Monday, January 30, 2006

Keene by name...

New York playwright and author George Hunka recently posted a quotation from Australian playwright Daniel Keene on his web log Superfluities, here. Read it and weep, for joy and despair.

If theatre does nothing but comfort and confirm those who witness it, then theatre is unnecessary. We have commercial television to comfort and confirm us, to deny history, to deny memory, to cheapen pain, to teach us the text of our denials. We have the tabloid press to support our ignorance, to absolve us, to increase our distance from "The World," to reduce tragedy to pathos, to teach us the text of our denials. They both know just how much truth we can tolerate. They have their sales figures to prove it. They calculate their figures in hell (do you remember hell? It's where the terminally ignorant and the completely self satisfied recognize each other; they get on like a world on fire).

Theatre companies are beginning to do the same.

They are selling us ourselves. The way we would like to be. Our world only what we can touch; our living room ceilings are our heavens.

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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Sydney Festival: The Go-Betweens

Danger in the Past: The story of the Go-Betweens. Robert Forster and Grant McLennan in concert. Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay. January 16, 2006.

(see also “Further, longer, higher...” but no older. Go-Betweens frontman Grant W McLennan dead at 48.)

Punters who were hoping Robert Forster and Grant McLennan would “relive two amazing decades through stories and special renditions of their favourite songs” (as promised by the Sydney Festival guide) undoubtedly left this concert disappointed.

Half the Go-Betweens material played was new, i.e. post-reformation. A third of the set consisted of songs written and recorded by Forster and McLennan, separately, in the decade after they parted company. Even the show’s title comes from one of Rob’s solo compositions.

The Go-Betweens back catalogue was hardly touched. Nothing from Send Me a Lullaby. Just ‘Cattle and Cane’ from Before Hollywood. A pair of songs from Spring Hill Fair. Nothing from Liberty Belle. One from Tallulah. Two from 16 Lovers Lane. None of the great early songs.

The few stories told were great, but gave us little or no historical context. Grant struggled to explain the significance for the band of ‘Poison in the Walls’, from the 2003 set Bright Yellow Bright Orange, and mention was made of the call Rob made to Grant (almost thirty years ago) which resulted in the formation of the band, but that’s pretty much where the storytelling ended.

Rob introduced a song with a rambling and funny anecdote about seeing Dragon’s singer Marc Hunter on the streets of Darlinghurst, 20-odd years ago, and told us about dating a woman who worked days. (That prefaced ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Friend’ from his solo album Warm Nights.)

Big Guy” Robert Forster, left, and Grant McLennan

The back story, in fact, was on sale in the foyer: David Nichols’ monograph on the band, a new edition of Clinton Walker’s cult book Inner City Sound and the Go-Betweens’ brand-new DVD/CD set That Striped Sunlight Sound in which Rob and Grant actually do relive two amazing decades through stories and special renditions of their favourite songs.

There, they call it acoustic stories: eleven songs from the first single ‘Lee Remick’ right up to the band’s “AM radio hit” ‘Finding You’ are introduced and contextualised... when and where the song was written, the significance of the song and time to the band, and so on. And each is played unplugged.

The Go-Between boys are nothing if not perverse; when the lights went down at the start of their Sydney Festival concert, Neil Diamond’s ‘I Am I Said’ started pumping! Grant and Robert are’s butch-femme duo. They make a virtue of disorder. Paradoxically, the smoothness of their playing of older material robbed it of some of its glory and made it oddly syrupy. “I’m not a playboy” sang Rob, wearing a red cravat, in the opening number. “Or a poet.”

Forster and McLennan played acoustic guitars throughout the set -- Forster made his pro debut at the piano and pulled out a classical guitar for another song prompting an olé from yours truly -- but the amplification was brutal. The harmonica was earsplitting. There was little dynamic or tonal range. Nor was there much in the way of dramatic range. No great anthemic renditions of ‘Karen’, say. No surprises. No embarrassing slide shows of Rob performing in a summer frock as he was wont to do. No golden oldie video clips of Grant with long, straw-coloured hair performing ‘Cattle and Cane’ live on Countdown after the band returned to Australia from London. No requests. (A call for ‘Bye Bye Pride’ was met with a glib “We’ve said goodbye to that.”) I was left hungry for less.

And, guys, bad mistake to send people out with Mama Cass singing “Make your own kind of music/Sing your own kind of song.” That’s what people were singing... all the way home.


Ham and cheese. Plus Grant McLennan, right.

Disclosure: In the early ’80s, The Go-Betweens dedicated a song to me. Red Epaulets. It wasn't very good.

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Friday, January 20, 2006

Sydney Festival and Melbourne concerts: Antony and the Johnsons with CocoRosie

Antony and the Johnsons with CocoRosie. State Theatre, Sydney, Friday January 13. Hamer Hall, Melbourne, Thursday January 19.

N.B. If you’ve landed on this page looking for a review of Lou Reed’s January 2007 concert performances of Berlin, with Antony and Sharon Jones, click here.

It’s easy to understate just how brilliant Antony’s first performances in Australia were, last January. Antony and his violinist from the Johnsons, Maxim Moston, replaced Laurie Anderson for the Hal Willner-produced Leonard Cohen tribute concerts, Came So Far For Beauty.

Antony even sang the same songs that Laurie Anderson had sung under the stars -- at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park -- nineteen months to the day earlier: ‘The Guests’ (from Cohen’s 1979 set Recent Songs) and ‘If It Be Your Will’ (Various Positions, 1984).

Despite being a virtual unknown here, despite being in the company of luminaries from various generations and genres, Antony ended the concert with the kind of ovation that headline acts ought to have. On home turf, Nick Cave initially had that adulation all to himself. We had come so far, it seemed, to worship at the altar of The Bad Seed himself.

Now, Australian audiences are anything but fickle, but Cave couldn’t have been less present if he had sent his performance in via a web camera. And when you’re performing with the likes of Rufus Wainwright, Jarvis Cocker, Beth Orton and the McGarrigles -- not to mention two of Cohen’s best backing singers -- you can’t afford to look lazy. And Cave did. (And I’ve been a fan of the man since Boys Next Door days, which made it all the more exasperating.)

But, no question, Antony was the audience favourite by the end of the night, because he was the exact opposite of Cave: generous, committed, utterly present. I still struggle to pin down what he did when he sang those two songs. In a ragged black sweater and his trademark ratty black wig -- jerking around like Joe Cocker -- Antony did something I’ve only ever seen musicians (a couple of concert pianists and a couple of cellists) and a vocal improviser do.

It’s something I imagine that Billie Holiday might have done when singing standards. It’s utterly responsive. Even though Antony was bound up tight in a complex and pre-determined big band arrangement, he delivered the songs as if he were creating them himself. On the fly. I was reminded, then, of something that was said about Holiday; that she “came to songs”... it sounds like a kind of annunciation, a visit from an angel.

I met Antony a few days after that first concert and found a gentle, inquisitive (and very blond!) man. More than just polite, genuinely curious and warm. He and his band, the Johnsons, have been touring constantly since then. It’s been a punishing tour schedule. In a single month, last year, Antony performed in no fewer than 24 cities in 8 countries: Italy, Belgium, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, France, Spain and Portugal. I spoke to him in Amsterdam, early in June, and he was flatlining.

But he returned to Sydney as headlining act. He and his band had the gorgeously blowzy State Theatre -- the huge but strangely intimate theatre that housed Sam Mendes new version of Cabaret a few years back -- all to themselves. For three dates. And in a brilliant screw-turn of fate, Antony’s first show was stolen by his support act, CocoRosie, who are almost as unknown here as Antony was last year.

CocoRosie (image © CocoRosie)

Two voices, sisters Sierra and Bianca Casady: the first is an operatically trained dramatic soprano who also does a remarkable impersonation of a trumpet with her lips and voice; the second is helium-high crooner, her voice a weird, doodling cross between (Lamb vocalist) Lou Rhodes and Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power). Various instruments: celtic harp, piano, guitar... A beat box drummer also does some passable classical Indian chanting. The sisters sing songs of romance and eros and mystery, often all at once. CocoRosie is another distant spiritual descendent, perhaps, of Jane ‘When I Was A Boy’ Siberry. But, then again, isn’t Antony himself?

Anyway, last Friday CocoRosie did the unthinkable. They turned polite impatience into rapt attention. After a handful of songs, there was even a trace of anxiety in the air. God, what if they stop? They sang about beautiful boys and wanting to be a housewife, and they closed with a groin-grinding invitation to come caress the body of the helium-voiced one, Bianca.

Bianca and Sierra Casady (Photo © 2004 Pierre Jelenc)

A hard act to follow, surely.

Antony’s performance that Friday the Thirteenth was unexpectedly diffident. Tense and agitated. Song arrangements were sometimes loose, sometimes brittle. ‘Cripple and the Starfish’ was the first and greatest disappointment of the night. The only song from the debut self-titled album to make the cut was gutted; the thin acoustic guitar line a poor replacement for the CD's whimpering opening cello phrase.

‘You Are My Sister’ was another disaster, late in the set, plodding by numbers through another inexplicably dumbed-down arrangement.

‘Spiralling’ stopped the rot by focussing our attention on Antony’s greatest asset, his voice. Here, he sang with thrilling openness and joyous ease. He sang beautifully all night, in fact, and the sound engineers -- happily -- didn’t get in the way. The amplification of his voice was crisp and precise. I wish I could say the same about the amplification of the drum kit or the strings.

In a couple of the songs, ‘For Today I Am A Boy’ was one, Antony sang harmonies over our memories rather than staying true to the original songs. That worked well -- surprisingly -- with ‘What Can I Do?’ Rather than miss Rufus Wainwright, who sings it on Antony’s CD I Am a Bird Now, we admired the French folk ballad arrangement. But ‘You Are My Sister’ is almost not worth doing without Boy George. At least not in its current form.

Leonard Cohen’s ‘The Guests’ has stayed in Antony repertoire -- “it’s barnacled itself to me” he joked in Melbourne -- and has been performed “every night” since. It’s still a mighty fine version, pale as it seems next to the still blood red memory of his very first performance of the song.

In a set of 18 songs, which included an encore of Lou Reed’s ‘Candy Says’, standout tracks included a cover of Moondog’s first ever round ‘All Is Loneliness’ (which was almost too emotional to endure), ‘I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy’ (the first song I ever heard of Antony’s, written when he was 21, and this was only the second time I ever heard it!), ‘Spiralling’ and the closing song ‘Hope There’s Someone’.

Antony (image ©

Word on the streets was that Antony’s next two Sydney shows were much improved on the first -- the one the critics all saw, alas! -- and that he was more relaxed and jokey.

At the very last minute -- and, well, we’re talking 75 minutes after doors opened -- I decided to try my luck at the sell-out Melbourne performance, the last major gig after a year on the road. Sure enough, an hour after the doors opened, thirty-odd tickets were returned by the promoter and released for sale. I scored row J, keyboard side.

I’m glad I went back. The balance was restored. CocoRosie were the diffident ones tonight, merely brilliant. The sound was harsh. This vast 2500-seater concert hall was too cold for the grrls, even if the audience was not.

Antony played exactly the same set in the same order (listed below) with just a single addition in the second half of the set. An experiment, he called it. He got all of the men in the audience to “ooo” a note, on cue, and all the women to “ooo” an adjacent note. Then, he sang a cappella “Trust your mother, trust your mother with your life...” with dazzling soft contributions from a mixed choir of two and a half thousand. It was a very special moment for all of us, Antony included.

As extraordinary a vocalist (and poet) as Antony is, he needs an arranger -- someone who can turn clouds of gossamer into filaments of gold -- and a much more exacting sound engineer. Maybe even a new band. Maybe it’s time he gave Hal Willner a call.


Antony (photograph by Svenson Linnert,
courtesy of Secretly Canadian)

Antony and the Johnsons concert playlist in Australia, 2006

01. You Stand Above Me
02. My Lady Story
03. Cripple and the Starfish
04. Everything is New
05. Dirt Will Crack Again
06. Spiralling
07. For today I am a boy
08. Man is the baby
09. All Is Loneliness (Moondog)
10. The Guests (Leonard Cohen)
11. Fistful of Love
Trust Your Mother [Melbourne only]
12. You are my Sister
13. I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy
14. What can I do?
15. Bird Guhl
16. Free at Last
17. Hope There’s Someone
18. Candy Says (Lou Reed) (encore)

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Friday, January 13, 2006

Sydney Festival: The Department

The Department. Jo Strømgren Kompani. Choreographed and designed by Jo Strømgren. Music and sound design by Lars Årdal and Jo Strømgren. Lighting design by Stephen Rolfe. Playhouse, Sydney Opera House. Season ends January 14.

Marxist playwright Stephen Sewell believed George Orwell’s 1984 was a parable about life in Australia under conservative Prime Minister Robert Menzies when he read the novel as a kid. Me? I thought it was an “against the odds” love story when I first encountered it, in my teens.

Given the look of Jo Strømgren Kompani's The Department (grey, Spartan and old-fashioned) and the sound of the words spoken (distinctly Eastern European), it would be hard not to interpret this highly physical piece from Norway as commenting on Big Brother-style regimes. This office is an evil hybrid of Kafka and Stalin with a gene or two spliced in from the bowler-hatted comic-strip bureaucrat Bristow. That said, The Department invites any number of weird and wonderful readings.

While not thumbing its nose against literal meaning entirely, the words spoken are gibberish. (And there are helpful warnings posted in the Opera House foyer to that effect, just in case audience members were thinking the Festival was too miserly to provide some kind of translation!) Like the singing in early releases by Icelandic band Sigur Rós, the language spoken (and sung) in this office is invented. (Sigur Rós call theirs ‘Hopelandish’!)

Jo Strømgren says of his company that it “is one of the very few theatre companies in the world uniquely dedicated to nonsense language.” And they’ve toured 40 countries to prove that gibberish is the ultimate lingua franca.

The Jo Strømgren Kompani

The word that springs to mind to describe the use of voices in The Department is ‘choreographed’. It’s anything but aleatoric. There’s no luck here, nothing random, nothing unscripted. The words and voices are as tightly notated as the movement.

But what on earth is going on in the office? There are four men in shirtsleeves. Three are in khaki-toned trousers and ties. A fourth, sitting at the manual typewriter, is in clothes that are marginally less military in appearance. It’s hard to tell if Karol is the most important or the least. Perhaps he is both. I imagined him to be some kind of poet-creator in a Cold Wartime regime. A token presence, perhaps, but a crucial one. Maybe a clever propagandist.

Into this environment, messages are piped in through an ancient message chute system. They prompt virtuosic little performances -- spoken and sung -- into a big old broadcast microphone. Each of these routines (with green light bulb on) prompts feedback from some terrifying Stalinesque superior, by phone, with a red bulb on.

There’s plenty of macho rivalry between the four. One of the funniest scenes has the boys pretending that the incoming message cylinders are grenades. They take turns leaping on the unexploded bomb, heroically, then use the cylinders to mime the stumps left behind after their limbs have been blown off.

We know they’re regimented. And, despite the horseplay, that they're tormented too. (Witness the terror when one officer accidentally uses a message to mop up a spilt drink only to have it disintegrate into an illegible scrap.) They sleep in the office, in overturned cabinets. When a bread stick appears, it isn’t even recognised -- initially -- as food!

Strømgren’s narrative sharpens our sensitivity to detail and to metaphor. A simple jacket becomes a symbol both of authority and freedom. Distinctions blur, too. Are we watching willful disobedience or rebellion against real tyranny? Whatever it is, it’s mighty funny to watch and a rare theatrical delight.


Choreographer Jo Strømgren

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Thursday, January 12, 2006

Sydney Theatre Company: The Cherry Orchard

The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov. Adapted by Andrew Upton. Directed by Howard Davies. Set and costume design by Fiona Crombie, lighting design by Damien Cooper, sound design and composition by Paul Charlier. Sydney Theatre Company. Wharf Theatre 1, Walsh Bay, until February 4.

N.B. If you have landed on this page looking for a review of The Lost Echo by Barrie Kosky and Tom Wright, click here for the review.

2006 is a landmark year for the Sydney Theatre Company. It’s the year in which artistic director Robyn Nevin’s Quixotic dream -- to create a full-time acting ensemble -- comes true.

A dozen actors employed full-time for two years is hardly a huge ask in international terms, but in the petrified Australian funding environment, even the largest and most successful performing arts companies have to raise a majority of their operational income at the box office. And we wonder why our flagship theatre companies look so much like commercial producers... it’s been a fiscal necessity for many many years.

Nevin’s Sydney Theatre Company is a good choice of beneficiaries for this (mostly NSW State Government) largesse. On paper, Nevin’s programming can seem quaint -- certainly conservative -- but on stage, her choices speak for themselves. They declaim for themselves, actually.

A few years back, the STC scheduled Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year. My reaction was a sneering: Why do it? But what hit the stage was so vital, so clear-sighted, that this crusty old play -- analysed to death in every Australian classroom -- looked every bit as important, insightful and compelling as Death of a Salesman. That 2003 season has to be the high-watermark of subsidised theatre in recent Australian history.

I credit Nevin entirely. She’s a “true believer” from the pre-television era who knows what theatre is capable of. She knows that theatre must be live -- absolutely in the moment -- and alive. Apart from being an outstanding actor, she’s a matchmaker par excellence. Subtly, she has influenced the creative teams who have worked for the STC under her leadership. Not just directors and set designers, but sound designers and composers, the works. Under Nevin, creative teams have been encouraged to dream great dreams. Ambitious dreams.

The first production by the new STC Actors Company will be David Hare’s translation of Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children. It will play at the company’s Wharf Theatre HQ from mid May. Nevin will direct. Unusually, perhaps, for this kind of ensemble, Nevin will not be the sole director of the company. (Barrie Kosky will direct the epic Lost Echo double feature in September, reviewed here.)

Several members of the Actors Company star in the STC’s current production of The Cherry Orchard. Pamela Rabe is a waspish and capricious Charlotta; Dan Spielman plays the boy philosopher Trofimov with a voice that could charm snakes; John Gaden is an avuncular Gaev with a vicious streak; Peter Carroll plays Firs as one bitterly resentful of his freedom.

Robyn Nevin (Ranyevskaya) and John Gaden (Gaev)
in The Cherry Orchard (Photograph: Heidrun Lohr)

Nevin herself takes the key role of Ranyevskaya. Watching her, one could imagine what it might be like to have Katharine Hepburn in the role... and not miss anything but the rasp.

Anna Torv is an iridescent presence -- quite wondrous -- as Anya. Lucy Bell plays Varya with a determined waddle and overstressed tautness. Always an impressive actor in ingénue roles, Bell has evolved into a remarkable and assured performer.

Anna Torv (Anya) and Dan Spielman (Trofimov)
in The Cherry Orchard (Photograph: Heidrun Lohr)

Designer Fiona Crombie's use of the Wharf 1 Theatre is remarkable. Her costumes, too, are lavish. Stunning. Particularly for the women.

Clearly, British director Howard Davies can take credit for the look, the staging and quality of the performances, but I am far less impressed by his overarching vision, if indeed there is one.

Adaptor Andrew Upton (who made a fair fist of Hedda Gabler, last year, and is a brilliant writer in his own right if his Cyrano is any indication) puts forward a strong thesis: each act is formally self-contained. The first, he writes, has “a dream-like incongruity.” The second is “reminiscent of a Shakespearean pastoral comedy.” The third is a “thundering farcical disaster” and the fourth “has a haunting absurdist quality.”

Davies does best with the pastoral act. The rest, especially the opening, feels oddly forced and strident.

I’m a firm believer that Chekhov should be approached with the same caution as Beckett and Pinter. Bad productions of any of these playwrights can be dire. Will be dire. Good productions are rare. I also believe -- from observation -- that it’s getting harder and harder to do Chekhov well.

The Cherry Orchard is the first play I ever saw performed live. (I was amazed, as a teen, that I could actually smell the cucumber that Charlotta munched on, from twenty rows back. This time around, the aroma was masked by Yasha’s fragrant cigar.)

A decade later, I saw Jean-Pierre Mignon’s production of the play for Anthill Theatre in Melbourne. Nothing I’ve seen in 20 years since rivals that production. This one is better than most other challengers (especially the woeful recent Queensland Theatre Company production and a passable MTC production some years back) but still oddly unsatisfying. It’s partly the writing. It’s partly a lack of vision and cohesion. And it’s partly the increasing lag between Chekhov’s world and ours. This production is like looking through the wrong end of the scope.


Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton to replace Robyn Nevin...


The Lost Echo by Barrie Kosky & Tom Wright (September 2006)
Doubt by John Patrick Shanley (February and April, 2006)

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Sydney Festival: all wear bowlers

all wear bowlers. Created and performed by Geoff Sobelle and Trey Lyford. Directed by Aleksandra Wolska. Film by Michael Glass, film score by Michael Friedman, costume design by Tara Webb, lighting design by Randy ‘Igleu’ Glickman, sound design by James Sugg. Vaudeville consultant David Shiner. Lennox Theatre, Riverside, Parramatta, until January 14. Then Sydney Opera House, January 16-21.

It’s a risky business trying to infer a festival director’s agenda from his first three shows but so far, in Fergus Linehan’s first Sydney Festival, clowning rules. Even in the rather somber Andersen Project, there’s room for some sight gags with invisible dogs -- sniffing, rooting, whizzing dogs -- in leashes that jiggle magically. Manically. Forget wysiwyg. In this kind of theatre, wysiwyp rules: what you see is what you project. Such is our desire to find a narrative in the world around (you only have to hold an empty picture frame up to nature to make a storybook image) that we apply what we know, and love, and see patterns emerging before our eyes... in festival programs as well as festival shows!

The opening image of all wear bowlers is pure Magritte: lights come up to reveal two bowler hats on an empty stage, as if the wearers might rise up from the floor beneath them. A scratchy black and white film creaks into life. Credits roll. The first scene, surely, is straight out of Beckett: a country road, a tree, two tramps. One of the pair strides out along a limb of the tree as if walking the plank, reminiscent of Waiting for Godot:
Vladimir: What do we do now?
Estragon: Wait.
Vladimir: Yes, but while waiting?
Estragon: What about hanging ourselves?
One way to kill time, sure. But our Yankee tramps are anything but suicidal. Their next move is more Woody Allen than Samuel Beckett -- more American than Irish -- they leap from the screen like so many Tom Baxters in The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Once on our side of the screen, they morph into a latter-day Laurel and Hardy, with the tap-dancing Trey Lyford playing the ingratiating one, and ventriloquist Geoff Sobelle playing the aggravated one. In a brilliant, extended scene, the bowler-hatted tramps leap back and forward into the film world. The timing is bogglingly precise.

When the celluloid melts into a sickening mess, the tramps are trapped on our side of the screen. They kill time clowning around, Sobelle does a death-defying stunt on a ladder, they terrorise the audience and do some miraculous things with eggs.

Highlight of the 80 minute show is an extended mime using an extra bowler hat. Here, the homage to Magritte is unambiguous. (Yes, there’s even a green apple!) Lyford and Sobelle sit side-by-side with arms hooked, taking turns to hold the third bowler aloft. A simple tilt of the hat is all the invitation we need to “fill the gap”; to turn empty air into invisible man… an ever-so-slightly bewildered man.

all wear bowlers is a slick and tremendously enjoyable show. It’s probably not one for the very young, but adults (and grandparents who remember how to suck eggs) will lap it up.


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Monday, January 09, 2006

Sydney Festival: The Andersen Project

The Andersen Project. Written, directed and performed by Robert Lepage. Produced by Ex Machina. Sydney Theatre, 22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay. January 8, 2006. Season ends January 15. Then London, January 26 to February 18.

“Yes, our time is the time of fairy tales.”
-- The Dryad (Hans Christian Andersen, 1868)

Robert Lepage is an ingenious stage and screen director, and his new one-man show (which has been seen in Copenhagen, Châlons and Paris since it premiered in Quebec City last March) is more proof of his extraordinary technical prowess and imagination. But the skill that distinguishes him from the auteur pack is his ability to create mood -- a raw and unforced intimacy -- often in the most inhospitable narrative terrain. (Five years on, I can hardly remember a single gruesome detail from Possible Worlds, Lepage’s first English language film, but the time-sucking stillness he and his crew created -- with actor Tilda Swinton -- still haunts me.)

For all its ingenuity, its live video-feeds and 3D projections, it’s puppetry, props and slick stage management, the scenes in The Andersen Project which leave an indelible emotional after-image are a definition of low-tech: a man calls his estranged partner of 16 years from a pay phone and asks her, quietly, why she wasn’t the one to “break the silence” between them; another man dances with, then undresses, a mannequin in an intensely erotic scene; a writer bids his creation farewell with a kiss...

Each of these scenes relies on the most basic theatre skills. Basic, perhaps, but still nowhere near common. A Grieg violin sonata is used in key scenes with easy effect. Stage craft is exemplary. The dialogue -- even though one-sided -- is natural, as vivid and balanced as Lepage’s acting.

Robert Lepage in The Andersen Project

His timing is almost literally breathtaking. When the long-haired Frederic, a Québécois songwriter turned librettist, slowly bends and kisses the mouth of Jean-Baptiste Clésinger’s sculpture Femme piquée par un serpent -- magnificently reproduced for this production by Patrick Binette -- we are unsure what, precisely, we are watching.

Is it Hans Christian Andersen breathing life into a tree spirit, one of his short story creations? Is it Andersen fantasising about Jenny Lind, “the Nightingale of the North”, one of the Great Dane’s passionate and unrequited loves? Is it Frederic coming to a realisation in the Musée d'Orsay that, like Andersen’s dryad, he must risk all -- risk life itself -- to be truly alive? It is, of course, all of these things. More.

Frederic Lapointe (self-proclaimed creator of “fast food literature”) is in Paris to write a libretto for Opéra Garnier. For the Québécois pop songwriter, Paris is the centre of the universe. (Andersen, likewise, sought the approval of Paris, of Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac.)

To write a libretto for a French opera company would “validate” him, he says. But Frederic leaves behind him a relationship in limbo; a relationship that invalidates him. His partner, Marie, is approaching 40 and wants children. He, meantime, has had a vasectomy without consulting her.

The songwriter (Lepage with creepily pink irises looks uncannily like Johnny Winter) and his drug-abusing rocker friend Didier have exchanged apartments while one writes opera in Paris and the other detoxes in Montreal.

The other key player in this narrative (and the only one to appear apart from Frederic himself) is an opera executive who commissions the adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Dryad into a fifty-minute piece of lyric theatre for children.

The executive is also caught in the vortex of a disintegrating relationship. He is sensitively portrayed as a civilized and cool-headed man -- slow to anger and loving with his young daughter Yseult -- yet he won’t hesitate to renege on Frederic’s contract if a more lucrative arrangement can be struck with a visiting team from the Met. Nor would he hesitate to have sex with a young man he meets. If only he were willing...

The Andersen Project is a kind of modern fairy tale in which mere human longings are destined to be thwarted. It’s dramatically slight, perhaps, but its insights are subtle and affecting.

Clocking in at 130 minutes without a break, The Andersen Project is an utterly absorbing experience. The longueurs are few and entirely forgivable. They’re more than outweighed by daring scenes that work unexpectedly well. The humour is good -- unforced and varied -- from easy routines about snap strikes in France to sight gags while Frederic walks a dog in the Jardin Tuileries on Paris’s right bank. It can be read as a satire on European funding of the arts, but it’s best apprehended as a study of middle aged manhood and the artistic temperament.

Robert Lepage is routinely criticised for allowing style to eclipse substance, a fairly easy criticism to make in a world hungering for substance. But here, medium and (very personal) message are in easy synch.

The revised version of Robert Lepage’s The Dragon’s Trilogy will be staged at this year’s Perth International Arts Festival, in February, then in Wellington, New Zealand, in March.

Jean-Baptiste Clésinger’s sculpture Femme piquée par un serpent
(image: Insecula, click on the image to enlarge)

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Sunday, January 08, 2006

Sydney Festival: Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. Chekhov International Theatre Festival in cooperation with Cheek by Jowl. Directed by Declan Donnellan. Designed by Nick Ormerod. Lighting Designer Judith Greenwood. Theatre Royal, 108 King Street, Sydney. January 7, 2006. Season ends January 14.

Also Craiova, Romania; The Barbican, London; Brooklyn Academy of Music, Arizona State University, Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and U.C. Berkeley. Dates and details below.

“I am all the daughters of my father’s house,
And all the brothers too...” (II, iv)

The last time Cheek by Jowl co-founder Declan Donnellan staged an all-male Shakespeare production, he chose As You Like It. That gave actor Adrian Lester the once in a lifetime opportunity to play a woman (Rosalind) disguised as a man, and say: “And I thank god I am not a woman.” (Lester went on to play the lead in a Peter Brook production of Hamlet... and he grew dreadlocks for the part!)

Adrian Lester as Rosalind in Cheek by Jowl's As You Like It
(photograph: John Haynes, click on the image to enlarge)

This time around, Donnellan has chosen Twelfth Night, which is performed here by a Russian company. If anything, Donnellan is an even greater star in the Russian-speaking world than he is in Britain. He directed Romeo and Juliet for the ultra-conservative Bolshoi, believe it or not, in 2004.

Twelfth Night, of course, has the same kind of bisexual vagaries as As You Like It. When the Duke of Illyria (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) finally kisses Viola (Andrei Dadonov) -- in her “woman’s weeds” at last -- you can hear hearts beating as well as the proverbial pin dropping. The thrill of the moment is restored.

But it is a moment of drunken violence that really nails Donnellan’s casting decision. When Sir Toby Belch (Alexander Feklistov) gives Olivia’s gentlewoman Maria (Ilia Ilyin) what Antony Hegarty would call a “fistful of love”, we’re appalled. And it makes no difference whatsoever that the maid on the receiving end is unmistakably a bloke in a wig and court shoes. And it’s worsened by the fact that Sir Toby quickly wins Maria's affections back with a rousing song, a few puffs on a ciggie and some good swigs of vodka.

Donnellan is no stranger to Australia with Cheek by Jowl productions visiting Adelaide (As You Like It in 1991), Perth (Measure for Measure, 1994), Melbourne (Duchess of Malfi, 1995) and Sydney (Othello, 2004) in recent years.

His house style is simplicity itself. The staging is airy and clean, props are few, scenes are cross-cut to introduce characters; there are few if any interpretative ‘tricks’. Clarity, emotional intensity and the thrill of the live moment are all.

Designer Nick Ormerod’s stamp is particularly clear in this production. In front of a creamy backdrop, black strips are lowered. Judith Greenwood’s well-judged lighting lends the stripes the breezy air of a bazaar. Blacks and shades of grey predominate in the first half, sallow creams and buttery yellows in the second.

It’s difficult, however, to say much about Donnellan’s through-line here except to point out that Malvolio was much more sympathetically played than we’re used to seeing.

Technical problems at the opening performance meant that the audience was too busy panicking -- trying to deal with the often subliminally-fast and poorly placed projected translations and follow the breakneck cross-cut action -- rather than delighting in the subtleties of the acting. The first act was hard work. Too hard. Many didn’t return.

Surtitles are an obvious improvement on the simultaneous translations that were de rigueur in Australian the early 1990s. (A single, uninflected, droning voice typically obliterated the sound of the actors’ voices... ugh! Only the Moscow Art Theatre’s signature production of The Seagull managed to survive the treatment.) But the titles, here, were too far to the left and right of the action be unobtrusive. Indeed, the one working projector was aimed at the ceiling of the stalls in the Theatre Royal... I’ve got the whiplash to prove it.

Musically, this production is an unalloyed delight. The Mariachi-style band (trumpet, guitars, tambourines, shakers, you name it) is utterly suited to the mostly benign comedy.

It’s not the best Twelfth Night we’ve seen -- David Freeman’s dark production for Bell Shakespeare Company (with Caroline Craig as a stunning Viola) holds that title -- but it’s a welcome and unusual take on the play.

Twelfth Night (photograph: Keith Pattison)
(click on the image to enlarge)

Romania, UK & US Tour dates:

Craiova, Romania, April 23-30.
The Lowry, Pier 8, Salford Quays, Salford, May 23-27.
Warwick Arts Centre, The University of Warwick, Coventry, May 30-June 3.
The Oxford Playhouse, Beaumont Street, Oxford, June 6-10.
Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London, June 13-17
Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, November 7-12, 2006.
Arizona State University, November 18, 2006.
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, November 22-December 3, 2006.
U.C.B., Berkeley, California, December 1-10, 2006.

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