Thursday, 14 June 2018

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 10 June 2018

“Spies in our own lives”: THE AMERICANS ends as Russian tragedy

Matthew Rhys & Keri Russell
as Philip & Elizabeth Jennings, The Americans


SPOILERS for the final episode of The Americans

After six seasons, the Cold War spy drama The Americans finished its run in May. Set in the 1980s, the show is about a married pair of Russian deep-cover agents living in America. It found a way to delicately balance thrilling stories of espionage with captivating meditations on marriage and raising teenage children.

Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (played by real-life couple Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) and their kids, Paige and Henry, live in the suburbs of Washington D.C. In the first episode, Stan Beeman, an FBI counterintelligence agent, moves in next door. How well does anyone know their neighbours?

The premise is simple but the series got increasingly complex over the years, built on tensions both political and personal. As with any marriage, Philip and Elizabeth have their ups-and-downs at home and on the job. Living multiple lives takes its toll on a person and as the 80s wore on, it became harder for the couple to keep their secret or agree on the ongoing strategies for helping their homeland.

In a recent interview on the Scriptnotes podcast, which focuses on screenwriting, one of the producers of The Americans – Stephen Schiff – said of the show: “All of us are spies in our own lives.” For the writers, that was the key theme that informed the ongoing writing of the series.

The show is as much about Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage as it is about spycraft and espionage, but the series is concerned with the verisimilitude of both. The writers are as focused on the emotional character arcs as they are with recreating 80s technology or Styrofoam containers from McDonalds.

“Spies in our own lives” speaks to the idea that we often conceal things we don’t want other people to know about us, and the idea we might dig around trying to uncover truths about other people. Schiff goes on to say – "Another thing about a spy is that a spy has a cover. And maybe many covers as our spies do. And you're presenting that cover to the world... And I think something that we really try to feel in our show is what's it like to be inside the cover."

Week to week on the series, Philip and Elizabeth have goals to achieve, secrets to uncover and people to watch. But an equal part of their job is to wear many disguises, become other people and keep their dominant pseudonyms as parents and travel agents as unassuming as possible. The stress of the job and their lies wear on each other and their marriage and by the end of season three, it begins to impact their daughter Paige, as well.

Other, lesser shows might have had FBI neighbour Stan closer to the truth about Philip and Elizabeth earlier on. They might have upped the stakes prematurely, putting Paige and Henry in danger more often. For a show that had visceral moments of shock and horror (a body disposal in early season three was particularly difficult to watch and listen to), it was admirably restrained for much of its run. Its fifth season was criticised for being too slow, but in hindsight it was taking its time setting up its sixth and final season.



Creators Joel Fields & Joe Weisberg have talked about having an ending in mind since the end of season two. After the fourth season, the show was given two more years to plan and plot its finale. In a series focused on Russian spies pretending to be Americans, who have a kill or be-killed attitude, it was hard to see what a satisfying resolution might be.

From the recent precedents of shows focused on anti-heroes that were outright villains, do you kill your protagonist (Breaking Bad), let him escape (Dexter) or leave the resolution ambiguous (The Sopranos)? Fittingly, The Americans final season took some inspiration from Russian theatre and literature – twisting one and digging deep into the other.

“Chekhov’s gun” is a dramatic principle recorded by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov:

"One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off. It's wrong to make promises you don't mean to keep."

For much of the final season, Philip is out of the spy game, trying to make a legitimate go of his travel agency. Meanwhile, Elizabeth is effectively doing the work of both of them, taking bigger risks, striking out more often and getting worn down by exhaustion and conflicts within the KGB.

In the first episode of year six, Elizabeth is given a cyanide capsule hidden in a necklace she is to wear. The missions she is sent on become increasingly dangerous and the pill hangs around her neck as a portent of doom.

It’s as clear a case of Chekhov’s gun as you can get; it’s placed on the wall in episode one and we’re waiting for it to go off all year.

Surprisingly, as Philip and Elizabeth plan to flee the country in the final episode, the couple cast off the fake passports and rings of their American life – and Elizabeth drops the capsule and the necklace into a hole in the ground. The gun never goes off.

But it’s end game now. The pair have decided to leave Henry behind, hoping he is able to remain safely in America, and flee to Russia with Paige. Stan has discovered their true identities, but he’s a broken man and can’t bring himself to shoot them in cold blood. Besides, Philip drops one more bombshell before he leaves, Stan’s girlfriend might be a Russian agent, too.

There’s a saying I’ve heard, related to theatre, but could equally apply to Russian literature: in Shakespearean tragedies, everyone dies; in Russian tragedies, everyone lives.

The plays of Anton Chekhov are often about Russian upper-classes struggling with their sense of a changing world. They’re bleak in the way the final scenes of The Americans are – a feeling of desolation and isolation hang over the character’s lives. And while Chekhovian characters are worlds away from Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, the tragedy is they must live with themselves and the consequences of their actions.

Only a few episodes before the finale, I pictured the ending of the series much differently. These characters have committed murder in the name of their country and while Philip had tried to extricate himself from that life, Elizabeth was plunging deeper and deeper inside. For her, any disloyalty against the KGB was traitorous; there was no sense she would want to embrace an American lifestyle.

I had imagined a showdown between the couple. I had imagined a gunfight with Stan. And while the show often undercut my expectations, after six years of build-up, it wouldn’t have surprised me for this show to end in a cathartic bloodbath.

But as with the tragedies of Chekhov, the damnation for Philip and Elizabeth is they flee to Russia and must live – their children left behind in America.

In a tense scene late in the episode called “START” (named after the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), the Jennings are subjected to passport checks on a train crossing the Canadian border. Philip and Elizabeth aren’t discovered, but as the strains of U2’s “With or Without You” rise, Paige is seen alone on the platform – having chosen to leave the train, perhaps hoping to reconnect with her brother. It’s a devastating moment for both her parents and Elizabeth’s fa├žade cracks. Have we ever seen tears in her eyes before?

The long final sequence has the couple travelling through frozen wastelands of Eastern Europe, eventually being met by a KGB agent who is on their side, transporting them back to Moscow. The rock music of the west is left behind and the sounds of mournful string instruments score their return to a place that they fought for over many years as The Americans.

Philip and Elizabeth are no longer deep-cover agents in America but they will spend the rest of their lives digging for clues in their own pasts, hoping they raised their kids right, forever spies in their own lives.

A neat bit of foreshadowing from the final season of The Americans

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Fury by Johanna Murray-Smith - Red Stitch

Danielle Carter & Sean Rees-Wemyss in Fury
Photo: Teresa Noble Photography


In American Song, staged by Red Stitch in 2017, Johanna Murray-Smith explored gun violence in America and a father trying to come to terms with the actions of his son. It was a clear, probing insight into tragedy, guilt and the aftermath of both.

Murray-Smith’s Fury covers similar territory in a milieu the writer is more familiar with – the middle-class Australian suburban home. And it feels like the script is treading water.

Patrick and Alice’s son, Joe, has been caught defacing a mosque. What have they done to let Joe think this is acceptable? Or, more tellingly, what have they done to deserve this?

Their first instinct, which seems natural, is to blame Ethan, the other boy that was with Joe on the night of the incident. Ethan is from a working class family and is only at private school on a scholarship. Ethan’s parents, Annie and Warren, are rough around the edges; well, to be clear, they’re racists and it’s easy to see where their kid might have picked up some bad behaviour.

Joe, though, does himself no favours, ranting like a right-wing shock jock about Muslims and jihad. And soon it becomes clear that if Ethan is not to blame; maybe Patrick and Alice should turn the spotlight on themselves.

Fury takes on a lot of interesting ideas without really exploring them in much depth. What is the role of in the internet in all of this? How does the media feed into this paranoia? What more could the parents have done in this situation?

Much of the drama revolves around Patrick and Alice’s white liberal guilt, bringing up long-simmering tensions about their marriage and who sacrificed the most for each other’s careers. To take a dramatic situation like a hate crime and turn it into a kitchen sink melodrama is what Murray-Smith is known for.

Directors Brett Cousins and Ella Caldwell seem more interested in giving their actors free reign rather than interrogating the text. The play itself seems dated; arguments like this feel like they might have been cutting edge a decade or more ago. This is not to say the play is not relevant, but is it damning white liberal guilt or is it praising it?

Designer Chloe Greaves gives us an awkward revolving curtain around naturalistic set pieces; each scene change is a mix of blackout and the curtain dragged by a stagehand.

Sean Rees-Wemyss as Joe is wonderful as a privileged teenage boy, a character who unfortunately only has two dimensions. His relationship with his teacher (played by Dushan Philips) is spiky and their dynamic is the richest on stage; you never know quite where things will end up in their scenes.

Danielle Carter’s Alice has an early scene in the show where she describes a woman’s righteous fury in a patriarchal world and we get little further insight into this idea. Carter’s performance is mostly played at various levels of shouting, which Joe Petruzzi’s Patrick tries to be the calm rational one.

There’s another moment near the start of Fury where Alice physically lashes out at Joe. It upends the repetitious staccato dialogue of the show to that point and suggested things might spiral away from the strictly cerebral text it had been. But no such luck.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

My Sister Feather by Olivia Satchell – La Mama Theatre

Belinda McClory & Emily Tomlins
in My Sister Feather at La Mama
Photo: Sarah Walker

A vending machine stands sentinel in the prison yard. It says it’s out of order, but Egg explains to her sister Tilly the sign is there so they don’t have to refill it. It looks broken but it still works.

Tilly is visiting Egg for the first time in many years, so long estranged that Egg doesn’t even know their mother has died. Their meeting is tense to begin with; Tilly speaking for Egg as she stands silently regarding this woman who has been gone from her life for so long.

Tilly comes bearing two letters that their late mother has written to them. The only person who has read the letters is the prison guard who checked them on Tilly’s way in. Neither sister is in a hurry to read them, both certain they know what she has said and scared they didn’t really know their mother at all.

Olivia Satchell’s play My Sister Feather is a deeply searching two-hander that explores the dark recesses of memory and the fraught nature of fractured familial relationship. Emily Tomlins and Belinda McClory are brilliant as Egg and Tilly, both as reserved adults and uninhibited children. One minute they regard each other with years of suspicion between them and the next they are sitting on a table pretending to be “The Owl and the Pussycat,” singing the poem together.

My Sister Feather by Olivia Satchell
Photo: Sarah Walker
The games they played and lollies they ate and books they read were evocative of a childhood I recognised, making the broken adult relationship in the cold, sterile prison heartrending.

James Lew’s set is appropriately minimalist, but with deft lighting changes by Jason Crick, the young sisters can make whole new worlds from a table, chairs and a rubbish bin. Tom Backhaus’ sound design is rich and nourishing in moments of reflection and harsh and alarming in the present day.

Satchell is both writer and director and her work in both roles is impressive; the writing is sharp and clear and her directorial instincts allow the work to sing.

The vending machine stands sentinel. A camera watches the two sisters. The audience stares at them from both sides. The relationship of Tilly and Egg looks broken but it still works.


La Mama is seeking support on two fronts at the moment – fundraising for accessibility and to help stage upcoming works while they wait for the Faraday theatre to be rebuilt.