passion, survival was his masterpiece’. Once one of Europe’s most celebrated pianists, the Jewish pianist escaped a Nazi internment camp and lived out his days hiding in the ruins of buildings in his home city until the Russian liberation of Warsaw.

The upstairs Belvoir stage is shared by Sean Taylor who plays Szpilman, with the writer himself on piano, providing musical accompaniment. Rudy was inspired to conceive the adaptation as he saw parallels between his own personal story and that of Szpilman’s. He grew up in Russia under the Stalinist regime, and both his grandparents were executed for no apparant reason. Like Szpilman, what kept Rudy going was his love of music, ‘the centre of his inner life’.

Music is at the core, the heart of Rudy’s adaptation, directed by Rachael McDonald. Jo Briscoe’s set reflects this, gathered around the stage are music stands with Stephen Hawker spotlighting the stand at the centre of the stage.

Rudy achieves his goal in his play, ‘music should not be seen solely as an illustration of the text, but as a major component in dramatic development’. Whilst the narrative unfolds, Rudy, one of Europe’s finest pianists, plays excerpts from the works of Fredric Chopin and compositions by Szpilman himself.

Sean Taylor gave a fine performance as Szpilman, leading the audience through Szpilman’s disturbing, unpredictable journey.

An inspiring tribute to the power of music to sustain the spirit, ‘The Pianist’ is playing upstairs at Belvoir Street until January 27.

Short and Sweet-Opening Week 2009

The annual January festival of Short and Sweet has begun with the opening week shows being performed at the Newtown Theatre.

As always the mini play festival is a well-spring for a lot of different ideas, some more novel and interesting and better executed than others. Here are my favourites from the opening week.

Dan Clancey’s ‘Permanently Engaged’ saw two men, one an older,man, the other abit of a whipper-snipper, working on different floors of a large office block trapped in adjacent toilet cubicles, with their toilet doors jammed shut. To pass the time until they get ‘their freedom’, they exchange conversation, and find out that they are inextricably linked together.

Peter Hardy’s ‘Groundtruthing’ was a deft piece. The play was set in the withering cold of the Arctic with an ice and snow specialist sharing camp with a local as he researches the efffect of climate change in the region. The piece nicely turns on its head with the local proving to be more intuitively knowledgable.

Paul Layton’s post-modern crime fantasy ‘Am I: Killer?’ is another play with a twist. What starts out as a standard police investigation goes pear shaped when the accused person asks for the house lights to be turned on and for everyone to stop, ‘it’s only a play’.

Phoebe Hartley’s ‘The Letter’ turns on a novel dramatic device. The play starts with a young couple coming through their front door after a night out, less than happy. As an argument unfolds between the couple, the audience’s attention is drawn to the letter in the young woman’s hands. What will happen when the contents of the letter are revealed?!

Ken McBeath’s ‘Basketball Bob’ was a diverting psychological study as a young man struggles with the many different sides/voices inside him. Mcbeath gets some good laughs out of a subject which is often given a dark treatment.

All in all, this was an interesting opening week , some intriguing material however nothing with great resonance.

the next round of ‘Short and Sweet’ plays open at the Newtown theatre tomorrow/Tuesday night, the 13th January, 2009.

Noises Off

Melanie Robinson, Jordan Watt and Joe Brook in ‘Noises Off’

For their first production for 2009 the Genesian Theatre Company are putting on a production of the British playwright Michael Frayn’s evergreen 1982 comedy, ‘Noises Off’.

‘Noises Off’, the inner city Genesian Theatre Company’s first production for 2009, is blessed to be one of those plays where the idea and the execution are equally effective. Frayn ran with the idea of writing a play about ‘Nothing On’, the latest production from a third rate British touring theatre company with the emphasis coming from the frenetic action taking place between the cast and crew behind the stage.

Frayn milks the play within a play idea for plenty of laughs. This is a world full of the cast forgetting lines and cues, old actors on the bottle, actors having affairs with other, lots of opening and closing of doors, and more…

Grant Fraser’s set design features a two storey revolve which turns after each interval. ‘Noises Off’ is divided into 3 Acts; Act 1 is the fraught dress rehearsal before opening, with Act 2 the company is on the road, and we see the action from behind the stage, Act 3 we see the play from the front of the stager again, performed a few months later, and with the script having noticeably changed!

Tom Massey’s production served Frayn’s classic comedy well, and he won
good performances from his cast, who enjoyed their dual roles, playing the characters on stage, and the actors off stage.

There were some stand-outs in the cast. Henry Jennings impressed as the plays’ frazzled director Lloyd Dallas, struggling to keep the play from being a debacle, as well as dealing with the fall-out from being romantically involved with two of the women in the production. Elizabeth Campbell shone as the stressed out stage manager, Poppy, as did Jordan Watt as Phillip Brent, intent on dodging Inland Revenue.

A fun night at the theatre, ‘Noises Off’ is playing the Genesian theatre, 420 Kent Street, Sydney until the 21st February.

Tuesdays With Morrie

Glenn Hazeldine and Daniel Mitchell in ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’

The Ensemble Theatre’s first play for 2009 is an ambitious start to the year. Under the direction of Associate Artistic Director Mark Kilmurry the Ensemble theatre is putting on a production of the stage adaptation of one of the best selling memoirs of all time, Mitch Albom’s 1997 Tuesdays with Morrie.

In an inspired decision Mitch Albom, a working sports journalist at the time, put on a tape recorder to record his meetings with his old University Professor Morrie Schwartz, who was sharing his life’s wisdom, as he was going through the last stages of dying from Motor Neurone (Lou Gehrig’s) Disease.Albom transcribed and edited the tapes into book form and sent them off to a publisher, in the hope that the profits from the book would help pay the ailing Professor’s medical bills. His personal mitzvah of a book ended up selling more more than 11 million copies world-wide…

The current Ensemble production has been taken from the 2002 Off Broadway production directed by David Esbjornson and co-authored by Mitch Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher. Kilmurry’s production serves the play well and gives audiences a well staged and enriching drama.

The heart of this play is Professor Schwartz’s (1916-1995) charismatic character. Born of Jewish Russian descent he grew up in the Jewish tenements of New York City and went to become an influential and celebrated professor of sociology at Brandeis University. His flamboyant, creative and non-conformist approach inspired many of his students, and saw him live up to his own personal epitaph, ‘A Teacher to the Last’.

Many quotes and stories flow from seeing the play, including his radical concept of a living funeral which he put into practice. Seeing his doctor had given him notice of his impending death, his “’last, great journey”, he arranged for the people close to him to give him a living funeral!

The prized role of Professor Schwartz was well portrayed by Daniel Mitchell who took over the role from his father Warren after he became unavailable. Mitchell’s Professor Schwartz holds court from his favourite large brown living room armchair, often covering himself with a large shawl.

Glenn Hazeldine delivered an assured performance as Mitch Albom. The stage version sees Hazeldine’s Mitch play the role of the narrator, often addressing the audience from a raised platform above Morrie’s living room.

Included in Brian Nickless’s set design is a large, raised back-stage screen in which some of the lesson headings are transcribed. An image of a beautiful bright red Japanese maple tree stays projected on the screen, a motif for the ethereal, transient nature of life.

Towards the end of the play, the dying professor tells his favourite student, “One doesn’t die…one lives on in the hearts of everyone you have touched and nurtured while you were here”. With this latest variation on Tuesdays With Morrie, Professor Schwartz’s lives on, brighter than ever.

Tuesdays With Morrie is playing the Ensemble Theatre, 78 McDougal Street, Kirribilli until Sunday 15th February. Bookings- 99290644 or www.ensemble.com.au

BETRAYAL

David Hugh Jones’s 1983 film ‘Betrayal’, adapted by the late, great Harold Pinter from his play of the same name, is a powerful drama.

Right from the first scene it draws one in. ‘Betrayal’ starts with a very distant shot into the darkly lit living room of a house. The camera follows a couple arguing heatedly. The thing is that we follows this scene, this argument, without any sound. The only word to describe this opening scene is dark, haunting, unforgettable.

Pinter’s story, which is believed to be semi-autobiographical, describes a gut wrenching betrayal. Through the course of the film the main character, London literary agent Robert, discovers that his wife Emma is having an affair with his very best friend, book publisher, Jerry. It is a double whammy, bitter betrayal.

Famously, and to great effect, Pinter tells the story in reverse order.’Betrayal’ starts with Robert finally confronting Emma , and ends with Jerry declaring his love for Emma and embracing her. Perfect bookends to the film! And the final scene, like the opening scene, is haunting.

With ‘Betrayal’, Pinter is not only telling the betrayal story, but also authentically documents a very intense love story, that drove the two lovers on down their dark road.

David Hugh Jones’s direction is spot on. The performances are tremendous. Ben Kingsley is perfect portraying a man, icy calm on the outside, seething with tension on the inside. Jeremy Irons’s Jerry and Patricia Hodge’s Emma are two people who have let their emotions take over their lives, making for an uncertain future.

Reuben Reuben

Conti and Fabiani

In the quirky 1983 movie ‘Reuben Reuben’, Tom Conti plays Gowan McGland a well-known but penniless and past his prime Scottish poet, who gets by on the remnants of his fame, drinks excessively, beds middle-aged housewives, and falls in love with a woman (Kelly McGillis) much younger than himself.

This old classic has a lot going for it. Conti gives a tremendous performance in the lead. His Gowan McGland is such a rich, ripe character; incredibly charming…very romantic…cunning…a bit of a lost soul…a lot of a drunkard…a great wordsmith.

Gowen McGland falls in love with a beautiful young student named Geneva Spofford played by Kelly McGillis. It was McGillis’s first feature film role, she just looks stunning and gives a great performance as Reuben’s ‘later in life’ love interest. The love story is beautifully played out!

‘Reuben Reuben’ boosts a great comic scene. As is Reuben’s want he has affairs with married woman. Unfortunately his luck comes unstuck when he has to urgently seek a dentist and the dentist that he ends up seeing is the husband of one of his mistresses. Reuben sure does get a work-over (see picture above).

When it was released in 1983, the films’ main claim to fame was its very ‘left field’ ending, that whacks a fair old punch!

There is a lot more that the film has to offer which I don’t have the space to write about here. Here’s just a bit more…a lilting, poignant soundtrack…the film looks good…there are some great scenes and lines…one of them comes to mind,- Reuben saying, ‘I love writing, I just hate the paper work’! There’s a nice old country town feel to the film, and some quirky minor characters.

‘Reuben Reuben’ was directed by Robert Ellis Miller and adapted from the novel by Peter De Vries with a screenplay by Julius Epstein.

Conti and McGillis

Frost/Nixon

Frost/Nixon

Ron Howard’s new film ‘Frost/Nixon’ is a historical drama adapted for the screen by Peter Morgan from his 2006 play of the same name. Morgan’s play was an ‘inside-story’ dramatisation of the 1977 televised series of interviews that took place between British broadcaster David Frost and the disgraced former American president Richard Nixon.

The film charts the journey from when Frost first came up with the idea of doing the series to his final meeting with Nixon at Nixon’s beach house after filming had been completed. The two leads from the stage production, Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, reprise their roles for the big screen.

‘Frost/Nixon’ works very effectively as a drama, with the tension building up as the legendary broadcaster is desperate to get some admission from Nixon before filming ends. The Frost camp had tapped into the great feeling of resentment amongst many Americans that Nixon had never genuinely accepted responsibility for his actions. One of Frost’s researchers, James Reston Junior, spoke more vehemantly during the film, ‘ We want a conviction’.

With this genre of filmmaking, the richness lies in what impressions of the ‘main players’ one is left with. There were of-course many sides to both men however what most came across about Nixon was that he was a very materialistic man…a man who loved the limelight but knew that he was not liked, a trait whch made him a somewhat tragic figure….an intelligent and very skilled and astute political operator…and a man with an unmistakably imposing and formidable physical presence.

What most came across about David Frost was,- he was a born broadcaster and businessman…a hugely determined man…very charming and kind hearted but quick and sharp…a ladies man… a man who loved show business and the lifestyle that went with it.

Ron Howard’s tight direction was enchanced by a uniformly strong cast with the two leads brilliant. Michael Sheen captured all the physical mannerisms and quirkiness of Frost whilst Frank Langella gave an imposing, haunting portrayal of Nixon.

‘Frost/Nixon’ is currently playing the Dendy Newtown, Palace Norton Street, Verona, Cremorne, United Collaroy, Hoyts Broadway, Chatswood Mandarin and Cinema Paris, and Greater Union Bondi Junction.

A Disappearing Number

‘A Disappearing Number’

Simon McBurney’s production for Complicite of ‘A Disappearing Number’ presented at the Sydney Theatre in November was one of the theatrical highlights of 2008. The show combined a fantastic storyline with stunning production values.

‘A Disappearing Number’ had two primary storylines. The main storyline featured the developing collaboration in the early 20th century between two of the finest mathematicians of the century; Cambridge University don G.H.Hardy and the brilliant young Brahman mathematician from South India, Srinivasa Ramanujan. McBurney complemented this narrative with a present day storyline of the troubled relationship of a man with his maths lecturer partner. She travels to Indian in Ramanujan’s footsteps and eventually dies. He follows, to get closer to her and Ramanujan’s ghost.

‘A Disappearing Number’ was about a lot of things. It was about mathematics and beauty…about the imagination and the nature of infinity…about what is continuous and what is permanent…how we are attracted to the past and how we affect the future…how we create and how we love.

The show was conceived and directed by Simon McBurney and the Company. David Annen played Hardy, Shane Shambhu played Ramanujan, Saskia Reeves played Ruth Minnen and Firdous Bamji played Al Cooper.

‘A Disappearing Number’ played the Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay from the 19th November to the 2nd December 2008.

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