Andante Ma Non Troppo

(Move Forward but in a Slow Way)

Written & Directed Jimena C. Puente-Treviño; Sydney Jewish Museum, 12 December, 2012.

Reviewed : 12 December, 2012

Photo : supplied

There are many stories of miraculous escapes from dangerous and oppressive conditions. All of them are daring, all are celebratory –  all remind us of the ruthless brutality of those who callously and relentlessly seek power over others. Telling and re-telling those stories  those stories commit them to history. They are lived experiences that record events that should never have occurred – and should never happen again.

How they are retold varies and that is important, because the more varied the methods, the wider their appeal. The way they are retold reaches out further than the immediate audience. Those that hear them pass them on. They trigger discussions and ideas – for interviews, documentaries, books, films, charities, organisations.

No stories have been so widely and sensitively told and recorded than those defiant, courageous people who escaped from the Nazi regime – and those few who survived the horror of the Nazi concentration camps. They have been recorded in interviews, memoirs, books and films. They are harrowing, their vividly detail recording small acts of courage, bravery and tenacity in the face of inhuman cruelty.

Photo : supplied

The stories include small acts of audaciousness and defiance, often told with humour. One of these stories has been recorded in a short film by Sydney-based, Mexican-born Jimena Puente-Trevino. It tells the story of Jewish-German cellist, Felix Robert Mendelssohn who escaped across the border into Switzerland on a bicycle carrying his Stradivarius cell in a bag on his back.

Puente-Trevino researched the historical facts of the film with the aid of the Sydney Jewish Museum over ten years ago. It was produced in France with an international cast and crew in 2008 and has since won several international festival awards including the Best Screenplay award at the New York Short Film Festival.

Andante Ma Non Troppo saw its Australian premiere at the Sydney Jewish Museum last Sunday. Introduced by Puente-Trevino herself, the film was enthusiastically received. Filmed in black and white, it captures the time perfectly. Mendelssohn’s ingenuity and doggedness in the face of the ridicule of Nazi border guards is told with gentle humour and creative realism.

The ambitious filmmaker’s next project was shared with the audience via a script reading by four actors. It is based on the story of Michael Wionczeck, a Polish Jew forced underground in Nazi Germany. It records Wionczeck’s daring resistance plan to smuggle photographic evidence of the atrocities carried out at the Mauthausen concentration camp – and get them to the international press.

Titled “20.04.45”, Puente-Trevino’s script has already been shortlisted in three international script writing competitions. Last Sunday’s reading confirmed why. The writing is finely tuned, the story board tightly described, the characters clear, the tenacity of Wionczeck and his quest skilfully retold.

Photo : supplied

The script has attracted the interest of many in the film industry and is being developed for production in association with UK producer Jo Austin at Candid Films in Sydney.

As is the case with so many creative ventures, funding is essential, and Puente-Trevino is reaching out across the industry for support – so her new script can record yet another story of brave determination and daring for a wider audience.

 

Death of A Salesman

By Arthur Miller. Sydney Theatre Company. Director: Paige Rattray. Roslyn Packer Theatre. 3rd to 22nd December, 2021.

Reviewed : 8 December, 2021

Photo : Prudence Upton

Death of a Salesman is a ‘modern tragedy’ that follows all the traditions of Greek tragedy –   except that Arthur Miller’s tragic hero, Willy Loman, is not a ‘noble’. He is just a ‘common man’ who has realised he has no chance of achieving the American Dream – namely that “life can be better for every person if he or she has the opportunity and willingness to work hard— regardless of their background or social class”.

Growing up in Brooklyn during the Depression and the Second World War had taught Miller that “some people would never be able to realize that dream, no matter how hard they worked”. Willy Loman is one of those ‘people’ and the realities of what he sees as the failure of his life haunt him constantly.

 

Willy is flawed, and is eventually destroyed by his own weaknesses, yet, like all tragic heroes, those weaknesses resonate with his audiences and arouse their pity – and their fear, as they realise that he sees death as his only redemption.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Willy and Linda Loman and their sons Biff and Happy have walked on many stages and the silver screen since Death of a Salesman first opened in New York in 1949. Their story has been summarised in many program notes, their characters carefully analysed, Miller’s themes intricately probed and explored. Over 72 years, their tragedy has been interpreted by many directors, each of whom faced the challenge of making their production ‘new’, whilst staying true to the characters and to Miller’s juxtaposition of the facets of tragedy.

 

Paige Rattray’s production is true to both. She, with set designer David Fleischer, has used the vast space of the Roslyn Packer stage to recreate, cunningly, the scale and atmosphere of an ancient Greek amphitheatre, albeit enclosed by a high, looming ceiling. In an interview in 1999, Arthur  Miller said  he had intended to call the play ‘The Inside of His Head’ and that “The original set I saw as the gigantic interior of a skull and the whole play played inside it.” Fleischer’s set captures that vision.

The stage is a vast room, its towering walls and ceiling coloured a dull bluish-green like a film of Verdigris tarnishing the lives within. Tall windows reaching high on stage left allow intermittent light to filter through. Tall doors face them on stage right. A split level upstage is surrounded by a disintegrating wooden frame. A small, square table, mismatched chrome chairs and a fridge are the meagre props.

So many symbols face the audience if they are looking for them. The high walls  and uncurtained windows symbolise the apartments towering above the Lomans’ home, looking in on their simple life. The verdigris walls symbolise the stain of their debts, the disintegrating frame, the things that need repair and the fridge and car that break down before they’re paid off …

 

In this enormous void, the characters exist, dwarfed by the complications of their lives, the futility that is engulfing them just like the new, high tenements around them have engulfed their home, swallowing up the green spaces, demolishing the trees, creating shadows where nothing will grow …

This atmosphere of oppression is emphasised in the costumes (Teresa Negroponte). Greys and browns predominate in Willy’s depressed reality. It is only the ghost of his wealthy brother Ben that brings lighter hues, and the garish restaurant where Biff and Happy fail to break his despair.

Lighting designer Paul Jackson  and composer Clemence Williams work together to underscore the turmoil of the action. Clemence eerily picks up on the reference to the flutes that Willy’s father made and sold, letting their sounds infiltrate his effects, piercing at times, softly betraying at others, shadows of the past, harbingers of a grey future. Jackson uses a battery of lights beside and beyond the stage infiltrate the set with more visible shadows and darker portents.

 

Rattray uses her cast to double as a traditional Greek chorus. Led by The Woman (Brigid Zengeni) they watch the action, their still scrutiny broken only to become a character in Willy’s memory, or to bring in a prop or move a chair. Zengeni herself is a constant energy force on the stage – still, observant – a distanced but pervasive presence, leading the audience into the turmoil of Willy’s mind in a voice that is analytically authoritative.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Rattray skilfully balances ancient form and contemporary style in this production where Miller’s characters are dwarf-like figures in a cavernous space much like Miller imagined originally. The emptiness highlights the futility of Willy’s thwarted ambition – and allows the actors to find the disturbing dimensions of their characters.

Jacek Koman is heart-breakingly believable as Willy. He mercurially moves Willy from despair to joy, from desolation to hope with a store of energy that is unflagging. Even when he stands, rigidly still, he imbues Willy with a restlessness that is unnerving. In the final scenes that restlessness becomes a turbulent force that sweeps through the audience in an inaudible gasp.

 

Helen Thomson balances that restlessness with Linda Loman’s relentless loyalty and devotion. She is still when Willy paces. She bites her tongue when he interrupts. She waits tolerantly, holding his jacket, while he prevaricates. She hedges her reminders of debts owing and broken fixtures with gentle patience. Yet Thomson still manages to infer a fear that keeps Linda constantly vigilant.

Biff is the son in whom Willy placed so much hope – hope that Biff saw as a burden that led him to failure after failure. Josh McConville carries that burden in a carefully taut performance that sees Biff’s resentment flare time and time again until it eventually erupts in a scene that shows Willy just how much Biff cares about him.

Callan Colley is Happy, Biff’s younger brother. Colley epitomises his nickname. He is easy-going, nonchalant, backing away from responsibility if he can, seeking pleasure whenever possible. He contrasts McConville’s burning bitterness with casual cool.

 

Philip Quast hovers elegantly as the ghost of Ben Loman. Bruce Spence is engaging as Willy’s calm, slow talking, generous neighbour Charley. Quast and Zengeni come together to provide an entertaining distraction as the cast expertly and smoothly transform the set into a bright, 1940s restaurant.

There is much more that could be written about this production. Much has been written already. The ghost of Miller’s salesman uncle lives on in Rattray’s vision of ‘a modern tragedy’ – and in Jacek Koman’s hauntingly memorable interpretation of Willy Loman.

As Miller said back in that 1999 interview: “Everyone loves Willy except Willy”.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

The Wharf Review : Can of Worms

By Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Phil Scott. The Wharf Revue 2021. York Theatre Seymour Centre. 23 Nov – 23 Dec 2021

Reviewed : 26 November, 2021

“Here once more without the wharf we had before!”

No longer at the Wharf, but at the York Theatre at the Seymour Centre, The Wharf Revue team swing into the opening number of their new show. Will a change of venue matter! It’s highly unlikely. Their faithful audiences have been following them around the state for twenty years for a plethora of reasons. Their biting, acerbic satire for a start! Their intellect and acuity! Their wide experience across the arts: writing, acting, composing, performing.

Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe, Phil Scott and Amanda Bishop use a sharp, penetrating corkscrew to open this Can of Worms that pans policies, politicians and pundits, past and present. The material is clever, cutting, funny, facetious, and always just a little bit serious. The production is precise. Multiple sketches, characters and costume changes demand split second continuity … and the ability to sustain the necessary fast tempo that makes revue work.

The first sketch, “Go Far Away”, is one that hits hard. It poignantly commemorates the 20-year anniversary of the ‘Tampa’ debacle, our cruel rejection of the survivors, and their detention on Christmas Island – a very different “Welcome to the Rock” than that portrayed in Come From Away.

The pandemic and climate change provide plenty of material. Harvey Norman is roasted for his “Job Keeper Bonanza”, and Craig Kelly for his corona conspiracy voicemails. The Nats take a tour of Barnaby Joyce’s coal mine ‘mancave’. And the National Cabinet on Zoom gets a ‘gig’ as the Muppets.

Bob Carr in a red, silk smoking jacket and suitably deep voice advises of diplomacy with China in a carefully metred parody of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan that acknowledges the building of Xi’s “stately pleasure dome”, but also decries the “ancestral (Duttonian) voices” and their prophesies of war.

Jacqui Lambe gets a hilarious “gutful”, as  does  Michaelia Cash, and a hesitant, hard-done-by Gladys Berejiklian asks: “Why did Bob Carr get the Olympics and I got a pandemic?”

Though Joe Biden warns that Donald Trump is a “clear and present danger “,  the “exiled President” returns with The Trump Family Singers, who are not going to say “farewell”.

It wouldn’t be a Wharf Revue without Pauline Hanson and Mark Latham getting a serve, or Kevin Rudd ingratiating himself. Rupert Murdoch meets up with Mephistopheles and the Queen bemoans yet another “annus  horribilis”.

There is much more – too much to record, too much to mention – all clever, all brilliantly conceived, all skilfully performed, all packed into a fast-paced hilarious 90 minutes that finishes with a closing parody on The Wizard of Oz, with Dorothy and Toto trying unsuccessfully to borrow enough to buy ‘the Oztralian dream’:

If baby boomers once could buy a family home

Then why, oh why can’t I?

Biggins, Forsythe, Scott and Bishop are polished, multi-talented performers. They are also  perceptive thinkers and cunning observers. They are a great team – and it’s good to have them back.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

Photos : Vishal Pandey

The Lovely Bones

By Bryony Lavery. Adapted from the novel by Alice Sebold. Directed by Deborah Mulhall. New Theatre, Newtown, NSW. 23 November – 18 December, 2021

Reviewed : 24 November, 2021

Photo : Bob Seary

The Lovely Bones traces the aftermath of the rape and murder of a teenage girl as she looks down from a sort of ‘halfway house’ to heaven. She sees her family’s grief and disbelief at her disappearance at the fact that her body has never been found. She feels the frustration of not being able to tell them that her father is on the right track when he suspects old Mr Harvey, who builds doll’s houses and monuments to his dead wife and hides “trophies” of other murders in a hidden casket.

It’s not an easy story to re-tell, especially as it’s based on a semi-autobiographical best-selling novel that has been translated into 45 languages and adapted for the screen by Peter Jackson. It’s certainly not an easy story to put on the stage. This adaptation by Bryony Lavery follows the original book relatively closely – including direct quotes that exemplify the novelist’s ability to create an impact on her readers:

Susie:   “My name is Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered.”

Alice Sebold’s phrasing is simple, expressive. Lavery uses that phrasing impressively to introduce Susie to the audience, then proceeds to recreate a story that is disturbingly of this moment. Stories of sexual assault, violence and abuse dominate local and international news. Sebold’s own story was one of them. She fictionalised it in her novel, and Lavery’s adaptation gives the characters a more immediate voice.

Deborah Mulhall’s production, beset as it was by a pandemic lockdown just as rehearsals began, takes place on a set that designer Robyn Arthur describes as a “fractured playground of contrasting heights and quirks”. Bare, twisted poles surround the “heaven” where  Susie (Sarah Maguire) and her guiding ‘angel’ Franny (Natasha McDonald) look down on the suffering and confusion Susie has left behind. The ingenious use of a fireman’s pole allows Susie to move into the real world, a ghostly presence that wishes her voice could be heard.

Franny:  “When the dead are done with the living, the living can go on to other things.”

Maguire and McDonald carry much of the production. Maguire gives Susie a sensitive teenager’s perception and frankness. She questions, urges and pleads as she watches her family grow away from her. Maguire moves lightly on the stage, creating a spectral  Susie that is engagingly captivating.

Photo : Bob Seary

As her ‘angelic therapist’, McDonald is open, supportive, just a tiny bit over-the-top. She answers questions when she can, leaves Susie guessing when she can’t, introduces a little humour that gently lightens Susie’s journey.

Unfortunately, the many scenes and anecdotes that punctuate the production do not gel quite as convincingly. A more subtle touch is needed in both the action and the continuity to make the characters more real – especially the older characters who need to find the layers that make them more three dimensional, their reactions more plausible, less jerky. This is a hard piece of theatre to negotiate. It is played out by 14 actors across many scenes. Susie’s family, friends and the local police trying to accept her disappearance and move on. The callous perpetrator continuing to insinuate himself into the community. All require more sensitive, sustained empathy to be truly believable.

Some aspects of the blocking are a little out of kilter with the seriousness of the play. An onstage costume change where costumes ‘swing in’ precariously on a hidden rack, and discarded costumes are flung indifferently over a flat. Five unnecessary mannequins representing the ‘perp’s’ previous victims hovering throughout the second act when the shadowy voices describing their plight would have been sufficiently effective.

Continuity and pace will improve over the run; the cast will become more confident in their portrayals. And Sarah Maguire will continue to add Susie Salmon’s story to the stories that Grace Tame, Brittany Higgins and others are telling so intrepidly:

“Because horror on Earth is real and it is every day. It is like a flower or the sun; it cannot be contained. Susie: The Lovely Bones.”

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

Julius Caesar

By William Shakespeare. Sydney Theatre Company. Directed by Kip Williams. Wharf 1. November 15 – December 23, 2021

Reviewed : 19 November, 2021

 

Photo : Daniel Boud

Kip Williams is making the sort of theatre that embraces all the creative possibilities of  twenty-first century technologies and talent. In this Julius Caesar he brings together video, smart phone technology, split second mixing, inventive sound composition and innovative lighting design – and three highly intelligent and experienced actors – in a production that challenges and inspires. That it does so on a very innovative interpretation of ancient Greek theatre-in-the-round is a wry tribute to the long history of theatre.

Williams cleverly adapts the five acts of  Shakespeare’s 17th century description of a 44th  BCE century coup against the tyranny of political ambition into to 21st century encapsulation of “the psychology of our time”.  “I was shocked again and again,” he writes, “by the echoes and reflections in this work of an ongoing cycle of power struggle across history.” So shocked, it seems, that he sought, successfully, to weave more recent examples of “those who seek to assert their own self-interested will upon the masses” into his production. He juxtaposes past and present with a cynicism – and humour – that questions the rhetoric and distrust that has been fostered by the same technology that he uses so successfully in this production.

Photo : Daniel Boud

Shakespeare told of Caesar’s assassination in powerful words and strong, memorable characters. Williams’ production honours both – but adds a pace, pressure and passion that is demanding of his cast, his crew – and his audience. It is compelling, breath-taking, cynical – and extraordinary in its ingenious combination of styles and techniques.

Geraldine Hakewell, Ewen Leslie and Zahra Newman become the two opposing ‘powers’ at play in Rome on the Ides of March in 44 BCE. Skilfully they introduce their characters, changing smoothly but quite explicitly from one to the other – a different stance, the simple rearrangement of a jacket, the  replacement of a laurel wreath – establishing rank, loyalty and influence whilst pacing across a raised, square stage or following each other around its wide base.

As if this isn’t enough, as they foment the turmoil of rising unrest, they skilfully film each other on smart phones – manipulating the camera to capture close-up expressions of righteous anger or manipulative ambition … or fear. These clear, formidable images appear simultaneously on four screens that form a huge, white, baseless, square prism that hovers above the stage at times, or is lowered slowly onto the stage at others. Filmed and present time sequences merge with on-stage action in an astounding wrap-around multidiscipline theatrical experience.

There is no leeway for error in a production that relies so much on the interdependence of actors and technology. It requires meticulous planning, insightful direction and rigorous rehearsal. The final product depends on focused concentration, expeditious timing and complete trust.

On stage, Newman, Leslie and Hakewell illustrate all of this. They are focused, working together with incredible synergy. They imbue the beauty of the language with expressive scorn or persuasion or distrust. The characters they portray bring ancient history and today together in scenes that are intimately close and bloodily blunt.

Newman is a forceful, confident presence. She moves with smooth assurance between her characters, but it is as Brutus that she impresses most. The sinuous changes that move her Brutus from loyal friend to murderous foe are carefully manipulated and convincingly portrayed, especially in smart phone close ups where her eyes and voice are tauntingly expressive.

Leslie moves between Caesar and Cassius with studied alacrity – self-possessed as the former, cringeingly corrosive as the latter. Leslie is a consummate performer, whose comic timing is highlighted in a “zoom” meeting as Octavius – and a viciously telling social media clip later in the production.

It is through Mark Anthony that Williams merges past and present – and Geraldine Hakewell savours the metamorphosis that his extension of this character affords. Shakespeare’s satirical words drip tauntingly from her tongue as she addresses Rome over Caesar’s body – then become more provocatively mocking as they mutate into more recent examples of political rhetoric. Williams uses the full force of stage and screen theatricality to make his point in this scene – and Hakewell relishes that power.

Photo : Daniel Boud

There is much more to reflect on in this production. It is vibrant, innovative, contemporary. It brings together creatives that work across the arts and technology that inspires new ideas and possibilities. It also brings together the politics of ancient Rome, the lasting words of a 17th century playwright and the imagination and talent of contemporary theatre creatives. Could an audience require more than that?

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

Three Winters Green

By Campion Decent. Lambert House Enterprises. Directed by Les Solomon and Campion Decent. Fringe HQ Newtown. November 10-20, 2021

Reviewed : 11 November, 2021

Three Winters Green

 

It is an opportune time for a revival of this historically significant play by Campion Decent. First staged in the 1990s, Three Winters Green pays homage to the deadly and lasting effects of the AIDS pandemic. It is thus a very timely reminder that COVID is not the only pandemic that has stalked and devastated the world in recent times.

It is also timely that this production coincides with both the opening of the monument to victims and survivors of LGBTQIA hate crime – AND the much belated NSW government inquiry into the gay and transgender attacks and murders that were rife – but officially ‘ignored’ – in the last decades of the twentieth century.

Les Solomon certainly chose the right time to a reproduce a play that documents a sadly significant time in our history.

On the open, Fringe HQ stage, a five-metre-high AIDS red ribbon of remembrance constructed by Steve Wimmer is the starkly symbolic set. It hovers as a constant aide-memoire as Decent, Solomon and their loyal, lockdown cast bring the characters of  Three Winters Green back to life.

Central to the story is Francis and his struggle to be true to his sexuality despite the world around him. He is open, gentle, confident, persistent – yet consistently censured and condemned. It is a big role that takes Francis from school to the stage, from optimism to despair, from love to illness. It is a role that Sebbie Thornton Walker plays with tightly controlled inner strength and energy – and unrelenting belief. She contains the character, exposing all its pain and sensitivity, yet rejoicing in its positivity, joy and trust. Her Francis is expressive, compassionate, empathetic … and harrowingly real.

Samuel Welsh is Joseph, the teacher to whom Francis reaches out with recognition. The teacher who can’t help but be encouraging, but who also hurts by rejecting. Welsh shows Joseph’s difficult inner struggle, wavering between attraction and fear, temptation, and self-preservation.

Tom Kelly doubles as two very different characters. As ocker-ish, blusteringly macho Mick, he is larger than life, sprawling untidily, unwarily invading personal spaces and constantly punctuating conversations with a stunned “bugger me”. By contrast, he plays troubled, gay Martin with gentle grace, treading his difficult path with lighter steps, calm composure and touching acceptance.

Andrew, in whom Francis eventually finds a few short years of happiness, is played by Ben Jackson. Jackson, too, treads the stage lightly, poignantly underplaying the role to achieve credible sincerity and compassion.

Maddison Silva plays Martin’s lesbian sister, Beck. Julia Muncs is her partner, Jen. Confident in their sexuality their relationship provides a juxtaposition that Martin – and Francis – are not able to enjoy.

Norah George, as Martin and Beck’s mother, Maxine is the token parent. Bewildered and cross because neither of her children are ‘straight’, she moves from denial to reluctant acceptance and alcoholism and prayer to a God that cannot save her son from a disease that kills so hideously.

Together these actors reignite a time that should not be forgotten. Under the sensitive  direction of Decent and Solomon, they bring to life characters and situations that are gut-wrenchingly sad and historically real yet are presented in a way that is as tender as the way the cast opened the AIDS Memorial Quilt in the last moments of the play.

They remind us that this is not the first time we have gingerly ventured out of the shadows of a diseased world, and that we should take care – “But for fuck’s sake … smile”. (Francis –  Three Winters Green).

Photos : David Hooley

Also published in State Whispers magazine.

Double Trouble

Mozart and Bach at Play. Endangered Productions. Barnet Long Room, Customs House. 18 – 20 June, 2021

Reviewed : 20 June, 2021

Photo : Marion Wheeler

As its title suggests, this production is about fun as well as music. Producers Christine Logan and Peter Alexander have translated and adapted two short comic operas by Mozart and Bach to present a program that reveres the music of the two maestros as well as highlighting their delightful takes on  romance and relationships.

Bastien and Bastienna is Mozart’s short parody of the opera Le devin du village by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. When Bastienne thinks that Bastien has left her for another woman she seeks advice from Colas, a soothsayer, who suggests that playing hard-to-get will win him back. Logan and Alexander have cleverly reset the scene in the 1950s and made Colas a Freudian psychiatrist, adding a satirical touch that is wryly effective.

Bach’s Coffee Cantata, written in the 1730s, is about a father’s concern for his daughter’s interest in the new social scene, especially the coffee houses. In this 2021 interpretation of the mini comic opera, it is “espresso martinis” that are the father’s concern. The translators add another nice little satirical ‘twist’ by matchmaking the daughter and the bartender, thus allaying the father’s anxiety!

The Barnet Long Room at Customs House and cabaret style seating provided just the right ambience for a production such as this – intimate, good acoustics, warm and friendly. Designer Sandy Gray used minimal props and colourful overhead projections to create her sets, including a ‘Freudian’ couch for Bastien and Bastienna and a bar complete with a TV tuned to a sport channel for Coffee Cantata!  The carefully chosen costumes added colour and verisimilitude to each setting, especially the steam punk outfit designed by Miriam Lohmann for Lisa, the daughter, in Coffee Cantata.

But what of the performers! Apart from Karen Lambert, who graces the stage very seductively at the beginning of Bastien and Bastienna as Bastien’s temptress, the three characters in each piece are performed by Lesley Braithwaite, Damien Hall and Ed Shuttle. They are accompanied by Stevie Walter (keyboard), Rebecca Irwin and Jennifer Taylor (violins), Greg Ford (viola), Pierre Emery (cello) and Isabeau Hanson (flute) conducted by musical director Peter Alexander.

Photo : Marion Wheeler

Braithwaite, Hall and Shuttle bring a wealth of experience to their performances. In pieces such as these, the ability to act as well as sing is essential – as is being able to inject comedy in just the right way at just the right moment. It requires dedicated rehearsal based on insightful direction – and Christine Logan’s direction is deft and wise. She allows her cast to inject melodramatic comedy – a fluttering eyelash, a suggestive wink, raised eyebrows, a little celebratory dance move – as well as ensuring they sustain the depth and variety of the music and the veracity of the characters. It’s a lot to put together and Logan and her cast have done so very effectively.

There are some very funny moments – Shuttle’s nonchalant depiction of Colas, Braithwaite and Hall’s little ‘jive’ at the end Bastien and Bastienna; Shuttle’s studying of the Form Guide as Lisa has yet another cocktail; Braithwaite showing the ‘tiddly’ effect of those cocktails as she takes a selfie; Hall shaking cocktails in time to the music. And it will be hard to forget  Braithwaite relishing her delivery of a very  contemporary teenage “whatever” in response to her father’s threats.

The small orchestra had some lovely moments as well. Mozart’s little overture to Bastien and Bastienna introduced the production beautifully, and the piano, cello and flute had special moments in Coffee Cantata.

Endangered Productions aims to give “professionals, enthusiastic amateurs and keen community members” opportunities to keep being involved in the “inclusive, creative world of theatre” and to use the skills of those with long experience to mentor and educate others. The integrity, attention to detail and enthusiasm which they have approached in this production certainly suggests they can achieve that goal.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.

 

 

The Obbligato Sonatas

The Bach Akademie Australia playing Johann Sebastian Bach. June 18,  2021 at St James Church Sydney.

Reviewed : 18 June, 2021

Image courtesy of Melbourne Digital Concert Hall”

How fitting to bring together work composed by Johann Sebastian Bach in the 1720s and Francis Greenway’s stately St James Church King Street, consecrated one hundred years later. In that revered building – the oldest existing in inner Sydney – Bach’s much-loved Obbligato Sonatas thrilled a large and appreciative audience.

The Bach Akademie Australia led by internationally acclaimed Australian violinist Madeleine Easton, with Neal Peres Da Costa at the Harpsicord and Anton Baba playing the Viola da gamba and Cello, graced the Sydney landmark with a stunning performance of five of these famous sonatas.

Images courtesy of Melbourne Digital Concert Hall”

In her program notes, Easton describes them as “a true master-class in tri-part contrapuntal writing”. Each sonata, she explains, “displays a different personality, colour and mood with its own unique harmonic characteristics” that take the listener  “through every conceivable mood and emotion from extreme joy to contemplative emotion”.

Easton’s description only hints at the range of emotions evoked in this beautifully executed performance of Bach’s remarkable compositions. All three musicians are masters of their instruments. In their hands the varying rhythms and textures specific to each instrument came together in performance that only musicians so completely in harmony with each other can achieve.

With the gold mosaic tiles of the semi-dome shining above them, they captured the real lyricism of Bach’s motivic work in a performance that brought warmth and hope from Bach’s eighteenth-century world to a cold, virus-threatened winter night in 2021.

Each instrument shines in these sonatas, the mellow cello and historic viola da gamba, the distinctive baroque registers of the harpsicord, and the elegant, clear voice of Easton’s 1682 Giovanni Grancino violin combine to emphasise the enduring passion of these compositions.

Together they evoke the patient calm of the sonata in B minor, the happiness and bright repetitive motifs of the sonata in A major; the “noisy sharp joy” difficulty of the sonata in E major; the range of emotions in the fifth sonata in F minor – the mournful melancholy of the Largo to the lighter, more hopeful motifs of the Vivace.

Images courtesy of Melbourne Digital Concert Hall”

The concert concludes with the “rustic, idyllic” sixth sonata in G major. Here Bach inserted a solo Allegro for the harpsicord. This short, sweet solo piece gives Peres Da Costa the opportunity to highlight the versatility of the harpsicord – before the light, airy, celebratory moments of the final Adagio and Allegro.

The flourish of those finishing notes reflects the concentrated musicianship of these three fine performers – and their deep, intuitive empathy with the texture and emotion of music composed by Bach nearly three hundred years ago.

This performance was recorded – and may be available for streaming.

Also published by Stage Whispers magazine

Grand Horizons

By Bess Wohl. Sydney Theatre Company. Director: Jessica Arthur. Roslyn Packer Theatre,  June 11 – July 3, 2021.

Reviewed : 11 June, 2021

Photo : Prudence Upton.

Winter may be the time to ‘hunker down’ but it’s also the time we need a bit of cheer, and Sydney Theatre Company brings that cheer in this production. Though set in contemporary America, the play has universal appeal, requiring very little modification to change it to an Australian setting. After all, Grand Horizons could be any retirement village in any relatively wealthy first world city – and Nancy and Bill French could be any retired couple. Perhaps.

All seems calm in the French home. Probably too calm, the first scene suggests – and director Jessica Arthur’s cunning blocking of that first scene is one of the things I shan’t give away. That there is more than one surprise is indicative of playwright Bess Wohl’s distinctive ability to twist her plot and manipulate her characters, and Arthur’s distinctive ability to manage the comedy – and the underlying angst – that results from those twists and manipulations. This production has laugh-out-loud moments, in some of which the cast, very professionally, wait out the laughter. In one of those moments the laughter could ruin the punch line of a very suggestive joke … if the joke were not being told by such an accomplished actor.

Photo : Prudence Upton.

In fact, two accomplished actors lead the cast in this very tight, pace and pause dependent production. Linda Cropper and John Bell play the ‘oldies’ of the French family. Both Nancy and Bill appear to be happy, quiet, competent, restrained, until Nancy announces that she wants a divorce. And despite belittling her determination, Bill doesn’t argue against the idea.

The effect on their two sons, however, is very different.

Suddenly their down-sized Grand Horizons apartment is inundated by Ben (Johnny Nasser), and his younger brother Bryan (Guy Simon). The idea of a divorce, in their loudly voiced opinions, is ridiculous, unthinkable. Ben’s pregnant wife, Jess (Zindzi Okenyo), is a little more open-minded, but her attempts to use her counselling skills do little to diffuse the tumult.

Nancy stays quietly determined and Bill starts to pack.

Their sons become more louder, more insistent – and as they rant at their parents much more of each character is revealed. Ben, a lawyer has a tricky court case. Brian, a drama teacher, explains in explicitly paused detail how he intends to involve two hundred students in a production of The Crucible.

Bill is doing a course on stand-up comedy and has become over friendly with a fellow student called Carla (Vanessa Downing). Nancy, though slightly bewildered by the acrimony that has resulted from her decision, goes off collecting clothes for charity. Jess tells Ben she is sick of him calling her ‘Babe’. Brian brings home someone he has picked up at a local bar. It’s not every family – but it could be many.

This is all revealed in skilfully written dialogue that gives Arthur and her cast wonderful opportunities for comic timing – and extended pauses. Cropper and Bell use both masterfully, creating some very funny moments, as well as some that are a little more touching. They find the gentle pathos and fear of the future that Wohl has incorporated into the characters, as well as the comedy.

Photo : Prudence Upton.

Nasser, Okenyo and Simon find similar comic moments as their characters break the seeming ‘peace’ of retirement that Nancy is determined to escape. They sustain the pace of their first scene, and pepper it with the malice of old resentments.

Vanessa Downing as Bill’s friend Carla is a little silly, a little vague, and totally loveable. Wohl allows her such a short time on the stage, but Downing uses every moment effectively. As does, James Majoos in another short but memorable scene that Majoos handles with instinctive timing and beguiling cheekiness.

There is much fun on the surface of this production – but Arthur has ensured that Wohl’s underlying messages about age and marriage and family pressures tinge the laughter with a touch of melancholy.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine.

Come From Away

Book, music & lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Director: Christopher Ashley. Musical Director: Luke Hunter. Musical Staging: Kelly Devine. Junkyard Productions & Rodney Rigby Production. Capitol Theatre, Sydney. Opening Night – June 10, 2021

Reviewed : June 10, 2021

Photo : Jeff Busby

How hard it is to write about this wonderful production after so much has been said and written already – and everything you’ve heard or read is right! It is warm and poignant. It is fast and funny. It is both celebratory and commemorative. It is, indeed, what good verbatim theatre should be – real stories sensitively translated into a theatrical form that reminds us of the truths that need to be documented about humanity … at its worst, and its very best.

The production celebrates the wonderfully warm-hearted reaction of the people of Gander, Newfoundland, who took in so many unexpected and confused travellers re-routed to Gander because of the horrific attacks on New York and Washington on 11th September 2001. It is, therefore, also an effectively haunting reminder of that event and its lasting consequences. And it does so in the way humankind has used so effectively for thousands of years: storytelling.

Photo : Jeff Busby

Irene Sankoff and David Hein have used the 1600 stories they gathered from the people involved to weave an intricate re-telling of the way the residents of a little town reacted to the arrival of 7000 people from different parts of the world. People who were frightened, perplexed, traumatised. People who needed food, shelter, warm clothes … and toothbrushes.

It recounts the initial disbelief at the magnitude of the task that confronted them – and the incredible ways they surmounted every seeming impossibility.

Come From Away is a story about the wonderful humanity of man – but it doesn’t shirk its fallibility. It is remarkably honest in its re-telling of the stories and the people who told them. It is even more remarkable that Sankoff and Hein were able to use music and dance to enhance the re-telling with tempos that evoked the disparate emotions that interleave every carefully recaptured experience. That they chose the instruments that pay homage to the early settlers who made Newfoundland their home – the  mandolin, whistles, Irish flute, uilleann pipes, fiddle, bodhran drum – meant they were able to incorporate a wide range of rhythms and emotions, from the foot-tapping introduction to the folk from Gander in “Welcome to the Rock”, to the tender distress of “I am Here”, where a displaced mother cries out to her fire fighter son, lost somewhere in the dust and debris of New York.

There are so many other ways this skilled pair of writers have encapsulated the chaos of those few days. The use of only twelve performers to depict both townspeople and travellers was a significant decision. The different characters each one plays are remarkably clear. The carefully choreographed and rehearsed changeover of characters also gives the impression of the pace and turmoil of the situation.

The minimalist set – a revolve, chairs and some tables – means that the cast can be sitting in a plane at one moment, arguing around a table in the mayor’s office at the next, or dancing on an almost empty stage at another. Not one story is hampered by anything that obstructs the characters or each nuance of the continuing story, even though that nuance may, at first, be a little hard to pick up due to the unusual Newfoundland accent – and the accents of some of the travellers.

Photo : Jeff Busby

That attention to detail is an important part of this production – and any piece of verbatim theatre. It is a record of an important event. In this case, an event that, because of an attack that happened somewhere else, two groups of very different people were thrown together and something wonderful occurred. It was up to Sankoff and Hein to make this into a theatrical experience without losing the cathartic effect of the story. Staying true to accents and the cultures of the people involved was one way. Incorporating their music, religions and backgrounds was another. Finding a director who could ensure those truths is yet one more – and essential. Christopher Ashley is such a director.

Ashley ensured that every one of the twelve talented performers – and each of the seven standby cast – in this production is true to every character they portray. Whether playing a baffled passenger or harried townsperson, there is truth and strength in every portrayal – and they radiate a great sense of unity and harmony. To pull this show off the cast must be  incredibly talented, organised, energetic and dedicated – and the director must be able to envision the compelling complexities that Sankoff and Hein have instilled into their writing. Ashley and this wonderful cast do just that.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine.

 

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