Sunday, 8 October 2017

2017: Under Sedation: Canberra Verse Remixed, edited and directed by Adele Chynoweth

Under Sedation: Canberra Verse Remixed, edited and directed by Adele Chynoweth.  The Street at The Street Two, Canberra, September 30 – October 14, 2017.

Designer – Imogen Keen; Movement Director/Choreographer – Emma Strapps; Sound Designer – Shoeb Ahmad; Lighting Designer – Linda Buck

Performed by Ben Drysdale and Ruth Pieloor

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 8

Adele Chynoweth, like an expert DJ, has mixed clips taken from 43 poems and songs, supported by The Street’s artistic director Caroline Stacey, “to devise a poetry anthology of Canberra verse – a theatrical work embodied by professional actors as a complement to the conventional genre of poetry readings”.

Ruth Pieloor

Ben Drysdale

The result is a quite fascinating performance-poetry production: 80 minutes of exploration of personal and social behaviour starting from the key quote Remember, sister, we are under sedation of habit, of hope, of lust from the poem Under Sedation by the classic Canberra poet A.D. Hope, published in A Late Picking 1975.  The whole poem begins and ends the show, and is available for download at

Canberra becomes a character in its own right, not because of many explicit references, but as an ineffable spirit expressed through all these different writers, ranging from the Australian National University academic A.D. Hope to the famous Wiradjuri man Kevin Gilbert in his poem Tree

Gilbert was instrumental in setting up the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the tree-lined lawns facing the original Parliament House, and his poem stood out for me against the dark side of Under Sedation.  I have reprinted it here from the obituary by his daughter Kerry-Reed Gilbert, published shortly after her father’s death in April 1993, in Green Left Weekly:

I am the tree

the lean hard hungry land

the crow and eagle

sun and moon and sea

I am the sacred clay

which forms the base

the grasses vines and man

I am all things created

I am you and

you are nothing

but through me the tree

you are

and nothing comes to me

except through that one living gateway

to be free

and you are nothing yet

for all creation

earth and God and man

is nothing

until they fuse

and become a total sum of something

together fuse to consciousness of all

and every sacred part aware


in true affinity

In a talk before the performance today, Adele Chynoweth said “We didn’t want to sedate the audience”.  The design in-the-round, the lighting, sound and choreography, and the vocal and movement and characterisation skills of both actors, as well as the choices and layout of the texts and songs certainly made sure we were never sedated.  The range of emotions from laughter, often with a sense of irony, concern about serious social problems like drug-taking up and down the social scale,  sadness, for example when an intimate relationship breaks down, or death occurs, meant that our attention never flagged.

For me, the song that formed the third strong support with Hope’s and Gilbert’s poems was Fred Smith’s Dust of Uruzgan.  I have reviewed Smith’s work before on this blog, at the National Folk Festival, April 5 2015 and again in the one-off Soldier Songs and Voices, March 10, 2016.  When the verses of that song were interspersed between others’ poems, and especially because of the quality and strength of Ben Drysdale’s singing and guitar playing, I felt the effect was even more powerful.  As I wrote in 2015 “Then there’s Fred – Fred Smith, that is.  Canberran to the boot-straps.  A DFAT warrior with a successful diplomatic record in some of the war-torn and socially messy parts of the world, who writes ascerbic songs about life.”

So I found in Under Sedation: Canberra Verse Remixed the soul of this bureaucratic capital city that will surprise many outsiders, and encourage those of us who live here and seek out the arts for our self-expression.  I think I am not going too far if I say this is perhaps the best original work I have seen at The Street, showing the value of Caroline Stacey’s leadership as artistic director and CEO.

Ruth Pieloor and Ben Drysdale

© Frank McKone

Thursday, 5 October 2017

2017 Morning Melodies - Paul Martell and Jane Scali

Paul Martell and Jane Scali
The Paul Martell and Jane Scali Show.  Morning Melodies at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, Friday October 6, 2017.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Morning Melodies at The Q might cater for the elderly (at 76 I was among the younger members of today’s audience), but it wasn’t all mere melody on this occasion.  I’m glad to say that we were certainly not treated as the stereotypical sentimental nincompoops as we might have been in times gone past.

It is true that Dean Martin and Perry Como had their parts to play, and yes, I could sing along with Irish Eyes are Smiling and even Oh Danny Boy, but certain political conservatives would surely have been horrified that comedian Paul Martell assumed that we were intelligent, up with the latest on same-sex marriage surveys and Trumpian matters, and therefore very likely to vote yes to progressive social policy.  Tony, Corey, Eric and their old mate Howard would have been offended.  This show kindly reminded us of the 1950s and 1960s, but didn’t try to take us back there.

So this old audience laughed, enjoyed Martell’s jokes and mature-age innuendos, as much as Jane Scali’s straight renditions of songs we used to know, and appreciated Martell’s mimicry of movie stars (and even one politician – Bob Hawke).  It was light entertainment, but not mere fluff, which gave us a sense of relief from the woes of the world, laughing along for an hour or so with this nice, sensible, funny, married couple.

The show is cleverly put together and deserves all the praise I felt the audience give it.  The only quibble (and I checked with others in case it was just my hearing aid that was the problem) was that the level and tone control on Jane’s microphone was not set to get the best effect from her voice.  She seemed often to be too loud when close to the mic, and with too much lower frequency tone, so that often her words were hard to understand.  If she took the mic farther away, her words were clearer, but the volume and impact dropped off.  This was particularly noticeable compared with the clarity of Paul Martell’s mic.  Since I hadn’t heard Jane sing on stage previously, I checked on YouTube with clips from a number of her performances – and her voice was clear as a bell.

I recognise, of course, that technical rehearsals and different equipment in venues make this kind of thing problematic for touring one-off performances, so the quibble remains no more than that.

The important take-home message is that everyone came out obviously pleased with a thoroughly enjoyable Morning Melody.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

2017: Drama Education 2 - Drama Teaching Processes

Three Cognitive Processes
in Drama Teaching Design

While listening to the 23 presenters at the Drama Australia Symposium 2017, and thinking about my own interest in the concept of metacognition and its importance in higher level learning especially at the senior secondary level at which I used to teach, I have come up with these three concepts.

The papers which were most significant in my thinking were:

Susan Davis: Dramatic Thinking: Identifying and Owning Our Creative Process - "This paper investigates the concerns and considerations of the creative process in drama with reference to systems theories of creativity and the notion of signature pedagogies to propose embracing the concept of 'dramatic thinking'.  If we accept that there are signature pedagogies (Shulman 2005) which are endemic to different disciplines and professions, these may also be seen to extend to thinking and creative process used by the dramatic pedagogue and dramatist."

Brad Haseman: Thin Redundancy or Rich Aesthetics?  Drama Education and Online Learning Design - "While the paper is immediately relevant to those working with drama and digital technology, it is also relevant to arts teachers who are having to deal with educational approaches dismissive of constructivist, problem-based and experiential learning."

Paul Gardiner: Creative Climates: Collaboration for Creativity in the Context of Individual Assessment - "This paper explores the findings of research into playwriting pedagogy and the associated pedagogical strategies that develop student creative capacity and creative confidence....  It examines classroom practice through the lens of creative environments (Isaksen & Ekvall, 2010) and how collaborative practice can further foster student creativity through encouraging idea support, debate, trust and openness."

Alison O'GradyNavigating Context in a Post-truth World: Confronting a New Challenge for Researchers - "In a recent workshop, it was discovered that divergent personal truths could co-exist, while simultaneously suggesting what was believed was most likely a lie."

John Nicholas Saunders: Using Drama as Creative, Critical and Quality Pedagogy to Improve Student Literacy and Engagement in the Primary Years - "The paper will illustrate how using creative pedagogy (partularly process drama-based strategies), combined with quality children's literature, can improve student academic (English and literacy) and non-academic (engagement, motivation, confidence and empathy) outcomes in the primary years of schooling."

Michael Anderson: Capitalising on Creativity to Re-imagine Schooling: Beyond STEM and STEAM - In this presentation I will discuss the role of creativity as a driver of innovation across all subjects and fields and explore what we are missing out on by siloing STEM from other areas of creativity and innovation in the curriculum."

My purpose is to offer these three headings under which a teacher may plan drama-based activities appropriate for the needs of their students; while they may be helpful in judging the success or otherwise of the activity when assessing the students' learning outcomes.
Process Drama: a linear process from implicit learning in the active drama phase to explicit understanding of external material.  For the students, this is "Simple Cognitive" experience, in which they learn about subjects which are not Drama.

Drama Process Drama: a linear process from implicit learning in the active drama phase to explicit understanding of drama process.  For the students, this is "Metacognitive" experience, taking their understanding of Drama to a higher level.  This kind of experience was the objective of my development of extended group improvisation method for Years 11/12 1985-1992.

Theatre Process Drama: a recursive process from metacognitive understanding in rehearsal to internalised implicit recall in performance phase.  For the students, as actors in a drama (whether formally or informally staged), this "Recursive Metacognition" experience enables them to act, in Hayes Gordon's words, rather than 'perform'.  (Hayes Gordon: Acting and Performing, Ensemble Press, Sydney © Hayes Gordon 1987, first published 1992)

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Saturday, 30 September 2017

2017: Drama Education 1 - Drama Australia Symposium

Creative CapitalDrama Australia National Symposium 2017.  Canberra Theatre Centre, September 29-30, 2017.

Hosted by ACT Drama Association
For the full program with details of each speakers's presentation, click here

Commentary by Frank McKone

Many years gone by, I was once president of an amateur drama group.  Chairing business meetings was literally like herding cats. 

Drama Australia is certainly not amateur, but there’s the same rambunctious talk and bursts of laughter when some one mentions, say, neuronal cognition, or keynote speaker Dr so-and-so seems only to have one memory from 12 years of schooling – when his teacher had set up a wardrobe in the classroom, and had everyone step into the wardrobe and on the other side step out in to the new world called “School”.

Not Narnia?  So another showed the video of the making of a full-size 2-person puppet of Aslan the Lion, from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and how valuable this activity has been for social development of a bunch of children.

Cats come to mind because, like drama teachers, there are common elements in the way they behave, distinct from servile dogs, say; but each has a highly individual personality which some people find irksome while others find eternally fascinating.

The thought takes me on to the origin (in USA) of the denomination ‘cool cats’.  These were (maybe still are) those great improvisers of modern jazz.  Improvisation is the universal characteristic behaviour of drama educators, in a constant state of excitability. 

This year they were seriously getting STEAMed up.

It's the deficiencies in STEM Education which worry governments so much (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) that school systems are pouring (or at least thinking of pouring) money, teachers and resources in that direction, which blind decision makers from seeing the need for STEAM.

The essential argument running through all papers presented is that research evidence shows that children and teenagers benefit enormously from Arts Education, because there they learn to become explorers and questioners, more confident in their own abilities, more socially engaged – and therefore improve their learning in STEM.

The neuronal cognition studies explain why.  A now traditional Drama technique explains how.  It was the famous Drama educator Dorothy Heathcote from the industrial north of England who invented the Mantle of the Expert, where the teacher makes the children into ‘experts’, who have to research and argue out with each other the best way to do – something, anything, like, say solve a science problem, or a mathematics problem, or a matter of history, or a political or social issue. 

Brain studies show how, with the teacher taking a helping role rather than an instructing role, this kind of Drama – now commonly called Process Drama, builds new and complex neural connections.  And what’s more, the evidence is that when children have that kind of experience, they apply it when they are not ‘doing Drama’.  In other words, the Arts underpins better capacity for learning in other subjects.  Experience also shows, as you might expect, that teachers across subjects in primary and secondary schools need to be trained in process drama techniques.

But our problem is that we have a culture which believes in numbers, and judges the value of the arts essentially in dollar terms.  That point to me was highly ironic.  We have a culture mired in numbers, but the teaching of STEM is failing.  To fix it, policy makers pump money out of the Arts, but those questioning researchers show that that is the last thing we should do.

The Symposium heard 23 individual speakers in keynote, 20 minute and 6 minute formats over a day and a half – far too much material for me to go into details here.  I thought, though, the essence of the argument became very clear in the paper presented by Dana Holden, What Does the ‘A’ Mean?

Drama Queensland has worked with Kedron State High School to put a new subject into the curriculum (I think at this stage in Year 7 as the ‘taster’ program to help students make their more specialist choices later in high school).  This subject is called STEAM (da da!), and uses process drama not only for doing Drama but for teaching Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

The diaries and evaluation responses of the students show clearly how learning this way was much more interesting – for boys and girls – than standard classroom teaching method, and how much more motivated and confident they felt. 

This is a project which, it seems to me, should go far.  Indeed, other papers talked of using drama process for teaching other arts disciplines like music, or even going as far as Michael Anderson from University of Sydney in a paper titled Capitalising on Creativity to Re-Imagine Schooling: Beyond STEM and STEAM.

For ACTDA, hosting this symposium was a seminal coup, following the re-launch of the Association only in March this year after some ten years in abeyance.  Of the 91 participants from all over Australia, 30 were from Canberra; 16 from Queensland; 10 from Victoria; 27 from New South Wales; 2 from the remote Northern Territory; and 3 from South Australia.

I’m pleased, but have to admit my bias since I, along with another member of our Critics’ Circle, Alanna Maclean, helped set up the original ACT Association for Drama in Education in 1974/5.  We were certainly experienced teachers at that time, but improvised like mad to write the first Drama courses with equal time per week as the traditional Arts courses in Visual Art and Music, or even the ‘mainstream’ subjects like English, Maths, Science and Social Science,  for our high schools and the new Senior Colleges from 1976.

I look back from this weekend’s Drama Australia Symposium where extensive peered research work has been reported and realise how amateur we were 40 years ago, how far Australian theatre has grown, diversified and strengthened in quality, and how professional are the cool cats teaching in schools around the country today.  It’s been a pleasure to be on your show.

Some New Ideas on Drama Education

© Frank McKone, Canberra

2017: The Arrival, from the book by Shaun Tan

The Arrival based on the book by Shaun Tan.  Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, at The Street, Canberra, September 27 – 30, 2017.

Director – Philip Mitchell; Designer – Jiri Zmitko; Composer and Sound Design –  Lee Buddle;  Lighting Designer – Graham Waine

Performed by Alicia Osyka, Adrienne Patterson, Ellis Pearson, Shirley van Sanden
Photos by Rebecca Mansell

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 29

The magic of reading the wordless Shaun Tan children’s storybook is recreated on stage by Spare Parts first by what seems to me to be the most complex set design and construction ever taken on tour. 

Opening and closing windows and doors into and out of a central recessed section, which can also be opened, closed or screened with transparent scrim, can hide or reveal earthbound, flying or even swimming puppets, whole or parts of humans, real or as shadows; while at the same time myriad projections of Tan’s illustrations (all done from only two projectors, one from the front and one from the rear) appear and disappear in surprising ways.  Just watching the set in constant change is absorbing in its own right.

Alicia Osyka, Ellis Pearson, Shirley van Sanden
in The Arrival
One of the children’s questions in the Q&A after the show was why didn’t anyone speak?  Ellis Pearson’s mime of the central migrant traveller in the story was the other expression of magic which adds an extra-special dimension to reading the book.  His training at the Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris shines through his performance of Aki.

Shaun Tan's story (partly based on his own father’s migration experience) is actually somewhat softened compared with Ellis Pearson’s reason for leaving South Africa:

South Africa – because of the system of apartheid ­– has been a difficult and dangerous country to live in for the past 50 years. It has become even more dangerous in the last 15 years. In the midst of a spate of violent attacks about ten years ago, my wife and young son were hijacked at gunpoint and that’s when we began to look at the possibility of finding a safer country to live.

The sense of commitment to Shaun Tan’s work was evident in the performance and the Q&A, where we learned that he was personally involved with the animation of his picture book even before the book was published in 2006.  Though I at first felt the stage presentation might be a bit beyond the younger children present that day, this proved not to be the truth. They were all absorbed watching the show, and several demanded their mothers ask perceptive questions afterwards.

If you haven’t a copy handy, you can do no better than view Shaun Tan’s web page at ; and certainly see the Spare Parts production – but you’ll need to fly to Queensland for the next section of the National Tour
[ ]

Ellis Pearson as Aki
in The Arrivalawaiting the arrival of his wife and daughter

© Frank McKone, Canberra

2017: Gudirr Gudirr by Dalisa Pigram

Gudirr Gudirr Dance-Drama.  Marrugeku (Broome) at Canberra Theatre Centre, The Playhouse, September 30, 2017.

Concept, performer & co-choreographer: Dalisa Pigram

Director & co-choreographer: Koen Augustijnen
Set designer & video artist: Vernon Ah Kee; Costume Designer: Stephen Curtis
Composer & sound designer: Sam Serruys; Singer & songwriter: Stephen Pigram
Lighting designer: Matthew Marshall; Concept & cultural adviser: Patrick Dodson
Dramaturg & creative producer: Rachael Swain; Video production: Sam James
Rigging designer: Joey Ruigrok Van Der Werven

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Gudirr Gudirr is a remarkable powerful work, dancing the story of the Pigram family of Broome, on the west coast of the Kimberley region in the far north of Western Australia.  Dalisa Pigram’s performance is quite extraordinary, developed from improvisations working closely with the Belgian choreographer and dancer Koen Augustijnen who typically mixes dance styles, theatre, acrobatics, music and visual arts.

The resulting work is entirely informed by the history and culture of the mixed heritage represented in the Pigram family: Yawuru Aboriginal, Malay, Filipino, Irish, English and Bardi people from Cape Leveque north of Broome.  As the ABC reported in 2006, ‘the Pigram family is a big one; there’s almost 100 of them and by marriage they’re related to nearly everyone else in Broome’.
 [  ]

So, though the story is particular to her family, it represents the the experiences of people from all over Australia, beginning especially from the time of West Australian Chief so-called ‘Protector’ of Aborigines, A O Neville (b 1875, d 1954) [ see ]

But Dalisa’s story is not all about such mistreatment.  There is joy in fishing with her father, recognition of normal living in hearing the call of the guwayi bird when the tide is turning, and moving to the music of her famous father’s Pigram Brothers Band.  But there is also frustration that after all this time there is conflict, young people taking their own lives, and social inequality.  A fishing net hangs down as if from the sky for Dalisa to climb, hang from and spin, and sometimes to hide in or even seem to be imprisoned in, while words or photos of family, or videos appear and even fill a screen which seems to be made of corrugated iron, an Australian iconic building material.

The moods come and go, often with a sense of humour and, even though ending with a painful sense of questioning the way things are now and will be in the future, the work remains a sincere, truthful, objective presentation of life.  We are left to understand, to empathise, and to appreciate the strength and resilience of these people who can create such  music and dance.

This is an important artistic work which is not to be missed.

Dalisa Pigram in Gudirr Gudirr

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

2017: Art and The Seeming Impossible: Back to Back Theatre by Alice Nash

Art and The Seeming Impossible: Back to Back Theatre by Alice Nash, Executive Producer, at Currency House Business and Creativity Breakfast, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney: Wednesday September 20, 2017.

Full text provided by Martin Portus, Media Manager, Currency House:

Report by Frank McKone
Posted September 27

After acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora nation as the traditional owners of ‘the land on which we now stand’, and Back to Back Theatre Board members present, Phillip Keir and Ben Kay, Alice Nash noted “that I am speaking on behalf of a virtuosic group of co-authors and actors who are the Back to Back ensemble, as well as my long-term partner in crime, Artistic Director, Bruce Gladwin.”

Nash spoke ‘in particular’ about ‘our critically acclaimed production Ganesh Versus the Third Reich which premiered at the 2011 Melbourne International Festival (and is still touring), controversy around the genesis of this work, its intended and actual impact on audiences, and the contribution I consider it makes towards the development of civil society in Australia’.

After quoting reviewer Tony Adler of the Chicago Reader in 2013:

Suppose I told you that Australia’s Back to Back Theatre works with ‘intellectually disabled’ actors?  What would you expect from one of their shows?  Drama therapy?  Elementary theatre games?  A bunch of sweet simpletons making an endearing hash of say, a scene from The Odd Couple?...I know I imagined all sorts of feel good crap – until I saw...Ganesh Versus the Third Reich.  Believe me, the thing is utterly, wittingly sometimes even brutally crap free.

Nash described ‘one of the most challenging moments for the company’ when ‘two weeks prior to the opening of the world premiere of Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, a global social media campaign was mounted to halt the production’, causing ‘amongst the many media outlets who contacted me’ Mark Colvin to ring ‘for ABC’s PM, to initiate a piece on the fact that we had “unwittingly drawn the ire of Hindu groups [for our]...depiction of the elephant-headed god, Ganesh.”

She explained the process of ‘long conversations and fierce artistic and ethical debates’ and improvisation which ‘form the bulk of the text that we create’ had led one actor ‘talking us through hundreds of her drawings of Lord Ganesh’, being ‘obsessed with Ganesh, the war in Iraq and Saddam Hussein’.  Another actor had come ‘to work in a leather bomber jacket, her hair shorn nearly to her scalp and when she pitched her voice downwards, she created a terrifying neo-Nazi character.’

‘Putting these two streams of investigation together, the actors created the first narrative of the show: that of Ganesh travelling to Nazi Germany to reclaim the swastika, an ancient symbol of goodwill in Hinduism.’  Then ‘the second story in Ganesh Versus the Third Reich is a fictional autobiography of Back to Back Theatre caught in the action of exploring ethical and moral issues generated by the first story of Ganesh and the swastika’.

The controversy resulted in a meeting, overseen by the Chairperson of the Victorian Multicultural Commission, with ‘Hindu community leaders, representatives from the Victorian Multi-Faith Advisory Committee, Arts Victoria, Malthouse Theatre and the Melbourne Festival...about how we collectively define and build a multicultural, pluralistic society, about democracy, tolerance, individual rights and responsibilities, about respect, and about voice and power in our community....  Amongst agreed outcomes of the meeting, invitations were extended to all religious leaders to attend the Opening Night of the production the next day’.

‘The experience was demanding,’ Nash stated, ‘and I am not saying we did not make mistakes along the way, but it was an immense honour: to engage with and respond to community concerns, to listen and to be heard, and to try to forge new understandings’.

‘And the work too travels the world.  In 2014, it appeared in Weimar, Germany, in a theatre once draped with Nazi banners and where – not without heavy irony – the actors stayed at the Elephant Hotel in which Hitler once stood on the balcony overseeing troops’.

Nash then described her aims under the heading Why Theatre? and the principles of working with Artists with Disabilities, especially concerning that ‘it is safe to say that within Australian society, people with disabilities continue to be placed within the category of “the other”.  Back to Back comments on the value-based structures that define the institution known as “the majority”.  Family, career, sex, politics, religion. education and culture are all subject to a lateral analysis from an artistic team whose defining characteristic is separation from the spectacle of their subject matter’.

Considering Art, Ambition and Entrepreneurship, Nash went on to describe Back to Back Theatre as ‘a highly dynamic business enterprise’ saying ‘Yes, it’s a not-for-profit charitable organisation, and it’s a hard-hitting social enterprise with long-term cultural and economic impact’.  She then went on to discuss six aspects of her work, from the beginning point ‘My role as an arts producer is never to say ‘no’ to the artistic team’.

The areas covered were

1. We’ve identified the ingredients we need to make great work: Support the artists; Time for research and development and keeping the work in repertoire [including Small Metal Objects, reviewed on this blog, Sydney Festival 9 January 2007]; Space – ‘an amazing studio, an experimental laboratory – as we call it – for theatre essential constant, both a comforting home and a high performance functional environment’.

2. We’ve created a unique product.

3. We’ve identified our market: ‘in any given city in the world – in Geelong, or Mildura or Sydney or New York or Seoul – our work is a small pice of the action in each city but when we add it up globally, it’s a massive, clear, engaged, artistically and socially committed audience’.

4. We’ve been entrepreneurial: ‘It’s demanded grit, determination, systems, and spreadsheets and quite a few late nights across the years, but it’s been energising imagining a possibility and then bringing it into being’.

5. We continue to have wild ideas: ‘17 years on, we continue to take risks’ with plans for a bilingual version of one of their shows in Hong Kong ‘as a precursor to striving to enter the Chinese market’, and for a major screen project called Oddlands which ‘will have its world premiere screening at the Adelaide Film Festival in a few weeks, screen on ABC TV early in 2018 and then...we hope to serialise it, for a year, or maybe for years to come.  One has to dream big’.

6. We’ve still got lots to learn: ‘We like to think we are qute smart, but we still make mistakes.  But when we do, we take responsibility’.

To conclude, Alice Nash quoted ‘some thoughts from a member of the Back to Back Theatre ensemble, Sonia Teuben, the one who created the neo-Nazi character.  Just the other day she wrote:

“Theatre should be for the people.  For the people to have a voice.  And not feel afraid of that.

“Theatre needs to come from listening to other people...True stories.  In-ya-face kind of stories.  Stories from the heart and the mind.  Stories that are deep down inside of you.  Stories that you never forget for a long time.”

Sonia wrote:  “My taxi driver this morning, he was a single bloke, lives in a house.  I asked him questions like ‘You got a wife?’ He said ‘No.’  I said ‘You got a dog?’  He said ‘No.’  I said ‘You got kids?’  He said ‘No.’  I said ‘What do you do in life?’  He says ‘I read books and I drive taxis.’  I said ‘That must be boring.’  He says ‘It’s not.  That’s life.’  He said to me ‘Have a really nice day.  You are a very special woman’.  I said ‘You should really get a cattle dog, you seem lonely.’”

Sonia then wrote: “Theatre is for the rich.  Theatre is for the poor.  For the loneliness.  [And f]or the forgiveness.”

Alice Nash said ‘Thank you.’

© Frank McKone, Canberra

2017: Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Eamon Flack from a literal translation by Charlotte Barslund.
Belvoir at Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, September 16 – October 22, 2017.

Director – Eamon Flack; Set Designer – Michael Hankin; Costume Designer – Julie Lynch; Lighting Designer – Nick Schlieper; Composer and Sound Designer – Stefan Gregory

Cast (alphabetical order):
Tom Conroy – Osvald Alving; Taylor Ferguson – Regine Engstrand; Robert Menzies – Pastor Manders; Colin Moody – Jakob Engstrand; Pamela Rabe – Mrs Helene Alving

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 24

Pamela Rabe as Mrs Helene Alving, Robert Menzies as Pastor Manders

Taylor Ferguson as Regine Engstrand, Colin Moody as Jakob Engstrand

Pamela Rabe as Mrs Helene Alving, Tom Conroy as Osvald Alving
Photos by Brett Boardman

Pamela Rabe’s intensity in stillness as the survivor of the worst kind of marriage; Robert Menzies’ frantic mess in trying to keep a fracturing world in order; Colin Moody’s solid honesty; Taylor Ferguson’s determination; and Tom Conroy’s extraordinary representation of mental conflict and breakdown: each equally take Ibsen’s play to its dramatic heights.  These actors are never ghosts, but memorable reality.

But there’s a story to tell about Ghosts.

I guess alzheimers has replaced syphillis since Ibsen’s day in 1881.  The difference is that when alzheimers syndrome becomes apparent, it is the result of genetic inheritance very much more than behavioural factors.  In other words, though it is a tragic shock if a son’s behaviour and physical condition become fraught like his father’s, no-one is to blame. In earlier times, before antibiotics and knowledge of genetics had advanced, the behaviour of the son in contracting syphillis could easily be thought of as an inherited condition.

In an irony of which Ibsen was obviously aware, he has Mrs Alving tell Pastor Manders the day before the pastor is to open the orphanage named as a memorial to her husband who “went back to the drink, or the whoring, or the self-pity”:-
“I wanted Osvald to inherit nothing from his father.  The money that once made Captain Alving such a catch is exactly the amount I’ve put towards the orphanage.  The exact price he paid for me.  Osvald will never touch that money.  Everything he gets will come from me.”

In fact, as we and Mrs Alving realise as the play draws to an end, with Osvald already drinking, smoking and unable to see the sun rising, he has ‘inherited’ all from his father and nothing from his mother: the drinking, the whoring, the syphillis and the self-pity.

How do we feel, as Mrs Alving tests her resolve to use the overdose of morphine pills that her son has collected?  And how relevant is this play in our days of legalisation or otherwise of voluntary euthanasia? 

Should Osvald be left to an agonising death to punish him for sexual adventures as an art student in Paris?  Perhaps that is as it should be in deeply Protestant Christian foggy Norway in 1881.  Or should we praise Helene Alving for taking a modern humanist approach and relieve his suffering as I have had to do once for a loving dog suffering from terminal distemper?

The story for Regine is entwined with Osvald, to whom she is attracted sexually and also because of his higher class and wealth,  when she discovers that Jacob Engstrand is not her real father, but had rescued her mother from the contumely of the town by marrying her, knowing she was pregnant with Captain Alving’s child.  The half-brother and half-sister still kiss passionately, but Regine knows she must now go her own independent way.  She is the only one to escape the clutches of the ghosts which will not let Helene Alving go whichever decision she makes about Osvald’s morphine.

So the play ends with her indecision: “No. No. No. Yes. No. No....” while Osvald literally blindly seeks “The sun ... The sun ...”  The light engulfs them.  They are gone.   The room is empty.  And we in the audience feel empty too.

Belvoir’s production of Ghosts not only takes us back to the horrors of life and death in past times but shows us why women embody our best hopes for change.  Yet we cannot escape the decision Mrs Alving has to face, though we couch it in new terms and for different reasons.  Though he has taken a more political view than I have in his Notes, Eamon Flack has stated simply and  exactly the strength in his adaptation  and his direction, and of course in Ibsen’s writing: “We are never done with the past.  It never goes away.”

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Monday, 25 September 2017

2017: In Real Life by Julian Larnach

Anni Finsterer and Elizabeth Nabben
in In Real Life by Julian Larnach
Photo by Phil Erbacher

In Real Life by Julian Larnach.  Darlinghurst Theatre Company at Eternity Playhouse, Sydney, September 15-October 15, 2017.

Director – Luke Rogers; Production Designer – Georgia Hopkins; Sound Designer & Composer – James Brown; Lighting Designer – Sian James-Holland
Theresa – Anni Finsterer; Eva (Theresa’s daughter in various incarnations) – Elizabeth Nabben
Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 23

In Real Life is a new Australian theatre piece, 90 minutes long, a project originated by the Griffin Theatre Company with development support from the University of Sydney’s Performance Studies Department.  Julian Larnach has also previously been Resident Playwright at the Australian Theatre for Young People.

The result, I think, is an interesting take on our world moving into ubiquitous electronic communication, raising issues which will stimulate discussion for young people.  The outline is that Theresa’s teenage daughter leaves home after the common event of disagreeing with her mother, and never makes contact again.  Perhaps she is dead, but Theresa will never believe that and tries to find Eva, through social media (but discovers that it is illegal to extract her daughter’s details without her daughter’s explicit permission).  She sees Eva in every young woman, including her company secretary (she makes and has become wealthy selling The Drum, combining everything Apple, Google and Facebook can do into an intelligent personal communication device); other officials; an AI robot made to look like Eva which learns to be like Eva as her mother reveals information it can record; and finally adopts her young house cleaner who had been friends with Eva, and whose mother has now died.

Both performers handle their roles very effectively, but the play will need a great deal more development to become more than an interesting idea.  In the end Theresa settles her loss of her daughter by seeing Eva in her invention, The Drum, as if it can replace her loss.  This is a neat idea, but that’s all it is as yet.

So, as an older person, I see In Real Life as a work in progress; but I can see it as worthwhile at this stage to set young people thinking – more about their relationships with their parents than about how technology is taking over our lives, the theme emphasised in the promotion material.

To take up that theme more fully, we need to become engaged with Eva from her point of view rather than only through her mother’s or the maid’s eyes after her disappearance.  Who was her father and why does he not even rate a mention in the current In Real Life?  In real life, why does Eva decide to leave home – perhaps as an escape from her mother’s overwhelming fascination with technology and her ambition in business which leave Eva out of the family’s emotional picture.

To understand and feel for the family so affected by AI technology, the play might be restructured, with the major part showing the mother, the father, the daughter and the cleaner’s daughter from Eva’s birth (when her mother’s business was just beginning) to the climactic point where Eva  feels she has no choice but to leave.  Then we may see the tragic consequence of the mother’s so complete absorption into the new world of technology as she tries but inevitably fails to regain contact with her daughter, and is left with nothing but The Drum pulsating. 

The drama I suggest would take a stand:  don’t allow our fascination with technology, and the accompanying sense of personal power, cause us to destroy our humanity.  Variations on this theme have been played out in theatres since ancient times: modern electronic communication technology is just the latest of our destructive fascinations.  In Real Life as it stands brings the issue to mind, but I would like to see it become the powerful emotional experience in the theatre it could be, focussing on Eva’s life leading up to what for Theresa is the unforeseen tragedy of her child deliberately leaving her.  Maybe the play could then be titled The Drum.

This gives the importance of the issue a Shakespearean dimension.  Theresa then becomes a parallel to King Lear, causing the loss of her only child because of her lack of awareness until she realises too late.  Many older people will understand this experience, while it would give even more to the young for discussion.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Sunday, 24 September 2017

2017: Dinner by Moira Buffini

Dinner by Moira Buffini.  Sydney Theatre Company at Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre, September 11 – October 28, 2017.

Director – Imara Savage; Designer – Elizabeth Gadsby; Lighting Designer – Damien Cooper; Composer & Sound Designer – Max Lyandvert
Paige – Caroline Brazier; Lars (Paige’s husband) – Sean O’Shea; Hal – Brandon Burke; Sian (Hal’s  wife) – Claire Lovering; Wynne (just separated from her politician husband, who fails to arrive for dinner) – Rebecca Massey;  Mark (an accidental guest) – Aleks Mikic; Waiter – Bruce Spence

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 23

Middle-class English intellectual flummery for Dinner, I thought.  The audience appreciated the skilled acting, bringing back the performers for a third time, but there was not much of significance to talk about after 90 minutes’ highly contrived theatre.  There were jokes and comic play that mentioned ‘issues’, and some scenes that were so extremely farcical they naturally caused extended laughter.  But issues mentioned for comic effect are nothing without development of ideas. 

The device of Paige’s game, where each person at Dinner had to speak for two minutes about a topic she had prepared secretly for each with the intention of tripping him or her up into fooling themselves, might have worked except that what developed, if not exactly predictable, seemed not unexpected after we had laughed, and the tone went up a level of farce rather than into seriousness.

Maybe the set design should make me think again.  While taking our seats, we found ourselves reflected in a rectangular section of the stage curtain.  When the curtain went up, the whole stage for dinner in an obviously upmarket house was behind a transparent drop.  The actors voices were heard over the sound system.  So this was obviously the ‘fourth wall’, meaning I presume that we now know that this play is not reality…as if we didn’t know this already.

The only use of this device followed (much later and at no particularly significant point as far as I could devine) the mention by Sian of her fascination with toilet door graffiti, which she quoted: FUCK SHIT UP.  She asked the self-admittedly failed artist (who had exhibited her detailed painting of her politician husband’s genitals and wondered why he was concerned about his electoral reputation) whether this graffiti was ‘Art’?

Paige interjects that it is ‘Literature’.  Laughs all round.  Ages later, the cast freeze (ie out of character?), move downstage with black felt pens in hand, and proceed to inscribe FUCK SHIT UP, in large block mirror writing so we can read it, on the inside of the transparent drop.  After while, a man with cleaning equipment (not a member of the cast) appears and cleans the ‘offending’ words off.

I leave you to consider the level of humour this is supposed to represent, or any intended depth of significance.  I thought it was the epitome of weak undergraduacy, while Britain over many decades has produced far better lunacy than this.

Another apparently significant device was for everyone to freeze occasionally, when someone had said something that others thought they shouldn’t.  Of course this could work in a serious drama as characters and the audience are forced to work out what they can say or do next; and it works a treat in the right place at the right time in a meaningful comedy: when Eliza says “Not bloody likely” in Pygmalion, for example.  But in Dinner everything simply stopped on the other side from us of the transparent wall, for quite a long time (it felt long, at least), and then action continued as if nothing had happened.  Maybe this was meant to be a comment on the nature of the wealthy who ignore anything they don’t want to hear.  But this idea is just my invention.  I could not support this as a theme from any evidence in the play.

In due course, Paige has the lugubrious silent waiter she found on the internet, threaten to cut her husband’s throat, and then actually stab her to death.  The only surprise is that the waiter at last speaks, refusing accept the tens of thousands of pounds Paige has paid him, taking just a waiter’s pay.

Maybe this is a joke about, or maybe is meant to seriously  represent the dignity of the working and (from Mike’s story)  the criminal class.  But the dead body remains slumped on the floor, nobody moves.  Then the pizzas (which Lars had ordered hours before to avoid eating Paige’s serving of living lobsters boiled in our presence) arrive… to laughter all round.  End of play.

So there you are: middle class morality for your delectation.  Of course there’s a huge amount more details than I can cover here, but they wouldn’t add anything to the ‘complexity’ of flavours in this Dinner.  You could call it a cold collation of funny theatrical devices, but no real warmth or flavour in the humour.  Not the fault of STC’s maitre d’, nor the designers of the menu, nor the cooks (and certainly not the waiter) – it’s just that the author hadn’t done the shopping very well.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Thursday, 21 September 2017

2017: Summer of the 17th Doll by Ray Lawler

Chloe Bar at Young & Jackson's Hotel, Melbourne
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler.  Pigeonhole Theatre at Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, The Q, September 20-30, 2017.

Director – Karen Vickery; Set Designer – Michael Sparks; Costume Designer – Fiona Leach; Lighting Designer – Cynthia Jolley-Rogers; Props – Imogen Thomas; Sound/Composer – Matt Webster.

Cast (in order of appearance):
Bubba – Zoe Priest; Pearl – Andrea Close; Olive – Jordan Best; Barney – Dene Kermond; Emma – Liz Bradley; Roo – Craig Alexander; Johnnie – Alex Hoskison

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 21

Pigeonhole Theatre presents an excellent production of this significant Australian classic.  Because of our current political turmoil, Lawler’s 1955 play – examining male mateship and the nature of marriage in what we would now call ‘fly in – fly out’ workplace arrangements – is essential viewing. 

On the second night, the audience was disappointing: certainly not for our response to the performance, but only because the 346-seat theatre was no more than one-third full.  Maybe people think of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll as the classroom study which it has become, but like Shakespeare’s plays, Lawler’s work is full of real life, from Pearl’s opening put-down of Bubba – making you wonder about how she treats her own daughter who is about the same age as Bubba – to Olive’s absolute refusal to marry Roo and the complete collapse of their seventeen-year-long relationship as Roo destroys the last tinsel kewpie doll and goes off fruitpicking with Barney.

USA readers will recognise the similarity here with Tennessee Williams’ 1944 play, The Glass Menagerie.  Whether Lawler was deliberately referencing that play, made so famous in the 1950 movie starring  Gertrude Lawrence (Amanda), Jane Wyman (Laura), Arthur Kennedy (Tom) and Kirk Douglas (Jim), I don’t know. 

But the device of the ‘gentleman caller’ and the tragic destruction of the delicate symbols of a woman’s hope (accidentally as Williams’ Laura and Jim dance by candle light before he announces his engagement to someone else; and accidentally as Lawler’s Roo and Barney fight in Olive’s lounge room, re-establishing their mateship but leaving Olive devastated) is theatrically as powerful in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll as in The Glass Menagerie.

Please don’t watch the 1959 movie of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll [  ] with Ernest Borgnine as Roo, Anne Baxter as Olive, John Mills as Barney, Angela Lansbury as Pearl, Vincent Ball as Johnnie Dowd, Ethel Gabriel as Emma, Janette Craig as Bubba.  For a start it’s set in Sydney, but as Michael Sparks clearly knows in his set design (quite similar to the Melbourne Theatre Company’s 1977 production) this play is definitely in Melbourne.

In the 1959 fil’m, the male characters speak imitation Australian, while the women are just too English.  Lawler may have started the new naturalism in Australian playwriting, but maybe it needed a cringe reaction to the colonial imperialism in this British/Australian production to help stir the Marvellous Melbourne new wave of David Williamson in the 1960-70 period to get our real accents on stage.

But even the 1977 production had the women a bit too refined and glamorous for these old Australian barmaids at the local pub (not at Young & Jackson’s even, with the famous nude painting of Chloe ). 

Pigeonhole’s casting is perfect, both for the characters' physical features and for the actors’ characterisation skills.  In the 1950s, after 17 years in the bar and cane cutting in Queensland, Olive, Roo and Barney began their lives back in the Australia of the 1930s, and Olive’s mother Emma in World War I.  They speak and behave with the raucous accents I remember when I arrived in this godforsaken country in 1955.  I was 14, and recognise the young woman Bubba (real name Cathy), just breaking into that 1950s sense of suburban refinement as high school education had begun to spread around the country after World War II.  As for Pearl, with her own 18-year-old daughter ... well, I remember those mothers of constant judgement, protecting their daughters from working class boys (I was one myself, not yet imbued with middleclass morality).

In other words, director Karen Vickery got it right.  Barney is short, muscular, bouncy, perceptive, laughing at every opportunity and drinking constantly to cover up his insecurities – yet surprisingly effective sexually, even with prim Pearl.  Roo (short for Reuben, not Kangaroo) is large, a figure of physical strength now slightly past it, not too bright but trying to do the right thing, while also sensitive to being slighted.  Olive is the no-nonsense mix of self-reliant woman running her life (but not always her similarly endowed mother), while needing a man in her life – but only on her terms.  Bubba is not just ‘bubbly’ as she was as a three-year-old from next door, but is aware of a special feeling for the two men and wanting now to establish herself sexually.

Whereas Pearl knows where she stands as she leaves the house and the play after her attempt to possibly replace her dead husband with the highly unsuitable Barney, Roo knows he has to stick with the gang even though he is no longer their leader, Barney knows he must have Roo to keep himself on the steady and will have to accept that his old annual partner Nancy is and will remain married, and even Olive knows she has no choice but to put behind her Roo’s failure to match or even understand her needs, the play leaves Cathy (no longer Bubba) with no clear idea of where she can go from here. 

The success of this production is to make the play more than Olive’s play, or Olive and Roo’s play, or Roo and Barney’s play, or Pearl’s play: this is Cathy’s play – leaving us to wonder about her future, as a young woman coming out into adult life with role models failing around her.  This is one way in which this play, and particularly this production, is significant.

It is, as I alluded to at the top, also highly relevant to the present arguments about marriage equality.  Why is it that Australia is so late to decide at the political level to make marriage for same-sex couples as normal as it is for opposite-sex couples?  So many other ‘modern’ countries have come to the party, even some whose culture we might expect to be a barrier.

Lawler got it, 60 years ago.  Roo and Barney are effectively married, though probably without sexual activity between them.  Pearl wants sex and to be married to an appropriate man, perhaps even if she doesn’t love him.  Olive wants a loving sexual relationship with a man without marriage, so that she can keep control of her life without being controlled by her man.  Johnnie Dowd offers Cathy a chance (to go to the races for an afternoon) but she realises that was only a ploy more to do with Johnny showing his power over Roo, and was set up by Barney.

So, Bubba, growing up to be Cathy, is left absolutely confused.  Her education at school seems to have been insignificant on personal and sexual relationships; her bringing-up in Emma’s house seems to have given her the old woman’s competence and a sense of responsibility; her experience of Olive (and Nancy’s) seasonal relationship with Roo and Barney has left her in the position of a child, and the seventeenth year with Pearl replacing Nancy and Roo’s leadership ending on the cane fields up north, leaves her with no confidence about how to go about the next stage of her life.  She seems to seek something like love rather than mere sex, but plumps for Olive’s model rather than Nancy’s, which was to ‘escape’ as Pearl puts it, into marriage.

When I read the play, all those many years ago, I only half-recognised the nature of the tragedy.  Today the voluntary non-binding survey so-called plebiscite on changing the marriage act to not only include ‘a man and a woman’ but any form of ‘same-sex’ couple highlights Bubba-Cathy’s confusion.

It is because this production is so well directed and acted that I think it is essential viewing.  It won’t tell you which way to vote, but lets you into seeing the issues from angles that you may not have been aware of before, especially from the points of view of specifically Australian men and women.

Take advantage of Pigeonhole Theatre’s offering while you have the opportunity.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Friday, 15 September 2017

2017: Worm Farming by Daniel Widdowson

Worm Farming by Daniel Widdowson.  Salt House Theatre Company directed by Diane Ormsby at the National Museum of Australia, September 15 and October 24, 2017.

Daniel Widdowson (Andrew Dawes); Alicia Simes (Andrew’s wife Ashley);

Tyla Williams Takoko (their daughter Kirstie); Christopher Bartlett (her younger brother Nick);

Jayden Gobbe (their neighbour Mike); Emily Mann (Mike’s wife Jen);

Faron Bish (Kirstie’s friend Zoe, keen on Nick); Bradley Hall (Zach, pursuing Kirstie);

Cara Smith (Simone, government official assessing the family for suitability as host for a refugee); Nicky Kaalim (Ferran, a Syrian refugee).

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 15

The title Worm Farming contains a mystery, a secret revealed through a series of farcical situations.  Murder most foul, Shakespeare might have said, as bodies pile up ready for composting.

Behind the farce is a message about ethical behaviour, specifically about conflicting attitudes towards refugees: of course we should help people in need, but we don’t really like them.  In fact, the Dawes family offer hypocritically to take them in only to use them as grist for their worm farm to add to the rotting bodies of their neighbours and their children’s friends.

It may sound gruesome, but the one-act play is quite funny when things seem more or less normal, turning even funnier the more gruesome it gets, as we realise what the parents Andrew and Ashley are actually up to.  It becomes something like the Addams Family when it gets to the point of putting the spare bodies in the freezer in the garage, where their son, Nick – up to this point unaware – keeps his icy poles and paddle pops.

Worm Farming is deliberately kept light, as theatre goes, but suits its setting in a museum.  The National Museum of Australia has been a member of the International Museum Theatre Alliance certainly since it hosted the 2001 Conference with Catherine Hughes, then IMTA Executive Director and Founder, from Boston Museum of Science, as the keynote speaker.  At that time the now defunct theatre-in-education team, the Jigsaw Company then headed up by Greg Lissaman, Canberra Youth Theatre and secondary college Drama teachers Lorena Param and Peter Wilkins were all involved with the NMA, working with Daina Harvey’s Education Team with the encouragement of then NMA Director Dawn Casey.

My Critics’ Circle colleague, Peter Wilkins, is still active managing the annual Festival of Museum Theatre: Come Alive in which a large number of Canberra and district schools have presented free theatrical performances bringing to life the collections at the NMA, the National Gallery of Australia, the National Portrait Gallery and Canberra Museum and Gallery.

Salt House Theatre Company, formed only last year, is a not-for-profit faith-based group from the Central Coast of New South Wales with a concern for bringing together experienced performers and directors with young people keen to develop their theatre work, under the artistic direction of television scriptwriter Daniel Widdower and his wife Leia as business manager.  In this production, for example, performer Nicky Kaalim is in Year 9, director Diane Ormsby has toured as a performer in The B-Bops children’s shows and is a drama teacher at Wyong Christian Community School, while others range in between, having completed or are currently undertaking various theatre and drama tertiary education and training courses.

The Company’s purpose is essentially the stimulation of thinking about ethical and social issues through their theatre presentations, and are keen to see the arts in action in museums, and to play for school groups.

Worm Farming proves not to be polemical: without pushing any line of argument, it raises, via its entertaining farce, issues about the behaviour and relationships of teenagers on smartphones, attitudes towards refugees and the responsibilities of parents, neighbours and friends, all of which could be the subject of post-show discussion, perhaps especially suited for young audiences.

Worm Farming may not be ‘grand theatre’ in the overall scheme of things, but I’m happy to call it ‘useful theatre’ at the human community scale.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

2017: The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez by Jackie Smith

Lola Montez
painting by Joseph Karl Stieler, 1847
The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez by Jackie Smith.  Presented by Finucane & Smith at Tuggeranong Arts Centre, Canberra, Wednesday September 13, 2017.

An evening of gathering in the bar from 7.30 pm, attending the stage performance by Caroline Lee as Lola and Holly Durant as a Parisienne Dance Siren, followed by the post-show Lola Lounge from 9.30 pm.

Director – Moira Finucane; Composer – Darrin Verhagen & Ben Keene; Choreography – Moira Finucane & Holly Durant; Designed by Finucane & Smith with Keon Couture, Melbourne

Reviewed by Frank McKone

There are some very weird thoughts arising from Jackie Smith’s version of the true life of Lola Montez.  Did, for example, the Irishman George Bernard Shaw (I’ve just seen My Fair Lady) consciously or unconsciously name his Pygmalion heroine Eliza after Eliza Gilbert of County Sligo, the daughter of a very ordinary army officer, born in 1821, who became the extraordinary “Lola Montez”?  There’s real evidence parallel to Eliza Doolittle’s achievement in being recognised as a Hungarian princess in Eliza Gilbert’s love affair with King Ludwig of Bavaria, causing him to abdicate during the revolution of 1848.

How did Moira Finucane (whose name is the “reduced Anglicized form of Gaelic Ó Fionnmhacáin 'descendant of Fionnmhacán', from fionn 'fair' + the diminutive of mac 'son'”) come up with such extraordinary choreography?  Perhaps she and Holly Durant binge-watched YouTubes of Isadora Duncan (especially as danced by Vanessa Redgrave in the 1969 movie), picked up on the idea of Lola Montez’s Spider Dance (aka Tarantula, or Tarantella), and invented a manic fantasy version.

Manic seems to be the right word for Eliza Rosanna who told stories about her mother’s supposed Spanish origin when it is more likely that she was the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Irish Member of Parliament; who gave herself Spanish Christian names Maria Dolores as well as the stage name Lola Montez; who claimed to have been the mistress of Franz Liszt, Alexandre Dumas, and Alexandre Dujarier, part-owner of La Presse; who really was given the title Countess Marie von Landsfeld by King Ludwig I; and who died as Mrs Eliza Gilbert (her father’s surname) when her first marriage was to Lieutenant Thomas James.

During her short lifetime she was variously described as determined as a child; kindly and friendly in her later years; but demanding and manipulative throughout.  Jackie Smith has very effectively used the device of our seeing her tell her stories and perform for us as if she is present today, revealing all those characteristics as she smiled and made us laugh while we could never quite be sure she was actually telling the truth.  Though she quoted the claims that she had died at various times, saying they were all ‘wrong’, she never mentioned her actual burial on 17 January 1861 in Greenwood cemetery, Brooklyn, reported a few days later in the New York Times.

The point was that Lola has never died because she represents the ‘new woman’ who made her own way in life against all the patriarchal conventions, and is therefore a model for women today who still face male domination every day.  Lola gave a tongue-lashing to men like me several times in the play.  Having reviewed Finucane & Smith's The Burlesque Hour (2009) and Glory Box (2012), I can see why they have given Lola Montez her rightful place in history.

I hope, though, that Moira, Jackie and Holly will take my criticism as praise, rather than literally whip-lash me as Lola was said to have done to the editor of the Ballarat Times in 1855.

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

2017: The Wharf Revue: The Patriotic Rag

The Wharf Revue: The Patriotic Rag.  Sydney Theatre Company at Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, September 12-23, 2017.

Written, Created and Performed by Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Phillip Scott, with Blazey Best.

Music Director - Phillip Scott; Lighting Designer - Martin Kinnane; Sound and Vdeo Designer - David Bergman; Set Realiser - Barry Searle; Costumes - Scott Fisher; Wig Stylist - Margaret Aston

Drew Forsythe as Valdimir Putin, Jonathan Biggins as Donald Trump,
and Phillip Scott as Boris Johnson
Photo by David James McCarthy
Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 12

It was awful, just awful.  “...whether you want to calm your nerves or double your disillusion, we all need a fresh serve of laughter, dance and foolishness...” was the theme of this year’s promotion of The Wharf Revue which has been “keeping the nation’s political and cultural leaders on their metaphorical toes since before Sydney hosted the Olympics”;  but although there was plenty of laughter and dance, there wasn’t much foolishness.

Not on the part of the writers, I mean.  What was so awful is that they only had to accurately reproduce national leaders from around the world, present and past, to create a conga-line of terrifyingly black-humorous figures. 

It was just awful to find ourselves laughing at not only our regulars like Tony Abbott eerily dancing in a weird fantasy as the destructor of everything, Malcolm Turnbull putting out his fantasy, singing Jimmy Barnes’ Working Class Man, Peter Dutton’s impossible-to-read face covered in sheer nylon stocking (and Anh Do’s spot-on portrait), or Blazey Best’s wonderfully gay edge in creating Pauline Hanson’s latest manipulative man in her political life, James Ashby – we can cope with these minor players in world politics. 

But to laugh at characters – only minimally caricatured – like USA’s Donald Trump, North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, UK’s Boris Johnson, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin became mentally disturbing by the final segment where the whole show was run by Trump, patting the bum of his daughter Ivanka just as his bum was being patted by Putin.  Only Angela Merkel stood out from the self-illusionary mess as a realistic, competent and ethical leader.  Maybe that too is a caricature, but the audience almost cheered rather than merely laugh as she put Trump in his place.

The success of this year’s revue comes about because the underlying motivation behind the humour is a serious criticism of the surge of nationalistic politics world-wide.  I heard comments like “There’s much more text this year” and “They really pinned down the characters”.  The show was also much more centred thematically in an interesting way.

Revue has always traditionally had a basic structure of skits interspersed with some kind of linking device, often used to give time for actors to change costumes between skits.  A revue with strength uses the links to grow the theme.  For The Patriotic Rag, videos are used of fictional ‘press conferences’ by absolute rulers in past history, back to Queen Elizabeth I, each absolutely dominating any questioners, speaking with overtones of the Donald Trump manner.  Like Louis XVI just before the French Revolution claiming the protestors against Marie Antoinette were publishing ‘cake news’.

This gave plenty of time for the magnificent costumes to be changed into, and provided a cleverly devised through-line leading up to the final scene with Donald Trump as Master of Ceremonies – hammed up as he does in real life.

So I can’t fault the writing, performing, costumes, make-up – especially the hair-do’s – and the technical work in making and showing the videos. 

I did find last night, though, that the sound balance between the voices and the recorded sound (and even occasionally the piano audio) made it often difficult to catch all the words of all the songs.  Radio mics are traditionally difficult, but it was disappointing that Blazey Best came off worst, so it was probably both a frequency mix as well as pure volume problem, which may relate to the messy acoustics in the Playhouse (which has concerned me on previous occasions).  There are a number of performances to go here, so there is time to fix this.

Then, of course, the Wharf Revue: The Patriotic Rag will be even more awful, because every word will count.

Jonathan Biggins as Donald Trump, Blazey Best as Ivanka Trump,
Phillip Scott as Boris Johnson, Drew Forsythe as Vladimir Putin
Photo by Brett Boardman (Sydney Theatre Company / Canberra CityNews)

© Frank McKone, Canberra

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

2017: Landscape with Monsters

Image: Canberra Theatre Centre

Landscape with Monsters, a Circa and Merrigong Theatre Company Co-Production presented by Canberra Theatre Centre at The Playhouse, September 6-9, 2017.

Director – Yaron Lifschitz; Lighting / Audio Visual Design – Toby Knyvett; Set / Circus Apparatus Design – Jason Organ; Costume Design – Libby McDonnell

Performers: Billie Wilson Coffey, Kathryn O’Keeffe, Jessica Connell, Conor Neall, Tim Fyffe, Seppe Van Looveren, Scott Grove.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 6

I have no idea why Yaron Lifschitz’s latest “new type of circus” is named Landscape with Monsters.  The publicity says “Emotions and bodies intertwine until we discover the monsters in the landscape just might be ourselves...”  I found the show has a kind of naif innocence about it, except for the two occasions when the ladder, at least 3 metres long, was seriously likely to fall into or even fly into the audience.  That was an OH&S monster for us, let alone the performers – definitely a matter for concern in those thankfully brief frightening moments.

The show is constructed from only three circus elements : balancing – objects (like that long ladder) and people (up to four high); acrobatic gymnastics; and the almost old-fashioned use of contortion, reminding me of a street performer I’ve seen who squashed herself into a tiny transparent box on top of a two metre pole; or even of the old-time famous escape artist Houdini.

The physical skills and amazing flexibility of all the performers was fascinating to behold, and the sense of having fun flowed out to the audience.

Image: Brisbane Powerhouse

There is a sort-of non-linear story-line bookended by a young boy-girl couple.  In the beginning she leaps onto his rock-steady form, as if she needs his support and comfort.  At the end, perhaps, there is more equality in the relationship when she wraps him around her.  The audience laughed, but I think in happy recognition of the reversal of convention.

I have to say that Lifschitz’s intention described in the publicity as telling “the story of post-industrial cities now in decay.  Metal and wooden objects intersect with fast-paced acrobatics.  This intensely physical new show is at once humorous and brutal, savage and beautiful” was not the show I saw, or the show the audience in general responded to. 

We saw a great deal of humour in figures being squashed into boxes – certainly not the fear and violence of, say, the worst parts of post-industrial Chicago.  We saw expert human figures finding ways of working creatively in, around, on top of boxes and high in the air up that ladder and a gantry structure.

Image: Civic Theatre, Newcastle


There were images of struggle to fit in or stay on top of things, but for us the feeling was entirely positive – just as it always was in the traditional circuses I remember from the 1950s, when the girls did somersaults on the backs of fast-moving horses, ten clowns would balance together on one bicycle while riding around the ring, and the lion-tamer really did have the lion eating out his hand, or even not eating his head in its jaws.  Those were the days of  real danger, as some lion ‘tamers’ unfortunately discovered.

These performers also were in real danger – they worked at heights several metres above the stage floor and were flung about with no safety harness nor even soft landing mats.  Yet they were so clearly in control that only occasionally did we feel there was a real risk of injury. 

We applauded their skills, and enjoyed the humour along with them.  If this show represents the future of “cities now in decay” then I can only say, Bring it On – it looks like fun.

Image: Brisbane Powerhouse

© Frank McKone, Canberra