Thursday 30 June 2016

4:48 Psychosis - Theatre Review

What: 4:48 Psychosis
Where: Metanoia Theatre
When: 29 June - 2 July
Written by: Sarah Kane
Direction by: Kendall-Jane Rundle
Peformed by: Alisha Eddy, Kendall-Jane Rundle, Jessica Stevens, and Jeff Wortman
Costumes by: Jessica Allie
Lighting by: Shane Grant

4:48 Psychosis is the latest play being presented at Metanoia and is produced by Bare Naked Theatre. It is the last of six published plays by British Playwright Sarah Kane and has been staged all over the world.

Kane suffered from serious clinical depression throughout her life, and 4:48 Psychosis looks at depression, but more specifically it investigates psychotic symptomology. Because of this and because she killed herself shortly after writing it, people often make the assumption this play is about her. We do not know this, but it is true that she is on record as saying 'Do what you want with it, but know that writing it killed me'.

Kane as a writer was strongly influenced by Expressionism and Jacobean Theatre. Her writing life began in poetry but she moved into writing drama because ' has no memory, which makes it the most existential of the arts...'. Kane gives no indication of staging or character or how many actors could or should be used, but instead has written a dramatic poem. The Jacobean influence lies in it's episodic structure. The expressionism lies in the removal of character and experiential affects of the writing. Her poetry shines through in the onomatopoeia, alliteration, repetition, and word placement on the page amongst other devices.

The world Kane has created is a world of the mind, not an outward place or location. The stage at Metanoia has been left bare to reflect a cavernous non-world which is clever and effective. It is minimalist in design which is, again, a really appropriate choice and Grant's lighting design works well to deconstruct normality of both the world and the stage. I particularly like the use of dangling lightbulbs which, as well as breaking up the space, come to represent the firing of neurons and the concept of ideas and thought. In the first countdown scene he cleverly uses them to escalate the desperate groping of the mind as the bodies in the space chase order. For those who have read the script you will also enjoy the spatial corollary which has been echoed here as well.

In my opinion the biggest problem with the production is Rundle has not made a choice whether to be a performer in the play or the director. Obviously Bare Naked Theatre is a vehicle for her to highlight her talents, but this production desperately needs an outside directorial eye both to unify the artistic direction of the play, but also to hone in the performances themselves. The pace is slow and everything just feels imprecise and unfinished.

I have listened to Rundle's interview on SYN and it seems to me she has missed an important piece of understanding about Kane as a playwright and indeed, this play in particular, which is why the production falls a bit flat generally.

In the interview Rundle talks about this production being 'truthful' and 'intimate' and 'human', and 'true to interpretation'. She goes on to say that she is resisting being dramatic and creating abstract interpretations of this modernist play.

Here is the problem - Kane is an Expressionist and has used post-dramatic techniques in her writing. This is not a modernist work and is a rebellion against realism and naturalism. It is meant to be experiential and devoid of identifiable character. It is part of a collection of works from the 1990's dubbed "in-yer-face" theatre. Rundle is trying to make us 'care' about a character in both the direction and her performance but you can't create a fully formed character with a linear trajectory because there is none, so the real impact of the work and any understanding of the experience of psychosis is completely lost.

Having said that, there are one or two moments which expose intriguing insights including the countdown scene I mentioned earlier, and the visibility scene as Rundle storms up the stairs. These moments work precisely because they break the realism form,

I do recommend seeing this because the truth of this play is most accurately exposed by it being mounted many times with a range of interpretations. This production has a place within that panorama.

2.5 stars.

Monday 27 June 2016

Copy, Cut, Post - Live Art Review

What: Copy, Cut, Post
Where: Metanoia
When: June 25 - July 10
Curated by: Paula van Beek
Created by: Sarah Edwards, Michelle Ferris, Simone French, Vanessa Godden, Janet Hoe, Tassa Joannidis, Gabrielle Leah New, George Roxby Smith, Paula van Beek
Metanoia have launched their Live Works season for 2016 and to kick it off Paula van Beek has gathered a group of exciting artists to create an exciting exhibition which fills all the fun and exciting spaces at the Brunswick Mechanics Institute. Van Beek describes the exhibition as a response to the rise of selfie feminism.

I admit I am not an expert of Live Works, and I like that it is referred to as an exhibition although it is a part of the Live Works season because I think this is a more appropriate word. It is really a cross discipline exhibition with performance and interactive elements. In van Beek's artist statement she says that 'these works seek to complicate the discourse around visibility' and I think parts of the exhibition succeed admirably.

Copy, Cut, Post is an amazing achievement. All of the artists came together on the Saturday and created the entire exhibition (including performances) over the weekend, ready for the launch on Sunday evening. The exhibition includes video material, fabric sculptures and performance.

The two highlights for me included the collage table and Simone French's performance 'Capturing My Alter Ego'. French's performance explores the pressures on people taking selfies these days with a wit and hilarity which raised the roof. As she says, "My life can't go unnoticed. It must be documented."

The collage table is the interactive part of the evening, It is simply a long table with magazines, glue, tape, and paper and people can sit and create their own collage and then keep it or put it up on the display wall. You can see my contribution to the wall above.

Vanessa Gooden's 'My Nipples Aren't Pink' is another fun yet incisive comment of the female image. She creates the art in the space and it is also available for purchase, The work of a couple of artists is for sale including Paula van Geek's 'The New Diversity Is Definitely For Sale'.

It is impossible for me to outline the entire exhibition, but I recommend you go along and get involved with 'complicating the discourse' with these intriguing female artists. You will be challenged, confused, and confounded.

4 Stars

Thursday 23 June 2016

Deadheads - Theatre Review

What: Deadheads
Where: The Owl and Cat
When: June 21 - July 1
Written by: Ali Viterbi
Directed by: Scotty Wings
Performed by: Rian Howlett and Sophia Simmons
Lighting by: Arielle Cottingham
Sound by: Jacky T

Photo courtesy of The Owl and Cat

Deadheads is an American play written by emerging playwright Ali Viterbi, a Yale graduate. Working within the frame of the the life cycle of rockband The Grateful Dead and their famous legion of loyal followers, the Deadheads, Viterbi explores the life cycle of a romantic relationship and what it would look as it travelled the thirty years alongside. Presenting this incredibly intimate story within the intimacy of The Owl and Cat Theatre is a perfect match and enhances both the play and the theatre.

Viterbi follows the relationship between Sadie and Ethan, dedicated Deadheads, as they tour with the band over thirty years. It is written in a picaresque fashion with time jumps beginning in 1965 through to 1995 when band icon Jerry Garcia died unexpectedly. The Grateful Dead stuff is interesting, and Viterbi picks up on a lot of fun slang and interesting cultural connections, including the predominance of an American Jewish following, but the real heart of the play is the relationship and dynamics between Ethan and Sadie.

This is not a play about The Grateful Dead or even the Deadheads. This is a play about growing up, the evolution of relationships, and control. The parallel with the band is a good one though, because The Grateful Dead were famous for evolving their style over time and performing every concert differently. This is how they kept their following. Beginning as a psychedelic jug band, they moved into rock'n'roll in the 70s and embraced electronic music in the 80s.

Counterpointing the band's evolution, the relationship between Sadie and Ethan never moves on, never evolves. Apart from beginning by smoking weed, then moving into acid and harder drugs, the actual dynamic never changes and this is the core of the writing.

Simmons (Sadie) and Howlett (Ethan) work well together and have pitched their performances at a perfect level for a space so intimate. Simmons in particular is mesmerising, showing Sadie becoming muted and changed as the relationship continues on. Some of the change is good, and some is bad.

The show loses punch, however, because Wings (director) has failed to fully explore Ethan's role in the dynamic of the relationship and the play. Wings has fully embraced the hippy, free love, happy-go-lucky 60's vibe, but he hasn't paid attention to the detail of the developments of either the band or the couple. This is a bit surprising because in his performance poetry, Wings shows a delightful cynicism about the hippy lifestyle. If only he had brought some of that attitude to this production it would have had more bite and impact.

In each time shift Ethan (in the script) becomes more controlling. At a very early point he even talks about the difference between the 60s and the 70s being a disillusionment in the future. Ethan refuses to grow up and in doing so a divide is being created between him and Sadie. None of this is reflected in the direction. The dynamics - both physical and verbal - tend to stay the same the whole way through. The sign of good writing, though, is that we understand what is happening in spite of the direction, and Simmons' performance has enough depth to help us through.

Jacky T's sound design has some good ideas, but doesn't work to move the story forward. I couldn't tell if the song's chosen had any particular significance, and whilst the cassette fast forwarding sounds were clever they didn't make a strong enough statement on their own. It was a fun reference to the famous phenomenon of Deadheads recording concerts though.

Deadheads is a really lovely, intimate night of theatre. The space is cosey with very limited seating so book early to make sure you get in! You will experience an evening of colourful psychedelia and wonderful performances telling an important story. Sometimes abuse does not leave bruises, and not everyone grows up.

3.5 Stars

Monday 13 June 2016

Hipbone Sticking Out - Theatre Review

What: Hipbone Sticking Out
Where: The Arts Centre – part of the 2014 Melbourne Festival
When: October 17 – 21
Written and Directed by: Scott Rankin
Performed by: Josie Alec, John Bennett, Dudley Billing, Patrick Churnside, Shaneena Clanton, Cho Cleary, Nelson Coppin, Max Coppin, Martin Crewes, Maverick Eaton, Sheridan Harbridge, David Hewitt, Pansy Hicks, Trevor Jamieson, Alison Lockyer, Maria Lurighi, Lex Marinos, Natalie O’Donnell, Allery Sandy, Shaeola Toby, Yumi Umiamare, Jaymee-lee Walters, and Michael Whalley.
Musical Direction by: Nate Gilkes
Choreography by: Adelina Larsson and Yumi Umiamare
Set Design by: Genevieve Dugard
Costumes by: Tess Schofield
Lighting by: Matt Cox
Sound by: Jeremy Silver
Video by: Benjamin Ducroz

Hipbone Sticking Out is a bold and brave and important piece of theatre.  It is produced by Big hArt in association with the Roebourne community and is being presented in the Playhouse as part of the Melbourne Festival.

Hipbone Sticking Out is one of the outcomes of the Yijala Yala Project.  The Yijala Yala Project uses arts and digital media skill-building to engage young people and keep them out of the juvenile justice system, working alongside and being guided by the Aboriginal community of Roebourne, WA.  The Yijala Yala project is an initiative of Big hART, a company dedicated to bringing artists and communities together on projects that empower positive change through the arts.  Their motto is ‘it is harder to hurt someone if you know their story’.

Hipbone Sticking Out tells the story of change forced on the Aboriginal community of Roebourne since colonisation.  The story is told from the viewpoint of John Pat who is on the verge of death.  He meets the ferryman, but this is not his mythology so he is confused. 

John Pat is a significant person in Australian history.  In 1983 John Pat, a member of the Roebourne community who was being groomed for leadership, died in custody.  He was one of many, but the uproar which arose from his death led to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Act one of Hipbone Sticking Out introduces Pat to Greco-Roman history, through the European expansion, and finally to Australian colonisation and first contact.  Many stories are told here.  The loss of latin is compared to the loss of indigenous languages. The spread of plagues is shown to be caused by the accidental sneeze of a colonist during an exchange of gifts.  The pearl is used as a metaphor for the European ‘itch’ to explore and colonise the world. The introduction of indigenous slavery through the pearl diving industry is exposed, and, most significantly, the Flying Foam Massacre.

This first act is full of humour, and is chock full of songs and physical comedy.  Rankin has created a ‘mashup’ of European performance styles and music to show the depth and extent of the history and influences that are involved in telling the story of Australia.  His point is that it all starts right from the beginning – from the beginning of our indigenous peoples and the beginning of ‘western’ civilization. 

One of the funnier moments is when Pluto (ruler of the underworld in Greek mythology) and Pat argue about the origin of racism.  Pluto insists that racism was invented by the Greeks and Pat argues that Aboriginals invented it 40 000 years earlier than that. 

The first act is full of this kind of irreverent humour.  Most of the time the butt of the joke falls on the Europeans, but the Roebourne community believe that the way forward is through maragutharra – working together, so there is a little bit of poking fun at themselves as well.  Rankin is exploring what we all have in common rather than looking for differences, so that we can find that way forward together.  I admit, though, there are definitely a few barbs that hit home hard for immigrant Australians.

The second act is a bit less successful dramatically.  This act is full of statistics, Royal Commission proceedings, and prosthelatizing.  There is a lot of information to get across so Rankin very cleverly uses Brechtian epic thatre techniques and I was very strongly reminded of the final scene in The Exception and The Rule. In the end I thought the first act was a bit too long, with not enough of the pertinent information and too many irrelevant ‘cute’ performance techniques, and the second act carried too much of the information and needed some livening up.
Dugard’s set is grand, with a slanted parquet rostrum and a large stone arch reminiscent of Greece or Rome.  The rostrum is exquisite, with seating coming in and out, sections which come apart, and clever references to the land and boats. 

The arch and the backdrop created surfaces for Ducroz’s videography.  The videography was perhaps a bit overwhelming.  It was clever, but it sometimes just felt like an MTV music clip.
Schofield’s costumes are clever and fun, and really help us to understand what is going on as people come on and off stage continually representing different time periods and cultures.

As I said at the start, Hipbone Sticking Out is brave and bold, but there are a lot of ideas going on.  It needs a bit more dramaturgy to completely work.  It is a funny and beautiful play though, and the message is wonderful.  The Roebourne community believe that the past and the future are one continuum, that heritage rests in the hands of the young people ‘now’, and that the way forward for our country is maragutharra – working together.

4 stars

A Piece For An Odd Place & The Want - Music Review

What: A Piece For An Odd Place & The Want
When: February 5-8
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Created by:  The Stain
Directed by:  Anni Davey
Performed by: Cleomantra Cutcher, Penny Ikinger, KT Prescott, The Stain, The 50ft Queenie Choir, Tomoka Yamasaki, and Rebekah Zechner.
Lighting by:  Simon Coleman

I am just going to say it.  This performance was one of the most rousing, beautiful, energetic and intelligent experiences I have had in years.  The Stain are presenting two of their works at La Mama Courthouse this weekend.  The first is a short performance art creation aptly named A Piece For An Odd Place, which is then immediately followed by an homage to music women of modern history in The Want.

I interviewed Jo Franklin and Francesca Sculli, the two creative drivers of this amazing performance ensemble, for M.A.F. earlier this week but it did not prepare me in any way for how truly mind blowing this performance would be.  I have news for everyone – performance art is back, baby!

A Piece For An Odd Place begins with Helen Tuton (The Stain drummer) creating a simple 4/4 beat on the drums, and Sarah Blaby (special Stain basist) and Franklin overlaying sonic distortions in a very non-melodic fashion.  It was exciting to be taken back to the days of distorted electric guitar.  It is such a unique and penetrating sound. 

The stage had a white table with a big bit of butchers paper on it.  The paper had the silhouettes of shapes drawn on similar to a tool shadow board – or outlines of dead bodies, and a huge tin bowl of water.  Moving/dancing around these objects are two nurses (Cutcher and Yamasaki) dressed and moving like marionettes. 

As you watch them perform the drumming starts to feel a bit like a heart beat and the dissonance feels like some sort of presage or warning.  Sculli enters looking oddly out of shape and uptight with hair tightly pinned, a pastel eighties style suit with massive shoulder pads and pants all the way up to her rib cage.  There is something reminiscent of Igor from Frankenstein in her demeanour and this carries through to the performance.

The nurses and Sculli start having cosmetics emerging from very unexpected places and they are placed on the table in their appropriate places, creating a work bench.  The nurses then leave.  I always feel there is something mesmerising about watching a woman put on makeup, and it is even more so as we watch Sculli do it without a mirror.

A Piece For An Odd Place is a work which deconstructs its themes, but it harkens to a time when deconstruction was to be feared and was not trendy.  Prescott creates some really exciting and interesting shadow puppetry and Coleman’s lighting is precise and absolute perfection in this piece.  Warning – A Piece For An Odd Place contains nudity.

The Want is an amazing concert style theatrical performance with all the drive and energy of rebellious music from the sixties, seventies, and early eighties (yes, there was rebellion in the eighties...).  The Stain created this performance about ‘women who were pioneers in rock music and punk’. 

In my interview with them, Franklin and Sculli explained that for them punk is about women who challenge and dare to be outside the mainstream.  Amidst an amazing line up of music and guests there is a plethora of video and audio snippets of women we have all heard of, even if we don’t know there work well:  Souxsie Sioux, Chrissi Hynde, Annie Lennox...  There is an amazing speech from Patti Smith and a wonderful mashup homage to Suzi Quattro.

This is not merely a tribute concert though.  This is still performance art and there is socio-political commentary through the work.  The Stain have created a feminist piece, but not a mysandronic one.  This is a performance honouring female cultural elders.

Rebekah Zechner (from Bracode) does a guest appearance giving us one of the most rousing renditions of She Bop I have ever heard, and The Stain contextualise this song within the pop landscape in a way that was revelationary for me.  It turns out that my Suzi Quattro/Cindy Lauper/Divinyls CD’s may indicate that I am really quite punk at heart after all – in terms of punk being a liberation of the female.

Penny Ikinger – guitar virtuoso and fuzz queens - gives a mesmerizing performance on what is probably the oldest electric guitar I have ever seen.  Oh, but the sound is amazing and authentic.  That very unique sound of amp distortion and electronic feedback, when handled by a master cannot be ignored.  Over the top of her playing is a voice over explaining that playing the electric guitar is a right for men, but must be earned by women.  Meantime, Ikinger is almost masturbating with the strings as she creates this intricate sonic landscape.

The music in the show are covers, but I have to say that the interpretation of Patti Smith’s ‘Because The Night’ is positively soulful in its rendition, and a similar approach is given to the Divinyl’s ‘Boys In Town’.  The Stain are an amazing band.  I want to say Tuton is one of the best drummers I have ever heard, but that implies that maybe the rest of the musicians are somehow lacking – they are not!  This is an amazing music ensemble.  Franklin’s vocal harmonies are also as surprising as they are impactful.

The Want does not get trapped in the past either.  It tracks the traditions right through to modern times and their homage to Pussy Riot is powerful and moving and unforgettable – just like Pussy Riot themselves.  Joined on stage by The 50ft Queenie Choir – a collection of the most beautiful women and singers of all shapes and sizes – a storm builds and then erupts.  A storm that cannot be denied and demands continuation into the future.

Everybody should see The Stain perform.  To see is to gain insight into womanhood in all it’s glory and passion and despair.

5 Stars

Glory Box La Revolucion - Circus Review

What: The Glorybox La Revolucion
Where: Melba Spiegeltent
When: Aug 20 – Sept 13
Performed by: Mama Alto, Miss Chief, Holly Durant, Moira Finucane, Yeshewambtat Maharete, Natasha May, Lily Paskas, Clare St Clare, Rockie Stone, and Azaria Universe.
Set by:  Barrie Michael Baxter and Isaac Lummis
Costumes by:  Isaac Lummis and Tirion Rodwell
Sound by: Adam Hunt and global influences
Visual Art by: Jason Ebeyer, Brydee Ray Smith, Lin Tobias, and Josh Weeks
Salon Manager: Nic Dorwood

So, I need to begin this review by saying wow. Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow! The Glorybox La Revolucion returns to Melbourne for an unfortunately short season at the beautiful Melba Spiegeltent and it is truly roof raising.

I had the opportunity to interview Finucane a couple of weeks ago and she told me that Glorybox began as an idea 11 years ago, which inaugurated as The Burlesque Hour.  Over that time the ideas and concepts of the show have evolved but never changed. 

The elements of the show are constantly in flux, with performers of the calibre of Yumi Umiamare having taken part in the past.  This incarnation of the show is just a headline of amazing talent.  It is not even worth trying to single out anyone, the line up is so phenomenal.

During our interview, it became clear that what inspires Finucane is acceptance and freedom for people to be who they are and to revel and glory in that and to be celebrated for that.  This is what The Glorybox La Revolucion is about.

Every act in this burlesque/cabaret/circus event is part of a meta-statement about individuality, acceptance and celebration.  It leans towards a female dialogue, but in many ways it is more about humanity.  The big question the show addresses is what is it to be female, what is it to be male, and more importantly what is it to be human?

With Alto, we see man as woman, in Finucane we see woman as man. Stone gives us strength as femininity, and St Clare is the ultimate siren chanteuse.  All of these figures are a dialogue on womanhood and manhood – our perceptions, our biases, and our acceptances.

Stone, a beautiful pixie woman from the front, has lats of steel when you see her from behind, and her chair stack act and blind static trapeze are heart stopping.  ‘Sauce’ (which had me mulling and musing for days) with Finucane and St Clare is a tender commentary on a broken heart – in particular, I think the heart of a mother. Alto was channelling Barbara Streisand as she performed ‘Wild Is The Wind’ atop the glistening black baby grand.

The first act was good, but the second act is mind blowing.  I guarantee you have never seen anything like Stone’s ‘Molly Bashful’, and as the cast give our raincoats for Finucane’s ‘Her Majesty The Dairy Queen’ there was raw uncertainty and anticipation in the audience, as well as an understanding that if they are handing them out you better put one on!

The second act begins with the introduction of a wonderful new dancer from Tennant Creek, May.  She performs ‘Desert Harmony’ with Paskas and Durant and it is a perfect segue from the interval with energy, surprise, precision and originality to match the best. 

I also have to comment on Universe’s ‘Pearls’.  An irreverent and hilarious commentary on the impossibility to keep up with everybody else’s demands and expectations.

The grand finale is Finucane’s ‘The Coffee of No Regrets’.  You really need to hear this monologue for yourself, but I will say that you will be paying attention to how hot your latte is forevermore.

The audience was in an uproar for almost all of the second act, screaming and cheering all the way. Each time trying to express their growing appreciation for what they were experiencing.  You will never see anything like this again in your life, so make sure you don’t miss it.  Seriously. Go!!!!!!

5 Stars

My Life In The Nude - Cabaret Review

WHAT: My Life In The Nude 
WHERE: fortyfivedownstairs
WHEN: 16-27 July
Written and performed by Maude Davey
Directed by Anni Davey
Design by Isaac Lummis
Lighting by Bronwyn Pringle.

The atmosphere of the audience as they entered the theatre for this show was one of eagerness and excitement.  This season of My Life In The Nude is an encore, by popular demand, of the original La Mamma production in 2013.  The show was a sell out success then, and will undoubtedly be one again at fortyfivedownstairs.

fortyfivedownstairs can often feel like a chasmic space, but the room has been cordoned off and, as a result, a great sense of intimacy is created.  The lush red velvet curtains and cabaret tables set around the stage make the room warm and inviting and bring to mind cabaret venues of old.  The stage is a simple thrust catwalk but the attention to detail is wonderful, including glitter on the edges of the stairs.  An aura of plush decadence has been created.  Maude points out the resemblance of the stage curtains to female genitalia at one point in the performance.  Isaac Lummis’s design is breathtaking, yet simple and works to support all aspects of the show.  The costumes are also outstanding – my personal favourite being the gorilla suit with booby tassles.

My Life In The Nude is not only a retrospective of Maude’s career as a burlesque artist, but is also a commentary on it as well as being the next chapter in the conversation she has always strived to engage in on how we look at the female body.  In this sense, Maude’s work is more classic burlesque than American burlesque.  It is not explicitly sexualised or deliberately titillating.  For most of the show Maude is in the nude (with some amazing accessories at times), but perhaps her strongest statement about the female body comes when she performs as a man.

The show is in two acts with an interval.  The first half works like a ‘best of’ highlights reel of Maude’s career.  The second act is more pointed and poignant, and is where we really get to see who Maude is as a woman and as an artist.  The entire show is a raucous, rollicking night of fun and laughter, with the audience being dragged into the hilarity at various points.  You never know what is coming until it happens.  The audience spent the entire night switching between bellyaching laughter and riotous applause. 

5 Stars

Sunday 12 June 2016

Have I No Mouth - Theatre Review

What: Have I No Mouth
Where: The Coopers Malthouse – part of the 2014 Melbourne Festival
When: October 10 – 13
Written & Directed by: Feidlim Cannon & Gary Keegan
Performed by: Ann Cannon, Feidlim Cannon, and Erich Keller
Costumes by: Emma Downey
Lighting by: Sarah Jane Shiels
Sound by: Jack Cawley
Video by: Kilian Waters

Have I No Mouth is being presented as part of the Melbourne Festival at the Coopers Malthouse until October 13.  This play is the creation of the Irish company BrokenTalkers which formed in 2001 and who have gone on to impress the world with their innovative approach to theatre making.

BrokenTalkers are all about making accessible theatre.  For them that means performing works in diverse places but more importantly, creating work with a diverse group of collaborators.  They source their skills and stories from the real world around them and although they do work with other professional artists, their main aim is to bring authenticity to the work which means they also use people who are not connected to performance making or even the arts when it is appropriate.

Have I No Mouth is the perfect example of this.  The story is that of Feidlim Cannon and his Mum, Ann, as they struggle to come to terms with the death firstly of Feidlim’s baby brother and then his father.

Rather than write a play and have actors perform, the protagonists are the real people involved.  Thus, the cast consists of Feidlim, his Mum Ann, and their real therapist, Keller.

Do not misunderstand.  This is an incredibly well structured and well performed work.  The tone of the piece is that of being a part of the therapy process. As such it does not require heightened emotions or any formal acting form.  The point is the story being told and the relationships being examined. The inherent naturalism and reserve that comes from not just non-performers, but the real people involved, sets exactly the right tone for the work. 

The staging itself is a fairly standard modern configuration with clusters of furniture around the stage which will evidently become acting spaces for various scenes.  There are random props on each of the three tables, a microphone on a stand, two cardboard cut outs of children, and a wall which becomes the projection screen.  However, right from the start of the show, we realise that this is not going to be quite the traditional theatre event we may have come to expect.

A film begins with a glass of Guinness in every shot.  We don’t know how to interpret this although it seems humorous and then Feidlim walks out and explains that this is a film he made to commemorate his father’s death.  Then we get all serious but he has built in a humorous exchange with the film and this allows the audience to understand that we are allowed to laugh even in serious moments.  This is perhaps the moment we really understand that these are Dubliners before us.

Feidlim then introduces us to his mother and his therapist.  Before the story kicks in the therapist takes us through some relaxation techniques, and later he teaches us about anger balloons.  The sound of a room full of balloons ‘farting’ as the air is released may very well be the funniest bit of audience interaction I have ever been a part of!

We are then placed inside the therapy sessions with Feidlim and Ann.  The reason this works so well is that they have managed to retain the immediacy and spontaneity of the mother and son interactions so you do not feel like you are watching a rehearsed piece of theatre.  This is voyeurism at its best and without the guilt.  We are given permission to listen in and are spoken to directly at various points.  We are the witnesses to the pain and, potentially, healing.

As the show progresses we come to understand many things about grief, but one of the most poignant lessons is the sense of betrayal and distrust which is engendered in children by the death of a family member.  The anger lies on so many levels: anger that the person has gone away, anger that others let it happen, anger about how and when you are told.  The saddest part is that it doesn’t really go away.  You just have to learn to let it out slowly like a farting balloon, rather than letting it ‘pop’ destructively.

The most illuminating and climactic moments are in the ‘Frankenstein’ scenes.  Enacting transference, the therapist becomes the missing father, and Feidlim orders him about and fights with him, and pours Guinness on him, and dances with him, and asks to be hugged.  It is here that we understand the true depth of loss and pain.

Cannon and Keegan have created a real masterpiece with Have I No Mouth.  The balance of fact and pathos is just perfect and it avoids that hairy trap of indulging in overemotionalism.  The production elements are also perfectly balanced. 

5 stars

Dirtsong - Music Review

What: Dirtsong
When: 26 March
Where: Darebin Arts & Entertainment Centre
Performed by:  Black Arm Band and Paul Dempsey

Black Arm Band is a collective of renowned indigenous singers, musicians, performers, and actors.  They showcase and celebrate Australian aboriginal music, experience, and identity.  First presented to sold out houses as part of the 2009 Melbourne Festival, Dirtsong is a powerful musical journey through Australia’s cultural heartland inspired by the words of Alexis Wright (Miles Franklin Award winner).

Set against a stunning backdrop of moving imagery and text, the performance features unforgettable songs performed in 11 different Aboriginal languages from some of the most extraordinary performers in the land who are backed by an exciting ensemble of Melbourne’s finest jazz musicians.  Guest artist Paul Dempsey also brings us some English language protest songs as part of the concert.

Although Dirtsong is a concert, and is set against a backdrop of stunning moving imagery and text including ‘elders singing their country’, ‘spirit talking to you, it comes in dreams’, ‘sitting in the land, this land she’s alright’, and ‘we are made the same, you and I’.  The screen visuals dominate the background all in black and white and grey.  Just as the land dwarfs us humans, the images dwarf the band and set them in stark silhouette against images of country and people and communities.

The visuals do not work in isolation, however.  The songs and music, performed by an array of featured artists including Emma Donovan, Deline Briscoe, Ursula Yovich, Trevor Jamieson, Yirrmal, and Mark Atkins entwine with the images so that there is no real separation.  The early morning mist seems to seep out of the film and onto stage although there is no smoke machine as Donovan croons her gentle melody.

Most of the songs are in indigenous languages but music transcends language and we, the audience, are able to travel this journey with the musicians on stage without translation.  The songs sung in Dirtsong are songs of love, songs of sorrow and loss, songs of celebration, and – yes - a few songs of anger, rebellion and resolve (although not accusation).  I was able to recognise a melody which has been performed by Christine Anu in English – ‘My Island Home’.  In this performance, sung in its original language, this song is beyond powerful.  It reaches into the soul and sends shivers down the spine.

The Black Arm Band are a phenomenal group of musicians including some of the best in our country:  Andrea Keller, Nigel Maclean, Julien Wilson, Michael Meagher, Greg Sheehan, and Genevieve Lacey form an ensemble of incredible talent and finesse.  I have to mention that they are ably supported by live sound engineer John O’Donnell whom I consider to be one of the great masters in his craft.  O’Donnell is able to evoke every nuance and detail out of each instrument and voice and allow their personality and glory to be experienced - an achievement aspired to by many but realised by very, very few.

As I mentioned earlier, Dirtsong is not just a concert.  It is a journey and a performance.  There is a really fun moment in the show when a drum kit it constructed from back yard paraphernalia in front of an amazing graphic of an old wreck of a car.  These paint tins and hubcaps and buckets and miscellanea end up forming a complete instrument and there ensues a fantastic drum battle between the formal kit and this back yard kit.  I have to say, that the sound out of the back yard kit was pretty deadly!

It was fascinating to watch the incredible array of instrumentation.  It ranged across generations and continents.  Atkins was on the didgeridoo, playing with Maclean on electric violin and side by side with a grand piano and a recorder!  The true talent of The Black Arm Band is their ability to blend these seemingly diverse influences, along with the indigenous language and voice to create beauty and harmony – a wish for the future perhaps?

The show ends with a reconnection to the land.  A pile of red dirt has been sitting down stage centre for the whole show, and as the performance comes a full circle, Jamieson and Yirrmal sit with it and intertwine with it in honour and joy before the final songs are sung – ‘sitting in the land’, ‘land strong with law’.

Sadly, the Black Arm Band only had one performance at Darebin, but are off to Tasmania for two more shows this weekend.  I strongly recommend that you get on a ferry and head down there.  This show really is worth making the effort to see for so many reasons not the least of which is that it is magnificent.

The Dream - Dance Review

What: The Dream
When:  June 4 -13
Where: Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre
Choreographed by:  Frederick Ashton
Musical Direction by: Nicolette Fraillon
Composed by: Erik Satie (MII), Cesar Frank (SV), Felix Mendelsson (TD)
Performed by: Dimity Azoury, Benedicte Bemet, Joseph Chapman, Brett Chynoweth, Noah Cosgriff, Madeleine Eastoe, Chengwu Guo, Rudy Hawkes, Kevin Jackson, Ako Kondo, Natasha Kusen, Natasha Kusch, Heidi Martin, Cristiano Martino, Christopher Rodgers-Wilson, Brett Simon, Jacob Sofer, Sharni Spencer, Jane Wood, Jared Wright and artists of the Australian Ballet.
Design by:  Frederick Ashton (MII) Sophie Frederovitch (SV), David Walker (TD)
Lighting by:  William Akers (MII), John B Read (SV & TD)

Photo by Daniel Boud
This season of The Dream produced by The Australian Ballet and performed in the State Theatre at the Arts Centre Melbourne, is a celebration of mid century English choreographer Frederick Ashton. Comprising of three ballets, the show begins with Monotones II (1966), then there is Symphonic Variations (1946), and after interval there is the main feature The Dream (1964) which is his interpretation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream.

As you can see, the programme is not a chronological journey through Ashton’s choreography, rather it is a journey from sparseness to ornateness, from simplicity to complexity – in form and aesthetic and technique.

Monotones II began the evening with a pas de trois.  The stage was bare – just black drapes and black dance floor.  The dancers, in contrast were in white, full body unitards including hoods.  Whilst they were very evocative of the era in which they were designed, they also reminded me of the running suits which were popular in the 2000 Olympic Games.  The aesthetic of the design of this ballet echoing the aerodynamics demanded in athletics .

The three dancers (Kusen, Simon, and Wright) wove wonderful pictures together, freezing at certain moments to allow the beauty of the shape and form to be celebrated and enjoyed by the audience.  The white costumes on the black background were demanding of perfection as any imperfection would stand out.  Kusen was graceful and glorious.  One of the male dancers was always lagging, which was a shame because if their synchronicity had been better, this would have been a breathtaking piece.  One of the important aspects of the aesthetic and choreography is the lack of the individual, which makes the perfection of the dancers so imperative.  It was still an amazing dance, and Sartie’s music is always awe inspiring.

Symphonic Variations is a fun dance. It is a sextet and none of the dancers ever leave the stage, making it as much of an athletic challenge as a work of grace and beauty.  The dancers (Kusch, Martino, Azoury, Chynoweth, Kondo, and Rodgers-Wilson) form fascinating pairings, groupings and chains as they weave with the music.  The set is a beautiful green-gold with black lines reminiscent of music notation lines writhing with the dancers.

This dance is more of a technical exercise than an emotional journey.  The dancers really seem to just be responding to the music which is fun, although not entirely engaging for the audience.  Just when I was starting to become distracted, the music changed into a fun and light gambol, and the dancers responded.  I couldn’t help have a little laugh as I got swept up in the joy of dance the dancers appeared to be experiencing.

Symphonic Variations was choreographed in 1946 and the design and style of the ballet does echo that period in history.  Ashton had just come back from WWII and England was recovering from the war and trying to regain its belief in joy and beauty, yet not quite having a clear sense of direction and context.  In many respects this sums up the ballet.

There are certain choreographic signatures with Ashton’s work, in particular the use of the arms and the upper body, and we see this quite starkly in Ashton’s earliest piece.  Apparently Ashton’s choreography has been called ‘bendy’, but I think what they are trying to say is that he insists his dancers use their upper body extensively to convey meaning.  The dancers arms and legs are always in an extended pose, and the head and shoulders are used to communicate.  He is also a fan of intricate foot work, which is displayed so much more effectively if the dancer bends at the waist rather than the hip.

After the interval we came back to the beauty elegance and humour of The Dream.  I was fascinated to note that this ballet pre-dates Monotones II by two years, and it makes me wonder whether Monotones II was a reaction to the grandeur of The Dream.

The Dream is a beautiful ballet, but more importantly it is funny.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s funniest plays and also one of his funniest.  To not live up to the original would be a serious problem, but Ashton’s ballet does not falter for a single second.

Walker’s forest, the world in which the ballet takes place, is imposing.  Great, dominating tree trunks, aged to infer hundreds of years of growth.  Exposed root systems, corded up into the trunks demonstrate the naturalness and intertwining of magic with the human world, and a large full moon overlooks the shenanigans of the night.  The costumes are equally as gorgeous, with glittering green fairies, and candy coloured English lords and ladies.  Puck (Guo) is spritely in his half human form, and the rustics are charmingly clad in farm garb.

One of the great achievements of this ballet is that it requires men to dance en pointe.  Chapman dances the part of Bottom, and his ass is so funny you just can’t stop laughing.  Having this character en point is a genius move by Ashton as it really helps us to feel the oddity and unreality of the entire scenario.  Eastoe (Titania) and Chapman dance a truly wonderful duet, and whilst the entire ballet is totally engrossing, for me these two really were the highlight of the evening.

The Dream is a wonderful ballet programme which highlights an important era in modern ballet - both from a design and choreographic perspective.  And if you don’t really care about that stuff it is still an evening of beautiful dance which has laughs aplenty and will leave you clapping until your hands hurt.

5 Stars

Close To The Bone - Circus Review

What: Close To The Bone
Where: The Melba Spiegeltent
When: December 11-21
Directed by:  Debra Batton with Jo-Ann Lancaster and Simon Yates
Performed by: Beau Dudding, Ben Hendry, Spenser Inwood, Lilikoi Kaos, Nathan Kell, Olivia Porter, Kyle Raftery, Ania Reynolds, Matt Wilson, and Dale Woodbridge-Brown.

Close To The Bone is the newest show in the Circus Oz repertoire and is one of their boutique series.  Being performed at the Melba Spiegeltent, Close To The Bone has been directed by Associate Director Debra Batton and co-directed by Jo-Ann Lancaster and Simon Yates from Acrobat.

Yates and Lancaster have been Artists in Residence with Circus Oz for several short stints over the course of 2014.  A tour was cancelled and so Circus Oz decided to create a boutique show specifically for the Spiegeltent.  Batton, who had co-directed the most recent Circus Oz big top show But Wait...There’s More was invited to create the show with Yates and Lancaster and a very special synergy was born.

Acrobat has always eschewed performance escalation and the need to create narrative for circus performance.  At its roots Circus Oz was also founded on the idea of breaking performance rules.  Together, these two creative engines of the circus world have come up with a show that is visceral, honest, and spine tingling.

Close To The Bone celebrates the true nature of the spiegeltent environment which is one of closeness, intimacy, sharing, and – to a certain extent – claustrophobia.  Entering the space I couldn’t help but think how small it is.  The seating is intimate and is set out right up to the tiniest catwalk and stage.  As I looked at the stage all I could think was ‘how on earth can circus feats and acrobatics take place here?’

Despite the proximity and scarcity of space we got a full show however.  We were presented with a full 8 piece live band, aerial acts, juggling, acrobatics, clowning, hoops, unicycles – all of it.  Over the course of an hour I experienced as many moments of awe and wonder and amazement as I have at any big top or main stage circus act I have seen.  In some ways it was even more impactful. 

The tiny stage area meant that there were a lot of balancing and acrobatics which were suspended beyond the stage, right over the heads of the front rows of the audience.  The immediacy of the idea that the performers could fall on an audience member at any moment created a tension all on its own.  Add to that the fact that you see every straining muscle and drop of sweat on the performers faces and you experience the thrill of knowing this is real, it is happening, and every moment holds risk.

One of the things I personally love about traditional circus is the idea that everyone in the troupe does everything – rigs the tents, man’s the stalls and food stands, and performs in the shows.  Close To The Bone takes us back to those days.  Everyone on stage was involved in the mechanics of the performance as well as the artistic elements.  Almost everyone was in the band at some point.  Even Kaos played the squeezy toy turkey leg, and Dudding played the shoes.  Wilson, when not climbing tiny balancing chairs and performing high falls, was rocking out on his base guitar and dressing other performers.  Kaos swept the stage when not blowing up balloons or twirling hula hoops in incredibly mind-boggling ways.  Dudding worked as the show rigger as well as performing acrobatics.  To me this exemplified the bones of circus – an artform always on the edge, surviving through its inventiveness and commitment.  The circus folk living close to the edge, close to the bone.

Batton, Yates and Lancaster were interested in stripping away the expectations of a Spiegeltent performance.  The small stage space, the multi-tasking of the performers, and keeping them out on stage the whole time all contributed to the success of this objective.  The ten performers had to constantly manoeuvre their way around each other and the equipment to get where they needed to be.  Costume changes were done on stage, getting under the feet of the band as they played, equipment was being set up as another performance was still in progress.  You would think all of this activity would just produce chaos, but it was so well choreographed it just added to the immediacy and exposure of the performance.

The stage backdrop was a traditional theatrical star cloth, and the catwalk, whilst small, was set up immaculately upon entry.  There was festoon lighting strung up on the tent roof and all the seating was arranged perfectly.  Everything was set to give the impression of a sophisticated cabaret/burlesque act which would be a typical Spiegeltent performance.  Even the Chinese Pole at the end of the catwalk suggested burlesque.  Over the course of the evening, Close To The Bone slowly chipped away at this facade through simple techniques like not having a back stage, having the band march through the audience rather than staying on stage, and Porter doing her unique hacky sack juggling act on the tables over the audience. 

Traditionally circus performers alway ‘present’ at the end of tricks and it is the audiences job to respond with applause.  I find this creates a disjointedness to the shows.  In Close To The Bone we did not have to worry about this.  The performers went about their performances almost as if we weren’t even there.  They went from trick to trick almost without pause, and transitioned between acts with a seamlessness that would be the envy of most theatre genres.  What this allowed for us, the audience, was the chance to just stay in that entranced sensation of awe.  We were allowed to remain in syncopation with the performers which freed us up to find our own rhythm of response as an audience.  I found this to be incredibly liberating and as a result my responses were more heartfelt and energetic.

The ensemble had a lot of fun with deconstruction.  Wilson deconstructs the burlesque genre by making the only moment of nudity male.  Then, instead of stripping, he actually gets dressed as his aerial act takes place.  Kaos and Kell have fun tossing and catching hula hoops, but instead of the hoops being thrown over her head, Kaos has Kell throw them up her body from the floor.  Spenser explores what it is to be a star, beginning as a Christmas tree and then stripping down to explore star images in her aerial hoop routine.

One of the funnier moments is when Reynolds and Raftery are playing a duet on an upright piano and the troop start doing acrobatics all over the piano, constantly getting in the way and standing on the keys and making all sorts of discordant noises.  Again, that marvellous and elegant deconstruction of expectations at work!

I could go on forever because this show really is that good.  Close To The Bone is brilliant and shouldn’t be missed. 

5 Stars

THE LONG GAME - Theatre Review

WHAT: The Long Game WHEN: 28 - 13 July 2024 WHERE: TW Explosives Factory WRITTEN BY: Sally Faraday DIRECTED BY: Krystalla Pearce SET BY: Dav...