Thursday, April 26, 2007

Help me out here...

I've just come home from seeing Patrick Marber's After Miss Julie. I reckon the thing should be called After Trevor Griffiths!! I've been racking my brain... What does it remind me of?

I'm pretty sure it's one of those BBC play-for-today style shows. But I'm also pretty sure the thing I'm thinking of was shot on film rather than in some dinky video studio setting.

Anyway, After Miss Julie was originally written for television in the mid 1990s and was only performed live quite recently. Within the last three or four years. But the Trevor Griffiths thing -- which is also set on or about the election night in England in 1945 which saw Churchill replaced by his Labour opponent (and wartime coalition deputy) Clement Attlee -- is a decade and a half older... at least.

Any LaTrobe students reading? Anyone doing Modern British Political?! Help me out here! Is it Country? And was Country written (like so much middle period Griffiths) specifically for screen? Or was it adapted from one of his plays...

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Opera Australia: The Barber of Seville

Il barbiere di Siviglia by Gioachino Rossini and Cesare Sterbini. Directed by John Milson. Designed by Leon Krasenstein. Lighting design by Donn Byrnes. Conducted by Richard Bonynge.

An Opera Conference production. Opera Australia. At the State Theatre, Melbourne, until May 12. Then Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth.

It’s an opera company’s worst nightmare. It’s first night of a heavily-hyped crowd-pleaser production -- Opera Australia has even been advertising it on talk radio -- and the hero, our barber of Seville, has “severe laryngitis.” Scratched.

But it’s not just first night in Melbourne. It’s first night of Opera Australia’s 2007 season here... as close to a black tie night as you’re likely to find in the theatre. But the tux you don’t want to see is the one on the stage before the curtain. You might as well walk on with a black armband.

The harried Opera Australia Chief Executive, Adrian Collette, might hail from Melbourne, but to the eternally and indiscriminately bitter Melbourne opera establishment, Collette is not an ex-pat so much as a turncoat. And here he is announcing that the understudy, Perth lad Luke Gabbedy, is replacing Argentine-born superstud José Carbó as Figaro. And that Tom Hamilton, in turn, will fill in for Gabbedy as the Count’s servant Fiorello.

L-R: Warwick Fyfe, Jack Webster and Richard Alexander
as Dr Bartolo, Ambrogio and Don Basilio

It’s first night of a brand new production. An opera conference production which will be seen in Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth. So, guess what? Gabbedy hasn’t had a rehearsal to himself in the lead role. There hasn’t been time. And he’s only had a day’s notice.

But aside from the fact that he’s a bit soft on the ear -- and looks more like the bus-boy of Seville than Rossini’s wheeling, dealing factotum -- he does a creditable job. Where Carbó might have whipped us into a frenzy, Gabbedy whipped us into soft peaks. (Think clean, I’m talking cream -- or egg whites -- okay? Meringue, that sorta thing!)

Just like The History Boys with Rhys McConnochie in the lead instead of Richard Griffiths... not wrong, just diffident... I mean different.

Actually, Gabbedy’s baritone meshed beautifully -- and I mean really exquisitely -- with Henry Choo’s tenor. Now, it’s possible that Choo was holding back to match his voice to Gabbedy’s, but Choo didn’t sing with enough definition for my liking. I also wondered, vaguely, how Gabbedy would have coped as Fiorello, a role for a bass-baritone at the very least. I’ve seen Gabbedy in a couple of West Australian Opera and OA productions in the last couple of years and I can’t say I’ve heard that end of his range.

Choo and Emma Matthews were also exceptionally good together as the would-be lovers. Their first duet (in which Choo is accompanied by a guitar, and Matthews by a harp) is invested with such longing...

Henry Choo (Almaviva) & Emma Matthews (Rosina)

And, in case you’re wondering, yes, a soprano has been cast as Rosina, one of the great mezzo roles. It’s a ring-in that was done early and often in the life of Rossini’s comic opera... with much “high flying decoration”. It’s not a choice that’s been taken up all that often in Australia thanks to Suzanne Johnston! For about 20 years, the knee-jerk reaction was: why would you cast anyone else?

Matthews, yet again, sang with supernatural accuracy. It seems so damn easy... it could pass unremarked. Warwick Fyfe was terrific too, like some green coated penguin as Doctor Bartolo. (In this particular production, Bartolo covets his ward more than her money. He might even be in love with her.)

Richard Bonynge does a good job wielding the stick. This is one of his better gigs. Not dazzling, just reliably on the money. All up, this was a modest performance. That’s not intended as a backhander. Really. It was easy rather than showy.

But enough about the music. (No, I can’t believe I said it either!) This is a superb piece of comic theatre with an extravagantly designed and brilliantly executed set.

The ambitions of the production are laid out in the overture as the sick and variously injured patients of Doctor Bartolo make their way into his sanatorium. One by one, they sign in -- cause for much jolly mime as the braced and broken matadors juggle a clipboard and pen -- and have thermometers poked into their mouths.

There’s an old bloke and his exotic fur-draped wife -- who totters around and, for a moment, chases her tail -- and a mad Daliesque artist. Right away it’s clear that these folks can move and act... seriously well.

L-R: Lisle Jones, Leon Byrant, Simon Brett,
Cameron Mannix & Melissa Madden-Gray

It took a good twenty minutes to recognise Melissa Madden Gray as the tail chaser. (Hey, I was almost twenty rows back, okay?) Talk about luxury casting. This is a performer who has had several multimedia operas commissioned for her -- for her body and extraordinary voice -- at Princeton. She’s an accomplished dancer and actor as well. And we have her in a mute role. Wow!

The chorus of extras come and go. They sit upstairs at a balcony sipping coffee and watching the world go by in their Health Spa time-warp. Without ever distracting us from the main action, they add a wonderful texture and theatricality.

Apart from the actors, and Emma Matthews, the star of the show is the huge set, designed by 24 year-old WAAPA graduate Leon Krasenstein. (And it’s a design he did two years ago, just after his graduation.) It’s a mix of Antoni Gaudí and gaudy guignol with its gargoyles and biomorphic chairs -- I swear one of them had shoulder blades and hip bones -- and its complete absence of straight lines. The gnarly woodwork is amazing as are the whirly shell legs on the piano. I cannot imagine how the whole shebang will fit onto the half-pint sized Opera House stage. It didn’t look at all modular.

Mariachi anyone? Henry Choo as Almaviva

That said, John Milson’s production is (I’m guessing) better suited to the intimate size of the Opera Theatre in Sydney. Better still, to His Majesty’s in Perth... which is about as close as our opera houses get to Euro-style playhouses.

All photographs copyright Jeff Busby. Used with permission.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Tour news: Peter Brook directs Fugard and Barrie Kosky adapts Poe...

For the latest on Barrie Kosky's adaptation of The Tell-Tale Heart, see If I were artistic director of the Melbourne International Arts Festival...

I’ve dutifully kept this secret for a coupla months -- I’m good like that -- but whenever I do keep professional secrets, I at least like to be the one to blow the lid off the freakin’ story. Well, you’re gonna read all about this very shortly. But at least I can be an hour or two ahead of the wire services and a day ahead of the papers, right? Wrong? Whatever!

Peter Brook’s French language production of Athol Fugard's play Sizwe Banzi is Dead is coming to Australia this year. The tour starts in Melbourne.

Here are the Australian tour dates:

The Malthouse, Melbourne, October 16 - 27, 2007.

Geelong Performing Arts Centre, October 30 & 31.

Bendigo Performing Arts Centre, November 2 and 3.

Adelaide Festival Centre, November 6 - 17.

Sydney Opera House, November 26 to December 16.

If those Melbourne dates look kinda familiar, you’ve probably guessed. The visit is part of the 2007 Melbourne International Arts Festival.

Also part of this year’s festival -- and a Melbourne exclusive -- is Barrie Kosky’s take on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. It's at the Malthouse -- which is co-producing -- from October 11 to 20.

You can download an eText of The Tell-Tale Heart at Project Gutenberg.

See also:

* Athol Fugard on ‘Tsotsi’, truth and reconciliation, Camus, Pascal and “courageous pessimism”...

* Power... without power: Athol Fugard’s “unplugged” art

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Queensland Theatre Company: John Gabriel Borkman (1)

Given the rate at which this review is gestating, I reckon I had better give a first trimester report lest the production close before I’ve blurted out my opinion...

John Gabriel Borkman by Henrik Ibsen. English version by May-Brit Akerholt. Directed by Michael Gow. Set and costume design by Jonathon Oxlade. Lighting design by Ben Hughes. Sound design and composition by Andy Arthurs, assisted by Yanto Browning. Queensland Theatre Company. At the Bille Brown Studio, South Brisbane, until April 21.

Robert Coleby as “The Banker” before the fall

The story of Ibsen in English is difficult to disentangle from the story of his first (and greatest) champions in the UK: poet and academic (and, lest we forget, rabid fundamentalist Christian) Edmund Gosse and critic, translator and playwright William Archer. I think it’s significant that Gosse was a poet (of sorts) and that Archer was a playwright.

Bear in mind, too, that the more successful recent adaptations and translations of Ibsen include those by Arthur Miller, John Osborne, Christopher Fry, Ann Jellicoe, Geoffrey Hill and Christopher Hampton. Are we starting to see a pattern here?!

Archer was born in Scotland in 1856, 28 years after Ibsen. Ibsen, then, was still writing straight historical drama a la Hebbel and Schiller. His verse dramas Love’s Comedy, Brand and Peer Gynt were still some years off.

Archer first encountered Ibsen’s work as a boy living in Norway. His translation of Pillars of Society was the first Ibsen play performed in England... a single matinee performance in 1880. It was another nine years before A Doll’s House was performed. It was a great success. A performance of Ghosts and a commercial season of Hedda Gabler followed in the next two years. In the meantime, Archer and Gosse had translated and published various Ibsen scripts.

Archer is also remembered as the man who read Ibsen to a young George Bernard Shaw. (Shaw’s long lecture on Ibsen was later published as The Quintessence of Ibsenism.)

Now, I don’t want to be a bitch about this, but... hell... if Ibsen’s first English translator had been May-Brit Akerholt, Ibsen’s fate might have been oblivion. Now, I’m in no position to question Akerholt’s rendering of the text word-for-word -- she was born and educated in Norway after all -- but the script she has turned out here is haze of words, an unnavigable white-out, and the actors sink to their groins in snow drifts every ploddy step of the way.

I can’t let Akerholt off the hook here by guessing that it might be the play itself or Ibsen’s late plays in general or that I might not have ever seen or heard Ibsen done properly before -- though it is many many years since I read John Gabriel Borkman (along with every other Ibsen play) -- cos this featurelessness (shall we say) is present in all of the translations of Ibsen plays I’ve seen from Akerholt including her Hedda for the Sydney Theatre Company in mid 1980s, a woeful Peer Gynt for Anthill in 1990 and now John Gabriel Borkman for the Queensland Theatre Company. A fairly representative spread, I would have thought, of Ibsen’s oeuvre... from early verse drama through great mid-career play to one of the very last plays. I’ve got a feeling I’ve also seen one of Akerholt’s translations of one of Ibsen’s so-called “issue plays”. Maybe Ghosts.

So, either the other translators have got it wrong, or Akerholt has been dazzled by the leaves and not much noticed the branches. This is all the more baffling if one considers that Akerholt has lectured in drama at NIDA and was a dramaturg at the STC for several years, not to mention her on-going contributions to the playwrights conference.

One should never walk away from Ibsen and wonder what all the fuss was about.

That said, this is an above average piece of theatre... but more about that after I have an ultrasound!

You can download William Archer’s translation of John Gabriel Borkman (in plain text form) from Project Gutenberg. It’s free, it’s legal. Click here.

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