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.