Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Melbourne International Comedy Festival & La Mama: An Unfortunate Woman by Nicola Gunn

An Unfortunate Woman, written and performed by Nicola Gunn. At La Mama, 205 Faraday Street Carlton, for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, until April 30.

Also Wellington, New Zealand, from May 23 to 27, at Bats Theatre, 1 Kent Terrace.

Gunn is also scheduled to perform in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, as part of Intrepid Theatre's Uno Festival of Solo Performance, which runs through to June 4. First performance is May 31. For more information, go to www.intrepidtheatre.com.


Great clowns from Grock to Mo (a.k.a. Roy Rene) are rarely all that different from the performers who play them, in appearance and temperament. You wouldn’t, for example, walk past Rowan Atkinson on the street and fail to recognise him as Mister Bean!

The exceptions are few. And, well, exceptional. I’ve sat in the front row and stared at Michael Crawford in the lead role of Phantom of the Opera -- his second or third performance of the role on Broadway after a year in London -- and not seen or heard a trace of Frank Spencer of Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em fame. Not a recognisable trace, even, of the performer himself in two and a half hours.

I had a similar experience at La Mama this week. Nicola Gunn hunched and contorted and disguised herself so utterly in her monodrama An Unfortunate Woman that it was impossible to recognise the performer, the fey young woman beneath the waistcoat and trousers.


Nicola Gunn, pulling faces, noses, muscles...
(photograph Christian Fleury, click on the image to enlarge)


Gunn is an immensely gifted mime. I swear I saw her nose change its shape -- from button to retroussé and back -- as she swapped between the many characters in this Dickensian and gloomy little yarn about a suicide.

For Gunn, comedy is a refined form of tragedy. We laugh with recognition, out of camaraderie and solidarity with the sad and defeated men and women she plays: the unloved, the lonely, the trapped and the deluded. Like Rhoda in Gunn’s show The Elephant Club, they tend to dream or fantasise their way out of the drudgery of their lives.


A publicity shot for An Unfortunate Woman
(photograph Christian Fleury)


The key characters played are a psychiatrist in a loveless marriage, an insignificant civil servant handling death certificates, and the psychiatrist’s deluded mother. But there are countless other cameos -- from a tyrannical head of department to a bulldog named Puddles. None is better than Millicent, the psychiatrist’s American wife.

But that particular character gives us a teasing glimpse of what we were missing. Gunn, clearly, is an exceptional naturalistic character actor as well as a physical performer. In An Unfortunate Woman, Gunn rather overdoes the grotesquerie. Still, this is an awesome performance of a touching story.


UK-born, Melbourne-raised Gunn has a higher profile in Canada than
in her biological or adoptive homes. (Photograph Christian Fleury)


It’s a show of few words -- it reminded me of the work of Norwegian director and choreographer Jo Strømgren (see my review of The Department by the Strømgren Kompani, here) -- but that should ensure it has long legs.


an earlier version of this review appeared in the April 24, 2006, edition of the Herald Sun.

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Saturday, April 22, 2006

An interview with playwright Daniel Keene, part 1

Australian playwright Daniel Keene is back home in Melbourne after ten days in Bordeaux working on Elephant People, a kind of freakshow opera extravaganza, currently in development for Ouvre Le Chien.

Though he writes in English, and is anything but mainstream in his home country, Keene’s plays are enormously popular in France with around 75 productions mounted there since 2000.

Keene writes about the marginalised: down-and-outs, derros and deadbeats. His writing, at its best, jostles in bleakness and beauty with Samuel Beckett’s. I can’t think of another Australian playwright with the sensibility -- or the balls -- to write a line like: “You crawl out of your old mum and into your fucking grave.”

European audiences “get” him in a way that Australian audiences don’t. The French, especially, understand the literary tradition he is descended from, and a part of. They’re not daunted by Keene’s devastating emotional verismo.

Keene’s contributions to Elephant People, thus far, have been highly poetic. And I mean that literally: gorgeous, lyrical poetry. (Extracts are available online at Masthead, here.)

I began our conversation by asking if he had written poetry before writing for the stage.


I wrote juvenile poems like every 14 year old. Then I started working in the theatre as an actor. I was a terrible actor so I decided it was probably better I did something else.


Wanting to continue working in theatre, Keene tried his hand at play writing. He was 23.


[CHRIS BOYD:] CAN I ASK YOU WHY YOU WRITE PLAYS? WHY NOT OTHER FORMS?

[Daniel Keene:] I came to literature quite late. I wasn’t a reader when I was young at all. So when I came to reading seriously, I was probably twenty or something. I read Beckett. Beckett was the first person I read with any genuine love.

THE NOVELS?

The novels and the plays. Anything I could get my hands on. And then Lorca and Lorca’s plays and Lorca’s poetry, and then Neruda and Neruda’s plays. That’s where I began reading.

But I remember the first play I ever saw, which was Mother Courage. I had never seen a play. It was a beautiful production from memory. I came out of [it] dizzy with excitement.

I like writing for theatre because -- as far as I’m concerned -- it has a stringent poetic. And it has serious demands. You can’t waffle on. I don’t think you should anyway.

So you have to be precise. And you have to be clear. And you have to be poetic, I think. It has demands [that] other writing has, but theatre focusses them all in a strange way.

ITS SO MUCH MORE SOCIAL. THERES SUCH A TRUST... NOT ONLY DO YOU HAVE TO THROW YOUR WRITING TO THE FATES -- TRUST THAT A GOOD TEAM WILL FIND IT -- YOU ALSO HAVE TO TRUST THAT YOU GET TO THE RIGHT AUDIENCE!

I don’t know what a “right audience” is. If it gets an audience, that’s good! That’s a start. [laughs] I suppose it comes from having worked in the theatre on the other side of the curtain as an actor -- in a small way -- but kind of understanding what that’s all about... and what it is to say words on stage.

When I write I’m very conscious that someone has to speak it. There’s also an enormous amount of trust involved in that kind of thing. The actor trusts you to write something they can say; and you also trust the actor to say it in a way that can create -- in which meaning is created by the expression.

Maybe I’ve been lucky. I mean, there have been productions of my work that haven’t liked, but I have faith in theatre. I’ve seen enough good stuff to think that it really works when it works.

And that thing about being social is interesting. Writing the play is entirely solitary occupation. I don’t do workshops or anything. And then you present the work and it belongs to someone else and they do it.

It’s possible to go and see a work of your own, and if it’s well done, you can sit there in the audience and not recognise it.

AND BE EXCITED BY THAT LACK OF RECOGNITION?

And be excited by that lack of recognition. I’ve seen quite a few things over the years. That’s always an interesting experience.

Because I know the play -- I can remember every line in a play -- watching it spoken in another language is quite interesting in as much as I don’t have to listen to the text. So what I’m actually watching is something else. I think it’s quite illuminating when you don’t worry about what the words mean. And so you’re looking at what’s happening with the actor, what’s the dynamic on the stage, how is it being directed, what’s happening with the lighting, how is their voice working, what’s going on physically on stage...

You see the play -- in a way -- sans words. And it’s intensely revealing sometimes, because what you’re seeing is -- not the skeleton of the play -- almost the organs of the play which is the actors on stage speaking and moving. It’s sometimes very very illuminating.

A play is more than the words spoken, obviously.

DOES WATCHING YOUR STUFF REMIND YOU OF -- OR GIVE YOU A GLIMPSE INTO -- THE PRIMITIVENESS OF THEATRE THAT YOU WRITE ABOUT?

In a sense, because what you’re aware of is just the naked actors theatre... People get up on a platform and you watch it, and it’s really quite crude, in the best sense of the word. It’s an enactment of something, and you come there to witness it. And you become very aware of that, of the ritual of the whole thing which I think is an intensely important part of it.

I’ve seen productions in very big theatres, lots of money, and seen productions in basements in Paris where they’ve got nothing and there’s six people in the audience, but it’s always exactly the same event. The surroundings might be different, or the feeling in the room may be different, but you’re watching the same thing. The same thing is always happening.

THAT IN ITSELF IS AN ACHIEVEMENT, SURELY, IF YOU CREATE SOMETHING THAT IS THE SAME IN A BASEMENT OR A 2000 SEAT THEATRE...

It’s a thing about audience again. I never think about the audience. It’s not a question of writing for an audience If you get one that’s good. And who it is, well, who knows?

There’s no such thing for me as audience. You just have have to please yourself. I go to the theatre. I’m an audience member. I know what I’d like to see. So, that’s who I have to please. If I can do that, then perhaps I’ll please one other person.

OR TENS OF THOUSANDS. WELL, WHAT DO YOU LIKE SEEING? WHAT DO YOU WANT TO SEE?

Well, I went to the play [John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, see here and here] last night.

AH, OKAY... THAT DOESN’T REALLY ANSWER THE QUESTION!

I think it was a very dusty play. Creaked along. There was nothing there. You watch the thing. For me, personally, it was just a kind of shell of a play left all the rude and hurtful bits out.

What do I want to see? I want to feel something when I go to the theatre. Simple as that really.

I don’t think it’s theatre’s purpose to inform people.

WHY DID YOU GO? I DON’T IMAGINE YOU GET OUT ALL THAT OFTEN...

Now I don’t. I’m old now. It’s very hard getting the bath chair on the train. With a great blanket.

WHEN DID YOU HIT FIFTY?

Not long ago. I’m still getting over it. Four months ago.

IT CAN’T BE WORSE THAN FORTY, CAN IT?!

No, it’s not actually. It’s not bad. I’m surprised. It’s pretty good.

YOU DON’T GET OUT MUCH BECAUSE YOU’RE CHOOSY, SURELY? YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE GOING TO GET...

It’s true, I don’t go to the theatre very often.

WHAT’S FIRED YOU UP RECENTLY? WHAT HAVE YOU SEEN THAT YOU’RE GLAD TO HAVE SEEN?

I went to a couple of things in the Melbourne Festival. I saw that Green thing which I really liked. [Green by Saburo Teshigawara, performed by Karas and British jazz/grunge band Sand, part of the 2005 Melbourne International Arts Festival.] I thought it was really interesting. Funny, too. I actually like going to dance.

I saw a piece in La Rochelle in France last year by [the Grenada-born choreographer, film director, dancer and actress] Blanca Li. Who’s a very interesting choreographer.



In the next part of the conversation, Keene talks about the French connection and, finally, about imagination and the work in progress, Elephant People.

See also my profile on Keene in this weekend's Financial Review, the April 22-23 2006 edition.

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Monday, April 10, 2006

Ismail Kadare: The Successor

The Successor
Ismail Kadare (Canongate, A$22.95)


Ismail Kadare is a product of one of the poorest, most isolated, most hard-line regimes of the 20th Century. Yet he writes about the country of his birth as if it were a product of the imagination rather than the product of a series of Stalinist decrees... like the one in 1967 which made Albania the world’s first official atheist state.

Kadare reminds us that Albania was once Illyria, a Shakespearean wonderland on the Adriatic Sea.

The Successor reads like a fantasy novel. It describes a world so unfamiliar, so alien to ours, that we can’t help but suspend judgement. Western rules and codes simply do not apply here. We learn to interpret the world anew.

Autocracy is next to godliness in this godless world. Subservience -- abject and unquestioning obedience -- looks suspiciously holy, here; as rare and precious as loyalty.

Rather than appear unnatural, ties to The Party are presented as an “outer blood” bond that outranks the “inner blood” bond of family.

The rules in this land are elusive. Not just to us, but to the land’s subjects. In this dreamworld, fortune changes on a whim. Facts, like tarot cards, are interpreted and reinterpreted.

The novel begins with the gunshot death of The Successor, the man chosen by The Guide to succeed him as ruler. The long-time deputy and enforcer has, apparently, committed suicide. In this Orwellian world, reputation is not fixed. Grace and disgrace are only a denouncement -- or an exhumation -- away.

The events described will sound familiar to anyone who knows Albanian history. In December 1981, a political purge disposed of Mehmet Shehu who had served as deputy for First Secretary Enver Hoxha for 27 years.

“The events of this novel,” writes Kadare, “draw on the infinite well of human memory... In view of this, any resemblance between the characters and circumstances of this tale and real people and events is inevitable.” But a knowledge of those people and events is not essential to the reader.

Kadare’s creations are spectral (sometimes literally so) with the amazing exception of the Successor’s impassioned daughter, Suzana, forced to break off an engagement for the good of her father. She is just one of a series of Major Arcana narrative cards that fan out.

Much of the stuff that purports to be “literary fiction” is hard-to-read and deliberately obscure. The Successor is a welcome exception. It’s evocative, subtle and limpid; knowable and rich.


This review was published in edition 251 of The Big Issue (Australia)

See also: best books of 2006

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Sunday, April 09, 2006

Sydney Theatre Company: John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (Sydney and Melbourne)

Doubt by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Julian Meyrick for the Sydney Theatre Company. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, February 9.

Presented by the Melbourne Theatre Company at The Playhouse, The Arts Centre, April 8. (Melbourne season ends May 13.)


Set and costume design by Stephen Curtis. Lighting design by Matt Scott. Original music and sound design by Max Lyandvert. With Jennifer Flowers, Alison Bell, Christopher Gabardi and Pamela Jikiemi.



In this line of work, it’s not at all uncommon to see many different productions of a work, especially of classics and important Australian plays.

Less often, we get the chance to follow a play or a production from birth. Here, I’m thinking of Andrew Bovell’s comedy After Dinner, which went from the fifty-seat La Mama Theatre to Theatreworks to the National Theatre to the Victorian Arts Centre. (It always baffled me: why that particular play? Why not Shades of Blue or Ship of Fools or any other of Bovell’s great works? Must it always be a function of cast size?)

I saw four separate productions of David Auburn’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Proof in two years... with different directors, different casts and three different sets. (The Sydney Theatre Company production recycled Tony Tripp’s extraordinary MTC set.) The last two of those productions -- in Perth and Brisbane -- opened the same week. There was a fifth production, by the STCSA, but I had to draw the line somewhere!

With new plays, a variety of readings and interpretations usually helps us in the critical analysis of a play. It helps delimit who is responsible for what in a production. Funnily enough, it was of next-to-no use at all with Proof, an amazingly “well-made” play... one which gave away all of its secrets at first viewing. The only meaningful comparisons one could make between productions of Auburn’s play were about casting choices... Was Jacqueline McKenzie better than Rachel Griffiths? Was Frank Gallacher better than Barry Otto? And so on.

Going back, and back, and back, my question “why does this work?” decayed to “does this work?” My initial judgement -- that precise timing (of information revelation and of bell-tolling twists) was no substitute for drama -- wasn’t ever threatened; and that digital perfection didn’t make up for soullessness.

With John Patrick Shanley’s new play Doubt, I got to do something different again: to see two opening nights of the one production, two months and a thousand-odd kilometres apart. Same set, same cast, same production team. (This Sydney Theatre Company production is, in fact, directed by the Melbourne Theatre Company’s Associate Director, Julian Meyrick.)

I’ve done this, often enough, with operas (Lulu, Lucia and Batavia in the last few years) and musicals (Cabaret, Lion King and others), but usually there are key cast changes.

First up, I’ve got to say that the premiere in Sydney, eight weeks ago, was impressively well-rehearsed. The play hit the boards running after the MTC’s standard four week rehearsal period. It was a terrific night of mainstage theatre: classy, clever, intelligent, thought-provoking, detailed and touching. It fell just short of troubling. I couldn’t say whether this was by “intelligent design” or not. (Nor could I say with any certainty if that was a function of writing, direction or performance!)

In brief, the principal of a north Bronx catholic school suspects a young priest of having an unnatural interest in a eighth grade boy, a new kid at the school. It’s 1964 and Donald Muller, the boy, is the school’s first black student. (The rest are either Irish or Italian in descent.)


Jennifer Flowers as the formidable principal of St Nicholas Catholic School,
Sister Aloysius (photograph Tracey Schramm, click on the image to enlarge)


The principal, Sister Aloysius, entreats the boy’s kindly and idealistic young teacher, Sister James, to look out for anything untoward. Vigilance will protect and shelter the children in their care. Aloysius coldly tells the young nun that “innocence” -- i.e. at the blackboard end of the classroom -- “is a form of laziness.” And that “satisfaction is a vice. ” (The lines are glib and aphoristic -- and draw laughs -- but they are true enough, in context.)

The nuns soon have a flimsy case against Father Flynn, and suspicions set like concrete. Aloysius will not be persuaded of Flynn’s innocence, and she vows to drive him out of the parish. She has no doubt.

Rather than providing an apologia for the disgraced Catholic churches of America, where abuses not only occurred but were covered up within the church hierarchy, John Patrick Shanley tunes the scenario (as David Williamson might) so that it causes as much soul-searching and discomfort in its audience as possible, and sheds as much light on human nature -- our hunger for certainty and our need for safety -- as possible.

Like Williamson, Shanley plays God. But he plays God in the John Fowles sense, where God is “the freedom that allows other freedoms to exist.” And while the scenario is conspicuously tuned -- blueprinted like a high-performance engine -- it’s also peopled with fleshy, believable, recognisable, multi-dimensional characters. There is soul in this machine.

But I have to say, at that first performance, in Sydney, I kept waiting for a Crucible-style twist which never eventuated. And I left the premiere with one nagging thought: director (Meyrick) and actor (Christopher Gabardi) had decided that Father Flynn was guilty.

I felt sure that they had made this decision.

I also thought -- rightly or wrongly -- that this was a decision that the playwright had not made for them. On the strength of a single viewing, I didn’t think the text (as performed, at least) provided enough information, enough evidence, for a “beyond reasonable doubt” verdict. Or even a “balance of probabilities” verdict.

Now, I completely understand the need for a cast and crew to decide for themselves one way or another -- to provide a through-line for the actor and the performance -- but I thought it was a mistake to make that choice visible. It weakened the play. It was a flaw in the production. It turned a play about judgement into judgement day for Flynn alone.


Christopher Gabardi as Father Flynn and Alison Bell as Sister James
(photograph Tracey Schramm, click on the image to see full size)

Since the Sydney season opened, a poorly-judged scene in which the accused priest sits down and puts his clenched hands on his knees like a guilty schoolboy has been jettisoned, praise the Lord!

Eight weeks on -- after perhaps 50 or 60 performances -- the wobble in this gyroscopic play is gone. And perpetual motion brings with it perpetual light. More light, certainly. And with it, my need for an Arthur Miller-style upheaval has vanished.

Doubt is a play I might return to in coming weeks. It’s well worth closer scrutiny as a piece of dramatic literature, more polemical than didactic. But, for the time being, I’ll simply note that the production -- in every respect -- is now on a par with the text. Very fine. Very refined. Very persuasive. And, ironically perhaps, very sure.


UPDATE: Tuesday, April 11, 2006

For a very different take on the play, see Alison Croggon’s review at Theatre Notes:
“At no point does this play expose the molten emotional core of the crime which is at the centre of its plot. It carefully steps around it, concentrating on the moral dilemmas faced by each of the characters. But without any real sense of what's at stake - whether it's Aloysius's unjustified smearing of an innocent man's reputation, or the life-long damage caused by child sexual abuse - Doubt's moral "theme" remains just that: an abstract idea.”



OTHER SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY REVIEWS:

The Cherry Orchard (January 2006)
The Lost Echo by Barrie Kosky & Tom Wright (September 2006)

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