Wednesday, 18 November 2015

SPECTRE: Does it meet expectations?


After 2012’s Skyfall – a commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the James Bond film series – any follow-up was going to have hard time hitting that height. And the series, since its 2006 reinvention with Daniel Craig, has been a solid run of films. Even the maligned Quantum of Solace really only suffers in comparison to Casino Royale and, for me, it’s a perfect sequel to Craig’s first outing.

Spectre, on the other hand, doesn’t just suffer by comparison. Its own internal logic doesn’t stack up and where it wants to tie together disperate elements from the three previous films, it makes little-to-no sense. Yes, we’re still talking about James Bond films here. A series whose low points include James Bond in space (Moonraker) and James Bond in an invisible car (Die Another Day).

It’s not that the series has ever been consistently one thing or another, let alone consistently good. Each actor brings his own quirks to the role and every time the character is re-cast, the producers rethink their own take on a spy who was invented post-World War 2.

Roger Moore leaned so far towards comedy, that his films became farcical. Timothy Dalton wanted Ian Fleming’s harder edge back. Pierce Brosnan wanted to be some combination of his predecessors and Sony never seemed to know what to do with this character in the 90s; he seemed so old-fashioned, they decided to polishes his edges away.

With Casino Royale, they transplanted Fleming’s “blunt instrument” from Fleming’s 1953 novel into the present with a film that’s as faithful to the original text as any of the first four Sean Connery films. But this is a James Bond that lives in the world where we have a big screen Jason Bourne and a small screen assortment of leading men who are hard-edged to the point where they are unlikable.

Over the first three of Daniel Craig’s films, different iconic elements were reintroduced to paint a more vivid and complicated portrait of this MI6 agent with a licence to kill. And the ending of Skyfall dropped two final pieces of the mosaic into place – a male M (and his “damnably cold grey eyes” in the form of Ralph Fiennes) and Moneypenny (a sidelined field agent). It almost promised that the next adventure we’d get would hew closer to the classic action/adventure mould of the earlier films.

I like that this series has been flexible enough to reinvent itself. I might find it hard to watch Octopussy or A View to a Kill without rolling my eyes at how old Roger Moore got in the role, but that the series continued after double-taking pigeons and Bond dressed as a clown, shows how resilient the franchise is.

Timothy Dalton wanted a tougher Bond and, for me, The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill, are two of the highlights of the pre-Craig era. But Dalton’s second outing was his last, because audiences weren’t ready for a bleak story about an agent out for revenge, his licence to kill revoked.

The Craig films seemed to take the adventure of Dalton’s last film to heart, as he’s barely taken a legitimate case since Casino Royale. Quantum of Solace, Skyfall and Spectre are all revenge films of a sort, with Craig’s Bond going rouge much of the time and MI6 feeling even less and less relevant as the series progressed. Spectre, in particular, wants to make a point here about global intelligence agencies being at the mercy of rogue elements (both agents and super villains) but the script is flaccid and facile.

I gave Skyfall a lot of latitude because Sam Mendes was never going to make anything resembling a traditional Bond film and, as I said, I like to see the franchise bent in interesting directions. As much as the Fleming novels mostly have an expected structure, some of them are surprising in the way Fleming chooses to approach the story. “From Russia With Love” doesn’t have Bond appear until the halfway point of the book. “The Spy Who Loved Me” is told from a woman’s point of view and Bond doesn’t appear until the last few chapters. And Skyfall was a celebration of fifty years and Bond was in a reflective mood. We even returned to his childhood home, echoing paragraphs from Fleming’s “You Only Live Twice” about Bond’s parents and his upbringing.

With Mendes returning to the franchise, Spectre again refuses to be anything like a classic James Bond film. Sure, it’s got the gunbarrel sequence back at the beginning (finally) and a rousing pre-credits sequence. But the film deliberately veers away from what you are expecting. There are effectively two villains, whose plans are only tangentially related. There is a scene told from Monica Belucci’s character’s point of view, until Bond enters at the last minute.

And after about a third of the way through the film, there are really no dramatic stakes. This is Mendes wanting to pull apart the James Bond character, after four films and nearly ten years and see how Daniel Craig’s James Bond ticks. But there’s no story to anchor that expectation.

When Casino Royale was released, I wrote a blog post examining the elements of the James Bond canon that might be introduced in the following films. Since we had a definitive adaptation of Fleming’s first Bond novel, might we see his series replayed in a modern context? Each successive film built on the last, but with Spectre wanting to cement all this together, the experiment almost falls apart.

The villainous group Quantum is introduced by name in Quantum of Solace, but they are clearly and obviously connected to the events of Casino Royale through the character of Mr White. They were also an obvious stand-in for the recurring villains in the original novels, S.P.E.C.T.R.E.

The rights to the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. group and its head, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, have been in legal limbo for much of the part forty years, because Ian Fleming published his novel “Thunderball” based on a treatment co-written with Kevin McClory. McClory then co-owned elements of that novel, allowing him to make his own big screen Thunderball in 1983, Never Say Never Again.

Quantum were the modern-day S.P.E.C.T.R.E. until, of course, Sony & MGM reacquired the rights and based their latest film around Spectre's reintroduction to the franchise. This fourth film should have been another definitive step in replaying the Bond mythos. But it’s a misstep in several ways.

The introduction of Spectre is lacklustre. Bond is sent on a mission by the previous M, who has conveniently left a tape with a mysterious clue on it. Bond connects that to some effects recovered from his childhood home, for some reason. He goes to a funeral, rescues the widow and is then pointed to where Spectre’s next meeting will be held. There he comes face-to-shadow with someone who knows his name... but everything is kept perfectly oblique, even though two-and-two can only really equal four.

Why does he connect M’s warning to the name Oberhauser? Why does he ask Moneypenny to check up on Oberhauser’s history both before and after his supposed death? Just because he gets the first two clues at the same time? I guess that tape and the photograph of Oberhauser were in the same box. None of it makes much sense.

We then get the reintroduction of Mr White (“The Pale King”, something Bond accidentally overheard in Mexico), who tells him that all those who were part of Quantum were also really part of Spectre. Thus wiping the slate clean; the producers seem to hate Quantum of Solace so much, we hear the name Dominic Greene (that film’s villain) but never see his face like we do Le Chiffre (Casino Royale) or Raul Silva (Skyfall). Quantum is dead; long live Spectre.

But why should we care? An evil organisation is an evil organisation. What is their nefarious end game? What are these super villains up to?

Something about terrorist attacks and infiltration of government agencies. The head of Spectre is Oberhauser, who was James Bond’s boyhood friend – a brother figure who calls himself the “author of all [Bond’s] pain”, who somehow convinced Vesper to kill herself or something. Not sure, nothing makes much sense by this point. How the plot of Skyfall figures into all this (Silva was seeking revenge on Judi Dench’s M)  is anyone’s guess.

Oh, and Hannes Oberhauser doesn’t go by that name anymore. Call him Ernst Stavro Blofeld. He’s evil, on his mother’s side.

What we have here is a reveal that has all the air taken out of it because in this version of the franchise, the name Blofeld doesn’t mean anything to anyone. It’s just like when Benedict Cumberbatch was revealed to be Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, after a year of JJ Abrams telling everyone he wasn’t playing Khan. What does the audience gain by that? What does the story gain?

The characters don’t care. Bond has never heard the name and doesn’t know this supervillain is best remembered by fans for stroking a Persian cat in You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever. Spectre even botches that reveal by showing us the cat before Blofeld reveals his true (new) name. After a year of Sam Mendes telling everyone that Christoph Walz wasn’t playing Blofeld.

There have been memorable female characters in all of Craig’s film, but in Spectre we get Belucci’s Sciarra – who is effectively a cameo – and Lea Seydoux’s Dr Madeleine Swann, who threatens to be interesting but becomes the thinnest-drawn Bond girl in decades. At some point she loses all personality, becomes a victim of daddy issues (an old-saw from the Fleming stories) and then falls in love with James Bond, just in time to need to be rescused at the film’s climax. It’s all so rote.

Sam Mendes doesn’t want to give you the kind of Bond film you used to enjoy, so he gives you a ponderous pastiche of those films, humour and fun completely exised. The fight on the train is an admirable homage to a similar (and far better) scene in From Russia with Love. The confluence of Bond falling in “love” again, with the threat of Blofeld over his shoulder, echoes Fleming’s masterpiece “On Her Majesty Secret Service”. The film is pretty great, too – regardless of what you think of George Lazenby’s one-off 007.

In fact, OHMSS seems to be one of the key inspirations for this film. That book was published a decade after Fleming’s “Casino Royale” and features Bond falling in love for the first time since Vesper. In the film version, there are allusions to previous adventures, mostly to make sure audiences understood that Lazenby was playing the same man that Connery had played in his films.
Spectre tries a similar trick, reminding us of where this Bond has come from – through reference and allusion and homage, without really finding its own voice. Skyfall wanted it both ways and succeeded. Spectre does not.

Earlier versions of the Spectre script (revealed during the Sony hack of last year) suggest that Blofeld’s assistant Irma Bunt from OHMSS was to appear in this film. And, to add insult to various injuries, the last script line of this new film was going to be “We have all the time in the world” – a direct lift from the end of the book and film versions of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Be grateful the filmmaker’s chose to cut that line or I might have done something drastic. Or, in any case, there would have been some memorable invective from my Twitter account.

It’s been a long time since the James Bond series had four good films in a row. Probably some combination of films in the 1960s, to be honest; whether it be Connery’s first four films (Dr No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and Thunderball) or, depending if your taste leans bigger, the final four of that decade (Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice and OHMSS). I was hoping Spectre might buck that trend of inconsistency in the franchise, but it met that expectation full-on.

I did expect Spectre to overshadow Quantum, the evil organisation. I kind of hoped it might. Spectre and Blofeld are to James Bond as the Joker is to Batman. It was the most significant element from the novels yet to be introduced. And now we have a Blofeld who is effectively James Bond’s “brother”, which serves no purpose to the story, either narratively or emotionally.

As ever, even after a terrible film, the James Bond series will continue. I’m hoping Mendes steps away and the next film (possibly Craig’s final film, if this one wasn’t already) is allowed to be bigger, more exciting and a little bit fun.

But how long must we wait until there’s a solid run of four good films in a row? Another half century? Given box office receipts and still (somehow) decent reviews, we might have to wait but the franchise has all the time in the world.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Sometimes I write reviews: YOUARENOWHERE


The first thing you should know going into this show is that you should know nothing about it. But isn’t that true of all shows? The less you know, the better? Maybe, but you see Desdemona having read or seen Othello. You see The Bacchae, perhaps knowing the original play or the Greek myth or the word bacchanalia, at least.

I went into YOUARENOWHERE knowing it was made by Andrew Schneider at PS122 in New York and that it was highly regarded by people who had seen it as part of the Coil Festival back in January of this year. I knew this was one not to be missed, but I didn’t know why.

The brief in the Festival program was enough to whet my appetite. It hits my interest in science fiction and time travel and individual perspective. And the production/promotional image is intriguing.

The first thing I want to say about my reaction is that I walked out of the theatre speechless. I get this way. If I don’t know what to say, it’s always because I loved the show. Because adding words to the experience can’t make it better. Because starting to talk about something right away almost tarnishes it.

If I come out talking about a show, maybe I liked it, maybe I didn’t. Maybe I need to talk it through. I’m the most vociferous when I hated something. If I’m barely out of my seat and I’m ranting, something’s gone wrong.

It’s two days since I’ve seen YOUARENOWHERE and I’ve tweeted about it and raved on Facebook. And because I’ve not wanted to say too much, I might have said too little. And I’ve spent a lot of time reading reviews from here and New York; trying to piece together my thoughts and trying make sense of what I saw.

And part of reading those reviews and listening to podcast reactions to the piece is in seeing how much people have said about the show and how often the phrase coup de theatre has been used. Do they settle on talking about the technical achievements and the physicality of Schneider’s performance because they don’t want to tell you what else to expect?


Some of the best theatre I’ve seen this year has been non-text-based and that’s always invigorating for me because my own work is driven by the texts I write. Schneider says his work evolves from his performance; that he has no great stories to tell but is interested in exploring moments. And this is true of this show in many ways: the sound and lighting design responds to Schneider’s movements. The story is told as much in his physicality as it is in any of the particular words he chooses to say – whether forward or backward or when he mimes to “Lonesome Town” by Ricky Nelson.

Even knowing nothing more than the show would tackle themes and topics that are of interest to me, I still brought in cultural and personal baggage. There are moments early on in the show that reminded me of Philip K Dick and, soon after that, of David Lynch. If you are going to talk about an understanding of what makes you you (and not someone else), why not allude to those who have preceded you on this very subject? Give the audience little touchstones before pulling the rug out from under them.

Some of the discussion in the foyer after the show focused on the technical achievement, much like the reviews have. Even standing there talking with people who saw what we saw – filtered through our own perceptions – we wanted to tackle the lightning and the sound and not touch on the pure emotion we felt when... well... that thing happened. That thing we will never talk about.

The use of LED lighting combined with as pure a blackout as I’ve ever seen in the theatre (no illuminated Exit signs here) was disorienting. Schneider is here and then he’s there. And now he’s lit by a frame hanging in the middle of the space. And now his face is in shadow.

And then there were the technical difficulties which, were they part of the show? I still don’t know. There’s a tension between performer and audience when such a slick show starts to fall apart and yet everything else was so precise, maybe these mistakes were deliberate? Maybe he wanted us to think about technology by having it go wrong? He’s already talking directly to us anyway. It’s a lecture, it’s a speech, it’s an AA meeting, it’s a desperate call from the future.

Schneider is charming, engaging and funny. I was with him quite early on because I had a handle on things. These observations on observation. These musings on Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. A mention of “missed connections” on Craigslist. These are the moments Schneider wants you to connect with, small things we can grasp and understand. Before... well, before.

There are several surprising moments in the second half of the show, though once the rug is pulled out from under the audience once, it’s hard to reset their expectations and pull the wool over their eyes again. Which is fine. Once for me was enough. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing at first. I couldn’t process it. I was lost, confused. What was happening? Where was I? How?

There were gasps of surprise. Intakes of breath. Nervous laughter. Chortles of recognition. A wave of WHAT HAS HAPPENED HERE. WHAT’S GOING ON. HOW.

I had tears in my eyes because... for so many reasons. Because it was a coup de theatre. Because it wasn’t just a spectacular trick; it was so simple. Because it told us more in a second than some shows can tell us in their entire running time. Because it’s as pure a moment of theatre as I’ve ever seen.
And the show kept marching forward. And my mind couldn’t keep up.

And I wish I could see it again, so I was better prepared. But I know that magic moment wouldn’t quite be there the second time, but at least I might be able to parse what was happening a little more easily.

Sometimes I write reviews because I need to tell the world about a show I’ve just seen.

Sometimes I write reviews to better understand why a show hasn’t worked for me.

Sometimes I write reviews to even understand what I just saw.

Sometimes I write reviews just to record that a show happened and I was there.

Sometimes it’s all those things at the same time.


Friday, 11 September 2015

ANTIGONE: the tragedy that keeps on giving

On Monday afternoon of this week, I sat in the public galleries of both the House of Representatives and the Senate at Parliament House in Canberra. It was Question Time and many of the questions to our Prime Minister were about Syria, in particular about increasing Australia’s refugee intake and whether or not a campaign of airstrikes on the country was in anyone’s best interests.

I realised, sitting there, watching the same questions asked over and over – and the Prime Minister falling back on his tired rhetoric that his government “stopped the boats”, that Question Time is just that. A time for questions. No answers were given. The captain had made his call.

By Thursday, Australia committed to taking 12,000 refugees from Syria – as well as to a series of airstrikes in the region. In three days, the answer went from “we are doing enough” to “let’s not be too compassionate” to increasing our refugee numbers while the Prime Minister made the unilateral decision to engage in another Middle East war. The Greens argued that there should at least be a debate in parliament, but the two major parties decided that targetting a “death cult” required no more discussion. The captain had made his call and no debate was entered into.

Photo by Pia Johnson
Last night, as I sat in the Merlyn Theatre, watching the Malthouse’s new production of Sophocles’ Antigone, as Creon ranted about loyalty to the State, and Antigone was tortured for her faithfulness to her brother, it was hard not to see parallels to our current situation. But, of course, over the 2,500 years since the play was originally written, it has reflected all kinds of different struggles in different many different societies. It’s the tragedy that keeps on giving.

This new production, penned by writer, actor and an expert in Ancient Greek Drama, Jane Montgomery Griffiths, reaches back two-and-a-half millennia and updates the story to now. The play opens with the body of Polyneices laid naked on stage, surrounded by the twisted, broken bodies of the soldiers of the Theban civil war.

The tragedy plays out amongst five actors – with this production focusing on the uncompromising power of Creon, here re-written to be a female leader, played by Griffiths herself. It’s a striking portrayal of a cold leader, who is so ruthless as to be willing to sacrifice Antigone for the good of the State, who is betrothed to her son, Haemon. It’s such a bold performance, it’s hard to say whether the show will be best remembered for Griffith’s writing or this acting triumph.

She is ably supported by the rest of the cast, otherwise led by Emily Milledge in the title role. Milledge is such a strong performer that even here, where the character is trapped by circumstance, barely moving during her scenes, she manages to create a character that warrants the sympathy Antigone deserves. Antigone is effectively powerless in this society Creon controls, but she is bold and stubborn to the end. The moment where Milledge sings from the Chorus of the original text, an echo from Sophocles’ Greece, is as striking a moment in theatre as I’ve ever seen.

The story plays out on a stark, unforgiving set of concrete and steel and an elevated tradesman’s hut – designed by the Sisters Hayes. As the play progresses the ground begins to flood, slowly but surely, we watch the ground become soaked by water that looks so much like blood it is hard to distinguish.

Director Adena Jacobs pulls the whole show together, guiding it masterfully. Jacobs’ work is always striking, often cerebral but with this tragedy, the emotions are just below the surface – and they break through just as the ancient drama reaches its climax, as Creon runs around and around, unable to control the events she has set in motion. In trying to deny Antigone the dignity of her brother’s burial, she loses her own son and begins to doubt herself for the first time.

But she never doubts the power of the State. The captain has made her call and no debate was entered into.

Antigone closes this weekend.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Christie Whelan in SHOW PEOPLE! One night only at Chapel Off Chapel

Christie, in what was supposed to be Pure Blonde,
which then became Show People

There’s no people like show people
They smile when they are low...

I’ve seen Christie Whelan-Browne on stage numerous times – in many Production Company shows (like The Boy Friend, Sugar, The Producers), at the Melbourne Theatre Company (in The Drowsy Chaperone and The Importance of Being Earnest), in big musicals (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Xanadu), small musicals (Once We Lived Here) and cabaret (Britney Spears: The Cabaret).

She’s the kind of performer whose name will make me want to see a show more, if I’m ever uncertain. Each and every time I see her, I still wish I saw her on stage more often – because she can sing and dance and always creates rich and complex characters, when the show requires it. She’s been in three shows with Geoffrey Rush and has pretty much stolen the show from him each and every time.

If this feels like I’m getting carried away, it’s true. But this is the kind of roll I get on when I talk about her work. This is the kind of excitement I get when I hear she’s in something else.

I’m also a big fan of writer/director Dean Bryant’s small scale musical projects – Prodigal, Once We Lived Here and Britney Spears: The Cabaret. The Britney show, a one woman show written for Christie, accomplished something I didn’t think was possible – a narrative where I cared about Britney Spears. I mean, it’s not like media attention lavished on the pop starlet has been kind, so it was a bit of a revelation that Christie and Dean were able to make a show filled with nuance and sadness and pop music madness.

After hearing they were collaborating again on a show called Pure Blonde, I was excited. When I read reviews from Adelaide, the show had morphed into Show People – a collection of six characters, mostly monologues, for Christie to show off her amazing range.

You know how much I gushed in the opening two paragraphs? You know how much I already enjoyed her work? Show People raises that several more levels. Each character clearly defined. Each character a progression through the life of an actor: from WAAPA grad tearing tickets at Chapel Off Chapel, through regularly working  but “just” the Elphaba stand-by, and then “straight acting, bad acting” gay chorus boy, to a well-known “name” actor who sexually harasses his co-stars, to an ageing actress who got her start on Young Talent Time but whose star is fading, to end with a man who has seen it all on the Australian stage over his seventy year career.

It’s the progression from hopeful youth to wistful nostalgia that makes this more than just a showcase for Christie – the writing is superb, the direction is tight and to the point – and she elevates Show People into a tour de force. When the show was developed as Pure Blonde, it was supposed to undermine the “dumb blonde” cliche. With Show People, its focus is much wider – show business itself, from its glitz out front to the awful stuff that can happen back stage.

It’s not that the show marches from the hope of the graduate to the bitterness of the actor at the end of his working life, it’s that there’s something in the struggle that has always been there and always will. As the first character says “When you study to become a doctor, you become a doctor. When you study to be an actor, you are rarely employed as an actor. And Christie didn’t even go to drama school!”

There’s a bit of self-reflexive wit in the show, about Christie, about Dean Bryant and his collaborator Matthew Frank, but about the industry as a whole, that they know so very well. We are given a rousing musical medley at the start, because that’s what you expect from a Christie and Dean show. And then something darker and more troubling weaves its way in.

And somehow, even on a stage all by herself (with Matt on piano), Christie – with each passing character – manages to steal the show from herself. Over and over again.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

I AM A MIRACLE: Challenging abuses of power (Or, How to change history)

Adam Goodes. Sandra Bland. Cecil the Lion. Bronwyn Bishop.

Four vastly different stories that have filtered through news and social media over the last few weeks, that have basically nothing in common – except they are all about systemic abuses of power. Goodes and Bishop are intensely local stories that have vied for our attention in Australia. Sandra and Cecil are both stories we’ve heard a hundred times before – and this week, we argued about which should outrage us more.

All of them important. None more important than any other. Bishop may have resigned today, but the system she was using to her own advantage continues. Goodes may not have played football this weekend, and the tide of support has turned toward him – but those who booed him last week probably still wish they could boo him this week. And some, hopefully, have woken up to themselves.

I Am A Miracle. Photo by Pia Johnson

I Am A Miracle by Declan Greene and directed by Matthew Lutton, currently playing at the Malthouse Theatre, was inspired by a miscarriage of justice – a severely mentally-handicapped man executed in Texas in 2012. In some ways, the play is about that miscarriage of justice – but the full scope of the work touches on the divine and the structural problems of society that lead to his impoverished upbringing and his death.

It’s a response to Marvin Lee Wilson’s execution, but actually tells three entirely different stories: a soldier in an 18th Century Slave Colony in Surinam; a man – suffering from Alzheimers - and his wife in modern day Australia; and the story of an Angel, watching over Marvin Lee Wilson, trying to change the course of history.

Comparing Goodes to Bishop or Sandra to Cecil, the media – both traditional and social – reduces the importance of all of them, except in the way questions have been raised. The status quo has been questioned. The public won’t just accept “that’s the way it is” anymore.

We don’t think an Indigenous football player should be abused for being proud of his heritage. We don’t think a politician should get a free ride. We cannot accept the narrative of a healthy, happy black woman dying while incarcerated. We don’t believe a dentist should be able to hunt and kill lions for sport.

But what will change exactly? What can be changed? How can we affect change?

That is the question at the heart of I Am A Miracle. This is society as it has been built by history. These are the problems that history has caused. What can we do about people who are marginalised? What can we do about these systems of power that create the spaces for people to be marginalised.

The solider in Surinam (played with such power by Melita Jurisic) is part of a society that keeps slaves, but he has empathy for them. Can he change the world he lives in?

The man with Alzheimers (Bert Labonte in another outstanding performance, after his multiple characters in Birdland) loses his memory before our eyes. How can we change the outcome of his story?

And the Angel (vocalised by Hana Lee Crisp, in a stunning operatic performance) can do nothing so much than try to change all of history – create a miracle – to save Marvin Lee Wilson’s life.

Is the only thing that can change the outcomes of all these stories the titular miracle? Or can we be inspired by this piece of work to challenge our assumptions and find the miraculous in the every day?

In an interview with Radio National, director Matthew Lutton – recently appointed the Artistic Director of the Malthouse Theatre – was asked whether it was the Malthouse theatre’s responsibility to always tell new Australian stories.

Lutton said:
“It’s certainly not going to be a company where every story we see on stage is explicitly about Melbourne right here now in tangible ways but it will always be connected to the contemporary thought, the contemporary moment. But Malthouse needs to think broadly... we need to be re-evaluating ourselves in history, re-evaluating ourselves politically and personally.”

I Am A Miracle were the last words of a man executed in 2012 in Texas. This play, written for him, is about him, about a soldier, about a man and his wife and the pressures of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s set now and at the beginning of time itself.

It’s not about Adam Goodes or Sandra Bland or Cecil the Lion or Bronwyn Bishop or asylum seekers locked up outside the arms of our laws or enemy combatants still in Guantanamo Bay or Al Jazeera journalists imprisoned in Egypt for doing their job.

But, by some small miracle of theatre, it is.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Love, Shit and Birdland: Extraordinary work on Melbourne's mainstages (and elsewhere)

June has been an incredible month for theatre in Melbourne.

Even though my theatre-going month started with MTC’s The Waiting Room, which was inept on most levels – it’s hard to know where to place the most blame, with MTC’s Neon season in full swing and the premiere of three more mainstage works (two at MTC, one at Malthouse), the quality of work picked up considerably. I also saw a great show at La Mama and the Owl and Cat.

But let’s begin with the cream of the crop – three shows that are still running through next weekend.

Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information is given a stunning production at the Malthouse, with superb direction by Kip Williams, populated with stunning performances on a modular set (David Fleischer) with evocative lighting (Paul Jackson).

The script is divided into seven sections. Within the seven sections there are seven scenes. The sections must be played in order but the scenes within the sections can be played in any order. This sounds like chemistry, like alchemy. It seems both too prescriptive and too anarchic to work.

But what Churchill’s script evokes is our modern-day consumption of information – scrolling through Facebook or Twitter – and perhaps an obscuring of love or a full dose of it in mere words. Some of the scenes are seconds long. Others are a few minutes. Some are wordless. Most of them are funny. Many are heart-wrenching.

Theatre is a collaborative medium. With a script like this – that doesn’t attribute dialogue, that doesn’t define setting – it asks the director and actors to work hard. And the production draws the audience in, telling stories we’ve heard a hundred times before – but in a way we’ve never experienced them.

This is a top-notch production that is not to be missed. It travels to Sydney in July.

Patricia Cornelius and Susie Dee’s collaborations stretch back years – and it’s great to see them together in an MTC theatre, if not on a main stage. Their work together is so forceful, so tough, perhaps it doesn’t belong in a 500 seat theatre. Maybe it’s just enough that we squeeze into the black box of the Lawler to witness this striking use of profanities, these rough – and toughened – women, explaining how they never had much hope. How their upbringing has forced them to not feel pain and to not shed tears. What good are tears, says one character. Unless she has to use them to get her own way. These characters describe the tools they’ve had to develop in themselves to survive – and that mostly means shielding themselves from emotion.

Cornelius’ writing is often tough to watch, but never less than poetry to listen to. She has an ear for reality, but in its exeuction – under Dee’s smart direction – it’s a theatrical insight into a kind of character we don’t see on theatre stages very often. And never on our main stages. It’s enough that Neon has invited Cornelius and Dee onto an MTC stage and while they deserve a bigger audience, their theatre might be better on the fringes.

The play is called SHIT but its title is not descriptive of its content or execution at all. Kudos also to the three actors Peta Brady, Sarah Ward and Nicci Wilks – and to designer Marg Horwell whose set is as hard and unforgiving as the text and these women.

When MTC announced they were producing a Simon Stephens play in 2015, I was excited. His plays On the Shore of the Wide World and Pornography are smart and unrelenting and haunting. Birdland premiered at the Royal Exchange Theatre last year and while its subject matter is slightly more palatable – how we build celebrities up and then tear them down – its no less memorable in its end result.

Birdland is a two-hour portrait of rock star Paul, in a never-leaves-the-stage bravura performance by Mark Leonard Winter – whose performance in Hayloft’s Thyestes is seared into my brain. His work here is just as magnetic. And the tension created in the script – how far will Paul go, how much will he hurt others for his own pleasure and amusement, how much will the people surround him hit back – is riveting.

I’ve loved Leticia Caceres’ other work at MTC – Constellations and Cock, but this play asks a lot more of her. Constellations is a two-hander. Cock is mostly just three characters. Birdland is a central performance surrounded by an ensemble of actors playing dozens of other characters. Girlfriends, sex workers, journalists, agents, band members, fans, parents, friends... all slipping into and out of moments on a stage that gets more and more filled with the detritus of Paul’s life. (Another amazing set by Marg Horwell.)

At moments in the show, it feels like everything might be spinning out of control, but that turns out to be deliberate. Paul thinks he’s in charge, but sometimes he’s really, really not. Most of the blowback hits the people around him, but by the end, it hits him harder and harder.

Besides the central performance by Winter, there’s some surprising transformations by Michala Banas, Bert Labonte, Peta Sargeant and Anna Samson. All stuck in Paul’s orbit, trying to get out – while Paul is confronted over and over by the truth and never cares to look at it.

Also at MTC is Simon Phillips’ and Carloyn Burns’ stage version of Alfred Hitchock and Ernest Lehmann’s North by Northwest. This is an odd beast, a show which doesn’t demand you know the film at all, but probably is more enjoyable if you have. It’s full of smart theatrical trickery, which I enjoyed until is became too distracting. There’s some smart dialogue in there that’s obscure by the clever stage craft and the story – while flimsily based around a maguffin (just as in the film) – is lost beyond the flashiness of the set and the deliberate cheesiness of the back projection.

At La Mama earlier in the month, I saw Christopher Bryant’s new play, Home Invasion – which was recently short-listed for the Griffin Award and you could see why. It’s a smart deconstruction of our obsession with celebrity and how television is part of our lives – sometimes to the point where we lose the divide between reality and fantasy.

And at the Owl and Cat, Renee Palmer and her actors devised a work called I Am Katharine – an examination of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew from a feminist perspective. It was an engaging series of scenes exploring how society expects women to act and how women expect to be treated. It’s about taking power and sharing power and not letting Shakespeare have the last word, especially with each of the women penning their own final monologues to share parts of their lives with the audience. It’s a work in progress, but I am excited to see this show develop.

Home Invasion and I Am Katharine have closed, for now.

Love and Information and North by Northwest close on July 5.

Shit finishes on July 5.

Birdland has been extended to July 11.