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Dialogues des Carmélites

By Francis Poulenc. Gente, gente! Opera Company. Directors Joanna Drimatis Bec Moret. Pitt St Uniting Church, Sydney. 21, 22, 28, 29 June, 2024

Reviewed : 22 June, 2024

Photo : Simon Cross

Gente, gente! (Italian for ‘People, people!’) is a grassroots not-for-profit opera company producing shows “for the people, by people who love opera”. Many of those opera lovers braved a rainy Saturday night in winter to see the opening night of their production of Dialogues des Carmélites.

The production is interesting for several reasons.  Firstly, the company focuses on less commonly performed works, like this three-act opera by French composer Francis Poulenc. Poulenc, born in 1899, contributed widely to twentieth century French music. He served in both World Wars as well as supporting the Resistance poets by putting many of their verses to music. After a “spiritual awakening” he went on to write religious works, one of which is Dialogues des Carmélites.

But Dialogues des Carmélites is historical as well as religious. It was inspired by the true story of the Martyrs of Compiègne, a group of Carmelite nuns who, during the French Revolution, refused to renounce their vocation and were executed by guillotine in Paris in 1794.

Photo : Simon Cross

Poulenc based the opera around a character called Blanche de la Force, who, terrified by horror of the Revolution in Paris, joins the monastery in Compiègne. When a few years later, the nuns take the vow of martyrdom, Blanche, overwhelmed once more by fear, flees back to Paris and works as a servant in her old home. On the day the nuns, singing Salve Regina, are executed one by one, Blanche reveals herself from among the ghoulish crowd and joins her sisters at the guillotine.

So, setting the opera in a church seems appropriate. Setting it in Sydney’s heritage listed Uniting Church suits the opera’s story beautifully. The church, designed by John Bibb and completed in 1846, is regarded as the best example of Neo Classic design in Australia – but apart from that, the high central pulpit is approached by twin cast iron railed stairs. Galleries supported on cast iron fluted columns run around the interior walls. All the fittings of the vast interior are of local cedar including the vestry behind the pulpit. What a fine space for a director to envisage an opera about religion and revolution and martyrdom!

Photo : Simon Cross

Stage Director Bec Moret uses the twin stairways, the high, long central pulpit and the doors at each end to great visual effect. The transept and cross, cleared of furniture, is her main stage. All is highlighted by stage lamps in the gallery. Musical director, Joanna Drimitas, and her 16-piece orchestra use a cleared space under the high galleries.

Thirty-nine committed performers become the de la Force family, the steadfast nuns, townsfolk and revolutionaries. Dressed in costumes designed by Moret and Elena Charaeva, they take the audience back to France in 1789 and tell their story to music that conjures the unrest of the time as well as the the calm life of the cloister.

Soprano Sarah Cherlin plays the anxious, easily frightened Blanche de la Force. Cherlin shows that anxiety and fear constantly – in her clear voice, lovely inflexions and her face and gestures. Only in the monastery does she show Blanche a little more relaxed. It’s not easy to act and sing so emotionally or wait anxiously while others chastise or advise you in song, but Cherlin does so most effectively. She finds the drama in both the music and the role.

Joanna Dionis Ross is Madame de Croissy, Prioress of the convent, who takes Blanche under her wing but whose death Leaves Balnche scared and lost again. A mezzo-soprano, Dionis Ross finds the spiritual strength of the Prioress in notes that ring to the high ceiling of the apse when she first meets Blanche, but become more sombre as her health begins to fail.

Baritones Tristan Entwistle and Daniel Macey play Le Marquis de la Force and his son Chevalier de la Force, their powerful voices admonishing Blanche so often for her timidness that they are as much to blame for her leaving as fear itself.

After the death of the Prioress, Sam Lestavel, Laura Scandizzo and Sophie Bailes lead the nuns in some very beautiful songs and prayers. Katrina Mackenzie plays a very young, naïve nun who befriends Blanche and protects her when, with the nuns go before the father Confessor, played with energetic verve by Damien Noyce, to vote on the decision to be martyrs.

Photo : Simon Cross

In their simple, flowing white robes and wimples the seventeen nuns are a picturesque sight on the red carpet of the twin railed stairs – and in a single line behind the pulpit as they await execution. That final moment of the production, with the nuns above,  groups of townspeople below, and Blanche approaching slowly down the central aisle is a lovely stage picture, which those in the first few rows of the church see most clearly.

Unfortunately, churches are not designed for theatre … so those who wish to see Dialogues des Carmélites next Saturday or Sunday night, my advice is to be early. It is general seating, and those first few rows allow an appreciation of the whole production – the setting, the direction, the singing the acting and Francis Poulenc’s atmospheric music.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

Trophy Boys

By Emmanuelle Mattana. Director Marni Mount. Seymour Centre. 19 Jun – 7 Jul, 2024

Reviewed : 21 June, 2024*

Photo : Ben Andrews

Like director Marni Mount, as soon as I read about this play I wanted to see it. I wanted to see how Emmanuelle Mattana would approach the intricate cobweb of the topic, how the stickiness of the web would become theatre, how the female cast would become the “elite private schoolboys” for whom Mattana would spin their web – and how it would entrap an audience.

As I read the ‘content warnings’ in the program, I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed! It looked like Mattana hadn’t held back – and the astonishing production proved it. Somehow this incredibly talented and intuitive playwright has managed to incorporate the themes of “entitlement, intellectual elitism, exclusivity, misogyny, classism, racism and homophobia” in a play that is confronting and compelling. It challenges it cast by demanding ‘drag’ and dance and dramatic dissertation. It challenges its audience by demanding recognition and change.

Photo : Ben Andrews

Mattana sets the four schoolboys in the rarefied environment of a closed classroom preparing for a competitive senior high school debate. The boys are bright, confident, used to winning – and derisive of their private school girl competition. They refer to competitive debating as the ‘game’ it is – where winning is the aim and arguing convincingly about something you know little about and probably don’t believe in are the ‘tries’ and ‘goals’ of the game.

When the boys find their topic is “that feminism has failed women”, their misconceptions and prejudices fire in a confusion of toxic anti-feminist, misogynistic arguments that are cringingly funny – and enlighteningly telling. Mattana hasn’t pulled any punches. They write from personal experience and recorded fact. How they write about it, how Marni Mount directs – and how the female cast boldly depict their schoolboy characters – make it challengingly and, testingly, believable.

Photo : Ben Andrews

Mount sets the production in a ‘closed’ classroom watched over by photographs of strong, internationally renowned women. In that environment the boys can speak with the enthusiastic over-confidence of the young and entitled. In their grey shorts, long socks, grey shirts, school ties, tartan blazers and badges of office, they dissect the topic with unmitigated verve – including a lewd dance routine and some childish bickering.

The acting of these four young women shows a remarkable ability to observe carefully and imitate effectively!

Emmanuelle Mattana plays Owen, the articulate, authoritative, wordsmith scholarship boy whose ambition is high politics. They make Owen bright, a bit touchy but quick to defend himself, annoyingly well-informed, and a little alone in the ‘team’. He is watchful, thoughtful, calculating – and, as it turns out eventually, the most able to manipulate and sway.

Photo : Ben Andrews

David is played by Leigh Lule who makes the character thoughtful, shrewd, always part of the action but able to step back a little and control when things get heated or inane. As happens when Scott (Gaby Seow) and Jared (Fran Sweeney-Nash) air their fatuous opinions or take the discussion off the topic. Seow makes Scott almost a by-stander at times, alert and involved but somehow apart – for reasons that become apparent later in the play.

Sweeney-Nash plays the ‘innocent’, knock-about, over-friendly “I love women” character, sometimes a little bemused by the arguments but solidly part of the team, until he feels the pressure of accusation … and a declaration from Scott.

Marni Mount describes Trophy Boys as ‘a masterful interrogation of the ways that entitlement, abuse and absolution are tied up with one another”. She commends the “pace, tone and language” of the play – and the cleverness of its construction – all of which she ensures are central to her direction. This play is one of a kind in so many ways and Mount realises its importance in this very frank and fearless production.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

*Opening Performance

Chicago – The Musical

Book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse. Music by John Kander. Lyrics by Fred Ebb. Based on the play Chicago by Maurine Dallas Watkins.Capitol Theatre, ’til 28 July, 2024

Seen : 19 June, 2024

Not Reviewed.

Photo : Sapphire Soul Photography

Masterclass

By Terrence McNally. Ensemble Theatre, Sydney. Directed by Liesel Badorrek. 14 June – 20 July, 2024

Reviewed : 19 June, 2024*

Photo : Prudence Upton

Lucia Mastrantone channels every strong woman, diva or director, in her stunning interpretation of Maria Callas. As she enters the stage she commands the attention of the audience, who immediately become the awe-stricken disciples of the master in action. She frowns as she admonishes them for applauding, and as silence falls, begins the lesson-cum-memoir that Terrence McNally has carefully researched and crafted. Though a diminutive figure, she affects the power and control of talent and fame and sustains in throughout a stunning performance.

Photo : Prudence Upton

A diva of Australian theatre herself, Mastrantone is no stranger to challenging roles, and Callas is challenging. Under the sure and perceptive direction of Leisel Badorrek, she becomes the famous diva for nearly two hours. With no opportunity to leave the stage, she keeps the audience – and her three nervous but talented students and a patient, tolerant pianist – on their toes and focused. Her eyes sweep constantly; her expressions and gestures, as considered and forceful as her words, leave no doubt that the woman she portrays is in control … but has worked hard to get there.

In moments of introspection she allows the ‘mask’ to slip and we see glimpses of the young singer working her way up … and the mature women caught between fame and independence and the coercive control of a rich and famous lover. Mastrantone finds the emotional recall of those memories poignantly but not wistfully – more as part of the armour that Callas felt the need to build around herself.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Musical director (and composer/sound designer) Maria Alfonsine becomes the accompanist for Callas’s students – portraying a studious, intense young pianist, a little cowed by the diva, but sure of her own ability and a little protective of the students for whom she will play. Blinking a little timidly behind her glasses, carefully aware, and reacting quickly albeit a little tensely to questions and instructions, Alfonsine establishes the character clearly and succinctly – as does Damian De Boos-Smith (also composer/sound designer) who plays a nervous stage hand as well as accompanying the young students in their master class.

Those students are played by Elisa Colla, Bridget Patterson and Matthew Reardon, all of whom portray differing aspects of appropriate nervousness in front of the diva … and operatic talent.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Their different reactions to her questions and critiques cover all the conceivable responses one might expect: anxious withdrawal, fretful despair, determined persistence. All three are highly trained musicians and their voices thrill, whether “faltering” under the gaze of the ‘master’ – or filling the Ensemble with song.

Leisel Badorrek directs with the precision and care necessary for a production that brings actors and audience together so openly – and the insight necessary to inspire a tightly disciplined compelling production. Brava Badorrek! Brava Mastrantone!

*Opening Performance

Highway of Lost Hearts

By Mary Anne Butler. Lingua Franca and Arts on Tour. Riverside Theatres Parramatta. 14 – 15 June, 2024

Reviewed : 14 June, 2025*

Photo : Hannah Groggan

Mary Anne Butler’s play takes her character Mot on a road trip through Australia to find the heart she seems to have lost after the tragic death of someone she loves. With only her dog for company she drives to distant places, the long kilometres broken by short stops where lonely people reach out hopefully … or threaten menacingly. She finds other lost hearts, and through them and the country itself, eventually finds the missing pieces of her own.

Butler writes with the economy one expects of contemporary women playwrights. She hasn’t time to waste on convolution. She chooses her words carefully making Mot down to earth, honest, sharing her feelings in sharp, short sentences that vividly describe her reactions to the land, the people and the animals that colour her journey.

Photo : Hannah Groggan

Kate Smith brings Mot to life in this production directed by Adam Deusien. Together they find the emotional dimension in Butler’s words. The emptiness of grief and the lingering anger. The loneliness, but the importance of being alone. The healing that comes slowly, in tiny pieces … from a “gnarled hand” reaching out, “a flurry of praying birds” or the comforting closeness of a dog as “storm ricochets” about them.

Smith speaks Butler’s words as they are written. She finds the changes of rhythm that define Mot so clearly. Short bursts of description: the stretching emptiness of a desert road – “I watch his car disappear into his own life”; the sad debris of a wrecked family caravan; the controlling voice of a once husband as she drives through a flooded crossing; the fear as she drives fast through a roadside bushfire. She finds the changes in pace and volume written cleverly into the words and makes them her own.

Musicians Abby Smith and Sophie Jones add the light and shade of song to the production. Hidden behind a filmy scrim that frames the set, or

Photo : Hannah Groggan

sometimes at the edge of Mot’s lonely road, their voices lighten her journey. It’s a nice touch, but not really necessary as Butler’s writing suggests natural places to stop and pause for contemplation, or emotional release, for the character … and the audience.

Highway of Lost Hearts is a piece of writing that makes beautiful theatre. Butler has created a confident character who speaks in a strong, female, Australian voice about issues that are, too often, left unsaid.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

*Opening Performance

Horizon

Bangarra Dance Theatre. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House. 11 June to 13 July, 2024

Reviewed : 13 June, 2024*

Photo : Daniel Boud

The Directors of Bangarra describe Horizon as a “coming together of cultures to define what is home”. Three choreographers explore the theme of “home” in a cultural collaboration that merges images of the past and issues of the present in dance stories that link the “generations of people across the Oceania region” and reach out to a broader, global audience.

Kulka – Choreographer Sani Townson

Photo : Daniel Boud

The delightfully passionate Sani Townson brings the light-footed dance traditions and agile movement of the Saybaylayg (People of Saibai Island) of the Zenadth Kes (Torres Strait) to that broader stage. In Kulka he calls to the stars on which the family clans, totems, traditional stories and dances of the Saybaylayg are based.  But because Townson also sees himself as a contemporary choreographer, the cultural “treasures” of the past are shared in a dance story that is a beautiful blend of traditional and contemporary movement.

On a dark mirrored stage, male dancers, sleek in brown and bronze, lift a woman high above their heads, her aqua train falling in soft watery waves as she reaches to the stars, then drifting as she floats down and is raised again. Balletic lifts and leaps and traditional choreography come together in a story of place, family and totem.

Sky, earth and sea merge in this evocative creation where magical angles of light form shapes like the figure of Ait Koedal the crocodile that shines on three crouched, still figures that become the stealthy totem.

The Light InsideChoreographers Deborah Brown, Moss Te Ururangi Patterson

Photo : Daniel Boud

The Light Inside shines across two lands with similar traditions and messages, messages of identity and longevity that have been handed down in dance and song across the islands of Oceania over so many generations.

Deborah Brown’s Salt Water is a homage to her mother and the “connection to sea, sky and land” of the Zenadth Kes and the many visitors that came by the sea to share those connections. Brown’s choreography conjures the “the place where the sea, land and sky converge” as the dancers weave and reach, come together and move apart, every carefully controlled movement reflected below them in the mirrored floor.

As the reflections move and spread like ripples on still water they seem to connect the land and sea – and the twelve dancers anchor those connections in choreography that brings past and present together in a message to the future.

Moss Te Ururangi Patteron’s Light Inside shines across the sea from Aotearoa.

Moss merges traditional Māori song and dance with contemporary choreography in another inspiring message to the future. His message,  about upholding the “hopes and dreams of our elders” and keeping their light shining is strong, and he tells it strongly, incorporating in his choreography the chanting, stamping, gestures and expressions of the haka that are so symbolic to Māori culture and are recognised so widely.

Patterson manages, like Townson and Brown, to merge contemporary and traditional dance in a way that enriches and strengthens the messages that they have come together to create.

So too do the creatives that have worked so closely with them to bring their Horizons together. Their artistic technology adds a new truth to these stories that unfold in movement.

Elizabeth Gadsby’s wide glassy stage is a shining sea. The mirrored backdrop that shimmers above Kulka, becomes the shoreline for Salt Water and the rugged coastline mountains of Aotearoa that rise higher and higher as the dancers narrate in movement the messages of The Light Inside.

Photo : Daniel Boud

Add the lighting effects and AV effects created by Karen Norris and the stage becomes a mystic island holding stories of the past that composers Steve Francis, Brendon Boney and Amy Flannery whisper and call in sounds that are almost futuristic.

Costume designers Jennifer Irwin and Clair Parker invoke the connections of sky, sea and land in light, flowing fluorescent fabrics – lazuline blues, dark, earthy browns and lighter, stubbly yellows – that move with the dancers, accentuating their grace and elegance and the flow of the choreography.

Choreographers, dancers and creatives come together in this historic artistic and cultural collaboration that takes Bangarra’s to a broader, new Horizon.

*Opening performance

The Ballad of Maria Marten

By Beth Flintoff. Hunters Hill Theatre Company. Director Jennifer Willison. Club Ryde. 7 – 23 June, 2024

Reviewed : 7 June, 2024

Photo : Dan Ferris

In 1827, in a little town called Polstead in Suffolk in the UK, a girl called Maria Marten disappeared. It was not until a year later that her body was discovered under the floorboards of a barn. She had been shot, strangled and hit with a spade by William Corder, the man she loved. The same man who had abused her psychologically in a nasty form of coercive control. The “Murder in the Red Barn”, Corder’s trial and very public execution are part of Suffolk history.

Beth Flintoff re-tells that history through the eyes of Maria. She tells it with perceptive insight, focussing on “what Maria was rather than what was done to her”. She recreates village life in the 1820s, the different social classes, wealth, poverty, education, the position of women. She recreates a Maria, who is fun-loving, caring, hard-working, loved, trusted … and trusting.

Jennifer Willison’s all female production is true to Flintoff’s interpretation of the time. The costumes (JAS Enterprises) and the rustic set designed by Wayne Chee, take the audience back to a simpler time, where village people worked the land and paid rent to the squire. The characters with their soft Suffolk burr and their simple acceptance of their lot come gently to life under Willison’s discerning direction.

The play begins with Maria coming back to life to tell her story.

Emerging from the darkness of the barn, she gazes into the audience and explains, simply and graphically, how she died. How she lay, hidden under the floorboards of the barn for a year while people searched for her – or forgot about her.

Photo : Dan Ferris

Laura Stead establishes a very real Maria who reaches through the fourth wall to fix the audience with glittering eyes that almost accuse, until she breaks away and becomes a young Maria at the beginning of her story – a lively, vibrant, intelligent Maria, who is literate (she was taught to read by one of the local gentry) and a leader among her friends. She is playful, observant, and as she grows older, aware of her attractiveness. Stead takes her through the loss of a child, the pain of rejection, the joy of love and the confusion of intimidation and mental abuse.

Her friend Phoebe Stowe, played by Chiara Helena Arata, is a constant throughout her life, ready to join her in games, search her out when she is shut away by Corder with a newborn child, protect her when his coercive taunts and lies break her spirit. Arata makes Phoebe caring, sincere, supportive and strong.

Kimberlea Smith is Lucy Baalham, hesitant and god-fearing, with a domineering mother. Smith shows her caution in tentative reactions and wide-eyed expressions, emphatic denials … and a bitter, heartfelt admission as Corder goes to trial.

Another village girl who suffers at the hands of her husband is Theresa Havers, played by Genevieve Sky. Sky shows the real fear of the abused as she denies her “John’s” cruelty and follows his orders to speak for the defence in Corder’s trial.

Jacqui Wilson is the remarkable Sarah Stowe. Down-to-earth, intolerant of social niceties, she shuns public opinion as she brings up her family of illegitimate children. Wilson makes her wise, understanding, an early Victorian era ‘wag’ who is a staunch friend.

Maria’s stepmother, Anne, is played by Madeleine Lawson. Raised in an orphanage, Anne gratefully takes on the task of wife and mother, and Lawson finds gentleness in her simplicity and honesty. It is Anne’s wild, disturbed dreams that eventually lead to the discovery of Maria’s shallow grave.

Jade Rodrigues plays Lady Cooke, who visits the poor on Thursdays, dispersing ‘good’. Rodrigues makes her haughty and arrogant, especially when she turns Maria away, pregnant with her nephew Peter’s child.

Cee Egan and Niamh McKervey play the only two male roles. Egan is Thomas Corder, brother of William, who makes unwanted advances to Maria, to which she succumbs in order to support her poverty-stricken family. Corder treats Maria badly but gets his just desserts in an icy accident.

McKervey is the gallant Peter Mathews, who for the sake of social norms – and 500 pounds a year – forsakes Maria and leaves her to bring up their son alone. McKervey makes Mathews loving and, for a while, defiant, but not prepared to lose his income – though he does send money to Maria … until he marries someone else.

Jenny Andersen, Debbie Kearns and Joan Rodd play other villagers. It is good to see Rodd, who is a stalwart of community theatre, returning to the stage.

Photo : Dan Ferris

Flintoff decided “not to show the character of William Corder, nor show any violence on the stage”. This was a cunning decision as the only way we ‘see’ him is through Maria’s eyes, and the way she speaks to him and of him. Laura Stead takes Maria through the highs and despairing lows of the relationship and the pained confusion of a victim of abuse, in love, trusting, believing but caught in the coercive control of a strong, cruel, selfish man.

Jennifer Willison always ensures her period dramas are true to time and place but enhanced by contemporary technology and effects. In this production the 19th century music to which the girls dance is played live by a lone musician in period dress. But designer Wayne Chee uses clever contemporary lighting effects to augment the mood of the play, especially at the eerie opening and fiery climax.

The Ballad of Maria Marten is a sad play about the past … but still, unfortunately, about the present.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

The Gospel According to Paul

By Jonathan Biggins. Playhouse Sydney Opera House. 4 – 23 June, 2024

Reviewed : 6 June, 2024

Photo : Daniel Boud

Jonathan Biggins is no stranger to those who are devotees of The Wharf Revue, where Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Phil Scott satirised the mean and the mighty for over twenty years. Biggins has played everyone from Bob Brown to Donald Trump and King Charles. But it is his wry, sardonic, self-assured interpretation of Paul Keating that audiences love best. Perhaps because, like the once PM himself, he keeps coming back to haunt the revue’s more recent political targets.

Biggins, like Keating, is a man of stature. He holds himself tall; keeps himself fit. Also like Keating he is intelligent, insightful, politically and socially aware. As an actor he’s used to delving into characters, pulling them to pieces, finding their raisons d’être and especially their bêtes noir! He’s observant, a watcher who picks up on mannerisms – the way his subjects stand, walk, sit, gesture, speak, hesitate – and uses them subtly to create the caricatures he develops so well.

Biggins is also a playwright, used to developing characters and plot lines. Used to researching ideas and facts. So it is not surprising that it is not just Keating the politician that he brings to the stage in this ‘gospel’. It’s Keating the self-made man; the wordsmith; the thinker; the leader … and … Keating the aesthete; the collector; the wise.

Photo : Daniel Boud

So clever is Biggins’ theatrical artistry that sometimes one forgets that it isn’t Paul Keating himself on the stage. The dark suit, the polished shoes, the sartorial elegance, the slight stoop, the turn of the head, the studied gestures, the perfectly judged pauses … and the immaculately timed delivery – all are perfected without any trace of mockery.

Keating himself has acknowledged Biggins’ discerning perspicacity and nuance:

Jonathan earnestly seeks to do me justice and has sharply picked up upon the compelling trait of needing to do good– the trait that has always electrified me – given it all a purpose. *

On a beautifully conceived set, gracefully framed by two burnished pillars with antique furniture, gold framed artworks, and two ormulu clocks adorning an ornate fireplace, Biggins’ Keating begins the performance with a crack at his producer who has suggested that interaction with the audience might provide some empathy … “Empathy,” he sneers with a wicked smile, “why start now, sweetheart.”

Thus he begins the story of a boy called Paul who left school at 14 and went on to become the 24th Prime Minister of Australia, leading the country from 1991 to 1996. Sardonically he uses a slide show to take the audience back to his childhood, his early years in Young Labor, his many talks with his mentor Jack Lang, his rise through the ranks of the Labor Party, the Whitlam years, the Dismissal, the return to government as Treasurer and eventually as PM. Every event is scaffolded carefully … and interspersed with the cynical quips and mockery that became his trademark.

There are far too many to quote …but …

Of his old fibro home in Bankstown:

Fibro … an old French word for asbestos.”

Of the 1950s and 60s:

The policy coma of the Menzies years.

Of a Xmas photo shoot for the Women’s Weekly:

Those Christmas jumpers! I looked like the illegitimate son of Jenny Kee and Al Grasby.”

More serious moments of reflection included quotes such as …

“Music is as important as oxygen”;

and, very seriously,

Federal politics is no business for a family man”; “leadership needs imagination and courage”

“Fantasy and imagination were the sole liberators – influences the great bulk of the colleagues could neither measure, catalogue, box or most of all, emulate”. *

Biggins finds the music loving Paul in the story of the “Ram Rods”, a band he promoted in the 1960s, the first time he heard the Warsaw Concerto, his admiration for Tom Jones … and of course, Mahler. It is Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony that is used to close this enacted biography.

Photo : Daniel Boud

The historical tension is broken with some typical “Biggins moments”: Keating doing an impersonation of Tom Jones’ “Delilah”; a song and dance routine explaining fiscal policy; and a finale rendition of “That’s Life” that encapsulates “the power of the big idea” that was Paul Keating’s “guiding light” …

“… what the job was about. And doing it all with as much mocking and hilarity as one could reasonably get away with.” ♦

The Gospel According to Paul concludes its national tour in Sydney this June. It’s a must for fans of Prime Minister Keating, anyone who lived through the changing times of the 1970s, 80s and 90s and, of course, all those who love The Wharf Revue.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

♦From a Statement from the Honourable Paul Keating for The Gospel According to Paul at the Sydney Opera House on Tuesday 16 April 2024

Ink

By James Graham. Director Louise Fischer. New Theatre, Newtown. 29 May – 29 June, 2024

2 June, 2024

Photo : Chris Lundie

New Theatre uses a photograph of Rupert Murdoch taken in 1968 to publicise its production of James Graham’s play INK. He was 37 years old. He looks strong, and thoughtful … and that’s how Graham depicts him in this play about how Murdoch and his editor Larry Lamb turned a failing broadsheet called The Sun into a tabloid newspaper that in just one year outstripped its rivals in sales … and sensationalism.

Graham doesn’t criticise or judge. He’s “more interested in trying to understand people I don’t necessarily agree with, try to understand their motivations and why they feel what they do”. He just tells the story – brilliantly – and leaves it to others to make judgements.

Photo : Chris Lundie

INK goes beyond the Sun’s ‘page 3’ girls and scandals to the journalists who, in 1969, took up the challenge make The Sun what it became – “the what, the when, the who, the where, the why” of its success.

That manic push to change and compete happened at the beginning of ‘the 70s’, a time of “dynamic shifts in class, gender, politics, technology and fashion”. Director Louise Fischer and her creative team have made those societal “shifts” integral to their interpretation of the power and pace of the play.

Tom Bannerman’s multi-level set can be the old News of the World presses in Bouverie Street, the plush office of the editor of The Mirror in Fleet Street or alley ways where competing editors plot. Vision designer Verica Nikolic merges black and white and colour images of the time that play across the set, while Kevin Davidson (sound) and Peter Ross (lighting) add extra colour and tension. There are more than 200 lighting, sound and video cues in this production.

Costume designer Aibhlinn Stokes has recreated the “bold fashion choices” of the time. Yellow and lime green; knee high boots and miniskirts; three-piece suits and coloured waistcoats. Over 150 pieces of costume and accessories take seventeen actors back to the flaring fashions that introduced the 1970s.

Photo : Chris Lundie

Those 17 actors play 28 characters. With Louise Fischer’s wise and tight direction – and, presumably, after hours of discussion and research – they depict the journalists who, led by Murdoch and Lamb, dared to defy Fleet Street’s journalistic traditions and ethics and write about scandals, sport … and sex!

Adrian Adams plays Rupert Murdoch. He makes him wilful, ambitious, confident but also caring and, in some instances, conscience ridden. Adams shows the power of the man in the way he straightens his shoulders, holds his head, stares into the light. He shows a man who makes radical decisions based on facts and the chance of profit. He also shows a man who commands respect … and affection.

Larry Lamb, editor, persuader, motivator is played by Nick Curnow, who makes Lamb hassled and under pressure, but in control. He paces as he coaxes his staff to take up ideas; smiles winningly he placates their concerns; celebrates with them as they come up with yet another audacious story. He finds Lamb’s creative intellect, his understanding of the power of being different and brave – and the burn out that comes from constant pressure and strain.

The Murdoch and Lamb they depict face criticism and condemnation and find fame and infamy. They lead a strong, talented team – at The Sun and on the stage, because Fischer has assembled a cast who bring a variety experience to the production.

Photo : Chris Lundie

Some like Les Asmussen bring years of what he calls “job acting”. Years that give him the depth of experience to portray Australian expat Alick McKay, Murdoch’s deputy, whose wife Muriel was kidnapped and murdered in mistake for Murdoch’s wife Anna. Graham referenced this in the play in a very intense scene which Fischer directed with great sensitivity – and where Asmussen shone as a man shaken and lost, bewildered and broken.

Emily Wearne shines too as Joyce Hopkirk, the women’s editor who apparently sent 200 ideas to Lamb in her bid to be part of the team. Wearne makes her strong, bold, fashionable (Hopkirk later edited Cosmo) able to hold her own in a manifestly male environment.

Photo : Chris Lundie

It seems wrong to single out only two of the fifteen cast who played so many of the real people who were part of the team behind Rupert Murdoch’s first foray into Fleet Street. Every member of the cast, whether playing one character or four, works in tight harmony to recreate the excitement and energy, pressure and pain of the first twelve months that was the beginning of an empire.

INK is another highlight for The New. James Graham’s insightful writing, Louise Fischer’s sure, perceptive direction and a very experienced cast make this a production that shouldn’t be missed.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine