Monday, February 6, 2012

Midsummer (a play with songs)

I reviewed Midsummer (Sydney Theatre Company, Merrigong & Traverse Theatre) for Australian Stage: you can read my review here.

(Seriously, go to this show. It is absolutely gorgeous. J'adore.)

Saturday, February 4, 2012


Pygmalion runs at the Sydney Theatre in Walsh Bay until 3 March 2012. By George Bernard Shaw, directed by Peter Evans.

Pygmalion is a classic play – and like many classic plays, it comes with a lot of baggage. I don’t think a huge amount of people are familiar with the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea that lies behind it, but they are certainly familiar with the concept of the makeover genre (if they’ve ever seen, I don’t know, any reality TV, ever.) But the cultural baggage of Pygmalion is less to do with this thematic concern and more to do with hats and frocks and I could have danced all night-ing. You say Eliza Doolittle and ‘enry ‘iggins? People think My Fair Lady. They think Ascot. They think rags-to-riches, Cockney-to-RP, and most of all, they think about the hats and the frocks.

I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of people come away from STC’s Pygmalion disappointed. There are no hats and frocks, no lovely sets, none of the trappings of what we think of as the ‘traditional’ Pygmalion. The stage at the Sydney Theatre is massive and stark. There is not a lot of set – a dressing table right down the back, where Andrea Demetriades as Eliza undergoes her transformations, a few machines to make Henry Higgins’s (Marco Chiappi) lab look all science-y. The show is played in modern dress, with nary a hat or a petticoat to be seen (though the dress that Demetriades wears in the tea-with-the-Eynsford-Hills scene is really, really gorgeous, and I want it).

So, as I said, I would not be surprised if a lot of people feel disappointed because this is not what they expected. I’m not one of them. The real insidious message of Pygmalion – the fact that Henry Higgins has actually attempted to create a sort of human sculpture, much like Evelyn does in Neil Labute’s The Shape of Things – is often concealed in the hats and the frocks and I really appreciated the attempt to strip it back.

But did it work? I’m not so sure that it did.

I feel like if the first scene had worked a little better, maybe I would have got into the stark staging and the vague modernisation more. As it was, the decision to play that scene just with Eliza onstage for most of it, with the rest of the cast members delivering their lines from the side, was strange and puzzling. Demetriades was a wonderful Eliza and she can certainly command the stage by herself, but this staging was... weird. I spent more time working out what that was meant to achieve than paying attention to what was going on, and that was, I feel, detrimental to my appreciation of the whole play.

Also – this is probably heretical to say, given that Pygmalion is such a classic, but I’m going to go there anyway – one of the major flaws of the script itself is that the fifth act, where Eliza and Higgins have a big argument and eventually she tells him that she is going to marry Freddy, is not really very interesting. It’s a rehash of the far more compelling argument they’ve had in the last scene – Eliza is frustrated, Higgins is frustratingly paternalistic, six of one, half a dozen of the other. It’s the point of the play where subtext really does become text, and I feel that something special has to be done with it to really make it interesting. This production doesn’t really do that. They do do some stuff with the video screen, going backstage to encounter Demetriades in her dressing room, but the ending of the play felt really laboured.

And on a personal note – extreme bias here, so be warned – the way that this production sidelines the Eynsford Hills made me really sad. I played Clara a few years ago, and she can be a really rich and interesting character – if you read Shaw’s epilogue to the play, about half of it is about what happens to her. I wasn’t sure why Harriet Dyer played her as so weepy during the tea party scene – it didn’t really make sense to me – but I think my major concern here dates back to the first scene again, where a lot of characterisation was sacrificed to have Eliza alone on the stage. I think Tom Stokes’s Freddy really suffered from this: he was fantastic and I would have liked to have seen more of him. In Shaw’s script, there are some optional scenes – not necessary, but they certainly add colour. This includes the famous Eliza-and-the-bath scene, as well as one after the ball where she meets Freddy. This production doesn’t include any of them. The play certainly works without them, but I would have loved to see Stokes get a chance to play that little post-ball scene with Demetriades.

There are some great performances in this show – I particularly enjoyed the work of Tom Stokes (as I mentioned above), David Woods as Alfred Doolittle, and Deborah Kennedy as housekeeper Mrs Pearce. Andrea Demetriades is an excellent Eliza and while I might not have agreed 100% with all of the characterisation, I thought all the cast did a good job. I love the hats and the frocks as much as anyone, but I was glad to see STC try something different here. Unfortunately, I don’t think they really pull it off. It’s a solid production, but ultimately underwhelming.

Thursday, February 2, 2012


Thyestes runs at Carriageworks until February 19, 2012. By Simon Stone, Thomas Henning, Chris Ryan and Mark Winter after Seneca, directed by Simon Stone.
I seriously considered not reviewing this play. Not because I didn’t like it – it is one of the most amazing pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen – but because I really, really didn’t want to think about it again. Even now, I’m going to have to write this review quickly, because I can’t bear to dwell on it. Thyestes is theatre at its most visceral, its most bloody, an almost primeval experience of horror.

In fact, if I was being 100% accurate about my reaction to this show, I would probably just write HOLY FUCK over and over again. It was about all I was capable of saying for about half an hour after the show ended. I was very glad that I saw Thyestes as a matinee, that I could walk out into daylight afterwards. Walking out into darkness would have been... let’s just say I would have had nightmares.

This play, devised by Simon Stone, Thomas Henning, Chris Ryan and Mark Winter, takes Seneca’s tragedy as its basis. For those unfamiliar with the myth of Thyestes, here is a quick summary. Atreus and Thyestes are brothers who, after various political happenings, are joint kings of the land of Mycenae. Thyestes is exiled after sleeping with Atreus’s wife. Atreus, in a gruesome act of revenge, invites Thyestes to a feast, where the main course is Thyestes’s two young sons.

It is easy to read this, go, “ewww, gross”, and never think of it again. I majored in Classics at university, so I was familiar with the myth, but had never given it much thought. Like all classical myth, the modern reader is at a distance. We read about Zeus turning himself into a bull and raping Europa or Myrrha seducing her father, write essays on them, without really grasping the horror behind them. The starting point behind the Hayloft Project’s re-imagination of Thyestes was THESE MYTHS ARE REAL (all caps theirs and totally necessary). Thyestes takes place in the spaces between the myth, behind storybook politics. It takes away the distance between us and classical myth and locates it in the machinations of everyday. We see through the white box that is the stage to the audience on the other side. We see through the story to the horror – the horror inherent in the myths that were, in many ways, the genesis of Western society.
It’s easy to throw incest or cannibalism or rape or murder or violence or whatever into a play as a kind of cheap trick, some Big Issue (tm) with which to make the play seem shocking. When it’s done this way – done cheap – it makes something which is horrifying seem camp and almost comical. Thyestes has all of these horrible things in it. So many atrocities occur in this play it’s hard to recall them all. (I mentioned the scene where Thyestes rapes his daughter to my sister afterwards, and she said, “oh yeah... I forgot about that.” If you can forget about a scene as awful as that one, you know there is a metric fuck-ton of awful happenings in the play.) But this show does not use the horror inherent in the act to make theatre. Rather, it makes theatre to enhance the horror of the act.

During the last scene of the play (it ends in the middle, with the Thyestian feast), I seriously thought I was going to throw up. When the curtain went down, I was thankful that they’d left it at that, at Atreus’s eerie laugh. But no, it came up again. And again. And again. And each time was more and more horrible until, when it came down for the last time, I had literally broken out into a cold sweat. Stumbling out into the daylight, I still wasn’t sure whether or not I could keep myself from being sick. I knew this myth. I knew exactly what story I was in for on this rainy Wednesday afternoon. The cannibalism, the incest, the everything – it was not a surprise. And this play still made me feel like this – had an actual physical effect on me that it took many more glasses of wine than I’m proud of to calm myself down.

I can’t fault this play at all, but special mention must go to Mark Winter, who played Atreus. I don’t know if I have ever seen a more chilling performance. My sister, who is a psychology student, said that he was the perfect psychopath – outwardly charming, charismatic, funny, but inwardly twisted, perverted, mad. He was utterly, utterly terrifying, and because of him, I don’t think I will ever be able to eat spaghetti or choc-tops again.

Thyestes is not for the queasy. It is incredible theatre, but I would never, ever want to see it again. I don’t want to think about it again. But you should see it. You have until February 19. It is amazing. It is a theatrical experience that will give you nightmares, a theatrical experience that will probably have an actual physical effect on you, a theatrical experience that will ensure you never read myth disinterestedly ever again, a theatrical experience you will always, always remember – for both the right and the wrong reasons.