Review: Crime and PunishmentThe GrenadeReview: Elizabeth: Almost by Chance a WomanPlays - second class literature?It's WednesdayWhat literary award?Review: Fatboy ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Review: Crime and Punishment

The Stork Theatre's production of Crime and Punishment (in fact, its entire oeuvre) is a reversal of the question that has recently so excited some of us in the theatre world - to wit, whether plays are proper literature. Rather, it raises the question of whether literature can be proper theatre. To be honest, as someone who prefers to think of categories as guides rather than as lead-lined boxes, the answer is obvious - of course it can. Just as there are indfferent plays, there are clumsy adaptations that either bowdlerise the original text or fail to understand its relation to either form in which it lives: but since when has failure closed off possibility?

And Dostoevsky's work is particularly apt to adaptation. He in fact planned Crime and Punishment - the story of a St Petersburg student with Napoleonic delusions who murders an old money-lender - in scenes and acts, which says something about the value he placed on dramatic movement in his prose. The energy and verve of his writing - its almost pulp nature, its swift graphic description and action - can translate beautifully to live performance. And in this production, imaginatively directed by Alex Menglet, that dramatic quality comes across compellingly through some stunning performances.

Judith Armstrong's adaptation is serviceable: it still bears the rags of prosaic narrative, and it has to be said that the best of it is Dostoevsky himself. Understandably, given its epic sweep and cast of characters, the novel has been cut to the bone, with the focus on the relationship between Dostoevsky's anti-hero Raskolnikov (Benedict Hardie), and the patient, acute detective who waits out the attrition of the murderer's conscience, Porfiry (Denis Moore). The third part of the triangle is Sonia (Rebecca Bowen), the abused young prostitute whose faith reignites Raskolnikov's spirituality.

Characters such as the disconcertingly amoral Svidrigailov or Raskolnikov's decent friend Razumikhin are dispensed with altogether; others like the Marmelodov family exist as footnotes. The result is a tight focus on a single aspect of the novel, the cat and mouse game Porfiry plays with Raskolnikov, from Raskolnikov's first betraying taunts to his final hysterical confession. The bulk of the play consists of the Porfiry/Raskolnikov dialogues, more or less uncut, punctuated by swift narrative summaries of the major events in the rest of the book.

The result has a static air: the dialogues are mesmerisingly good, but the connecting tissue tends to contrivance. Menglet's directorial ingenuity is to to stage the whole as if it is the recording of a radio play. The actors first appear on stage, a traverse arrangement, warming up their voices by repeating the names of the major characters, which also emphasises the essential Russianness of this very Russian tale. The business with microphones, scripts and so on gives the narration a much-needed theatrical artifice, and allows the actors to play minor characters as well as their major roles.

What makes this production unmissable is the performances. Denis Moore's Porfiry is surely one of the performances of the year: he brings a relaxed mastery to the role, playing Porfiry's disingenuous mask of the simple copper, which disconcertingly slips to reveal the man's profound intelligence and weary, compassionate knowledge of human nature. The power of this performance is lightly underlaid by a terrible sadness: it's a masterpiece of nuance and subtle gesture, which makes Porfiry instantly legible and recognisable and yet hints at inscrutable and profound privacies.

As Raskolnikov, Benedict Hardie is the perfect foil: his Raskolnikov believes his manner is all secrecy and guile, while his behaviour is transparent self-revelation. Hardie's mercurial style lets him switch moods in half a sentence: he compellingly enacts Raskolnikov's fevered contradictions, his vanity and self-loathing, and his appalling loneliness. Rebecca Bower's Sonia is a solid and controlled performance. Too much so, I think: her presence is so assured that it's hard to believe that Sonia is at all frightened or abused, and Sonia's religious extremity comes across as almost rational, rather than a desperate faith with which she maintains meaning and dignity in a life that strips her ruthlessly of both.

Because the play is staged in a room with no raked seating, it's advisable to get a seat at the front, so you can see all the action; however, even from three rows back, the performances are hugely enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, adapted by Judith Armstrong, directed by Alex Menglet. With Denis Moore, Benedict Hardie and Rebecca Bower. Stork Theatre @ Alliance Francaise, 51 Grey St, St Kilda, until May 9. Bookings: (03) 9410 0295.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Grenade

I've not the time nor, I confess, the incentive, to do a long blog review of the MTC production of Tony McNamara's The Grenade, which opened last week at the Playhouse. So, for those who are interested, here's what I wrote for yesterday's Australian. It begins:

THE Grenade is the sort of play that makes me wonder why people don't stay home and watch Arrested Development on their widescreen TV. Television does this stuff so much better; and besides, you can order pizza.

It's not as if it's a bad play. Although Tony McNamara is an unashamedly populist playwright, he's a cut above a David Williamson. He sets up stereotypes in order to explode them with the unexpected, and there is a cruel edge to some of his comedy that, at a stretch, could enter an Ortonesque universe.

But this is comedy that reassures, and any promising subversion is despatched quickly. As Bertolt Brecht said, "The bourgeois theatre's performances always aim at smoothing over contradictions, at creating false harmony, at idealisation".

The Grenade is bourgeois theatre par excellence, and part of me wearies of pointing out that its function is to anaesthetise its audience's anxieties about themselves and the world. After all, why shouldn't theatre have the same function as several cocktails?

The only thing I didn't discuss - 400 words isn't a lot - was the performances, which I thought pretty good, from a fine cast notable for some interesting new faces. Garry McDonald is always fun to watch, but he seemed here a little lost in the stylistic confusion - was he playing it for real, or playing it for laughs? I thought the most successful performances were those that played against the naturalism, like Jolyon James, who played the erotica writer/pornstar/ex-soldier/21st century hippy as if he were something in The Mighty Boosh. Anyway, over to you.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Review: Elizabeth: Almost by Chance a Woman

Dario Fo makes people laugh. One would think this a harmless activity, except that in Fo's case, the laughter is allied to his revolutionary ideals: the targets for his satire are the rich and powerful, and his work has always dealt with the travails of the oppressed. During his long career, he has ridiculed the hypocrisy of the Pontiff and politicians, attacked no-go figures like the Mafia and exposed corporate corruption and greed. That this hasn't been taken kindly can be gauged by the responses.

Fo has been in court more than 40 times, facing charges like blasphemy, sedition, obscenity and defamation. After he made critical comments about the Vietnam War, he was refused a visa to the US for years. Some fanatical right-wingers took their objections further: they threatened to firebomb his home and theatre, and in 1973 his wife and long-time collaborator Franca Rame was kidnapped, raped and tortured by neo-fascists commissioned by high-ranking officials in Milan's Caribineri, or federal police.

His championing of the underdog explains his immense popularity in Italy, where his television and stage appearances have generated audiences of millions. For many years he has been the most performed living playwright in the world, and in 1997 he was awarded the Nobel Prize. So it's a little shaming that his work is so seldom staged in major theatres here.

As Fo himself said, looking back on his earlier years, "Mine has been a revolt against a hypocritical and deceitful order... As Marx says, 'The ruling ideas in society are those of the ruling class', and at that time it as only the ruling class which expressed its culture. Therefore my class, the peasantry, was viewed as a parasite that lived off that culture and aped some of its products." Fo was a practised subversive, taking popular bourgeois forms more usually employed to shore up the status quo, injecting them with vulgarity, and using them to expose darker truths about power.

In the process, he redefined modern political theatre. “Political theatre,” said Fo, “has become a kind of byword for boring theatre, conceited theatre, pedantic theatre, mechanical theatre, a non-enjoyable theatre.” In a time when political theatre mostly conjures Sir David Hare’s jejune docudramas, Fo’s criticism remains apposite. Fo's idea of political theatre came out of a collision of his Marxist ideals and popular forms, including television quiz shows, variety, cabaret and commedia dell'arte. According to the critic Tom Behan, his celebrated 1962 tv skit show, Conzonissima, was "unusual to say the least". The opening jokes consisted of "tramps criticising the rich in Milan, criticisms of German Nazis, sarcastic comments about television presenters, all this punctuated by established singers performing sugary songs about the moonlight shimmering over the silver sea".

In the 1980s, the wave of revolutionary fervour that brought Fo to the fore had subsided and splintered, and the Anglo world was dominated by the twin monster of Thatcher and Reagan. Fo, now collaborating with Rame, found himself more interested in issues such as feminism, and was as often attacking the extremities of the Left - he was highly critical of terrorism, considering it counter-productive - as of the Right. Elizabeth: Almost A Woman dates from 1984, and at the time was clearly a satire on Reagan: when it premiered in the US, and Fo was denied a visa to see the production, he began the play with a letter to Reagan, in which Elizabeth denied any possibility that a play about an aging, mentally unstable monarch indulging in covert operations could have anything to do with the present day.

Michael Kantor's production at the Malthouse gives us a chance to see a lavish staging of this lesser known play, given a new translation and free adaptation by Louise Fox and Luke Devenish. It demonstrates how far Kantor's direction has evolved over the past couple of years: since his production of Meow Meow's Vamp, he has honed his work to a style that focuses his gift for excess with a new and compelling clarity. We first saw how well this works in Happy Days which, like Elizabeth, was designed by Anna Cordingley and featured Julie Forsyth in one of her most memorable roles.

The design of Elizabeth is probably the best I've seen in the Merlyn since Chamber Made's 1990 production The Fall of the House of Usher, one of the first productions in this theatre. It is a feast for the eye: Cordingley's intricate costumes distort and exaggerate the human figure, creating a cartoon effect that contrasts sharply with the human body itself, revealed in its nakedness as vulnerable and absurd, like a snail without a shell. The stage is a huge revolve, its floor painted in faux-Tudor patterning, bisected by an extravagant ruched curtain. Steps lead down to an off-stage area, where the sound technician/musician/actor Mark Jones is visible in front. It's a simple and flexible space, and with the help of Paul Jackson's superb lighting, Kantor exploits all its resources to create some stunning mise en scene.

For all its spectacle, the design works as a frame for the performances and text, rather than a distraction from them, and the production is unexpectedly faithful to the spirit of Fo. The new translation preserves Fo's wit and, importantly, his poetry. The major change to the original text is the introduction of Shakespeare (Bille Brown) as a character on stage: here he becomes a sinister but strangely compassionate Master of Revels, orchestrating and witnessing the absurd and, finally, tragic action. The action occurs in Elizabeth's confused, paranoid mind, in a kind of farcical delirium of the Queen's final day.

In this portrayal, Elizabeth I (Julie Forsyth) is as far from the glittering queen beloved of the BBC and Hollywood as is possible to imagine. We see the aging tyrant possessed by paranoia and delusion, haunted by the ghosts of those she has murdered, obsessively waiting for her treacherous lover, the Earl of Essex. She is attended by her maid Martha (Nikki Shiels), her beaten and bruised Fool, Tom, (Chris Ryan), and her beautician Lady Donna Grozetta (Bille Brown), who spouts a Tourretian torrent of obscene puns as she renovates her Majesty with leeches and a waxing session.

Essex has been plotting Elizabeth’s murder and the overthrow of her realm, a police state riven by intrigue and murder. Meanwhile, Elizabeth is convinced that the real saboteur is Shakespeare, who lives in her head, plotting to destroy her. However, the actual villain is her oily chief of police Egerton (David Woods), a deadlier Sir Humphrey Appleby seeking to return England to Catholicism. Elizabeth, of course, has her own secret secret police spying on the secret police.

The plot is incidental and often makes little sense. The dynamic of this production is the switchback between outright vulgar comedy and genuine pathos: the violence of the action, rendered harmless by the cartoon quality of the grotesque, suddenly turns and bites with its realism. The first hint of cruelty is the massively bruised face of the abused Fool, the target of violence from everyone in the play: ignored except when he can be of use, his loyalty is rewarded only with slaps and kicks. The bridge between the unfeeling and the feeling is, unexpectedly and hilariously, pop music rearranged as Elizabethan madrigals. The effect is imbalancing and, ultimately, exhilarating: there's a bravura performance of Never Ending Story that might have come from a Broadway musical, which segues straight into the death of the queen.

This farcical and yet strangely moving play is at once a gloriously wicked satire on the backstage insanities of power and a paean to human mortality. Elizabeth was a tyrant, a woman in a man's world who retained her power by being more ruthless and smarter than her rivals; but her sex meant that, unlike a king, she could never marry without losing her authority. Her physical and emotional frailty are laid hard against the pomp of her circumstance and title, exposing the emptiness of power. As Shakespeare said (in another play): "For within the hollow crown / That rounds the mortal temples of a king / Keeps Death his court." The play also becomes a reflection on the role of the artist in the State, as critic and court jester. Shakespeare is both Bard and jester, the unacknowledged legislator of principle: but his double is the poor, exploited Fool, the lowest of the low, whose role is to divert and entertain, and whose cruel treatment is the bad conscience not only of the queen, but of all her minions.

There are no weak performances. The first-class cast nimbly negotiates the switchback of comedy and tragedy, although on opening night there were a few problems in the early scenes with audibility. In the title role, Forsyth is a triumph: ribald, tyrannical and at last hauntingly vulnerable. Bille Brown in his double role is consistently enjoyable, and linguistically dextrous. I thought it took around 20 minutes to warm up: there was a stickiness in the comedy that may have been ironed out by now, but may also be a problem with the slightly frantic staging in the beginning. It's more than made up for by the uncannily spooky final moments of the play, as Shakespeare dances away from the queen's corpse, chanting "Maggoty, maggoty, maggoty", his malapropism of Majesty, before vanishing into the darkness.

Picture: Julie Forsyth (left) and Bille Brown in Elizabeth. Photo: Jeff Busby

Elizabeth: Almost By Chance A Woman, by Dario Fo, freely adapted by Louise Fox and Luke Devenish, directed by Michael Kantor.Design by Anna Cordingley, lighting design by Mark Jones, sound design by Russel Goldsmith, choreography by Tony Bartuccio. With Bille Brown, Julie Forsyth, Mark Jones, Chris Ryan, Nikki Shiels and David Woods. Malthouse Theatre, until April 24.

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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Plays - second class literature?

A quick blurt, for those who think the artform that's inspired lacklustre talent like Shakespeare, Ibsen, Churchill, Beckett, Brecht, Chekhov, Bernhardt, Buchner - oh, you get the picture - isn't proper literature.

Black clouds are swirling over the NSW Premier's Literary Awards, which this year didn't award a Play Prize, supposedly because of the low quality of the entries. And how quickly it's segued into a discussion that sees plays as the problem children of literature, and perhaps really not literature at all.

Now, before you get me wrong, I know plays are written for performance. I just happen to think that writing plays is a literary, as well as a theatrical, art. Yes, reading plays is a skill - but so is reading novels and poems. We all learn how to read novels. Out of a quirk of Australian culture, we mostly don't learn how to read plays, and don't see them in a continuum with other kinds of writing. They are generally, erroneously, regarded as close relatives of film scripts, but actually have far more to do with poetry. That this has impacted on our play writing culture is undeniable, but the production of mediocre art works doesn't discredit the artform itself. Unless it happens to be playwriting.

I simply don't buy the argument that plays are not "literary": if there's a text, it exists as an autonomous script as well as a "blueprint for performance", and that text can be read on its own terms. Certainly, some of my favourite literary works are plays.

Currency Press has made the connection to the scandalously poor representation of drama in the PEN Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature. (Their press release is on James Waites' blog). Meanwhile, NSWPLA chair of judges Gil Appleton suggests in the SMH that judges of the play prize ought to be made to see the plays in performance. Aside from being impractical - isn't this a national prize? - it also begs the question. If the judges chosen to arbitrate the award aren't skilled enough to judge the texts, why are they appointed as judges?

In the same story, David Williamson makes some bizarre comments about Chekhov and the perils of literary judgment ("If you looked, for instance, at a play of Chekhov that way you would be deeply disappointed because there would be no wonderful metaphors, no sparkling language - there are just what seems like mundane lines of dialogue … ") which merely obscure the question. It's certainly a novel view of Chekhov's work. Even literary snobs would be hard put to deny the literary worth of Chekhov's plays, mostly because he's a Dead Great Writer. I'd turn the argument around, and suggest that the same qualities that make a great novel - vivid language, wit, inventiveness, formal imagination and knowledge, vitality, passion, intelligence, and (crucially) a profound understanding of metaphor - are those which go to make a great play. And maybe if a "literary" judgment of plays can't perceive or assess these qualities, you have to ask what is wrong with literary judgment.

I personally don't think the NSWPLA result is anything but an anomaly of this year's judges, and this argument is aside from the perceived quality of this year's batch of plays. What the discussion around it does reveal, however, is a pervasive confusion about the artform, which reaches into the play writing community itself. It emerges as an infantilisation of playwrights - sometimes by themselves.

Meanwhile, over the Pacific there's a row about the Pulitzer. The winning play decided by the judging panel was overruled by the Pulitzer Committee, who collectively went to see the winning - un-shortlisted - play the night before deciding the winner. Playgoer has the goods, and finishes by asking: "does the Board treat all the categories this casually? And imagine if they did treat any other, more "serious" category like this--and overrule its jury like this?"

Yes, imagine! But at least we're not alone.

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It's Wednesday

And I realise I have yet to expatiate on the Malthouse production of Dario Fo's Elizabeth: Almost By Chance A Woman (except for the brief review in the Australian). This is partly due to a seasonal cold, but mostly because I am locked in a bitter passive-aggressive struggle with The Novel. This is inducing such mortal tedium and so many complaints (from me, and soon from the family) that is getting in the way of almost everything. For the record, I really enjoyed this production, and there's a lot to discuss. This is just a holding note while I bash the daemon into submission, and the review will be up soon. Just not today. Yrs, Ms TN.

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Thursday, April 08, 2010

What literary award?

The eyebrow-lifter of the week is the NSW Premier's Literary Awards. In particular, the decision by the judges of the Play Award not to release a shortlist, and instead to give the $30,000 prize to PlayWriting Australia, to "support professional development opportunities for new playwrights in 2011".

Perhaps they ought to spend the money instead on short classes for playwrights on entering awards. Of the four prize-worthy scripts Ms TN immediately brought to mind on hearing the news, only one was actually entered: the total entries, for an Australia-wide award, was 25 titles. However, judges in these prizes have the discretion to ask for scripts to be entered, if they think that significant works are missing from the mix; I can only presume this year that the NSW judges couldn't think of any.

Naturally, this has led to various bods asking whether local play writing is in crisis. No more than usual, I'd suggest. It does seem a perverse decision: even from the limited field on offer, Ms TN could have cobbled a creditable shortlist of at least three plays. One of which won last year's Louis Esson Prize in the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards. So, what do you think?

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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Review: Fatboy

This review contains spoilers.

In 2010, it's difficult to avoid a profound - even a paralysing - pessimism. Everywhere you look, human greed and blind self-interest trump any other consideration. The so-called debate on climate change only demonstrates the hypnotic power of delusion and ignorance; the distortions of political spin and media white noise degrade our language, so that truthfulness is all but impossible or, where possible, inaudible; rationality is gobbled up by psychotic self-deception and spat out as mockery. The ideals of democracy are an illusion, a pantomime choreographed by Fox News and big business.

While the dance of pixels keeps our neurones dormant, behind the scenes we continue the biggest mass species extinction in 65 million years, and pursue pointless wars with deadlier and deadlier weapons that consume a staggering percentage of our increasingly scarce resources. We blindly condemn millions of our fellows to lives of unspeakable misery in the interests of the vampiric demigods of the human race, corporate shareholders. We are a toxic wasteland, a desert of the soul, a calamity.

I've sometimes thought the abiding spirit of our times might be Hamlet: there's a prophetic edge to his description of the skies as "a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours", after all. And how exquisitely he spits on the human promise, so teasingly present in us all, and which, for all the evidence against us, we are so loath to forgo!

What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me.

Yet there's another, equally compelling figure who presides over our modernity: against Hamlet's fatal indecision, Alfred Jarry's obscene man of action, Ubu. "I make my fortune, snickersnack, then kill the whole world and buggeroff." You could emblazon that on the coat of arms of Dick Cheney: draft-dodging warmonger and former CEO of oil giant Halliburton, and as Vice President, the brains of the Bush administration. Also, someone whom even Henry Kissinger was moved to describe as "evil".

Which brings me to Fatboy, John Clancy's 2006 adaptation of Jarry's first play, Ubu Roi. It's the kind of play which makes you laugh all the way through, and leaves you with a kind of bracing blackness. Its absurdity and grotesqueness cut through cant and piety, and brutally reveal how bad things are. Because they really are as bad as all that. Probably worse. The laughter makes it possible to see it, albeit briefly; human beings, as the poet once said, cannot bear very much reality.

Clancy's adaptation is in the spirit of Jarry's play, but plays fast and free with the original to update Ubu to contemporary America (and by extension, the wealthy west - this is all performed in Australian accents, except for a wonderful speech that mashes some notorious presidential quotes). Fatboy (Daniel Frederiksen) is a man of insatiable appetite: he literally devours money, to the continual despair of his wife Fudgie (Olga Makeeva). In the first act, after their obligatory trading of insults, she sends him out into the world to find a job while Fudgie, a woman of insatiable appetites herself, seduces a prospective tenant (Adam Pierzchalski). Fatboy's idea of a job is to murder a bank full of people and empty their pockets: he returns triumphant, murders the tenant who cuckolds him, and vows to continue his violent career.

The following act sees him being prosecuted for crimes against humanity. It reminds me, in its absurdity, of the court scene in The Magic Pudding (a story which, in its own way, reveals almost as bleak a view of humanity as Jarry). This act contains the best incidence of a running gag in which impassioned gestures are made towards human nobility: the judge makes a moving speech about the inalienability of human rights, to stunned silence: and then, after a long pause, the entire cast falls about laughing. I can't think of a better representation of the gap between governmental pieties about justice, and their unjust actions.

Finally, Fatboy becomes ruler of the world, which is not as much fun as he thought it would be: he finds that he has devoured everything, and there is nothing left to eat: no more wheat, no more milk, no more cows. He is reduced to eating his own crown. There is an attempted assassination, and so he kills everybody. The End.

Well, not quite the end: there is an apparently improvised epilogue, in which the actors remove their costumes, and Fatboy walks into the audience to tell us that we, arseholes, are him. This is the weakest part of the play, since the message has long been hammered home: it's our unbridled consumerism that drives this destruction. But it's funny, all the same.

It's perfect for Red Stitch's tiny stage, which is transformed into a Jarry-esque puppet theatre behind a lush red curtain (Jarry thought that the main thing wrong with theatre was the actors, and that they ought to be replaced with puppets). It's a wonderful, anarchic production of the play: director Marcelle Schmitz picks up and plays all the louche theatricality of the text, backed by Peter Mumford's cartoonish design of painted flats. There's a good dose of meta-theatricality, with white-face actors asking permission to leave the stage so they can change costume for their next role, a puppet show between acts where Fatboy eats the puppet, and loud thumps and sotte voce cursing backstage as the sets are changed between acts.

Schmitz has an excellent cast, who play the grotesquerie to the hilt: I loved all the performances, especially Frederikson ("I am Fatboy, and I am titular!") In the smaller roles, all doubled, the three supporting actors, Adam Pierzchalski, Dion Mills and Andrea Swifte, are hard to beat, and Olga Makeeva as Queen Fudgie generates a peculiarly grotesque sex appeal. It's not a place to look for subtlety: this is a theatre of broad, obvious gesture. The language is limber and witty enough to to keep you interested, and its constant inventive obscenity creates a compelling poetic.

As political theatre, this kind of rambunctious satire is vastly preferable to the wan politicising of a David Hare, because it does nothing to pacify the audience. It's rude, crude, vital and very, very angry. Does it make a difference? Only in the way the art does: there is a liberation in contemplating the truth of our circumstances, that might combat the paralysis that otherwise would overwhelm us. The naming of the terrible is a hope in itself. When actual - as opposed to delusive - hope seems about as endangered as the thylacine, that seems no bad thing to me.

Picture: Daniel Frederiksen as Fatboy, ruling the world at Red Stitch.

Fatboy, by John Clancy, directed by Marclle Schmitz. Design by Peter Mumford, lighting design by Stelios Karagiannis, costume design Olga Makeeva and Peter Mumford, sound design by Russel Goldsmith. With Daniel Frederiksen, Olga Makeeva, Adam Pierzchalski, Andrea Swifte and Dion Mills. Red Stitch until April 17. Bookings: 9533 8083.

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