Ewen LeslieQuick hitsReview: Moth, The Ugly One, Hole in the WallDear TheatrenautsRunning behind myselfVarious stuffReview: That FaceThe Salon des RefusésWaiting for GodotA note of thanksReview: CagelingReview: Richard III[Title of Show]Malthouse Season 2Monday report ~ theatre notes

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Ewen Leslie

A couple of weeks ago I interviewed Ewen Leslie, currently the driving force of the MTC's production of Richard III, for the Weekend Australian. The profile runs in today's paper and is online here.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Quick hits

1. Ex-Melbourne and Red Stitch director Sam Strong has been appointed the new artistic director of Sydney's Griffin Theatre. Joanne Erskine has the goods at Cluster.

2. Critic Mark Mordue has won this year's Geraldine Pascall Critic of the Year Prize. (Those of you with long memories will recall I was last year's winner; this year I was on the judging panel and can say he was the unanimous choice.) More on Mark's work from James Bradley at City of Tongues. Another blogger/freelance critic: it suggests that the common perception that blogs are the death of criticism might be getting a few critical hits.

3. George Hunka at Superfluities Redux posts details of Howard Barker in conversation on, well, all sorts of things. Go hence.

4. The Guardian flatters me outrageously by listing me as one of five must-read critics, alongside Susan Sontag, Pauline Kael, Peter Campbell and James Wood. Excuse me while I lie down and recover.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Review: Moth, The Ugly One, Hole in the Wall

As readers will know, last week Ms TN suffered a knock-out blow in her long-running war with the Dreaded Lurgy, putting her on the benches. There she has been grinding her teeth and annoying her neighbours, like the nameless anti-hero of Notes From Underground. In the interests of social amity, it's probably time I got my personae under control and started work again. So here, on tottering feet, we go.

If another person writes another op-ed complaining that Australian theatre is dying, beset by aesthetic crises and apathetic audiences, I will simply point them to Melbourne, May 2010, and have done with it. I can't remember a time when our theatre culture conspired so successfully to demonstrate that it's well and truly alive: and it's been happening at every level. At the MTC, Richard III is packing them out and The Ugly One has scheduled late performances; you can't get a ticket to Moth at the Malthouse for love nor money and The Threepenny Opera, in previews later this week, is officially sold out. Beyond the main stages, indie companies are posting "full" signs all over town.

What's going on? A lot of very interesting theatre, for one thing, boosted by the Next Wave Festival, which continues until the end of the month. And also a lot of word of mouth. Many shows are selling out without the benefit of a single review. So much for the much-vaunted power of crrrritics! What counts for much more is the excited report of a friend or acquaintance: that is, the impact of the work itself. This also demonstrates very clearly the idiocy of the idea that the success of one aspect of the theatre culture comes at the expense of others. It suggests something altogether more interesting: that vitality breeds vitality, and that theatre companies ignore their interdependence with the rest of the culture at their own peril.

Out of all this richness, reports of which have reached even my subterranean ears, I've been able to see very little. What I did see gives some indication of the quality of work that is not only expected but is delivered in this city. Following are some notes on what I've seen:


At a distressingly young age, Declan Greene has carved out a reputation in Melbourne’s independent scene with a series of plays demonstrating a black wit, iron nerve and a considerable lyrical gift. What's notable is the restlessness of his work: he's a playwright whose work is distinctive but never predictable. And he's learning fast. Moth represents yet another startling evolution: it was not at all what his previous work led me to expect, and yet is an absolutely logical progression.

It’s a powerful examination of mental illness, especially in relation to young people. Greene's two 15-year-old protagonists are Claryssa (Sarah Ogden), a wiccan emo, and Sebastian (Dylan Young), all-round oddball, who are both rejects in the merciless pecking order of high school. They are compelling portrayals of adolescents - self-centred, mocking, vulnerable and funny - who are traumatically alienated from the social lives around them. A horrific, if horribly familiar, instance of bullying unlatches Sebastian's already uncertain sense of reality, and his sense of self splinters into delusion. He has an apocalyptic vision of St Sebastian, embodied as a moth he keeps in a jar, and sets off on a mission to find the saved. Meanwhile Claryssa, as traumatised by Sebastian by the bullying episode, sinks into paralysing depression and is unable to help her friend.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of this script is how unsentimentally and accurately it represents not only the speech and attitudes of teen subculture (I had a 15-year-old with me who affirmed its authenticity) but the subjective experience of mental breakdown. The story is told through enactments by Ogden and Young, shifting between times and different subjective states in ways which recall the narrative of the cult film Donnie Darko, and Greene exploits to the full his capacity to soar from vernacular speech into pure poetry.

Chris Kohn directs Moth on a stage bare of everything except what looks like three lengths of underfelt, cascading from backstage to the floor, that define three different theatrical areas. Kohn's direction is absolutely simple and absolutely lucid, directing so good it's almost invisible. Jonathan Oxlade's design, Rachel Burke's lighting and Jethro Woodward's music conspire to focus the action on stage to diamond precision. Ogden and Young are remarkable, giving passionate, minutely disciplined performances that wind up to a shattering climax. What begins as a comic picture of two teen misfits ends up as a piece of theatre with the catastrophic power of tragedy. The long, devastated silence that preceded the applause was its proper tribute.

The Ugly One

Marius von Mayenburg, long-term dramaturg with Thomas Ostermeier at Berlin’s Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, debuted in Melbourne at the Malthouse in 2006 with the brilliant Benedict Andrews production of Eldorado, a scorching parable on the human capacity for self-destruction, and returned in 2008 with a production of a fascinating collaboration, again with Andrews, called Moving Target. The Ugly One, written between these two productions, is a play on a smaller scale, but demonstrating to the full Mayenburg's imaginative control of theatrical form.

As an exercise in theatrical elegance, it's an exemplary text. The Ugly One is a painfully hilarious and disturbing satire on the contemporary obsession with appearance, in which Mayenburg cunningly exploits a simple theatrical idea – identically named characters played by the same actors – to explore the place of individuality in an increasingly homogenised society, and how our uniqueness plays into our idea of self.

Lette (Patrick Brammall) is the inventor of a new kind of plug, but finds that when it’s time to present it to the world, his boss Scheffler (Kim Gyngell) thinks he is too ugly to sell it, and instead intends to send his assistant, Karlmann (Luke Ryan). When he asks his wife Fanny (Alison Bell), she confirms, to his astonishment, that he is as ugly as everyone says. In despair, he undergoes plastic surgery. Lette emerges looking exactly the same, but finds that his world has changed. Women lust after him, and he becomes a corporate success. But now everybody wants to look like him.

Using this simple premise, Mayenburg pulls to the surface all sorts of contemporary anxieties. The face is both more and less than a marker of individuality: it is, in the corporate world, the equivalent of a brand, through which perceptions of success and failure are filtered independently of the reality of achievement or quality. Lette's "transformation" - he is the only actor, incidentally, who doesn't play multiple roles - gives him the competitive edge in both the sexual and corporate worlds. But all too soon technology catches up and reproduces him, creating a hall of mirrors, a nightmare vision of Lettes that flood the market like generic drugs. In such a world, no human being can be anything but a product, a commodity valued by his or her exchange value. In the process, Lette's personal identity - whatever uniqueness he originally possessed - is completely lost.

Peter Evans gives this play the elegant production it deserves, directing it in the round with minimal props. The razor-sharp shifts in the text are handled with finesse and spareness, and some ingenious staging: among other effective touches, the amplified crunching of an apple excruciatingly evokes the sounds of surgery. All four performers rise to the challenge, giving nuanced and witty performances that bring out the play's comedy, and permit the darker themes simply to rise to the surface as a profound rippling of disturbance. This is definitely a highlight of the MTC's 2010 season, and not to be missed.

Hole in the Wall

Hole in the Wall is the only show I've been able to catch from the Next Wave Festival. This 45-minute show knocked my socks off, and made me even more sorry about what I've been missing. It's a fascinating multi-disciplinary theatre work that explores the experience of domestic, surburban space as lived by a twenty-something couple. Sounds mundane? As Hole in the Wall manages to demonstrate, the mundane is only dull if you're not looking.

The text, written by My Darling Patricia member Halcyon Mcleod, has a simple premise: it articulates the thoughts, fears and desires of a young couple (Matt Prest and Clare Britton) during the course of a single night. They would like a better house; they wonder what they are doing with their lives; they take out their frustrations on each other in bitter and violent arguments; they are afraid of dying; they are lonely. All these recognisable vignettes play out with a dream logic that ignores chronology, giving us snatches of their domestic lives.

It creates the premise for an extraordinary piece of experiential theatre. The audience is divided into four, and then put in four separate boxes that are simulacra of the average weatherboard rental house, with wallpaper up to the picture railing, a paned window (which is closed), and a painted white door with a brass handle.

Once you are enclosed with your fellow audients, the box begins to move, forcing you to walk along with it. It is difficult to describe how disorienting this is: it quite literally made me dizzy. Part of the dizziness was the necessity to reorient my sense of place. While in fact the floor is quite still, and it's the box that's moving, from the point of view of those enclosed, it's the walls that are stationary. There was a similarly disconcerting exhibit of a swaying room in the Guggenheim exhibition at the NGV recently (I'm afraid I can't remember the artist) - this was much more displacing, because it was more claustrophobic.

Once the box stopped moving, the lights went out, leaving us in complete darkness, and the first monologue - about the way a bed is like a grave - boomed out over us, accompanied by a rising growl of sound. And then one wall was thrown open, revealing the the rest of the audience in the three other boxes, all ingeniously linked together to make one room, in the centre of which was a bed.

The performances played out in these intimate spaces, which were continually reconfigured in constantly surprising ways by unseen manipulators. Sometimes the boxes became a long hallway, through which the performers entered and left, in which we became guests at a party, or ghostly witnesses of private grief. Sometimes we looked out through a window at Preston walking outside in his pyjamas. Once all the walls opened and we watched a projected animation of puppets who played out the story of a happy suburban couple.

The effects were haunting, poignant, moving; sometimes (as in the terrible quarrel between the couple) confronting. Aside from the compelling performances, perhaps the most powerful aspect of Hole in a Wall was how the initial disorientation made us all complicit in the show. Social barriers immediately dropped in our initial surprise and puzzlement, and when we were watching the performances, we were all aware not only that we were watching together, but that we were in the same intimate space as the performers, and that we were, in our witnessing, part of the show. An absolutely fascinating and beautiful experience.

Pictures: top: Sarah Ogden and Dylan Young in Moth. Photo: Jeff Busby Bottom: Patrick Brammall, Alison Bell and Luke Ryan in The Ugly One. Photo: Jeff Busby

Moth, by Declan Greene, directed by Chris Kohn. Set and costume design by Jonathan Oxlade, lighting design by Rachel Burke, composer Jethro Woodward. With Sarah Ogden and Dylan Young. Malthouse Theatre and Arena Theatre Company, Tower Theatre, Malthouse, until May 30.

The Ugly One, by Marius von Mayenburg, translated by Maja Zade, directed by Peter Evans. Lighting design by Matt Scott. With Alison Bell, Patrick Brammall, Kim Gyngell and Luke Ryan. Lawler Studio, MTC Theatre, until June 12.

Hole in the Wall, text by Halcyon Mcleod, directed by Hallie Shellam. Concept by Clare Britton, Matt Prest, Hallie Shellam and Danny Egger. Set design by Clare Britton, Matt Prest and Danny Egger. Lighting design by Mirabelle Wouters. Original music, sound design and animation by James Brown. Performed by Matt Prest and Clare Britton. Next Wave Festival @ The Meat Market. Closed. Carriageworks, Sydney, May 26-29.

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Dear Theatrenauts

I seem to be suffering from something very like flu, which is putting the kybosh on both seeing and writing about the theatre. And at such a time! This town is presently lousy with great performance. To cheer my shivering hours, I thought perhaps you could tell me (and everyone else) what you're seeing and liking (or, perhaps, not liking). Some already have: Richard Watts said this enchanting notion, Sunset Over Cardboard Mountains (sadly closed) was to kill for, and Yumi Umiamare's Trans-Mute at the Guild Theatre is another smart recommendation - her brand of cabaret/butoh/dance is really something. What else?

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Friday, May 21, 2010

Running behind myself

Ms TN just realised that she has driven herself nose-first into a large furrow in the ground. In practical terms, this means that writing anything sensible is presently way beyond my capacity. So: a holding note. If you want to see some theatre, get out to the Next Wave Festival, which is causing all sorts of exclamations around the traps. For my part, last night I went to see Hole in the Wall at the North Melbourne Arts House, which is an astounding experiential interrogation of domestic space. It closes this Saturday, so be quick. I hear that Moth at the Malthouse is sold out, and the only way to get a ticket is to hang out at the box office and beg. (I'd say it's worth the chance.) And I believe The Ugly One is also selling fast, and the MTC has scheduled extra performance. All are most certainly worth your time. And mine in writing about them, which I swear I will.

I might add that the recent proliferation of sold-out performances in the smaller venues around town speaks volumes.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Various stuff

Despite a certain personal discombobulation - finishing a novel will do that to a woman - Ms TN has been having a fine time at the theatre in the past week. And hearing of much more that I'm not seeing, what with the Next Wave Festival flinging open its doors to what many people are saying is a very high quality program that is practically compulsory for theatre nerds. Crazy times, guys.

Last week the MTC and the Malthouse both opened hotly anticipated studio shows - Marius von Mayenburg's The Ugly One at the Lawler Studio and Declan Greene's Moth at the Tower. Both are stunning productions - my very brief Australian review is here, but I hope to get more considered responses up on the blog in the next few days.

Meantime, our Australian representative in Paris, Daniel Keene, has been making waves. The season of his play Scissors, Paper, Rock, which opened at the major Paris theatre La Colline on May 5, has completely sold out, and a couple of days ago it received a rave review in Le Monde. (The link is to a Google translation, which has its own peculiar grammatical pleasures.) Reading through the translatese, critic Fabienne Darge speaks of a "masterly simplicity" created by the "minimalist music" of "this amazing Australian author". Am I a proud spouse? Indeed I am!

And an update: Direct your browsers this instant to George Hunka's fascinating review of David Mamet's new book of essays, on Superfluities Redux.

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Review: That Face

Polly Stenham's That Face - famously written when she was 19 - is most often compared to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - not least because the anti-heroine in both plays is called Martha. Both Marthas are badly behaved, addictive older women, and both have an incestuous passion for their sons, even if in Albee's version the son is imaginary. But it strikes me that a more pertinent comparison is with Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Stenham's Martha is more like Blanche DuBois: a fragile, damaged creature teetering wildly on the edge of a catastrophe curve.

The play reads very much as a precociously talented first work; it has an undeniable dramatic force that is dampened by some crudities in its structure and characterisation. For all that, it swept the British theatre awards when it premiered at the Royal Court in 2007, and productions around the world have quickly followed. It's easy to see why it attracted such attention: a palpable sense of urgent truthfulness drives the play past its flaws into a genuinely cathartic climax.

In That Face, Martha (Sarah Sutherland) is the inexorable gravity at the centre of the action. She is alone after a bitter divorce from her husband Hugh (Dion Mills), a wealthy suit who lives in Hong Kong with his new wife and child. Her son Henry (Tim Potter), a budding artist, has devoted his life since he was 13 to caring for her, convincing himself that if he can only keep her out of hospital, she will recover. His sister, Mia (Lauren Henderson), is regarded by her mother as an unwelcome rival for Henry's affections.

The play opens with a scene where Mia and her prep school friend Izzy (Lucy Honigman) are hazing a younger student, in an initiation ritual that goes badly wrong when Izzy Mia drastically overdoses the student on valium, stolen in the first place from Mia's mother. Mia's threatened expulsion prompts Hugh to fly back from Hong Kong, and Henry, boiling with resentment at his father's betrayal of his old family, panics that Hugh will "fix everything up" and have Martha involuntarily committed, thus making his failing efforts of the previous five years utterly meaningless.

What That Face lacks in complexity - Hugh, for example, is little more than a cipher in a suit - it makes up for in its precise observations of a family locked in the crisis of mental illness. (Anyone who thinks the actions here are exaggerated histrionics hasn't seen psychosis in action). But this play is more than a study of the effects of mental illness, and the common predicament of children caring for dysfunctional parents. It's also a scathing indictment of British middle class brutalisation, with the clear implication that the extreme emotional alienation Stenham articulates in all her characters is not only pathological, but endemic.

The fact that the opening scene is in a boarding school - central to the mythos of the British class system - is crucial. Not one of Stenham's characters - from the supposedly "normal" father Hugh, who seems emotionally cauterised, to the schoolfriend Izzy - knows how to relate to other people. The only characters who might be said to feel genuine love for each other, Henry and Martha, exist in a haze of destructive, incestuous mutual dependency. The only character who acts with any dignity is the one with the acknowledged mental illness, Martha, when she makes her Blanche DuBois exit for the mental hospital.

There's an unspoken history here that is still playing out in Britain. In his unfond memoir of his prep school St Cyprians, George Orwell described the brutalities of his middle class boarding school as a training ground for the front troops of Empire, fostering the lack of empathy and Darwinian competitiveness necessary for ordering around, and possibly shooting, the brown people who lived in the pink bits of the map. Another association, more telling perhaps in its poignancy, is from Michael Apted's 7-Up series: the unhappy middle class teenager Suzy, devastated by her parents' divorce, introvertedly twirling her hair as her pet dog chases and kills a rabbit in the background.

This resonance simply doesn't translate to Australia: yes, we have class in our society, but it's quite a different deal here. We might even have colonial imitations of the British class system, but they don't function in the same ways or with the same codes. Consequently director Sarah Giles's decision to stage That Face with Australian accents effectively reduces it to an enclosed family psychodrama. It still works, but you have to listen hard through the unfocusing that results: and aside from the ramifications of class, the diction remains too specifically English to sit easily with Australian accents.

This lack of clarity extends to the design, a bare curve of beige carpet sweeping up the back of the stage, with Henry and Martha's bed a sunken pit to the side of the stage. Instead of making the play more lucid, as is probably the intention, it makes it less so, muddying the transitions between scenes. But most crucially, I often felt the performances lacked an understanding of the pathologies the play explores. Tim Potter as Henry gives us a bravura performance, and after an initial uncertainty Sarah Sutherland creates a convincing portrayal of Martha. Dion Mills does his best with the thankless task of humanising Hugh, but neither Lauren Henderson nor Lucy Honigman manage to convey the pathological alienation of their characters.

Still and all, it's a creditable production of an interesting play. Stenham appears to be that rarest of beasts, a natural dramatist. If her subsequent plays bear out the promise of this one, she will be well worth looking out for.

Picture: Tim Potter and Sarah Sutherland in That Face. Photo: Jodie Hutchinson

That Face by Polly Stenham, directed by Sarah Giles. Design by Claude Marcos, costumes design by Yunuen Perez Martinez, lighting design by Danny Pettingill, sound design by Caitlin Porter. With Tim Potter, Sarah Sutherland, Dion Mills, Lauren Henderson, Lucy Honigman and Fantine Banulski/Persia Hethorn-Faulkner. Red Stitch until May 29.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Salon des Refusés

As TN readers will know, the judges of this year's NSW Premier's Literary Awards declined to shortlist any plays, sparking a debate on whether plays are proper literature. So, when the glitterati gather on May 17 to hear the Premier announce this year's literary winners, playwrights will be absent from the tables. Instead, a group of Sydney playwrights and their theatrical peers are arranging their own Salon des Refusés, "to celebrate Australian playwriting and to assert its place in Australia’s theatrical and literary landscape".

I know where I'd rather be; but then, award functions have always rather reminded me of Dorothy Parker's remarks on "Literary Rotarians".

Speakers for the evening include Executive Director of Currency House and co-founder of Currency Press, Katharine Brisbane, and my Australian critical colleague John McCallum, who is a past NSW Literary Award judge, senior lecturer in theatre and performance at the University of NSW and author of Belonging: Australian Playwriting in the 20th Century.

An open invitation is extended to anyone who wishes to attend. You can RSVP and find out more details at Cluster.

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Waiting for Godot

Today's Australian review of the touring production of Theatre Royal Haymarket's Waiting for Godot is now online. With apologies for some odd grammar, not all of which is mine. (Of course evening arrives before nightfall...)

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Saturday, May 08, 2010

A note of thanks

To the lovely readers who have kindly (and discreetly) emailed me to correct the typos in my last couple of reviews. Richard III set a typo record! I fear that general time poverty meant doing them all in one day, which has resulted in a little fraying about the edges. But all fixed now. I think.

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Friday, May 07, 2010

Review: Cageling

Few poets write of desire with such passionate delicacy as Federico García Lorca. Lyric, erotic and savage, his poems celebrate the anguish of absence, the bittersweet longing for what cannot be possessed. When he writes of his home city Granada, he imagines an ideal beauty, the "spiritual colour" which Andalusia woke within him. This beauty exists within and beyond the "poor cowardly city", the "miser's paradise" that contains "the worst bourgeoisie in all Spain", of which he wrote bitterly only months before he was shot dead near Granada by Fascists. He saw the real as clearly as the possible.

In Lorca's poetry, repression squeezes desire into a defiant brilliance. Lorca was gay - some claim that is the reason that he was murdered - and so, in a world of absolute divisions, he existed on the penumbra between both sexes, a fluid creature of the twilight, weaving his poems out of the blinding contrasts between night and day. He made of them paeans to life in which beauty is a measure of mortality: "Like all ideal things," as he says in a poem about fountains, "they are moving / on the very edge / of death."

His theatre articulates these tensions in different ways. Lorca's plays attacked the bourgeois theatre of his time both stylistically and thematically, uniting a burning passion for social justice with a take on tragic poetry that incorporated influences from Shakespeare to Surrealism. He is most famous for his "rural trilogy", Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba, the last of which he completed two months before his assassination. In all of them, but especially in The House of Bernarda Alba (which is subtitled "A Drama of Women in the Villages of Spain"), Lorca presents a critique of the place of women in Spanish society.

The House of Bernarda Alba is the story of the newly widowed Bernarda and her five daughters. Bernarda turns the frustrated rage of her marriage into an uncompromising tyranny over her children, insisting that she is the only authority in the house. As one daughter - enriched by her step-father's death - is courted, the others are riven by jealousy and desire. The youngest and most beautiful daughter becomes the mistress of her sister's fiance, with tragic results. It's a bitterly savage portrayal of the internalisation by women of the chains of patriarchy.

This is the world that The Rabble, one of the most interesting young companies around town, explores in Cageling, a work of physical and visual theatre that springs from Lorca's final play. Created, co-directed and designed by Kate Davis and Emma Valente, it is most certainly not, except in the most abstract sense, a performance of the play: aside from a few fragments Lorca's text scarcely exists, except in how images from the text have been amplified and embodied. In fact, often it seems more like an attempt at physicalising the qualities of Lorca's poetry, which is, along with a little Ovid, interpolated into the minimal text. [Correction: the poem, Grandmother's warnings to Carlota and Ana, is actually by Ana Rosetti. Though I would have sworn it was Lorca]. While Lorca (with, I think, a certain irony) said his play was intended as a "photographic documentary", this is a theatre of dream and nightmare, seeking to tap the unconscious in parallel ways to Lorca's surreal lyrics.

I had an interesting time watching this show: my responses shifted wildly through its duration, from irritated impatience to straight-out impressed. The design is stunning: the set is a wooden box placed in the middle of the space, with paned windows facing out to the audience, who sit a couple of metres away. The inside of the box is painted white, and the costumes and various props are black, reflecting the austerely beautiful world Lorca describes in his play. Near the window is a microphone.

When the audience enters, the actors are already inside, trapped in this box from which they cannot escape. There are five of them - Daniel Schlusser, Dana Miltins, Mary Helen Sassman, Jayne Tuttle and Pier Carthew. Both men and women are sexually ambiguous: they wear the constricting dress of formal mourning but are sometimes bearded, sometimes male, and they all wear ballet shoes.

For 20 minutes, nothing happens: the performers shuffle from one side of the stage to the other in tiny ballet steps, rehearsing the mundane domestic routine. At one point, Schlusser moves across to the microphone and taps it, before retreating without saying anything. Expectation is drawn out to such a pitch that for me the thread broke: I wasn't wound into the action, as can happen with this kind of uncompromising refusal, but rather thrown aggressively outside it. The windowpanes already forbid direct relationship, and the actors face the centre of the stage, in a wholly contained, alienated world. I really thought I might scream.

And yet - and yet - gradually, backed by Matt Davis's nuanced sound design, the show winds up, almost imperceptibly, into an extraordinary expression of repressed desire that explodes volcanically into violence. I missed The Rabble's two earlier shows, Corvus and Salome, which were both produced in Sydney, but I can see why this work has prompted some people to draw comparisons with Romeo Castellucci. Although The Rabble is doing quite different things, the ambition - and often, the potency - of the theatrical images this company creates are in the same universe. When these images work, they are sheerly strange, poetic, erotic, disturbing. Their sense is the language of dream.

Aside from its oneiric choreography, Cageling's power comes from the courage of the performances, which are rigidly disciplined, and yet reach into extremity. Schlusser, playing Bernarda Alba, is compelling: he is both male and female, as Alba herself takes on the role of patriarchal tyranny, or like a priest, whose spiritual authority is signalled by feminine dress. His is the voice which insists, as Pier Carthew attempts to recite a poem into the microphone, on the emotional truth of its language: this is real, what is this reality, what is it?

The minute exactness of the performances and movement play against what feels like a fuzziness in the broader direction and structure of the piece. This kind of theatre, like a poem, depends crucially on rhythm: the pulse of contrast, the shaping of transition. These are aspects Castellucci judges to a micron. Thinking it over afterwards, I thought it was here that I felt most problems with the show: its structural rhythmic uncertainty means that the relationships between stillness and movement often fail to be kinetic, each investing each with potential energy. Sometimes the inhibition it seeks to express seems instead an aesthetic inhibition.

In short, it's fascinating, frustrating, beautiful. And also clearly in evolution. I'm sure later shows - I saw it on opening night - have developed from what I saw, and I'd be very curious to see it again. Sydneysiders get a chance to see it for themselves when it opens at Carriageworks on June 24.

Picture: Dana Miltins in Cageling. Photo: Daisy Noyes

Cageling, devised from The House of Bernarda Alba by Federico García Lorca. Co-created, designed and directed, by Emma Valente & Kate Davis, sound design by Matt Davis, dramaturgy by Dan Spielman. With Daniel Schlusser, Pier Carthew, Dana Miltins, Mary Helen Sassman and Jayne Tuttle. Fortyfive Downstairs unti tomorrow night (booked out). Carriageworks, Sydney, June 24 to July 3.

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Review: Richard III

The MTC's Richard III at last bears out the promise of the Sumner Theatre. Here is a show that is everything main stage theatre ought to be: exciting, contemporary, intelligent, beautiful, brilliantly achieved. Only the MTC can do work on this scale, and when they mount a production of this calibre, the whole game of Melbourne theatre is lifted several notches. Independent artists need to react against the mainstream, but a pallid establishment lowers the stakes: they need a substantial challenge. And here it is.

It demonstrates how fine a director Simon Phillips can be. He's given us some superb work: his 1988 production of The Importance of Being Earnest, with Geoffrey Rush, Jane Menelaus and a dyspeptic Frank Thring, remains etched in my memory. There was a lyric, deeply felt production of The Seagull in 2001, and his 2005 production of Marion Potts's and Andrew Upton's adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac was breath-takingly good. Given these, I have always assumed Phillips's gift is for profound surfaces, the joyous play of the comic, rather than the black chords of tragedy.

Well, critics live to be proved wrong. This is an outstanding production at every level. Phillips brings all his understanding of surface to Shakespeare in this production, and the result is a production which casts glittering illuminations into the abyss of the human psyche. Richard III is, after all, all about surface: the appearance that hides and reveals reality, the deceptive glamour of words, which create and destroy truth. If Machiavelli is the political theoretician behind this play, its philosopher is Friedrich Nietzsche.

Richard III is Shakespeare's first tragedy, but it is often placed as the last of the History Plays, ten plays which follow the bloody ventures of six kings of England. Although they were not written chronologically, directors have often put them together into historical sequence. As Benedict Andrews' brilliant STC production of The War of the Roses (which also featured a revelatory Ewen Leslie) demonstrated last year, the History Plays remain a devastatingly apt essay on the machinery of power. Phillips's reading of power is grim: Richard III is most often read as the final accession of peace after generations of vendetta, but in this rendition the ending, in which the just king ousts the bloody tyrant, is far more ambiguous.

The production casts shadows forward and back into the past and future of the action on stage. As with Ian McKellen's 1995 film of Richard III, it begins with the murder of Henry VI from Henry VI Part 3, but here the scene is used to different effect. It's not merely a device to signal the history behind the events on stage, but an illumination of Richard's twisted psyche.

He features in the earlier plays as the misshapen younger son of the Duke of York, and already there he speaks of how his deformed appearance blights his life. In Henry VI Part 2, he tells us: "The people fear me; for they do observe / Unfather'd heirs and loathly births of nature." In Act V of Henry VI Part 3, which opens this production, he knifes Henry VI to death, and turns to the audience to deliver a chilling monologue: "Since the heavens have shaped my body so, / Let hell make crook'd my mind to answer it... And this word 'love', which greybeards call divine / Be resident in men like one another / And not in me: I am myself alone."

Having never been loved, Richard refuses all human kinship, and resolves to become what he is seen to be. Since he is rejected anyway, he takes this rejection as the ground of his being: he becomes the supreme individual, self-sufficient and whole in himself, owing fealty to no one. This defiance is the core of all his subsequent actions. The counter-argument to Richard's "I am myself alone" is John Donne:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

This is the central argument worked out through the action of the play. In contemporary terms, it's the argument of individual power versus collective responsibility, right versus left. Phillips' Richard III brings both expressions into play by setting the action in a theatrical present: Shaun Gurton's beautiful design (assisted by Nick Schlieper's nuanced, various and sometimes astonishing lighting) exploits a revolve to whizz us through panelled corridors of power, into plush corporate boardrooms and aseptic offices and hospital wards. With some smart multi-media, the roles of the English nobles, who represent public opinion in Shakespeare's time, transform into the mass media and public relations shills and backroom hustlers.

Unlike many contemporary settings of Shakespeare, this works seamlessly all the way through the play: it's lightly and deftly handled through some intelligent editing and the sheer boldness of its theatricality. And this extra layer of mediation, in which action is flattened to reports on wide-screen television or on huge overhanging screens, throws an unsettling light over the play: I began to read the performances with the scepticism that attends political broadcasts on television. When Richmond (Bert LaBonté, giving an Obama spin to his role) promises peace and justice at the end of the play, it chillingly recalls Richard's empty promises at the beginning of his reign. Here comes the new boss, same as the old boss.

All this is realised with a theatricality I can only call showbiz. Shakespeare profoundly understood the sublime crudity of the stage, and this is where Phillips and his production team shine. The opening scene is thrilling, and from that moment every stage image is both unexpected and beautifully right. There are scenic transformations here that literally made me gasp out loud: for example, a miraculous shift from Henry IV's (Nicholas Bell) deathbed to his funeral is managed by lighting, casting the actors briefly into darkness and then into funereal silhouettes.

At the centre of this production is Ewen Leslie's performance as Richard. This is a deeply intelligent, passionate performance, physically and emotionally unafraid, in which Richard’s grotesquely misshapen body belies his agile treachery. By turns comic, savage, grotesque, bestial, sly and tragic, Leslie dominates the stage. More disturbingly, he exerts his evil fascination on the audience; we can’t but be moved by him, even as his charisma and physicality irresistibly recall photographs of Hitler brooding over his desk like a malign eagle. His Richard will be talked about for years: it marks the ascension of a remarkable actor.

Leslie is backed by an outstanding cast. There are some actors - LaBonté, for instance - who don't have the skill with Shakespearean language that others so amply demonstrate here, but it by no means impedes the enjoyment of the play. Jennifer Hagan in the bravura role of Queen Margaret is unforgettable. She first appears, muttering dire curses, in a hospital corridor, behind windows: she is dressed in a hospital robe and attached to an IV line: a "hateful withered hag" throwing her grief and hate into the faces of those who have robbed her of her royalty, and prophesying their downfall. When she next appears, clutching a chainlink fence as Queen Elizabeth (Alison Whyte) mourns her dead children, she is chillingly insane: the only thing that keeps her alive is her hatred, as all else has been burned out.

All the queens, embodying the grief caused by Richard, give rending performances. Whyte as Elizabeth is like a spring, so tightly wound that she becomes deadly, and her speech to the Tower of London, where she begs the stones to protect her children, is heartbreaking. Deidre Rubenstein's Duchess of York is played as a woman whose straight-backed self-control explodes in a terrifying imprecation against her son, and Lady Anne (Meredith Penman), broken and destroyed by Richard, is poignant and fragile. Humphrey Bower as Buckingham, Richard's amoral sidekick and PR man, gives this role a new, glittering energy, and Nicholas Bell in the double role of Edward IV and Stanley is quietly brilliant. And there are smaller roles, such as the Scrivener (Anthony West) or Roger Oakley's Tyrell, that offer unexpected pleasures.

But you should see it for yourselves. It's an exhilarating production, both for its own sake, and for the possibilities it opens. And if it's not a hit, I'll eat my hat.

Richard III, by William Shakespeare, directed by Simon Phillips. Set design, Shaun Gurton, costume design, Esther Marie Hayes, lighting design, Nick Schlieper, composer, Ian McDonald. With Nicholas Bell, Alison Whyte, Carl Nilsson-Polias, Ian Bliss, Ewen Leslie, Deidre Rubenstein, Jennifer Hagan, Anthony West, Meredith Penman, Humphrey Bower, Catherine Durkin, Zahra Newman, Roger Oakley, Ian Bliss, Paul Ireland, Bert LaBonte, James Saunders. Sumner Theatre, MTC Theatre, until July 12.

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Thursday, May 06, 2010

[Title of Show]

My Australian review of [Title of Show], a recent Broadway musical now making its Australian debut at Theatre Works, is online. No, you read that right: while one usually associates Broadway musicals with $10 million sets at the Princess Theatre, this is a show that makes a virtue of minimal staging. Like I say, it's a smart idea delivered with sheer exuberant charm.

A couple of pending reviews will occur presently. For the moment, I seem to have run out of words. I have written such a lot of them lately.

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Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Malthouse Season 2

Briefly - a heads up for the Malthouse Season 2, which you can peruse online here. There's lots I'm anticipating in a season which includes Hayloft in residence at the Tower, a new show from Ranters, a new dance from Lucy Guerin, Matt Lutton's take on The Trial, a theatrical adaptation of A Woman in Berlin, Sappho and a return season of the magnificent The Tell-Tale Heart. It's also Michael Kantor's last season as Artistic Director for the Malthouse before Marion Potts takes over the reins next year, which prompts a bit of reflecting; but the time for proper rumination will be at the end of the year, when I pull up my armchair and swill the brandy in proper avuncular fashion. Meantime, go check it out.

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Monday, May 03, 2010

Monday report

Gad, what a weekend. Your faithful blogger has been, and continues to be, under the pump: Herakles and the Hydra ain't got nothing on me. Having dealt two major snaky deadlines the old snickersnack, I now have a very busy fortnight coming up being a journalist (if I say it involves six deadlines and two major articles, perhaps you will pity me. Or perhaps not. Up to you).

There are a couple of things I want desperately to blog, and will, somehow. The MTC's Richard III is a must-see - if you love theatre and live in Melbourne, you'd be nuts to miss it. Lots to say, and I can say very little of it in today's review in the Australian, but you get the general idea. I also saw The Rabble's Cageling - a take on Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba - at 45 Downstairs on Friday night. I had more mixed responses to this, but it's definitely worth your time - ambitious visual and physical theatre with some stunning moments.

Meantime, my helpmeet, colleague and erstwhile husband, Daniel Keene, has abandoned me for the delights of Paris. I mention this because some of you might be interested in what he's doing there. A few things: his play Scissors, Paper, Rock, which premiered in Melbourne with the Keene/Taylor Project, opens at La Colline Théâtre National in Paris next week, after an out-of-town season in Amiens that has garnered ecstatic reviews, and before a national tour. Along with La Comédie Française, L'Odéon, the Théâtre National de Chaillot and the TNS in Strasbourg, La Colline is one of the most important subsidised theatres in France, so it's quite a big deal. He's also being guest of honour at a convocation of theatre publishers in Paris (can you imagine such a thing here?), and then will spend two weeks in residence with a company in Rodez, working a new play which is programmed for later this year at the Théàtre National de Toulouse.

Meanwhile, my face still numb after a couple of delightful hours at the dentist, I'm off to the launch of Malthouse Season 2. And then on to Theatre Works to see [Title of Show]. If I'm a bit quiet here, you'll know why.

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