Friday, January 06, 2012


‘Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.’

When he wrote those words for a 1945 essay in The Atlantic Monthly, Raymond Chandler was describing the ideal private detective, such as his own Philip Marlowe, the protagonist of hard-boiled classics like The Big Sleep (1939) and Farewell My Lovely (1940), but they could also apply to the protagonist of Patricia Cornelius’ latest work, the site-specific performance piece, Taxi.

Created for this year’s Big West Festival, and directed by Susie Dee, Taxi sees a small audience seated in the back seat of a taxi and driven about Footscray, from busy thoroughfares and desolate riverbanks to quiet suburban back streets. Throughout the journey, as a subtle sound design broadcasts snippets of talkback radio, opera and dispatch calls, we witness the trials and tribulations of the taxi driver (the quietly charismatic Rodney Afif, in this instance) as he goes about his daily drive, encountering everyone from scammers and drunks to a potentially suicidal passenger.

This is not the first time such dramas have been created with passengers in mind – Hackney Horse at this year’s Melbourne Fringe Festival explored similar themes, albeit more confrontationally, while Robert Reid’s Empire (2004) explored Australian bigotry and anger in a parked car, with the rear-seated audience looking on – but as one would expect from an award-winning writer like Cornelius, this is a nuanced and fascinating work, which over the course of its 50 minute running time slowly allows a simple, subtle plot to emerge.

Not everything that happens is strictly by the book – the rules taxi drivers must follow regarding drunk passengers, for instance, are overlooked to ensure a dramatic resolution; and it’s unlikely that so many colourful passengers would be encountered in such close proximity, let alone in a single day – but such minor flaws don’t really impact on the structure of the piece, and certainly don’t reduce its effect.

At least half the play passes in silence, save for the soundscape and the sounds of the road, and when drama does unfold, it’s often understated. The first passenger is a young woman who shrieks with delight on her mobile phone while virtually ignoring the driver, except to order him about. Next comes a sad young woman who nurses an empty blanket as if it were a child, and who speaks no English. When the driver drops her off at a refugee referral centre, he is still forced to ask for money for the fare despite doing a good deed – a sad reminder that few people can afford to be a knight errant in this post-GFC age.

Audiences will experience different characters and different stories depending on their particular taxi driver and the route they take; and I am loathe to describe events in detail for fear of spoiling the considerable impact of this considered and engaging production. But watching the world pass by as we drove about Footscray, I suddenly began to see the world through the driver’s eyes – every person we passed was a potential passenger; everyone was a potential actor, with a story to tell.

Back at our starting point, the ride ended with a short, affecting coda – a video featuring firsthand accounts from real taxi drivers; an all too human reminder of the intrinsic truth of this work.

It’s a rare piece of theatre which changes your view of the world, even temporarily, and it’s a credit to Cornelius, Dee and their team that Taxi does just that.

Rating: 4 stars

Presented by D & Associates and the Big West Festival
Writer: Patricia Cornelius
Director: Susie Dee
Assistant Director: Nicci Wilks
Visual Media: Tamsin Sharp
Composer: Ian Moorhead
Production Manager: Bec Moore
Production Assistant: Brienna Macneish
Costume: Zoe Rouse
Cast: Rodney Afif, Angus Cerini, Ananth Gopal, HaiHa Le, Amanda Ma, Nicci Wilks and special guests throughout the season.

Departs from Bluestone Performance Hub, 10A Hyde Street, Footscray
November 16 – 26

Big West Festival
November 15 – 27

This review originally appeared at Arts Hub on November 25th 2011.

The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People premiered at the St James Theatre, London, on February 14, 1895. Following Wilde’s first trial, it closed after just 66 performances and would not be staged again until the following century.

A comedy par excellence, the play’s deliciously witty text elegantly satirises Victorian conventions – respectability, marriage, social obligations – and was described by authoritative Wilde biographer Richard Elleman as the playwright and poet’s ‘most brilliant work’.

This new production of The Importance of Being Earnest is the swansong of the Melbourne Theatre Company’s outgoing Artistic Director, Simon Phillips. His last production for the company as their AD, it is also a remount of an earlier production of the play which Phillips directed for the MTC in 1988.

Three of the cast members of that original production – Jane Menelaus, Bob Hornery and Geoffrey Rush – take on the roles of the governess Miss Prism, butlers Lane and Merriman, and the fearsome society dame Lady Bracknell respectively (other members of that influential production, including legendary thespians Frank Thring and Ruth Cracknell, are now deceased). Phillips has also resurrected the late Tony Tripp’s original set and costume design; on opening night, the set – a circular, tiled stage supporting a vast book which opens page by page to reveal elegant, black and white Beardsley-esque interiors and gardens – rightfully received its own applause.

While some opening night nerves and stumbles were apparent, overall the cast acquitted themselves well, although Patrick Brammall as Algernon Moncrieff and Toby Schmitz as Jack Worthing seemed to struggle slightly with the pace of the play and Wilde’s glittering dialogue, and were consequently outclassed by their fellow thespians. Presenting the perfect mix of guile, charm and arrogance, Christie Whelan was delightful as the Honourable Gwendolen Fairfax, as was a radiant Emily Barclay, who shone as Jack’s charming young ward, Cecily Cardew.

Menelaus as Miss Prism was excellent, and Rush – the man everyone had come to see – was a delight as Lady Bracknell. Enunciating every word with precision and subtly underplaying his role, he became the personification of a Victorian society dame instead of a parody of one.

The weakest links in the cast were Tony Taylor as the Reverend Chasuble – he seemed far too young and ineffectual in the role – and Bob Hornery in the twin roles of Algernon’s arch manservant Lane and Jack’s elderly butler, Merriman. “It is not good for one’s morals to see bad acting,” Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray, an aphorism Hornery might have considered before hamming up his Merriman quite so consistently. Mugging for a laugh once is amusing, but when the same shtick is repeated at every opportunity, it becomes grating.

Hornery’s overplayed doddering was indicative of the one real fault in the production: Phillips’ insistence on an emphasised physicality, which resulted in several jarring moments out of character with the Victorian tone of the play, – most obviously an exaggerated fight between Jack and Algernon just before interval, though a moment in which one gentleman patted the other on the arse later in the piece also jarred; it was a gesture more suited to a sporting field than a Victorian-inspired stage. At other times the physicality of the production was expressed far more gracefully, with the performers circling one another like automatons in a particularly complex and beautiful music box.

Phillips’ remounting of The Importance of Being Earnest risked being overly reverential, and consequently beautiful but lifeless, like a dragonfly trapped in amber. Instead, he has created a memorable and marvellous production of Wilde’s masterpiece: a beautifully paced, gorgeously staged work that gives free rein to Oscar’s wit and reinforces the play’s reputation as one of the best English-language comedies ever written for the stage.

Rating: 4 stars

The Importance of Being Earnest
By Oscar Wilde
Director: Simon Phillips
Assistant Director: Daniel Clarke
Original Set and Costume Designer: Tony Tripp
Set Realiser: Richard Roberts
Costume Realiser: Tracy Grant Lord
Lighting Designer: Matt Scott
Additional Music: Phoebe Briggs

Cast: Emily Barclay, Patrick Brammall, Bob Hornery, Jane Menelaus, Geoffrey Rush, Toby Schmitz, Tony Taylor, Christie Whelan

MTC Sumner Theatre
November 12 – January 14

This review originally appeared at Arts Hub on November 25th 2011.

Return to Earth

Set in Tathra, a quiet seaside town on the NSW south coast, Lally Katz’s Return to Earth tells the story of Katz-substitute Alice (Eloise Mignon) as she returns home after a mysterious absence and seeks to reconnect with the life she left behind.

Tragedy has struck in Alice’s absence, adding tension to her relationships with her mother, Wendy (Julie Forsyth), father Cleveland (Kim Gyngell), brother Tom (Tim Ross) and young niece Catta (played on opening night by Allegra Annetta). Her former best friend Jeanie (Anne-Louise Sarks) has grown up and grown distant. Even the fisherman Alice begins a new relationship with keeps her – at least initially – at arms length.

Complicating matters further, during her absence from the family home Alice appears to have forgotten basic motor functions such as how to chew her food. Simple routines such as setting the table now elude her. Has she always been this scatty? Has she been institutionalised? Where did she go, when she went away?

Katz offers few answers in this skittish production, and when she does, they are rarely satisfying.

There is no doubt that Lally Katz is an important playwright with a unique voice, but Return to Earth is not her best work. Earlier plays such as The Black Swan of Trespass (2003) and The Eisteddfod (2004), originally written for independent theatre company Stuck Pigs Squealing and later restaged at the Malthouse Theatre, revealed a playwright who could blur the boundaries between reality and fantasy with aplomb while very deliberately playing with notions of theatrical reality - themes she went on to explore with great success in Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd, the winner of the 2009 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Drama. More recently, the minimal, magnificent A Golem Story, staged at the Malthouse in June this year, displayed Katz’s maturing talent.

Originally written in 2006, and further developed and presented as part of PlayWriting Australia’s National Play Festival 2009, Return to Earth lacks both the startling imagination of Katz’s early work and the fine-tuned control of her more recent plays. It’s very much a transitional work, and sadly, an inferior one.

Its comedy falls flat – I did not laugh once during its one hour and forty minutes running time, though admittedly many of the opening night audience around me did – and the story’s more melodramatic moments border on bathos. Nor is its combination of magic realism and melodrama ever entirely successful: early scenes are reliant on gentle domestic details which, while sweetly observed, are far from compelling, while a wild flight of fancy which comes late in proceedings feels overwrought and frankly, unnecessary. Like oil and water, the play's component parts never successfully blend.

Performances are generally strong, though Mignon, in the lead role, grated at times as a character far less emotionally mature than her peers. Forsyth occasionally overplayed her character’s moments of enthusiasm, but as the laconic fisherman, Theo, Anthony Ahern shone.

Aidan Fennesy’s direction is static and conservative, in keeping with the realist elements of the play perhaps, but definitely at odds with its occasional flights of fancy. A revolving stage was occasionally used effectively, but more often demonstrated all too literally that characters were moving on or being left behind.

Lisa Mibus’s lighting, at times subtle, at other moments otherworldly, is exquisite; the highlight of the work. Kelly Ryall’s sound design is restrained and evocative, and Claude Marcos’ set, which includes a reproduction of Katz's imagined Tathra in miniature elevated at the rear of the stage, is charming. As strong as they are, however, sadly such elements are not enough to ensure a successful or compelling production.

Rating: Two stars

Melbourne Theatre Company presents
Return to Earth
By Lally Katz
Director: Aidan Fennessy
Set & Costume Designer: Claude Marcos
Lighting Designer: Lisa Mibus
Composer/Sound Designer: Kelly Ryall
Assistant Director: Patrick McCarthy
Cast: Anthony Ahern, Julie Forsyth, Kim Gyngell, Eloise Mignon, Tim Ross, Anne-Louise Sarks and Allegra Annetta

Fairfax Studio, The Arts Centre, Melbourne
November 4 – December 17

This review originally appeared at Arts Hub on November 22nd 2011.

Holding the Man (State Theatre Company of SA)

The State Theatre Company of South Australia’s final play for 2011 is a deeply moving production about love and loss, based on the acclaimed memoir by actor and playwright Timothy Conigrave.

Posthumously published in 1995, just a few months after Conigrave’s death from HIV/AIDS, Holding the Man tells the charming, frank and touching story of Conigrave’s relationship with his partner John Caleo, who he met in 1976, while the pair were still in high school. Despite their differences (John was the captain of the school football team; Tim was an aspiring actor) and the challenges posed by conservative parents, infidelity and occasional separation, their love flourished for 15 years, until John’s untimely death from an AIDS-related illness in 1992.

This new production of Holding the Man (originally staged in 2006 by the Griffin Theatre Company, and adapted for the stage by Tommy Murphy) is directed by Rosalba Clemente, a former Artistic Director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia. It stars Luke Clayson as Tim, and Nic English as John. The four remaining cast members (Catherine Fitzgerald, Nick Pelomis, Geoff Revell and Ellen Steele) play multiple roles between them, including various sets of parents, horny schoolboys, Tim’s NIDA colleagues, and the strutting clientele of a gay bar.

Dramatically, Holding the Man is a play of two very distinct halves. The first act plays up the comedy – most notably in a hilarious ‘circle jerk’ scene – but after interval the tragic aspects of the story come to the fore, with a particularly poignant sequence late in the piece utilising a puppet (designed by Stephanie Fisher) to great effect. By the time the curtain fell, there was barely a dry eye in the house.

I was not entirely convinced by Luke Clayson as Tim, who never quite sold the conflicting charm and bluntness of Conigrave, but Nic English as John was superb; quiet, gentle and charming. As a couple, their chemistry was perhaps a little subdued, though both actors gave their all to their respective roles.

Of the supporting cast, Nick Pelomis was particularly memorable in his multiple roles, especially as the surprisingly compassionate mother of Tim’s friend Juliet (Ellen Steele). Catherine Fitzgerald also impressed.

When not part of the action, the actors sat in plain sight at the side of the stage, one of many insightful additions to the already deliberately theatrical script, which, as befits a play about a theatremaker, makes use of numerous stage techniques – mime, improvisational games, puppetry – to tell its story.

Morag Cook’s simple but striking design frames the action under a series of large wooden bookcases to which props are added as the story unfolds – a scrapbook, a wig – mementos of Tim and John’s shared life.

Other elements of the production, such as Mark Shelton’s subtle but focused lighting design and composer Stuart Day’s score, are equally accomplished and never intrusive. Direction in the first half felt a trifle heavy-handed, though the second half proceeded with a lighter touch, ensuring the drama flowed naturally and was never forced.

The book of Holding the Man is already an Australian classic, and I have no doubt that Tommy Murphy’s play will also come to hold such status in 20 years time. This fine production by the State Theatre Company of South Australia, while not quite up to the remarkably high standard set by the original Griffin production, will also, no doubt, be talked about for many years to come.

Rating: Four stars

Holding the Man
By Tommy Murphy
From the book by Timothy Conigrave
Director: Rosalba Clemente
Designer: Morag Cook
Lighting Designer: Mark Shelton
Composer: Stuart Day
Cast: Luke Clayson, Nic English, Catherine Fitzgerald, Nick Pelomis, Geoff Revell and Ellen Steele
Duation: Approximate 135 minutes including interval

Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre
October 21 – November 13

This review first appeared at Arts Hub on October 29th 2011.


Compassion fatigue afflicts many in the western world due to prolonged exposure to suffering via the media. Already encouraged to think, during wartime, of an enemy as ‘other’, as something less than human, our concern and empathy for victims of war and natural disaster further diminishes when we are saturated with images of tragedy in newspapers, magazines, on television and online.

Aftermath, by the writer/director team of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, was originally developed by the New York Theatre Workshop in 2009. Based on a series of interviews Blank and Jensen conducted with Iraqi refugees living in Jordan, the play is a remarkable exercise in humanising the people of Iraq, and a powerful antidote to compassion fatigue.

On a stage bare save for a series of chairs, eight actors take on the roles of real Iraqis: a theatre director and his artist wife; a pharmacist; an Imam; a dermatologist; a housewife and mother; a married couple, both cooks; and a translator who learned English playing computer games. The stories they tell are carefully interwoven and dramatically rich; revealing simple details of their daily lives, the chaos that followed the downfall of Saddam Hussein, and the impact and horrors of war.

A roadside bomb that kills almost every member of one character’s family; religious conflicts that seek to turn neighbour against neighbour; fundamentalists who consider artists worthy only of death; and the unspeakable indignities of Abu Ghraib; the topics explored in Aftermath are not for the faint hearted, though the script is judiciously leavened with humour at certain points, and often leaves the worst details unsaid. It is a dignified, deeply humanising piece of theatre.

Subtle lighting and sound design add to the impact of the play, and performances are, without exception, excellent. The script is careful to establish the normality of the characters’ lives in detail, gradually and deliberately building towards the more confronting elements of the work. Its impact comes like a blow to the heart that left this reviewer wiping away tears and gasping for breath.

Documentary theatre at its best, this carefully constructed, remarkably moving play is a highlight of the 2011 Melbourne Festival.

Rating: Four and a half stars

Text: Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen
Director: Jessica Blank
Executive Producer: Arktype/Thomas O. Kriegsmann
Production Stage Manager: Larry K. Ash
Production Manager / Technical Director: Justin Partier
Costume Designer: Gabriel Berry
Scenic Design: Richard Hoover
Based on a Lighting Design by David Lander
Produced by The New York Theatre Workshop
Original Music & Sound Designer: David Robbins
Cast: Barzin Akhavan, Fajer Al-Kaisi, Leila Buck, Daoud Heidami, Lameece Issaq, Omar Koury, Ryan Shams, Ted Sod, Rasha Zamamiri

Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse
October 11 – 14

Melbourne Festival
October 6 – 22

This review first appeared at Arts Hub on October 14th 2011.


I am accustomed, at the theatre, to occasionally wiping away tears. I am not used to being so moved by a production that I have to struggle to stop myself breaking down completely and bawling my eyes out in a snotty, sobbing mess at its conclusion.

Big hART’s account of the life of celebrated and betrayed artist Albert Namatjira left me reeling.

The basic story of Albert (Elea) Namatjira is relatively well known: the Western Arrernte man whose exquisite watercolours taught white Australians to look at their country in an entirely new way, and the first Australian Aboriginal to be granted citizenship. In 1958 he was sentenced to six months jail for supplying alcohol to members of his extended family. After a public outcry, and two appeals, the sentence was reduced to three months. Namatjira finally served two months of ‘open’ detention at the Papunya settlement in March-May 1959. Three months later he died at Alice Springs Hospital, aged just 57.

Written and directed by Scott Rankin, Namatjira was developed in close consultation with the Namatjira family, many of whom continue to be involved in the production as it is performed, bearing witness to the story and drawing their country on the set, a giant blackboard portraying the mountains, trees and plains of Namatjira’s home. It’s a beautiful touch, ensuring an authenticity that most biographical theatre works could only dream of. The other key element of the set is a striking wooden structure, its soft lines evoking the weathered strata of sandstone and shale, which sits in the centre of the stage.

Equally important to the production is Genevieve Lacey's haunting live score (played on a variety of instruments, including a gorgeous, sonorous contrabass recorder) and Jim Atkins’ sound design, enriched by the vocal talents of the performers as they sing in English and Aranda. And oh what performers they are.

As Namatjira, and a variety of other roles including the war veteran Rex Battarbee who first taught Namatjira to paint, the charismatic Trevor Jamieson is a revelation. Cheeky, playful, dignified and solemn, he switches effortlessly from character to character, displaying a deft physicality and a beautiful voice, as well as an electrifying stage presence; a bravura performance. He is ably supported by Derik Lynch, also playing a number of characters, including most memorably the young Queen Elizabeth II. Lynch demonstrates wonderful comic timing, though his playful roles become a trifle repetitive in the second half of the show; one of the only flaws in this otherwise excellent production.

As the details of Namatjira’s life unfolds on stage – his birth and family life, his missionary school education, the impact of his growing fame, and the ugly truth behind the government’s decision to award him citizenship – the audience finds themselves laughing one moment, and gasping in genuine shock a minute later as the racism of the day is bluntly revealed – most confrontingly in a voiceover taken from a newsreel detailing Namatjira’s visit to meet the Queen in 1954.

Featuring a memorable explanation of the importance of the sacred to Indigenous communities, expressed in terms white Australians can understand; and a laudable expression of hope for a better Australia (“Not this one, the one we’ve found ourselves sliding into…”) Rankin’s script is subtle, remarkable, nuanced and detailed, and is supported by an impressively realised and finely tuned production.

Namatjira is a magnificent theatrical achievement; a marvellous, deeply moving, incredibly human story of triumph and tragedy, and my current contender for the mainstage show of the year.

Rating: Four and a half stars

A Big hART production
Written & Directed by Scott Rankin
With Trevor Jamieson & Derik Lynch
Composer: Genevieve Lacey
Set Designer: Genevieve Dugard
Lighting Designer: Nigel Levings
Costume Designer: Tess Schofield
Sound Designer: Jim Atkins
Creative Producer: Sophia Marinos
Assistant Producer: Cecily Hardy
Community Producer: Shannon Huber

Also performed by Robert Hannaford, Genevieve Lacey, Kevin Namatjira, Lenie Namatjira, Gloria Pannka, Ivy Pareroultja, Michael Peck, Elton Wirri, Hilary Wirri.

Malthouse Theatre
August 10 – 28

This review originally appeared at Arts Hub on August 17th 2011.

Pin Drop

Originally staged in an all-too-brief season at the City of Melbourne’s Arts House in 2010, this genuinely startling one-woman show by Tamara Saulwick is a theatrical exploration of the experience of fear; an evocation of those incidents, events and imaginings that cause your pulse to quicken and raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

Clad in boots and a blue dress which she occasionally smoothes across her lap or picks invisible specks from, Saulwick recounts moments of genuine terror as told to her by a range of interviewees, women and girls ranging from six to 92 years of age.

Walking into your house to discover a man hiding in your wardrobe. Waking suddenly in the middle of the night as someone tries to break down your door. A late night train trip in an unknown country. A frantic race through a lonely forest. An obscene, threatening phone call.

Sometimes Saulwick embodies their stories, speaking their words in her own voice but copying their every inflection, stammer and pause. At other times she shares the stage with the interviewees’ fractured voices as their tales echo unpredictably from a series of speakers set around the theatre.

On many occasions the stage is plunged into darkness, with Saulwick’s voice whispering threats and fears; the unseen antagonist of your worst nightmares. At other times she crouches over a small light, illuminated for fleeting moments in a series of grotesque tableaux; or stands at the rear of the stage, a vast and threatening shadow looming over her.

Saulwick’s vocal mimicry of the interviewee’s voices is remarkable, her physicality controlled and assured. Only at one point, late in the show, when she talks about being paralysed with fear while executing a series of rapid, repetitive movements choreographed by Michelle Heaven, do Saulwick’s physical actions jar with her spoken narrative.

But as impressive as Saulwick’s performance is, it’s Peter Knight’s sound design that is the real star of this show: a haunting mix of brooding, blasting music, looped voices, echoing footsteps, and seemingly innocuous sounds – scissors cutting, a zip unzipping – that take on terrifying implications when amplified. Coupled with the evocative and atmospheric lighting design by Bluebottle, Knight’s sound work is striking in the extreme.

Perhaps most fascinating of all is how deeply gendered a performance Pin Drop is. While I was awed by the technical proficiency of the production and empathised with the stories Saulwick was recounting, Pin Drop failed to resonate with me emotionally. The fears explored in the performance are not my fears; they were not familiar to me. This is certainly not a criticism of the show, which is remarkable in the extreme, but perhaps an indication of the deeply personal nature of fear itself; particularly the fears that Saulwick taps into, given that all the women I spoke to after the show were deeply engaged by what they had just witnessed – even, in some cases, disturbed.

Rating: Four stars

Pin Drop
Created & Performed by Tamara Saulwick
Composer & Sound Designer: Peter Knight
Movement: Michelle Heaven
Set & Lighting Designers: Bluebottle - Ben Cobham & Frog Peck
Costume Designer: Harriet Oxley

Malthouse Theatre
July 26 – August 27

This review first appeared at Arts Hub on July 30th 2011.


Last year’s MTC production of Richard III was widely proclaimed as a masterpiece, with particular praise heaped on Ewen Leslie’s striking performance in the title role, Simon Phillips’ bold direction, and Shaun Gurton’s revolving, West Wing-inspired set.

This year, the same creative team have re-assembled for Hamlet, with Leslie taking on the demanding role of the melancholy Dane.

There is much to like about this new production, but for all its strengths, there is something of the air of a Hollywood sequel about it; a sense of rehashing a winning formula with less successful results.

Updated into a world of power and politics where electronic surveillance is commonplace, this Hamlet sees messages delivered by mobile phones instead of by heralds and pages, an effective trick which was slightly undone by the cheap gimmick of having one of the actor’s mobiles ring during the opening scene, interrupting Claudius’s speech.

Once again the production makes full use of the Sumner Theatre’s revolving stage, with the action taking place in a set of acrylic ‘glass’ and steel; highly polished and allowing for multiple film noir-like reflections depicting Hamlet’s conflicting emotions, but also cold and stark; a set which seemed to overpower some of the actors and drain their performances of emotion on opening night, simultaneously distancing the viewer. Too, the transparent nature of the set meant that from where I was sitting near the rear of the theatre, your reviewer was often distracted by glimpses of actors and stage hands racing across the set from one side of the stage to the other, behind the action that was supposed to be the focus of my attention.

More problematic was Ian McDonald’s sound design, which was all too often invasive rather than atmospheric, and which often relied on cinematic ‘mood music’ to generate atmosphere rather than allowing the lighting and performances to set the tone.

Of the actors themselves, Leslie acquitted himself well as Hamlet, though he failed to totally sell the emotion of his character to the audience on opening night until after interval, at which point he – and the production as a whole – really kicked into gear.

Rabe is particularly strong as Gertrude; her anguish over the murder of Polonius was palpable. In the dual role of Polonius and the Gravedigger, McDonald displayed exquisite comic timing. However, the night’s most striking performance came from Eryn Jean Norvill as Ophelia, whose mad scenes were truly poignant, even heartbreaking.

Throughout this modernised Hamlet, where guards fire guns instead of drawing swords, the question of how Phillips would handle the climactic sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes nagged. The answer was simple and striking, though perhaps slightly at odds with the tone of the production as a whole. Do many scions of the unspeakably wealthy really practice fencing in this day and age?

Slick and stylish, though not always totally engaging, this production of Hamlet will certainly entertain those lucky enough to get their hands on a ticket. At the time of writing, the production is almost entirely sold out.

Rating: Three and a half stars

By William Shakespeare
Director: Simon Phillips
Set Designer Shaun: Gurton
Costume Designer: Esther Marie Hayes
Lighting Designer: Nick Schlieper
Composer: Ian McDonald
Fight Choreographer: Nigel Poulton
Assistant Director: Leith McPherson

Cast: John Adam (Claudius), Ian Bliss (Marcellus), Jamieson Caldwell (Player Queen), Grant Cartwright (Horatio), Travis Cotton (Rosencrantz), Ewen Leslie (Hamlet), Garry McDonald (Polonius), Robert Menzies (Player King/ Ghost), Tony Nikolakopoulos (Captain), Eryn Jean Norvill (Ophelia), Pamela Rabe (Gertrude), Tim Ross (Laertes), Brian Vriends (Osric) and Lachlan Woods (Guildenstern).

The MTC Theatre, Sumner
July 19 – August 31 Running time: Three hours 15 mins (approx) including interval

This review first appeared at Arts Hub on July 30th 2011.

Toby Francis: Blokelahoma!

Judging from his short season at the second annual Melbourne Cabaret Festival, 23 year old Toby Francis – the winner of Sydney’s 8th Annual Cabaret Showcase in December 2010 – has a remarkable career ahead of him.

Possessed of a powerful tenor voice - displayed to good advantage in a selection of songs ranging from rock numbers to showtunes - as well as excellent comic timing and a gently self-deprecating wit, there were times on Wednesday night when Francis definitely felt too large for the small Butterfly Club stage, despite being very new to the cabaret world.

His debut solo show, Blokelahoma! – directed by David Campbell and previously performed at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in June – is an engaging exploration of what it means to be a man in a post-modern world, in which Francis discourses about everything from painful hair removal incidents to coming out as an atheist to his deeply religious family.

Impressing with both his emotional and vocal range, in a show that embraced bawdy comedy as well as heartfelt emotion, Francis was at his best when belting out such familiar numbers as ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning’ from the 1943 Rogers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! and Jim Steinman’s rock epic, ‘Bat Out of Hell’.

A medley of Australian rock classics by such artists as The Angels, Divinyls, and Skyhooks also impressed, as did his poignant cover of Joe Jackson’s ‘Real Men’.

One or two minor stumbles served to remind audiences that Francis is still very new to the world of cabaret, but he quickly rose above them. Nor did he seem unsettled by the presence of his mother and grandmother in the audience, which might have inhibited less assured performers, especially in light of some of his more colourful material.

Accompanying Francis on piano and occasional backing vocals was the dextrous and versatile Andrew Worboys, whose deft performance added greatly to this already engaging production.

Keep an eye out for Toby Francis – this young man is going to be a star.

Rating: Three and a half stars

Toby Francis - Blokelahoma!
The Butterfly Club
Season concluded

Melbourne Cabaret Festival
July 19 – 24

This review first appeared at Arts Hub on July 25th 2011.

Nederlands Dans Theatre I

Founded in 1959, when 22 rebels broke away from the Nederlands Ballet to form a new company dedicated to contemporary rather than classical dance, over the past 52 years Nederlands Dans Theatre has developed a global reputation for choreographic excellence and virtuosic performance.

On the opening night of their exclusive Australian season at the Arts Centre, that reputation was bolstered by the performance of three works, beginning with a dramatic solo choreographed by the company’s former Artistic Director, Jiří Kylián, Double You.

Created by Kylián in 1994, this was a work of muscular choreography performed by Bastien Zorzeto. To the accompaniment of a Johann Sebastian Bach harpsichord work, and as two large pendulums swung hypnotically at the rear of the State Theatre stage, the shirtless Zorzeto spun, slapped, pointed and whirled through this powerful piece; the slow roll of a shoulder here, the deliberate tremor of a leg there displaying a precise and controlled physicality.

After a short break came the spectacular The Second Person, a 2007 work choreographed by Crystal Pite which can feature as many as 24 dancers on stage. An exploration of the tensions between the individual and the collective, this exquisite work featured a voiceover by Kate Strong intoning phrases about memory and movement, as a troupe clad in suits and dark glasses performed against a backdrop of ominous storm clouds.

Precise formations and sharp movements contrasted with moments of individual, unfettered joy, while imaginative stagecraft that was by turns poignant and playful enriched the massed lines on display. One moment a group of dancers manipulated a rod puppet with careful, controlled gestures; the next, a dancer became the puppet, seemingly controlled by the linked arms and assured movements of the dancers gathered behind her.

Finally, after interval, came the 2005 work, Silent Screen, choreographed by the husband and wife team of Paul Lightfoot and Sol León and set to the music of Phillip Glass. A celebration of silent movies, the work made stunning use of footage projected on screens behind the dancers: a lonely shore, a bleak forest, a close-up image of a child’s eye which transformed into a whirlpool dragging our gaze down into hidden depths.

In lesser hands such footage might overpower or detract from the movement on stage; here, the cinematic sequences only enriched and complemented the exacting choreography. An intensely physical pas de deux by two dancers in white, and remarkable imagery – the highlight being the striking entry of a dancer from the audience, the vast train of her dress stretching across the entire stage – ensured the mind never wandered during this compelling and beautiful work.

I am used to being reduced to tears by cinema, and sometimes by theatre, but never before have I experienced an evening of dance so sublime that I was moved to tears of joy. It has been 14 years since Nederlands Dans Theatre last performed in Australia; after Wednesday night’s exemplary performance, I for one can’t wait for them to return.

Rating: Four and a half stars

Nederlands Dans Theatre I
Double You: choreographed by Jiří Kylián
The Second Person: choreographed by Crystal Pite
Silent Screen: choreographed by Paul Lightfoot and Sol León
Dancers: Shannon Alvis, Celia Amade, Karyn Benquet, Lydia Bustinduy, Anna Herrmann, Carolina Mancuso, Heather Myers, Sarah Reynolds, Parvaneh Scharafali, Ema Yuasa, Brett Conway, Silas Henriksen, Fernando Hernando Magadan, Menghan Lou, Jamy Meek, Georgi Milev, Jorge Nozal, Ivan Pérez, Dominic Santia, Rupert Tookey, Roger Van der Poel, Anton Valdbauer and Bastien Zorzetto

The Arts Centre, Melbourne
July 13 – 17

This review first appeared at Arts Hub on July 16th 2011.

King of Bangor

Crouched over his typewriter and relying on booze, coke and pills to kick-start his imagination, horror novelist Stephen King sits tormented by writers block, waiting for the muse to strike. But rather than inspiration, his subconscious dredges up characters from his already published works to mock and torment him, as the boundaries between real life and fiction slowly begin to blur.

Written by Australian playwright, essayist, and regular contributor to horror film magazine Fangoria, Lee Gambin, King of Bangor sets out to explore the relationship between a writer and his work; examining the alchemical process by which a writer’s imagination takes personal experiences and transforms them into fiction.

Unfortunately, while Gambin is clearly knowledgable about his subject, he fails to adequately explore the writer’s psychology in compelling detail. King’s struggle with writer’s block and addiction, as depicted in King of Bangor, feels more cartoon-like than truly dramatic, an impression reinforced by Dione Joseph’s one-note direction and a tone which borders on the hysterical.

American accents are inconsistent, as are the performances, with some exceptions. Mim, who plays King’s housekeeper, demonstrates good chemistry with Peter Berzanskis as Stephen King, but when she takes on the role of an obsessive, intrusive fan (either inspired by, or the inspiration for, the crazed Annie Wilkes in King’s novel Misery) her performance needs reigning in. Of the remaining cast members, Nicholas Brien as King’s errand boy (as well as characters from Salem’s Lot and Christine) is the strongest, with Tamara Donnellan also noteworthy.

The lighting design by Roxan Bowes is simple but effective, while Gowri Paary’s set design is ill-suited to the stage and forces the actors to awkwardly clamber over and around it. The live score – provided by violinist Christine Munroe – is suitably evocative, and displays a restraint lacking in the rest of the production.

Despite its faults, King of Bangor is a passionate piece of theatre, with so much heart it virtually bleeds on stage. I may not have especially enjoyed the play, but it did inspire me to re-visit King’s oeuvre, starting with his classic vampire tale, Salem’s Lot, for which Gambin and company can take all the credit.

Rating: Two and a half stars

King of Bangor
By Lee Gambin
Directed by Dione Joseph
Performed by Mim, Nicholas Brien, Tamara Donnellan, and Reville Smith
Live music by Christine Munroe

Old Council Chambers, Trades Hall
June 29-30, July 1-2, and July 6-9

This review first appeared on Arts Hub on July 6th 2011.

Metropolis Reconstructed + Restored

Perhaps the most influential science fiction film ever made, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) was also the most expensive silent film ever produced, going well over its allocated budget and failing to make a profit – which perhaps explains why its distributors were so eager to see the original German print drastically cut down for the US and UK markets.

Reduced from 153 minutes to approximately 90 – cuts which significantly altered the story, as well as the film’s pacing and tone – the international release of Metropolis failed to recoup its losses, though a review commissioned by the New York Times from none other than H.G. Wells, in which he dismissed the film as “unimaginative [and] incoherent” probably didn’t help it find an audience.

Today, Lang’s magnum opus is widely recognised as a masterpiece of German Expressionist cinema, and one of the first dystopian science fictions films ever made. This is despite the fact that the Metropolis we have seen has always been a bastardised version, either the butchered American print, a cut-down German edition released by Lang’s studio, UFA, some 10 months after the film's original release, or the partially restored print created by the F.W. Murnau Foundation in 2002 (which drew on lost clips in the possession of various institutions around the world as well as title cards detailing missing scenes and sections) to approximate the film that Lang had created.

Then, in 2008, a 16mm negative of the original cut of the film was found in the Argentinean capital, Buenos Aires; a sensational discovery which resulted in this reconstructed version of Metropolis, which had its premiere in 2010 in Berlin, 83 years after its original world premiere.

The film takes place in an imagined future, in the vast city of Metropolis, where its rulers live lives of idle luxury in towering skyscrapers. The workers, meanwhile, are banished below ground, and toil under frightful conditions for the benefits of their masters. When the idealistic young Freder (Gustav Fröhlich) meets Maria (Brigitte Helm) his eyes are opened to the workers’ plight, sparking rebellion, destruction, and ultimately, hope – as well as the leading to the creation of one of cinema’s most iconic robots in a scene that would influence horror and science fiction films for many decades to come.

This ‘new’ version of Metropolis, released in Australia by Madman as a two-disc DVD set, is a revelation; restoring logic to the narrative, re-emphasising important subplots (such as the long-standing rivalry between Fredersen, the ruler of Metropolis, and the archetypal mad scientist Rotwang, caused by their love of the same woman, Hel), and casting new light on the film’s almost Shakespearean exploration of doubles and mistaken identities.

Due to the poor quality of the found footage, the viewing experience is not perfect; the negative has been badly scratched in places, and black bars appear at the sides of the screen where the cut-down frame of the 16mm footage has been inserted into the print, but overall, this reconstruction of the film is remarkable.

Viewers who have never before seen Metropolis will no doubt be struck above all by its visual style: the special effects of Eugene Schufftan and the in-camera tricks of cinematographer Karl Freund, are truly breathtaking, as are the film’s vast sets and dramatic lighting. Its heightened theatricality and somewhat simple social message may grate with some viewers, but are very much of their time and add to the film’s charm.

DVD extras on this local release of Metropolis – Reconstructed + Restored include an audio commentary by Dr Wendy Haslem and Dr Angela Ndalianis from Melbourne University’s School of Culture and Communication; and director Artem Demenok’s 52 minute documentary, Journey to Metropolis (2010). The documentary highlights the staggering scale of the film, which employed 36,000 extras, and debunks some of the myths that have grown up around it, such as Fritz Lang’s claim that Metropolis was inspired by his 1924 visit to New York, when in fact he and his wife, Thea von Harbou, had already completed the screenplay before leaving for America.

An accompanying booklet featuring essays by the likes of director Terry Gilliam and Australian film historian William D. Routt is also included with the DVD.

Without Metropolis there would be no Alphaville, no Blade Runner, no Brazil. This new edition of a truly timeless and remarkable film is heartily recommended.

Five stars

Metropolis Reconstructed + Restored
Directed by Fritz Lang
Germany, 1927, 150 mins
Madman Director’s Suite
Rated G

This review first appeared at Arts Hub on July 2nd 2011.

A Golem Story

Long before Frankenstein’s Monster aroused both pity and terror in a generation of film-goers, there was the Golem. Lurching out of the myths and mist of antiquity, this soulless creature of clay, animated by the name of God and designed to protect the Jews of Prague from persecution, has fascinated storytellers since at least the Middle Ages.

While references to Golem-like creatures appear as far back as the oldest books of the Bible (Adam, after all, is made of “the dust of the ground”) perhaps the most famous version of the Golem story is the landmark 1920 film by actor/director Paul Wegener, Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came into the World), ranked alongside The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) and Nosferatu (1922) as one of the true masterpieces of German Expressionist cinema.

Expressionistic motifs are subtly referenced throughout the Malthouse Theatre's latest production, A Golem Story. Anna Cordingley’s stark wooden set, the stage jutting out into the audience, effortlessly evokes Prague in 1580 while simultaneously recalling the haunted streets of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Paul Jackson's exquisite lighting design is equally Expressionistic, but it is the sparse script by Lally Katz (Goodbye Vaudeville Charlie Mudd, The Black Swan of Trespass) which perhaps most successfully evokes the spirit of Expressionism though its focus on mood and emotion over fine detail, on archetypes over individuals.

As the play opens, a young woman, Ahava (a compelling performance by Yael Stone) awakens beneath a candle-lit chandelier, questioning all around her. A recent exorcism to remove the dybbuk (a malicious spirit) that has possessed her – the spirit of her late fiancée, Israel Hasidim, a suicide – has rendered Ahava without memory, and more importantly, without knowledge of God.

Ahava’s exorcist is the Rabbi (Brian Lipson), but while he welcomes her into the synagogue, his student, (Dan Spielman) is uncomfortable with Ahava’s presence, a fact the young man makes no attempt to hide.

While tensions exist inside the synagogue, greater dangers lurk outside. A child has been murdered, and the Guard (Greg Stone) blames the Jews. His bigotry and hatred know no bounds, and in fear of a pogrom, the Rabbi – assisted by Ahava – creates a Golem to protect the ghetto and its inhabitants.

Angered at such resistance, the Guard will go to shocking lengths to incite violence against the Jews, despite the wishes of his Emperor (Mark Jones, displaying superb comic timing), a far more reasonable man, and one with an appreciation of both aesthetic beauty and the arcane arts.

Unsurprisingly, the results are tragic, not least for Ahava, but from an audience member’s perspective they are also engrossing, engaging, and deeply compelling.

Some may find the starkness of the text underwhelming – this is perhaps Katz’s most minimal and refined work to date; a tone which the sometimes excessive Kantor matches, directing with considerable restraint. Others may miss the presence of a physical Golem, which is represented by a shimmering light, as if the animating spirit of the Lord had manifested on stage instead of an all too solid creature of clay – but then this is not an Andrew Lloyd Webber production, where stagecraft takes the place of story.

Where A Golem Story is grandiose is in its music – a haunting vocal score arranged and directed by Mark Jones (The Beautiful Losers) and performed by the whole cast – and in its deeper themes; its exploration of the ineffable and the spiritual.

Sparse, controlled, and deeply moving, A Golem Story is highly recommended.

Four stars

A Golem Story
Written by Lally Katz
Directed by Michael Kantor
Set and Costume Design by Anna Cordingley
Lighting Designer Paul Jackson
Music Director & Vocal Arrangements Mark Jones
Performed by Nicholas DeRossos, Joshua Gordon, Mark Jones, Michel Laloum, Brian Lipson, Dan Spielman, Greg Stone, Yael Stone

Malthouse Theatre
June 10 – July 2

This review first appeared on Arts Hub on June 25th 2011.

Secret Histories of Queer Melbourne

If your perception of history is that it’s the dry and dusty domain of tweedy old academics, this accessible and engaging publication from the Australian Lesbian & Gay Archives (ALGA) will surely change the way you think about the discipline.

An account of the travails and triumphs of Melbourne’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex – or ‘queer’ (to use the umbrella term that has grown in popularity since it was first introduced to Australia circa 1991) – community from the 18th to the 21st centuries, the book makes no claim to be a comprehensive history. Rather, as its editors acknowledge in their introduction, it is a series of ‘snapshots, fragments, vignettes’; a collage of histories told over 51 chapters, written by 12 separate authors.

Having grown out of a series of history walks presented by the ALGA at Midsumma and similar festivals, the book’s tone is accessible, concise, and distinctly non-academic despite the qualifications and careers of its various contributors. It is also immaculately researched, with an array of footnotes providing proof of the writers’ and editors’ rigorous approach to their subject.

“The history of queer Melbourne is stored in documents, in newspapers and magazines, in police and court records,” writes co-editor and author Graham Willett in one chapter of Secret Histories of Queer Melbourne, and certainly much of what we know about early queer life comes from incidents where gay or bisexual men came into contact with the law, such as the case of Yackandandah resident John Morrison, who in 1870 was sentenced to ten years hard labour for the ‘abominable crime’ of buggery. As an additional punishment, in the first six months of his sentence, Morrison was flogged three times, each time receiving 50 lashes from the cat-o’-nine tails.

Elsewhere, Willett acknowledges the difficulties of researching queer lives in periods when homosexuality was both illegal and taboo:

“When we speculate upon the sexuality and sexual identity of people who lived in times so very different to our own, we are always on uncertain ground. Unless they are caught in the act, or write about themselves in unambiguous ways, we are forced to try harder to find our way into their lives.”

The authors of Secret Histories of Queer Melbourne have clearly tried very hard indeed, and with considerable success.

From the fascinating account of bushranger Captain Moonlite (after his lover James Nesbitt was killed in a police shootout, Moonlite ‘wept over him like a child, laid his head upon his breast and kissed him passionately’ and later, throughout his trial, wore a ring on his finger made of a lock of Nesbitt’s hair) through to the flappers and ‘fast women’ of the Roaring Twenties (such as the trail-blazing Alice Anderson, who opened an all-women’s garage in Kew in 1919); from secretive wartime romances, and nocturnal assignations in Melbourne’s parks and laneways interrupted by the police, through to the gay pride movement of the 1970s and the AIDS activists of the early 1990s, three centuries of queer life are detailed, explored and entertainingly speculated upon.

The book is not without its faults – for instance, Michael Connors’ chapter on AIDS activist group ACT-UP describes the group’s 1991 ‘D-Day’ campaign (which saw the St Kilda Road floral clock deflowered in a late night raid in which the blooms were replaced with small crosses signifying the deaths of people with HIV/AIDS due to government inaction) as a ‘masterpiece of media activism’, when in reality the ensuing media storm caused the group to fracture under the pressure and blame the floral clock attack as the work of rogue elements – but overall it is an fascinating, detailed, and rewarding study of queer life in the Victorian capital.

Secret Histories of Queer Melbourne
Editors: Graham Willett, Wayne Murdoch & Daniel Marshall
Paperback, 172 pages, $40 RRP
Australian Lesbian & Gay Archives