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Tuesday, 28 February 2012


The Genesian Theatre, tucked away in Sydney’s CBD, is a place I rarely go even though I work minutes away. I suppose I’ve always associated it with plays written by Agatha Christie and I can’t imagine wanting to spend hours in this form of torture.

So I was pleasantly surprised  by Genesian’s offering of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ directed by 22 year old Constantine Costi. It’s not perfect but it makes some clear choices in its vision and let’s not forget that this play is problematic. The anti-Semitic content is difficult to reconcile and even though we rationalise that Shakespeare wrote this hundreds of years ago, to see the humiliation and animosity towards Jews that culminate in renouncing their religion by choice or punishment so they can find love or peace and those that fight it are left destitute as a Christian lesson, it's hard to dress up in a contemporary context. It can’t help but affect your judgement as audience or even as a director in deciding how to communicate this to an audience who will view this hopefully very differently from when it was written.
So Costi’s choice to place the play in what I call the ‘Cubana’ setting, 1950’s carefree abandon, like an endless summer that leaves you unprepared for the cold, serves then as an interesting contrast to Shylock’s presentation as conservative, traditional, overprotective stereotypical Jewish father and financer.
John Harrison’s design is a striking display of the climate of smoke and mirrors whose surface is flashy and gaudy but hollow inside. The design encapsulates the masking of the underbelly of the city of Venice and Alice Joel’s costumes complement this Pleasantville vision.
The setting is a bold choice and means that the first half, when it’s at its height, runs you over in pace and energy and the text can get lost. The second half plays with the folly of this lifestyle and its fallout and works much better. It’s just an issue of control perhaps more than setting. Here’s where a young director can most benefit from an experienced team: how to control your vision on stage. The first half staggers out of the gate and then, like an express train, does not stop for passengers until it arrives at interval. The colour, music and spectacle are all visually appealing but it compromises story in this relentless rhythm and sometimes competes with what is happening on stage at the time. And then enter Shylock (Geoff Sirmai) who grounds the first half with his seasoned acting and a standout performance.
And the acting in the play is good. Tiffany Stoekler’s Portia, Stephen Lloyd Coombs’ Bassanio and Harriet Gordon Anderson as Jessica probably capture with Sirmai the characters, intent and language of the play with the most skill and ease.  A couple of cast fall into moments of ‘playing the problem’- obvious emotions and states, and whilst finding glee in some genuinely comic vignettes, they don’t always connect with the narrative. But consistently, it’s a strong cast of young actors who show a lot of promise in the future.
If the first half acts like a horny teenager, it grows up in the second half and becomes a mature adult. The court scene draws us into the world of the play. I’m engaged, pace and rhythm suddenly match intent and ideas. Deliberate and manipulative, tension enters the second half of the play where it had been missing.
If audience had doubts at interval, the second half redeemed them and people left far more satisfied. But I love that Costi took risks and in time he will learn maturity of control and building of tension, the second half was proof of that.
This play will not appeal to all the old die-hard Genesians (one older gentleman cornered my friend and I with some very strong opinions in this regard) but most will appreciate the new life Shakespeare’s play has been given. It’s not whisky served straight up, more of a fruity and deceptively potent cocktail blend. And for the few it will alienate, take comfort that the next Agatha Christie play is just around the corner.
It will raise the eternal question- what suffers and what grows in the directorial vision? Am I being true to the text? I think so.

Saturday, 25 February 2012


You’d be hard pressed to come out of this show without a smile on your face. It’s a sweet, pacey wild romance (with songs) that enchants its audience in an otherwise Sydney theatre thematic month of misogyny.
'Midsummer' is a two hander play that explores an unlikely romance between two 35 year old Edinburgh locals, Bob- a man of squashed hopes and dreams currently earning a quid selling stolen cars, and Helena- sassy perpetual bridesmaid in the midst of an affair and a pregnancy scare. Their story starts with sex and moves into the morning of regret before their lives are drawn back together in a sordid spending spree, some colourful encounters, a bit of violence (did I mention they’re from and in Edinburgh?..) and into its inevitable conclusion. It’s nice. It’s a simple as that.
Writers David Greig (who also directs) and Gordon McIntyre have produced a tight energetic play, made all the more intimate by containing it to two actors and acoustic music played by its cast with songs that accompany the action instead of detracting from the narrative. As musician McIntyre states, “the musical numbers are not there to smack you over the head, they are there to touch your heart and make you feel an affinity and empathy with the characters.” Check.
One of my favourites would have been ‘the hangover song’ and audience seemed to guffaw with an appreciative understanding. And that’s one of the things this play does so well- it expresses the shared experiences and dilemmas of its characters and its audience. Sure, I’ve never been to a Japanese bondage room (yet) but I have been lost in an IKEA car park, took up running in my 30’s and been to enough weddings that would drive me to vomit too.
This is a play that understands its audience and there aren’t too many plays that can get away with using that many expletives and still have the blue rinse set enjoy it (maybe it’s the accent- everything seems funnier in a Scottish accent). What you can’t rely on with the oldies is to get them to stand up when you want to run down their aisle. Poor Matthew Pidgeon (who plays Bob) almost had to call in a crane to move people out of their seats. Hint for the future- they are in the process of standing, it just takes a long time since the hip replacement.
Now I know it seems I bang on in my reviews about the importance of choosing the right stage for the right show and here I go again....I wish I could have seen 'Midsummer' at the Edinburgh Festival in a more appropriate theatre space to enhance the connection between actors and audience. The Drama Theatre is far from ideal and connection had to be forced. If I had any misgivings of the play it was that the space makes it a hard slog to project energy all the way to the back and if you have a non-responsive crowd, the first few scenes feel a bit rehearsed and not organic. I can only imagine that if the audience were ‘on top’ of the set, it would have felt magical to have shared that weekend with Bob & Helena.
Georgia McGuinness' set is an effective device and the actors Matthew Pidgeon and Cora Bissell are in control of it. I love the reveals and their ability to recreate space in how they use it. The connection and rapport between the actors is also one of the play’s great strengths. They are charming and spitfire their dialogue and asides with a cheeky warmth that allows us to relish the journey they go on as characters, their obstacles and their triumphs. Having said that, one of the loveliest moments in the play was when they broke the rhythm of the play by gently allowing the characters to rest in their hotel room in a lovely moment of ‘spooning’. It was there the audience took a breath, opened their hearts and really engaged in the romantic possibilities of this couple.
Bissell and Pidgeon play an array of characters in this play, all well-defined and infinitely likeable, even in their quirkiness. Sometimes poignant, sometimes comic- this is clever casting and performing and the actors seemed to be having fun and obvious chemistry throughout and this made the play all the more enjoyable for its audience and helped forgive the tyranny of distance in staging.
'Midsummer' delivers an engaging narrative and performance. No confusion. No nightmares. No questioning of the state of humanity. Just a cheeky little play that entertains audience, regardless of age or nationality and well worth a viewing.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

BELVOIR’S THYESTES dissected by me

I know you’ve all been anxiously waiting for this review and I can’t blame you. Did she love it? Did she hate it? How will she respond to 'Thyestes'? Will she rip it a new one or has she finally fallen under the spell of the German inspired aesthetic as interpreted by Stone and co?

The simple answer is…I still don’t know how I feel about 'Thyestes'.

Many readers come to this page to help them articulate their own thoughts of what they’ve seen- to offer a perspective about a show, to clarify in their own minds why they responded like they did to what they just saw. I get it. I really do. And I think that’s why 'Thyestes' has spent days rattling around in my brain because like most of you, it dances on the edge of the sword between powerful ideas and imagery and then grotesque violence, homo-eroticism and misogyny and then stabs you with it. It feels at times gratuitous and hedonistic and then at others extremely provocative and disturbing.

So I’ll do my best to give you something to work with to help you understand this play and its impact but I offer no guarantees and may even disappoint. However, I am saying up front, if you haven’t seen this show, you should, at least (or no more than) once. Otherwise, none of what I’m about to tell you will make much sense at all.

'Thyestes' is a Hayloft Project production that first premiered in Melbourne about 18 months ago and is now playing at Carriageworks as part of the Sydney Festival for Belvoir. It is a re-interpretation by director Simon Stone and his cast Thomas Henning, Chris Ryan and Mark Winter and based on Seneca’s play of the same title and the ancient Greek myth of the two brothers, Thyestes and Atreus, who manipulated their way to the throne of Mycenae and their betrayal of each other and the consequences of these actions. It is a cause and effect story and told and performed with surtitles, a box set (literally a box with audience on both sides- a traverse stage) and three male actors with Chris Ryan playing all the other roles, including female characters, whilst Henning and Winter play the brothers.

Let’s talk about the less contentious elements of the show first so I can procrastinate a bit longer about discussing the weight and power of the production.

The set and its configuration was a very clever device and made the experience not only filmic but intrigued audiences on both sides of the set on how quickly set changes in this white box occurred (false walls). The arrival of the grand piano was quite a triumph. The stark quality of the stage added to the dissection of humanity upon it. I loved the use of Stone’s vision on Claude Marcos’ set and sitting in the second row the proximity and perspective of the action drew me in completely. If I wanted to look at the audience opposite me, which sometimes I did, I was also fascinated by their response to the action. There was squirming, laughter, shock, disgust- the gamut on offer. The frame and mise-en-scene offered a cinema experience in three dimensions and being so close meant you were assaulted by the events and had to make a conscious effort where to focus and Stone exploited every moment he could.

Stefan Gregory's composition and sound design was also a strong element, although the use of discordant electric guitars may feel predictable in Stone’s work, here it finally found its home. Other choices, especially classical music juxtaposed with what felt like death metal and moments of Roy Orbison if you please, captured the mood of the piece and its journey. And Ryan's beautiful rendition of Schubert's 'Der Doppelganger' was perhaps the most moving part of the play.

OK..I know…I’m stalling. Let’s get to it then…

This play stays with you. You don’t want it to but it does. Honestly, I woke up in the middle of the night to those images and I couldn’t let them go. They had burrowed down into my psyche and demanded attention. And yet, I never want to see this play again. I came out saying “I don’t know what I feel about it. I don’t know what I think about it. It’s going to take some time to process that show.”

Stone employs the use of surtitles to convey plot points before the ‘curtains’ slide open and characters are presented in often the most mundane of activities or environments, a contrast to the heightened implications of high stakes events being played out as low stakes transactions. And I think that’s one of the reasons we are struggling to connect with the play. 'Thyestes' has great ideas that are disconnected to the conveyed narrative and perhaps in our traditional expectations in how they should be expressed. Even Stone states in the program, “…we were able to bring a naturalness to the language that was in stark contrast to the heightened nature of the myth”. And yet this is also why it is engaging in its choices- because it messes with our expectations.

The opening scene so perfectly captures the voice of young men, it is disturbing (and I teach teenage boys so I’ve got some sort of insight here- trust me). So straight away, Stone et al paint a picture of male aggression and obsession with self. And then the introduction of homo-eroticism and misogyny take it to another level. It is alienating and makes us fearful of male behaviour, this self-love of violence, presented by what we have already established as natural male characters, real to the culture in which we live and social conditioning. And the most violent of them all, Atreus, played by Winter, possesses such charm and seductiveness, how do we reconcile that we want him and are repulsed by him at the same time? I don’t know. I do know that men and women I’ve spoken to who have seen this play have responded very differently to it and I am not surprised. 'Thyestes' challenges how we tell stories and it achieves what it sets out to do. Provoke.

Cut to the end of the play- now told non-linear (as opposed to the first half) so it can manipulate its way to the most terrifying of endings, shown in a montage of shots (filmic) of our worst nightmares. Where the first half of the play took its time travelling through the world of the characters, the second half thunders through its events so the audience have no time to breathe. You can’t help but having a strong reaction although you struggle to care about the characters. It feels like a one-eyed interpretation but it’s clear and powerful. It lacks human connection but disturbs our notion of humanity.

The fact that the cast and director have spent a long time with this show is obvious. There is an intimacy between them that allows them to be comfortable in the most uncomfortable of situations. The cast invest in this show and I hope there is a bevy of alcohol waiting for them afterwards. I am moved by the performances, even if I’m not moved by the characters. The integrity of the actors is without question.

'Thyestes' is a play with interesting ideas, great sensory choices and performances, thoughtful direction and technical elements. However, is there a lesson in it? Does it offer us an alternative? Hope? I don’t know.

You may love 'Thyestes'. You may hate it. But I think the real question you need to ask yourself is why you feel that way.

And with that, I’ll leave it with you…

Saturday, 18 February 2012

STC’s PYGMALION dissected by me

Good old George Bernard Shaw. He really knew how to write and director Peter Evans has chosen one of the earliest versions of ‘Pygmalion’ to stage at the Sydney Theatre for your viewing pleasure.

There has been criticism levelled at me of late that I don’t tell my readers enough of the story. So if the following summary of 'Pygmalion' is not enough, I suggest you stop reading, go and look it up on wikipedia and come back later. 'Pygmalion', first staged in 1912 is the original My Fair Lady story, exploring the theme of the transformative power and pitfalls of class, language and education; it’s the Cinderella story with a socialist agenda.

Let’s accept that it’s hard not to enjoy the writing- its witty banter and colourful characters mean it’s hard to get this play wrong if it’s performed well. So let’s look at the choices Evans made to give his interpretation its best chance to entertain, teach and preach with the best of Shavian intentions.

The cast really do a fabulous job, especially given the gaping holes in staging (more of that later). Andrea Demetriades’ passion and energy in playing Eliza Dolittle was terrific as was her transition into sophistication and autonomy. Marco Chiappi as Henry Higgins conveys a magnetic gruffness and was superb at filling the stage with intent and power. The support cast did a wonderful job at finding the comedy and exploiting it and carrying the weight of the text with integrity at the same time. Being able to take minor roles and make the audience feel like they are major roles is the gift of a clever artist. The actors in 'Pygmalion' made this play work and there was a sense Evans gave them some license to play and I think this sense of life on stage was a bonus in its interpretation.

This is extended in choosing an early version of the text which allows the actors to explore the reported action, the arguments and the ideas of the text and relish in the playful interaction of the characters. His choice to also abandon Shaw’s very detailed stage directions has allowed Evans and his cast to manipulate the (cavernous) space.

His choice to also employ a dramaturg in Toby Schmitz was also a smart move to aid in unpacking the script and its complexities. Add to that, there’s something so deliciously subversive about Schmitz that suggest he is a good choice in analysing the possibilities of function and style.

OK- so having said all that, what didn’t quite work? Let’s start with the obvious…the set (or lack thereof). Whilst I understand the rationale of avoiding clutter and providing a magnifying glass to explore relationships, I think it’s a cop out. The Sydney Theatre is an epic space and it demands use. If you want to leave your stage bare, go to a space that allows the intimacy of that choice, such as the Wharf Theatre.  The gaping expanse of Sydney Theatre means the actors work as hard as they can and if they have a lapse in energy, there is nowhere to hide. I can only imagine how much energy the cast expend in filling that space night after night.

I also think the choice of no set is the cheat’s way out of the anachronisms of time. Does it want to be set in 1912 or contemporary times? Evans leaves that one floating out there but to the audience it just feels like a lack of commitment.

The empty stage also highlights issues in sound. When actors hit centre stage you can hear their lines reverberate around the space and is not the quality of staging we have come to expect from a STC production.

Finally the choice of using live video feeds in moments of the play, which can give theatre the elusive close up, also means the action on the big screen can eclipse what is happening on stage. Once again, the cast are left with the challenge of competing with a moving split focus. The very end video image also didn’t seem to know why it was there and even the long-time subscribers sitting next to me asked me what that meant. Are we suggesting Eliza Doolittle and Higgins might come together or has Higgins just turned into a dirty stalker?? I think what is an interesting idea didn’t have a clear function or rationale and therefore the play ends with a bit of whimper.

But if you can excuse the space of its distractions, 'Pygmalion' embraces a strong narrative and cast and for our more conservative theatregoers, there’s not an expletive in sight. And a show you can take your mum to can’t be that bad.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

That Pretty Pretty; or, The Rape Play performed by Workhorse Theatre Company & dissected by me.

Excuse me in this review if I start by comparing myself slightly to the Workhorse Theatre Company and their debut play 'That Pretty Pretty'.

A new voice prepared to tackle subject matter generally taboo in the current scene. Check.

A complete shellacking from sources that overlook the very real content and style of the work and concentrate on a superficial understanding of what that work is attempting to do or engages in a personal attack in which to discredit them and their work. Check.

Currently embroiled in a media scandal that propels them into a frenzy of free publicity and drives people to see them in action and creates a bigger fan base as a result. Check.

Art imitating life? It's pretty pretty clear where some of the other theatre bloggers would like to stick that grenade.

Now to the play: this is a bold choice for the new Workhorse Theatre Company. They have clearly branded themselves as an ensemble who will favour alternative styles, structures and writings with a subversive flavour. And as someone who likes to chance it in a generally conservative environment and rock that damn boat in my most provocative "mumsy school teacher" twin set, they have my vote.

Workhorse is a mix of experiences brought together by common artistic goals. Director Netta Yashchin, whose theatre background is grounded in Tel-Aviv and who recently graduated from NIDA’s directing course has given her cast the confidence to explore this polemic play in an intimate but difficult performance space. The sightlines sometimes hinder action and it felt there was a fair bit happening on the floor (cue jelly wrestling) that all but the front row could clearly engage in. However, it didn’t detract from what was an otherwise humorous and polished rendition of New York playwright Sheila Callaghan’s play.

There is an energy in pace and range in this anti-realism piece that the cast manage to sustain, much to their credit. Playing a multitude of characters and variations or interpretations of the one role meant that the play, structurally, gave the audience work to do in figuring out what version of the story’s thread they were engaging in at that point in time, but the cast do a commendable job of keeping their audience in the loop. The choice to even sometimes cheekily direct dialogue to us as if we were part of their narrative increased the connection in embracing the subversive structure of the play.

Most impressive was Kellie Jones in her roles as Jane Fonda/Jane (and I’m not just saying that because it’s my name). Her comic timing, commitment and playful charisma of Fonda as opposed to her role as the intimidated victimised maid demonstrated a skilful range of abilities. All the cast demonstrated a strong skill set in this episodic play.

‘That Pretty Pretty’ is, at its heart, a play that explores the misogyny of male dominated narrative obsessions and pushes it to its extreme. Scantily clad women, shootings, rape and the other penetrating issues of the work are juxtaposed with homage to 80’s icons and pop culture references. It is a pastiche that doesn’t always hang together and this seems more in the writing than direction. It feels like every inspiration Callaghan found amusing, appalling or interesting found its way into this play and that someone needed to give it an edit, like in Owen’s monologue unpacking his blockbuster narrative that went on just a little too long and then the interview scene at the end that didn’t quite feel like it wrapped up the play.

All in all, Workhorse should be pleased they have managed to stir the pot. I’d like to see them succeed in this tough business and so thank you Daily Telegraph. I think you’ve given them a wonderful step up to do just so.

And for those keen to follow this penetrating provocative reviewer, I am now on twitter. Follow me on @janesoyp.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

BELVOIR’S ‘BURIED CITY’ dissected by me

There’s a six minute lockout at the start of Belvoir’s ‘Buried City’.  I suggest you take advantage of it and leisurely finish your dinner or simply enjoy the emptiness of the foyer before going in, if you must, to see the show because once in there, the painstaking crossing of the stage by Perry Keyes before he picks up his guitar and starts singing, will make you feel your tolerance of the world is ebbing away.

Also be warned, there’s no interval, so pray you get a seat discreetly close to an exit or strap yourself in for 80 minutes of hearing yourself sigh and looking at your watch every two minutes in the hope that you have entered a time warp and the show will miraculously end soon. 

Look- it’s not all bad. Some of the actors give it their best. It’s one of Russell Kiefel’s strongest performances and relatively new talent Meyne Wyatt also gives a fine turn out. But really, if you are looking for a night of entertainment, this is not it.

Let’s break it down.  Writer Raimondo Cortese seems to specialise in intimate small cast pieces that are more conversational than plot derived and this means his stories are almost on the verge of going somewhere but they rarely do. It’s like waiting for the tag in the joke that never comes. His plays take you nowhere and very early on you realise the pointless message is tied up in the writing and the cast and director can try whatever they can to make the play feel like it’s building tension but the only journey it will take you on is tedium. And not in a Beckett way. It’s more like a ‘not-particularly-clever I-don’t-give-a-toss-and-why-am-I-trapped-in-a-seat-restricting-my-ability-to-stage-a-walk-out-and-reclaim-my-life’ kind of way. Does anyone remember his play ‘Holiday’ from Griffin a few years back. Duologue of sheer inane-ness.  And I so want to like him but I just can’t help being bored witless by his work so I’m officially giving up trying. Cortese bores me. There. I’ve said it.

So, as result, the whole play suffers.  Oooh..the world has rapidly changed. No-one cares anymore. Unions are dead. It’s all about money. We’re all alone. Who are we? What’s the point? Why can’t we sleep? Why can't we connect with each other anymore? There we go people. No need to see the show- I’ve just encapsulated it for you for free.

I know the cast had some input into the play and that’s obvious by the fact that they all retain their real names as the characters. Honestly, the show feels like a final year school piece, polished yet unoriginal. You’re not going to care about the characters and the play itself won’t take up valuable brain space shortly after you leave the theatre. For the most part, it’s a big fat ball of yawn.

Design wise you are confronted with the scaffolding of a stalled building site with all the characters stalled there as well in the mess of the site, as a metaphor for their lives, which becomes increasingly more broken as they play continues. And apart from drawn out conflict of stolen phones, ex-girlfriends, etc ultimately everyone will find a corner of the set and stay there. And they’re the lucky ones. At least they had easy access to the exit. I had to pay to stay and watch them stay too until two standard curtain calls later. Life is so unfair.

What is hammered home in this play is that an audience, we are so polite. Where are the groans from the audience to get on with it? Where’s the obvious stand, boo and exit. Can someone start that club? I’m happy to enrol in that support group. How on earth can we communicate to our theatre companies that the work they are putting on is giving theatre a bad name. There are so many people out there that believe theatre is tedious. Why give them a play that confirms that theory?

Shame on you Belvoir. You are capable of much better.