Monday, December 19, 2011

Ill Met at Short and Sweet

A while back, I wrote this short play called Ill Met By Moonlight. Do not be fooled by the Shakespeare quote name: the synopsis goes a little something like this:

The biggest problem facing teenage girls today is not school, friends, which dress to wear, or which party to go to on Saturday night. Something secret, terrible, deadly and sparkly is invading the bedrooms of teenage girls - are you prepared?

Yes, it is a spoof of Twilight. Yes, it features glitter. Lots of glitter.

Anyway, after being performed in Canberra in 2010 and Wollongong in 2011, Ill Met is coming to Sydney in 2012 as part of the Short + Sweet festival. It's in Week One (January 4-8) at the Newtown Theatre on King St, and this is me shamelessly begging you (yes, you) to come and see it.

Tickets are available here. Hope to see you there!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Ugly One

I reviewed Griffin Theatre Company's show The Ugly One for Australian Stage - you can read the review here.

(PS: In 2012, I'll try and make things on this actual blog a little more interesting than a bunch of links to stuff I've written elsewhere. Promise!)

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thursday, November 10, 2011


I reviewed Sprout (Pedro Collective and Tamarama Rock Surfers) for Australian Stage - you can read the review here.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Women, Power and Culture - 'Then' and 'Now'

I reviewed Women, Power and Culture 'Then' and 'Now' for Australian Stage - you can read the review here.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

This Year's Ashes

I saw This Year’s Ashes about a week ago, but I’ve been holding off writing about it because I wanted to make sure I said something meaningful and good. It is a romcom, after all, and romance (which is actually a subgenre of comedy, making the term romcom totally tautological, BUT ANYWAY) is my area of study, so I felt sort of obligated to have Great Insights (tm).

Anyway. So I’ve been holding off writing about it, and trying to think of something meaningful and good to say, and that groundbreaking moment of insight still hasn’t hit me, so I thought I better write about it before it, you know, closes, and I don’t have a chance to talk about how great it was.

Because it is a great, great show. I was really worried going in that it couldn’t possibly live up to my expectations of it, which were high, but it did. In a different way than I thought it would.

Ellen (Belinda Bromilow) is in her thirties, alone in a city where she knows no one, a place that doesn’t feel like home. This Year’s Ashes is about her desperate search for connection – with someone, anyone, and finally, the right one. It’s also about cities and their characters, communities and belonging, and realising that you are not as awful as you think you are.

I have to confess – at the end of the first act, I felt a little wary. Ellen seemed too messed up, too tragic, and I have read enough of both good and bad romance to know that a) this is usually a set up for someone to swoop in and save the heroine, which is a trope I hate, and b) this creates a lopsided narrative, because it’s hard to understand what the swooper is getting out of saving the swoopee. Initially, this is how I felt about Nathan Lovejoy’s Adam (one of the several characters he plays in This Year’s Ashes). I didn’t understand his intense desire to get to know Ellen, because it seemed like Ellen needed to sort out her life first before she could even think about having a productive relationship.

The second act, however, made me realise that my initial assessment was wrong. What This Year’s Ashes does very well is execute what is called in the study of romance (wait a second while I put on my academic hat) the black moment or the point of ritual death. This is the point in a romance where it seems like there is no possibility of a happy ending – that barriers are insurmountable, and that the ending will inevitably be tragic. At interval in This Year’s Ashes, it’s nearly impossible to see how things can possibly end well for Ellen as she is now.

If you go to see this play for a pure love story – girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy again – then you... probably won’t be disappointed, but you’ll be missing the greater romances in this story. While the romance between Ellen and Adam is lovely, it is very conscious of being nascent (if it couldn't be any more obvious, the play ends at the beginning). Unlike a traditional romance, there is no guarantee that Ellen and Adam will live happily ever after together. What is guaranteed, though, is that things will be better for Ellen. And not just because of Adam.

There are three romances in This Year’s Ashes – Ellen’s romance with Adam, her romance with Sydney, and her romance with herself. Her romance with Adam is tied up with her romance with the city – in fact, one could probably date the moment of her falling in love with both to Adam’s New Year’s Eve monologue at the beginning of the second act (which is, by the way, one of the most beautifully evocative pieces of writing I’ve ever had the privilege to hear on stage – it alone is worth going to see the show). Growing throughout, though, is Ellen’s romance with herself. In the theory of the point of ritual death, once the heroine has passed beyond that black moment, she experiences a sort of rebirth. She reclaims life, she reclaims self, and she regains the power to shape her own society. Once she has passed through this point – once the sun has risen, as it does so powerfully in the play’s false ending – she is free to make her own life.

Ellen’s ritual death is a sort of drowning – drowning in a sea of people who do not know her, a city that’s strange and unfamiliar, her only touchstone with reality and community listening to the Ashes on the radio. What I loved about This Year’s Ashes is a trope that is prominent in really good romance. No one saves Ellen. She isn’t dragged to shore. She isn’t picked up by a passing boat marked HMAS Romantic Hero. She isn’t even caught in a fortuitous current that miraculously sweeps her to land.

No. Ellen learns to swim.

Saturday, October 8, 2011


I reviewed Lucky (IPAN and the Spare Room, performed at New Theatre) for Australian Stage - you can read the review here.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Very Black Comedy Indeed

I reviewed A Very Black Comedy Indeed (Chalkline Productions, as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival) for Australian Stage - you can read the review here.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Booze Furniture Sex and Nameless

I reviewed Booze Furniture Sex and Nameless (part of the Sydney Fringe) at Australian Stage - you can read the review here.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Bite Size

I reviewed Bite Size (performed at the Newtown Theatre as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival) over at Australian Stage - you can read the review here.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ill Met at Workshorts

Oh look! A thing that is not a review!

My short play Ill Met By Moonlight, last seen in the 'Logues at Canberra Repertory Theatre, is getting its second production in Wollongong Workshorts. It's at the Wollongong Workshop Theatre in Gwynneville. If you feel anything like I do about Twilight, go and check it out.


Smashed runs until 1 October at the SBW Stables, Kings Cross. By Lally Katz, directed by Clare Watson.

One thing is for sure: Lally Katz can write. Hot damn can she write. And she can - unlike many other writers who are very good in other media - write for the stage. She understands the art of writing for theatre. I've read Katz on the page before but I've never seen her work performed. She's great on the page, but on stage, she comes to life.

Smashed is lyrical and elegaic, a short play about friendship and memory, a play whose impact is heightened rather than hindered by its short length. (It only runs for 45 minutes - given Griffin's 7pm start, this means the play finishes before most others have begun. When you live far far away down the coast like I do, the value of this cannot be overstated.) It's the story of best friends Ruby and Hazel, who share one of those spectacularly intense friendships remarkable among teenage girls. Ruby is naive, innocent; Hazel is worldly, jaded. Both girls need the other. But they are living on borrowed time.

I love that this play is an exploration of friendship - female friendship more specifically. As a subject matter, friendship is often shafted by romantic relationships, given a back seat if it's explored at all. Female friendship is something that's often treated as suspicious - where it is treated in texts at all. One of the things I really liked about Smashed was that Hazel and Ruby's relationship is the most important relationship in either of their lives. Their friendship defines them, shapes them - their relationship is almost symbiotic, the two girls intrinsically linked, one unable to survive without the other. What affects one affects them both. They are two halves of the same whole.

Katz also raises interesting questions about what friendship really is. Every conversation, Hazel and Ruby note, is based on the echoes of conversations had before. A friendship is a collection of shared memories, of shared memory; but it is more than the sum of its parts. It is something far more weighty and valuable than the hours, minutes, seconds spent together. But what is left, Katz asks, when a friendship ends, but memories and ephemera?

If it's not already clear, I really, really liked the script, and you can bet I will be seeking out more of Katz's works in performance. I missed both Neighbourhood Watch and A Golem Story and I wish I hadn't. There's a certain fairy tale quality to Smashed which is completely enchanting, and this was enhanced by the doll's house-esque set. Coming into the theatre, I thought there was too much clutter on the stage - anyone who has been to the SBW Stables theatre knows how little that stage is. In retrospect, while it still might have been too busy for the stage, the set imbued the play with a sort of Angela Carter quality which really suited it.

Katherine Tonkin was good as Ruby, but the standout for me was Suzannah McDonald as Hazel. Her role was more difficult, as she effectively had to carry narrating duty and explain the concept of time travel behind the play (more props to Katz that she resisted the urge to turn this into an expository infodump o' doom). McDonald carried it off fantastically. She has a pixie-like, mischievous quality about her that was great for this character, and she resisted the tendency to overplay, which would have been easy. I hope to see her in more things.

In short, it's hard to pick out something I didn't like about Smashed. I saw it in preview and am seriously considering taking a different set of friends to see it again. This is a play that will resonate with many different people in many different ways. If you've ever had a friend, this play is for you.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Table of Knowledge

I reviewed The Table of Knowledge (Version 1.0 and Merrigong) for Australian Stage - you can read the review here.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Rainbow's End

I reviewed Rainbow's End at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre (Riverside Theatres, part of the Merrigong 2011 season) - you can read the review here.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

And No More Shall We Part

And No More Shall We Part runs until 3 September at the SBW Stables, Kings Cross. By Tom Holloway, directed by Sam Strong.

I am a student of romance novels. A PhD student. This means that I fill my days reading again and again (and again and again) about people falling in love, about commitment, about romance, about people devoting their lives to each other. This is my trade.

So trust me when I say that And No More Shall We Part is the most romantic play I have ever seen. It is also the most upsetting play I have ever seen.

And No More Shall We Part is the story of Pam (Linda Cropper) and Don (Russell Kiefel), a couple who have been married for a long time. Pam has a terminal illness, and she and Don need to figure out how to end their life together. She is determined to die with dignity. He is desperate not to lose the love of his life, and is finding it impossible to say goodbye to her.

This play is exquisite. I don't even know where to begin to talk about it. For the second half of it, my primary focus was not actually sobbing out loud. The love story aspect of the play is played down in the publicity, but while it's not a love story in the traditional sense, the devotion of Pam and Don to each other, the way it's shown that they would do anything for each other, is the most achingly romantic thing I have ever seen. And No More Shall We Part is heartbreaking, heartrending, beautiful, deeply, deeply affecting. It is visceral, raw - I have never been to theatre this intense, this emotive.

And it's not because this play tugs on the heartstrings. There are no cheap shots in Tom Holloway's script. This play is not an emotional rollercoaster. There is no rise and fall, no unnecessary grandiosity, no false hope. Instead, it is simply quiet tragedy, domestic, everyday. Writing, directing and acting have combined to their best effect in this play, creating theatre that transcends story to become nearly reality.

The one small criticism I could make of this play is that the stichomythia (short lines bantered back and forth) was sometimes handled too glibly by the actors - occasionally it didn't seem as though the actors were listening to what the other was saying. However, this problem was largely confined to the opening scenes of the play. The last scenes - where Pam decides to die, and Don, however unwilling, decides to help her do it - are absolutely heartbreaking. And just when you think it can't get any sadder... the end of the play... oh my God. There is no way I can express in the confines of this review how terribly, terrifyingly sad And No More Shall We Part is. Tom Holloway's writing, Sam Strong's direction, Linda Cropper and Russell Kiefel's acting - all these combine to make what is one of the most deeply moving pieces of theatre I have ever seen.

I cannot recommend this play highly enough. I was foolish enough not take tissues - seriously, listen to the warning Griffin have on their website. This play is exquisitely sad, deeply moving, and wonderful theatre.

PS: I was lucky enough to go along to the Inside The Rehearsal Room event Griffin held for this play a couple of months ago, and I really feel like it heightened my appreciation of the play. Props to Griffin for having such cool events - I highly recommend them!

PPS: You may have noticed that I'm writing a fair bit for Australian Stage now. I'll link to all my reviews there over here, as well as writing new reviews just for the Back Seat.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Unsex Me

I reviewed Unsex Me at Riverside Theatres in Parramatta for Australian Stage - you can read the review here.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Friday, July 1, 2011

World Wrestling Entertainment

WWE RAW was in Sydney at the Acer Arena on 1 July 2011. It will play at Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne on 2 July, the Burswood Dome in Perth on 3 July, the Adelaide Entertainment Centre in Adelaide on 4 July and the Brisbane Entertainment Centre in Brisbane on 5 July. Presented by Dainty Group.

Not all theatre is highbrow, and not all theatre aspires to it. Some theatre is pretty much ashamed to admit that it is theatre, or indeed staged in any way. Oh no. It is all real, and it is sport, damn it. And from this, you get the glory that is World Wrestling Entertainment - the WWE.

My sister and I attended this NIGHT OF GLORY together. This is not our normal scene. We were very far out of our comfort zones. Both of us had several existential crises, complemented by out of body experiences... which then had out of body experiences of their own. We shared/suffered through/loved this experience together so we're writing this review together, conversation style. So... here you are.

JOJO: Hi, Hazzabangerz.

BANG: Hello, Jodi. It's been such a lovely night at the theatre!

JOJO: That's an interesting point you raise there, Bang Bang. WWE calls itself 'sport' and people steadfastly refuse to admit it is scripted, when it obviously is. I refuse to believe real life dialogue would ever be that a) awful, and b) hilarious. So do you think that WWE really is 'theatre' per se?

BANG: Of course it's theatre. The entire event is about the audience's suspension of disbelief, knowledge of catchphrases, signature 'moves', and the storyline is dense. Each wrestler is a caricature of a real athlete and - I may be making a sweeping genalisation here - behaves more melodramatically and narcissistically than Ridge Forrester (on crack).

JOJO: I think the Ridge analogy is a good one, because at the end of the day, let's face it, WWE is a giant soap opera about men wearing no pants and women dressed as 80s superheroes pretending to punch each other. Personally, I could use less punching and more of the hilarious talking. I could have listened to CM Punk's opening rant 'calling out' (another WWE favourite thing to do) corporate America and the WWE execs a lot longer. But no, Rey Mysterio HAD to go and punch him in the face.

BANG: Oh, CM Punk! My favourite wrestler of all! Technically, he's a villain - but he cares in a meaningful way about grammar!

JOJO: The heroes/villains thing is really weird, actually. It is obvious to both you and I that CM Punk is the coolest of all the wrestlers, and yet he is cast as a villain with an evil cult that rallies around him. He's also militantly straight edge (which he has tattooed to his stomach) ...but yeah, that isn't terribly relevant to my point - which is that in normal sport, you have your team or your individual or whoever that you pull for, with little real outside involvement. For example, I like Roger Federer and barrack for him because I think he's awesome. But in WWE, because of the theatricalised, scripted elements of it, the writers (well, 'writers') can lead you to like or dislike certain characters by casting them as heroes or villains and then give you a guaranteed happy ending (ie. the good guy beats the bad guy while you shout a lot). It's very safe to barrack for a hero in WWE.

BANG: Imma stop you there, Jojo! It's safe to be on the winning team... until R-Truth steps onto the scene! Tonight's MAIN EVENT featured reigning WWE champion John Cena (hero) and the recently-insane challenger R-Truth (villain). Truth has 'SHUT UP!' written on the back of his jeans, breaks through audience barriers, threatens small children ('Little Jimmies'), and tells Sydneysiders they smell like 'doo-doo'. He also stole someone's drink. Very poor form indeed.

JOJO: And yet until recently, R-Truth was portrayed as a hero-figure in the WWE universe. Character/actor/wrestler/whatever-you-want-to-call-thems can cycle through both the hero and villain spectrums, but you always know who you should be going for. It's like reading a romance novel or a crime novel. You know there will be some kind of payoff at the end where good defeats evil. Though for us this is obviously troubling in the case of technically evil CM Punk, who is - problematically for the entire WWE - obviously a freaking legend.

BANG: I prefer the villains, in the end. I don't care about the emotional pay-off. I want to see plots, schemes, hitting people with steel chairs!

JOJO: Agreed. The actual wrestling aspect of wrestling is not particularly interesting. In fact, it looks even faker in real life (if that is possible). It's stunningly obvious when someone has landed on the floor next to someone's head rather than on their head, that kind of thing. And the acting level was often not high... someone would get kicked in the head and then clutch their knee, that kind of thing.

BANG: The part that really gets me is when the scripted narcissism gets in the way of winning a fight. When The Miz manages to get his ex-apprentice-now-nemesis Alex Riley on the ground, he's so easily distracted by the crowd calling him a wanker. 'I am NOT a wanker!' yelleth The Miz, upon which occasion Alex Riley punches him in the head. Miz also falls victim to the wrestling trend of dancing around in anticipation of a signature move. It is neither big nor clever to pretend you are a magpie looking for worms, or whatever it is he's intending.

JOJO: On that subject, why were those Nexus dudes so terrified when Santino Morella was chasing them round and round the ring doing a Lleyton Hewitt style emu hand? Is that really such a powerful move? EMU PECK! OWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW THE PAINZ.

BANG: Yeah, I wonder why Santino lost that match. There were also some top-quality wardrobe decisions in this part of the show - I particularly enjoyed David Otunga's bedazzled speedos.

JOJO: They were indeed dazzling. There's something very spesh about all WWE fashion and its peculiar brand of pantlessness. I regularly find myself barracking for the ones that wear pants PURELY BECAUSE they are wearing pants and not some bizarre speedo/gogo boot combination (or worse, a unitard). CM Punk is obviously an exception to this rule, but those black and pink speedos are not going to win him best-dressed dude in the WWE.

BANG: I'm a little sad Dolph Ziggler has ditched his old outfit, the inside-out-and-backwards pleather hotpants. Now he's advertising himself as Mr. Perfection, an interesting move considering he's 99% chin. 99% chin, 1% pants. 100% peasant.

JOJO: I'm a bit sad that his WWE girlfriend (not to be confused with any real girlfriend he might have) Vickie Guerrero didn't make the trip to Australia. One of my favourite parts of WWE is the fake relationships and all the shenanigans that go on there. Fake relationships, fake engagements, fake weddings, fake adultery... I'm pretty sure there was a fake pregnancy one time... It really is a soap opera. Let's face it - WWE would be totally boring if it were really about wrestling. It's more theatre than sport - much more about the characters than the punching.

BANG: Let's not forget the audience involvement! No fourth wall here! What would WWE be without a whole stadium of people shouting 'YOU CAN'T SEE ME!' whilst waving their hands in front of their faces like windscreen wipers? In fact, one of the highlights of tonight's show was the audience volunteer dance-off, orchestrated by diva Kelly Kelly.

JOJO: Yes! That was SUPREMELY excellent. I love watching total strangers completely humiliate themselves in front of an entire stadium of people just for the chance to meet a WWE superstar. (The winner chose to meet John Cena, if anyone cares. I don't. I'd venture Bang doesn't either.) And people were scrambling and screaming to be in this dance-off! It was like one of those maniacal religious riots you read about in ancient myths - vaguely Dionysian. And Dionysus was, as we know, the god of theatre.

BANG: Dionysus would have loved this party! He would have taken a shine to contestant number three, who had the good taste to wear some Nexus (CM Punk's cult) merchandise but the bad taste to wear his pants around his ankles. Wardrobe malfunction almost became human sacrifice. He also introduced himself to Kelly Kelly as 'Dave Baby'.

JOJO: What a charming young fellow he was. I am SO SURPRISED he didn't win. Even in the genuinely unscripted part of the WWE show, the whole hero/villain thing orchestrated by the writers behind the scenes paid off. As soon as he got up there in that Nexus shirt, he was doomed. Of course, his self-pantsing probably didn't help.

BANG: Why don't any wrestlers 'pants' each other? It seems like a sensible tactic. I also wanted to see some hair-pulling (particularly from the divas who had all that weave flying around), but the closest we came was Dolph Ziggler chinning Kofi Kingston in the ponytail. Thanks Dolph Ziggler, Lord of the Chin-stand.

JOJO: That chin-stand was pretty spesh. Another moment of which I was particularly fond, because of the excellent writing demonstrated - seriously, SUCH SKILL - is when villainous The Miz took the microphone and told the crowd, 'shut up, I want to say my catchphrase'. I WONDER WHAT THE WRITERS THOUGHT WOULD HAPPEN NEXT. Certainly not five minutes of The Miz putting the microphone to his mouth only to be interrupted by the crowd going GISDHFLSHFKUHWKFHKIUSHFDKJH at him. (His catchphrase is 'Because I'm The Miz... and I'm awesome!' if anyone is interested. I could not see anything particularly awesome about him... even his speedos and gogo boots were dull by WWE standards.)

BANG: It was really obvious who was written as a villain because they all initiated their monologues with a generalised insult towards Australia. Even CM Punk. I cried.

JOJO: It's okay, Bang Bang. It's theatre. He didn't mean it. We know he's a freaking legend.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Coming World

The Coming World runs until 3 July 2011 at Darlinghurst Theatre. By Christoper Shinn, directed by Caroline Craig.

The Coming World was, to me, a play almost completely incongruous with its title. The term 'coming world' is epic, bringing to mind far horizons, a sweeping scale, Lord of the Rings style cinematography and possibly a few apocalypses. However, what it was was a story about a girl who worked in a video store and her relationships with a set of rather dysfunctional twins. It may have been set on a beach, but the scale was hardly sweeping (in any case, on the Darlo stage, 'sweeping' would be rather difficult'). The Coming World was not exactly universal - instead, it was almost aggressively insular.

This insularity is not necessarily a bad thing, but - as noted above - it did put the play at odds with its title. Dora (Cheree Cassidy), who works in Blockbuster, is dating Eddie (Ian Meadows), who is stupid enough to get conned into being a drug mule. What Eddie does next ends up defining the entire story - his actions break like the waves of the beach on which the play is set (you see what I did there) over both Dora and his twin Ty, with whom Dora spends the second half of the play. Despite the ripple effects of Eddie's actions, however, there is a real sense of containment and claustrophobia about this play. Dora and Ty are both bound to and trapped by Eddie, even after Eddie removes himself from the picture. Apparently, The Independent said of this play:

"The Coming World is a small play, but, after it ends, you can still feel the ripples."

I feel this is a pretty fair assessment, but considering this small play had so much stuff packed into it, I feel like it should have been saddled with a less epic title.

Both Cassidy and Meadows were very effective in their roles - especially when I got used to the New England accent they affected. (Embarrassing note - I skimmed the blurb, missed the New and read the England, and thus spent the first five minutes thinking 'this is the worst English accent I have ever heard EVER!') Meadows seemed more comfortable as Ty than Eddie, and Cassidy seemed to relate better to him as this character rather than as Eddie. I felt that in both acting and directing, the second half of the play was superior to the first. The play was really about Dora and yet most of the time she was not the agent behind any actions. In the second half, interacting with Ty instead of Eddie, she at least got to move things forward a little instead of providing resistance for the increasingly erratic Eddie.

Caroline Craig's direction was intelligent - the salient plot points and themes were certainly hit - but I felt at times the play was a little sedentary and could have used an injection of movement. However, the writing, rather than the direction, is probably at fault for this - there is no point in a lot of the scenes where movement seems sensible. The little Darlo stage definitely suited the insularity of the piece and Charlotte Lane's design, coupled with the lighting design of Jack Audas-Preston, was outstanding. The scene where Dora was floating in the sea with the light shining through the seaweed/video tape was incredible. I loved it.

This play was definitely a small play - it didn't really have a lot in way of plot - but it crammed a lot of themes in there, and not all of them were necessary. In places, I felt it succumbed to a flaw common to literary fiction, which is themes for the sake of themes. Maybe I just didn't get it, but there was a massive emphasis on clothing and costume and tattooes and suchlike which just did not seem related to the plot or to characterisation in any salient way. To go all Year 9 English on it, if there had been more of an appearance vs reality bent to the play, maybe it would have been more appropriate. Despite only being an hour long, I felt like the script sometimes got bogged down in itself, obsessed with its own intensity and complexity.

Overall, The Coming World was a well-acted, well-directed, spectacularly designed night at the theatre - but at the end, I felt there were a few too many loose ends that needed tidying up. This was largely a) because of the plays proliferation of and preoccupation with OMGDEEPTHEMES; and b) the rather abrupt and out-of-the-blue ending, which to me (and to my psychology-studying sister, who was with me), did not seem in any way anticipated by the rest of the play. The production of it was very hard to fault, but I'm having trouble working out what The Coming World was trying to say. I do not expect theatre to spoon feed me answers - but in many cases, I would have liked to have understood where the questions were coming from.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Heartbreak Hotel

Heartbreak Hotel was a one-night-only event on 8 June 2011 at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross, as part of Griffin Theatre Company's Festival of New Writing.

There are a special breed of people in the world for whom Kate Bush is the goddess of everything, keeper of all wisdom. I am one of these people, and like it that way. I am firmly of the belief that there is a Kate Bush song for everything, and in true Kate-is-the-greatest style, I was vividly reminded of one walking back to Kings Cross station after my evening at Heartbreak Hotel. The song is Love and Anger. Here's a sample of some of the lyrics:

"Take away the love and the anger
"And the little piece of hope holding us together
"Looking for a moment that'll never happen
"Living in the gap between past and future."

Not one of Kate's OMGgreatesthits, nor one of her more obscure - she's hardly suspended in gaffa here - but I think it sums up neatly what Heartbreak Hotel was about. It was about love, anger, and the end of hope - and what happens after. What do you do when something is over? How do you reassemble yourself and learn to love again? Does hope really spring eternal? And how do you stop being so damn angry about it?

I was a little nervous going into Heartbreak Hotel. A little of this was because my date bailed on me and so I was there alone like a total nigel (apt, considering!) but mostly because I wasn't quite sure to expect, and I was worried it might tend towards the performance art. I am terrified of performance art. It is a bizarre phobia. I am in no way opposed to the concept, but unlike 'true' theatre, where I can go all reception theory and apply my own reading to a performance, I am always afraid with performance art that I won't get it and thus completely undermine myself as a professional smart person.

No, I did not say it was a sane phobia. I am well aware it is completely mad.

Anyway. I am still not sure where to classify Heartbreak Hotel - is it theatre? is it performance art? is the difference between these two completely arbitrary and pointless in my mind anyway? - but I am sure of the fact that I enjoyed the evening and didn't come away feeling like I didn't get it or anything like that. I know I missed things. Originally, I believe this project was called the Museum of Broken Relationships and I think I like this name better than 'Heartbreak Hotel', because this is what it was: a theatricalised museum, full of exhibits and interaction - the kind of place you want to return to, because you know you didn't get to everything. I would have loved to see Glace Chase, the agony aunt, and experience the Teen Love Crush, but there just wasn't time. And sadly for me, I cannot go back - the hotel was one night only.

It was completely packed, and Griffin might have benefited from opening the hotel/museum for a few nights to mitigate the demand - I feel this keenly as a short person who is continually getting stuck behind tall people and never being able to see. However, given the many other awesome things going on during the Festival of New Writing, I can see why they didn't. And maybe that would somehow lessen the impact of the experience anyway - spreading it out might weaken the blow, so to speak.

My favourite part of the heartbreak smorgasbord was the sensory sound lock, where hotel guests were taken one by one into the cleaner's closet, blindfolded and beset with smells and tastes and other sensory stimuli. Theatre is a necessarily visual medium and so taking away that key sense and forcing people to engage with a story on another, almost visceral level was both exhilarating and confronting (particularly if the story you were engaging with was as vengeful and angry as mine!) A massive part of the appeal of theatre is the immediacy, the tangibility, the closeness, but even then, looking at something and seeing the difference and the distance between you and it is a barrier created by sight. The sound lock removed that and it was theatrical storytelling in the most immediate sense. I loved it.

I wasn't so keen on Shut Up, the performance in the front alcove, for which hotel guests all wore headphones while actors did a sort of stylised movement thing. Maybe it triggered my fear of performance art - who knows? but it was probably largely because I was standing behind people a good foot taller than me. It is hard to be short. I had a case of this in the other headphoned piece, also held in the foyer, but then the actors conveniently marched right out onto the road and I (awesomely) had front row viewing. This piece was very raw and very real - it had a sense of theatre of the invisible about it, even though the actors were very clearly ignoring the bazillions of people obviously staring at them (not just a fourth wall here!)

Yes, No, Maybe out in the park was a gorgeous little piece (albeit cold - why, why, why did Sydney have to have one of its coldest nights in living memory on hotel night!) and I also really enjoyed Sands Through the Hourglass upstairs in the theatre, which evoked memories of the first ever play I saw at Griffin - Quack, the zombie play. The woman in this piece was so perfectly doll-like it was eerie, and the man was adorably well-meaning in the most sinister way - a houngan who had stolen the soul of his zombie bride. It was heartbreaking and chilling all at the same time. And also, I got free bubbles.

Heartbreak Hotel was like theatrical therapy - cathartic and ultimately hopeful, despite it being about the end of love, the end of hope, and the overpowering desire for revenge. I loved the idea of it as a museum - as preserving things that are past, are dead, are history, so that we can learn from them and move forward.

And yeah, I also enjoyed writing a brief, angry letter to my ex and posting it in the box there. Love and rage are sides of the same coin.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing runs until 25 June. It plays at the Canberra Theatre Centre until 4 June and at the Melbourne Arts Centre until 25 June 2011. By William Shakespeare, directed by John Bell.
I sometimes think I have a bit of a split personality, particularly when I watch theatre. Perhaps it is the curse of the academic - I go through life seeing things on one hand as normal Jodi, and on the other hand as Jodi the Scholar, for whom everything is potential thesis material. Watching Much Ado About Nothing made me hyper-aware of this dual nature of my personality. Luckily, both Jodis really enjoyed it.

Jodi the Scholar is a PhD student who's writing a thesis on virginity and who has a particularly love of Renaissance literature, and so Much Ado is ripe with material. Although the play is obviously about Benedick (played wonderfully in this production by Toby Schmitz) and Beatrice (the excellent Blazey Best), they're not the drivers of the plot. In fact, if all you saw was the first half before interval (to the end of Act III, Scene II, ending deliciously on the word 'sequel'), you'd assume there wasn't much of a plot. Basically, there's this dude called Benedick and this chick called Beatrice, and they make out that they don't like each other but they obviously are head over heels for each other and totes have a history, and so their friends put together a plan to hook them up.

But then in the second half it all gets a bit dark.

Benedick's mate Claudio and Beatrice's cousin Hero are engaged – Claudio saw her, thought she was a bit of all right, and she (and, moreover, her father) was down with it - and it all seems hunky dory. But then Claudio, through a convoluted series of events involving what is played in this production as the mafia, gets it into his head that Hero isn't a virgin, and the plot really kicks off. And instead of taking her aside and going, 'hey, Hero, so I heard this crazy rumour, how about we have a discussion here,' Claudio decides to humiliate her at the altar. Because a woman who's deflowered is a woman who's worthless.

I have written a lot about the commodification of virginity in Renaissance literature - I'm presenting a paper on it in Canada next week - and we have a perfect example of it here. Jodi the Scholar, watching this, was all, I should put more Much Ado in my conference paper. Claudio finds a deflowered Hero not only worthless, but loathsome. And Hero's father Leonato isn't far behind - he screams at his daughter not to open her eyes when he thinks that she's been deflowered. The only one who immediately comes to Hero's defence is Beatrice, who manages to convince Benedick that she's right.

This obviously sits uneasily with the modern audience - both the nature of Claudio and Hero's engagement and the fetishisation of Hero's virginity. John Bell has dealt with this unease in a subtle way, I think... there is something very petty and a bit poisonous about the bromance between Don Pedro and Claudio, and when Leonato tells them that they have essentially killed his daughter, they are sorry, but yet somehow nonchalant about the whole thing. Don Pedro, Claudio and Benedick are a group of three friends who like to joke around together, bros, a sort of Shakespearean Ted/Marshall/Barney How I Met Your Mother trio, and the Bell production really emphasises this, but the Hero incident really does reveal their true colours - Benedick cares enough to stay behind and see that Hero is all right, and then (after coercion from Beatrice) cares enough to challenge Claudio to a duel. And then at the second wedding, when Claudio is to marry the veiled girl (who really is Hero, but which he doesn't know yet), Bell has kept in an often cut line - Claudio says he will marry her even if she is an Ethiop. There was an awkward silence all around the theatre when he said this as everyone realised he really is an enormous douchelord.

However, Much Ado really is a romcom. The plot may focus on Claudio and Hero, whose eventual union leaves the modern audience with an immense sense of unease, but we all know that Benedick and Beatrice, the real focus, will be much happier... even though they'll fight like cats and dogs. There's a concept I remember reading about in my life as Jodi the Scholar called the erotics of talk which I think plays into the difference between the two relationships - Hero/Claudio is based on Claudio thinking Hero is hot. Beatrice and Benedick is based on wit and dialogue - an erotic connection through conversation. And all audiences - Renaissance and modern - are led to believe this is the superior one.

Right. Jodi the Scholar is going to stop wanking on and on about random academic concepts and start talking about the actual show now. Normal Jodi is in the house. And she loved it.

The show stealer was clearly Toby Schmitz's hair - that fifties coiffe he affects at one stage is HILARIOUS - but Schmitz himself was outstanding. At first, his very Australian accent was a little jarring, but after a few lines it seemed perfectly natural. This was an example of excellent, EXCELLENT casting - Schmitz wore this role like a glove. He embraced the awkwardness and the embarrassment and the reluctance to admit change that is at the core of Benedick, and it was awesome. He's not afraid of silence on stage, and some of his funniest moments were silent - or at the least non-verbal, where he made incoherent noises of protest. And the scene where he's under the pool table listening to Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonato talk... priceless.

I really cannot speak highly enough of Schmitz's performance in this role. The only criticism I have is that he did overshadow a lot of the other characters - even Beatrice. Blazey Best was an excellent Beatrice, but with material which is not quite as awesome as Benedick's and such a great performance opposite her, I think it was a little hard for her to live up to. All this said, she really was good. She and Schmitz were a bit adorable together. Okay, a lot.

Bell held off on having Benedick and Beatrice kiss right until the very end and I think that was a great directorial choice. The awkwardness between them when they've admitted that they love each other but they're not quite together yet was just perfect. A lot of versions have Benedick and Beatrice being a little too couple-y too early, and this one didn't fall into that trap. The moment at the end when they read the (saucy) sonnets that each has written about the other was just fantastic theatre.

Jodi the Scholar and normal Jodi both loved this production. I highly, highly recommend it. And seriously - check Toby Schmitz's hair. There's a double meaning in it. Somewhere.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Orange Flower Water

Orange Flower Water has now closed. It played at Darlinghurst Theatre from 23 March – 17 April 2011. By Craig Wright, directed by Byron Kaye.

I really, really wanted to like Orange Flower Water at Darlo. I cannot TELL you how much I wanted to like it. I'd read such good things in the reviews and I love Six Feet Under and I have a major soft spot for that little little Darlo stage and I was super excited about going to see it, even though I only managed to squeeze in the Saturday before they closed. Someone compared it to Speaking In Tongues, for heavens' sakes, and we all know how I felt about THAT play.

Lloyd Bradford Syke wrote in his review that:

"You won't just see this play. You'll feel it, deep in the pit of your stomach. If you don't, or can't, relate, you haven't lived."

Well, then, I guess I haven't lived, because as much as I wanted to like this play, it just did nothing for me.

I think you were supposed to identify with the characters, feel their pain. I couldn't. They were all too frustrating. Cathy seemed nice enough, and Amy Mathews turned in a heartfelt performance here. However, her character's run got cut a bit short – you never really saw her after her big scene, which was (as everyone who saw the play knows) the long, drawn out, explicit sex scene with her cheating husband David (Joseph Del Re). There was also nothing wrong with Del Re's performance, except I didn't understand why David fell in love with Beth (Megan Alston), which is obviously at the crux of the character. Whether this fault lies with Del Re or with the writing or the directing... I'm not sure. Perhaps a mixture of all three.

It was easy to understand why Beth fell out of love with her husband Brad (Sebastian Goldspink) as he was completely vile and thoroughly unlikeable. When a character says "I ought to rape you, you f^&*ing c*nt", I think it makes them pretty much irredeemable. Sure, his wife had just announced that she was leaving him and his emotions were running high, so to speak, but yeah... completely unforgiveable. If I was supposed to feel his pain, that ensured I never would, on account of I was too busy loathing him.

So I understood why Beth left Brad for David. All over that. What I didn't understand was why she was crying ALL THE DAMN TIME.

I have very limited patience with crying on stage. The more you cry, the less effective it becomes. It doesn't signal that you're all emotional and fragile and whatnot, because the audience – well, me, anyway – becomes totally inured to it. It's like when you watch Masterchef and they're all standing there having a cry and you don't go 'awwwwww', you go 'LESS CRYING MORE COOKING' because they've been crying for what seems like five episodes now and you just want to see them make a cake without it melting in the rain Macarthur Park style. If Beth had broken down once, maybe twice, then maybe I could have been Team Beth. But no. The way Alston played her, she was CRYING ALL THE TIME. And I didn't sympathise – I wanted to smack her.

Relationships and adultery are territory that has been traversed by many writers many, many times. If you're going to do it and make it stand out, it has to be pretty damn good. The majority of people seemed to think Orange Flower Water was that standout. But it just didn't work for me. There were elements I liked – I thought the set design was inspired, for instance. Setting the whole thing in a bedroom was really clever – a play about an intimate subject deserves an intimate setting, and the smallness of the Darlo theatre lent itself well to the claustrophobic atmosphere, as did the continued presence of all four actors on stage. I thought the performances were mostly very good – Mathews in particular, with an honourable mention for Del Re. Goldspink couldn't really help what an enormous douche Brad was, I suppose, and for the brief minutes when Alston's Beth wasn't in tears she was good.

But the play just didn't live up to the billing. For me to really feel the pain of these characters – to feel it like Lloyd Bradford Syke did – I think I needed to like them a little bit, not spend the play pretty much wanting to punch them. And the ending... no. I'm writing a PhD thesis on romance novels, and it just totally smacked of that bit you get at the end of so many category novels where suddenly the hero and heroine have a baby, signalling their happily ever after. I didn't really feel like anything was resolved by the time David delivered his final 'BTW, we have a baby now and we are OMG SO HAPPY' monologue. In a way, this play touched on the least interesting aspect of adultery, and ended just where it should have begun. Breaking up is, in essence, the easiest part. It's what happens after that was interesting. The play was just beginning to touch on that with David and Beth looking at houses near the end. If the play had begun there, I think it would have been much more interesting.

Maybe it's because the last play I saw about adultery was Speaking In Tongues, which remains one of the greatest shows I have ever seen performed. But Orange Flower Water just did not live up to the hype for me. And to be honest, I feel pretty bad about it, because I love Darlo and I was really, really looking forward to this show. But I didn't feel it. It didn't get me deep in the pit of my stomach. It left me wondering what the hell I'd missed.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Speaking In Tongues

Speaking In Tongues runs until 19 March at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross. By Andrew Bovell, directed by Sam Strong.

Speaking In Tongues is the closest to a perfect script I have ever encountered.

Bovell apparently amalgamated two separate scripts to make Speaking In Tongues - which is sort of obvious when you think about it, but has to be one of the happiest theatrical accidents ever. The thing that makes Speaking In Tongues so special is the way it's layered, the stories interwoven, intertwined, tangled. I'm struggling to think of a piece that's more cleverly structured, and the only one that comes close is When The Rain Stops Falling. Surprise, surprise, it's also by Andrew Bovell.

In the first act, we meet two couples - Leon and Sonja (Christopher Stollery and Lucy Bell) and Pete and Jane (Andy Rodoreda and Caroline Craig). All four go out drinking. Leon meets Jane. Pete meets Sonja. One couple cheats. One couple backs away. And from this one evening, the stone dropped in the limpid pool, the ripples spread wider and wider and wider.

Griffin Theatre's production of this play is simply outstanding. This script is brilliant but it's also VERY difficult for the actors, and I could not fault any of them. Not even a little bit, not even at all. Caroline Craig as Sarah in the second act was especially good, but seriously, if I was going to pick a flaw? I'd have to sit here for a really long time.

This play contains what has to be one of the most annoying theatrical devices ever - two people speaking at the same time, saying exactly the same thing. Hell, even Oscar Wilde didn't quite pull that one of - the bit in The Importance of Being Earnest where Cecily and Gwendolen simultaneously tell Jack and Algernon that their Christian names are an insuperable barrier and then Algernon and Jack simultaneously reply that they're going to be christened that afternoon doesn't really work even though it's meant to be a joke, and although I've seen a lot (like, a LOT) of productions of Earnest, I've never seen actors quite pull that moment off. If Oscar can't do, I would generally maintain that no one can...
...but they get it JUST RIGHT in Speaking In Tongues, and there is a LOT more than two lines spoken at the same time.

Maybe the reason that this device works in this play is because of the way just about everything seems to parallel everything else. Leon and Jane's experience mirrors Sonja and Pete's. The lives of these two couples are so intertwined that it seems only sensible that they would be saying the same things. It might seem contrived that Sonja happens to run into Jane the next night in a bar, Jane sitting and looking for Sonja's husband - but when you consider later how tangled the storyline of the first act is with the story of the second act, where Valerie the psychologist treats Sarah who might be sleeping with John and who saw Neil whose shoes Pete has; how Jane saw Nick throwing shoes that belonged to Valerie, a crime which is investigated by Leon... everything is coincidence in this world, because everything is connected.
Because of this, there is an intense claustrophobia in Speaking In Tongues, making Griffin's tiny diamond stage the perfect place to stage it. Every character is trapped - trapped in their own skins, in their own lives - but the minute someone does something to change it (like sleeping with someone they're not married to) the ramifications are instant. There is no personal change without changing everything. It's the dramatic articulation of the The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock - 'do I dare disturb the universe?'
It makes perfect sense to have the same actors playing multiple characters, because everything is connected and mirrored and paralleled (is that a word?) The only character who escapes is Valerie, and her solution is very... final. The door that opens that she runs through leads to a wilderness both lush and terrifying. It smacks a little of Picnic At Hanging Rock, the disappearance into the landscape, being consumed by it. This door - which obviously leads to death - is the only escape from the ripple effect of decisions within the universe of the play. (Sidebar: my sister and I have been wondering for ages whether there was a door at the back of the theatre there. We were convinced there wasn't. Seeing this play, we finally found out there was.)
I cannot speak highly enough of this production - the script, the acting, the direction, the set, the tech-y stuff... everything was 100% outstanding. It's hard to imagine a way this production could be better. I, for one, can't fathom it.

And if you haven't seen it, you're not going to be able to - it closes today and it's totally sold out. This tells us a few things: 1) I need to start writing reviews earlier; 2) I'm not the only one who thinks this show is excellent; and 3) you really, REALLY missed out.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Secret Bridesmaids' Business

Secret Bridesmaids' Business runs until 19 March at Canberra Repertory Society, Theatre 3, Ellery Crescent, Acton, ACT. By Elizabeth Coleman, directed by Geoffrey Borny.

I should probably start this piece with an admission. I have pretty close ties to Canberra Rep and I know nearly all of the people in this piece. So if you are looking for objective reviewing, this is probably not the review for you. This said, I'll try and give my honest opinion of the show.

On the whole, I think it's a very well performed show, but it's built on a rotting foundation - the script is really... not good. I love the concept. I love the ideas. I find the idea of chicklit for the stage very appealing. I find the idea of any genre fiction for the stage very appealing, which is why I liked Quack at Griffin Theatre last year so much. But as a script, Secret Bridesmaids' Business just does not work for me.

It's about half an hour too long and a lot of the jokes - and there are jokes, which I think the cast made a really good job of - are obscured by too much dialogue. There should be serious questions underpinning even the fluffiest of entertainment, and Secret Bridesmaids' Business certainly has one of these - if it were you, and your fiance were having an affair, and you were getting married in twelve hours... would you want to know?

Unfortunately, there was simply too much stuff in this play for that question to get adequately answered. I appreciate - and respect - that Coleman was trying to give all six of her characters clear and separate motivations. But in doing so, she's obscuring the key question of the play, which is deep and serious and ultimately tragic. And great humour arises out of great tragedy, and so we don't get a sense of either.

The thing that really doesn't work for me at all is the monologues that Coleman has given each character. They function as an alienation device: which is fair enough, theatrically - that's an option you have open to you. But they break the 'show, don't tell' rule on the most fundamental level, and I honestly don't think the show would have lost that much if you left them out. I think that in the second act they're meant to redeem the two characters who are the most unlikeable - James, the cheating groom, and Naomi, the other woman. With the latter, it succeeds to a degree; with the former, not so much. But any sentiments that Coleman was dying to get out in these monologues, I think she could have done through dialogue. They're awkward, they break the flow, and seriously? if you wanted a scene change, a lighting change or a blackout would have done.

All this said - and even though I am good friends with most of the cast, I say this honestly - the cast do a really good job of what is an achingly clunky script. The standout and showstealer is Anita Davenport as Lucy, who does a stellar job. Lainie Hart is also excellent as the bride Meg, and the rest of the cast - Heather Spong as Angela, Alex de Totth as Naomi, Trish Kelly as the mother Colleen and Martin Searles as the groom James - all do very well indeed. There's no weak link casting-wise, though the show does get off to a very nervous start and doesn't really crank into gear until Lucy enters (about ten or fifteen minutes in).

No, the problems of this show lie in the script, front and centre. This show has all the right ingredients for a fun night out - chicklitty fluff with an excellent cast. You should not be thinking 'when is this going to end?' And I was.

I like Coleman's ambiguous ending - I won't give it away, but it's pretty decent - but I wish it was more ambiguous. I think there's obvious signs as to which way Meg chooses, and I think the show would be far more effective if it were less clear. It would certainly provide more food for thought. And it would be even better if the show were half an hour shorter. Honestly, if you took a brutal red pen to this show, then you might come up with something half as long and twice as good.

Right. Enough harping on the script. The set is very good and highly functional and the costumes are extremely effective - the bridesmaid dresses strike just the right level of total fugly. The bridal gown is also very appropriate (though I did notice it needs to be ironed!) And wherever Meg and Lucy buy their clothes, I want to shop there. I saw this show twice - on preview night and then again on the Wednesday of the final week - and the technical hitches that were there during preview had been fixed by the second viewing, which I was glad to see. (No surprise blackouts in the middle of scenes = good times.)

The one thing, production-wise, which really does let the show down is the music. When you walk in, you'd be forgiven you were going in to a stage version of a Hornblower novel. It's all terribly naval and British, and although I think it was supposed to be a wedding march, I just wanted to salute. Also, there's this one piece which played during interval which seriously sounded like it should be in a Hammer Horror movie. Considering that this show is pretty much the opposite of Gothic, that's something that needs to... considered. And there was totally a golden opportunity here to use all those cheesy wedding songs that everyone hates - all that Celine Dion and Shania Twain and... hell, you could have used the nutbush. Missed opportunity, I think. (This idea was not mine, though I wish it was. The trashy wedding song notion belongs wholly to my friend Rashmi. But that picture of Celine is ALL ME.)

I really wanted to like this show. I think the cast is great and sound aside, I think the production values of this show are pretty good, especially considering it's amateur. But seriously, this script has problems. People should really think twice before performing it - or at least bring a red pen and be prepared to use it. Chicklit for the stage is a great idea. But just because it's fluffy doesn't mean it doesn't have to be punchy.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

'Tis Pity She's A Whore

'Tis Pity She's A Whore has now closed. It played at the Merlyn Theatre at Malthouse in Melbourne from February 11 - March 5 2011. By John Ford, adapted and directed by Marion Potts.

If there is one thing in theatre I hate, it is the gratuitous use of the smoke machine. Particularly if it's for no discernible reason. I date this loathing back to a time in my teens, when I was in a particularly awful pantomime version of Jack and the Beanstalk. The entire second act was set on a cloud, and the set consisted solely of a LOT of smoke. It was pumped in so thick that the cast could barely see each other, so who knows what the audience thought? I'm surprised no one died of smoke inhalation.

So when I walked into the Merlyn Theatre at Malthouse for 'Tis Pity She's A Whore - slightly ironic, I think, that I lost my Malthouse virginity to this play - and the auditorium was all be-smoke-machined, it's unsurprising that my heart sank a little. It's a truth universally acknowledged (when the universe consists of me) that a play that overuses the smoke machine is usually trying to obscure something... namely, the fact that their show isn't very good.

Thankfully, 'Tis Pity turned out to be the exception rather than the rule. (And also thankfully, there was no smoke pumped during the show itself.)

'Tis Pity is a very bizarre play. There's no better way of putting it. I don't know if it's possible to portray incestuous lovers sympathetically and not be a little bizarre. As an audience member you certainly feel a little bizarre when you find yourself hoping against hope that Giovanni and Annabella can find a way to be together... and then you rememver that they're brother and sister and that that shit is MESSED UP, man. Marion Potts made the interesting choice of removing the character of Friar Bonaventura, who appears at the beginning of the play, trying to talk his pupil Giovanni out of... well, doing his sister, basically. Without the Friar, Giovanni's lines become a monologue, and the play loses any real anchor. The descent into chaos begins even faster and is even steeper.

It's an interesting spin on Giovanni's character - instead of being resolute at the beginning of the play, personifying the Jacobean notion of passion to the Friar's reason, we see Giovanni essentially trying to convince himself that what he's doing is all right. Marion Potts said in the promo for 'Tis Pity that this play was about moral relativism, about 'when is it okay to fuck your brother?' By removing the character of the Friar, Potts has removed any link to 'conventional' morality.

This is reinforced by the set. Anna Cordingley's much-touted tri-level set features the angelic (both in countenance and in voice) Julia County at the top in the 'heaven' level; Chris Ryan as the subplot-replacing gutter-mouthed B in the 'hell' level; and the main action of Ford's text itself in the ornate and yet somehow hollow middle level. Whether this level is meant to represent earth or purgatory or something else entirely very quickly becomes irrelevant. The Angel descends down the levels, B flits between them... the whole dollhouse-like set seems set up to demonstrate that conventional ideas of good and bad just can't be applied to this play. You should hate Giovanni and Annabella. But you don't.

As the siblings/lovers, Benedict Samuel and Elizabeth Nabben are very charismatic, have great chemistry, and definitely pull it off. Samuel is an excellent physical actor, even when he's not moving at all - there's a great moment towards the end of the play when he demands from John Adam's Soranzo to know where his sister is, and even though he is standing still, you can sense (even from the back row!) that he is a ticking time bomb, about to explode. His performance in the bloody final act is also excellent. I wish he'd been given more opportunity to demonstrate his physical capabilities - 'Tis Pity is not a play in which things should be done by halves. I wanted more blood, more sex, more violence. 'Tis Pity is a play that needs the sort of aesthetic that Alan Ball applies to True Blood, and I feel that this production lacked this a bit. It was a little tame, and 'Tis Pity is not a tame play. (Is it a coincidence that the Puritans shut down the theatres ten years after this play premiered? Not so much. 'Tis Pity is Renaissance theatre at its bloodiest and most indulgent.)

I saw this play on the final day of its run, and to some extent, the actors had settled a little too far into the roles - Samuel, for example, delivered a lot of his lines at an absolutely cracking pace, which was at times hard to keep up with. Elizabeth Nabben as Annabella, however, was extremely well paced throughout. Both she and Samuel were overall outstanding. I'm pretty sure they're both younger than me and that makes me jealous.

It took me a while to realise why I liked Nabben's duets with Julia County so much. They were definitely absolutely gorgeous sounding - Nabben can sing - but I remember wondering what the point of them was for a bit. No matter how pretty they sounded, there didn't seem to be much point in turning the soliloquies Ford gave Annabella into operatic arias...

...until we'd had a few of B's overtly misogynist monologues about bitches and sexting, highlighting just how far society hasn't come when it comes to perceptions of women in general and female sexuality in particular.

There is no hiding from the fact that 'Tis Pity She's A Whore is a misogynist play. Despite the fact that Giovanni is the one that initiates the sexual relationship with Annabella, despite the fact that Annabella is definitely the one that suffers more as a result, despite the fact that Giovanni kills Annabella and despite the fact that neither of them show any remorse, the play isn't called 'Tis Pity Giovanni and Annabella are Incestuous Demonspawn. No. Giovanni may make some questionable choices - doing his sister, knocking her up and killing her come to mind - but he gets the romantic hero's death, a bloody end not unreminiscent of Hieronymo. Annabella, on the other hand? Well, she would have been fine if she wasn't such a skanky whore. The final lines of the play are:

We shall have time
To talk at large of all; but never yet
Incest and murder have so strangely met.
Of one so young, so rich in nature's store,
Who could not say, 'tis pity she's a whore?

In Ford's script, these lines are delivered by the Cardinal, a character omitted from Potts' production. Instead, they are delivered by B, the one character in the play who speaks in a twenty first century voice throughout. This highlights sharply how little attitudes have changed from the fiercely misogynist time of Ford to now. The women in this play are either virgins or whores and we still talk about women that way.

Annabella's duets with the Angel (I haven't forgotten them!) thus become a very interesting commentary. We've been told to think of Annabella as a whore, a degenerate. The play reinforces this over and over again. She can never quite reach the third level of the Malthouse set, where the Angel lives, but she aspires to it anyway. The bad girl dreams of being an angel. This gives great depth to Annabella's character and throws in some ethical greyness from a twenty-first century perspective. Annabella is equated, however fleetingly, with the Angel. Does this mean, in Potts' words, it might sometimes be okay to fuck your brother?

The script is quite heavily cut, which I think was a good idea. The original subplot with Bergetto and Poggio is not great and using Chris Ryan's B as a replacement really brought home the connection between Ford's world and the world we live in now. However, it did mean that the storyline with Alison Whyte's Hippolita and Anthony Brandon Wong's Vasques felt a little irrelevant to the main plot for a while. It was hard to gauge the connection between the two plots at the outset, and if I - someone who has studied Ford's text at length and written essays on it - felt that way, I don't know how someone coming in cold would handle it. This is not to say that Whyte and Wong don't do a great job, because I was impressed by both - Wong especially.

It's fashionable to try and pare back Renaissance texts to the bones. The bones, in this case, is the story between Annabella and Giovanni. What becomes clear when paring back 'Tis Pity is that Annabella and Giovanni don't really have that many scenes together, which is a shame. I don't think that's a problem Potts could really fix, but if there was any way that there could have been more Annabella/Giovanni face time, that would have been awesome.

I thought the sound production for this show was great - the contrast between the dark, grunge-y beats produced by Jethro Woodward and the ethereal voice of Julia County was really excellent. Putting Woodward on the stage itself was a little distracting, though - particularly with the sex tape he had playing on a loop near him. This detracted rather than added to the action... despite everything I said before about the True Blood aesthetic being the way to go with 'Tis Pity.

Overall, I really enjoyed this production. The Renaissance was an incredibly rich time for theatre and much as I love him, it's great to see something that's not Shakespeare. With 'Tis Pity She's A Whore, Malthouse have put together a very stylish, very well acted and extremely visually striking production that has kept me thinking for more than a few days now. And if you didn't see it, you missed out.

Welcome to the Back Seat

I see a lot of theatre. I like to pretend that I'm incredibly wise and know everything about it and can make very informed criticisms and suchlike, and sure, I do know some stuff. But mostly, I see theatre because I love it as an art form, more than any other art form there is.

And writing about it seemed like the natural next step. It's my thing. So what you'll get here is a highly uneducated and highly biased account of stuff I've seen. And even if I sound like I know what I'm talking about, I probably don't. Remember that.

Oh yeah, and my name is Jodi. I'm an arts PhD student, currently Canberra-based, relocating to Sydney soon, and I dabble in a bit of theatre myself (writing mostly, with a soupcon of acting). I'm really passionate about new Australian writing and Renaissance theatre and writing by women, but mostly I'm passionate about good theatre. Show me something that's awesome and I'll love it. I am, at the end of the day, a simple creature.