Thursday, 25 June 1998

Tell Her that I Love Her, June 25, 1998

Tell Her that I Love Her by Somebody's Daughter Theatre
Beckett Theatre until July 11, 1998
Sacred Promise opens July 8, 1998
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Reviewed round June 25

A child's voice in the audience whispered, "What's dope?" You can bet that the characters and some of the actors in Tell Her That I Love Her wish they had never found out the answer to that question themselves.

Somebody's Daughter Theatre has remounted its 1991 production which was developed, under the direction of Maud Clark, in workshops with women in Fairlea prison. The play incorporates the painfully real stories of those women, some of whom are still in the cast.

Within a loose narrative built around Jessie's (Tracey Forward) release from prison, we hear disturbing stories of childhood sexual abuse, abandonment, adoption, foster homes and drug-fazed mothers.

Live music by Greg Sneddon on upright piano underlines dramatic moments but is essentially used for songs which pepper the scenes. John Beckett's beautiful design is evocative of St.Kilda pier with crisp white sails and rough wooden decking embedded in sand.

The structure may be predictable, the gestural language awkward, the writing sometimes melodramatic and the acting limited, but the intention of this community theatre company is not to compete with a Melbourne Theatre Company production.

Rather, it is to give these women a voice, a channel of communication by which they can shout the stories of their lives from the ramparts. The truth of what they tell us and their commitment to their stories carries the play and gives it a resonance not found in fictional piece.

We see a series of scenes begining with Jessie's first day out and her meeting with her old friends, (Maud Clark, Helen Barnacle, Nicol Morrow) some of whom have have kicked their habits and are struggling to survive, another has overdosed and a third, Tuesday, (Kharen Harper) Jessie's lover, is unable to stop using.

The tragedy is in the relentlessness of Tuesday's decline, the insidiousness of the lure of the drug for Jessie and the ease with which the addict can acquire it on the streets in an underworld which few of us encounter.

The play reaches a poignant and tear-wrenching ending which is heightened by the women tossing roses onto the sand-covered ground as they call the names of their dead friends. The list is distressingly long.


Sunday, 21 June 1998

Amy's View, MTC, June 21, 1998

Amy's View by David Hare
MTC at Playhouse until July 18, 1998
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Reviewed around 20 June 1998

Since the late 60's, British playwright David Hare has written full and layered roles for women. Hare’s roles on stage and screen have been played by Vanessa Redgrave, Judi Dench and Meryl Streep.

The central role in Amy's View, directed by Simon Phillips, is, ironically, not Amy but her bohemian actress mother, Esme Allen, She is played with dignity and empathy by the virtuoso Robin Nevin who demonstrates what Hare describes as the great gift of actors to not only do the line but play the interior thought with layered detail.

There are fine cameos from seasoned performers, Patricia Kennedy and Donald Macdonald.

This naturalistic, quite conservative play is staged on a realistic set by Dale Ferguson. In four acts, it maps the life of Esme from 1979 to 1995, beginning in her comfortable middle-class Berkshire living room and ending in the dressing room of a scruffy West End alternative theatre.

The play, astonishingly for an originally political writer such as Hare, makes no overt reference to Thatcher's economic rationalism although it shows Esme as a victim of the financial collapse of the late 80's and the unlimited liability of the wealthy "names" who underwrote Lloyd's of London.

The third and fourth acts are more dramatic and dynamic with the focus on Esme. The first half concentrates on Amy (Vivienne Walshe), Esme's dull, decisive, albeit successful daughter and her deceptively positive relationship with her widowed mother. Esme secretly does not approve of Amy's new partner, Dominic, (Simon Bossell) an angry and rising TV arts critic. In these two acts, the younger actors look uncomfortable and Walshe's acting is often mannered.

At this stage the play is about the backlash of youth against conservative art and the irrelevance of the theatre in a culture obsessed with rapid screen imagery Dominic and Esme stand at opposite ends of the battle field, Esme fighting with her refined and tasteful aloofness and Dominic with his vitriolic and resentful tongue.

After interval the dramatic tension increases and the stakes are raised. It is now about the declining fortunes of a well-heeled and successful actress, the irresponsible actions of major financial organisations and the refusal of the English upper-class to accept that its fortunes have altered irrevocably.

Finally, there is some sense of resolution for Esme and her family after all the betrayal and loss and misunderstanding and love. It is the personal lives of the characters that are important. In the end, the rest is just theatre, not life and death.


Saturday, 20 June 1998

Chicago Chicago System 98, NYID, June 20, 1998

Chicago Chicago System 98 by Not Yet It's Difficult
 Athenaeum II until July 4, 1998
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Reviewed around 19 June 1998

Making an 'old' play relevant is a popular pastime. John Bell dragged Henry IV into soccer-mad England. The Club recently translated easily to our 90's corporate sport era. Such productions generally adhere to original text; not so David Pledger's adaptation of John Romeril's Chicago Chicago with contemporary performance company, NYID.

Not Yet It's Difficult creates challenging, physical theatre that incorporates new media and deconstructs text, attacks social norms, and political systems. Chicago Chicago System 98 is no exception.

The original Romeril play was much longer with 20 scenes. NYID has nipped, tucked and reconstructed the old dame, scaling it down to 75 minutes. The audience, seated initially on rough benches on two sides of an almost empty space was subsequently moved twice more..

Video footage by Paul Hosking is projected onto a scruffy wall. It uses a complex collage of wry imagery filched from television journalism, game shows and CD Rom. Characters are under constant surveillance by hidden cameras. The space remains 'live', unpredictable and constantly questions the relationship of audience to actor and character to state. Romeril wrote "a protest against the American way of life" which is now also an indictment of contemporary Australia.

There is a narrative about a man "who will later be known as 'The Victim' (Greg Stone) who appears to be a politician on the campaign trail. Two mock audience members (Carole Patullo & Tom Considine) voice our own confusion as it is revealed that George may be undergoing rehab and is suffering delusions.

NYID's ironic take on theatre is never far from the surface. Considine's character grapples valiantly with the sub-text of the play. His wife is distracted by worries about their front light being left on. Pledger appears on screen as a pretentious American critic commenting on Romeril, with a portrait of the artist as backdrop.

 Any whiff of self-indulgence is undercut by such cynical representation. There is no program to assist us, which is a relief. Too much contemporary performance relies on notes to make itself comprehensible.

The chorus of performers (Paul Bongiovanni, Danielle Long, Kha Tran Viet, Tamara Saulwick) wear suits and sunglasses and employ the NYID's signature style of crisp, abstracted gesture and choral vocalisation.

The piece requires enormous concentration, as this is no simple narrative with pretty costumes. Although not as cohesive, stylish or expensive as NYID's 1997 Austral-Asian Post Cartoon Sports Edition, it challenges one's view of the theatre space, action, audience and narrative.. That can only be a good thing.


Saturday, 13 June 1998

Double Disillusion, June 13, 1998

Double Disillusion By Rod Quantock
Trades Hall from  June 10, 1998
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Reviewed around 12 June, 1998
Yet again we must declare our bias. Rod Quantock is this reviewer's local god of comedy. He is not, he declares, a political satirist but a "political vitriolist" and the Kennett and Howard governments take a beating - which is how we keep 'em honest, isn't it?

The new show incorporates material from his successful Comedy Festival show, Crown of Thorns but, after interval ("It's a proper show. We have an interval.") Quantock moves on to newer, more recently topical subjects such as tax reform and the GST with asides about One Nation.

Quantock shatters theatrical illusion and conventions in his "mono-media" production. Instead of funky computer graphics, slides, light show or soundscape, he uses blackboard and chalk to illustrate his political points and statistics. He relies on his charismatic, idiosyncratic personality and ironic delivery to captivate an audience.

He ushers, tears tickets, greets audience members by name then feigns a grand entrance after flicking off the fluoros. The stage is a rough platform lit by a couple of coloured lights which he kindly redirected away from the eyes of the front row. "You wouldn't get this in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical."

Quantock's wry, intelligent style and venomous attack on government are balanced with his warmth, generosity and genuine care about the community. he says it gets depressing talking about unemployment, poverty, company tax dodges, lying politicians, labour reform, advertising, foreign ownership, privatisation and the media dynasties of Murdoch and Packer. In short, he analyses "Power": "moral, political and economic.

He pines for the 'good old days" and postulates that for younger listeners, these days will be their good old days. Isn't that depressing? "Our history is written in our biscuits.". Teddy Bears are different since Campbell's took over Arnott's  Their legs no longer fall off when dunked. Economic rationalism has even affected our bikkies.

We are blessed with a local hero such as Quantock who never allows us to become complacent about our social and political environment. Jokes arise from significant (albeit scribbled) statistics about wealth and the GST or from laconic references to the irony of the naming of Bayswater or the silliness of selling electricity from supermarkets.

Quantock is the darling of the press at present, since he declared again that he would stand against Kennett in the seat of Burwood. He promises he won't win. But if the Witch from Ipswich can get a seat, you never know.

Kate Herbert

Thursday, 11 June 1998

Henry IV, by Bell Shakespeare, June 11, 1998

Henry IV by William Shakespeare by Bell Shakespeare Company
 at The Merlin Theatre Malthouse until June 27, 1998
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Reviewed around June 10, 1998

Shakespeare's Henry IV is a study of the quest for power. It reveals the corruption of rulers, the folly of princes, the vanity of power-seekers and the myriad weaknesses of humankind. To paraphrase Falstaff, honour is for the dead.

In the Bell Shakespeare Company production, director, John Bell pares Parts 1 and 2 down to a rollicking 3 hours that happily and anachronistically skip in style from merry mediaeval England to contemporary Bovva-Boy troubled UK.

Henry IV (Richard Piper) replaces his deposed cousin, Richard II, only to be hounded by the ungrateful and hotheaded Hotspur, (Darren Gilshenan) who joins Wales and Scotland in rebellion. Henry's son, Prince Hal (Joel Edgerton) is engaged in revels with his bawdy acquaintance, Falstaff (John Gaden) until Part 2 when he inherits the crown and must give up childish things, which evidently include his 'friends'.

Part One travels at a cracking pace with battles and jokes coming thick and fast. Bell contrasts the pomp of the court with the raucous ribaldry of the inn where Falstaff rules as the clown prince. Clear parallels are drawn between crimes wrought by Henry and the petty thieving of the inn-fellows. Shakespeare did not present a pretty picture of the ruling house for his Queen Elizabeth.

Part Two is slower and theatrically less interesting because all the action has already taken place. Essentially we wait for Henry to die and Hal to discard Falstaff like a used rag.

With fight director, Steve Douglas-Craig , Bell has created colourful battle scenes reminiscent of marauding soccer hooligans. They chant "Harry Percy" and sing choruses of Liverpool's theme song, "You'll Never Walk Alone".

Gaden demonstrates his incomparably stylish delivery as Falstaff, the lovable rogue and the versatile Gilshenan is superbly overwrought as Hotspur and over-sexed as Pistol. Edgerton is capable as Prince Hal but seems more comfortable in the lighter first part.

Bell's fine ensemble, all of whom play multiple roles, revel in the blokiness of the play - even the two women (Carole Skinner, Rebecca Massey) Highlights were Tony Llewellyn-Jones' Welsh rebel, Glendower , Edwin Hodgeman as the raffish old legal eagle, Justice Shallow and cameos from Tony Taylor and the inimitable Duncan Wass.

The production is better-served by the Merlin after years at the cramped Athenaeum. Justin Kurzel's design is reminiscent of a nightclub alley. Its steeply raked stage is surrounded by cyclone wire, scrap metal and rock-and-roll detritus Alan John has created a thumping musical score which underscores dramatic tension.

This is an exciting and innovative production with broad appeal to a modern audience.

Kate Herbert

Tuesday, 2 June 1998

Keene /Taylor Theatre Project 3, June 2, 1998

By Daniel Keene & Ariette Taylor
Brotherhood of St Laurence Warehouse 97 Brunswick St Fitzroy 
until June 21, 1998
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

In this third series of the Keene/Taylor Theatre Project, the three short plays rely not on technology, but fine performances and dialogue to affect us.

 We are drawn closer to the plight of our underclass that has been created by our social and moral vacuum and loss of community.

Director, Ariette Taylor, uses four actors, a dancer and18 extras. Performances are all versatile and detailed. Once again, the pieces are set in the raw and real environment of the Brotherhood of St. Laurence furniture warehouse and staged simply by Taylor with very few theatrical devices. The design uses the actual welfare furniture and Paul Jackson's lighting is simple with bare globes and plastic light fittings

Daniel Keene's playwriting falls into two distinctly different styles: social realism and a more elusive poetic form In this series, both styles are represented.

To Whom It May Concern is a poignant, intimate tale of an ageing and ill father's struggle  (Malcolm Robertson) to solve the future of his 40 year old intellectually disabled son, Leo, (Phil Sumner) after father is gone. It is sweet and tragic with dad trying to be practical and Leo remaining frightened and uncomprehending. These are the disenfranchised of our inner city. Information is power and this father and son have none so they wander alone in the urban wilderness.

Custody is a grittier slice of life about a police cover-up of a death in custody. The young buck cop (Dan Spielman) is responsible but his volatile senior officer (Phil Sumner) engages in an elaborate deception to avoid discovery. It is violent and terrifying in its emotional brutality, overt racism and the characters complete lack of accountability for their actions. It is an indictment of the justice system.

Keene's poetic form appears in What Remains of Dying that is a moving, fraught monologue by Paul English as an unnamed, unspecified man, distressed and despairing when his wife and son disappear. Rows of silent people sit as if in a waiting room. Intermittently, a woman (Meredith Blackburn) who may represent his wife or his fate, dances through the space..

 He speaks directly to us, reading from what could be a police statement. Is it a confession? A breakdown? Is his family alive or dead? This piece the most difficult and remains a little too obscure. But it deals with irrational or unresolved fears and the desperate needs of humanity when it hits rock bottom.

By Kate Herbert