Monday, January 26, 2009

Being Human series premieres in UK

Remember my excited post from last year about the excellent pilot episode for UK drama/genre series Being Human, about the tribulations of a vampire, a werewolf and a ghost sharing a house together in Bristol? Well, episode one of the new series commissioned by the Beeb powers that be (partially recast due to scheduling issues) premiered in the UK on Sunday night.

Ladies and gentlemen, start your torrents!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Review: Absinthe at Spiegelworld

Now showing as part of the entertainment line-up at the 2009 Australian Open, Absinthe is a circus-burlesque show, of the sort made famous by The Famous Spiegeltent's La Clique. Like that show, Absinthe is also staged in a Spiegeltent, and also features a line-up of performers whose routines are edgy and erotic.

Unlike La Clique, however, Absinthe isn't especially good.

The faults begin with the Gazillionaire, the mustachioed MC whose belligerent comedy is of the confrontational kind. His hectoring humour lacks style and panache, and struck me as too American to translate well locally.

Another problem with the show is its lack of cohesion; the assortment of acts don't flow well. Too, the overall standard of work lacks subtlety and style, especially in comparison to La Clique. The strap act by the muscular, shaven-headed Adil Rida is a case in point: he is impressive, but his act seems driven more by brute strength rather than refined artistry. A hip-hop style robot dance by Kenichi seemed woefully out of place, while one of the two real burlesque acts we were treated to seemed hopelessly tame by local standards, being neither especially erotic nor particularly ironic.

That said, there were some splendid acts in the show. A burlesque act by Julie Atlas Muz incorporating an especially animated severed hand was both naughty and funny (although she has since been dropped from the show after orders on high - apparently Muz is too sexy for the tennis!); Duo Sergio's muscular balancing act was aesthetically and artistically pleasing; and Olaf Triebel's hand balance act was poised, poetic and breathtaking. The penultimate act, the acrobatic Anastasini Brothers, in which the younger of the two boys flipped, rolled and summersaulted atop his teenaged brother's feet, was jaw-droppingly entertaining indeed.

Overall, I'd be hard pressed to recommend Absinthe, unless you're already planning to attend the Australian Open and have an hour and $20 spare. It's far from sophisticated, but for that reason it may well please the average tennis-goer, for whom it may well be cutting edge entertainment. More arts-literate audiences might want to give it a miss.

Absinthe at Spiegelworld: the Australian Open until January 1.

Of words and war

Although well known in the Sydney theatre scene, Socratis Otto is relatively unknown in Melbourne. But with the actor preparing for his Melbourne debut, in a new production of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck at the Malthouse, that is about to change.

Left unfinished when Büchner died in 1837, Woyzeck – a searing critique of the dehumanising nature of war – was first performed in 1913. Otto first encountered the play at university, some 16 years ago, and says he’s never forgotten it.

“It kind of reminded me of the big Shakespearean plays like Hamlet, because it’s such an epic and a tragedy. There’s its theme – revenge – and you have this pure soul who is bombarded by everyone else’s disillusionment with themselves… I always remembered it.”

Based on a true story, Woyzeck focuses on Otto’s character: a young soldier driven mad by his commanding officers’ exploitation and cruelty.

“It’s exactly what happens to a soldier,” the actor explains, “what the rules and mechanisms of being a soldier in a battalion are, the results of that, the pressures of that, post-traumatic stress disorder, all that stuff. It’s quite relevant in terms of how soldiers behave with one another and what they do to one another; how they feel about the enemy … that we don’t even acknowledge another man as a human being: he’s an enemy and therefore he must be exterminated. How that seeps into other people’s minds even when they’re actually brethren in a battalion.”

There are strong parallels between Otto’s part in Woyzeck and one of his best-known role to date, that of George Dyer, the suicidal rough trade lover of English artist Francis Bacon in Stephen Sewell’s Three Furies. Like Woyzeck, the story of George Dyer is a working class tragedy, but according to Otto, the plays’ elements of social criticism are not what most attract him.

“I think it’s more with working particular people,” he says thoughtfully. “This sounds weird or silly, but the people that were involved in Three Furies … and the people who are involved with Woyzeck are really, really exciting and innovative and really inspiring people, and it just happens that they’ve chosen these works.

“You do things, you have to do things when you first become an actor in this country; you kind of go for anything and everything that you can. Sometimes they’re horrible experiences, but you need to; but ultimately you start to think, ‘You know what? I’m going to pass on that because I actually don’t want to spend six weeks or three months working with people or ideas that aren’t challenging enough’.

“And when you’ve got people like [Three Furies director] Jim Sharman, who’s a legend, he’s subverting theatre by doing Three Furies the way he is, and now this … Of course Woyzeck is a different thing, it’s a kind of rock’n’roll show as well, but it’s interesting. Maybe they [the directors] think of me as fitting into those roles a bit more easily? I dunno, dude.”

Directed by Malthouse Theatre Company’s Artistic Director Michael Kantor, this version of Woyzeck is a truly international production: an English translation of an Icelandic production of the play, which premiered in London in 2005 and features new songs composed by Australia’s Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. It’s an exciting blend of talents, and the opportunity to work again with Kantor is one Otto did not want to pass up.

“I’ve worked with Michael before and I really like his… his… he’s just unafraid to keep pushing boundaries and testing himself; he’s just not safe at all. He likes taking risks. And Tim Rogers is in it! He’s a cool dude. And you can’t say no to playing a character like Woyzeck.”

Ironically, despite the successful career he has had since graduating from the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) in 2000, acting was never Otto’s childhood dream.

“I always knew I wanted something to do with the creative arts, whether it was writing, making my own projects, performing. Performing is actually the one I least thought I’d pursue, I don’t know why. I think the arts … sort of encouraged me to be expressive, I guess.”

This isn’t to say his parents discouraged expression, he quickly adds.

“I think my folks kind of, well, they always allowed us to do what we wanted but I think they hoped it would be a bit more stable, and something that would bring a bit more financial gain to us, or security,” he laughs.

“I think because I listened to so much rock music and heavy stuff that my dad would always just not understand that, and he’d be like ‘What are you doing dude, you’re listening to all this…’ He’d hate it, and he sort of thought I was on the way out or something. Music just sort of grounded me for some reason.”

Woyzeck at the Malthouse Theatre, January 31 – February 28.

This interview originally appeared in MCV #420 on Thursday January 22.

A sneak peak at the MQFF

Screening the best in new local and international LGBT cinema this March, the 19th Melbourne Queer Film Festival (MQFF) will showcase movies for every taste, from heart-pounding horror films to thought-provoking documentaries.

Although most of the program is still under wraps, Festival Director Lisa Daniel has given CANVAS a sneak preview of some of the films that will screen this year.

Opening night on Wednesday March 18 will see audience members treated to Tom Gustafon’s delightful Were the World Mine (pictured above), a magical high school musical in which unhappy gay student Timothy (Tanner Cohen) discovers a secret recipe for a love potion encoded in the pages of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Naturally, he uses it to make his school’s homophobes fall in love with each other!

“It’s very, very similar to High School Musical,” comments Daniel. “Think that kind of vein, take out Zack Efron, bump in a lovely-looking boy and that’s pretty much the opening night film. It’s lots of fun, great music; a really good crowd pleaser, I think.”

Another film that’s sure to win hearts is Swedish director Ella Lemhagen’s finely observed drama Patrik 1.5, which Daniel says she was lucky to secure at all.

“It was really hard to get because the distributors were really playing hardball with it, because I think it’s going to be pretty big.

“It’s about two gay guys who try and adopt what they think is a young baby, but there’s a bit of typo in their adoption papers and they end up getting a 15-year-old boy who’s homophobic and quite aggressive and has had a lot of social problems. It’s a really interesting take on modern gay stories. The gay partnership is just taken for granted; there’s no coming out drama, it’s just about stuff that’s very modern and relevant for contemporary audiences.”

With its striking cinematography, complex characters and assured acting, Patrik 1.5 will be a strong contender for the festival’s Audience Award for Best Film, a $5,000 cash prize sponsored by FQ Films.

On the documentary front, festival-goers can look forward to David Rothmiller’s For My Wife… which Daniel describes as “an American documentary … about the birth of an activist” and nominates as one of her personal favourites.

After the tragic death of her wife, Charlene Strong was thrust into the spotlight, becoming a powerful voice for the equal rights of same-sex couples and their families. Her advocacy led to the passage of Washington State’s historic Domestic Partnership legislation.

“She basically has to get permission from [her in-laws] to get permission to see her own wife, because she doesn’t carry around marriage papers and the hospital don’t accept that she’s the wife. So by the time she gets the permission her partner has basically died. And then to make matters worse, she has similar problems at the funeral home, who also treat her badly.

“And from there she became involved in all sorts of activist groups and managed to get all sorts of laws changed around visiting hospitals for partners, that sort of thing. It’s just really inspiring. It had me riveted from the start.”

The festival will also be screening Ghosted, a “lesbian thriller” from director Monica Treut.

“We seem to have a lot of violent films this year,” Daniel observes. “There’s a couple of horror films, and a British film which we’re having the world premiere of called Shank.”

Directed by Simon Pearce, Shank is a confronting story of gang violence and conflicted sexuality, with its main character, Cal (Wayne Virgo) a violent young scally who is conflicted about his sexuality, and afraid to act on his feelings for his best mate, Jonno (Tom Bott).

Coupled with other films in the MQFF program, it indicates an increasing engagement with genre by contemporary queer filmmakers, and a move away from the blandly uplifting stories of the past.

“What I think they’re doing is saying, ‘Look, we’ve had enough of a couple of decades of feel-good stories about gays like Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss and Adam and Steve’,” Daniel says.

“They’re still around, those sorts of films, but a lot more filmmakers are doing really interesting stories where the gay characters aren’t really nice; sometimes they’re just real, like the rest of us. Instead of fluffy Will and Grace types, they’re flawed and they’re complex and they don’t always do the right thing. For me, for my personal taste, it’s a welcome relief.”

The 19th annual Melbourne Queer Film Festival runs from March 18 - 29. Program available from February 25, tickets on sale February 26. Festival members are able to purchase MQFF tickets one week earlier than the general public. Go to for membership details.

This article first appeared in MCV #420, Thursday January 22.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


Two plays in two nights, both older works, both leaving me with very different impressions...

Robert Chesley's two-man play Jerker - A Pornographic Elegy with Redeeming Social Values made its controversial debut as a radio play in August 1986, and was staged at Hollywood's Celebration Theatre later that same year.

This new production for Melbourne's Midsumma Festival at Gasworks Arts Park opened on Thursday night, and is directed by Gary Abrahams, on a set consisting of two closely nestled single beds and their attendant lamps and telephones, with sound design by Kelly Ryall, lighting by Danny Pettingill, and costumes by Micka Agosta (who was also the costume designer for Holding the Man).

The play's full title, which is not used here, is also a deft summary of its plot: Jerker or The Helping Hand, A Pornographic Elegy with Redeeming Social Value and A Hymn to the Queer Men of San Francisco in Twenty Telephone Calls, Many of them Dirty.

In brief, Chesley's play is a love story between two men who never meet, played out over a series of telephone calls that start out as phone-sex but end up as frank and heartfelt exchanges about life, loss, intimacy and desire.

It's a fascinating period piece, capturing the response of gay men on the front line of a viral war in the first, terrifying years of the AIDS pandemic, when the young and the beautiful were dying in the thousands in the gay mecca of San Francisco, and the survivors were exploring ways to express their desire safely and securely.

In many ways, the legacy of that response is with us still today, in the cybersex that thousands of gay and bi men have every day and night around the world thanks to Manhunt, Gaydar, and the many sites like them.

J.R. (played by the director, Abrahams) initiates the calls to Bert (Russ Pirie), which start out explicit and end up heartfelt. Although frank, funny and raunchy at times, the play's progression into an isolated intimacy is rapid, and I soon found myself hooked; hoping its characters would meet up to continue their revelations in person.

At its heart, the play is about a fight for survival by the newly emerged gay culture which flowered in the 1970s: a fight for survival, a fight against fear, and a fight for legitimacy. As Bert says, as he contemplates what gay men of his generation were losing due to the impact of AIDS:

[E]veryone's putting it down nowadays. "The party's over! The party's over!" Well, fuck it all, no! That wasn't just a party! It was more: a lot more, at least to some of us, and it was connected to other parts of our lives, deep parts, deep connections.... For me, for a lot of guys, it; and it was loving.... And I don't regret a single moment of it: not one.... It was love. And...a virus can't change that; can't change that fact.

That fight for survival is embodied by the character of J.R., who reveals himself, at one point, to be documenting the lives of his peers; and by the simple fact that we're watching this play being re-staged, 23 years after its debut, says to me that it's a fight that we won, though not without great losses.

This production of Jerker is not perfect, with the staging feeling at time restricted, due to the necessity of the actors having to share a confined space but never - or almost never - coming together. (They do cum together, however - numerous times). Some will find elements of the script, such as a fantasy about consensual incest, confronting; and others may question the plot's acute lack of conflict, thinking it drains the work of drama, but for me the drama of Jerker comes from knowing the world its characters live in and are responding to.

The opening night performances didn't seem to quite hit the emotional mark they were aspiring to, but the actors came close, which suggests that this play will strengthen as the season progresses; and with a one-hour running time it certainly didn't outstay its welcome.

Jerker - A Pornographic Elegy with Redeeming Social Values at Gasworks Arts Park until February 7.

* * *

Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth is the debut production for a new Melbourne theatre company, Inside Job Productions. Directed by Nicholas Pollock, it stars Ashley Zukerman, Nicole da Silva and Ben Geurens (pictured left to right; photo by Pia Johnson). The impressive if ostentatious set is designed by Andrew Bailey, with lighting by Govin Ruben, sound by Robert Stewart and costumes by Mel Page.

Set in 1982, at the dawn of the Reagan era in the somewhat squalid New York apartment of the 21 year old slacker Dennis Ziegler, This Is Our Youth focuses on the interactions between Ziegler (Guerens), his 19 year old buddy Warren (Zukerman) and Jessica (da Silva) a friend of Ziegler's girlfriend with whom Warren is enamoured.

Warren turns up on Dennis' doorstep having been kicked out of home by his wealthy father, from whom he's just stolen $15,000. Bickering and bantering, the pair decide to buy a large sum of cocaine and invite a few girls over, introducing Jessica to this story about college drop-outs who are reacting against their parent's values but caught up in the 'greed is good' mentality of the excessive 80s.

It's not a play I especially enjoyed, though I suspect I would have a more positive reaction to a more competent production.

Accents were inconsistent among the cast, ranging from solid to virtually non existent - a fault which especially irked my companion on the night, though not something I was so bothered by, as I'd rather the actors focused on acting than their accents; I've seen too many productions where the necessity of maintaining an accent drained the passion from a performance.

As Dennis, Ben Geurens tries too hard. The character is supposed to be unlikeable, a schoolyard bully discovering that his tactics are not so effective in the real world, but Geurens' swaggering came over as brittle and unconvincing, and the dynamic between he and Ashley Zukerman felt contrived. Gearing down his performance a notch or two would have benefitted the production.

Zukerman flowered, however, once Nicole da Silva came on the scene. While he is evidently a far stronger actor than her, the chemistry between the pair brought the script to life, although a scene after interval between them that should have been downplayed was unfortunately not reigned in by director Nicholas Pollock, to the play's detriment.

Pre-interval, thanks to Zukerman and da Silva, I'd actually started to like this production. Afterwards, due to a combination of factors, I found it increasingly difficult to find much I liked about this production.

Subtlety and stillness would have helped this play find its feet; as it is, the manic pace Pollock has imposed works against the script and the story.

This Is Our Youth is on at 45 Downstairs until Sunday February 1.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Stuff, no nonsense

Fuck, it's already the 13th of January and I still haven't blogged about some of the great art and performances I saw in late December! Where does the time go? (Answer: while you're sprawled on the couch watching DVDs, Watts - or have you forgotten you watched all 13 episodes of Underbelly on your week off from work?)

Allow me to be concise for once. Or, to put it another way (and to channel my seven year old self): Things What I Did - both on my holidays, and more recently.

How cool is the new National Portrait Gallery in Canberra? Answer: cool as fuck! Our latest national institution had only been open for a couple of weeks when I visited it with my mum the day before Christmas, but crowds have been flocking to the place, and I can see why. It's a superb collection that's manages to do a pretty good job of representing Australia's diverse history, highlighting the famous, the infamous and the everyday citizen simultaneously. From contemporary video portraits of unheralded heroes and the Nick Cave portrait by Howard Arkley shown above, to busts of boring Prime Ministers and photographs of unknown cabinet-makers, this place has it all, and will definitely warrant a return visit some stage down the track...

Over the road from the Portrait Gallery is the National Gallery, currently hosting an exhibition of works by Degas. The exhibition spans his early portraits through to late-career sculptures, with numerous sketches and studies to illustrate the way Degas developed his often-remarkable sense of composition. Not the greatest exhibition I've ever seen - certainly it felt somewhat modest in size and depth compared to some of the NGV's winter blockbusters - but solidly presented, if a little overly reverential in its approach.

Once I was back in Melbourne, and when I wasn't relaxing on the couch watching DVDs, I went along to the opening night of Billy Elliot the Musical at Her Majesty's Theatre on New Year's Eve. Given how bored I was by Wicked, and how little I enjoyed Priscilla, Queen of the Desert - The Musical and Spamalot, I went into this show with low expectations, and walking out grinning from ear to ear. It was fantastic! Literally a show where I laughed, cried, and was swept up by both the stagecraft and the story (by original screenplay writer Lee Hall and director Stephen Daldry, with songs by Elton John).

The production has managed to keep both the politics and personal drama of the original 2000 film, even beefing them up on some occasions (as in the second act opening after interval, which features a giant malevolent Maggie Thatcher menacing the cast); and boasts some wonderful sequences, such as a scene where Billy and his young mate Michael dance accompanied by giant, garish frocks while singing about the importance of being an individual; a startling and effective merging of riot and dance training; and a scene where Billy imagines dancing with his adult self that had me wiping away tears.

I'm not a big musical queen, but I loved this show. Hopefully you will too.

Most recently, on Sunday I went to the NGV at Fed Square to (finally!) check out the Rennie Ellis photographic exhibition No Standing, Only Dancing - inspired, but I could have happily viewed an exhibition that was twice the size - and then strolled on to ACCA, where I was enraptured and enthralled by the current exhibition The Water Hole by Swiss artists Gerda Steiner and Jorg Lenzlinger. A site-specific fantasia of found objects that create an entirely artificial garden in the main gallery at ACCA, the exhibition also features immersive video art and the most sublime mobiles I've ever seen - one of which is a meteorite. Check it out!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The worst film ever made?

Feast your eyes upon the Baldwin-starring horror which is - dum-dum-dum - SHARK IN VENICE!

Sunday, January 04, 2009

And the new Doctor is...

Ladies and gentlemen and non gender-specific lifeforms, please put your psuedopods together for Matt Smith, the youngest-ever actor chosen to play the role of Doctor Who. More details about Smith here and here. And you know what? I think he's going to be great. He's certainly got that eccentric, otherworldly charisma that all the best Doctors have shared...

Piers Wenger, head of drama at BBC Wales, said that as soon as he had seen Smith's audition he "knew he was the one".

"It was abundantly clear that he had that 'Doctor-ness' about him," he said. "You are either the Doctor or you are not. It's just the beginning of the journey for Matt.

"With Steven Moffat's scripts and the expertise of the production team in Cardiff behind him, there is no one more perfect to be taking the Tardis to exciting new futures when the series returns in 2010."

David Tennant, of course, still has four specials to go, shooting on which starts shortly. Then, in 2010, we'll get to see Smith make his debut as our favourite Time Lord. It's a fair while to wait - anyone got a time machine I can borrow?

Of course, in the interim, you can catch a couple of Smith's appearances in such shows as Party Animals (currently screening on the ABC) - but one of my favourite appearances so far is in a deleted scene from the fantastically black comedy In Bruges, in which Smith plays a younger version of Ralph Fiennes' character Harry Waters. Interested? You can watch it here....

Saturday, January 03, 2009

In 24 hours we'll know who the new Who is...

This Saturday night at 5:35pm (UK time) the BBC will announce the name of the actor who is to play the latest incarnation of our favourite Time Lord on Doctor Who, once the character regenerates later this year with the departure of David Tennant from the role.

In a special edition of Doctor Who Confidential (the behind-the-scenes program which usually details the makings-of the long-running TV program) entitled The Eleventh Doctor - retitled from The Ten Doctors only a few hours ago - the BBC will look at the various actors to have played the role since the program's inception in 1963, and now promise that:

The name of the actor who will replace David Tennant in Doctor Who will be announced on Saturday.

Tennant said in October that he would stand down from the show after filming four special episodes in 2009.

His replacement - the eleventh Doctor of the TV series - will be revealed in a Doctor Who Confidential programme on BBC One at 17:35 on 3 January.

The casting was confirmed over Christmas and filming for the 2010 series begins in the summer.

Read the full details here.

Now all I have to do is reign in my excitement for another day. Squeeeee!