Wednesday, 23 December 2015

My Favourite Theatre of 2015

I’m scared I’m going to forget something. I saw so much great work this year, I’m worried that I’ve missed something from my list. Or it wasn’t recorded properly in my Calendar. I reserve the right to add to this later, if I wake up in the night, remembering something I forgot to mention. Or a rave I forgot to make.

I saw shows in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney this year – and amazing work in all those places.

Here we go... in alphabetical order...

THE TOP TEN

ANTIGONE - Malthouse
It divided the critics (along gender lines) but I thought Jane Montgomery Griffith’s translation/update of Antigone was superb. One of a number of shows that left me utterly speechless this year. I eventually found words.

BIRDLAND - Melbourne Theatre Company
Simon Stephens’ work always seems brutal and fragile to me all at the same time. Even the most awful people feel like they are going to break apart. And Leticia Caceres’ production was really astonishing. Easily the best thing at the Melbourne Theatre Company this year.

FAKE IT TIL YOU MAKE IT - Theatre Works
I’d heard a lot about Bryony Kimmings and then I saw two of her shows within a few weeks of each other and she has become one of my favourite theatremakers and performance artist. This show about men and depression is so funny and heartbreaking, almost at once.

I AM A MIRACLE - Malthouse
Another stunning achievement from Declan Greene and Matt Lutton. Again, I didn’t know what to say after. But couldn’t stop talking about it once I found the words.


IVANOV - Belvoir
I’m not a big fan of Chekov’s work, but I’ve grown more fond of it since Simon Stone’s The Cherry Orchard and now Eamon Flack’s translation of Ivanov – into the present and the Australian vernacular (though still ostensibly set in Russia). Made me go back and read the Chekov play and sit in awe of what an incredible achievement this production at Belvoir was.

LOVE & INFORMATION - Malthouse
Caryl Churchill is one of my favourite playwrights because she always challenges form. Love & Information goes so far as to make a play that could be staged in billions of ways (no exaggeration) and still feel heartfelt and insightful. Kip William’s direction is so thrilling, keeping the actors and the set moving, but creating moments of stillness that are unforgettable.

SEX IDIOT - Adelaide Fringe
The first Bryony Kimmings show I saw this year and I love how honest she is about her sex life and how uncomfortable she made her audience – and how forthright she was with dumb male hecklers in the audience. With possibly the most unique audience participation I’ve ever seen.

SHIT - Neon/Melbourne Theatre Company
Patricia Cornelius is one of Australia’s greatest living playwrights. Her career spans three decades and her work is always engaging and confronting – particularly when collaborating with director Susie Dee. So excited this is getting a return season at Fortyfive Downstairs next year.

YOUARENOWHERE - PS122/Melbourne Festival
The show I want to tell you all about, but never give away its secrets. It blew my mind and had me in tears, not because it was sad but because it was so smart. So very smart. And filled with the unexpected.

WIZARD OF OZ - Belvoir
Sydney didn’t know what to make of Adena Jacob’s bold feminist take on the Wizard of Oz, which is about childhood and girls becoming women and what society does to them. I had some idea, having already loved her work in Melbourne. Yes, two Adena-directed works in my Top Ten. And another further down the list.

THE NEXT TEN

BRONX GOTHIC - PS122/Melbourne Festival
A visceral experience, this show opened with a dance piece that was so captivating that I was shaken when it ended and the actress began speaking to us, reading letters from teenage girls to each other. It is shows like this that open up new worlds to me, even when they feel familiar – everyone experiences life so differently.

DEAD CENTRE/SEA WALL - Red Stitch
A one-two punch from Tom Holloway and Simon Stephens at Red Stitch. Two beautifully crafted short plays that enrich each other – with a pair of beautiful performances to bring them to life.

FAG/STAG - The Last Great Hunt/Melbourne Fringe
I saw this twice because it was so deceptively simple: two best friends, a gay guy and a straight guy, talk about the days leading up with their best friend’s wedding. The discussions are so real and so poignant, I needed to see it again to figure out how they did it. But it was just amazing writing and superb acting and something that felt so real.

GROUNDED - Red Stitch
Red Stitch is always amazing but I don’t get to see everything there, so I was glad I caught up with this show in Sydney. A tight and taught script, performed with hair-raising brilliance. Probably the best single performance I saw all year.


MINNIE & MONA PLAY DEAD - The Last Great Hunt/Melbourne Fringe
The Last Great Hunt’s second of their great one-two punch (after Fag/Stag) wasn’t anything like I expected, which was a very good thing – because I’m not sure I would have gone if I knew what I was getting. With a subject as confronting as suicide, I was glad this show looked after their audience every step of the way.

STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER - Melbourne Fringe
This show was guaranteed to make me laugh: tearing down untouchable male characters from signature 80s action/adventure films. Rowena Hutson lulls the audience into a false sense of security with her bald cap and five Die Hards in five minutes – and then tells us how hard it is to grow up wanting to be Han Solo and then discovering she wants to have sex with him, too. Genuinely smart comedy.

SWEENEY TODD: THE DEMON BARBER OF FLEET STREET - Victorian Opera
Putting aside the wooden performance in the lead role, Victorian Opera’s production of Sondheim’s masterpiece was superb on every other level.

THEY SAW A THYLACINE - Malthouse
I’ve been following the work of Human/Animal Exchange for several years now and I was thrilled their highly regarded Fringe show from a few years back was making a leap to the mainstage this year – and will tour the country in 2016. There is such beautiful work in this show.

WE GET IT - Neon/Melbourne Theatre Company
Boy was it uncomfortable being a man in this audience, which – you know – good. Basically it’s a reality show about female actors pitting their talents against each other – to prove themselves the better actress and the better woman. Emily Tomlin’s performance was shattering. And those tweets on the screen behind her, I felt like throwing up.

YOURS THE FACE - Theatre Works
Fleur Kilpatrick’s show about a model and a photographer was memorable for her writing, and unforgettable because of Roderick Cairn’s performance as both model and photographer. Holy shit.

OTHER MEMORABLE SHOWS

BECKETT TRIPTYCH – forget your Endgames, the best Beckett I saw this year was Eh Joe, Footfalls and Krapp’s Last Tape at the Adelaide Festival

DEAR DIARY – Congratulations to Andi Snelling on a superb show. Melbourne Fringe

GENDER SPANNER – there were a lot of shows at Melbourne Fringe that explored gender; this was one of the most compelling.

JUMPERS FOR GOALPOSTS – another awesome show from Red Stitch, which I caught at Midsumma

MASQUERADE – Kate Mulvany’s exquisite adaptation of her favourite childhood book. Melbourne Festival


NO PUNCHLINE – I don’t know circus, but I know what I like. I loved this. Melbourne Fringe

PROJECT HYSTERIA – two Tennessee Williams’ short plays, prototypes for The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, created a tension between what we expect of those characters and what happened in these shows. Poppy Seed Festival.

SHOW PEOPLE – Christie Whelan-Browne and Dean Bryant’s incredible show about show people. Christie is phenomenal. Chapel Off Chapel.

THE BACCHAE – The third Adena show on my list for the year and another unforgettable night at the theatre. Theatre Works.

THE YELLOW WAVE – Beng Oh and Jane Miller’s satiric adaptation of an earnest 19th century novel, warning of the dangers of those who come across the sea... A laugh a second. Poppy Seed Festival.


Previous years...

Favourite Theatre of 2014

Favourite Theatre of 2013

Favourite Theatre of 2012

Favourite Theatre of 2011

Monday, 21 December 2015

How old were you when you first saw STAR WARS?









No spoilers for The Force Awakens.


Watching films is so different these days. It’s not just the films themselves. It’s the way we watch them. The way we talk about them. And how quickly we devour them and wait for the next thing.

How old was I when I first saw Star Wars? Five, maybe? Or seven? I was too young to have seen it on its original release (I was only two at the time), but I have a distinct memory of watching it at a friend’s house on VHS after school. This is before we had a VCR at home, so this was a big deal. Such a big deal, that we watched Star Wars a lot.

I think I remember The Empire Strikes Back being released, but I’m not sure. I would have only been five years old then. What am I remembering? A re-release before Return of the Jedi when I was eight? Possibly.

I do have a very clear memory of seeing Return of the Jedi for the first time, not just because I was so excited for the movie – but because I am pretty sure my mother would have preferred to see Roger Moore in Octopussy, which was playing at the same time. (My James Bond obsession didn’t begin until high school. So the first Bond film I saw at the cinema was The Living Daylights.)

I know I saw other films before Return of the Jedi. ET: The Extraterrestrial, for one. I’ve still got the programme somewhere. Yes, films came with programmes even in the 1980s. And the original Spider-Man movie starring Nicholas Hammond – which was just episodes of the TV series that were released theatrically outside of North America. We saw that at the drive-in.

Was Star Wars shown a lot on television in the early 1980s? Could I have also watched the films that way? Had my friend with the early model VCR taped Star Wars off the television? We didn’t get a VCR until around 86/87. I’m pretty sure hiring the Star Wars films was at the top of my list of priorities then.

Watching films is so different these days. Kids today aren’t going to be able to pin-point when they first saw something, because the Blu-Rays will have always been easily available and streaming services deliver a unwatchable amount of content into their homes.

Back when I was young, you had to wait for something to be on television. And unless you were waiting for those screened-every-year favourites like The Wizard of Oz or The Sound of Music, you might never know when you’d next see your favourite films.

When my James Bond obsession started, it wasn’t easy to find all the films – even at video rental places. I just had to hold out hope they might appear on Bill Collins’ Golden Years of Hollywood. They eventually did, with Bill’s withering commentary on the scripts and George Lazenby’s acting – even though he quite liked On Her Majesty’s Secret Service overall.

Then again, movies often took years to make their television debuts back then. I don’t think E.T. aired on television until the late 80s.

The Star Wars films weren’t available to buy on VHS (in Australia, at least) until the mid 1990s – and then we were able to see them in their full widescreen glory. Imagine our surprise to see that Han Solo was so relaxed in the Cantina, he had his foot up on the table. What a guy!

And by then, George Lucas was announcing the original trilogy’s return to the cinemas in Special Editions – and a series of prequel films! How exciting! The kid in me couldn’t believe it was finally going to happen. We were going to see Anakin Skywalker’s fall from grace.

What a disappointment that turned out to be. The Special Editions, too. All those childhood memories turned on their head. All those hours reading Star Wars comics and buying Star Wars action figures and plotting Star Wars stories and making Star Wars radio plays... yes, okay, that last thing is weird. But we totally did it! Recording stuff onto cassette was the coolest thing back then.

As the prequel trilogy was released, there was a lot of talk about whether the joys of your childhood could be recaptured. Maybe we were so nostalgic for those original films, nothing could live up to them? Maybe kids of the early 2000s could love Jar Jar as we loved Yoda or the Ewoks? Maybe the original series had bad dialogue and wooden acting, too?

Each of these new films landed with a thud and a vague hope that the next one would be better. And I remember at the time desperately trying to find things I liked about each of them. I didn’t want those new films to be a waste of everyone’s time. I wanted to find something worthwhile.

After Revenge of the Sith was released in 2005, we all went on with our lives. The Expanded Universe of books and comics got ever bigger and more complicated. I didn’t read that many of the novels, though I did occasionally hear about significant events in the characters’ lives.

There was a Clone Wars animated series or two, but I never watched them, either. Those amazing films of my childhood were so long gone that I just couldn’t bring myself to care.

There was talk of a live action TV series at one stage – and I got pretty excited about that concept. I know they started to write that but nothing ever happened.

In 2012, when Disney announced they had purchased Lucasfilm and that a seventh Star Wars film would be released in 2015 – I couldn’t help but get excited. Yes, the prequels were bad. Yes, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. Yes, this film had so much speculation surrounding it... how could it possibly live up to those stories I made up, those comics I read, those radio plays and action figure battles we had?

How could it honour and live up to the original trilogy and be its own thing?

Watching films is so different these days. The last time I went to a midnight screening was The Phantom Menace, I think. Or maybe the Special Editions. These are the only films where I’d even consider that. Mostly because I don’t think I could convince anyone to go to a midnight James Bond film.

I was so excited for The Force Awakens that I couldn’t wait. I had work the next day, but I didn’t care. It’s pre-Christmas rush, but I didn’t care. I wanted to see the film so badly. And quickly. Because I didn’t want to be left out of conversations. And I didn’t want to get spoiled.

It’s been five days since the film opened. A lot of people have seen it already and multiple times. It’s made more money in five days than The Empire Strikes Back made in its entire theatrical run. Yes, things were cheaper back then, but they also ran for a lot longer.

Somehow, the spoilers haven’t been splashed over front pages or discussed outside of spoiler space. I mean, if you search for certain things once you’ve seen the film, you’ll see that some websites are assholes. And Google itself will unfortunately fill you in on things you might not be expecting...

Oh, and The Force Awakens itself? It lived up to the hype. Well, it lived up to my expectations. Somehow, after waiting 32 years since Return of the Jedi, I was pleased. Very pleased.

I could nitpick. I could complain. But this new film gets so much right, it seems ridiculous to worry about small things.

The new lead characters are wonderful. The return of old favourites is handled perfectly. And the new bad guy balances the needs of both sets of stories. It’s all very clever, really.


Watching films is so different these days. Not just the films, which can be eerily similar to those from the past. But also the way we watch them, because it makes us feel five years old again. Or seven. Or however old we were when we first saw Star Wars.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

SPECTRE: Does it meet expectations?



MAJOR SPOILERS FOR SPECTRE

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


YOU ARE NOWHERE.

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?

Yes.

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.

YOU ARE NOW HERE.

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.

Antigone
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.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Fuller’s Unfinished Symphony: HANNIBAL begins its Third Movement

When it was announced that Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies) was making a TV series about Hannibal Lecter, I was skeptical. An ongoing narrative about the cannibal psychiatrist? It seemed like a concept that wouldn’t work. It seemed like another show that was using name recognition to sell it, rather than a compelling story.

Thomas Harris’ first two novels that featured Hannibal Lecter, "Red Dragon" and "The Silence of the Lambs", had both been turned into films – Manhunter in 1986 and Silence of the Lambs in 1991. Lambs won five Oscars and is still the only horror movie to win Best Picture. If, indeed, you think it fits neatly into the horror genre.

(Also, Silence of the Lambs is in my top five films of all time and it has influenced a lot of my writing - if only by learning that you can use genre tropes to tell compelling human stories.)

But the books, and the adaptation of the books, had taken a turn for the worse. Harris didn’t want to continue the story of Hannibal and Clarice Starling, so his novel titled "Hannibal" twisted that relationship to breaking point. They didn’t seem quite like the same characters anymore, least of all FBI Agent Clarice Starling. The prequel novel and film, "Hannibal Rising", did nothing to persuade us that these characters were worth exploring beyond the first two books.

Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter
As soon as the first episode aired, I changed my tune. Actually, based on the premise and the casting of Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), I reconsidered the series’ potential. The first season is one of the strongest first seasons of television I’ve ever seen, and I was effusive with praise.

The series certainly plays on our expectations – it takes that name recognition and turns it on its head. It’s a prequel series that doesn’t play by the rules. It takes events only hinted at in the first novel, "Red Dragon", and fleshes them out into season long narrative arcs.

Season two built on the promise of the first, continuing to explore Harris’ characters – by being both faithful to the characters as written, but also by upending our expectations. It’s not just that Fuller changed the race or gender of several characters, but he teased at parts of the story we knew and turned them in different directions. The fate of Freddie Lounds in "Red Dragon" (and the two film versions of that story) is explicitly shown in season two – but in a different context. Freddie lives. Her fate on the show is not yet decided.

Now that the third season has begun, getting closer to what feels inevitable – Lecter’s incarceration and the explicit plot of "Red Dragon" – Fuller and his writers are subverting expectations even more. Three episodes in and we’re seeing elements of the third book mixed with the fourth book and placed before the events of the first. A character that barely appears in "Hannibal Rising" became a central figure of episode three.

Bryan Fuller, when talking about his approach to telling this story, describes the process as Thomas Harris DJ mashup. He takes dialogue and character, plot and circumstance, and repurposes them. Bedelia Du Maurier, an original character to the show, is in the Clarice Starling role of late "Hannibal" (the novel). Detective Pazzi is tracking Hannibal (and the Butcher of Florence) before Lecter is incarcerated, not after he escapes.

Thomas Harris DJ mashup doesn’t quite do the series justice, because in a way, the execution – pardon the pun – is more like a symphony. Fuller has planned out five movements and the show has reached its climactic third movement. While the sound design and score of the show is like nothingelse on film and television, Fuller uses a lot of very specific symphonies and operatic tunes to convey the world his Lecter lives in. This has been particularly apparent with Lecter and Bedelia currently living in Florence, with a brief sojourn to Paris in the third season opener, “Antipasto”.

“Antipasto” used music from the first act of Don Pasquale by Donizetti :

Sweet and chaste dream 
from my early years, farewell. 
I longed for wealth and splendor 
just for you, my love: 
poor, abandoned, 
fallen to a low state, 
ere seeing you miserable, 
dear, I must renounce you.

By episode three, we’re up to act three of the same opera:

Turn to me and tell me you love me, 
tell me that you are mine,
when you call me your beloved
life redoubles in me.
Your voice, so dear,
revives the oppressed heart:
safe while close to you,
I tremble when far from you.

For a show that ostensibly began as a crime procedural, it has evolved through a psychological cat and mouse game to an operatic story of love and obsession. The tagline of the book "Red Dragon" and the film Manhunter is:

Enter the mind of a serial killer... you may never come back.

That was always the danger for Will Graham in the book and the movies. In the TV series, the dramatic tension is about whether he’s already gone too far. Much of the second season plays with the notion that Will is working with Hannibal – and nothing in season three really works to disabuse us of this notion.

Knowing that actor Richard Armitage has been cast in the role of the Tooth Fairy (played in Manhunter by Tom Noonan and in Red Dragon by Ralph Fiennes), we can see the story is hurtling towards more familiar territory. We might be in the middle of a story of Hannibal Lecter in the wild but Will Graham’s moment of truth – and moment of triumph – seems to be at hand. Lecter might well be behind bars soon.

And yet nothing is really certain in Fuller’s Symphony with the devil. I read a great theory recently that the events of Harris’ "Red Dragon" could be told without Lecter behind bars. Would he play with the canon that much? Or are viewers eager to see the character behind bars? Perhaps, with Lecter in Baltimore’s Institute for the Criminally Insane, it might allow Will Graham to come back from the mind of a serial killer. But with this series, who knows?

Today it was announced that NBC, which broadcast the first three seasons of Hannibal, would not be renewing the series for a fourthseason. As producers, the De Laurentiis Company said, a show with this subject matter was always in danger of being cancelled. But they also said there were other avenues being explored. Amazon has an exclusive deal to stream the show once it’s aired on NBC, and they are always looking for new content. Netflix has saved cancelled shows before.

In this new age of television and streaming content, TV shows aren’t ever really cancelled. Most are allowed the dignity of enough time to finish. Bryan Fuller has already touted has crazy plans for a fourth season (no details, except to say it would explore Hannibal and Will’s relationship is more depth than any other story), even before NBC’s announcement. And we know he has five seasons planned. (At some point, he wants to tell the Silence of the Lambs story, but MGM owns the rights to Clarice Starling – so he might have to mash up Harris’ work enough for the lawyers not to notice.)

Fuller has also said that this third season ends with another “mic drop” moment – just like the end of the first two seasons. I’m not sure he can quite top the second season finale, which left most of the good guys for dead (the fates of some are still up in the air), but if this season is indeed the last, any cliffhanger – even a small one – will seem monumental if the series just stops.

Gutav Mahler’s Symphony Number 10 was unfinished when he passed away in 1911. Like Fuller’s Hannibal, it is a symphony in five movements. Its third movement is titled “Purgatorio oder Inferno” – and this season of Hannibal has explicitly referenced Dante and Hell. But while Hannibal Lecter dances around Florence, it’s not the titular character who suffers in purgatory – it is the audience (and the writer) who must wait in the seventh circle of televisual hell for divine intervention.

Or Amazon. Or Netflix. Or Showtime. So that Fuller may complete his masterwork – a Thomas Harris mashup opera.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

See, Watch, Hear: May 2015

A monthly round-up of what I've seen, watched and listened to.

SEE

I took a trip to Sydney this month, plus a whole lot of new work opened in Melbourne - mainstage, independent and a combination of the two in MTC's third Neon season.



Spotlight on... Wizard of Oz at Belvoir, directed by Adena Jacobs

Adena Jacobs' work is often interested in the cinematic, while being transposed into the theatrical. Her production of Persona was a revelation - somehow she was able to capture the essence of that film while making a memorable stage work. Her Wizard of Oz is even more remarkable - it's bold, it's unforgettable and it's confronting and troubling. She knows you've seen the film a hundred times and this is the nightmarish version of that Oz that was once Dorothy's dream; now it's a nightmare about growing up - where brains, heart and courage can also put you on a path to doing terrible things.

There are touchstones in there, characters we know but barely recognise - two notes from Somewhere Over the Rainbow that morphs into Always Chasing Rainbows, after Dorothy gives courage enough to the Cowardly Lion to find his voice.

This production was not for children, but for adults who grew up with this story in their memories and in their hearts - but also knew that growing up wasn't as easy as clicking your heels together.

Elsewhere... Human Animal Exchange's The Dust and Us is an an exquisite exploration about how people connect with the earth, how we harness it, exploit it and think we can tame it. The performances and the text are outstanding and the integration with music was just divine. Lally Katz's Timeshare at Malthouse was a deceptive show, that seemed to be light and silly and amusing, until reality found its way in. Well, as much reality as one might expect in a play with a narrating turtle. Finally got to see Red Stitch's production of Grounded, while I was in Sydney, and the play is confronting and subversive - but the performance by Kate Cole was phenomenal.

MTC's Neon Festival is back. MKA's Double Feature was a mixed affair, but more hit than miss. I was particularly captivated by the powerful text of Lord Willing & the Creek Don't Rise by Morgan Rose. Zoey Moonbeam Dawson's Calamity was a mess, with some striking moments.

WATCH


TV

Spotlight on... Mad Men finale

I still don't want to say too much about the very end of Mad Men. I have friends still watching, some with a few episodes to go and some with a few seasons. And I've already written about the show as a whole.

While the last seven episodes of the show were a bit hit-and-miss, which is not something I'd ever really thought about the show before, overall I was really satisfied with how the show rounded itself off after seven years on air. Yes, some of the stories were wrapped up quite neatly, but the nature of the show suggests that even when characters are left in a good place, you never know what's around the next corner.

And the last scene is suitably ambiguous. I'm just glad, in the end, the thrust of the series wasn't "people can't change" because if there was any time when people could change, it was the 1960s.

Elsewhere...

The first season of Grace & Frankie didn't change the world, but there's something amazing about four septuagenarian actor gracing the screen - and being this fun. How can you not love Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston, no matter how middle of the road the script is?

Game of Thrones has been a bit of a problem this season - though this past week's episode is finally bringing the season (and the show) into focus. But it's taken until episode eight to get there. I'll say more once the season has ended.

I had a ball with the first season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

FILM



Mad Max: Fury Road is as good as you've heard it is. It's better. It's astonishing. It plays by its own rules. It's plot is simple but its characters are complicated. The performances are understated but they will blow you away. For a chase movie, it's got surprising depths. It's a thrill ride, and it's a bold feminist piece. It's tough and confronting and exciting.

Well done, George Miller. This is the best Australian film I've seen in years. (To be fair, I still haven't seen The Babadook.)

Also... Ex Machina is a stunning film. Smart, deliberately paced and upsetting in places, this is the kind of first feature that makes me excited to see what the director does next - and cements Oscar Isaac's place as one of the great modern screen actors.

HEAR



Spotlight on... The "Birds & Bees" episode of This American Life was quite amazing - stories about how to explain things to children. No surprise, there's the expected story of how to explain where babies come from. Then there's a story from a black comedian who has to explain to his daughter about racism. And, finally, there's an amazing story about how to explain death to children - with a focus on a group that counsels children when a loved one dies. The matter-of-fact way this group explains the hardest thing in the world for us to deal with is quite extraordinary.

This week's episode, Game Face, was pretty great, too.

Elsewhere... to be honest, I've been listening to a lot of podcasts about Mad Men and interviews with the creator, Matthew Weiner. He's a smart guy and I like listening to him talk about his inspirations for the show.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Pain from an old wound: MAD MEN, nostalgia and the end of an era

No spoilers.


In the first season finale of Mad Men, Don Draper – an ad man in 1960s New York – defines nostalgia, from the Greek, as “pain from an old wound”. He’s pitching a campaign to Kodak, who are trying to sell their slide projector wheel.

Nostalgia is delicate and potent, Don says. The carousel is about evoking memories, eliciting emotion. Nostalgia and the wheel arouse “a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone”.

Throughout the presentation, we see photographs of Don and his family – telling us more about their lives and their history, arousing emotions for a family at the centre of the series. A family we know that is slowly breaking apart.

The wheel "isn't a spaceship, it's a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards... it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called the wheel, it's called the Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels - around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved."

Mad Men is like the Carousel. It’s a time machine. And it’s made me nostalgic for a time before my time. It’s a glimpse into the quickly changing society of America in the 1960s, told by people who are mostly don’t witness history. History happens around them, barely noticed, scarcely glimpsed.

The 60s is a well-documented era, especially when it comes to nostalgia. One of my favourite TV series as a kid was The Wonder Years, which was set between 1968 and 1973. Before my time, but also of my time. I was Kevin Arnold’s age as I watched that show. Nostalgic for an era I didn’t live through.

That decade, because of its political turmoil, its turning points in social change and epic moments of history like the Apollo missions and Woodstock, is always fascinating to me. Setting a TV series around an advertising agency in those years seems like a smart choice, but when it premiered in 2007, Mad Men was a risk on a small-time cable network.

And I didn’t stick with it, not the first time. I stopped watching halfway through the first season and I can’t tell you why. Honestly, even rewatching the first season, I cannot imagine how I could have stopped. The first episode is really strong, still one of the series’ best episodes. Don Draper is so clearly defined – he’s at the top of his game, but he’s also mysterious.

And the supporting characters are all great, even if the pilot only gives hints of their future greatness. It’s hard to imagine a show without Joan, who was originally only meant to be in the pilot. But we do get to meet Peggy, who is there to garner our sympathies, while Don Draper is difficult to like or love.

I tried the series again after the first three seasons had aired and I tore through those first thirty-nine episodes in pretty quick succession. Even rewatching the first season episodes didn’t feel taxing at all; it’s an imminently rewatchable show. Which is odd, because the style of the show is slow-paced and nothing too dramatic happens from scene to scene.

Somehow, though, over episodes and seasons, the depth of the characters and the complexities of their lives bring a greater weight and dimension to stories that could, on the surface, seem quite inconsequential.

In a show set when and where it is, with so much change happening – and these characters only peripherally aware of society shifting, one of the big questions of the series is, “Can people change?” Will Don Draper remain the eternally damaged boy with a secret? Will Peggy remain the put-upon secretary who always seems so lost? Will Joan continue to make poor choices in men? Will Roger ever find something more than hedonism? Can Pete learn to approximate an actual human being?

These questions are slight and reductive. None of these characters are easily pigeon-holed. None of their stories are so easily summed up. But, like the Kodak wheel, they are stuck on a carousel, travelling around and around, looking for a place to be themselves. Looking for themselves, even when most of the time they are just desperate to make the best of their time in advertising.

One of the most remarkable things about Mad Men’s seven seasons is its commitment to making you feel the passage of time. It might have been seven seasons for us, spread out over eight years. In the show itself, more than a decade passes – and you feel it in how they change and how the world changes. A lot of series last five to seven years, but many of them are eager for you to forget time is passing – or, at least, they don’t want you to dwell so much.

Breaking Bad ran for six seasons, but is set over only two years. Star Trek: The Next Generation ran for seven seasons, but Patrick Stewart looks the same at the end as he did at the beginning. Sure, actors age and kids grow up, but Mad Men ran with that – marking time and ageing its characters believably and sometimes quite dramatically.

For most of the first two seasons of the show, it’s hard to get a grip on when the episode takes place. There’s a March 1960 calendar in the first episode, but pinpointing exactly where in time you are is almost a game. Snatches of news heard on the radio. TV footage in the background. The march of time moves on, but you might not recognise it. Martin Luther King Jnr makes his “I Have a Dream” speech and these middle class white characters barely notice.

But as the series continues on, the weight of history starts to press down. Subtly at first and then harder and harder as the 60s progress. These characters, as oblivious as they are to the civil rights movement or first wave feminism, can’t help but notice when the country is at war and losing its grip by 1968. They might have missed King’s speech, but when he’s assassinated, they see. And when the American military gets bogged down in Vietnam, these advertising execs finding themselves pitching for work from Dow Chemical – makers of napalm.

Just as the country and the times change, creator Matthew Weiner is happy for the circumstances of the characters to change. They might all work together, fertile grounds for a lot of TV series, but that doesn’t mean some regulars can’t get fired or the business itself can’t be threatened with a hostile takeover or two. Characters divorce and remarry. Some disappear, never to be heard from again. Circumstances change, but do these characters?

Are their fundamental virtues and flaws the same at the end as they are at the beginning? You’d hope, from a dramatic point of view, that the entire cast of characters doesn’t tread water for a decade. You’d hope that one or more of them might see the light, change their circumstances. Or, as Don Draper once spouted, “If you don’t like what they are saying about you, change the conversation.”

Don talks about change, but is resistant to it. He’s still wearing a hat, while the rest of the characters embrace louder colours – and the women start wearing pants. It’s a long way from the first episode when Don doesn’t want to deal with a woman as an equal at work, and slowly, over a decade, that facade is cracked in numerous ways. But Don remains that hurt little boy, who has grown up to be a depressive and an alcoholic. Always on that carousel. Going around and around, trying to find a place he will be loved.

Don is a consumate ad man. He knows how to tell a story and how to spin a yarn. That’s what his whole life is, a story, a secret. He has to keep pitching to keep that lie going. And that narrative thread lasts longer and less time than you might expect. The truth comes out several times. Don must admit who and what he is over and over again, while trying to maintain the life he has built for himself and his kids. But the consequences of that first lie endure from first episode to last. Just as all our lies and doubts and insecurities endure. So do we change or do we figure out ways to deal with those insecurities? And is that enough?

I’ve talked a lot about Don Draper. He’s the main character, the spine of the story. He’s the first and last person we see on screen in the series. His fall (spiritual and emotional) is animated in the opening credits each and every week. But he’s not my favourite character. He’s not why I stayed watching the show. He’s a good introduction, but the show is so well populated by fascinating people across the decade – both at Don’s work and outside of it. Friends, family, colleagues.

Come for Don, but stay for Peggy and Joan and Roger and Pete and Betty and Sally. Meet Duck and Sal and Bob and Megan and Ken and Anna and Lane and... the list goes on and on. Mad Men is deeply populated with fascinating characters with complex inner lives. You want to know all about them, but sometimes you just scratch the surface before they are gone.

It’s hard to compare this show to any other. It’s almost like Six Feet Under, but not quite. I think both series were most interested in exploring how people live and work and love, without being too worried about where they go or where they end up. In both shows, each episode feels like a short story. Connected, sure. Adding up to something greater, definitely. But each week, in Mad Men’s New York and Six Feet Under’s Los Angeles, you just get to spend time with these people. Six Feet Under might have dealt directly with life and death, but Mad Men makes you feel like advertising has similar stakes.

Mad Men has just finished airing. Its final episode is a fitting end to ninety-two hours of television told over eight years set over a decade that was half a century ago. The characters might have been on a carousel, but the show kept moving in one direction. Forward. Another Don-ism.


The series is one of my all-time favourites, along with Six Feet Under and Twin Peaks and... on and on that list could go. Mad Men made me nostalgic for a time I never lived through and for a life I never lived. And as Don told us, nostalgia is pain from an old wound. Sometimes losing a TV series feels a little like that. But just like that carousel, at least I can hop on again. Not just because I want to go around again, but because it’s a time machine.