Sunday, 19 February 2017

Asia TOPA – Kagerou, Little Emporers

Kagerou Photo: Bryony Jackson

Kagerou, Arts House

The Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 was known the world over as the Fukushima disaster, named after the nuclear power plant that was heavily damaged by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami.

Kagerou, subtitled A Study in Translating Performance, focuses on the experiences of one woman, Kyoko, a survivor of the earthquake.

Director and creator Shun Hamanaka has created a documentary experience, with performer Yoko Ito live-translating interviews conducted with Kyoko over the years since the tragedy.

The original interviews with Kyoko form part of an aural soundscape, while we hear the performer tell the story in English. Translation is key to the performance; we are being brought into Kyoko’s world but are still held at a slight distance.

We see projections of images filmed at Hisanohama; images that are mostly still but move just a little. It’s delicate and subtle, much like Ito’s performance – there are no bold moves or grand acting moments, just a reporting of one woman’s experience.

Taking a large-scale tragedy that affected tens of thousands of people and focusing in on the experiences of one woman and one city is very effective. Kagerou recontextualises our experience of the Great East Japan Earthquake as a news report about a nuclear facility to a story of personal tragedy. Delicate and profound.

Little Emperors, rehearsal. Photo: Tim Grey

Little Emperors, Malthouse

The title of this show references “Little Emperor Syndrome” – the end-result of an entire generation of Chinese children born without siblings under the country’s One-Child Policy. It was created in collaboration between Australian playwright Lachlan Philpott and Beijing-based director, Wang Chong.

In Little Emperors, there are two children: a son, who was kept secret, and a daughter, the oldest child. The son, Kai-wen, moves to Melbourne to become a theatre director, something his mother wouldn’t approve of. She also wouldn’t approve of his homosexuality either, so he keeps that secret for as long as he can.

The show is not so much about a clash of cultures, at least until mother and daughter arrive in Melbourne to surprise Kai-wen, but an exploration of a relationship between two children – one of whom is kept at a distance because of the one-child policy.

The script itself feels a little undercooked; Kai-wen’s story hits several clich├ęd beats about feeling at a remove from his family. His awkward relationship with one of his collaborators in Melbourne feels much less rich than the story explored between mother and daughter and, sometimes, between sister and brother.

I wonder how this show would play in China and if my cultural sensibilities dulled some of the impact of the revelations late in the play.

The direction and design is stunning, though – and the performances by Alice Qin and Diana Lin, as mother and daughter, brought a richness to the experience the rest of the show lacked. The actors perform much of the show thigh-deep in water and there are many moments of tension exorcised through vigorous splashing.


Little Emperors explores an interesting subject but fails to be as compelling as it could be or should be.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

The Book of Mormon, The Encounter

I’ve already written a review for AussieTheatre this year – MTC’s production of Born Yesterday – but I want to try to write a little something about all the theatre I see this year.

The Book of Mormon. Photo by Jeff Busby

The Book of Mormon

Back in 2012, I saw The Book of Mormon on Broadway after lining up for a few hours to get standing-room-only tickets. My sister and I stood at the back of the stalls, behind people who probably paid $300 for their seats. I’ve never been so happy to stand before.

Four and a half years later, the show has made it to Melbourne and I’m so glad to have seen it again. It’s not a soundtrack I listen to a lot and it’s not a show I think about much, but it’s so fun in the theatre. I think I even enjoyed it more this second time, maybe because I paid for a seat this time? I remembered parts but I’d forgotten others. I noticed details I had missed before.

I also think it’s smarter than I first gave it credit for. The satire on religion is not subtle, but the look at Africa through the lens of Mormon missionaries is very pointed. And while it’s outrageously crude, as you would expect from the creators of South Park, the songs are clever and the performances are outstanding.


Complicite's The Encounter

The Encounter

The Malthouse Theatre’s 2017 season looks sensational and it has kicked off with a rich, immersive piece of theatre – a one-man show that really gets inside the audience’s head. Performer Richard Katz welcomes us to theatre, gets us to put our headphones on and treats us to the story of Loren McIntyre, a photographer for National Geographic who got lost in the Amazon jungle in 1969.

How do you capture life? How do you record it? Can you record it too much and if a recording disappears, is your memory enough? The questions the show raises are as dramatic as McIntyre’s thrilling and horrifying trip into the Amazon – trying to capture images of a “lost tribe”.

With the headphones on, the soundscape can put the voice of the performer before us behind us. He can whisper in our ear. His words can echo and repeat. Music can be weaved in, along with live sound-effects and pre-recorded interviews. This one-man show creates a wild, wide world right inside your head.

This show is - I suspect - unforgettable, even though this review and a Facebook check-in might be the only digital reminders of my encounter with it.

The Encounter is sold out.

The Book of Mormon will run for a while.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Carrie Fisher: No More Postcards

Two Princess Leias, a medal and some broken jewellry

Did I ever tell you about the time Carrie Fisher kissed me on the cheek? Stick around, I’ll tell it again soon.

Carrie Fisher was Princess Leia; no getting past that. Except, of course, she did. And then she stepped right back into being her last year. She was the right person to play Leia because she was the right age at the time and she is part of Hollywood royalty.

She was also the right person to have been Leia in retrospect, too. Can you imagine anyone else describing Jabba the Hutt as a “giant saliva testicle”? Anyone else who would bring an audience member up on stage to mount a Leia “sex doll” and whip it away before they get close enough to fulfil their childhood fantasy?

Actors, even those of Star Wars­­­-level fame, go in and out of the spotlight. Oh, you could spot Fisher on screen in the 1980s and 90s, but much of her hard work went on behind the scenes, as a script writer and script doctor. Hook, Sister Act, The Last Action Hero, The Wedding Singer, Scream 3. She had a hand in shaping and fixing those scripts.

She even re-wrote bits of The Empire Strikes Back, because who knows Leia better than Leia herself?

She also did uncredited re-writes on the Star Wars prequels, but not even the genius of Carrie Fisher could save those.

She wrote awards show banter for the Oscars and an episode of Roseanne for her mother, Debbie Reynolds, to guest star in.

And then there was Postcards from the Edge. I think I saw the film before I read the book, but that was her screenplay, too. It was her life. If you can write a movie of your own life and have Meryl Streep star as you, do it. That’s a great film/book about growing up as the daughter of Hollywood legends, and trying to keep it together in a crazy industry.

She hosted a show back in the early 2000s called Interviews from the Edge and I hope someone finds a way to release those for everyone’s consumption, because they were truly hilarious and insightful. The highlights, though, were her interviews with her parents – Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. Separately, of course. Genuine and moving and, as you would expect, so very funny.

She was the right person to play Leia because later in life she could write the frankly honest book, The Princess Diarist and her other great memoir, Wishful Drinking. I’ve read Wishful Drinking twice and quote it a lot. Particularly this part about George Lucas, in answer to the question “Did you know Star Wars was going to be a hit?” Carrie wrote:

Yes, of course I knew. We all knew. The only one who didn't know was George Lucas. We kept it from him because we wanted to see what his face looked like when it changed expression - and he fooled us even then. He got Industrial Light and Magic to change his facial expression for him and THX sound to make the noise of a face changing expression.

She turned that book into a stage show which she toured around the world. I saw it from the front row of the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne. Early in the show, her bracelet broke and pieces of it flew into the audience. A few of us scrabbled around on the floor trying to find the bits. After a few seconds, Carrie said: “Oh forget it, I don’t want it now it’s been on the floor.”

I have two pieces of that bracelet. They sit with my two Princess Leia action figures – one from Bespin and one from the forest moon of Endor. Between them sits the medal I won, during a part of the show Carrie called “Hollywood Inbreeding”.

For a while, I just sat there in awe of her. This legendary actor, star of my favourite trilogy from childhood – and probably from adulthood, too. This witty writer. This incredible story-teller.

And then this happened, as she told her story about waking up next to a dead Republican.
Carrie: “Why do they call sex ‘in the saddle’?”
Carrie looked at me, sitting in the front row.
Me: “Because there could be a riding crop involved?” And I made a whipping motion with one hand. Probably the best improvisation I’ve ever made in my life.
Carrie: “Well that says more about you than it does answer the question.” And she was back into the show and I’d had my moment.

Later, though, she started to tell tales of her famous family tree, with its convoluted structure. Her parents both married multiple times and once your father marries Elizabeth Taylor, who was married eight times, you’re suddenly related to half of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

During this part, she asked trivia questions and after our previous encounter, I felt brave enough to answer some of them. I knew most of the answers anyway, because I’m a fan of that era almost as much as I am a fan of hers.

And because I answered the most questions right, Carrie Fisher got down on her knees at the front of the stage and I stood up from my front row seat and she hung a medal around my neck and kissed me on the cheek.

I am writing this through tears, if you were wondering.

I wrote a play that was inspired by that moment, that encounter with a legend and a hero of my childhood. It’s called “You Will Be Kissed By Princess Leia” and it’s just a short play about how life never turns out like you expect, but can be amazing in many ways you cannot plan for.

Princess Leia is a key figure in another play of mine “Who Are You Supposed to Be” which is, ostensibly, my Doctor Who play, but it’s really about women in fandom and the heroes they find there. Leia is described as one of the great science fiction characters of all time, lost in an original trilogy where there’s a distinct lack of women – even in a franchise that’s been progressive enough to have had two female leads this past year.

And more Princess Leia than I would have ever expected.

*

There’s no comfort to be taken in the loss of a great woman who was only sixty years old. We’ll get to see more of her in the TV series, Catastrophe. We will get to see the great General Leia on screen in Star Wars: Episode VIII next year.

But we should have seen her in Episode IX. We should have gotten more cameos. We should have heard more stories and more biting commentary.

We have her books and her performances and our own personal memories of her.

But no more memoirs, no more tweeting, no more postcards from the edge.

Hollywood Inbreeding 101

Sunday, 18 December 2016

My Favourite Theatre of 2016

Picnic at Hanging Rock

I sat down to write this list with some trepidation. I thought perhaps Melbourne theatre had not quite lived up to expectation. I’d had a general sense of dissatisfaction, with a few memorable bright spots. 

But as I started to make my list of favourites, I noticed that our mainstages – Melbourne Theatre Company and the Malthouse – both had strong years. Their high points were among the best of all theatre I saw this year.

This is also the first time in a while I haven’t seen theatre outside of Melbourne. No trips to Adelaide or Sydney this year, though thankfully we got a couple of great Belvoir shows and a Sydney Theatre Company production to remind me to get up there again next year.

One particular highlight of my year was the National Play Festival, which I wrote about. I couldn’t quite figure out how to fit it into my list – with it mostly being play readings and discussion panels. But definitely a high point of looking at Australian theatre this year.

There’s also a bunch of cabaret in my list, more than usual. And, as always, my lists are in alphabetical order, because I am not going to rank art. Too much.

Adrienne Truscott

THE TOP TEN

Adrienne Truscott’s A One Trick Pony – Melbourne International Comedy Festival/Malthouse

Adrienne’s show about critical reaction to her previous show, Asking for It, was unforgettable. For the whole audience, but particularly for me in a haze of Alanis Morissette, Andy Kaufman, Mighty Mouse and the wrestling match. (my review)

Blaque Showgirls - Malthouse

One of the sharpest pieces of social satire I’ve ever seen on stage, Nakkiah Lui’s hilarious take on Showgirls was savage and hilarious. (my review)

Blaque Showgirls

Edward II - Malthouse

Matt Lutton and Anthony Weigh’s take on Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II – tackling history and museum theatre and breaking them both apart.

The Events – Belvoir/Malthouse/State Theatre Company of SA

This was one of many shows after which I was speechless. It was also one where someone from the Malthouse stuck a camera in my face to gauge my reaction. An important play so beautifully realised. Catherine McClements was as good as she’s ever been.

The Events

Lilith the Jungle Girl – Melbourne Theatre Company/NeonNext

With the disappearance of Neon as a festival, I was glad MTC programmed another Sixxter’s Grimm show in the Lawler. This is the kind of work – and the kind of company that our mainstages need to support so we can have another generation of theatre artists in this country.

Meow Meow’s The Little Mermaid – Malthouse

It’s theatre, it’s cabaret, it’s Meow Meow and how else can you describe such a big show about a story we all know put in a modern context? Bold, thrilling and entertaining as hell.

The Maze – Melbourne Fringe Festival

I’ve written a lot about this show and I’m going to keep talking about this one audience member immersive piece of theatre for a long time coming, because I want it to come back and it shook me up like no show has for a long time. And I didn’t even have anyone to discuss it with after. (my review, my other review)

The Maze

Picnic at Hanging Rock – Malthouse/Black Swan

A powerful adaptation of the classic Australian novel, with nods to the film and to a piece of Australian folklore. This was contemplative and scary in equal measure. A stunning piece of theatre. (My review)

Purge – Melbourne International Comedy Festival/Malthouse

A show about deleting friends from Facebook, it’s about connection in this era of social media and how people come in and out of our lives so easily – for good and ill.

Zoe Coombs Marr’s Trigger Warning – Melbourne International Comedy Festival

Dave is a frightening creation because he’s just a male comedian telling awful jokes and trying to ingratiate himself with the crowd and laughing just encourages that kind of bloke. And damn, Trigger Warning was an hilarious takedown of misogyny in comedy. (my review)

Zoe Coombs Marr as Dave in Trigger Warning


THE NEXT TEN

The Awkward Years – Melbourne Fringe Festival

A twenty-minute flashback to high school parties – first kisses and vomits and pass the parcel. Amazing what can happen in such a short time. (my review)

Bridget Everett: Pound It – Melbourne International Comedy Festival

I was going to say that Trigger Warning made me laugh so much it hurt, but Pound It absolutely did that for me. Bridget is filthy as hell, with the voice of a rocking angel. Extreme cabaret. (my review)

Bridget Everett: Pound It

Elegy
– Midsumma/Lab Kelpie

The story of gay refugees as related through the work of a photojournalist in the Middle East. Nick Simpson-Deeks’ performance was so layered and the production devastating. A highlight from early 2016 that I haven’t forgotten.

Jasper Jones – Melbourne Theatre Company

This was a great surprise, having not read the novel and having no idea what to expect. A remarkable cast, some beautiful theatrical tricks and the story of a small Australian town and its grief over a missing girl.

Julius Caesar – Melbourne Fringe Festival

An all-female Caesar that was sparse and brutal. A shock to the system. (my review)

Essential Theatre's Julius Caesar

Lady Eats Apple – Melbourne Festival/Back to Back Theatre

Back-to-Back’s most epic work yet, about learning to see thing’s through other perspectives – while sitting in a space some of us were so familiar with and yet we saw it anew.

Lungs – Melbourne Theatre Company

A great play enhanced by a singular production and incredible performances.

Petrasexual – Butterfly Club

My friend Petra Elliott’s show about sex and sexuality is bloody brilliant and so important. See it in Adelaide at the Fringe in 2017.

Straight White Men – Melbourne Theatre Company

A show about privilege that’s not so much about Straight White Men as it is about a society that messes with us all. A strong choice by the MTC to make a show that shines a light on much of the expectations we have for a show we see at the MTC.

Wit – 45 Downstairs

For the performance by Jane Montgomery-Griffiths alone.

Jane Montgomery-Griffiths in Wit

OTHER MEMORABLE SHOWS

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs

Alice Tovey: Personal Messiah – Melbourne Cabaret Festival

Comma Sutra – Melbourne Cabaret Festival

David Sedaris

Disgraced – Melbourne Theatre Company

3 Acts, 2 Dancers, 1 Radio Host

Switzerland – Sydney Theatre Company/Melbourne Theatre Company

War & Peace – Melbourne Festival


PAST YEARS


Sonnigsburg, Episode 6 – One Last Look

Dushan Philips as Ashan in the final episode of Sonnigsburg
It took three years to get everyone to Sonnigsburg and now we’re at the end. Episode six was directed by John Erasmus and written by Keith Gow.

These last five weeks have been an amazing time for cast and crew to finally be able to share our series with you all. Apart from our dedicated Melbourne audience, we have people across Australia watching the series. We’ve also got viewers in the UK, Italy, Germany and the US. (Let us know if you’re watching from elsewhere, too!) Also we have a couple of viewers in Samoa!

I know some people who are waiting to binge-watch the whole series, once it’s online late Monday night. We’d love to hear from people who are having Sonnigsburg days or afternoons. It’s the perfect show to catch up on over the Xmas/New Year break, if you’re lucky enough to have one.

Posts on Facebook. Tweets on Twitter. The #Sonnigsburg and #ComeFindMe hashtags have been getting a workout. It helps us find you. It helps you find us. Make sure you tag your thoughts and feelings as you watch or after. For the final episode, hashtag #OneLastLook as well.

The finishing touches have been put on the show over the past few weeks. Episode six was finished less than a week ago – and then we had to do some tweaks to episode five after it aired, which is why it was uploaded to YouTube later in the week.

It's (Not) Always Sunny in Mount Sunshine
I’m really proud of the work we’ve done on the series as a whole and I’m very excited for you to see this final chapter. By the time the shooting draft of this script was written, I’d seen footage from the series and spent a lot of time on set with the actors. They had grown into their roles by the time we shot this episode and the whole production was humming along.

There were a lot of late and cold nights spent shooting this final episode. And a lot of distance travelled. There are scenes shot months apart that fit seamlessly together. And a particular scene where we couldn’t quite get all three actors in the same place at the same time, but it cut together beautifully.

Thank you to everyone who has been watching this tale of a haunted town that’s about trying to put your past behind you, even when it won’t let you go.

The road to Sonnigsburg has been a long one. The road away from Sonnigsburg is a lot tricker. Join us on Monday night for one last look.


Saturday, 10 December 2016

Sonnigsburg: Episode 5 – Executive Producer, Fiona Eloise Bulle


Episode five airs on Monday night. It was directed by John Erasmus and written by Fiona Eloise Bulle.

I’ve known Fiona for about eight years; we met online and through mutual friends who obsessed about musical theatre and, in particular, Wicked. We didn’t really get to know each other until a couple of years later, when she founded Cold Reading Series (CRS) in Melbourne and she invited me along to have a short script of mine read.

We were both writers, but we had different goals: I was starting to get stuff on stage and Fiona wanted to make television. But Cold Readings was a great monthly get-together, one of those nights that promises to be a good networking event – and actually was. We both met Glenn Triggs through CRS; Fiona went on to produce his feature film 41 and he’d later co-direct the pilot of Sonnigsburg.

I have met several other collaborators through CRS, most notably after the first public reading of a short play of mine, Like A House on Fire – which you can download from my list of plays. This led to a show I did in 2012 called Painting with Words & Fire.

Fiona and I had lots of mutual friends all along, but the more I made theatre and she made films and her web series, the more people we knew in common. She also worked around the corner from where I worked for a couple of years; I’ve stayed in the same job and Fiona has moved on. But we used to have lunch together and complain about Hawthorn.

Somewhere in the time I knew her, she made a great little short called All the Little Pieces – directed by Jessica Brajoux. This was the first time Fiona worked with Ian Stenlake.

It wasn’t until Fiona tweeted her infamous tweet that I ever really thought about working with her. We have a similar sensibility, though we don’t always agree on the films or TV shows we like. We both love television and think about stories the same way. In the writers’ room, we worried more about how the characters felt and acted more than exactly how the plot went.

In the three years since we started work on Sonnigsburg, we are both better writers and we pay attention to story structure much more than we once did. But our characters and their relationships are central; our stuff isn’t necessarily driven by plot.

As the instigator and inspiration for this TV series of ours, Fiona had the massive task of writing the first episode. We talked about it a lot, but she had to find the way the characters spoke and acted and how they related within a scene before any of the rest of us.

When we divided up the rest of the series, I was lucky enough to get to write the finale – no pressure! Fiona chose to write episode five, which brings the story of Savannah and her search for Jade to a head. It’s dark, it’s unsettling, it’s claustrophobic and there’s some really funny stuff in there, too.

As I said in an earlier post, we all did what we needed to make this TV series work. As Executive Producer, Fiona did a little bit of everything – and kept an eye on the rest of us. She had the final say on each element and even now is working to make this show the best she can.

She’s had to make tough choices. She’s had to re-write and restructure and reschedule. She’s had some tough days and weeks and months but the show kept going because of Fiona. It’s as great as it is today because she’s tough, determined and really smart about making television.

She’s even written the theme music for the show. She’s like JJ Abrams. Really.

A lot of people talk about making television. When Fiona said she was going to make a show for C31, I knew she would. So I jumped at the chance.

Fiona is really proud of episode five of Sonnigsburg and I’m excited for everyone to see it.


Thursday, 1 December 2016

Sonnigsburg: Episode 4 – A revelation or two

Episodes four through six were directed by John Erasmus

Episode four of Sonnigsburg was written by Alex Scott and directed by John Erasmus.

Just after the halfway point, things are starting to fall into place, not just in the story, but in the middle of production. As shooting continued, we all started to feel more comfortable in our roles both on screen and behind the camera.

I wrote a first draft of Episode 6 in June of 2014 (before filming began), but as I spent more and more time on set watching the actors work, I could see what the characters were really like. As a writer, and co-creator, you never quite know how your characters will feel until the actors inhabit them.

Over the course of the first three episodes, we set up a lot of story and introduced you to our most important characters. There are a couple of great guest stars in episode four, though; characters you’ve only previously heard about make their first appearances. But I leave you to discover that when you watch.

The last major piece to fall into place production-wise was director John Erasmus. He was on board from the start and scheduled early on to direct episodes four and six. Originally, I was going to direct episode five, but when I couldn’t quite make the timing work, John was invited to helm number five as well.

You will have already seen John’s name in credits; he ended up co-directing the first episode and has had final edit on the whole series. But he really dived into production beginning with episode four.

When our original plan to shoot the series in order became harder to achieve, it made sense that we had one director working on the final three episodes of the show. There’s a consistency of vision in these later episodes that is a lot stronger than the first three.

A six-episode series breaks neatly in half; I think the scripts for these next three episodes are better, the actors have settled into their roles and John’s work helps to elevate the material even more.

Much of episode six was shot early in the back half of our production schedule. Much of episode four was shot last. Though, amusingly enough, the final shot filmed for the series was the last frame of episode three.

To be honest, I can see the rough edges of the first three episodes of the series. Beginning with episode four, these rough edges have been smoothed. With three episodes of Sonnigsburg to go, the revelations start to come thick and fast: Where is Jade? What happened to Savannah?

And how does the show look once we finally knew what we were doing? Spoiler alert: amazing.