Thursday, 19 July 2018

Melancholia – Adapted to the Stage by Declan Greene, Malthouse Theatre

Eryn Jean Norvill on Marg Horwell's set, lit by Paul Jackson,
Melancholia at the Malthouse
Photo: Pia Johnson

Confetti, or maybe ash, falls from the sky. Justine, in a wedding dress, the trim of her skirts stained with mud, trudges out into the soft deluge. This is meant to be a day of celebration, but she can’t quite bring herself to be happy.

“You had one job,” her brother-in-law yells at her later, after an uncomfortable speech at the reception, where he reminds her of things she didn’t get done before she left work two weeks ago.

He’s talking about her happiness and the tagline for the campaign she was working on. Justine has failed at delivering both. It’s hard enough that her work life and her family life are intertwined. She is also suffering from depression. And the planet Melancholia is on a collision course with earth.

Based on the film of the same name, written and directed by Lars Von Trier, playwright Declan Greene and director Matthew Lutton have translated this epic story to the stage in a confronting and striking way. Their previous collaborations, Pompeii L.A. and I Am A Miracle, took the mundane and placed those stories into an epic tableau.

Melancholia feels like a companion piece to those earlier works; frail humans elevated to the sublime. But much like the flawed characters, the production is not flawless, it has faults or maybe just fault lines.

Before an actor steps foot onstage, Marg Horwell’s exquisite design tells us this is the story of the upper classes, a wedding inside a grand home, decorated with floral carpeting and a chandelier. The figure of Justine then appears, the first glimpse of Eryn Jean Norvill’s complicated, unforgettable performance.


Eryn Jean Norvill as Justine, Melancholia
Photo: Pia Johnson
Justine has moments where she is fully in control of her life and we see this most clearly in the lyrical, poetic monologues that Declan has crafted. We are captivated by this perfectly-coiffed, grandly-styled bride who holds our unwavering attention for many long minutes during the first act. She may not be wholly thrilled by the events of her wedding day, but she can see the beauty of the world and the darkness that is on its way.

Her family is there, of course, but not exactly to support her. Her mother doesn’t want to make a speech but then she drunkenly stumbles through one, in a scene-stealing performance by Maude Davey. Her brother-in-law wants to talk about work. Her sister, Claire, tries to wrangle everything so the day goes off without a hitch; she’s the control-freak of the family but maybe this is to mask a hidden pain, too.

The play, much like the film (which I haven’t seen), is divided into two acts. If Justine has any semblance of control in act one, she loses it to an extended episode of depression in act two. This troubled articulate woman fades into a figure who needs help to walk and to sit and Norvill’s abilities are even more impressive in the second half than the first. She has such a command of the language and of her body that each articulation, each twitch and movement, tells a deeper story. It’s a performance that will stay with me.

The second half of the production drags just a little, even as the story heads toward cataclysm. Brother-in-law John mostly attends to his and Claire’s child, after making such a strong impression in the first half. Steve Mouzakis plays him as mercurial; one minute he seems to be joking, and the next he’s going for the jugular. The mother character hangs around to little purpose later on.

The relationship between Justine and Claire is central, though, and fascinating. Norvill may be allowed to command the stage more often, but Leanna Walsman proves her match when they go one-on-one, dealing with their fractured family and the end of the world.

Horwell’s set goes through simple, subtle changes, while Paul Jackson’s lighting does a lot of the heavy lifting as moods and planetary alignments shift and change. There was a moment late in the show where subtle alterations in set and lighting states made it feel like things were undulating in front of me, as if parts of the theatre itself had become unstuck, unstable. It was deeply unsettling.

Melancholia is another arresting collaboration by Declan and Matthew, where beauty and darkness collide and both the epic and intimate can be mistaken for one another.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

The Antipodes by Annie Baker – Red Stitch

The cast of The Antipodes at Red Stitch
Photo: Jodie Hutchinson

A group of writers sit around hoping to devise the perfect story. It’s purgatory with fluorescent lighting. It’s Satre’s No Exit. Hell is Other Writers.

It’s a creation myth birthed onto a boardroom table.

It’s the writers’ room of a television show.

Actually, who they are and what they are doing is not made explicit, but it’s a commentary on storytelling by committee, which playwright Annie Baker seems suspicious of, even as she recognises the connections of telling stories in a group.

At the head of the table is the showrunner, Sandy; revered by every writer in the room. And he’s one degree of separation from a screenwriting legend – a man who knows how to create stories forwards and backwards.

Each writer in this team knows how lucky they are to have this job. To be able to create stories. To be able to tell stories. And, best of all, to make shitloads of money.

The close-quarters, pressure-cooker environment is played in traverse in Red Stitch’s always-intimate space. Eight actors squeezed around a long table, occasionally visited by Sandy’s assistant, Sarah (Edwina Samuels, in a thoroughly energetic and exciting performance). The production is cramped and uncomfortable, getting messier as the show goes on.

Baker’s play has a lot on its mind. In some ways, the characters themselves might be aspects of a single writer trying to put words on a page. I wondered if this was some kind of “Inside Out”-style deep-dive into the creative process; brainstorming ideas, throwing out every personal detail and trying to make sense of the wildest thought on a whiteboard.

The play also tackles the commodification of storytelling and the inherent risks of a workplace where people are expected to bare their souls and pick apart their personalities for the good of the script.

One of the most interesting aspects is the spectre of a writer who used to work in the room: Alejandra, a woman who the men remember only as a complainer. Not surprisingly, they never listened to her concerns about this unhealthy work environment.

The text itself asks a lot of those who collaborate on it. This isn’t only a commentary on writing as team sport, it is also an ode to the importance of storytelling in an era where we’re so distracted.

Sandy warns his underlings early on to put their phones away, to be present – and that is the double-edge of the writer’s life; we must write but we must live life. Trapping yourself in a room isn’t necessarily the most productive way of finding the perfect story.

Director Ella Caldwell has chosen to play the naturalism of the piece, missing Baker’s tendency toward heightened naturalism which later evolves into magic realism. This production seems so concerned with the details (the food orders, the drudgery of plotting, and the cans of LaCroix mineral water) that it misses moments of the divine.

The cast of characters is frustrating, on the whole. Ngaire Dawn Fair’s Eleanor is reserved throughout until she finds a moment to relate the first stories she wrote in childhood. George Lingard makes the most of Danny M2’s monologue about vulnerability, before becoming another outcast because he’s not ready to put his life on the line in service of the show.

Are all these writers islands in a stream-of-consciousness? They rarely connect with each other, determined that their addition to the fabric of the story is paramount. Brian (Casey Filips) has some amusing trivial asides. Harvey Zielinski is the right amount of desperate as Josh, who is not even getting paid to be there.

Late in the play, we realise these writers are trapped. It’s not just the repetition of days. They cannot go. They cannot move on. Not until they realise the perfect story. Never grasping that perfection is the enemy of the good. And that until they make choices, they’ll be spit-balling forever.

Annie Baker’s The Antipodes is about people telling stories about telling stories. It knows how important that is to help us define ourselves, our experiences and our lives. Baker knows it’s what we have when we have nothing else.

Red Stitch’s production captures the feeling of being trapped; the claustrophobia and the inability to measure time. Unfortunately, some of its other choices strangle this play’s apotheosis. The tone is stultifying naturalism. The magic realism doesn’t feel magical at all.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Melbourne Cabaret Festival: Fire Walk With Us - The Music of Twin Peaks



This week was the first anniversary of the premiere of Part 8 of Twin Peaks’ third season. Titled “Gotta Light?” the episode delves into the past of the world of the series, diving deep into the mythology of the creatures that haunt mankind from the woods around the titular small town.

It also contains two memorable musical moments: a performance by Nine Inch Nails of their song “She’s Gone Away” and an eerie sequence of a small town being infested by woodsmen, scored by The Platters’ “My Prayer”. Twin Peaks, as ever, is a study in contrasts.

The music – both songs and score – of the most recent season was a long way from the world of Angelo Badalamenti’s evocative compositions for the original series. The new episodes were a critique of nostalgia; viewers were denied much of what they wanted twenty-five years later.

Badalamenti’s theme song was retained, but his work is only selectively used throughout season three. But with each moment of reprise, memories rush back. Music helps us to re-enter the world we left so long ago.

Fire Walk With Us: The Music of Twin Peaks, a two-night only event as part of the Melbourne Cabaret Festival, plays on that nostalgia, but with various twists and a large ever-changing seven-piece band.

For an hour, the group showcases the songs and score of classic Twin Peaks and the prequel film, Fire Walk With Me. It begins with a fast version of the opening title theme for the film, music that haunts me when it’s deliberately slow.

A selection of female vocalists (Tylea, Lucinda Shaw, Mia Goodwin) take it in turn to tackle Julee Cruise classics like “The World Spins,” “Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart” and “Falling”. There’s also some welcome gender revisionism when S.S. Sebastian tackles “Into the Night” and Lucinda Shaw sings “Under the Sycamore Trees”.

Also welcome were a rocking version of “The Pink Room” and an odd but intriguing take on “Audrey’s Dance”. Trickier to get right was a performance of “Just You and I” (while from the original show, this performance felt more like a hat tip to the season three appearance) and an encore of “No Stars” – the only song on the set list from The Return.

Badalamenti and Cruise’s styles are so particular that covers of these songs are often difficult for me to appreciate. The originals are so set in my head, variations have a hard time convincing me. But Fire Walk With Us didn’t try too hard to reinvent the wheel and with a big band and rich ambiance and some truly haunting vocals and arrangements, this was another highlight of the Cabaret Festival.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Melbourne Cabaret Festival - What Doesn't Kill You [blah blah] Stronger

Tyler Jacob Jones and Erin Hutchinson
at the Cabaret Festival Gala


The genre of cabaret can be a lot of things, which What Doesn’t Kill You [blah blah] Stronger proves – it’s a lot of things all by itself. Focusing on a wide variety of real-life stories of people surviving near death experiences, the show is an historical, comedy, drama, documentary musical. It features an army of cats, man-eating hippos, the Titanic’s sister ship and to help us along the way: a series of survival tips throughout.

After winning a couple of awards at Fringeworld in Perth, the team brings their perfectly-executed piece of cabaret to Melbourne. Performers Tyler Jacob Jones and Erin Hutchinson are charming and witty, transforming themselves into dozens of characters, all while belting out clever, insightful and toe-tapping tunes. Jones’ lyrics are very sharp, playing with audience expectations and telling some fascinating stories.

Inside the one-hour show, which barrels headlong from song to song, there is also a fifteen-minute musical about a woman in a small rural American town who is hit by falling space debris. It’s a riotous story about fame and fortune and features an hilarious “I want” song from the meteorite itself.

What Doesn’t Kill You [blah blah] Stronger is a wild but tightly-crafted piece of theatre. Get along for the survival tips alone. Because, as Tyler and Erin warn us, some people might not even make it out of Chapel Off Chapel alive.


Second and final show tonight.

Melbourne Cabaret Festival: Nancy Sinatra - You Only Live Twice

Danielle O'Malley as Nancy Sinatra
at the Cabaret Festival Opening Gala

It’s 1973 and Nancy Sinatra is filming a new television special; a night of classic hits and a touch of behind-the-scenes gossip.

After her sell-out showcase of the music of Cilla Black, Danielle O’Malley dazzles at Chapel Off Chapel with Nancy Sinatra - You Only Live Twice. The audience at home will see a slick television experience, with all the songs they know and love, but those of us in the room get something more personal and candid.

There’s a bit of fun talking about her parents, Frank and Nancy, and her brother Frank Jnr. She takes some pre-arranged audience questions about her hair style and her personal life. But even as we get to know her and her distaste for sponsor, RC Cola, what we’re here to hear is the songs.

O’Malley brings the right 60s go-go boot disco energy to Nancy, entertaining with “Something Stupid” and “Summer Wine”. She turns up the sultry for “Bang Bang” and Nancy’s Bond theme, “You Only Live Twice”. And we all know what those boots are made to do and O’Malley doesn’t disappoint there, bringing the house down with “These Boots are Made for Walkin’”

As with nearly all the shows at the Melbourne Cabaret Festival, Nancy Sinatra: You Only Live Twice, is a short taster of a season. Two shows only. 

Take your boots down to Chapel Off Chapel tonight. YOLO.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Melbourne Cabaret Festival – Opening Night Gala

Dolly Diamond, artistic director and host of
the Melbourne Cabaret Festival Gala
Photo: Sanjeev Singh

Now in its ninth year, the Melbourne Cabaret Festival opened last night in spectacular fashion at Chapel Off Chapel. Hosted by performer and artistic director Dolly Diamond, the opening night Gala saw the Chapel glitzed- and glammed-up for a sample of what is to come over the next two weeks.

The gala showcased a variety of cabaret acts that form part of the program. Where else would you see selections from a show by an ex-Sale of the Century hostess and another show about how to hydrate when you have dysentery? It was that kind of wild and crazy night.

Alyce Platt, star of Someone's Daughter
Alyce Platt gave a taste of her show, Someone’s Daughter, a mix of pop songs, original music and stories from the high life of being a TV celebrity in the madness of the 1980s. Platt has a powerful voice and doesn’t seem to have aged a day since she left the gift shop in 1991.

Max Riebl is a countertenor with expert vocal control, who is as comfortable with the arias of Handel, as he is with an operatic cover of Radiohead’s Karma Police.

From He’s Every Woman, friends Justin Clausen and Jamie Burgess, embrace the big- voiced, big-haired divas of recent history. Clausen’s rendition of “River Deep, Mountain High” was electric.

Perth duo Erin Hutchinson and Tyler Jacob Jones welcomed us to a world of stories about what people will do to survive in What Doesn’t Kill You [blah blah] Stronger. This pair showcased some amazing original songs with titles like “Army of Cats” and “Things That People Do To Survive,” which was delightfully subversive. Their show took some awards at Perth Fringe and got good notices at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
Justin Clausen, He's Every Woman

Two other shows previewed at the Gala were odes to the songs of Brian Wilson (God Only Knows) and those of Nancy Sinatra (You Only Live Twice). Danielle O’Malley has a suitably powerful voice to recreate a live TV special by Sinatra and her renditions of “Bang Bang” and “These Boots Are Made For Walking” were an awesome way to bring the Gala to a close.

The Festival includes a return season of Comma Sutra (a cabaret about punctuation), shows dedicated to Julie Andrews and Peter Allen, and a show that intrigues me in particular, Fire Walk With Us: The Music of Twin Peaks.

The Festival runs at Chapel Off Chapel until July 1st. Check out the guide and schedule two or three shows in a night. If the Gala is anything to go by, this year will be the Festival’s best one yet.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Holy Cow! by the Bloomsday in Melbourne committee – Fortyfive Downstairs



June 16th is Bloomsday, named after Leopold Bloom, the central character of James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses. Bloomsday celebrates Joyce’s life and groups all over the world come together on the date the novel is set to honour the man and his magnum opus.

Bloomsday in Melbourne has been convened annually since 1994 and every year it constitutes a seminar, a lunch and a theatrical presentation. In previous years, the original plays designed by local Joyceans, have been performed at Trades Hall, the State Library and – as with this year – at Fortyfive Downstairs.

This year’s play, Holy Cow! is based on the fourteenth chapter or episode of Ulysses, “Oxen of the Sun”. In the novel, Bloom is visiting Mina Purefoy in hospital where she is about to give birth. While he waits, Bloom reflects on the birth of his children. He meets a man named Stephen who has been out drinking with his medical student friends and they are more interested in talking of sex and fertility and abortion than reflecting on the miracle of childbirth.

The shape and content of the chapter spill out onto the stage under the direction of Jennifer Sarah Dean, who keeps the action moving joyously throughout. Joyce’s notoriously difficult book is particularly dense in this chapter, where the writer attempts to discuss the entire history of English literature. This production takes on the huge task of translating this concept to the stage and it succeeds in a wild, gloriously messy way.

Bloom and Stephen and Mina are all here, but the ensemble takes on multiple roles and costumes to pay homage to the great writers of British history – jumping from Thomas Malory to John Bunyon to Daniel Defoe to Charles Dickens and on and on and on and on and on and on…

The central story of Mina giving birth is protracted, while the men wait and tell stories. In this play, they are dictated to by the voice of James Joyce (played by Eugene O’Rourke OAM). As he announces another writer, costumes are pulled from large metal trunks, props are dragged on and off the stage, chairs are sat upon or upended and many, many drinks are consumed.

The ensemble cast each get their moments to shine in amongst the mayhem, with each scene or sketch building upon the last to create a whirlwind of drama, passion and comedy. Not every moment works but the sheer force of commitment in the production builds to a satisfying conclusion.

The two narrators, May Jasper and Paul Robertson, guide the audience into the world and do some hand-holding along the way. Dressed as a nun and a priest, their antics set the comic tone of the piece early on and continue to buoy the production – particularly as the energy flags a little around the halfway point of the show.

Bridget Sweeney plays an array of supporting characters throughout the show, properly stealing focus each time she comes on stage as a nurse or landlord or – of all people – Donald J. Trump.

The promotional material promises a show where James Joyce slaughters the sacred cows of English literature. In a world where parody and satire have taken a beating, this can’t feel as transgressive as it might have when the novel was first published in 1922. But as an adaptation of this one particular chapter, it brings the work to a wider audience with enough in-jokes for the Joyceans in the audience to be truly delighted.