Monday, July 30, 2007

Scotsman, Bergman and Buzo... in no particular order

Thought for the day, for Kate Herbert:
"If you meet with some success in the arts, make some money, and get your name on the front page, then you may start to worry about becoming conceited. There are two ways of combatting this. You can ring the ABC or the Australia Council. The telephonist will have never heard of you."
(Alex Buzo, The Young Person's Guide to the Theatre, 1988)

I keep a fairly close eye on visitor activity on this blog, almost to the point of neurosis. (I just can't seem to get to more than 120 countries. Been stuck on that figure for months!) There are some unexpected spin-offs of being "anal attentive". It's fairly easy to tell, for example, where Meow Meow is in the world. The recent Brooklyn, Bronx, Manhattan hits have been replaced, this week, with Dundee and Edinburgh; The New York Times fact-checkers with The Scotsman's.

Yesterday's Scotsman confirms my hunch that the "punk-cabaret artist and shambolic showgirl" must be on her way to Edinburgh. 8 out of 10 cats prefer... by the improbably named Chitra Ramaswamy is an excellent profile of a very tricky interviewee. (Chitra can be forgiven for falling for the story that Meow Meow's unnamed ESP [External Schizophrenic Personality, hat-tip Carolyn Hammer] and collaboratrix is "originally French-German though her grandfather was Australian.") The article is well worth a read for all you fans and stalkers!

I was saddened to learn of the death of film and stage director Ingmar Bergman. (There's a lengthy appreciation of his life's work in today's New York Times.) Thanks to my brother Lindsay, I was subjected to Bergman's oeuvre from a relatively early age. I don't count myself as a huge cineaste, but I have seen maybe forty of Bergman's films. Certainly more than any other director. I count The Silence and Winter Light among my favourite films.

Bergman gave me one of my first tastes of opera. His delightfully stagey film of Mozart's The Magic Flute (Trollflöjten, 1975) also exposed me (and a countless others) to the stellar Swedish baritone Håkan Hagegård.

What else do you need to know... My reviews of Phantom of the Opera and and Trevor Nunn's production of The Seagull for the RSC are in Monday's and Tuesday's Herald Sun respectively.

Reviews of the MTC's Thom Pain (based on nothing) and Red Stitch's 4.48 Psychosis are still in the queue...

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Me and Federici: The Phantom of the Opera (1)

UPDATE 1: review below
UPDATE 2: Production photographs (by Jeff Busby) added.
UPDATE 3: Brisbane and Sydney dates announced...

I read in today's Herald Sun that the best seat in the house at The Princess Theatre is Stalls Row H, Seat 19. Well, dear reader, I'll let you know who's in that seat... cos they'll have to climb over me to get there.

Tonight, dear reader, I am in The Zone. :)

It's almost twenty years since I first saw Phantom. It was the second or third performance at the Majestic Theatre on West 44th, a year after the London opening. The Broadway production poached the three original stars: Crawford, Brightman and Texan Steve Barton... still the best Raoul I've ever seen. (There have been another 8000 performances since in that theatre alone!)

That night, I had a seat in Row AA. Absolute front row of the "Orchestra". Cos of the configuration of the pit, I was actually closer to the stage than the conductor... But more of this later! Time to hit the road!

The hottest tickets of the year await!

"Right this way Mr Boyd..."
Anthony Warlow directs me to my seat.

Here's an edit of the review that ran in Monday's Herald Sun.

The Australian production of Phantom of the Opera -- the tenth in the world -- ran like clockwork when it opened in the haunted, beautiful Pricess Theatre in 1990. We were gobsmacked by costumes, awed by the lake scenes and the scene changes, touched by the music... but don't try telling me we were ever scared of the chandelier!

Revisiting the show, "shock of the old" has replaced "shock of the new." Phantom's stagecraft is still excellent, still impressive, but it's no longer an end in itself. That allows us to focus on the opus. It's easier to follow the musical themes, to follow the music box chimes through the pageant of the masked ball at the start of the second act to the final, plaintive "Christine, I love you."

It's easier, too, to delight in Lloyd Webber's impish sense of fun (the mock ballet music) and real skill with discord (the whole Don Juan Triumphant opera-within-an-opera thing).

But familiarity is a twin-edged sword. It makes us ultra demanding. Ultra critical. We want voices to match -- or beat -- the original cast recording. (We get them.) We want drama. Emotional truth. We want to be touched.

For most of the night this Phantom is merely perfect...

And that's where this show surprised me. Thrilled me. For most of the night, it's merely perfect. Ana Marina has an exceptionally full-bodied voice. The ageless John Bowles makes a good Raoul. With a serious does of the flu, Anthony Warlow is still a booming, overwhelming presence. Even the minor characters (like Nadia Komazec's Meg Giry) have stellar voices.

In fact, it's all a little bit too perfect. I kept wishing for a mistake in the pit to remind us that the music is played live. (Bowles provided the excitement of the night by jumping in with the right line at the wrong time! Warlow and conductor Vanessa Scammell coped admirably.)

But the final scene is like nothing I've witnessed before in a music drama. If you've seen Anthony Warlow, you know what a superb actor he is: his mighty Enjolras in Les Mis (a performance which made it onto the international cast recording), his charismatic Papageno in Mozart's The Magic Flute, his show-saving Archibald in The Secret Garden, the list is long. But, here, he supercharges the final stand-off. He is the tortured tyrant, willing to do anything to get the girl.

If the rest of the cast follow Warlow down this path, if they look for the dramatic monster behind the musical mask, if they treat Phantom as an operatic passion play not just a naff old musical, then it might live again for years, not just months.

2008 dates:

QPAC, Brisbane, from February 6.
Lyric Theatre, Sydney, from May 11.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Poet, teacher, griot, Sekou Sundiata died this morning...

There have been some contradictory reports on the web today -- nothing on the wire services or news sites as yet -- but I've just received confirmation that the Harlem-born poet, Sekou Sundiata, died this morning of heart failure. He was 58.

N.B. Quotations, below, come from a conversation I had with Sekou just after his 58th birthday.

I'll update this post as further information comes to hand.

UPDATE JULY 25: See also Mike Doughty's excellent blog for some insights into Sekou's creative process and teaching methods...

UPDATE JULY 20: This, posted an hour ago, at the New York Times. (You should be able to access the article without registering.) Margalit Fox writes:
Mr. Sundiata was born Robert Franklin Feaster in Harlem on Aug. 22, 1948; he adopted the African name Sekou Sundiata in the late 1960s. He earned a bachelor’s degree in English from City College of New York in 1972 and a master’s degree in creative writing from the City University of New York in 1979.

He is survived by his wife, Maurine Knighton, known as Kazi; a daughter, Myisha Gomez of Manhattan; a stepdaughter, Aida Riddle of Brooklyn; his mother, Virginia Myrtle Singleton Feaster of Kingstree, S.C.; two brothers, William Feaster of Belleville, N.J., and Ronald Feaster of Manhattan; and one grandchild.

Mr. Sundiata, who performed with the folk rock artist Ani DiFranco as part of her Rhythm and News tour in 2001, released several CDs of music and poetry, including “The Blue Oneness of Dreams” (Mouth Almighty/Mercury Records) and “longstoryshort” (Righteous Babe Records). His work was also featured on television, on the HBO series “Def Poetry” and the PBS series “The Language of Life.”

UPDATE JULY 19: Melbourne Festival Artistic Director Kristy Edmunds writes:
"Sekou Sundiata was a man of extraordinary generosity and kindness, and his death is a profound loss. For many years he has fuelled our thinking about our work, our charge as artists, and as human beings through his wisdom, his honesty, his poetry, music and song. [...] Personally, I know I am greatly enriched for having known him."

For Sekou, a poem was not finished -- not whole -- until it was heard. Spoken or chanted. Or simply sounded out in the head of the reader "in companionable solitude."

Poetry, he used to say, is music for the mind. It's something to be recorded rather than published. You won't find his work on book shelves, you'll find it in the CD racks.

We're not talking "love, dove, heavens above" here either! A failing body, a fractured nation, a frightening world... these were all vital subjects -- unavoidable subjects -- to Sekou and his swerving, slithering, staccato poetry.

Had he been born in Mali instead of Harlem, Sekou might have been a griot instead of a poet and teacher. But then the roles aren't that all that dissimilar: passing on the history and oral tradition of a family -- of a people -- is the task of the griot. And Sundiata, incidentally, was the given name of the first Malian ruler to have a griot to advise him, more than half a millennium ago.

The Harlem-born poet came of age in the sixties. Thanks to the civil rights movement -- to Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Pablo Neruda and Amiri Baraka -- Sekou believed in the power of the spoken word to change the world. Not through badgering or bluster -- or even preaching necessarily -- but by wondering aloud.

He watched Baraka and Allen Ginsberg "perform" their poetry live. It was a time, he said, "of performance and self-expression throughout the culture, especially throughout the youth culture."

Hearing him, one thinks of Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Miles Davis; his light baritone snakey and hypnotic.
Poetry pays a great deal of attention to rhythm and pacing and tempo; to many of the characteristics of music. [That's] a clue to us that it is meant for the ear as well as for the eye.
Sekou likened the experience of hearing Neruda's voice in New York's cavernous St John the Divine Cathedral to listening to a music composition.

"Early on, I started working with music and musicians. From the very beginning, I was moving in that direction. I never sought publishing. I don't hang out in literary circles. I followed a very atypical path as a poet. My goal was [always] to record."

Sekou taught literature at New York's New School University where he taught Ani DiFranco (who says "[he] taught me everything I know about poetry") and Soul Coughing's M Doughty. Sekou later recorded on DiFranco's Righteous Babe Records.

He taught DiFranco that poetry isn't part of literature, that it is "rooted in music and drama and ritual and magic." To "declaim [it] is to claim its ancient roots."

Sekou practiced what he preached. He made genre-bending stage shows about slavery in Mauritania, about his own life-threatening encounter with kidney disease (Blessing the Boats) and, most recently, about citizenship, identity, security and the place of America in the world post-9/11.

Sekou Sundiata Blessing the Boats

To Sekou, words were magical. They have the power to conjure. "I think poetry is rooted in incantation. Those of us who love poetry can hear it aloud can be spellbound. Even if it's in a language we can't understand."

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Sonya Hartnett: The Ghost's Child

The Ghost's Child
Sonya Hartnett (Penguin/Viking, A$24.95, h/c)

This is a shooting star of a novel, a Leonid, a fireball of dazzling light and colour which leaves naught but a vapour trail. Think of Blake and the opening four lines to the Auguries of Innocence: the lines about holding infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.

This is not a novel for children. Or, rather, not just for children. It's a novel for very brave adults. For the elderly who have reconciled themselves to death, but not to their own ebbed lives. It also calls for an unimaginably and precociously literate young reader.

Sonya Hartnett, it seems to me, is positioning herself as the new Elizabeth Jolley. A fine and noble aim to be sure... though one doomed to fail. Hartnett should be setting her sights differently. Both higher and wider. She's a brilliant stylist with a vaulting and poetic imagination. She could outdo Ovid. Seriously. She can do gods and monsters. She can also do the human gods and monsters: love and grief, ecstatic passion and abject loss, sex and death.

I've not encountered a writer who can capture the precious fragility of adolescence -- that evanescent sense that one has only one stab at this -- quite like Hartnett.

Each of The Ghost's Child's fifteen chapters has a unique formal and linguistic style. And, well, the readers who will most enjoy the parts oh-so-reminiscent of Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology might have a tough time with the ecstatic and saccharine playfulness of Hartnett's 'Advice from a Caterpillar' chapter.

Whitman and Wilde are not obvious bedfellows, yet imagery from Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking jostles with the dark wings of Salome in one mash-up chapter. Hang on to the mast, we're in for a stormy ride!

Those that appreciate Hartnett's tireless efforts to find exactly the right phrase -- "the whiskery sough of the forest", the "honey sunlight" and "loutish waves" -- will suffer through the kidlit bits.

Each chapter is a slipstick reading taken from various points in one woman's life: Matilda reminisces to an unnamed and enigmatic young friend about her solitary childhood, when she was "Maddy", then about her apotheosis in love: first with her Father, then with a Storm Boy named Feather. Those late teen years are the centre of her elliptical life. The years since have been a kind of shrine, a memorial to true love.

This review was published in edition 284 of The Big Issue (Australia)

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Mamma Mia, here I go again: Sleeping Beauty -- Part 2

Okay, okay. Here's the director's cut of the Herald Sun review published last Friday, July 13, 2007.

For the preamble (and the show's playlist) see here. I've also left some comments at Theatre Notes, here and here.

I still have plenty more to say... (God, wot a surprise!)

I haven't, for example, mentioned Tony Bartuccio's choreography at all. One of the best moments of the show -- towards the end -- is when Geyer and Smith do a dance which mashes ballet and gospel riffs.

It begins with Geyer's wrists crossed and her fists clenched. There's not a bunheaded balletomane alive who would not recognise this as the universal symbol of death. From there, Geyer splays her fingers, minstrel like, and waggles them around "praise the lord!" fashion. This is typical of the sly riches in the choreography. Geyer and Smith more than do it justice. They don't look taxed by it and they don't miss a beat. So, the dance is both well-judged (by Bartuccio) and well executed. And, of course, it's well rehearsed. (So Michael Kantor can take some credit too!)

One final thing, for the time being, Bardassa at On Stage Melbourne found Sleeping Beauty "hugely enjoyable" but that it "[didn't] come near... the dark and nightmarish theatre work" he was expecting. He also wrote about the curse on "dark and creepy" shows at The Malthouse, a nod to the Melbourne Theatre Company's recent production of The Pillowman, which was also in the Merlyn Theatre. You'll have a tough time finding out more of his thoughts, however, as the review was taken down before it made it into the Google caches.

UPDATE JULY 17: Bardassa's review is back up.

'Starman' Ian "Swan Lake" Stenlake as Beauty's Big Bad Brother (click to enlarge)

Sleeping Beauty by Michael Kantor, Paul Jackson, Maryanne Lynch and Anna Tregloan. Malthouse Theatre until July 28.

Michael Kantor and the team cut a bunch of songs out of time and paste them, Mamma Mia like, into a kind of weird ransom-note narrative. Weird, yes. Grand, no. But it also mixes and mashes the original fairy tale -- like music -- with a bunch of other stories. And it invites us to look at the chunky shapes and project a story.

Instead of a childless king and queen in need of an heir, we have an older couple (Grant Smith and Renée Geyer in dressing gown and brunch coat) blessed with a newborn girl. (Cue Axiom's 'A Little Ray of Sunshine' and 'There She Goes' by The La's.)

The older couple is a nice psychological touch, but it's introduced and promptly abandoned -- much like their unloved grown-up son. Later, as the baby grows into a babe (Alison Bell), there are hints that our story might be one of depression and teen suicide. But these ideas also vanish into fat air.

Musically, we careen from DMX ('Go To Sleep, Bitch... Die!') to a Brahms lied ('O tod wie bitter bist du') and straight on to Supertramp ('Dreamer'). There are some smart ideas. After a red hood is draped over Beauty's shoulders, she belts out the Runaways song, 'Cherry Bomb'. This girl's not hunted, she's hunting. She screams: "I'm the fox you've been waiting for." Look out, wolfie, your kingdom's gonna come.

One of the most fascinating threads to follow through (and beyond) the show is the lullaby 'Hush Little Baby'. Everyone has had a crack at that from Bo Diddley in the 1950s to Eminem. There are countless versions in between. This show, mostly, uses the early seventies hit version by Carly Simon and James Taylor. (You know the one: "Mock. YEAH. Ing. YEAH. Bird. YEAH. Yeah. YEAH.")

Musically, the show has a couple of anchor points. One of them is David Bowie, who turned the rock concert into theatre more than thirty years ago with Ziggy Stardust. Elvis Costello is ever-present, too, even when the band is playing The Jam or Geyer is singing Aznavour. There's an Attractions twang in the guitars.

But, I've gotta say, the highlights are all in the performances. Geyer, Smith, Bell and Ian Stenlake are exceptionally good. Geyer and Smith, in particular, act and dance superbly. (It goes without saying that their singing is awesome.)

Pyjamas aside, the costumes are either obvious or puzzlingly understated. Or make jokey, half-arsed nods to Romeo Castellucci and the video clip for Duran Duran's 'Girls on Film'. The dramatic structure is both rigid and brittle. The pace is flat. The sound, on the whole, is boxy.

But the greatest failing in what is, in effect, a narrative concert, is in the musical direction. If only someone like Mark Trevorrow had been engaged. Yes, the man who fills Bob Downe's polyester Safari suit has a musical intelligence that would have turned this show from Cherry Bomb to Bomb Alaska.

Sleeping Beauty is a brilliantly entertaining show, but it should have been theatre as well.

Pic purloined from Man About Town, Richard Watts, who adds another vote to the 'eisteddfod' column here.

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Friday, July 13, 2007

I miss him here, I miss him there...

Paul Capsis (and that time-travel machine, the Spiegeltent) is in New York.

It's always good to read George Hunka when he's fired up...

He writes...
[...] you can feel the Weimar-era humidity in the air. Singer Paul Capsis acknowledges the history of the tent, and of the aesthetic genealogy of the show, when he "channels" Marlene Dietrich, who herself appeared in the Spiegeltent during its prime (its first prime, anyway), in his opening rendition of "Hey Big Spender," and Absinthe remains, as it did last year, insinuatingly transgressive in the best possible way.

Absinthe is a seedy, sexy cabaret-cum-circus of possibility. The singers, contortionists, comedians and acrobatic acts are a gritty response to the more high-falutin' flavor of the Cirque du Soleil, and this year's comedians, the buck-toothed, rude Gazillionaire and his dim assistant Penny, lend a grotty, lascivious air to the proceedings (and, as Voki and Anais, contribute a delightfully vicious parody of the Cirque du Soleil's "poetry of the circus" as leotarded, self-conscious and overly-precious ... oh, I don't know what to call them -- "motion artistes" seems appropriate).

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Sydney Dance Company: Ever After Ever

Ever After Ever. Works by Graeme Murphy. Sydney Dance Company. State Theatre, The Arts Centre, Melbourne. Until July 14.

A year ago, today, Graeme Murphy and his artistic associate Janet Vernon announced their resignations from Sydney Dance Company with an almighty -- and most undignified -- dummy spit. There were all kinds of accusations that the federal government was funding the company to fail and had no great commitment to the arts, yada yada yada. It was made all the worse by Arts Minister Senator Helen Coonan who trumped their joint announcement by releasing a glowing testimonial and heart-felt tribute to Murphy and Vernon for their thirty year contribution to the performing arts in Australia. Her press release was in my in-tray at 5:27 pm... not just hours, but days before anything official arrived from Sydney Dance.

I've always had a grudging respect for Senator Coonan as a politician -- she's cool under pressure and argues with great clarity and force -- but, on this occasion, she quite literally ran rings around Murphy and Vernon. And threw in a few pirouettes for good measure. She looked magnanimous, Graeme and Janet just looked bloody churlish.

Their announcement was made while Sydney Dance was in Melbourne, performing The Director's Cut, one third of which is reviewed here. (I couldn't say anything kind about Murphy's contributions to the triple bill, Glimpses and Cut, so I didn't say anything at all.) (There's always a first time, I suppose!)

The Director's Cut was subtitled "Graeme Murphy 30 years". The current show, Ever After Ever, in Melbourne until tomorrow, is "Graeme and Janet's Farewell Tribute to Melbourne." It's an enjoyable if lightweight line-up which rather underestimates both Melbourne's sensibilities and Murphy's vastly impressive choreographic vitae.

The company with rehearsal director Brett Morgan
(2nd row far left) (photograph by Jeff Busby)

Yes, Melbourne scores the "world premiere" of a new work by Murphy -- it's infinitely more memorable than last year's mash-up of existing works, Cut, more like offcuts if you ask me -- and there is a delicious extract from Air and Other Invisible Forces to open the programme. But much of the rest is tinsel and tizz. Apart from a tiny section from Ellipse, the bulk of the programme is given over to extended selections from Berlin (first seen in Melbourne at the Comedy Theatre in 1996) and Tivoli, which Sydney Dance and the Australian Ballet premiered in this theatre in May 2001.

Intriguingly, Bradley Chatfield and Tracey Carrodus are used as "mini me" substitutes for Murphy and Vernon throughout the programme. Chatfield, one of the finest dancers you will see, blazed less brightly than usual. Perhaps he had too much to do. (He was on almost the entire night.) A notable absentee -- from the stage and the collective cast photo -- is Alexa Heckmann, though her photograph and profile are still on the company's web site. I also missed Katherine Arnold-Lindley, poster chick for Tivoli in 2001, who retired a few years ago.

Even without Arnold-Lindley and Heckmann and Katie Ripley, and without Chatfield firing on all cylinders, the company of 16 still looks extremely sharp. Connor Dowling is especially impressive, even stealing the odd scene from Reed Luplau. Chylie Cooper continues to grow in authority and maturity.

It's almost unfair to mention just a few names. Annabel Knight has a delicious turn in Berlin with little dancy riffs on smoking and bar-stool hopping. She shows off -- as she must -- without egotism or indulgence.

There's a terrific sense of ensemble in the ranks. Well, there are no ranks, strictly! Which is why ex-NDT starlet Rani Luther can glide in so easily. After too many years 'demoted' to the level of coryphee with the Australian Ballet -- despite having been in the NDT's principal company -- Luther is at home in this egalitarian company. One senses a real respect for ability in all its guises (and for Luther's hyperextended elbows!) within the company.

The new work, Short Stories, is calculated to highlight this. It's staged like a dance-off comp. The dancers -- singly or in pairs or larger combinations -- take turns to strut their stuff while the rest of the corps sit on the floor and watch. And it's a credit to the dancers -- and Murphy and Vernon of course -- that they pull it off so consummately.

This particular selection of pieces also highlights a sustaining theme in Murphy's choreography. It's more about gender blending than gender bending. There has always been a range of body and gender types in Murphy's company, from demure and feminine to muscular and macho.... in both the boys and the girls. It's not just Beauty and the Beast stuff, either... though Murphy does have a penchant for pairing off the biggest of hunks with the waifest of women. I loved the way Nina Veretennikova could alternate, for example, with some of the male dancers (in the late 1980s) without it having to mean anything necessarily.

Here, though, this aspect of Murphy's dance making is trivialised somehow. Berlin, especially, seems dated and twee in a way that Murphy's greatest works -- After Venice, Shining, VAST, ... there are so so many I hesitate to name them for fear of missing one of the best -- have not dated. Yet Berlin occupies fully a third of the performance. The Tivoli stuff offers still more slapstick and beefcake.

But the bookending works -- Air and Other Invisible Forces and Short Stories -- are strong. A good pairing. The thematic echoes and rhymes are strong enough to hold the show together.

The bell tolls? Sydney Dance performing Underland

But, now, there is a daunting transition to be made. Sydney Dance is about to lose not just its key choreographer and creative forces, and I include Janet Vernon here, it's about to lose one of this country's greatest dance directors. Murphy's ability to motivate his dancers will be sorely missed. He leaves a company that is well-drilled and technically strong, but I fear there is a limit to what the company is capable of doing. It took close to a month, for example, for the company to get Stephen Petronio's Underland right... and a company of this stature should get works right in the rehearsal room, not on the Opera House stage.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Friday the 13th... good day for an ascension, no?

Well, it's not on-line yet -- when it is, it should be available from this page -- but let me be the first to proclaim that Alison Croggon's first review for The Australian is "absolutely, positively, overnight" in Friday's Australian.

You'll find Croggon's review of Sleeping Beauty on page 12. And clocks in at 481 words. It's tagged "It's a bastard hybrid of rock concert, cabaret and rough theatre combined with visual imagination."

3AM UPDATE: It's up. Here's the link.

9AM UPDATE: here's the director's cut.

My review's in as well. In Friday's Herald Sun. (On page 74.) So, you have lots of cafe reading today. :)

And, yes, we've done it again.

She says:
It makes an enjoyable and sometimes breathtaking production, a bastard hybrid of rock concert, cabaret and rough theatre, combined with the spectacular visual imaginations of Kantor and Tregloan. It's as close to Richard Wagner's idea of total theatre, Gesamtkunstwerk - the idea that all the different elements of theatre are fused into a single, overwhelming work - as anything I've seen.

He says:
The dramatic structure is both rigid and brittle. The pace is flat. The sound, on the whole, is boxy.

But the greatest failing in what is, in effect, a narrative concert, is in the musical direction. If only someone like Mark Trevorrow had been engaged. [...]

Sleeping Beauty is a brilliantly entertaining show, but it should have been theatre as well.

I'll quote Blake one more time... opposition is true friendship.

UPDATE: my Herald Sun review's now on-line, here.

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Malthouse Theatre: Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty devised by Michael Kantor (director), Paul Jackson (lighting designer), Maryanne Lynch and Anna Tregloan (set and costume designer). Scenario by Michael Kantor and Maryanne Lynch. Musical direction and sound design by Peter Farnan. Choreographed by Tony Bartuccio. Presented by Malthouse Theatre. At the Merlyn Theatre until July 28.

Teaser and spoiler alerts.

1. Teaser. This is the first chunk of a much longer review... it will be expanded upon after my Herald Sun review hits the streets. But there is stuff here, and there'll be more, that won't appear in the print review... Feeling lucky? (Yes, well...)

UPDATE (MONDAY JULY 16): The full Herald Sun review is now on-line.

2. Spoiler. After the jump, I've listed the songs performed in the show. If you are intending to see the show, I advise you not to read it. (It might -- or might not -- put you off!)

Personally? I blame the 1960s. That's when it all went to hell. The music world was turned on its head. Joplin recording songs by the Chantells and Kris Kristofferson. Hendrix playing Dylan. Hendrix playing Henry Mancini. Hendrix playing The Beatles. Hendrix playing the national anthem. Hendrix playing... well, you get the picture.

But it was way more widespread. Ancient waltzing hymns were turned into chart-topping gospel anthems. 'Oh Happy Day' was rebirthed in 1967 thanks to Edwin Hawkins, bless him, and the Edwin Hawkins Singers. And it's had countless resurrections since, even manifesting itself in an acoustic version of Nick Cave's song 'Deanna'. (Rescuing what is otherwise a ratshit song.)

Now look at the world? 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' has been turned into a bluesy ballad for solo piano and voice; tinpot crooners and TV weather presenters are all tacking -- I mean tackling -- songs by Mr Cave; Johnny Cash improved on Nine Inch Nails... See what I mean? Wot's the world coming to?

Sleeping Beauty cuts a bunch of songs out of time and pastes them, Mamma Mia like, into a kind of weird ransom note narrative. Weird, yes. Grand, no. But it also mixes and mashes the original fairy tale -- like sampled music -- with snatches of other stories. And it invites us to look at the shapes and infer a story. (I'm feeling compelled to mash my metaphors, too...)

The review continues here...

Act I

That's Entertainment (The Jam, 1980)
She (Charles Aznavour and Herbert Kretzmer, 1974)
A Little Ray of Sunshine (Brian Cadd and Don Mudie, Axiom, c 1970)
There She Goes (The La's, 1988)
Our House (Madness, 1982)
I Want You (Elvis Costello, 1986)
Life on Mars (David Bowie, Hunky Dory, 1971)
Go To Sleep (DMX featuring Eminem and Obie Trice, from Cradle 2 the Grave, 2003)
O Tod, O Tod, wie bitter bist du (Brahms' Four Serious Songs, 1896)
Dreamer (Roger Hodgson, Supertramp, 1974) (original version)
Deep in the Woods (Nick Cave and Mick Harvey, 1983)
Hush Little Baby (trad, lullaby)
What A Swell Party This Is (Cole Porter)

Mockingbird (Carly Simon and James Taylor version, 1974) medley with
Oops!... I did it Again (Max Martin and Rami, Britney Spears, 2000)

Cherry Bomb (The Runaways, 1976)
Starman (David Bowie, 1972)
(I'm) Stranded (Ed Kuepper and Chris Bailey, The Saints, 1976)
I Want You (reprise)

Act II

So Like Candy (Elvis Costello, 1991)
Deep in the Woods (Nick and Mick versus Freddy "Chopper" Chopin)
Beautiful Boy (John Lennon, Double Fantasy, 1990)
Rock and Roll Suicide (David Bowie, 1972)
Boys in Town (Divinyls, Monkey Grip, 1982)
Oh Happy Day (Edwin Hawkins, 1967)
Bitter Earth (Dinah Washington, c 1960)
That's Entertainment (reprise, more or less intact)
Death is not the end... (Nick Cave's version... shudder!)

Before you say, Chris, Mate, you're quick on the draw, I must point out that those smartypants folk at The Jamjar appear to have pulled their guns out eight hours before me!! The executive summary of their review reads (and I quote): "Yeh, nah."

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

IRL versus ICB

The place I call Headquarters, La Mama theatre, is built for close encounters, literally and metaphorically... Make that metatheatrically.

You have to rub shoulders at the old shirt factory, especially when 50 people are crammed into a place that is a few cubic metres smaller on the inside than it should be -- the reverse of the TARDIS -- the thanks to innumerable coats of paint (the "discount economy" stage set) applied over the last forty years... more coats of paint than the much loved and much vandalised sculpture, Ron Robertson-Swann's Vault.

Here it is in its recent home, next to the Malthouse and ACCA.

And here it is, in Batman Park.

Funny... the only image I could find of Vault without graffiti was as a maquette! But I digress...

A few weeks ago, at HQ, I was approached by a giant of a man after that night's play ended. He smilingly introduced himself as Adam Cass. Those of you with middlingly good memories will recall that Cass and I locked horns -- banged heads too -- over the 2006 Short and Sweet season. Daniel Schlusser, if memory serves, reckoned we turned criticism into a contact sport and likened us to a pair of middleweights as we slugged it out in various comments threads, starting at Mink Tails. (Like Fight Club, any ol' venue would suffice!)

Anyway, I doubt I would have taken Adam on quite so aggressively if I'd seen him IRL -- as we bloggers like to call it -- In Real Life. While we didn't quite kiss and make up last year (though I did give him a big, unexpected hug when we met, much to his consternation!) we agreed, finally, to disagree... and disagree a bit more civilly.

In twenty years of reviewing, I've had to be highly critical of acquaintances and friends -- sometimes close friends -- just as I've had to lavish praise on enemies. (You know who you are!) But, more often than not, the artists I review tend to be perfect strangers.

Unlike some of my colleagues, I don't avoid people I write about, good and bad. For me, it's a case of IRL or ICB: In Cold Blood. Best to imagine having to "back up" when you put finger to keyboard.

It's considerably more rare, I'm sure, for talent to meet a crrritic as it is for us to face them. And, yes, I've met people I know who want to kneecap me. (One or two have said as much.)

A few years back a performer, still smarting that I dismissed his show in two words ("pretty naff") (youch, what was I thinking!) was introduced to me. He spat it. I bit my tongue. But looked him in the eye. I had the comeback all ready -- an inyerface "WHAT, DO YOU THINK I DIDN'T MEAN IT?!" -- but decided not to press it home. My attitude is something like: oh well, he'll believe my praise when he gets it. If he gets it.

Last Friday, on one of the most miserable evenings of the winter so far, I aquaplaned to La Mama in Carlton to see Newtown Honey, a ten year-old play by Marty Denniss. There were two fires going: one in the courtyard and one in the theatre, so it was relatively cosy... well, cosy enough to take one coat off.

And whose shoulders did I find myself rubbing up against? Those of Ms TN herself, Alison Croggon. In tow, was Alison's youngest, Ben. I knew, immediately, that we were in for some explicit sex and/or explicit violence. It's the luck of the draw. And Ben gets it every time. (God only hopes he doesn't think all theatre is like this!) (One local playwright and novelist accused Alison of child abuse when she took Ben to see Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul in February... presumably because the seating for this 210 minute-plus-interval play were obscenely and arse-numbingly inadequate!)

Now, to cut to the chase... In theatre, we often (quite legitimately) write off differences of opinion to having seen different shows, with different audiences and different dynamics. (Out of courtesy, I typically won't review a second night performance.) Even seating position (the vagaries of acoustics in a theatre, sightlines, angle, distance and, consequently, kinaestheic involvement/empathy) will affect our response to a performance.

But there Alison and I were. Side by side. Me bored to tears, Alison not. (I have a strong suspicion that Ben was never more than disinterestedly curious -- even during the simulated sex -- but that he was too polite to disagree with his mum, il miglior fabbro an' all that!)

Anyway, Alison's review of Newtown Honey has been posted, at Theatre Notes. You'll have to wait a day or two for my dissenting opinion to be printed in the Herald Sun. (It's a longy.)

Perhaps a sneak peek is in order:
Denniss tries so hard to invent words for his actors -- new constellations and showers of words -- that he forgets to invent a world for them to inhabit. So there's a lot of heavy breathing but not much exertion. A lot of noise, but not much grip.
Finally, if I can square the circle, let me voice my admiration and respect for Adam Broinowski, who has taken a beating from many of us -- myself included -- but remains cool-headed in the face of strong criticism, and remains passionately committed to theatre which engages with ideas. The "juice" of theatre. He posted a comment, a few hours ago, here.

In it, he argues that the kind of criticism Know No Cure received "effectively [reduced] the work to degrees of consumable satisfaction."

He concludes: "This disappointing denial of the political imagination flattens the potential theatre has to challenge an audience in urgent times."

UPDATE: I got off my numb behind and tracked down a couple of of those quotations...

Here's "our man in berlin" Daniel:
Chris Boyd and Adam Cass were like a two insulting, attack-minded middleweights. Great combinations, the odd rabbit-punch...offense could have been taken but that would be like "The Man" Mundine complaining about Kessler's handy sharp left; a damp squib, a less-entertaining, or enlightening option for the punters.

And here's Adam Cass, himself, commenting at Theatre Notes:
I acknowledge my verbal jousting with Chris Boyd - me accusing him of gloating; him calling me a dick, etc... but we both got around to saying what we wanted to say, prepared to at least hear the opposing view out.
I might give Cass the last word...
We all need to keep talking about this, I think. It's about time.
We do. It is.

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Fair use and abuse... The Bell Shakespeare Company's Othello

UPDATE: I've added my Herald Sun review of Othello at the end of this post.

I am taking the inexcusable liberty of purloining a review from another blog. It comes from a pseudonymous commenter at Nicholas Pickard's blog, Arts Journalist. It was posted in response to Pickard's largely positive review of the Sydney season of The Bell Shakespeare Company's Othello.

Why have I 'nicked' it? Cos it's well written, strongly argued and too good to be buried in a comments thread.

Noam Plume writes:

I thought the production was very interesting and enjoyed it a lot – perhaps in spite of its rather profound performance shortcomings.

Blair's performance seemed to me to be one where he adopted [perhaps was directed to adopt] a few postures/physical positions to try & overcome what I have come to see as his habitual physical patterns as an actor.

What you refer to as “mesmerising movement that verges on ancient ritual and dance” I saw as his typically uncontrolled physicality – though its incidence was much reduced by the adoption of a series of straight-jacket poses – hands held tight behind back etc. I have always found his lack of discipline in this area very distracting. It removes from his work the clarity that good storytelling requires.

His usual lip smacking and chewing remained and his eye flutters repeated through the show seemingly without rhyme or reason. I was in the front row so this may have not been so obvious further off. Some have interpreted these gestures as a ‘preview’ of the last scene’s fit – but if that was how they were intended I found them very unconvincing – poorly placed and ignored by everyone else witnessing them.

To drive another nail in, I felt that he was often unable to make sense of the verse as the emotion increased.

Other drawbacks from my perspective were Walsman’s droning voiced Desdamona – which flattened all poetry to nothingness - perhaps big spaces are too much for her vocal technique to maintain the flexibility required for poetic language and my final whinge is about Wren’s performance as Cassio, which felt to me to come from the ‘aw-gee-shucks’ school of acting.[A personal prejudice perhaps.] It seems quite common for characters of that type to be played as if they’ve had an intellect bypass. Surely the character is more interesting the more dimensions they have.
That said – none of these things stopped me enjoying the show and Graham’s Iago was engaging and charming, Butel’s Roderigo a fabulous, frenzied madness of love and lust and Chris Ryan a fascinating presence – was his white face a ‘shadow’ of Othello’s black one? Was he conscience to both Othello and Iago? Was he us – the witness to the destruction of a great man? All of these I hope.

Stunning lights and the use of the oil drums to add percussive punctuations were other successful elements to a show that was either moderately well directed or brilliantly directed [depending on your theory of how Potts handled Blair’s performance].

Finally, though there was fascination there wasn’t much emotion to the experience. Thus the focus of the play moved from Othello to Iago. One colleague’s reflection that I found interesting was that it turned the play into one about a liar who, for their own gratification, leads a credulous dupe to their doom. Which really makes it a play for our times. The next election will test that theory.

N.B. All punctuation, spelling and brackets as per the original comment.

For the record, here's my review of the Melbourne premiere in May. An edited version of this review ran in the Herald Sun on Tuesday, June 5, 2007.

If only Shakespeare had lavished as much time on the plot of Othello has he did its individual speeches... It has a slasher story that would embarrass an Italian opera impresario. But, love it or hate it, Othello is a more-than-usually responsive play. It's a chessboard of intrigue and powerplay.

In Marion Potts' lean and hungry production, Iago is the King of the board. All others are his pawns. But Potts hasn't quite nutted out Iago's motivation. He hates "the moor". But, why?

Traditionally, Iago is older and far more experienced than the young General. He's bitter and vengeful that he's been overlooked while his younger, dark-skinned rival has advanced speedily through the ranks.

Here, Iago (Marcus Graham) is younger, subtler -- and definitely craftier -- than his grizzled Othello (Wayne Blair). And his malignant hatred is unexplained. Though not unbelievable.

One aspect of the play that is brilliantly realised is the racism of the first act. Brabantio (Bob Baines) reacts to the loss of his daughter to Othello as a Klansman might. He accuses Othello of practicing on Desdemona (Leeanna Walsman) "with foul charms" and abusing her delicate youth "with drugs or minerals.."

Yet Othello's failure to get steamed up in this scene makes his jealous rage in the latter acts seem all the more bizarre and irrational.

Marcus Graham is charismatic and utterly compelling as Iago. He could charm serpents with his voice. And he has the moves to match. There is a strong emphasis on spidery -- almost martial -- movement throughout the production. It draws us into the weave of the drama and holds us tight.

On first night, the tension ebbed in the final act; focus was lost when it should have been at its sharpest. Leeanna Walsman wasn't at her usual brilliant best -- she sounded congested.

But this is a better than average Othello and one that should improve over the next few days.

Othello, attributed to William Shakespeare. Directed by Marion Potts. Designed by Ralph Myers (set), Bruce McKinven (costumes), Nick Schlieper (lighting). Sound design and composition by Max Lyandvert and Stefan Gregory. Fight direction by Kyle Rowling. Playhouse, The Arts Centre Melbourne, May 31.

Currently: Sydney (Opera House, Drama Theatre) until July 28. Then Orange (Civic Centre), August 2 to 4.

For more Othello reviews -- positive and negative -- see here.

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

"I am the Hunter!"

This pic of Wraith (she's definitely Wraith, today, not Dusty) (click on any of these images to see full-size) is for E-lizabeth in lieu of a response from me to her recent meme tagging...

Yeah, I draw the line at Me-Me-Me-Me-Memes. (E. gave me an 'out' by not officially advising me! Thanks!)

The pic after the jump (Dusty persona, this time, not Wraith) is for Kerryn and her fridge cats. (It's also, belatedly, for Laura, who has spun many a wondrous yarn about her moggie's Bazcination [shall we say] with water. My favourite is here.)

"I'm considering auditioning for a part in the next Batman movie, actually."

Still life with lemon and Brazilian stove-top percolator...

Dusty's fascination with water -- and her clumsiness in and around sinks, tubs and -- regrettably -- toilet bowls leads me to believe she might have been a dog (or a human male) in one of her recent lives.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Exit the prince: Steven Heathcote

Steven Heathcote's twenty years as a principal artist with the Australian Ballet officially end this evening at the State Theatre.

If ever a man was born to play the Prince, it's Steven Heathcote. On-stage and off, Heathcote is charismatic, poised and chivalrous. He's an irresistible combination of masculinity and sensitivity.

He's the quintessential danseur noble: a powerful, tactful partner who won't hog the limelight, but can light up a 2000-seat theatre with a easy smile when required.

Physically, our Charming Prince has had a charmed life, with no significant or chronic injuries. He told me, earlier this year, that his "relatively limited range of movement" had been something of an advantage.
"I'm not one of those dancers that gets his legs up around his ears. And to a large degree [that's] kept me out of trouble. I'm actually quite strong within that range."
It seems inevitable that Heathcote will be remembered for his Princes, especially for the roles that were created "on" him: most recently the roles of Jean de Brienne in Stephen Baynes' Raymonda, last year, and Siegfried in Graeme Murphy's brilliant modernisation of Swan Lake in 2002.

Mighty as those performances were, they're only part of the story. Heathcote is a master at playing mere mortals too. One of the greatest roles of his career was in another Stephen Baynes ballet, 1914, an adaptation of David Malouf's war novel Fly Away Peter.

Heathcote played Jim Saddler, a bloke who recovers his joy in life through solitude and the natural world. Baynes used Heathcote's huge, smooth leaps and flowing gestures. Heathcote was also sensational -- brooding and darkly powerful -- as bushranger Ned Kelly in Timothy Gordon's My Name is Edward Kelly in 1990.

It's 22 years, this month, since I first saw Heathcote perform. And, yes, I remember the day. Though he'd only been with the company just two years, Heathcote had already been promoted twice. (He climbed four ranks in four years, promoted to Principal Artist early in 1987.) He and senior soloist Kathleen Reid performed Maurice Bejart's mighty, angular, ultra-modern Webern Opus 5. It rocked my world; made me want to write about dance.

In those early years, one tended to see Heathcote (and the brilliant Kathy Reid, now his wife) in the modern repertoire. I saw Heathcote in works by Jiri Kylian, Glen Tetley, Kenneth MacMillan and Graeme Murphy before seeing him play the romantic lead: Romeo in John Cranko's Romeo and Juliet. Not quite a prince, but the son of a Lord!

For every Count Albrecht, there's been an Apollo (both the title role in Balanchine's seminal work and the supporting 'god' in Tetley's Orpheus). For every Lensky there was an In the Middle Somewhat Elevated or a Spartacus. Heathcote's even played a trench-coated detective... in The Competition, the infamous (and unfunny) "whodunnit" ballet.

Other memorable and award-winning roles include parts created for Heathcote by Stephen Page (Totem) and Stephen Baynes (Unspoken Dialogues).

Tonight, fittingly, Heathcote bows out from full-time dancing in a brand new work by Christopher Wheeldon. It's a work that demands a physically and emotionally strong dancer. And finds one.

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