Monday, February 28, 2011

Sex On Sunday: ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore (Malthouse Theatre)

I didn’t make it to yesterday’s Things On Sunday forum at the Malthouse which was devoted to sex. But it seems appropriate, the morning after, to direct a few questions to Marion Potts about ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore. They’ve been rattling around my head since the first night of her production. (Which, in case you were wondering, I rather liked.)

Now... as Tim Minchin used to sing in his concert opener ‘Hello’, “If you are offended by strong language or blasphemy, maybe you should choof off home. Cos it’s only gonna get worse...” Very soon.

Potts comes out swinging in her production. It begins with Punch using some spit to lubricate Judy. And Judy is promptly, er, digitised. Shall we say.

Crass, yes, but all right... If we’re gonna get nitrogen in our blood, it’s gotta happen quick. We’re sent plunging into the deep.

But, Marion, mate... What I wanna know is:

If you’re gonna screen a video of Real Fucking, why do it on a tiny computer monitor behind Jethro? (You pussy!) Why not a massive flat screen for B’s (and our) viewing enjoyment? Afraid the on-stage action won’t compete?

Why did you choose ‘9 Songs’? [I swear to god, that’s the first time ever my fingers have ever obeyed my brain and typed ‘Songs’ instead of ‘Snogs’ after the number 9!!]

Why not a film about incest? Is Blue Lagoon not hot enough for ya? [I’ve just discovered they were supposed to be cousins, not brother and sister... boy am I pissed off... retrospectively!!] Or Chaotic Ana? [The incest in Julio Médem’s film -- which has deep family significance for the director, and it shows -- is between a reincarnated mother and her son from a previous life!] Why not some Greenaway? The Cook, The Thief was inspired by this play, no?

And why only screen the sex scenes? (Is that a dumb question?) In a loop? Okay, I understand you might want to plug into the frisson -- the ridiculous flap -- that surrounded the release of the Winterbottom film, containing actual sex and all that jizz [sorry]... but then why did you edit the “money shot” out of the loop?

You show actual oral but cut the climax!?!

Now, I realise I tend to overanalyse these things, semiotically, but the video was there for a reason, and the cum shot was left out for a reason. But what, precisely, those reasons are eludes me. Is it something prosaic, perhaps? Is it a classification problem? Are you not permitted to show X-rated Ken Park-level footage in public? (Or do you only have a Region 4 release and it has been circumcised for local audiences?)

I’ve answered my own question haven’t I? It’s like Rowan Atkinson’s hell... when one of the damned asks for the dunny, Rowan pointedly responds that there are no toilets, as hell is “damnation without relief.” [In my review for The Australian, dear non-Marion Potts reader, I argue that ‘hell’ in the three-tier world of the production is all coitus reservatus... The shadow falls between the hunger and the meal. Between chewing and, er, swallowing.] [Can’t believe I’m writing this at nine in the morning!]

Still, Marion... WTF? Please explain!

Anyway, since Cameron asked so nicely, here is my Australian review. Uncut. Heh!


Marion Potts’ abridgement of John Ford’s early 17th century story of incest and vengeance is sweeping but discriminating. It slashes every single distraction from the main game. Gone are the Friar, the Cardinal, the murdering Roman gentleman Grimaldi and other suitors for Florio’s daughter.

That leaves the girl herself, Annabella, pregnant to her brother Giovanni, and the man Annabella consents to marry to avoid scandal. But Soranzo is no Saint Joseph: he beats his new wife and threatens to kill her if she doesn’t identify the man who stole what was rightfully his. She refuses. (Soranzo’s servant Vasques then tricks Annabella’s governess -- the inexplicably-named Putana -- into revealing the awful truth, then blinds her and has her nose slit.)

Apart from the clunky introduction of the character Hippolita -- a jilted lover of Soranzo’s whose husband is believed dead -- the storyline is clear and often awesomely powerful. But this production is far more than just a ‘John Ford for Dummies’ exercise. The new Artistic Director of Malthouse Theatre gives us a three tiered extravaganza.

In Ford’s play, Annabella first appears -- like Juliet -- on a balcony, high above a brawl between her suitors. She then sees and desires -- apparently without recognising -- her brother Giovanni. Annabella’s descent is literal and, of course, metaphorical. Potts’ universe preserves that layering. Her underworld is hellish and contemporary, built out of tagged shipping containers.

The action begins there with a character named B (Chris Ryan) crudely using Punch and Judy puppets to simulate sex. Maybe he’s “the wanton” that the Friar warns Annabella of: “On racks of burning steel... he feels the torment of his raging lust.”
Ay, you are wretched, miserably wretched,
Almost condemn’d alive. There is a place,
List, daughter! in a black and hollow vault,
Where day is never seen; there shines no sun,
But flaming horror of consuming fires,
A lightless sulphur, choak’d with smoky fogs
Of an infected darkness : in this place
Dwell many thousand thousand sundry sorts
Of never-dying deaths: there damned souls
Roar without pity; there are gluttons fed
With toads and adders; there is burning oil
Pour’d down the drunkard’s throat; the usurer
Is forced to sup whole draughts of molten gold;
There is the murderer for ever stabb’d,
Yet can he never die; there lies the wanton
On racks of burning steel, whilst in his soul
He feels the torment of his raging lust.—
In the tier above B, the action of Ford’s play takes place. It’s clean -- almost Mozartian -- in design, with a mural combining creation and crucifixion. In the uppermost tier, a harpsichord-playing soprano (the heavenly Julia County) reigns like an taintless angel.

Potts manages these extremes -- both formal and thematic -- with infectious confidence. After thirty minutes, her audience was ready for any journey. To any destination. By any means. And she demonstrably has the confidence of her cast, who act with the kind of fearlessness that comes with lucid and firm direction. Elizabeth Nabben is a memorable and delightful Annabella. Making a welcome return to the Malthouse, Anthony Brandon Wong is an excellent Vasques, like an evil Figaro. But they are first among equals.

’Tis Pity She’s A Whore by John Ford. Adapted and directed by Marion Potts. Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, until March 5. Tickets: $21-$55 plus booking fee. Bookings 03 9685 5111.

Original Music by Andrée Greenwell. Set & costume design by Anna Cordingley. Lighting design by Paul Jackson. Sound design and live music performed by Jethro Woodward. Dramaturgy by Maryanne Lynch.

Cast: John Adam, Julia County, Laura Lattuada, Elizabeth Nabben, Richard Piper, Chris Ryan, Benedict Samuel, Alison Whyte, Anthony Brandon Wong.

Running Time: 100 minutes (no interval)




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Friday, February 25, 2011

Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Apologia: saving us from the rampant stupidity of religion on the one hand and vacuous consumerism on the other. Or not.

Apparently, we’re supposed to have forgiven our parents by the time we turn forty. But in the immortal words of one very famous mortal -- and step-dad -- “May one be pardoned and retain the offence?” (In Claudius’s case: his crown, his ambition and his queen.) He answers himself. Hell, no!

Kristin Miller’s kids -- one around forty, t’other a little under -- are maintaining their rage against the crusading, red-ragger, firebrand woman that bore them. And bully for them!


Patrick Brammall and Robyn Nevin in Apologia (Photo: Jeff Busby)

But what I find impossible to swallow is that they’re genuinely appalled -- newly appalled, appalled all over again -- when mummy dearest fails to mention either of them in her newly published memoir.

I think I can speak of this experience with some authority! My sister-in-law and a stray half-brother get chapters to themselves in my father’s memoir. But I’m the Lynn Redgrave of my family, only scoring an actual mention for dissing the old man in a eulogy. But did the gaping hole in my father’s yarn trigger an existential crisis? Again, hell no! Just a roll of the eyes. Or, more accurately, just another roll of the eyes.

Playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell admits his own mother is nothing like Kristin Miller. Actually, I don’t think Kaye Campbell’s creation is much like any human being. His portrait of a feminist radical and brilliant art historian is weirdly 2D and unconvincing. Where do I begin?

* The author and intellectual who inexplicably (and unforgivably) refers to the word ‘fucking’ as an adjective;

* The grown-up who can snap at Trudi in the first scene “Please don’t tell me what I mean” then blithely say to her younger son’s GF in the second act: “Surely you can’t mean that.”

* The atheist who calls her sons Simon and Peter (!!) and who specialises in religious art of the Italian Renaissance;

* The humanist non-believer who manages to give a lecture on punishment and reward without using the words paradise, heaven or hell yet still refers to her work as her ‘calling’ and her ‘vocation’. [Okay, that last bit made her a little bit interesting, but the earlier qualities [sic] just made her less believable.]


There are quite a few more holes in Kaye Campbell’s portrait than there are holes in the tribal mask that Kristin is presented with by her eldest son Peter and his fiancée Trudi. (Q. What’s a mask with only one hole? A. A bell.) [I’ve been asked not to attribute this riddle! But I’ll only take provisional credit for it until the angel outs herself.] [D’oh!]

Nevertheless... nevertheless... Robin Nevin almost pulls the contradictions off. Almost. In my review in today’s Australian, on-line here, I argue that director Jennifer Flowers concentrates on making sense of the to-and-fro powerplay between the characters, especially mother and (eldest) son. I found these ‘beats’ -- the rare occasions that one character catches the attention of another -- most interesting. (Prada did not. She left at half time.)

There are a couple of those beats in quick succession in the first scene. Kristin likens Trudi, Peter’s spunky Christian fiancée, to a peach tree. Peter -- for once -- is genuinely surprised by his mother. A moment later, he says to Kristin” “I read your book.” She turns, expectant in spite of herself, with an “Oh?”

But an enormous percentage of the script is devoted to staccato monologues rather than actual dialogue. The family members, in particular, talk in crossfire. No-one listens. No-one, apparently, wants to be heard. And that makes it a damn hard text to make work. And this production, as of Wednesday night, hasn’t quite made that part work.

But more in the official review...

Playwright Alexi Kaye Campbell imagined Vanessa Redgrave in the lead role of his play Apologia when he cast it in his mind. “I thought about strong women of that generation who really had to be... ground-breakers and pioneers; how difficult that had to have been.”

Like Redgrave, Kaye Campbell’s fictional heroine Kristin Miller is a life-long crusader and only partly reformed communist. As a student at Cambridge, Kristin was a part of the massive anti-war protest in Grosvenor Square that Redgrave and Tariq Ali led in March 1968, the one that ended in mounted police charges and riot.


Tariq Ali and Vanessa “Red Rave”, Grosvenor Square March 1968

A brilliant and pioneering art historian the sixtysomething Miller might be, but she was and is -- according to her sons -- a dreadful mother. The last straw for them is that neither is mentioned in her newly published memoir... something Redgrave’s kid sister could have related to. [Lynn’s birth didn’t rate a mention in Sir Michael’s diary.]

Younger son Simon (Patrick Brammall) puts it bluntly: “everything we are and everything we do is a response against you.” Kaye Campbell asks us to believe that Simon, in his late thirties, has never recovered from his mother having had a proverbial room of her own.

Out of tired habit, Miller urges her smug older son Peter (Ian Bliss), a banker, to change careers so that she can be proud to call him her son again. He arrives at her home in the English countryside with his new fiancée Trudi in tow. She’s young, pretty, American... and Christian!

The non-believing matriarch is appalled. “All of a sudden the idea of him keeping the whole of sub-Saharan Africa in crippling debt doesn’t seem quite as bad a proposition.”

Miller patronises the well-meaning but callow Trudi (Laura Gordon) cruelly. Simon’s soap-star girlfriend Claire (Helen Christinson) doesn’t fare much better. Claire, at least, gives as good as she gets.

The family, plus Miller’s beloved old friend Hugh (an utterly delightful Ron Falk), gather to celebrate Kristin’s birthday. The only listening that takes place in the course of the evening, and morning after, is critical scrutiny: research for future attacks.

Miller and her sons say what they have to say and don’t seem to care all that much if they’re heard. That makes Kaye Campbell’s script something of a challenge to perform. It needs to be conducted like a vocal score.

Director Jennifer Flowers has concentrated on the emotional transitions and powerplay, but her success here is at the expense of overall timing. Instead of a fugue, the individual voices are an overlapping and tin-eared cacophony. And the hard-won cracking of Kristin’s mask, her carapace of petrified idealism, seems strained and artificial.

Apologia by Alexi Kaye Campbell. Directed by Jennifer Flowers. Set design by Shaun Gurton. Lighting design by Nigel Levings. Melbourne Theatre Company. Fairfax Studio, the Arts Centre, until April 9.


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Monday, February 21, 2011

CD Review: Beau Soir. Janine Jansen, violin.

Like a thoughtfully curated exhibition, a recital program can light up our minds by revealing connections between composers and eras and nations or, as here, by merely offering a simple theme and narrative arc.



In Beau Soir, Dutch violinist Janine Jansen takes us on a starry tour of French music from the “beautiful evening” of Debussy’s title song (arranged for violin and piano by Jascha Heifetz) through moonlight (a transcription of Debussy’s Clair de lune) to darkness (Lili Boulanger’s winsome Nocturne) and dreams (Richard Dubugnon provides the rapid eye movement in the specially-composed Hypnos) and beyond: Faure, Messiaen, Ravel.

Were it no more than a commanding performances of these works on an exquisite instrument -- Jansen plays Stradivari’s ‘Barrere’ -- this would still be a blinder of a recording. But the dynamic rapport Jansen has with her accompanist Itamar Golan, their ability to turn an abstract compositional argument between two instruments into a passionate and increasingly heated domestic, and the almost shocking intimacy of the recording make this the kind of CD you want to commit to, as you would to a concert in a recital hall... or, more accurately, to one in the privacy of your own home.

Listening to Jansen and Golan playing Debussy’s Violin Sonata is like eavesdropping on young, sexy and ever-so-slightly neurotic strangers. The simple dusk-to-dawn program becomes a “long night’s journey into day.” No wonder the French smoke. It helps disguise the heavy breathing.

Beau Soir
Janine Jansen, violin.
With Itamar Golan, piano.
Decca

A shortened version of this review was published in the February 19-20 edition of the Weekend Australian

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Monday, February 14, 2011

Review: A Behanding In Spokane by Martin McDonagh. Melbourne Theatre Company.

My review of A Behanding in Spokane is published in today’s Australian. It’s also on-line, here. Below is the extended remix with commentary track version -- about four times as long -- so don’t say I didn’t warn ya!

The heart of contemporary Irish drama is not in Dublin or Belfast, it’s in the rural west. But its native voices -- George Fitzmaurice, John B Keane, MJ Molloy -- are virtually unknown outside the region let alone the republic.

Galway Bay’s Aran Islands were immortalised by Abbey Theatre co-founder JM Synge, who went there (on Yeats’ advice) to study and write about Irish peasant life. A century on, the names Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer -- the three Aran Islands -- bring to mind another outsider: playwright and filmmaker Martin McDonagh.

The forty year-old McDonagh -- a magnificently foul-mouthed trouble-maker -- was born and raised in London. Like Synge, he only ever holidayed out west. But ‘authority’ is only afforded to those that are heard. And McDonagh has had the entire English-speaking world listening -- and listening rather anxiously -- since The Beauty Queen of Leenane premiered in the mid 1990s.

McDonagh boasts that the National Theatre declined to produce the middle play of his Aran Island trilogy, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, as NT director Trevor Nunn thought the play so incendiary a production might threaten the Northern Ireland peace process! (The INLA lieutenant of the title was thrown out of the IRA for “being too mad.” His only friend is a cat.)

Legend also has it that the first seven of McDonagh’s plays were banged out in just ten months in 1994. The last of these, The Pillowman, performed locally by the MTC in 2007 and Company B in 2008, was the first to be set outside of Ireland. McDonagh’s eighth, A Behanding In Spokane, is set in the US. It’s the first of his plays not to have been drafted in that initial creative burst.

Given that this is McDonagh’s first completely new play in a decade and a half, it’s hardly what you would call a dam-buster -- it’s not much more than an etude, a simple little one-acter in three scenes -- but it is extraordinarily assured.

It’s as fearless and offensively funny as The Lieutenant of Inishmore and morbid as The Pillowman. But if Synge has been a constant and obvious thematic influence on McDonagh’s first two trilogies -- that’s everything pre The Pillowman -- then Shepard is the role model for this one. (And just to be clear about this, McDonagh’s Synge was always decidedly Pinteresque with lashings of PoMo black humour a la Tarantino.)

Druid Theatre co-founder Garry Hynes neatly described McDonagh’s early work as merging the parochial and the postmodern. She told the Guardian, in 2001:
He has that mix of influences and experiences that second- or third-generation Irish people often have, and he has an extraordinary ear for dialogue.

People who say he has no right to write what he does, or that it is not authentic, are missing the point. If you're looking for authenticity, then do not go to the theatre. Period. We are dealing with a world of the imagination here, just like with Synge or O'Casey or whoever, and the imagination knows no limits. Surely that's the essence of theatre, not moral dilemmas or messages. I'd accept that he's young, and that he has a lot of living and a lot of writing to do, but the last thing we should be trying to do is close him off.
Over the years McDonagh has faced repeated accusations of “paddywhacking”. After the premiere of Behanding, in New York last year, the playwright found himself on the receiving end of racism accusations of a different kind.

In his New Yorker review Hilton Als came out swinging:
I don’t know a single self-respecting black actor who wouldn’t feel shame and fury while sitting through Martin McDonagh’s new play, “A Behanding in Spokane” (directed by John Crowley, at the Gerald Schoenfeld). Nor do I know one who would have the luxury of turning the show down, once the inevitable tours and revivals get under way. The play is engineered for success, and McDonagh’s stereotypical view of black maleness is a significant part of that engineering. Still, one wonders how compromised the thirty-one-year-old Anthony Mackie must feel, playing Toby, a black prole whose misadventures are central to this four-character show.”

[...]

He performs as though he were Stepin Fetchit in a room full of bickering ghosts. Toby’s characterization is as offensive as the language used to describe him. While Carmichael’s “nigger” talk could be put down to an attempt of McDonagh’s to expose the nastiness of a segment of the population—many writers have used ugly language to paint an honest portrait of racism in this country—the caricature he presents in Toby, the young black male as shucking, jiving thief, can’t be excused on those grounds, or by the slick professionalism that coats the play’s intellectual decay. McDonagh adds gag after gag to the show, as if he believed that comedy could cover up the real horror at its core: the fact that blackness is, for him, a Broadway prop, an easy way of establishing a hierarchy.


Stepin Fetchit (Lincoln Perry) and Will Rogers in The County Chairman


It’s difficult to tell from a review, of course, but I’d hazard a guess that Bert LaBonté’s Toby in the Melbourne Theatre Company production is less caricatured, less clichéd, than Anthony Mackie’s. Yes, LaBonté plays Toby like a cross between Chris Rock and Lou, the police sergeant in The Simpsons, but he’s way more than “the laziest man in the world” that the Stepin Fetchit character embodied. (Nowadays, the Stepin Fetchit scenes are deleted from broadcasts just as surely as the ‘abo’ verse from Rolf Harris’s ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport’ is.)


Hollywood’s first black millionaire, Lincoln Perry.
His sixteen servants were Asian.


Toby and his white girlfriend Marilyn (Nicole da Silva) are trying to scam Carmichael (Colin Moody) who has been on a quest to recover his severed left hand for more 27 years. [In the premiere of the play, with Christopher Walken in the lead, the length of the quest was upped to 47 years to match the age of the actor, now in his middle 60s.]

Carmichael was “behanded” (behanded, beheaded, you get the picture) as a teen by marauding hillbillies, for reason or reasons unknown. He’s since disposed of the hillbillies, but he won’t stop searching until he has recovered the missing hand. Toby and Marilyn try to sell Carmichael a hand from the local museum, which came from an Australian aborigine. Carmichael, to put it mildly, is not pleased at the colour mismatch.

Rather gamely, Marilyn objects to the gun-toting Carmichael’s use of the N-word. Carmichael replies:

“I’d’a never used the word ‘nigger’ if you hadn’t brought me the hand of a nigger!”

And, later, when they’re on their own, Marilyn tackles Toby over his failure to ‘call’ Carmichael on his use of the word. To which Toby responds:

“Yeah, I’ve got a thing about calling a white supremacist motherfucker who’s got a gun in my face, and my girlfriend’s face, who’s waving a nigger’s hand around like it’s a motherfucking Kentucky Fried motherfucking chicken-wing, yes, I’ve got a thing about picking the dude up upon his offensive mis-usage of RACIAL MOTHERFUCKING EPITHETS!! I’ve got a thing about that!”

They’re both handcuffed to a radiator in a hotel room with a lit candle stuffed into the opening of a can of gasoline when that little exchange takes place.

At the very least, Toby gets 80% of the best lines of the play, which LaBonté delivers in brilliantly clipped, rapid-fire, staccato bursts: “The guy’s an amputee goddam racist motherfucking cracker motherfucking HAND-PSYCHO!” (See what I mean about Chris Rock?)

Enter the hotel’s bizarro “reception guy” Mervyn (Tyler Coppin channelling Tom Waits) -- who has a thing for gibbons, high school shootings and rescue fantasies -- and the quartet is complete.

Bizarre as they most definitely are, all four characters -- sociopaths, scammers and thieves one and all -- are wonderfully fleshy. They’re characters you can walk around... and would hurry across the street to avoid. Marilyn excepted. (Maybe!) The two least sane, if anything, are the most captivating and internally consistent. And most perfectly cast.

The aptly-named Moody makes a brilliantly menacing -- but oddly lovable -- Carmichael. Think Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men, with a soft spot. (Ah, the powers of reflective listening!) Mervyn is the only one crazy enough to walk up to the propeller; to literally look down the gun barrel into Carmichael’s eyes... and not blink.

Nicole da Silva has a terrific capacity for clowning. There’s a great openness in her acting and fearlessness in physical work that we’ve been lucky enough to see on both stage (This Is Our Youth at fortyfivedownstairs and Hayloft’s BC) and on screen (especially Rush). Marilyn is a comfortable fit for her.

Toby is less of a fit for LaBonté. That’s no slight on him as a performer. The guy’s a star. It’s just a matter of having to dial his talent down for the role in a way that the other cast members don’t. (I haven’t quite nailed this thought. Contributions welcome!)

Peter Evans’ production is every bit as poised and inspired as the writing: from Ben Grant’s banjo and bass score (reminiscent of The Eagles’ Journey of the Sorcerer, which you might know as the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy theme music) to Christina Smith’s elegant, foot-lit, plush-curtained, stage-within-a-stage setting. It’s rare to see a production so well resourced and so well rehearsed, so bent and so enjoyable.

A Behanding In Spokane. Melbourne Theatre Company. At the MTC Sumner Theatre until March 19. Tickets: $61.10 to $83.15. ($30 for under 30s) Bookings: 03 8688 0800.

Directed by Peter Evans. Set and costume design by Christina Smith. Lighting design by Matt Scott. Sound design by Ben Grant. With Colin Moody as Carmichael, Tyler Coppin as Mervyn, Nicole da Silva as Marilyn and Bert LaBonté as Toby.



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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Review: Ruben Guthrie by Brendan Cowell. Red Stitch Actors Theatre.

As a general rule, playwrights shouldn’t direct their own work... unless others have had a crack at it first. So Michael Gow didn’t direct a mainstage production of Away until 20 years after Peter Kingston and Neil Armfield had nailed it. And, let’s face it, there wasn’t much need for another production after Armfield’s Peter Brook-like rendition.

Wayne Blair directed the premiere of Ruben Guthrie, by the brilliantly versatile Brendan Cowell, in 2008. And Cowell himself has a crack at directing it for Red Stitch Actors Theatre in this all-new production.


Daniel Frederiksen as Ruben (Photograph: Jodie Hutchinson)

Cowell’s picaresque tale of a substance-abusing Ad-man begins thus: “My name is Ruben Guthrie, and I’m... in advertising.” Ruben is addressing an AA meeting. But ‘alcoholic’ is -- like the word ‘love’ in Joan Armatrading’s ‘Love Song’ -- entirely absent from the play. Unmentionable. Rather than mess with us, Cowell keeps his titular hero off the turps. His resistance is herculean.

As a writer, Cowell’s one conspicuous fault is in failing to sell us Ruben’s relationships with past and future fiancées. Okay, we get it... Zoya, the Czech model is the Zinfandel: balls and class. [Note to Brendan: Zinfandel is a Croatian or even Southern Italian grape. You could even make her a Napa Valley Girl and get away with it!] And the newie, Virginia, is the sparkling mineral water: fizz without intoxication.

But with Erin Dewar playing Virginia, rarely has abstinence seemed so appealing. Virginia is so bloody good to Ruben, she’s so adorable and sexy, it’s hard to buy that he’s still hung up on the superseded (super-) model who is so icy cold and insufferable.

As written -- and as played -- Zoya (Anna Samson) is no more than a trophy he snatched when she was young and vulnerable. There’s no evidence of any connection between them whatsoever. And this makes Ruben look like an ungrateful, insidious, unreformed BASTARD. Well, more of an ungrateful, insidious, unreformed BASTARD than he needs to look.

Either Virginia needs to be far more annoying -- or blatantly failing to get Ruben -- or Zoya needs to have something more substantial on her side than unavailability and history and height!

As a director, Cowell’s one conspicuous fault is not trimming his own words. And, when the catastrophe finally arrives, it’s too long and too loud. Daniel Frederiksen is both shouty and a wee bit one-dimensional, vocally. (Think Sid Snot from the Kenny Everett Video Show or Vivienne from The Young Ones.)
As Ruben’s funboy friend Damian, Simon Maiden is magnificent, irresistible, brilliant.

Simon Maiden and Daniel Frederiksen in Ruben Guthrie
Photograph: Jodie Hutchinson


Nevertheless, under Cowell’s guidance, the estimable Red Stitch ensemble (Erin Dewar, Andrea Swifte, David Whiteley, Anna Samson) and very fine guest actors (Simon Maiden and Dennis Coard) help turn a good script (clever, delightful, well-observed, blunt, you name it) into a great play.

Ruben Guthrie, written and directed by Brendan Cowell. Set design by Peter Mumford. Lighting design by Stelios Karagiannis. Costume design by Kasia Kaczmarek and Olga Makeeva. Sound design by Marlene Samson and Jonathon Shaw. Red Stitch Actors Theatre, St Kilda, until March 5. Tickets: $20-$34. Bookings: 9533 8083.

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Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Review: Song of the Bleeding Throat by David Tredinnick

Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh documented their lives not wisely but too well! They crushed their world with chronicle and make us long for a purgatory for writers like the one imagined by Hesse in Steppenwolf. Around ten thousand letters went back and forth between them alone.

Cheekily, Samuel Butler praised God for letting Thomas and Jane marry... thus making “only two people miserable and not four.” The famously cranky Thomas devoted 13 years to his six volume biography of Frederick the Great. (By all accounts, it wasn’t just writers block that he suffered from... his bowels were pretty congested too!) Yet Jane dared complain (in a letter, natch) about artist Robert Tait’s excessive attention to detail, painting their home with “Vandkye fidelity”.



Despite photographing the house, Tait worked from life. His 1857 painting ‘A Chelsea Interior’ is, according to Mark Cumming, the only painting in which the husband and wife appear together. The coziness of their living room, Cumming writes, contrasts with the distinct spheres the Carlyles inhabit. “Their separateness indicates their personal differences.”

The 90 minute first part of David Tredinnick’s diptych (more of an installation with actors than a common-or-garden play) literally animates ‘A Chelsea Interior’ using the Carlyles’ published writings and letters and countless other sources. Animates it like a Kit Kat commercial rather than bringing it to fleshy three-dimensional life.

It also depicts Tait’s prolonged and intrusive presence which so irked Jane. Weirdly enough, the Carlyles’ dog Nero (James Saunders) is the most animated character of the lot!

Like a pair of Beckett characters frozen in space and time, the famously cranky couple moan about their ailments, their noisy neighbours and the not-quite-soundproof attic room in which Thomas is attempting to complete his massive biography of Frederick.

The cut-up portrait of the couple is clever enough, but it is territory charmingly and thoroughly covered by Thea Holme in her book The Carlyles at Home. (Holme lived and work in the same house as the Carlyles a century after them. And a few punny jokes aside (“My stock is reduced.” “Oh! A culinary metaphor!” Boom, boom!) Song of the Bleeding Throat is dry to the point of aridness.

The shorter second half is a slapstick and jokey encounter between Walt Whitman (Richard Bligh) and Abe Lincoln (Neil Pigot), who is delirious on his deathbed. John Wilkes Booth (Saunders) and Liberty herself (Anne Browning) also materialise.

Like a lop-sided cluster of stars, Song invites us to make a constellation out of the opposing tableaux; to infer a grander significance from the parts. There’s a chance, I suppose, that we might one day regard this text as a classic, like one of Bowie’s cut-up songs on Diamond Dogs. But, right now, to me at least, it’s hard enough to infer a grammar out of the bits let alone muster up the energy to read any significance into them. And the words, by themselves, don’t have much in the way of music to sustain them.

Given the randomness of the text, Richard Bligh’s performance (especially as Thomas) is an awesome feat of memory. But then admiration is a long way short of satisfaction.

Song of the Bleeding Throat by David Tredinnick. Dramaturgy by William Henderson. Directed and designed (with Alexis George) by Brian Lipson. Lighting by Niklas Pajanti and Nicola Andrews. Commissioned and presented by The Eleventh Hour. At The Eleventh Hour Theatre, 170 Leicester Street Fitzroy, until February 12. Tickets $40, $25 concession. Bookings: 9419 5649.

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