Friday, July 15, 2011

Conspiracy by John Kiely, a La Mama production.

John Kiely's play about Lionel Murphy has been doing excellent business at the Carlton Courthouse. I had a tough time getting in last week and, by all accounts, remaining performances are close to sold out. So, there is plenty of interest in Gough Whitlam's Attorney-General, the man who took his reformist zeal from parliament to the highest court in the land.

If I may write, for a moment, as an amateur theatregoer instead of pro critic, the questions I'd want to know before signing up for a night out at a biographical play -- or one tackling recent and/or contentious events -- would be these...

Firstly, I'd want to know if the play is tendentious. If the play is a character assassination or a tirade -- pro or con -- I don't think I could be bothered... unless it put a compelling case with strong new evidence. I'm equally uninterested in hagiographies. Conspiracy, i.e. Kiely's play, manages to be both and neither. It has a prosecutor chastising the judge for attempting to pervert the course of justice and a defence barrister singing his praises.

I'd also like to know if the playwright has the authority to tackle the material. Much is made of the fact that John Kiely was chief sub-editor at the Melbourne Herald when Murphy raided ASIO HQ and that Kiely was a deputy editor at The Age when the broadsheet was waging a war against Murphy, which more or less literally hounded the high court judge into an early grave.

There's no indication in the program (or the press notes) as to whether court transcripts were consulted in the creation of the play or not, or if any books (like Jenny Hocking's) were referenced. The factual holes in the script and the dramatic holes in the production didn't inspire much confidence in me. Most glaringly, the play refers to an incident in 1968 concerning the Australian Federal Police! I'm reasonably sure that the AFP didn't exist at all until the late 1970s.

I'd also want to know if Conspiracy would help me make up my mind about Murphy. (In a word, no. There's nothing new or world-shaking here.)

Above all, the thing I'd want to know is this: is Conspiracy a fair fight? The answer is a qualified "oh, yeah... s'pose so." Rather than siding with Murphy, or siding against him, Kiely opts to side against everyone! The media, ASIO, Murphy himself... all have a manic desire to have their own way... if I might misquote Andrew Peacock challenging Malcolm Fraser, who in turn was quoting Malcolm Fraser challenging John Gorton. (What goes around, comes around!) Fictional Age editor John Hunter (Dean Cartmel) just about froths at the mouth in his vendetta against Murphy. Ditto the ASIO spooks determined to nobble the man who dared interfere with their own secret hegemony. And Murphy (finely played by Kevin Summers, a law graduate no less) is painted as a kamikaze crusader.

That just leaves the production itself, which is imaginatively directed by Peta Coy. Without having seen the script, and without having been party to the machinations back stage, it's hard to know who is to blame for some of the gaping dramaturgical cracks. I'm unaware of any other plays penned by John Kiely, so it's easy to blame him... but perhaps the fault lines were worsened by a director keen to reduce the running time of the play. It's impossible to tell from outside.

Much is made in the play of John Hunter receiving a subpoena to appear at Murphy's trial. We even see him in the courtroom. But there's not a single word of his testimony presented. Another frustrating flaw -- which robs us of an opportunity to see Murphy's accusers and judge them for ourselves -- is the absence of testimony from NSW Chief Magistrate Clarrie Briese and from Judge Paul Flannery. Murphy was accused of attempting to influence both men when his "little mate" Morgan Ryan was on trial... for conspiracy.

A brief review of this play appeared in The Australian on Tuesday July 12. It's not on-line.

Conspiracy by John Kiely. Directed by Peta Coy. Designed by Sophie Woodward. Lighting design by Phoenix Bade. Sound by Henry Finn-Madin. With Kevin Summers as Lionel Murphy. A La Mama production. At the Carlton Courthouse, 349 Drummond Street, until July 17.

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Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Blogging means never having to say you're sorry...

To me, blogging is never having to say: er, sorry I haven't posted, old chum! You get what you pay for, right? But, for once, I feel an explanation -- for the "dead air" -- is in order. But it would be more of an apologia than an apology... and the bottom line would be: I haven't abandoned blogging or this blog.

Let's just say there have been mighty good reasons for me not posting in the last two months, both technical and personal. And the demands on my time are likely to continue for the next few months at least. So, TMA might be kinda desultory for a while.

[No point hitting 'read more..." on this occasion -- there's nothing extra unless someone has commented!]


Rick Price in The John Denver Story: Take me home, country roads

Rick Price does John Denver? WTF! Price looks more like a footy commentator than a butch Barbie doll, which is how Sinatra cruelly described the planet's poet.

Okay, Rick looks like a crooner here... no argument!

But the fact that Price doesn't look like Denver, and doesn't remotely sound like him, does us a favour -- this is a show with a much broader appeal than you might expect -- it also does Denver a favour. Instead of relying on that unique and clarion voice, Price and his band are forced to rely on the songs (which stand up to the extra scrutiny, mostly, especially in the context of a biographical concert) and to rely on arrangements and delivery. Instead of torch songs, they're played as country rockers. And that works surprisingly well.

The song that started it all, 'Leaving on a Jet Plane', is not a bit churchy here. The twangy, slow version of 'Back Home Again' -- with mandolin, pedal steel & double bass -- is a ripper. Only 'Thank God I'm a Country Boy' crosses into vomitous territory... all those fiddle/griddle rhymes. Shudder!

The John Denver Story actually starts out as the Rick Price Story. Price compares and contrasts his childhood with that of Henry John Deutchendorf, Jr: growing up in Beaudesert in Queensland for Rick and in Kansas for John. Rick got the music from his father's family, John's musical roots were in his mother's family. (Deutchendorf senior was a test pilot and so 'Junior' was christened in Roswell New Mexico where the family were stationed!)

Weirdly enough, the only song in which Price attempts to scale the rocky mountain heights of Denver's voice is just about the hardest in the catalogue: 'Calypso'. And, damn, he nails every yodeling note. It's bloody miraculous.

On the downside, Price gets lyrics wrong, even in the greatest hits. The best one can say about his rendition of 'Annie's Song', for example, is that Price is consistent. He gets his lines wrong throughout.

Price is also leg-roped by the show's structure and a very ordinary script. When he looks like letting rip in the opening song of the second act -- a terrific rendition of 'Grandma's Feather Bed' -- the narrative appears like a speed bump on a freeway. It goes beyond hagiography. It goes beyond Kamahl. The script is pitched at die-hard sycophant fans. Price looks embarrassed to deliver it.

Happily, the music wins the bout by a TKO.

Here's the set-list...

Act 1

01. Take Me Home, Country Roads
02. Matthew
03. This Old Guitar
04. My Sweet Lady
05. Leaving on a Jet Plane
06. Love Is Everywhere
07. Follow Me
08. I'd Rather Be A Cowboy
09. Back Home Again
10. Thank God I'm a Country Boy

Act 2

11. Grandma's Feather Bed
12. Annie's Song
13. Welcome to my Morning
14. Perhaps Love
15. Goodbye Again
16. Calypso
17. Some Days Are Diamonds
18. Rocky Mountain High
19. Sunshine On My Shoulders


20. Country Roads singalong.

The John Denver Story: Take me home, country roads. Written by Jim McPherson. Directed by Simon Myers and Jodi Gallagher. Produced by Simon Myers and Andrew Barker for Bold Jack. Music direction by Ed Bates. Sound design by John O'Donnell. Lighting design by Michele Preshaw.

Performed by Rick Price (vocals, guitar and piano), Ed Bates (pedal steel), Tim Matthew (basses), Luke Moller (vocals, mandolin, violin) and Roger Bergodaz (who looks like he strayed from the Moody Blues, circa mid 1970s) on drums.

At the Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne, then Brisbane from July 12. More information here.

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