Sunday, September 27, 2009

Just a coupla reviews: One Night the Moon and The Year of Magical Thinking

One Night The Moon, adapted from the film by John Romeril. Directed by Wesley Enoch. Set and costume design by Anna Cordingley. Lighting design by Niklas Pajanti. Sound design by Kelly Ryall. Presented by Malthouse Theatre. At the Merlyn until October 3.

This stage adaptation of Rachel Perkins’ terrific short film One Night The Moon has excellent ‘provenance’. The adaptation is penned by Perkins’ original writing collaborator John Romeril and the music is played by (among others) one of the film score’s composers, Mairead Hannan.

The beautiful and effective music -- by Hannan, Kev Carmody and Paul Kelly -- is driving, Celtic-infused folk. It powers the piece, from the reverent beginning to the catastrophic conclusion. And director Wesley Enoch makes a fair fist of turning cinema magic into stage magic.

But the transition from one medium to the other stumbles and staggers quite badly. You wouldn’t guess that the stump-jump plough had been invented fifty-five years before the action of the play. The spoken word sections trip up the flow of the narrative time after time after time, bringing it to a crunching halt.

Bizarrely, the country and folk voices of the film have been replaced by raspy rock and roll (Mark Seymour in Paul Kelly’s role) and classic music theatre voices in roles previously sung by actors. Good as she is -- and, really, she is the best of the actors -- Natalie O’Donnell sounded like she was understudying Debra Byrne in Les Misérables. As the white woman, and grieving mother of the missing six year-old girl, this was perfectly apt. But for the black tracker (Kirk Page) to sing like the romantic tenor lead from a musical comedy was more than a little off-putting.

Missing entirely from this production is the little girl. She’s a disembodied voice and a wraithlike projection.

Compared to the short film, this stage adaptation of One Night The Moon is incredibly heavy-handed. Lines like “beyond the known, we’re not alone” are left hanging in space. Mystery, which can be established in a single shot in a film, is infinitely harder to pull-off in a theatre. The comparison between a maggot-ridden lost lamb and the little girl seems mawkish and obvious.

Enoch and Romeril do better in illustrating the tension between the world having its way with us and us having our way with the world. But, overall, the parable-like simplicity of the original story -- while carried brilliantly in the music -- now seems simpleminded.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Directed by Cate Blanchett. (Jennifer Flowers, associate.) Set Design by Alice Babidge. Costume design by Giorgio Armani. Sound design by Natasha Anderson. Lighting design by Nick Schlieper. At the Cremorne Theatre, Brisbane, until October 17.

On Christmas Day 2003, Joan Didion’s daughter Quintana was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit at Beth Israel North in New York. A winter cold had spiralled into pneumonia and then complete septic shock.

Five days later, after visiting their comatose daughter, Didion and her writer husband John Gregory Dunne lit a fire at home and sat down to eat. John ended up face down on his dinner plate, dead of a massive coronary.

Though outwardly accepting of her husband’s death, the rational and intelligent Joan refuses to part with John’s shoes. He will need them if he came back, she thinks.

Thus began Didion’s “year of magical thinking,” a year in which the writer turned her life into a kind of fiction, a year in which she simply refused to accept that the outcome of her life with her husband was fixed, that it couldn’t be revised or rewritten like a screenplay.

Didion’s cool-headed account of that year sold hundreds of thousands of copies in hardback. This stage version, also by Didion, is a kind of sequel. (Tragically, Quintana died as the book was about to hit the stores in 2005.)

In this STC production -- presented by the QTC -- Cate Blanchett directs Robyn Nevin. Yes, the Sydney Theatre Company’s new artistic director directs the recently-retired boss. Just as BC (Before Cate) turned to AD with this production, the calendar of Didion’s life restarted with the death of the man she lived with -- and worked alongside -- for forty joyful years.

Didion trawls through their memories and re-dates them: their final trip to Paris becomes 32 days BC. Her last birthday, 25 days BC. Their daughter’s wedding, eight months BC. And so on.

A visit to LA where Quintana is again hospitalised -- this time with a life threatening brain injury -- becomes a desperate quest to avoid familiar places, from the days when the three lived in Malibu. Unguarded memories suck Didion into a vortex in which she has no control over fate. These memories are like improvised explosive devices on the roadside in Iraq.

The stage version of The Year of Magical Thinking -- like the book -- is anything but maudlin. It’s analytical. And very blunt. There are no euphemisms here. Didion likes her truth neat. And it takes your breath away like over-proof liquor.

Nevin, one of our greatest actors, is a joy to watch. Even at her quietest, her voice carries easily and clearly to the back of the theatre. She’s a definition of control, even here, portraying a wife and mother almost paralysed with grief.

It’s a good looking production, though like Cate Blanchett’s other recent productions, the sound is overdone and overly literal.

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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Review: The Colours by Peter Houghton

In his novel Popcorn, Ben Elton playfully uses the fact that we begin each chapter not knowing a thing. Not even where and when we are. He uses it and abuses it. Peter Houghton does something similar to the monodrama, where one actor plays multiple characters.

A third of the way through The Colours, we’re still asking ourselves: are we watching a skilled actor doing lots of roles -- principally that of a Colour Sergeant Atkins barking orders at his infantrymen -- or just the one man, who has gone barking mad?

And just as Elton used comedy and satire to tackle very serious issues -- the media’s complicity in killing sprees -- Houghton uses his extraordinary comic skills to tell a sad and troubled tale of loyalty abused and an empire in decline. It’s an Apocalypse Now-style story related sitcom style, like a dark episode of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.

Actually, Atkins has plenty in common with Battery Sergeant Major Williams from It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. He’s a regimental thug in a far-flung outpost of a bankrupt and overextended empire. And, yes, the natives are restless. It’s time for a changing of the colours.

The Colours, we eventually establish, is set just after the Second World War in a fictional African colony, Batundi. (I immediately thought Burundi, but that terribly poor country was never part of the British Empire. It was German then Belgian.)

The 98th, of which Atkins is a part, is a regiment that has fought for King and country since the Napoleonic Wars; a regiment that has distinguished itself on no fewer than eighty battlefields. Atkins principal duty is to guard the regiment’s ensign, the flag under which the infantrymen rally. He literally flies the colours. With a bolt-action Lee-Enfield rifle in hand.

Houghton and his director Anne Browning -- the team that brought us The Pitch -- quite brilliantly balance sympathy and contempt for Atkins: admiration for his determination and loyalty on the one hand and disdain for his brutal methods on the other. The real heroes are the volunteers and conscripts who have fought and died under the blood red ensign: the Irishman determined to feed his extended family, the Marxist-sympathiser, the artist and so on.

It’s neither a black armband nor a white blindfold view of Empire. It manages to be nostalgic without ever romanticising a bloody past. It’s comedy with bayonet fixed. It’ll gut you.

The Colours, written and performed by Peter Houghton. Directed by Anne Browning. Set and costume design by Shaun Gurton. Lighting by Richard Vabre. Music by David Chesworth. Melbourne Theatre Company. At the MTC Theatre, Lawler Studio, until September 12.

A slightly shortened version of this review was published in the September 9 edition of the Herald Sun.

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Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Man In Black, the Johnny Cash story. Set list.

Yes, I am a trainspotter. Here’s the set list from The Man In Black, in which Tex Perkins stars as Johnny Cash. It opened last night.

Act 1

1. I Walk The Line
2. Hey Porter
3. Get Rhythm
4. Big River
5. Five Feet High And Rising
6. Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)
7. Don’t Take Your Guns To Town
8. Sunday Morning Coming Down
9. Help Me Make It Through The Night (duet with Rachael Tidd)
10. It Ain’t Me Babe (duet)
11. Jackson (duet)

Act 2

1. Folsom Prison Blues
2. Busted
3. Cocaine Blues
4. Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog
5. A Boy Named Sue
6. 25 Minutes To Go
7. Greystone Chapel
8. Starkville City Jail
9. Man In Black
10. Bird On A Wire (Leonard Cohen cover)
11. If I Were A Carpenter (duet)
12. Hurt (NIN cover)
13. Ring Of Fire


1. Darlin’ Companion
2. Folsom Prison Blues (this time sung by Tidd) and medley

The Man In Black, the Johnny Cash story. Starring Tex Perkins, Rachael Tidd and “the Tennessee Four” (Peter Luscombe, James Black, Steve Hadley and Ashley Naylor). Athenaeum Theatre until September 12.

UPDATE: my review...

After a thundering version of ‘I Walk The Line’ -- so deep it would make a sub-woofer quake -- the black-suited singer steps up and delivers the trademark opening line: “Hello, I’m...”

It’s a shock and a relief when he says: “... Tex Perkins.”

As rich and deep as the voice is, as impressive as the figure-eight gee-tar strumming is, Tex is smart enough to know that a little modesty goes a long way. This man in black has a white shirt on. For now.

The first half of the show sketches Johnny Cash’s childhood and early career. It’s clumsy, but informative and often fun. And it takes us from the first number one hit (‘I Walk The Line’) to Johnny’s first number two with June Carter: ‘Jackson’. (They never quite hit the top together, though they made it back to number 2 a few years later with ‘If I Were A Carpenter’... which features in the second half.)

Interestingly enough, the selection of songs in this half (‘Hey Porter’, ‘Get Rhythm’, ‘Big River’, ‘Five Feet High And Rising’) is smarter than the banter. The renditions are conservative and rock solid. And the focus is firmly on Perkins.

After interval, the show kicks up several notches. This time, Tex opens with a “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” his white shirt replaced with a black one. And the band fires off the opening songs from the legendary 1968 Folsom Prison concerts: ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and ‘Busted’ which they follow with another four songs that featured in the Folsom concerts.

Just when the show is barrelling along like an express train, the narration brings the show to a crunching halt. But not for long.

Covers of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird On A Wire’ and Trent Reznor’s ‘Hurt’ (which Cash released on two of his ‘American’ recordings, in 1994 and 2002 respectively) lend the show an unexpected complexity. For a moment, we hear how Cash might have sounded if he had sung these songs as a young man, in rude health, not an ailing man in his 60s.

Perkins is as close as we’re likely to get to Johnny Cash in Australia. He makes Walk The Line star Joaquin Phoenix sound like an anaemic karaoke singer. His speaking voice is uncannily like Cash’s. More could be done in the sound mix to thicken up the mid-range of his voice to match it with Cash’s unique timbre, and Perkins needs to concentrate less on mimicry and more on character.

Still, Tex is Tex. Captivating and entertaining. And so is the show.

It will satisfy hardcore fans of both men. And that’s no mean feat.

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