Category Archives: Theatre

The venue was more interesting than the art. 17th Sydney Biennale, Cockatoo Island, NSW, Australia. 2010

I went to Cockatoo Island (one of my favourite places in Sydney) on Sunday with some friends to check out part of the Sydney Biennale. I was instantly reminded of something a set designer once said to me about a detail on a set I’d spotted (I used to be a set builder in the theatre) that needed to be sorted out. She said to me, “oh don’t worry about that, if the audience notices, it will be a sign that the play is a flop”.

I remember being stuck by what she (the set designer) had said, and how true it was.

Not long after, I was involved with the complicated construction of a set that was built on two revolves that when rotated would break the set in half and then produce another scene as the old scene rotated off stage. There were three amazing set changes that happened with the audience watching . It was all a very magical theatrical experience and an excellent piece of set design.

The trouble was, that the play was so bad that the only thing the audience applauded were the set changes!

I’m not kidding.

Cockatoo Island is an old dockyard from the early 19th century. It’s now decommissioned as a dockyard but a lot of the old decaying buildings are still there. The whole place is a sort of monument to a shabby kind utilitarian brutalism that has almost been malevolently designed to be as ugly as possible. The strange thing is that now that the paint is peeling and iron is rusting Cockatoo Island has to my mind become a wonderful place.

Visual roughage for the eyes, if you will.

As part of the Sydney Biennale a free art exhibition is currently showing on Cockatoo Island in the various buildings. The only problem was, was that most of the art was so weak that the venue totally overwhelmed what was being shown.

I didn’t see anything that I thought was particularly interesting, never mind anything mind blowing. A few pieces were O.K. but there was nothing that I saw that I thought required more than a few seconds to look at.

Oh well, at least the buildings were interesting.

A review of the Ensemble Theatre production of “Death of a Salesman”

Last Friday night, my wife and I went to see the Ensemble Theatre production of Arthur Miller’s iconic “Death of a Salesman” at the York Theatre in the Seymour Centre, Sydney.

As I have gone through my life I’ve come to realise that many classic pieces of literature are justifiably well-known.  I can remember reading Moby Dick, and thinking to myself “no wonder this is so famous”. Melville’s book was not only very well written with an interesting story it also covered a lot of ground, in regards to the human condition.  It’s just like every time I’m exposed to something created by Shakespeare I’m in awe of his consciousness of the multitude of facets of existence.

It would be very easy to dismiss American cultural artefacts as dross, produced by greedy money grubbers for morons, due to the fact much of it is. 

But not all of it is! 

Fifty years ago the protean Arthur Miller stood surefooted and neck deep in the swift current of post-war stupidity and ignorance. Not only did Miller reject the idea that mere self belief and popularity was enough to succeed, he also stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee during the McCarthy era by refusing to name, names.  Arthur Miller was a freethinking giant whose thoughts were well ahead of their day.

I have to admit that I wasn’t too enthusiastic about going to see “Death of a Salesman” as I had preconceived ideas that it would be just a dreary little kitchen sink drama about a salesman getting old and losing his mojo.  Yes, “Death of a Salesman”, is on the surface, fairly much what I thought it would be, but, it is so much more than just that.  It’s all about how our lives are shaped by the architecture of the cultural myths many of us carry around in our heads. It’s a testament to Arthur Miller’s genius that “Death of a Salesman”, still rings true and has relevance 50 years after it was written. It really is a modern classic.

The play is basically about a salesman (Willy Loman) at the end of his life and career as he comes to terms with the onset of dementia, the futility of his life, the estrangement of his eldest son (Biff), and the realisation of how his mistaken belief system has led him from the path to happiness and fulfilment.

The Loman family is held together by Linda, as the conflict between Biff and Willy threatens to tear it apart.  Linda Loman is the loving wife who soothes the troubled spirit of Willy and doting mother who tries to get her two sons to understand her husband and what he is going through.

Without totally retelling the story I would like to discuss a few of the themes that were raised during the play that resonated with me.

Self image, and how it affects the way how we interact with the rest of the world.
I don’t think I’d be wrong in saying that I think that Arthur Miller felt that if you can’t love yourself, you can’t accept another person’s love for you.  Much like what Groucho Marx once said, “I would never belong to a club that would accept me as a member”.  The character Willy Loman, whilst occasionally acknowledging his frailties is basically all bullshit and bluster.  Willy may talk up a storm about his popularity, success as a salesman and how he has followed the right track in life, but it’s pretty obvious his self-loathing is interfering with the relationship he has with his eldest son, Biff. The estrangement between Willy and Biff has its genesis in an incident from Biff’s high school graduation year.  Up until the incident in question, Biff had always had a high regard for Willy, and Willy in return, basked in the sunshine of his eldest son’s love and respect.  After the incident, Willy realised he could no longer present himself as an honourable and decent role model worthy of love and respect and this fact, poisoned all his other relationships for the rest of his life.

Delusional self belief.
It has long been promulgated in America that if you believe in yourself, you can achieve anything.  Just follow your dream. It’s only recently here in Australia, that such a proposition has been argued against.  I guess many of us over here have secretly thought that perhaps such hubris was the cornerstone of American success.  It would seem that Willy has a huge amount of self belief in himself and his sons.  The only trouble is reality doesn’t seem to agree.

Happiness through consumption.
The advertising world would have us believe that happiness can be achieved through our purchases.  All we have to do is trade our lives by getting onto the work treadmill and make enough money to buy the products that are offered.  Now that Willy is older, he realises that many of the things that he worked so hard to acquire aren’t providing the joy he had hoped.  All the material things in Willy’s world seem to be breaking down and failing just like his mind. In his pursuit of things material, Willy has neglected his family and his friendships.

The danger of conformity, and the danger of not conforming.
On one hand, Willy (who seems to be the personification of the aspirational American archetype), respects the idea of marching to the beat of a different drummer and going out into the world on one’s own to make one’s fortune.  On the other hand, Willy feels that one has to knuckle down and be part of the system to get ahead.  Willy’s brother, Ben, (who had invited Willy to come along with him, but Willy stayed behind) had gone out and made his fortune in Africa.  Willy had self belief, a wife, family and a stable job and he wasn’t about to put that at risk, much to his regret later in life.  All throughout the play Willy is giving conflicting advice to his sons.  Go out and take a chance to find yourself and your fortune like your Uncle Ben!  Stop being a bum and get a job like me!  Willy’s youngest son Hap (short for Happy) is following Willy’s lead of trying to work his way up the corporate ladder, whereas Biff has been drifting doing odd jobs out west on farms. 

Popularity trumps education.
Willy always had high hopes for his son and Biff, who was very popular high school football star. There are several times during the play, where Willy makes the point that all a man needs to get ahead in life is to be popular and make a good impression.  He takes every chance to pour scorn on his neighbours son’s academic achievements and actually seems to take delight as he retards his own son’s education.

Sex and alcohol are a small man’s sunshine.
Willy’s younger son, Hap, seems to be living the life that is promoted by Willy. As the play progresses Hap’s life is revealed as an empty sham of soulless carousing.  

When the play first started, I found the American accents very jarring and I was wondering why the play wasn’t just performed in the local accent.  That was until I realised that the play was actually set in New York, and refers to many places in New York, and therefore a generic accent couldn’t be used.  Another reason why I found the American accent a bit disconcerting was that I was afraid that the actors wouldn’t be able to pull it off for the whole length of the play, and it would all start to sound a bit lame.  For the most part the accents, while being a little over the top were pretty good and after a while, I didn’t even notice them.  The only actor who didn’t seem to be able to do the American Accent very well was the fellow who played Willy’s brother Ben.

Most of the play takes part in the here and now, but every now and again there are hallucinatory flashbacks representing Willy’s decaying mind.  I found that during the flashbacks I couldn’t help but marvel at how well a job of directing that Sandra Bates had done in keeping the story comprehensible.  It would have been so easy to turn the story into a confusing opaque mishmash.

Sean Taylor is completely believable as the flawed Willy Loman, and much to his credit I didn’t feel like I was watching an actor act.  Taylor manages to convey Willy’s decrepitude and lack of character very convincingly.

Jacki Weaver plays the careworn Linda with a steely pathos of such conviction that I found myself being angry with the Willy character, for not treating her with the kindness and thoughtfulness that her character deserved.

Anthony Gooley is a wonderful Biff.  One minute he is a self doubting and tortured lost soul, then the next he is a confident and enthusiastic high school sports star. I really enjoyed Gooley’s transformations during the show.

Tom O’Sullivan plays the cad about town, Hap with the enthusiastic relish of a fox terrier that’s spotted a rat.  He just leaps on the part, gleefully gives it a good shake and then runs off with it.

Judith Hoddinott’s set serves the play well, but its multi-levelled design looks like it would be an actor’s nightmare to navigate in the darkness of the scene changes.  I hope nobody gets hurt on it.

Without trying to sound too dismissive of the obviously evident talent displayed on stage, it’s the writing of the play, and the ideas that it carries that are the stars of the show. 

The play triggered many memories of conversations and shouting matches I had within my own family as I was growing up. The myths that are presented to us as important goals in our culture can be very distracting in our search for a meaningful life. Mr. Miller has erected a few hazard signs for us with this excellent play.

Without any deliberate hyperbole, I’d say that “Death of a Salesman” is a play that everyone who lives in a first world consumerist society should see at least once in their life.  Preferably sooner than later as it would pay to be conscious of the lessons that it has teach before life passes and myth created mistakes are regretted.

A review of STC’s production of “Blackbird”

Last night, my wife and I went to the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of “Blackbird”.  As my wife and mother in law had made the selections for this season’s theatre, I had no idea what the show was about until I was filled in with a short synopsis as we were driving into town.  My heart sank when I heard that it was about an affair a 40-year-old man had with a 12 year old girl.  Firstly, I don’t think that paedophilia is suitable subject matter as entertainment.  Secondly as a male I thought it would be another beat up about men and what perverted beasts we are.
 
Before I go on with my review of the production, I’d like to tell you about a few experiences I’ve had with young girls that have left me with mixed feelings whenever I hear about paedophilia cases.
 
When I used to work at the carnival in a laser show, we used to get a lot of young teenage girls hanging around.  Quite a few of these young girls made it very clear that they were interested in experimenting with sex with somebody older from outside of their home town, who would leave without telling any of the locals.  As for my fellow workers and I at the laser show, we just saw these girls for what they were, just kids, and in no way were we going to take part in their sexual education.  We just let them hang around, giggle and carry on.  Our logic was that if they hung around us they would be at least staying out of harm’s way as carnivals are places that young girls can get themselves into trouble very quickly.  That’s not saying that the carnies are naturally depraved people, but carnivals are like the rest of the world, which is populated by not only saints, but also sinners.
 
Another disturbing experience I had with a young adolescent girl (who I was teaching how to make websites) was that as I was sitting at the computer showing her how to lay things out, she stood behind my back, put her arms over my shoulders and started rubbing her breasts in my back.  I immediately got up and told my wife about what had happened and never had contact with that girl ever again.
 
Those two experiences have shown me that sometimes there is more than what is immediately apparent in some of these paedophilia cases that one hears about.  Having just said that, adults should have better judgment than becoming sexually involved with precocious children.
 
Blackbird opens in a shabby and untidy lunchroom in what seems to be a factory as the two main protagonists meet for the first time in 15 years.  We quickly find out that the man, Ray is now approaching 60 and the woman, Una is now in her late 20s. The play begins with the all-too-familiar indignantly righteous victim confronting a cowering and shamed perpetrator.  During the first 15 minutes of the play, I sat there thinking to myself, “here we go over that same old, politically correct, ground”, as Una lambasts the re-educated Ray.
 
Ray was put in jail for six years for what he had done to Una, and in that time, has had to unflinchingly face the reality of his crime through state-administered therapy.  Ray is now a broken man trying to get on with and rebuild his life and as such, is not very pleased to see the seemingly vengeful Una once again.
 
Ray is right to be worried about Una’s motivation in visiting him. After all, Ray was 40 years old and Una was only 12 when he had sex with her.  Ray had to go to jail and publicly face the shame of his crime and as such, he is only too aware of what he did wrong.  Seeing Una again brings Ray face to face with the reality he has been trying to leave behind and forget.
 
Fortunately for the audience, David Harrower, (the playwright) only goes over all the obvious ground in the beginning of the play to establish a departure point from which he explores the various aspects of the unequal relationship that exists between an adult and child who are sexually involved.  To his credit, Harrower is almost Shakespearean in the breadth of his insight, as he examines the various facets of what is an immensely complex and emotional issue.
 
With agonising honesty, Peter Kowitz plays Ray as an open wound with acid being poured over it.  At times it was excruciating to see Ray writhe under the harsh spotlight of Una’s focused anger.
 
Paula Arundell masterfully plays Una as part incandescent avenging angel and part vulnerable bewildered child looking for answers.
 
As the director, Cate Blanchett uses the theatre-in-the-round staging as a small scale Coliseum where the audience looks down on the actors as they warily circle each other while engaged in emotional combat. Blanchett’s sure hand made sure the play did not degenerate into histrionics.
 
As the play progresses, we find out more and more about Ray and Una’s tragic story.  A tragic story it is, because of all the misunderstanding and hurt that was caused by a young girl’s flirtation with an older man and his weakness coupled with stupidity.  I won’t tell much more of the story because I feel that it would subtract from the reader’s enjoyment of the play, other than to say that the use of a child actor at the very end was a masterstroke as it makes the audience aware of how young a 12 year old girl actually is.
 
Child sexual abuse is not a lightweight subject of an easy night’s entertainment, but it is an issue that has many facets that I suspect that most people are totally unaware of.  Perhaps seeing even unpleasant things in new ways is one of the functions of art, and I highly recommend this play.
 
On another note, it was interesting to hear people’s comments in the audience before the show as they were talking about how disappointed they were with some of the Sydney Theatre Company’s productions over the last year.  In particular, “Riflemind” and “The Season At Sarsaparilla”.  As I’ve said before, in a previous post, I didn’t like Riflemind, but it constantly surprises me how many people have seen the show and really hated it.  What concerns me is that the Sydney Theatre Company’s reputation has been so badly damaged by a mediocre season.
 
If Blackbird is anything to judge the Sydney Theatre Company by, I am hopefully optimistic that this year’s productions will be an improvement on last year’s.

Tiger Country. A review of the Griffin Theatre Company’s new production

Last night, my wife and I went to the The Stables Theatre in Nimrod Street to see the Griffin Theatre Company’s production of Jonathon Gaven’s new play, “ Tiger Country”.
 
I must say from the very outset that this is a play were so much is done with the so little.  The Stables Theatre is a small studio space that gave me the feeling that it is the sort of establishment that many young actors get their first chances to tread the boards.  One gets the impression that the place runs on the smell of an oily rag and the Sydney Theatre Company with its recent profligate waste of talent (see “Riflemind”) could learn a few lessons from this little theatre.
 
Tiger country is set in the southern outskirts of Sydney on the way to the Southern Highlands and is obviously influenced by the story of Ivan Milat. The play is not really a story in the normal linear sense but a series of vignettes, and I couldn’t help but think during the play that it would make an excellent movie.  If Tiger country has any weaknesses, it is the use of vignettes as a device to progress the story.  All the vignettes contributed to the building of the story, but unfortunately some of them were very short and I think that with a bit more work-shopping, they could have been welded together a little better.
 
John Sheedy as the director draws out excellent performances from his hard-working cast.
 
It’s Christmas time then we get to peer into the extreme workings of the Unwin family of brothers and their unfortunate partners.  Without telling the exact story of what happens “Tiger Country” is basically about Australian larrikinism and its ugly bastard brother violence.  The play starts off with a very volatile argument between Eddie (played by Josef Ber) who has just been released from jail and his pregnant teenage wife, Kylie (played by Eve Morey), which turns out to be just a joke between lovers.  There are many humorous scenes that follow.  As the play progresses, the humor continues unabated, but the violence escalates.  This is not a play for the fainthearted, as the language can be quite coarse and some of the scenes of domestic violence very confronting.
 
The other characters in the play are the intellectually challenged Howl, his hard as nails de facto Rachel and his oleaginous older brother Chuckles.
 
Everyone in the cast turns in excellent performances that are thoroughly believable.  Not once did I feel that I was watching actors, acting.
 
Josef Ber as the ex-con Eddie left me in no doubt that his character was someone who solves their problems with their fists rather than diplomacy and uses physical intimidation to gain the respect of others.  Not the sort of person that I’d recommend that one goes drinking with on a Friday night if you want to stay out of jail or hospital.
 
Eve Morey who plays the soap opera watching airhead Kylie is completely convincing. Morey turned in an excellent bittersweet and gut wrenching performance of a child in a woman’s body, longing for the sort of love, that one only sees in soap operas but trapped in an abusive and violent relationship.
 
Matthew Moore, as the lovable dimwit Howl has some of the best comedic as well as poignant scenes.  We first see Howl come onto the stage, dressed in Ugg boots, Superman briefs and tattered olive singlet, carrying a hunting rifle whilst parodying the background Christmas music with blurting noises.  At first sight, he is hilarious, and his gormlessness charms for the rest of the play. Howl is the innocent amongst the monsters and his performance is a bit like watching a baby playing with razor blades.  I kept on feeling something bad was going to happen.
 
Nicole Winkler as the hard as a diamond Rachel is the childlike Howl’s long-suffering and well-worn de facto. Winkler is terrific, in her portrayal of a single mother who’s been around and seen some of the world from the bottom of the social ladder. Rachel is on one hand, nastily vitriolic and on the other, toughly intelligent.  Unfortunately for Rachel, she is a woman surrounded by men who won’t hesitate to use force to get what they want.
 
James Evans plays the aloof and slimy Chuckles with a smiling icy maliciousness.  At first, one gets the impression that Chuckles is the only normal man in the play, but it’s not long before we find out what a bent unit he really is. Evans skilfully turns up the volume on his character’s malevolence as the play progresses to a point to where he is genuinely scary in a deeply creepy way.
 
Jonathan Gavin with a skilful use of light and shade, has written a play with a disturbing theme that is full of humor and you will find yourself laughing, quite often, all the way through.
 
I highly recommend Tiger Country as very good value entertainment, and to top it all off the theatre is situated in an area with many very good restaurants so one can make a trip to a play a full night out.

Riflemind. A review of STC’s latest production

Riflemind on paper looks like a surefire winner, as it has a few heavy hitters such as Hugo Weaving as the lead and Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the director.  Over the years I’ve been very impressed with Hugo Weaving and I’ve also enjoyed watching almost anything with Philip Seymour Hoffman in it, so it is with a great sense of disappointment, that I have to report that such huge talents were wasted on what is essentially a poorly written self-indulgent ramble.
 
The first question, one has to ask oneself, is, does the world need another tale about self-indulgent tantrums within a rock ‘n’ roll band?
 
I think that Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and Metallica’s “Some kind of monster” covered that ground well enough to last me the rest of my life.  For me, Riflemind was just more of the same old stuff that I have come to expect from this genre.  Lots of shouted repetitive circular argument about the emptiness and grind of being “at the top” of the game.  I found it very hard to care about a single character in the whole play, let alone engage in the story.
 
The play centres around the group dynamic of the members of the once famous band “Riflemind” , wanting to go back on tour.  The play takes place at John’s (the band leader) house.  John, played with relish by Hugo Weaving, shares a house with his “yoga zombie” Wife, Lyn (played by Susan Prior).  From the very get go, it is obvious that John is a self absorbed bastard, who enjoys inflicting mental cruelty on his basket case wife as they both try and stay clean, off drugs.  I have to admit though, that after watching Prior’s over acting, I felt that John’s demeanor seemed justified.
 
After a nasty bit of sniping at each other, John and Lyn are joined by the band’s drummer, Moon (played by Steve Rogers) and his friend, a young guitarist called Lee (played by Ewen Porter). Steve Rogers makes a decent fist of his stereotypical drummer character, serving as a verbal punching bag for John. 
 
The other band members of Riflemind fly in by helicopter.  There is the band’s manager, Sam (played by Jeremy Sims), John’s brother Phil (played by Marton Csokas) and his bitchy blonde groupie wife Cindy (played by Susie Porter).  John welcomes all his guests with an egalitarian surliness and then storms off to the pub with Moon and Lee.  While John is off at the pub, the remaining band members try and make sense of Lyn.  Lynn who it would seem hasn’t been socialising very much lately, finds it all a little bit too much, dashes out of the house and goes on a drug binge.  Phill leaves his wife Cindy and the band manager Sam behind as he goes to look for John.  It is at this juncture in the play that we find out that Cindy and Sam have been having a sexual liaison, and we are treated to some comical gratuitous simulated sex.  Jeremy Sims is quite believable as an ageing and needy Essex boy, whilst Susie Porter plays the part of a jaded and disinterested piece of jet trash to the hilt.
 
Basically, the first act mostly consisted of churlish behavior and shouting. By intermission, I was wondering whether or not I’d bother to watch the second act as I didn’t care a fig for any of the characters and I didn’t care how it all ended.
 
After more yelling and shouting, we find that the band still has what it takes.  But will John and Lyn’s relationship survive the band getting back together again.  Who cares? I didn’t and I’d say neither did most of the audience.  The play was damned with polite and light applause that petered out after the second bow.
 
On the whole the play reminded me of an experience I had when I was in Spain.  I was camping at a campground in Madrid, opposite a large Spanish family, who are preparing paella.  I watched jealously as I saw beautiful ingredients being put into the paella pan.  Fresh fish, shrimp, octopus and shellfish slowly cooked with saffron rice.  It looked and smelt fantastic.  The family must have noticed my interest, and with typical Spanish hospitality they invited me to join them.  I can remember thinking to myself about how good it was all going to taste as I walked over.  Yep, you guessed it!  It was absolutely disgusting.  I don’t know how they did it, but they managed to turn all those beautiful ingredients into an inedible mess.

The Art of War. Sydney Theatre Company

Last night I went to see a performance of the excellent new work “The Art of War” by Stephen Jeffreys. The Art of War was specially commissioned by the Sydney Theatre Company, Actors Company. Yes the play is based on the very ancient and famous work of the same name by Sun Tzu.

Although it is an old text, Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” is still often quoted today, especially in the world of business. This new play addresses Sun Tzu’s philosophy in the context of the play’s three interlinked stories of, love, business and war.

John Gaden (photo by Tania Kelly)

The first act of the play starts off at a cracking pace and the ideas come one after the other like machine gunned crystal to the brain. I absolutely loved the way how the writing presented the ideas in exciting ways. Everything looked so clear, so relevant. It really does look like “The Art of War” can be applied to such wide areas as those explored in the play. However, the second act becomes much murkier as the complexities of real life muddy the waters of Sun Tzu’s advice. At first I thought the playwright had used all his best ideas in the first act and I felt that the play started to falter in the second act. I had the same feeling with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. On reflection though, I think that the difference between the two acts is a reflection of the difference between the attractiveness of an idea and the reality of its implementation in messy real life. The fog of war, so to speak.

“The Art of War” is a very timely investigation of how ideological driven action without a knowledge of history and the lessons learned in the past can lead to disaster. There definitely is a subtext of rationalism versus empiricism.

The direction of Annabel Arden is very good and I was constantly pleased to see how she moved the actors around the stage; one minute they were moving like a school of fish and then the next they were forming patterns and shapes. There was also very creative use of props,  fluid segues and the humour was well timed.

For me the most compelling idea in the play was that of how philosophies can be interpreted in many different, self serving, and quite often contradictory ways. There are times when this paradox is addressed with what I thought was good effect as various characters use Sun Tzu’s tactics in seemingly opposite ways. The central question posed by the play is; can Sun Tzu’s Art of War be used in all aspects of life? Are Love and business the same as war? If you live in Sydney, I’d say it’s well worth the admission price to find out.