Monday, 20 August 2018 10:24

Scaramouche Jones (Wander Productions)

The notion of the sad clown probably has its origins in prehistory; the mockery of pain and sorrow is such an embedded human trait that indigenous cultures around the world embraced it long before it became a trope of commedia dell’arte. Pierrot, with his iconic painted white face and billowing white costume, is the universal symbol for sad clowning. He is sad because he pines for Columbine, who will forever prefer Harlequin, calcifying Pierrot into an emblem of unrequited love. Lear’s Fool could be seen as a sad clown, although this largely depends on the way he’s played. He is certainly a philosopher clown, a subset of the sad clown. It is such a ubiquitous concept – forever turning up as ghastly amateur oil paintings in thrift shops – that it has become something of a byword for bad taste. For this reason, it is quite daring for a contemporary playwright to tackle the concept – and even more daring for the actor to act it.

Justin Butcher’s one-man play Scaramouche Jones, which premièred in Dublin in 2001, pulls lightly on the traditions of the sad clown, in ways that allow him to forge new pathways for the character: he includes the white face but does away with the intractable love interest; he hints at the stock personality tropes of dell’arte without simplifying the characterisation; he largely avoids pathos by rendering his hero a self-made man, philosophical but rarely lachrymose. If anything, the playwright is drawing more heavily on the traditions of picaresque than those of the clown. Scaramouche’s tale is full of derring-do, of wild adventures in exotic locations, all delivered in episodic form. The man himself is a bit of a rogue, constantly getting himself in and out of scrapes, wily and resourceful. He says he adopted the surname Jones because an officer told him he needed one to get a passport, but surely we’re meant to think of The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.

In many ways, the play itself is quite wily and resourceful. Set on 31 December 1999, it tells the story of a man born on the same day in 1899 who has decided to die, because ‘a hundred years is long enough’. Scaramouche comes up against the century’s major events, but any attempt to read the play as mere allegory – an extended joke in the mode of Woody Allen’s Zelig – is destined to fail. Butcher is after a mood that is capable of encompassing the elegiac as well as the rambunctious, one that can suggest the vagaries and small victories of a private life without ignoring the massive global events that tend to shape it.

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    The notion of the sad clown probably has its origins in prehistory; the mockery of pain and sorrow is such an embedded human trait that indigenous cultures around the world embraced it long before it became a trope of commedia dell’arte. Pierrot, with his iconic painted white face ...

  • Review Rating 4.5
Monday, 27 June 2016 11:32

Dark Mofo 2016 (MONA)

The streets of Hobart are especially cold and quiet on the longest night of the year. Those out and about are simply commuting from place to place, wrapped in scarves, hats, and jackets. Some head towards St David's Cathedral to attend Heart of Darkness, the penultimate performance of Tasmania's annual winter solstice festival, Dark Mofo – possibly also for sanctuary from the Antarctic winds.

David Walsh takes a seat on a heated pew two rows from the front. People behind him murmur, pointing discretely towards him. Walsh wears his trademark rectangular black-rimmed glasses and a suit jacket as speckled-grey as his stubble and wavy locks. This is a somewhat dour look for the enigmatic owner of Hobart's Museum of New and Old Art (MONA), who was spotted a few days prior, strolling by the cellar door of his Moorilla winery in a fine suit of fluorescent orange.

The professional gambler-turned-cultural philanthropist's emergent festival of darkness, sound, fire, blood-red lighting, and performance art is every bit as eccentric as the man who conceived it, and more. This year's program (which ran from 8 to 21 June, the latter half of which Arts Update attended) comprised eleven exhibitions and 400 avant-garde performance artists and musical acts from around the world. They formed a 'stormy' celebration of 'turmoil', 'emotional upheaval', and 'rebirth', as described by the festival's artistic director, Leigh Carmichael.

One of the Dark Mofo's major musical revelations was the Denver-based punk-percussionists, Itchy-O, who were ubiquitous across the festival, lending their crashing drumbeats and electronica to numerous gigs and marquee events, such as the paganistic annual burning of the 'Ogoh-ogoh' effigy, and the late-night dance party Blacklist, held at Hobart City Hall. Described as a 'guerrilla' marching band (one that performs impromptu gigs in public spaces, and 'crashes' other shows), with North African, Middle-Eastern, and Brazilian undertones to their music, Itchy-O began with bandleader Scott Banning, who produced their first recording Pulmonic in 2005 using as track layers irregular animal heartbeat sounds sourced from a veterinarian school. From these humble, curious beginnings, the outfit grew to a thirty-piece troupe, which now includes a battalion of taiko drummers, guitarists, vocalists, synthesiser and Theremin players, and provocateurs, who roved and weaved their way among the Blacklist revelers, dressed in a mixture of mariachi outfits, black motorcycle helmets lined with LED lights, lucha libre masks, sombreros, and stylised burqas – an eclectic mix, to say the least, but one that invoked a thunderous, carnivalesque atmosphere in the small venue.

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Dark Mofo ItchyOItchy-O (photograph by Rémi Chauvin, image courtesy of MONA)


The culinary heart of the festival, Winter Feast, was situated between the docks and sandstone buildings that overlook the famed Salamanca Market strip, its entrance marked with a large neon sign bearing the festival's name, and flanked by flame-belching pyramids – a fiery welcome to the smorgasbord within. Despite the inevitable overcrowding of indoor venues following inclement weather, the nearly seventy stallholders gleefully plied their wares to the hungry, slow-moving throng, who agonised over whether or not to select the wallaby burrito, the stuffed and crumbed olives, or the slow roasted pork buns from Matthew Evans's (of the television series Gourmet Farmer) Fat Pig Farm, and wash it all down with a hot chocolate coconut rum, mulled wine, or warm spiced cider. Outside, under hundreds of red light bulbs strung across tree branches, small groups huddled around open braziers, warming their hands and discussing the events of the day with their fellow heat-seekers, while barbecues crackled and smoked and guitarists gently strummed away, their music only interrupted by the occasional burst of fireworks. But for the darkness and bitter cold, one could call this scene idyllic.

Dark Mofo Winter Feast photograph by Mona and Rémi Chauvin Image Courtesy Mona Museum of Old and New Art Hobart Tasmania AustraliaWinter Feast (photograph by Rémi Chauvin, image courtesy of MONA)


When the Ukrainian-Canadian pianist and composer Lubomyr Melnyk spoke to an enraptured audience at Hobart's Federation Concert Hall before his recital, his voice was surprisingly soft and youthful, tinged with an almost mournful passion for his craft, of which he was the pioneer and is quite possibly its last master practitioner. His 'continuous music' technique involves playing rapid, complex arrangements, often while holding down the sustain pedal to produce overtones. The result is a cascade of bittersweet melodies, at times chaotic and at times meditative, but played with tremendous heart and technical aplomb – he is also the fastest pianist in the world, playing at an average of 19.5 notes per second. 'Butterfly', one of three compositions he performed, grew from an improvisational piece produced while entertaining guests and their children on a grand piano at the Hotel Barcello in Cologne. Before the piece, Melnyk spoke enthusiastically about the purity of sound that vinyl records produce; he fears that much of his work has been watered down due to its transfer to digital formats. 'You see, I'm a bit of a hippie,' he confesses with a shrug, and then jokingly proceeds to list various contributions to the world made by 'his kind.

'Butterfly' can be interpreted as an allegory for the turbulence of youth, beginning with innocence and wonderment, before becoming more dense and tempestuous. Overall, it is a supreme composition, imbued with Melnyk's grandfatherly warmth and humour. As Ernest Hemingway wrote, 'There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.' One gets the sense that Melnkyk's apparently effortless solos are purely instinctive expressions, and not due to decades of meticulous practice. He approaches the microphone as the applause dies down: 'Hippies invented granola too, you know.'

Dark Mofo Lubomyr Melnyk Image courtesy of Moorilla GalleryPianist and composer, Lubomyr Melnyk (image courtesy of Moorilla Gallery)


The derelict Royal Derwent Hospital (formerly known as the New Norfolk Insane Asylum) lies half an hour north-west of Hobart in the picturesque township of New Norfolk. It closed in 2000 and has not been sanitised since. Entry to the site for the duration of Dark Mofo carried the following disclaimer: 'both the exhibition and performance contain disturbing content and themes, and may not be suitable for children. You must wear closed-toe shoes.' The reason for this became apparent soon after entering. The entire complex was littered with mirrors of all shapes and sizes, some whole, some simply shards, some not mirrors at all (CDs, clocks, silverware). They rested on windowsills, hung from trees, and were spread out haphazardly on the ground. This was the site of Mike Parr's seventy-two hour art piece, Asylum, which was performed as a cathartic tribute to his deceased brother, Tim, who suffered from mental illness throughout most of his life. Entry to the performance, which ran from 9 to12 June, was by mirror only, and visitors were asked to place them anywhere they desired within the grounds. Parr's remit was to produce art within the claustrophobic confines of the asylum, inhabiting the role of a patient for the duration of the performance.

Dark Mofo Mike ParrAustralian performance artist, Mike Parr (photograph by Rémi Chauvin, image courtesy MONA)


Now in his seventies, Parr is renowned for extreme self-mutilation and endurance art pieces, including A Stitch in Time (2003), where he sewed his face shut in a demonstration of solidarity with asylum seekers. Footage of the disconcerting piece played on screens installed throughout the main building, and the sounds of him retching and grunting echoed down the dark, grey halls, where visitors silently navigated through animal droppings, broken furniture, and glass, peering into dank cells with a slight look of bewilderment or disgust on their faces. In the capacious prison yard, now overgrown with grass and weeds, and enclosed by five-metre-high concrete walls, a distorted recording of 'Für Elise' crackled over the PA system, playing in a loop. Asylum was a nauseating experience, but one that was neither gratuitous nor gimmicky. Its organisers successfully captured the overwhelming sense of dread and sadness that pervades derelict sites with deeply troubled histories; they combined it with Parr's poignant homage to his brother to create a nightmarish, full-scale diorama.

Dark moro AsylumMike Parr's Asylum, entry by mirror only (photograph by Rémi Chauvin, image courtesy MONA)


Dark Mofo's 'interactive public art playground', Dark Park, featured a series of exhibits and installations – many of which were interactive – inside industrial warehouses located in Hobart's wharf district. Highlights included Grupo EmpreZa's Bodystorm, which featured a number of performance artists; some dressed in office attire, some naked, writhing in brick dust to the constant sound of a mortar and pestle, the effect of which invoked a frighteningly plausible post-apocalyptic scene, and Patrick Hall's eerie installation The Cloud, a ceiling of embedded bottles imprinted with faces that 'wept' a thin film of water onto the floor below.

Dark Mofo EmpreZaGrupo EmpreZa's Bodystorm (photograph by Rémi Chauvin, image courtesy MONA)


On Dark Park's final night, The Purging, a Balinese-inspired ritualistic burning of the spectacular papier–mâché sea dragon 'Ogoh-ogoh', took place, where visitors were encouraged to place their fears and regrets inside the dragon on pieces of paper, in the hopes that they would be expunged in the resulting bonfire. Indonesian dancer I Ketut Rina performed the ritual's exorcism dance, and the haunting, frenetic music that accompanied it was supplied by a local choir and the ever-present Itchy-O.

Dark Mofo I Ketut Rena The PurgingIndonesian dancer, I Ketut Rina performs at The Purging (photograph by Rémi Chauvin, image courtesy MONA)

Dark Mofo Ogoh Ogoh in flamesThe 'Ogoh-ogoh' in flames at The Purging (photograph by Rémi Chauvin, image courtesy MONA)


The longest and darkest night of the year, and the final night of Dark Mofo, begins with Heart of Darkness at St David's Cathedral, a night of soaring strings and song, including John Tavener's Akhmatova Songs for Soprano and Cello, Peter Sculthorpe's String Quartet No.12 (from Ubirr), and Arnold Schoenberg's String Quartet No. 2, Op.10. Soprano Allison Bell describes the three dark pieces as 'turning points to where the light begins', and invites listeners to 'think on the deepest fears and thoughts that haunt us during out darkest hours'. Tavener's composition is drawn from the poems of Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, whose work addresses themes of 'existence, persecution, and oblivion'.

Dark Mofo St DavidsSt. David's Cathedral, Hobart, Tasmania (photograph by Dilan Gunawardana)


As the Akhmatova song 'Boris Pasternak' concludes, one can only speculate about the thoughts of David Walsh seated in a cathedral that shares his name. In 2007 he described himself as an inconsistent, contradictory 'mess of little boys fighting in a sack'. He is now Tasmania's cultural doyen, the owner of the 'world's best art gallery' (according to Lonely Planet in 2015), and an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) to boot. But he is not entirely satisfied. In the festival's program notes, he muses on the potential Faustian pact he has forged with the state government of Tasmania, which has provided $2.1 million in funding this year for the festival. Despite Walsh's reservations about censorship and meddling, the state has left the festival to its own devices and has supported a thought-provoking event of significant cultural and economic value to the place once quaintly known as the 'Apple Isle'.

Endowed with some eternal childhood,
He shone open-handed, clean of sight.
The whole earth was his heritage
And this with all he shared.

'Boris Pasternak' by Anna Akhmatova

Dark Mofo ran from 10-21 June, 2016.

Arts Update is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation.

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    The streets of Hobart are especially cold and quiet on the longest night of the year. Those out and about are simply commuting from place to place, wrapped in scarves, hats, and jackets. Some head towards St David's Cathedral to attend Heart of Darkness, the penultimate performance of ...

Friday, 19 February 2016 15:29

Perth International Arts Festival 2016

As a not-quite-indefatigable cultural itinerant, my memories of Perth are all of festival time. Usually, my arrival is the signal for the temperature to leap into the mid-forties, imbuing the experience with a patina of sweat and a dose of climatic paranoia. PIAF 2016, artistic director Wendy Martin's first festival, was merciful: I flew in just as a record-breaking heatwave came to an end.

In other ways, expectations of hotness were fully realised. Martin has curated a fascinating program, creating, as all good festival programs do, vibrant and provoking resonances. The opening weekend offered dichotomies between the divine and the human, epic spectacle and intimate personal connection, often in the same show. Aptly for the timbre of the times, the program has a subtext of subversion, which feels increasingly at odds with Chevron's sponsor banners that adorn the city streets. But this jarring is also, perhaps, apt for our times.

The big ticket on the opening weekend was William Kentridge and Philip Miller's opera Refuse the Hour, a companion piece to the installation The Refusal of Time, which Perth hosted in 2014. It is sometimes said slightingly of Kentridge's work that it is 'theatrical', which seems in visual arts circles to be code for 'shallow spectacle'. It is a fair observation, sans the pejorative: his work is theatrical. And it seems to me that theatre exposes something essential about Kentridge's work: his ambivalent embrace of the ephemeral and temporal, seen most hauntingly in his charcoal animations, is thrown into relief in the living breath of three dimensions.

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Refuse the Hour is an unclassifiable work, part installation, part opera, part essay, mostly sheer delight. It opens with a dramatic solo from a drum machine high in the flies, and then Kentridge himself steps forward, holding a large book, and tells us a story: a memory of being told the tale of Perseus and his grandfather Acrisius, King of Argos, at eight years old. In the myth, the oracle's prophecy that Perseus would kill Acrisius is fulfilled by a cruel chance, brought about by his grandfather's attempt to flee his fate. 'No!' says Kentridge's eight-year-old self. 'No, no, no!' Why was Acrisius sitting in that chair, at that time, just as the discus thrown by Perseus flew through the air? Why couldn't it have been another chair? Another time? Another discus?

This instinctive rebellion is the seed of the show, which becomes an argument against time itself, weaving together Einstein's theories (Peter Galison, Professor of History and Science at Harvard, provided the dramaturgy) and the human history of colonisation. Kentridge plays with the idea that we are constantly projected into space, as images of light: if we could travel 3,000 light years away, perhaps we could see Perseus killing his grandfather. And as well as machines projecting ourselves, he says, we are also receptors, constantly receiving signals.

LR Refuse the Hour cr. John Hodgkiss 13Refuse the Hour (photograph by John Hodgkiss)


Time, Kentridge argues, is a human invention. In the sequence called Give Us Back Our Sun!, a celebration of the various African rebellions against colonial rule, he presents universal Greenwich time as an invention of imperial finance that steals the zenith of noon from its proper places. If we invented time, Kentridge implies, we can also uninvent it.

'Aptly for the timbre of the times, the program has a subtext of subversion'

Between these short, intimate meditations are eruptions of song, music, dance, Kentridge's clockwork machines, video projections. Miller's score is anarchically joyous, rich with brass and percussion, combining African rhythms and vocals with extracts from, say, Berlioz, in a mimesis of the energies of colonialism. We first see the extraordinary soprano Ann Masina spot-lit in the first row of the dress circle, singing Le spectre de la rose, with Joanna Dudley in counterpoint, vocalising the words backwards.

For all his status as maestro, Kentridge is a curiously modest figure on the stage. He opens space for all his collaborators to bring their various musical and performance energies to the foreground. In the centre is dancer Dada Masilo, a slender, impish presence whose movement has a charismatic precision. She flickers between the stage and the video projections, perching to watch herself, a mischievous Ariel to Kentridge's Prospero, an alter ego who leaps out and takes over the stage.

In tandem with the performances, Kentridge's surrealist nineteenth-century machines – mutated oil pumps, metronomes, loudhailers – and his videos (edited by Catherine Meyburgh) produce an overload of sensory stimulus which, for all its cacophony, seems never less than poised and elegant. Beneath the show is a molten core of anger and defiance, but it is realised with a lightness, humour, and play that makes the whole irresistible and exhilarating. It is impossible to capture every shade of meaning on a single sitting: the first thing you want to do when Refuse the Hour ends is to watch it all over again.

Aditi Mangaldas's dance Within, a meditation on gender in contemporary India, was also breathtakingly theatrical. Mangaldas is a foremost performer of Kathak, a form of classical Indian dance, and is one of several choreographers, such as Akram Khan, who are bringing Indian classical traditions into the realm of contemporary dance. Within feels at once like an intensely personal work and a powerful cultural statement, a feeling mediated by its dialogue between contemporary theatricality and the narrative gestures of Kathak.

Unlike flamenco, a closely related dance tradition, the movement of Kathak doesn't appear to be rigidly gendered: the same movements – foot stamping, hieratic arm gestures, a central trope of spinning and whirling – belong to both sexes. Mangaldas's company of men and women move fluidly between genders, sometimes seeming androgynous, sometimes explicitly sexed as masculine or feminine.

The dance is in two contrasting parts of forty minutes each. The first, Knotted, is a dark and moving contemporary work inspired by the horrific gang rape in Delhi of the woman known as Nirbhaya, or 'Fearless'. It opens in darkness, with a single sodium-coloured light glowing over the stage, like a streetlight or an ominous sun, through which we glimpse running figures that vanish into the darkness. What follows is, for all its contemporary inspiration and percussive electronic score, a meditation about gods. Mangaldas invokes Brahma's incestuous desire for his daughter Saraswati, and the relationship between Shiva, the transcendent masculine deity, and Shakti, the feminine embodiment of fertility and transformation.

LR Within cr. Dinesh Khanna 06Within (photograph by Dinesh Khanna)

In the centre is Mangaldas herself, a dynamo of feminine power. In the most desolate sequence, she becomes the female body eviscerated, dislocated limbs on the floor of the stage, an object pulsing with appalling violence, before arising from the abyss to defiantly rebuke the gods.

The second part of the diptych, Unwrapped, is a joyous revelation of identity through dance. The music is performed live on stage, and the dancers themselves, bells wrapped around their ankles, feet slapping the stage in intricate rhythms, are as much part of the score as the musicians and singers. Again, the star is Mangaldas, whirling in a passion of disciplined ecstasy that recalls Federico García Lorca's description of the quality of duende: a stripping of form back to its primal passion, an essential emotion that rawly demands our most direct and deepest responses.

Also worthy of more consideration than I can give them here are two solo shows from the United Kingdom, Claire Cunningham's Guide Gods and Jonny Donahoe's Every Brilliant Thing, which provide exemplary contrasts to the larger works. Both are poor theatre in the round, with no tricks: they offer performance stripped of its spectacular dress, in order to speak directly to its audience.

Guide Gods is an exploration of the perceptions of disability in various religions, inspired by a conversation with a Buddhist in Cambodia, who told Cunningham that his disability was the result of karma. Cunningham uses crutches, as she has osteoporosis, and in this gentle, witty show they become agents of her choreography, as she creates movement generated around, of all things, tea cups. It is a democratic and distinctly secular mimesis of the communality of a church service.

Every Brilliant Thing, which tours to the Geelong Performing Arts Centre and the Malthouse Theatre next month, is an unsentimental but irresistibly funny show about suicide and depression. Donahoe enlists his audience as fellow performers, as he tells us of his mother's attempts at suicide and his own subsequent depression. I have seldom seen audience members respond so freely: the performance is generously and skilfully framed to create an aura in which self-consciousness dissolves. And again, by inviting us to be complicit in the making of his show, Donahoe creates a community of understanding. It is at once the least that theatre should attempt, and the most it can achieve. Bravo.

Perth International Arts Festival 2016 runs from 11 February to 6 March 2016.

Arts Update is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation.

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    As a not-quite-indefatigable cultural itinerant, my memories of Perth are all of festival time. Usually, my arrival is the signal for the temperature to leap into the mid-forties, imbuing the experience with a patina of sweat and a dose of climatic paranoia. PIAF 2016, artistic director Wendy ...

You don’t have to be an avid David Bowie fan to be impressed by the breadth and detail of David Bowie Is, currently showing at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne. Imported from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), where it was their most successful show to date, it examines the fifty-year career of one of the most successful solo performers in rock history and his influence on music, film, fashion, and sexuality.

The exhibition contains three hundred items, drawn from the estimated 75,000 objects in the official David Bowie Archive. It includes everything from original lyric sheets, rare photographs, storyboards, sketches, and costumes, to the keys of the West Berlin flat Bowie briefly shared with Iggy Pop in the late 1970s and his collection of J.G. Ballard paperback novels, an influence in the creation of his most famous character, Ziggy Stardust.

‘None of this would have happened if Bowie had not been such a hoarder,’ V&A’s Assistant Curator, Dr Kathryn Johnson, said at the Melbourne launch. Even at the most surreal and difficult point in his career, the mid-1970s, when his drug use was spiralling out of control and his alternative personas threatened to blur into reality, Bowie never stopped collecting. Whether this speaks to a monstrous ego, a sense of historical destiny, or an unstoppable hoarding instinct, we can be thankful, for it allows a vivid examination of Bowie.

Was Bowie an originator who helped shape culture, or a style magpie that picked up on and amplified trends and developments already underway? This unanswered question is central to the exhibition. It examines the broad contours of the singer’s career, starting with his early influences and the better part of a decade he spent playing in various London bands before his first hit, Space Oddity, in 1969. He became an overnight sensation after performing ‘Starman’, from his album Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972), live on the UK television show Top of the Pops. A fictional rock star that communicates with aliens, Stardust was a progenitor of the glam subculture that would soon sweep Britain, and it introduced an ongoing aspect of Bowie’s appeal, his androgynous sexuality.

ACMI David Bowie is 1 Credit Mark Gambino 300pi smaller(photograph by Mark Gambino)

‘Was Bowie an originator who helped shape culture, or a style magpie that picked up on and amplified trends and developments already underway?’

Bowie ditched Stardust and his aesthete, just as glam was entering Britain’s cultural mainstream. He moved to America and embraced ‘plastic soul’, the term given to white musicians playing black music, with albums such as Young Americans (1975) and Station to Station (1976). In the late 1970s he relocated to Berlin, where, in collaboration with Brian Eno, his music took on a moodier, more electronic feel.

His 1980 album, Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) fed into the New Romantic movement that burst onto the UK (and Australian) club scene in the 1980s. Let’s Dance (1983) introduced his next manifestation: Bowie the commercial pop star. He toured sixteen countries with the album and achieved mainstream success. Although Let’s Dance is the point at which much positive critical analysis of Bowie’s work ends, he went on to release a further eleven albums, most recently The Next Day (2013).

David Bowie Is contains numerous entry points to examine the performer’s career. Considerable attention is paid to Bowie’s creative processes, including his song writing methods, concert stage plans, and concept to final realisation album cover designs.

‘David Bowie Is contains numerous entry points to examine the performer’s career’

His film output is also given prominence, an impressive canon stretching from Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), in which Bowie played a stranded alien, to Christopher Nolan’s 2006 film about rival magicians, The Prestige. Bowie’s sartorial influences, as well as many of his most iconic costumes, are featured.

ACMI David Bowie is 3 Credit Mark Gambino 300pi smaller(photograph by Mark Gambino)

Book lovers are also in for a treat, as the exhibition touches on Bowie’s literary influences, such as the Colin MacInnes novel about youth subculture in 1950s London, Absolute Beginners (1959), William Burroughs’s The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead (1969), and Christopher Isherwood’s semi-autobiographical Goodbye to Berlin (1939).

Key to the immersive experience is the headphone kit issued to each visitor. The technology, developed by German audio company Sennheiser, broadcasts different music, voice clips and other sounds, automatically adjusting as you stop at particular exhibits. The kit delivers an experience that is rich and intimate. It enables the visitor to simultaneously experience sound, vision, and physical artefacts from key moments in the singer’s career, such as his seminal Starman performance.

David Bowie Is delivers a fascinating overview of Bowie’s career. It is also a whirlwind tour of post-World War II youth culture, encompassing everything from surrealism and avant-garde mime to science fiction, the Beats, and alternative sexualities.

Coinciding with the exhibition, ACMI is hosting a range of side events, talks, film screenings and performances.

David Bowie Is runs until November 1. For program and ticketing information visit the ACMI website.

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Monday, 21 July 2014 12:59

Jandamarra (Sydney Symphony Orchestra)

For two non-indigenous artists to take a story that has deep meaning for an indigenous community and turn it into a dramatic cantata is an exploit fraught with danger. Australian culture is littered with attempts by white artists to incorporate indigenous themes into their works; works which have foundered due to their authors’ patronising assumption that they can appropriate the trappings of another culture and use them as decoration for what are essentially European-style creations.

This is a snare that Steve Hawke and Paul Stanhope have triumphantly avoided with Jandamarra, a retelling of a story from the Bunuba people of the Kimberley. The concept of a dramatic cantata is of course a European one, but Hawke, whose connection to the Kimberley stretches back over thirty years, has worked closely with the Bunuba to tell this story of theirs.

image 1 jandamarraEmmanuel Brown as Jandamarra (Credit: Jane Dempster)

The story itself, which is based on fact, is a bleak one. As a boy in the late nineteenth century, Jandamarra alternated between living a tribal life and working on the newly established pastoral stations that were springing up in the region. At Lillimooloora Station, he developed a friendship with its loner manager, Bill Richardson. When Richardson left the station to become a policeman, Jandamarra went with him as his tracker. In this role he assisted the police in their capturing and jailing many of his own people, but his ambivalent position became too much for him. When he and Richardson captured a large number of Bunuba elders, Jandamarra changed sides, shot Richardson, and rejoined his people. The whites’ reprisals were brutal. Jandamarra waged a guerrilla war against them in which his extraordinary ability to avoid capture made him a legendary figure. It took another legendary tracker, Mingo Mick, to find him and shoot him, but Jandamarra’s reputation as a heroic defender of his people lives on.

Hawke and Stanhope, using massive forces to tell their tale, have taken this sad, brutal story and developed it into a powerful and moving work. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra was joined by the baritone Simon Lobelson and members of the Yilimbirri Ensemble and the Gondwana Choirs.

Jandamarra’s story is told in a linear fashion from his childhood friendship with the white son of a settler family to his death, but running alongside this factual account is the deeper spiritual current of the Yilimbirri Junba, a story song of the Bunuba which tells how the rainbow snake Yilimbirri Unggud deserts its people during the conflict between Jandamarra and the settlers. Jandamarra has to sing it home so that the land can heal.

Stanhope’s dramatic, approachable score includes traditional music from the Kimberley to great effect, and the Yilimbirri singers made a powerful contribution to the performance. In a show of defiance, the captured Bunuba elders start up a traditional chant which hammers its way into the skull of the drunken Richardson, sending him into a frenzy. Later, all forces combine in the beautiful Dirrari Lament, a requiem for Jandamarra.

Hawke uses two narrators: the settler Mary Bligh, whose son was Jandamarra’s boyhood friend, and Jini, Jandamarra’s mother. They give both a white and an indigenous perspective. Margaret Mills and Patsy Bedford imbued their roles with quiet dignity. Emmanuel Brown, who played Jandamarra, and the other men who act out the Bunuba elders, were telling their own story and made up in authenticity what they might have lacked in theatrical polish.

The Gondwana choirs, under their long-time founding director, Lyn Williams, covered themselves with glory. From the exposed prelude, ‘This Land is Full of Spirits’, to the grand finale, ‘This is Our Home’, they sang with beauty, accuracy, clarity, and superb diction. Conductor Brett Weymark kept his massive and disparate forces together and shaped the music with skill.

image 2 jandamarraCredit Jane Dempster

The audience’s overwhelmingly positive response at the final performance, which I attended and which I understand was equalled at the two previous ones, should give us hope that this ambitious collaborative work will soon be heard again.

Sydney Symphony Orchestra's production of Jandamarra, created by composer Paul Stanhope and librettist Steve Hawke, ran on the 16-18 July at Sydney Opera House concert hall. Performance attended 18 July.

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Monday, 07 July 2014 10:05

Hedda Gabler

Hedda Gabler (1890) occupies a somewhat schizophrenic position in Henrik Ibsen’s work. On the one hand, it is normally seen as the apotheosis of Ibsen’s realist period, his sardonic homage to the fashionable ‘well-made play’ of the time. But, on the other hand, from early in its theatrical life there have been productions which have reacted against the naturalistic style in which the play seems to have been couched.

The Russian director Vslevold Meyerhold’s 1906 production had Hedda centrally enthroned while the rest of the cast struck poses and declaimed their lines in a monotone apparently so as to downplay the personal relationships and concentrate on Ibsen’s attack on bourgeois society. Ingmar Bergman’s iconic Swedish production, which electrified London audiences when Peter Daubeny imported it in one of his world theatre seasons in 1968 and which Bergman revived not so successfully for the National Theatre, concentrated on Hedda’s psyche. Bergman divided the stage with a centre panel, so that the audience saw not only the room in which the play is normally set but also the inner room to which Hedda retreats and throughout the play she could be seen pacing, staring at her reflection, and playing with her father’s pistols.

IbsenHenrik Ibsen (1906)

These two very different approaches highlight the central enigma of the play’s protagonist. Is Hedda simply a psychopath, a narcissist with a tendency towards melodrama, or is she a captive of her era, a woman of strength and intelligence whose fear of scandal has condemned her to a limited, meaningless existence and has warped her judgement?

‘We are a long way from Ibsen – closer perhaps to performance art or some Zen nightmare.’

Neither of these questions is answered or indeed even asked in the train wreck that calls itself Hedda Gabler at the Belvoir. In the original play, Hedda is a true product of her hidebound, nineteenth-century provincial society. The haute-bourgeois daughter of a general, married to Tesman, a dull, decent academic, she is fascinated by his unstable rival, Ejlert Lövborg, whom she romanticises into some sort of Dionysian figure with whom she never had the nerve to have an affair. She is willing to enter into a discreet ménage à trois with Judge Brack, but lacks the courage to do what the outwardly more conventional Thea Elvsted does and leave her husband. For some reason that, judging from her program notes, does not seem clear even to the director, Adena Jacobs, the play has been set in the present in a sort of dream America. This immediately negates the idea of a woman trapped by social convention. In nineteenth-century Europe, for an upper-class young woman to lose her virginity to a drunken reprobate, however romantic he might seem, would have been a dangerous step to take. In the present day, it would seem to be simply a rite of passage. Moreover, Ibsen contrasts Hedda’s cowardice with the courage of Thea Elvsted, who is willing to do what then would have been considered unthinkable and leave her husband to be with another man, something that is now an everyday occurance.

 14553115911 975c89b887 zMarcus Graham as Brack and Ash Flanders as Hedda Gabler (photograph by Ellis Parrinder)

Having removed the social context in which the characters operate, one might think that Jacobs would have concentrated on the relationships between them. But the play has been so cut, or butchered, that we have the barest understanding of who these people are and how they interact. We lose Hedda’s edgy relationship with Tesman’s aunt Julie and her sarcastic put-downs of the servant Berte. Most of the banter between Hedda and Brack that clearly underlines their power play has gone. With the density of the play removed, what we are left with is a bunch of actors wandering onstage to give us the barest of plot points, which are punctuated by endless musical interludes. We are a long way from Ibsen – closer perhaps to performance art or some Zen nightmare.

Given the circumstances, it may be unfair to comment on the actors, but here goes. The stalwarts, Lynette Curran as Julie and Marcus Graham as Brack, do their best to provide some sort of characterisation and momentum, but they end up defeated. Of the rest, Tim Walter’s Tesman hardly registers. As Lövborg, Oscar Redding drastically lacks the charisma central to the role. Anna Houston as Thea is an embarrassment, and Branden Christine as Berte skulks around to no great purpose.

what on earthTim Walter as Tesman (photograph by Ellis Parrinder)

And then there is Ash Flanders. There is no reason why a man should not play Hedda. One can imagine what the great Charles Ludlam must have made of the part when he played it in Pittsburg. His Camille, which I was lucky enough to witness, was an amazing blend of gender, camp, melodrama, and tragedy – artifice which led us to truth. Flanders’s whiny, one-note performance leads us nowhere and gives us no clue as to why he was cast.

How this disaster made it on to the main stage of the Belvoir is something that management need to consider.

Belvoir St Theatre’s production of Hedda Gabler, adapted by Adena Jacobs from the play by Henrik Ibsen, and directed by Adena Jacobs, runs until 3 August 2014 at Belvoir’s Upstairs Theatre. Performance attended 3 July.

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When Brecht wrote The Good Person of Szechuan (1939–42), he had been influenced by the colour and brashness of Chinese theatre, whose archetypal heroes and villains underpinned his concept of the Alienation Effect. Brecht, ever the political theorist, wasn’t interested in characters with whom the audience empathised, or of employing Stanislavski-based acting techniques that strove to reach emotional truths. His Verfremdungseffekt was designed to shake audiences out of apathy and make them recognise capitalist society’s inherent corruption and amorality, so that they would take action both inside and outside the theatrical space. The play was first produced in 1943 and, though set in distant China for convenience (much less likely to lead to any censorship), skewers the West’s disregard for misery and poverty and its indifference towards the needs of the people.

This timeless morality tale lends itself to contemporary reinterpretation. When the Gods come to earth to seek one good soul, the only person to give them refuge is the streetwalker Shen Te. They reward her with a thousand pieces of silver, with which she buys a small tobacconist’s shop. Soon she is beset by hangers-on, conmen, and a fickle pilot who claims to love her, though he is simply after her money. She disguises herself as her male cousin Shui Ta in a bid to assert control and independence. At the end, she is left alone, pregnant and penniless. The Gods, of course, retreat, telling Shen Te they cannot meddle in economics and urging her to continue being good.

‘[The Good Person of Szechuan] is coarse, funny, cheeky, and hugely entertaining.’

This Malthouse Theatre collaboration with the National Theatre of China (NTC) is the first in a series of exchanges between the two companies. The production will tour to China later in the year, and the Malthouse’s artistic director, Marion Potts, will direct at NTC in 2015. The Good Person of Szechuan is an inspired choice and a firecracker of a production. Much of its boisterous energy comes from director Meng Jinghui, who bores into the satire with verve, vulgarity, and vim. His Good Person is by no means didactic (which can sometimes happen when Brecht is over-intellectualised). It is coarse, funny, cheeky, and hugely entertaining. Meng has built a reputation as an iconoclast, and his trademark directorial style mixes street smarts with commedia dell’arte, over-the-top melodrama with a rapper’s beat. At its core, the play is a vehicle for tight ensemble work, for the ever-present cast act as chorus, double up in roles, give all they have got in a gym dance workout, and sing asuccession of politically charged and moralising songs. These, composed by The Sweats, get the feet tapping and drive the action forward. For the most part (there are a few directorial excesses resulting in occasional messiness), the ensemble work is exceptional, the actors hamming up the drama with engaging in-your-face directness.

image onePictured (L-R) – Josh Price, Emily Milledge, Genevieve Giuffre, Aljin Abella, Richard Pyros, Bert LaBonte, Daniel Frederiksen (Photograph by Pia Johnson)

Moira Finucane – Meng Jinghui’s first choice to play the dual role of Shen Te and Shui Ta – is perfectly cast. Best known as a cabaret artist, she brings her knowledge of Weimar-style expressionistic performance to her interpretation, a quality often noted in Brecht’s own productions. Her Shen Te is quietly idealistic, while Shui Ta snarls and saunters around the stage in a slick pant suit and shades. The underlying messages of gender switch have much more resonance today than they did in1943, giving the text a rich, contemporary grittiness that explores what it means to be a woman in a man’s world.

The translation process of the production is a tale in itself. The play’s adapter, Tom Wright, worked from an English translation of the German text, which was then re-translated into Mandarin. All rehearsals took place with an English interpreter in situ, conveying Meng’s direction to the cast. It is remarkable, under the circumstances, that the finished product is so close to Brecht’s original. There has been little contraction and omission, and the essence of the play remains intact.

image 2Moira Finucane as Shen Te (photograph by Pia Johnson)

If there are passages that are lost in translation, they are few, and probably based on directorial choices. At one point, the cast put on animal tails and prowl around the stage. If this is to symbolise that the world is a jungle, this is over-obvious, even in a production that emphasises shock value over subtlety. (There is one brief, but unnecessary, flash of male genitalia). In Brecht’s text, Shen Te is given a gripping monologue in which she laments the exploitation of children for commercial gain. Meng’s version has Finucane placing baby dolls around the stage, and as the dolls slump and lean into each other, the set resembles a bizarre, abandoned orphanage. Out of context, this comes across as puzzling, although the image itself is powerful.

For Brecht, the last sight of Shen Te is of her pregnant and alone. Meng shows her giving birth on stage to a lump of concrete, a shrewdly conceived finale that echoes designer Marg Howell’s setting of a twenty-first-century Chinese slum of huts and garbage bins, in the shadow of a brilliantly illuminated high-rise tower. In this China, this world, morality is determined by political and financial systems, and millions have been left behind, despite so-called economic miracles.

The Good Person of Szechuan by Bertold Brecht, adapted by Tom Wright, directed by Meng Jinghui, Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse Theatre, 27 June–20 July. Performance attended 2 July 2014.

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Wednesday, 28 May 2014 13:39

Night on bald mountain

Goats are ubiquitous in the work of Patrick White. Start looking for them and they appear everywhere, staring out, page after page, with wise, tranquil eyes, pellets scattering like secrets into dust.

White bred goats, of course, Saanen goats, or tried to, while living at Castle Hill, and it is clear that the goat-mind made a profound impression. ‘One day I’m going to write a novel about goats with human beings to make it appear more “moral”,’ he wrote to his American publisher in 1953, ‘but only to enjoy the great luxury of writing about the goats.’ And he nearly did, two years later, when he wrote of a doomed explorer coming upon a desolate interior populated only by wild goats, descendants of a fabled Ur-goat:

All was, indeed, headed downward. The world was slanted that way, a herd of goats clinging to it. The hoofs of these animals clicked, their horns slashed, their pellets spattered, as they slit the scrub open, or nibbled at the blades of grey grass. Yellow eyes looked only once at the rider. Then the goats were dashing down, down, down, deeper than all else. Soon their bobbing tails were lost.

The rider and his party follow them down. And yet, in the moral universe of Voss (1957) even goats must yield to the obliterating naïveté of the explorer and his epic dream-genius. Voss, in the end, is not a book about goats.

NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAINMiss Quodling (Julie Forsyth) and one of her goats (photograph by Pia Johnson)

It is in a play, Night on Bald Mountain, and not a novel, that White finally managed his caprine homage. The play, first performed in 1964, is about a domineering husband and his wilful, dipsomaniac wife, a couple whose mutual loathing ultimately destroys more than just their own happiness. On the slopes around their isolated mansion, a herd of goats, honest creatures and blissfully uninhibited, roam free among the runty apple trees and sad rose bushes, waiting only for the end of time.

In this fine new Malthouse Theatre production, directed by Matthew Lutton, the theme of eternal goatish enthusiasm – a kind of music, or a way of breathing – is deployed to beautiful effect. The evening’s highlight is a brilliant performance by Julie Forsyth as Miss Quodling, the ancient goatherd whose rambling dithyrambs, full of pity, exaltation and dread, bookend the play. This rough, oracular spirit, herself part goat in wisdom and simplicity, is a remarkable creation, and it is hard to imagine a better interpreter than Forsyth.

The play is a tragedy but an unusual one, a brooding, restless work full of narrative ambiguities and jagged tonal shifts, awkward exposition, and toppling melodrama. For all its virtues, Bald Mountain is a difficult play to make sense of, and Lutton poses as many questions as he answers. It is a thoughtful, even mature treatment, and Lutton never forces a naturalistic explanation where the script can’t support it. His emphasis, sensibly, is on the rhythm and music of White’s words.

‘The theme of eternal goatish enthusiasm ... is deployed to beautiful effect.’

Indeed there is something operatic in the experience. Designer Dale Ferguson has created a sort of monumental, bare, timber ziggurat, which doubles as both house and mountain. High up on the edifice’s top level, gifted Danish double bassist and singer Ida Duelund Hansen provides accompaniment with an original suite of melancholic landscape songs, an ethereal, whistling music in striking counterpoint to David Franke’s abrasive sound design.

Like Neil Armfield’s Belvoir St production in Sydney eighteen years ago, this production will surprise and baffle. How could it have taken fifty years for this play to get a professional Melbourne première? One reason is that White himself suppressed Bald Mountain during his own lifetime, telling Armfield that he thought the play was ‘dishonest’. It is hard to know what he might have meant by this. The bitter falling-out with director John Tasker, the play’s first director, probably had something to do with it. Bald Mountain may also have come to represent for White the sins of the theatre combined, particularly the seductions of collaboration.

It could also be that White felt the play showed his influences too plainly. Ibsen and Strindberg are clearly present, and we see in this production Lutton emphasising particularly the Strindbergian, impressionistic dreamlike qualities of the first act. The great triad of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee also shadow Bald Mountain. O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, a play that White once called ‘a lumbering bore’, is an unavoidable comparison, and Melita Jurisic’s mannered performance only emphasises the kinship. If we do want to know what White meant by ‘dishonest’, it’s only because the play itself seems to beg an explanation.

Nikki Shiels is well cast as the youthful, wholesome Sister Stella Summerhayes, the nurse fatally caught in the warring couple’s crossfire. She has measured out to perfection Stella’s mix of innocence and experience, but even her nuanced performance can’t make sense of the play’s bizarre dénouement. White simply did not prepare the way – in naturalistic, psychological terms – for Stella’s final breakdown. So she cannot be treated as one of Strindberg’s psychosexual suicides. Instead, her climactic fall has more in it of a ritualised offering, a gesture toward reconciliation. Stella becomes the scapegoat, if you like, of Bald Mountain. Is Lutton’s ziggurat actually closer to a Mesoamerican temple, a palace of bloody sacrifice, a place where innocent hearts are torn out?

It has been suggested that Professor Hugo Sword, the authoritarian professor of English studies tormented by artistic ambition, is Patrick White’s revenge on A.D. Hope, who famously dismissed White’s The Tree of Man (1955) as ‘pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge’. That thrust wounded White badly, and he in turn described Hope as an ‘embittered schoolmaster and a poet of a certain distinction’. This is a neat fit for Professor Sword, whose poetic effusions are at one point described as ‘the sludge of an uncreative ... lascivious ... literate mind’. When we first meet Peter Carroll’s Sword, he is wearing a similar wide-brimmed fedora to the one worn by Hope in the portrait by Loui Seselja. He even has the same smug, forced smile of the famous old professorial goat.

‘Like Neil Armfield’s Belvoir St production in Sydney eighteen years ago, this production will surprise and baffle.’

Carroll conveys the meanness and desiccation of this haunted, erudite eroticist, but he doesn’t naturally radiate the sort of cool, almost Apollonian authority that is supposed to explain Sword’s power over Miriam and Stella (White himself imagined Michael Redgrave in the role). What Carroll does bring, however, is an intimation of Sword’s poisoned, gothic soul. The final scenes of the second act, with Miriam drunk again, howling, losing her shape, drooping heavily, elderly and angular, while Hugo, all furious insect activity, disposes of the contraband grog, are powerfully done.

One should also note among the storm and stress, Sue Jones’ s hilarious, note-perfect performance as Mrs Sibley, the housekeeper. But the night is really about goats, or rather Miss Quodling, their guardian in this world, and Julie Forsyth is the outstanding embodiment of this idyllic, soulful creature. It was Thelma Herring who first described Night on Bald Mountain as Patrick White’s ‘goat-song’, an apt description which points us past the swirl of influences, surfaces, and compromises toward the play’s deeper, animating spirit, which is tragic and uncomforted, and expresses an almost primordial longing for that simplicity and naturalness of being, which finds its best and most noble expression in the goat.

This is a fascinating production which doesn’t flinch from the real difficulties posed by the script; but neither does it hesitate in celebrating the play’s triumphs, its high emotion, its comic interludes, and, most of all, its magnificent, rhapsodic enthusiasm. 

Patrick White’s Night on Bald Mountain, directed by Matthew Lutton and presented by Malthouse Theatre, runs at the Merlyn Theatre until 25 May 2014. Performance attended 8 May 2014.

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Thursday, 22 May 2014 03:40

Wolf Hall on Stage

Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall has now been dramatised, along with its sequel, Bring up the Bodies. Brian McFarlane, a regular ABR film and theatre critic, caught the new Royal Shakespeare Company production in London.

If, like me, you were not a fan of Hilary Mantel’s historical doorstops, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring up the Bodies (2012), you might have approached the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production with apprehension. If, like the others – and their name is legion – you were besotted with this literary phenomenon, you might have had different grounds for apprehension. Neither I nor all those others needed to worry: the play is an unqualified success.

Aficionados must have wondered how Wolf Hall’s 600 pages of intricate conspiracies could be rendered down to play-length, while that smaller group who found Mantel’s writing ‘curiously flat and leaden’, as the Sunday Times reviewer had, wondered if we could cope with listening to it for so long at a stretch. In the event, it must be said that Mantel and Mike Poulton, who collaborated on the adaptation, have made a coherent, lucid, and absorbing drama.

'Mantel and Mike Poulton, who collaborated on the adaptation, have made a coherent, lucid, and absorbing drama.'

In Jeremy Herrin’s skilful production, the crucial lines of the drama are clearly established (not always the case in the novel) and developed. This is a story about the humbly born Thomas Cromwell, who becomes essential to foxy Cardinal Wolsey and then to charismatic Henry VIII, awkwardly placed between wives. Problems and intrigues abound: how can the king divorce Catherine in Catholic England? If the marriage is annulled does this make their daughter Mary a bastard? Henry wants to bed and wed Anne Boleyn, but so do a lot of other chaps. In securing his place in and around court, Cromwell emerges as the supreme courtier, negotiator, manipulator – and survivor.

Ben Miles (Cromwell) creates a riveting sense of how these roles are played out. There is also something strangely likeable about the Cromwell who emerges. This is partly the result of the brief domestic moments in which he is glimpsed as husband and father, but it is also in the play’s unfaltering command of an idiom that somehow belongs to our own period as well to the one in which it is set.

Cromwell is of course at the centre of the play, but the adaptation offers a potent sense of the larger actions swirling round him. There is the arrest of Wolsey for high treason, with a sudden, wildly fantastic but not wholly successful imagining of his being received into the jaws of Hell. There is the rendering of Henry’s dealings with Catherine and Anne, the former hanging on grimly while the latter (she’ll be sorry) works the field and measures her chances. And there is the clash with Thomas More, inevitably echoing Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons (1960) with its very different image of Cromwell. There is a lot going on in the land’s highest circles, but the play’s strength is in the way it focuses our attention on Cromwell and how he deals with each new challenge to his negotiating skills – and to his own flawed humanity.

The staging of Wolf Hall is both elegant and eloquent. The play opens on a bare stage with a large crucifix seemingly built into its back wall, and with a look of unyielding concrete about the side-walls and a sense of threat about the overhanging metal structures. These perform no realistic function, but, combined with the grim stony blocks of wall, there is a foreshadowing of the events to come. Lives that will end in the tower, that is. However, this ominous setting is also capable of exhilarating transformations, by lighting, costume, and actor placement, as in the coronation scene, or by a sudden whirl of dancers or a boatload of men being rowed down the Thames. But the threat, properly, is never quite dispelled.

Without recourse to too much cod-Elizabethan language, the characters contrive to create a sense of modernity without loss of history. This is especially so in the dealings between Cromwell and Wolsey (and his red garb is a major visual contrast with his severely costumed underlings), and Miles and Paul Jesson make most effective use of this linguistic hybridity. Nathaniel Parker’s Henry is slower to come to such vivid life, but by the play’s second act he has commanded the stage as he should, and his and Cromwell’s scenes are now as compelling as the earlier ones between Cromwell and Wolsey.

Wolf Hall imageNathaniel Parker (Henry VIII) and Lydia Leonard (Anne Boleyn)
(Photograph by Keith Pattison)

In this dark world, sumptuously gowned women are a welcome addition in the grim zone of men. There is a lovely Act One curtain when a sweet young woman, when asked who she is, says, ‘Oh, I’m nobody – only Jane Seymour.’ She is as predictive as those concrete walls. Those playing Catherine (Lucy Briers) and Anne (Lydia Leonard) do ample justice to their different sources of ambition and vulnerability. In a perhaps idiosyncratic response, I was disconcerted by the resemblance of the actress playing Anne to that earlier exquisite Anne, Merle Oberon, of the famous film The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933).

For those daunted by the book’s length, I recommend the play. Apart from its other virtues, it’s all over in three hours.

Wolf Hall, Royal Shakespeare Company, Aldwych Theatre, London, limited season 1 May – 6 September 2014. Performance attended 15 May 2014

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Thursday, 01 May 2014 09:39

Strictly Ballroom

When culture worships youth, what does an ageing artist make of his myth?

Most viewers of Strictly Ballroom: The Musical will enjoy themselves to a certain extent and for a certain duration. While my own misgivings were frequent, the large audience received the show warmly and rose, albeit half-heartedly, at the curtain call. The show rests on the shapely spray-tanned shoulders of a large and scantily clad ensemble singing and dancing in unison. Whatever the cost to clarity, the effect is impressive and, occasionally, even hypnotic. That said, Strictly Ballroom: The Musical is mostly pretty awful.

The lead performances from Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos are underwhelming. While Lacey’s Scott is dynamic, he lacks the charisma and humour of Paul Mercurio’s portrayal in Baz Luhrmann’s film Strictly Ballroom (1992). Panaretos fares better; she retains some sense of character throughout the giddy medley that comprises the drama. Her portrayal of Fran cracks when forced, by poor dramaturgy, into a rendition of Doris Day’s sultry ‘Perhaps, Perhaps’, preceded and succeeded by her habitually timid dialogue.

The supporting cast is solid. Fernando Mira and Natalie Gamsu lend the piece a fleeting dignity as Rico and Abuela, and Robert Grubb’s Barry Fife, pitched somewhere between Stalin and Dad and Dave, menaces and diverts.

It is competently staged, the first act featuring a bravura visual soliloquy in which Scott dances to the accompaniment of mirror-wielding doppelgängers. As the images do not build a coherent visual world, however, their effect dissipates in transition. Serving neither character nor story, they are spectacle without substance.

Strictly-Ballroom-PhotoA scene from Lurhmann's Strictly Ballroom: The Musical
(photograph supplied)

The publicity campaign heavily emphasised audience participation,but inclusive theatre is notoriously difficult to pull off. It is best when working towards a clear social end, within an intimate community, as exemplified by Augusto Boal’s ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’. The yawning Lyric is far from intimate, and ‘Randwick’s as close as you get to the beach’, a line from the saccharine number ‘Everyone Is Beautiful When They Dance’, demonstrates the extent of our oppression.After curtain, a handful of the ensemble – short straws presumably – lead those so inclined on stage to dance. Some fifty to a hundred rise and sway, the rest of us eye the exits and realise that whatever the song says, most aren’t. Strictly Ballroom aims for euphoria, but trades on a sadder Greek word. For an equal portion of nostalgia, a deal more irony, and cheaper drinks, I recommend a Cold Chisel tribute at your local.

This is broad art, but recognisably human characters and a coherent progression of emotional stakes augmented by music and light – in short, theatre – are not the prerogative of Puccini. Les Misérables has it, Gilbert and Sullivan have it, West Side Story has it, and Luhrmann’s earlier films have it in abundance. Strictly Ballroom: The Musical does not, and for $145 an adult ticket one can do a great deal better.

‘Success has done Luhrmann few favours.’

Success has done Luhrmann few favours. Director and essayist Anne Bogart emphasises the importance of what she calls resistance. At all levels of negotiation – producer with director, director with actor, and actor with audience – resistance and difficulty, both in production and in the work, stand in for the knowledge of death against which we judge art, particularly live performance. In fantastic works like Luhrmann’s, a natural tension between the quotidian self and the freedom of performance should foreground resistance, but over the last decade his art has shown precious little.

Strictly Ballroom was filmed on a shoestring, and the humility of its mise en scène is a virtue. The pathos of Fran and Scott’s rooftop dance is inseparable from the threadbare clothes that dangle from the Hills Hoist above them. The later Red Curtain films were lavish, but their opulence served the dreams of actors and lovers, and the dream was seen to end.

The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern describes Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013) as ‘a spectacle in search of a soul’, and the film exemplifies the director’s tendency of late to aestheticise – and thereby trivialise – pain. Gatsby’s death, shot through the heart with an absurd ‘Daisy’ on his lips, has more nostalgia in it than pity. DiCaprio falls backward into a perfectly circular pool. Floating cruciform against a liquid sun, the years fall from his face. The image recalls Romeo in the pool beneath Juliet’s balcony, when DiCaprio was angelically beautiful and Luhrmann made brilliantly innovative films.

Strictly-Ballroom-Photo-2Strictly Ballroom: The Musical
(photograph supplied)

Most of Luhrmann’s works feature the artist’s face at the foot of the cross. In Strictly Ballroom, a young artist escapes the influence of a domineering mother. Romeo + Juliet (1996) and Moulin Rouge! (2001) centre on poets seduced by images. In Gatsby, a storied millionaire wanders among his own guests, searching for the love of his youth, but more intently for the youth who loved her.

This recreation embodies two facets of its director: an emcee maniacally offering delights like a sequined Mephistopheles, and Doug Hastings, a sad middle-aged man dancing to an empty theatre. If this musical was Luhrmann’s attempt to rediscover the gods of his youth, the production attests they have long departed, or grown old. 

Strictly Ballroom: The Musical, directed by Baz Luhrmann, now showing at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre. Performance attended April 10.

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