Thursday, April 28, 2011

My Darling Patricia’s Africa on tour...

Like Black Lung before it, My Darling Patricia took full advantage of the Tower Theatre residency at the Malthouse in 2009. Residency? It looked more like a squat! And the tenants weren’t gonna be easy to evict.

The team draped the entrance to the Tower theatre (and curtained the stage) with brilliant, colourful bed sheets. Kids’ bed sheets emblazoned with blocks and Garfields and toys... The on-stage home was a dump. More or less literally. In radation/biohazard boilersuits the human cast members rummaged through the junk like a forensics team. (Is this a used condom I see before me?)

We were given a kids-eye view of an adults only world, presented the lower half of a groovy guy and girl in a bathroom, partying, and just the shadow of their top halves. Meanwhile, downstage, the kids (played by dolls) played. There was a plastic doll head in a toy microwave... A plastic bag over the head of one of the ‘real’ dolls... the baby of the three children.

It felt like CocoRosie Theatre: a plastic rocker turned into a Zebra. The TV doco on Africa was filled with wonderful lies: “Chips grow on trees in Africa... Be Karaoke Queen in Africa.” There was a Grace Jones-like African Queen dance routine and a copper with a wah-waahing voice, just like a cartoon.

My Darling Patricia’s excellent show Africa is back, and doing the rounds in the next six weeks -- Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Hobart, Launceston, Bathurst and Lismore -- before a longer season at Wharf 2 in Sydney in August/September.

Doubtless, there have been some tweaks since the premiere in November 2009, but (equally doubtless) the rave reviews are still deserved. Here’s mine for the Herald Sun.

Though it is inspired by a too-saccharine-to-be-true story of German kids who decide to go to Africa to get married [news article here], this show is actually about escaping rather than eloping. Escaping from harsh reality and escaping into a fantasy world. The official police photograph of the real life German kids, aged 5, 6 & 7, shows a trio of happy and smartly-dressed kids packed and ready for an adventure. (The “sweethearts” decided to take the bride-to-be's sister along with them to be a witness at the ceremony!)

Anna-Bell, Anna-Lena and Mika in custody at Hanover station

The three children in My Darling Patricia’s show, by contrast, are shabby, neglected and a little angry. They’re puppets, actually, brought to vivid life. Two girls and a boy. The googly-eyed boy stares in fear and awe rather than wonder. He’s jittery, abused, abandoned. The girls’ mother (Jodie Le Vesconte) is single, youngish, a bit of a party-animal and keen to hook-up. The cubs, mostly, have to fend for themselves while the lioness preys. The TV is their minder.

Rather than try to relate a story, My Darling Patricia give us a 3D storyboard, a graphic novel made flesh, a physical cartoon if you like. Here is a company -- an extraordinarily inventive company -- that tailors its events to suit the content rather than the reverse. Patricia is just as likely to dance a narrative as speak it. There is an impressive commitment to design within the company, too: sound, lighting, stage and props, you name it.

The only limit is imagination... oh, and budget. Which is where Malthouse Theatre steps in. The second company in the Malthouse Theatre's residency program, My Darling Patricia -- like Black Lung before it -- is an excellent choice for this kind of investment. Both companies have responded with brilliant, risky, experimental theatre.

Africa devised and performed by My Darling Patricia. Concept by Sam Routledge. Written and directed by Halcyon Macleod. Designed by Clare Britton and Bridget Dolan. Composition and sound desig by Declan Kelly. Puppets by Bryony Anderson. Lighting by Lucy Birkinshaw. With Anthony Ahern, Michelle Robin Anderson, Clare Britton, Jodie Le Vesconte amd Sam Routledge. Commissioned and presented by Malthouse Theatre. At the Tower Theatre until November 29, 2009.

Currently at Arts House (Meat Market) until April 30, 2011. Then May State Theatre Centre of WA, Perth, May 4-7; Adelaide Festival Centre, May 11-14; Brisbane Powerhouse, May 18-21; Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, May 25-28; Earl Arts Centre, Launceston, June 3 & 4; Bathurst Memorial Entertainment Centre, June 8; NORPA Lismore, June 11; Wharf 2, Sydney, August 29 to September 18.

This review was published in the Herald Sun on November 18, 2009.

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Another look: Matthäus-Passion BWV 244 (version c. 1742) by JS Bach

At the risk of provoking a “Well, derr Chris” chorus, I just have to state for the record that J.S. Bach was a revolutionary. (Even if Wikipedia would have you believe otherwise.) He did for music what Giotto did for art.

Talk about a proto postmodernist... Here’s a dude who spelled out his name in notes (good thing there’s an H on the German stave); who threw out the keyboard tuning of the day cos he wanted to compose in every key; whose music, in its way, makes physical gestures, like the sign of the cross; and who, with the skill of a dramatist, drew us -- and still draws us -- into the action... even when that action is as remote as the passion of Jesus.

But a quarter of a millennium (give or take) before Andrew Lloyd Webber -- the St Matthew Passion was first performed on Good Friday 1727 -- there was no way this Lutheran Cantor could turn Jesus into a ‘Superstar’. Indeed, never has the son of god been so in need of a make-over as the one in Bach’s St Matthew Passion...

JC could do with a speech writer -- though we can blame St Matthew’s gospel for his passive aggression -- and Bach’s scoring is, at best, rather cautious. (JS’s saviour is a stately -- if bland -- bass.)

So what does the composer do to compensate? First, he gives Jesus an orchestral ‘halo’. (It’s only relinquished in the moment when he believes he has been forsaken.) But, more importantly, Bach also gives him an evangelist: a PR man.

At the pre-Easter performance at the Recital Centre, Robert Macfarlane did the honours as the evangelist. His brilliantly agile and youthful singing reminded me of a young Eberhard Büchner. He has to do waaaay too much of the “he saids” and “she saids”, but that material has rarely been so easy to tolerate.

The casting of the Palm Sunday performance was really shrewd. Illuminating even. Emo alto Lynette Alcántara was a brilliant choice. So too was Siobhán Stagg in the soprano solo role. Stagg began with a treble-like opacity of timbre, then opened up her voice to bring a more womanly presence as required. (Her vestment purple dress was a nice touch too... wrong for Good Friday, when the Passion should be performed, but spot on for Palm Sunday in a Lutheran church!)

But the directors finally baulked at bringing the piece to life as a piece of religious theatre. It takes so little to differentiate between the New Testament protagonists, the actual character roles, and the other soloists... who are our proxies. But something this simple can transform the piece from an abstract musical experience into something unforgettable.

As the Rev Dr Andreas Loewe pointed out before the concert, Bach turns listeners into witnesses. He requires that we be intent. And, finally, to participate. (Not literally as singers, but spiritually.) Not only are we implicated, we take our place among the protagonists. And we might have if the invitation had been made a bit more clearly.

Judas, for example, popped up from the chorus for his occasional line, then quickly disappeared back into obscurity. (In a nice bit of doubling, Nicholas Dinopoulos also bobbed up as Pilate.)

Though this one-off performance had a couple of road accident moments, mostly in the untemperable woodwinds, it provided an opportunity for old fans of the work to look for additional riches in the writing. (This was a performance of the 1742 rewrite.)

This time, I noticed the “Buß und Reu” in the alto solo. As Alcántara sang about penance and remorse, the double bass was the instrument showing real penance while the flute showed only remorse. Bach, that shrewd old Christian, makes clear that ‘penance’ is the worthier of the two occupations. The bass is authoritative while the flute is indulgent, almost despairing... and therefore contemptible.

I liked Alcántara’s downward attack on the word Knirscht too.

Later, repetitions of “süßes krequz” [sweet cross] were made to sound like “Jesus Christ”, and ‘armen’ [arms] like ‘Amen’. No accident, I’m sure.

Yet again I was fascinated by the (surely undeserved) respect Bach shows to the chief priests and elders who betray Jesus. Their music is too damn likable! Like Milton in Paradise Lost, Bach seems to be on the devil’s side with or without knowing it.

And, finally, it’s a shining achievement on Bach’s part that a passion -- which, by definition, ends in the dark limbo between death and resurrection -- should make ‘rest’ seem so attractive. The best he can offer us, or Jesus, is a cessation from suffering.

Matthäus-Passion by J.S. Bach. Version c 1742. Presented by Melbourne Recital Centre. Elizabeth Murdoch Hall, Sunday April 17.

Performed by Ironwood Chamber Orchestra, the choir of Trinity College, the Consort of Melbourne, Ensemble Gombert and trebles from the Melbourne Grammar School Chapel Choir. Conducted by Jeremy Summerly. With Robert Macfarlane (Evangelist), Michael Leighton Jones (Jesus), Siobhán Stagg (solo soprano), Lynette Alcántara (solo alto), Paul Bentley (solo tenor) and Paul Tregear (solo bass).

My official (and officious!) review for The Australian is on-line, here.

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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Porn.Cake by Vanessa Bates (Malthouse Theatre)

In Vanessa Bates’ universe, it isn’t the happy families that resemble one another, it is the unhappy, childless couples. They’re caught in the drawn out adolescence that passes for adulthood among the post-Boomer generations. All they have are their electronic gadgets -- clicking toys for the new millennium -- and washed-out memories. Instead of sex these couples have cake together.

Christen O'Leary and Travis McMahon in Porn.Cake (Photo: Jeff Busby)

Bates (best known for her ambitious play Checklist for an Armed Robber) evokes the past with uncanny precision -- with simple references to green apple shampoo, pigtails and chalk white dog turds -- then she reconstructs that past before our eyes. The opening monologue in Porn.Cake flaunts this extraordinary facility, creating a kind of false memory in real time before ‘workshopping’ it... changing minor -- and even major -- details. Bella (Heather Bolton) conjures up a girl in a cotton dress in a sunlit backyard; complete with hiccups. She’s every bit as vivid as Lewis Carroll’s Alice.

The style of writing is not unlike Ben Elton’s in his novel Popcorn, where full advantage is taken of the medium’s blank canvas -- and the reader’s blindness -- at the start of each scene.

The monologues for the two women -- the other is by Bella’s good friend Annie (Christen O’Leary) who rants about her work as a massage therapist -- are obvious highlights in what is, otherwise, a painfully dull, dramatically ineffective and mechanically clunky piece.

Perhaps inspired by Andrew Bovell’s 1992 masterpiece Like Whisky on the Breath of a Drunk You Love -- a fiendishly difficult split-screen scene in which four actors share lines, more or less, and often speak them simultaneously -- Bates gives us two dully-faithful couples parroting off the same words with minor variations in scene after soul-destroying scene. “Google is the new infidelity,” Bella tells us. And Annie tells us. Bill takes up the fatuous chant too. “Cake is the new porn.” Oh really?

If anything, Pamela Rabe’s production emphasises the inexorable repetitions rather than the ever-so-slight variations (if that’s what they are) between iterations. That weighting may be true to the experience of the hog-tied couples, but turning their desperate boredom into ours is a high-risk manoeuvre by a theatre director.

As if to compensate for the undernourishment of the script, this Malthouse Theatre production is overnourished. Christina Smith’s spectacular set turns a side wall of the Beckett Theatre into a massive cake display cabinet. Regrettably, the set shows far more life than the script.

Porn.Cake by Vanessa Bates. Directed by Pamela Rabe. Malthouse Theatre. April 20. Tickets: $55. Bookings: 03 9685 5111. Season ends May 8.

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Not really about Opera Australia’s new La bohème... more about Don Shanks

I’ll have plenty to say about Gale Edwards sizzling and harrowing new production of “L-Bo” for Opera Australia in the not-too-distant. For now, some random reminiscences.

Last night’s premiere -- the opening performance of the national company’s Autumn season -- was dedicated to the memory of Donald Shanks AO OBE, the 70 year-old bass who died of a heart attack a few days ago.

I might have been tempted to wait until the Mikado, next month, for a dedication like this, as the gentle giant made his debut in the G & S in 1964 with the Elizabethan Trust Opera Company, the forerunner of the Australian Opera and Opera Australia. On his retirement from Opera Australia, forty years later, the Mikado was the last work he appeared in. In between, there were more than 60 principal bass roles. Including, of course, Colline in Bohème.

Owing to a ticketing hiccup last night, I ended up on the OP end of the third row. I reckon I’ve sat in just about every one of the State Theatre’s 2000-odd seats over the years, and I’ve gotta say it’s a rare treat to be so close to the action.

It’s actually the best place (in the stalls at least) from which to hear the music. The orchestra sounds at its absolute best -- thick and broad, a truly visceral presence -- from front and left. It’s not so good if you need surtitles -- they’re a long way up when you’re that close -- but the compensations are immense.

I noticed the black net sitting tautly over the pit as we waited for the last stragglers to arrive. It actually looked brand new. I remembered when -- and why -- nets were introduced. In the mid 1980s, a specky production of Boris Godunov used live chooks on stage. One of the musicians, I’m thinking it was a cellist, fell fowl (sorry, can’t help myself!) of a kamikaze chook and ended up covered in feathers. (Sounds like an Alice Cooper recital!) Hence the introduction of the safety net. Boris, that year, was played by none other than Don Shanks. (He has also taken the role of Pimen in other productions.)

As I twittered a few days back, Don was a regular (and always welcome) presence in the Australian Opera’s rep productions in the years after this theatre opened. He was a perfect Sarastro in the Magic Flute, a rare mix of stateliness and something rather more avuncular. I saw him take the role of Hunding in Die Walküre here, too, in 1985. (He’s also done a Wotan or two over the years.)

Timur, Don Pasquale, Nourabad, Bartolo, Banquo... there wasn’t much The Don couldn’t do. And do well. In Blair Edgar’s words, he was a truly lovely man.

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Monday, April 11, 2011

Review: the Australian production of Rock of Ages

It’s hard to fathom here -- in the home of AC/DC -- that Quiet Riot could be regarded as the godfather of anything in the USA, least of all hard rock. The band certainly can’t claim to be its biological father. QR’s breakthrough hit in 1983 was a cover of ‘Cum On Feel The Noize’ which Slade topped the UK and Irish charts with, a decade earlier. (Slade’s version didn’t rate much more than a blip in the US in 1973, #98 without a bullet, and just two weeks on the charts.)

But ‘Cum On’ broke some kind of ceiling in the States. It was the first ‘metal’ [more ‘late-onset glam’ if you ask me] song to make Top Five on Billboard’s pop charts. And it set the tone for what was acceptable on the pop charts: pomp rock and hair metal and overblown AOR. That shiny little song opened the floodgates for mullet metal. Took it from its LA ghetto to the rest of the continent.

Apart from the brief but spectacular success of QR’s album Metal Health -- it sold 5 million copies -- the band was more famous for the musicians that left it: Randy Rhodes for Ozzy Osbourne, Rudy Sarzo for Whitesnake and, infamously, frontman Kevin DuBrow was finally overthrown and turfed out as an ‘egomaniac’.

Quiet Riot doesn’t actually have an original song in the set list of Rock of Ages, but the band’s shadow looms.

The lead singer in ROA’ fictional cock rock band ‘Arsenal’ Stacee Jaxx (Michael Falzon) is about to suffer the same fate as Kevin DuBrow... for identical reasons. And the bar in which the show is largely set is suspiciously named the Dupree... which is kinda close to DuBrow, right? And ‘Cum On’ is the opening number in this Eighties musical.

You know, I reckon my one reservation about Rock of Ages is the title. But I guess ‘AOR of Ages’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it!

Production photograph: Jeff Busby

Songs by Foreigner, Asia, Styx, the Styx-like Damn Yankees, REO Speedwagon, Quarterflash and their ilk certainly outnumber the hair metal and hard rock numbers by Whitesnake, Poison, David Lee Roth, Twisted Sister, Joan Jett et al.

But with Tzan Niko on lead guitar, man... I’d probably hold up a lighter for a song by Hush.

My ‘real’ review is in today’s Australian. It’s on-line here. Short version: It’s a party... even for a snobby purist like me who hated mainstream ’80s pop and rock. (I reckon the song ‘We Built This City’ is an absolute abomination... arguably the worst song ever to chart!)

Like Xanadu, Rock of Ages takes some dated and dodgy original material and fashions it into something shrewd and sharp. But unlike Xanadu, the sound and staging are close to flawless.

I had a ball. Scratch that... everyone has a ball. Rock of Ages really is irresistible.


Thursday, April 07, 2011

Baal by Bertolt Brecht - adapted by Simon Stone and Tom Wright (Malthouse Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company)

Rather than attempt to place Brecht’s first play in Germany at the end of World War One when it was written, or try to reimagine the impact Baal might’ve had then and there, director Simon Stone declares once again: it is here, it is now.

Different times call for different plays and different rebels. Brecht’s drunk and priapic poet -- who the playwright later tried to excuse as an antisocial man in an antisocial world -- is reborn here as a coldly charismatic Fender-wielding rock singer, played with skill and considerable authority by Thomas M Wright, like Tim Rogers from a more evil universe.

Thomas M. Wright and Shelly Lauman in Baal (Photo: Jeff Busby)

In his way, Brecht’s Baal was kicking against the establishment pricks. Stone’s Baal is merely an amoral prick doing the kicking. He’s not rock and roll’s answer to Rimbaud so much as a singing Hank Moody: just another self-destructive Californicating bastard.

Brecht’s Baal eschewed traditional material success, but Stone’s is only interested in another kind of possession. He’s a marauding animal, a vile and toxic womaniser. To men, he offers camaraderie without loyalty. He steals and defiles the women they love -- because he can -- then discards them when he tires of them. His one redeeming feature is his God-given talent.

The remarkable achievement of this production (script, original music and performances especially) is that it persuades us that Baal somehow deserves what he gets, even if he doesn’t earn it. It might otherwise have looked like a masturbatory fantasy.

Katherine Tonkin wordlessly conveys the progression in the character Emilie (a married woman) from repulsion and resistance through weak-kneed fascination to intense desire... and back to disgust and self-loathing once Baal has turned his gaze elsewhere.

Geraldine Hakewill and Shelly Lauman triumph over similar challenges in very different roles: Hakewill as the virgin teenager who jilts her fiancé (Baal’s idealistic friend Johannes) for a crack at the jaded star, and Lauman as Sophie who is abruptly rejected by Baal despite carrying his child.

Every performance, every role, is distinct and impressively defined.

Yet for all the production’s merits -- the spectacular transformation of the plain white set, the scorching yellow light and its pale blue retinal-afterimage, the ingenious and heady poetry of the new translation -- Stone overextends with some very poorly simulated sex and violence. Blocked, no doubt, to accommodate the Wharf Theatre’s very different space as well as the Merlyn Theatre, where it plays until April 23, his production gives the actors nowhere to hide.

Baal by Bertolt Brecht. Translated by Simon Stone and Tom Wright. Presented by Malthouse Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company. Merlyn Theatre, Melbourne, April 6. Tickets: $55 plus booking fee. Bookings: 03 9685 5111

Then Wharf 1, Sydney, May 11 to June 11. Tickets: $77.

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Friday, April 01, 2011

The Prodigal Son: Bill Henson at Tolarno Galleries [Untitled 2009/2010 series]

You've gotta love an exhibition minded by a pair of the biggest crowd-controlling gorillas you'll see this side of a hot New York night club opening. But this is Melbourne, not Sydney, so they are there to protect us from overcrowding (they pretty much failed on that score) rather than protect the art from the threat of Family First fundamentalism.

Given that Bill Henson is currently grappling with the technical challenges of his inevitable shift from photographic paper to archival inkjet pigment paper, this latest series is a surprising and marked progression on work shown at Roslyn Oxley9 in Sydney, and Tolarno Galleries before that. Always the painter's photographer, Henson's new work had me thinking of Goya and Francis Bacon as well as various earlier series by the man himself: the Paris Opera series, his photographs of a deserted art gallery, the ruined eroticism of his 1980s monochrome Palace triptychs and the deathly cyans of his post-Venice work.

Instead of cyan -- the colour of the newly dead -- the naked flesh is the waxy colour of bodies that have bled-out. The highlights are coppery twists of hair, or are lit by a source with a dramatically higher colour temperature than the pallid prevailing light.

Bill Henson NH SH346 N10B [CAT 11] (detail)

Henson, I think, tries to use the speckled blue of the inkjet/digital manipulation process as an asset. Whether he is successful is a matter for debate. The blue shift and visible grain (into which freckles and blemishes finally blur) reminded me of high speed Ektachrome trannies pushed to 400ASA. But what appealed to me annoyed others I spoke to.

As we've come to expect from Henson, there's quite a spread of subject matter in this series of thirteen large images, which are available for sale (in editions of five) for $30,000 a pop: a couple of mysterious landscapes; lean, sinewy, sickly bodies in ones and twos; and, this time, there are even a couple of photographs taken in a crowded gallery, with punters jockeying to get a glimpse of some Rembrandt.

Bill Henson CL SH767 N17B [CAT 3] (detail)

Yes, this is kinda obvious, but what the hell... it's my homage to Henson:

Rembrandt's Prodigal Son, a scrunchie and a glass of 'whine'...

I was puzzled by the foreshortening distortion in some of the images. Torsos seemed longer than legs, even when those legs were trained at the lens. Maybe Henson is opting to use very long lenses.

Another feature I noticed in Henson's new work is an almost calligraphic figuration. The photograph, left, [AH SH28 N8, CAT 7] was the very first I faced. I've reproduced it small not out of modesty (or, er, copyright violation considerations!) but to highlight the figure-4 pictogram quality of the limbs and torso and the line of the forearm/wrist/fingers.

This one, I thought, was a wonderful throwback to the Paris Opera series:

We've come to expect ambitious, painstaking, breathtaking art from Bill Henson. He has not disappointed us.

The 2009/2010 series is on show at Tolarno Galleries, 104 Exhibition Street Melbourne, until April 21. Open Tuesday to Friday, 10am to 5pm. And Saturday, 1pm to 5pm.

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