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Sunday, 28 August 2011

Belvoir’s Windmill Baby, directed by Kylie Farmer and dissected by me

David Milroy’s ‘Windmill Baby’ is one of the more engaging Indigenous monologues written over the last 20 years. And that’s saying something because I feel like I have sat through an endless supply of Indigenous biographical or autobiographical monologues to last me a lifetime.

So, before I get cracking about this production, I am going to make a statement that will win me no friends, I’m sure. In fact, I am aware that saying this is going to cause a stir amongst the Arts community who have politely if not fiercely supported all Indigenous works, the good, bad and ugly. I have to say that mainstream writers would not have been so politely tolerated had they clung to one expression of writing on the same theme for so long. So listen up-I am officially banning the monologue as a dramatic form for Indigenous writers as a means of theatrical expression.

Look, I know they are intimate pieces of theatre, some more successful than others, and a way to express an autobiographical or historical agenda to a mainstream audience as a one man or woman show. And I know that even with the theatrically limited monologues, theatre, which is generally left of centre and white middle class, will always clap and nod appropriately and feel genuine guilt and emotion over the injustices inflicted and then cheer for the triumphs of the human spirit over adversity.
Yes, I know by the telling of personal experiences we highlight the political themes that express Indigenous aspirations for equality and allow the voices of history to be heard. I know…I know…I really do. I even hate myself for saying this.  It is not the intent I am criticising, although the expression sometimes lacks substance and feels more like therapy rather than theatre and I am not saying don’t tell your stories- I encourage everyone to tell their story if you can manipulate it into an engaging piece of theatre. What I am saying is that Indigenous writers have overused this form and that it has become passé and predictable. It’s time to play with form.

Right, controversy over, back to the show. ‘Windmill Baby’ is a more sophisticated storytelling theatrical piece because it creates a world in what Milroy calls “conversations and characters past and present, jockeying for a place”. These characters are fully realised in actor Roxanne McDonald’s rich portrayal of Maymay, an old Aboriginal woman returning to her camp which is situated on the old cattle station she once “amassed treasured memories” and then proceeds to bring these characters, relationships, desires and memories to life. Even director Kylie Farmer states “the characters’ connections are luminously woven with a poetic rhythm connecting each story simply and beautifully” and this is realised in Belvoir’s Downstairs production of this play.

What separates this play from others in its form is its ability to craft a throughline in the vignettes connecting the pieces into a well-rounded story and creating dimensions in the world the character Maymay inhabits. All eleven characters have wonderful moments of poignancy through McDonald’s interpretation and skill and her friendly, inclusive style of storytelling to her audience. The play takes us on a journey through hardship using humour, music and direct audience address. I will admit in the first ten minutes the traditional style of “yarning over the campfire” tested my resolve but McDonald won me over with her creation and imagery of the memories of her youthful fight for the heart of stockman Malvern, her shopping trip with Malvern and his reaction to her purchases, her integrity in portrayal of crippled Aboriginal gardener Wunman and his forbidden relationship with the boss’ missus.
It was the final story of Maymay’s promise to Wunman and the crossing of the river that most touched me. McDonald’s powerful physicality and emotional conviction and connection to these characters raised the stakes for me in this deservedly award winning play.

Maymay’s catharsis in sharing with us these bottled up memories provides us with a form of catharsis too. We mourn the losses and air the dirty washing (literally and figuratively) so that we can look to the future and not carry the burden of the past with us anymore.

Designer Ruby Langton-Batty aided in breathing life into Milroy’s work through her wonderful outback abandoned set of the cattle station, worn and eroded and imbued all over with the colours of the Australian desert. For the record, my boots are still stained with the sand. It makes me feel distinctly Australian.

I’m very glad I saw this play, especially as obviously it will be the last Indigenous monologue I’ll be seeing. Kylie Farmer has directed a very moving interpretation of Milroy’s work and all the elements have created a piece of theatre that beautifully manipulates tension and dramatic imagery and can’t help but draw its audience into a world we can believe real and encapsulating past and present.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Belvoir's 'Neighbourhood Watch', directed by Simon Stone & dissected by me

I saw this show with some trepidation. I’d heard very different reports about the production and I will admit I walked into the theatre with low expectations. After all, Belvoir hadn’t yet pulled one out of the bag for me this year in their upstairs theatre and I thought I may be seeing a more polished version of something as thin and superficial as ‘The Business’.

So it was a pleasant surprise that I enjoyed ‘Neighbourhood Watch’.  I was sitting in the second row, which was probably prime position for this quite intimate drama- as friends who were seated up the back did not connect with the play as well as I did. Maybe this is one of those plays where your engagement is affected by where in the theatre you are located.

Chiefly, the play was all about Robyn Nevin. She was superb. Just ask her, she’ll tell you. So it pains me to say that in this show, I would have to agree with her. The play was written for Nevin, literally. Her role as Ana, a lonely, elderly Hungarian immigrant, living in the suburbs of Sydney, who forms a friendship with young Catherine, was so well crafted that if you hadn’t told me it was Nevin, I wouldn’t have known. Her transformation was an impressive display of her skill as an actor.

Kris McQuade also did a wonderful job of bringing minor characters such as Milova, an old neighbour of Ana’s, to life. Her breathless heaving up and down the stairs was comedic, pitiful and engaging. In fact the strongest roles in this play were carried by these seasoned performers. The others were good but didn’t always hit the mark in development and pathos quite like Nevin and McQuade. Charlie Garber was likeable, Stefan Gregory, Helen Mitchell and Ian Meadows fulfilled multiple side characters and Megan Holloway did a good job of playing probably the most flawed main character in the script. More of that later.

Director Simon Stone’s love of the revolving stage actually served him well in this production. The most impressive use of designer Dale Ferguson’s stage was the lovely movement of the tram as it took the audience on a journey through time and location and captured the rhythm and eventual tension of isolation and danger. I was not so enamoured by the carpet engulfing the whole set, perhaps representing the padding, false covering of reality or the grey pallor of suburban life. The metaphor was not completely convincing. But I forgave it as it didn’t distract from the action.

Perhaps the most flawed part of the show was in Lally Katz’s script itself. Don’t get me wrong, the script held its own and was generally very good. But I would say it was one or two drafts from being complete. Whilst I loved the transitions between past and present and its stylistic experimentation between fantasy and reality, the character of Catherine, the representation of Lally Katz herself, was underdeveloped. This is always dangerous ground for writers, trying to craft semi-autobiographical characters into three dimensional personas. Often writers struggle to flesh out detail and objective perspective or complexity on characters that are representational of themselves because we can never really be subjective about ourselves. The character of Catherine felt like she was a vehicle for Ana and therefore her own story didn’t quite have the punch or impact you would want in the final denouement. The writing also seemed to want to avoid the risk of pushing the emotions of the audience in key moments at the end. It’s a risk that if you go for it, it may become trite and melodramatic, but I wish Katz took the risk because the payout, had it worked, would have created this current engaging play into a powerful piece of theatre. I notice that the production had already deviated from the script, as you do when you have the benefit of being able to workshop and perform it with a strong and appropriate team. I could pass judgement on young Eamonn Flack as dramaturg, casting criticism regarding his age and ability to truly work with insight into a predominantly female, immigrant, ageing world. But I’ll just let it sit there and let you decide. A bit more reflection and time will see Katz’s script refined and a terrific Australian play in the works.

Overall I enjoyed this show and I don’t think I was alone.