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.