Friday, November 30, 2012

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

I don't review a lot of musicals, but I had a great time reviewing the Australian production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Capitol Theatre. (It was one of my favourite films as a kid!) Read my thoughts at Australian Stage here.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Hollywood Ending

I reviewed Griffin Independent's Hollywood Ending over at Australian Stage - check it out here. (This play is part of the Rapid Write scheme - from zero to opening in eight weeks - and it's proof that good theatre can be made really fast!)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Venetian Twins

The Venetian Twins runs at the New Theatre in Newtown from 15 November - 15 December 2012. By Nick Enright and Terence Clark, directed by Mackenzie Steele.

The Venetian Twins is absolutely, positively, splendiferously entertaining. As I write this now, my cheeks ache – not from laughing (though I certainly did plenty of that), but from smiling. This is a splendid production of a really wonderful piece of theatre. If you want a night out that it 100% pure fun, then this is the show for you.

The show borrows from the traditions of farce, commedia dell’arte, and operetta, although it definitely has a very Australian twist. Identical twin brothers Tonino and Zanetto (both played brilliantly by Jay James-Moody) have been brought up separately, the former in the city, the latter in the country. The one is an urbane gentleman, the other a well-meaning but not terribly bright bogan. When they both come to the city seeking their respective fiancĂ©es, Beatrice (the luminous Marisa Berzins) and Rosina (Meagan Caratti), many wacky shenanigans ensue. There is villainy and intrigue and poison and magic and mistaken identity – and a whole lot of songs.

The Venetian Twins is the kind of show that it would be really easy to get carried away with. Nick Enright and Terence Clark’s script is so rich and so excruciatingly funny that it would be very easy to push it too far: to ham up the already hilarious gags and take it over the edge into self-indulgence. Director Mackenzie Steele has got a dab hand at knowing just when to stop, when to restrain his talented cast from excess and keep the pace of the show ticking over. (Steele also knows exactly when to let the cast take a gag and run with it!) The funny isn’t laboured but it isn’t glossed over either. This is a really superb piece of directing. I’ll be watching Steele’s future projects with great interest.

Steele also has a great eye for cast, because The Venetian Twins is almost perfect in this department. The standouts for me were Jay James-Moody as the twins and Marisa Berzins as Beatrice, but the whole ensemble is great. The show-stealer, though, is Dean Vince. His performance as the villainous Pancrazio – somewhere between Voldemort, Jafar, and David Copperfield – is quite possibly the funniest thing I’ve seen on stage in 2012. That gag he has with the rope of pearls? SIDESPLITTINGLY HILARIOUS. (Capslock FULLY WARRANTED.) Vince clearly revels in the cartoonish villainy of his character and hits all the notes perfectly. A truly fantastic performance.

The one quibble I had with The Venetian Twins was technical. Given that the New is not exactly a small theatre and that the band, while excellent, is loud, it would have been better to mic the performers individually rather than rely on the drop mics. When the actors were in the right spots (which they were probably 80% of the time), it was fine, but whenever they were out of position, it became quite hard to hear what they were singing. Given that the libretto is oh so very funny, I didn’t want to miss a single line, so I was a bit sad when I did. I’d advise those who do go along to sit near the front of the theatre – there’s less chance of missing stuff that way.

The Venetian Twins has my completely enthusiastic endorsement. I loved it sick. It is riotous and joyous and one of the funniest things I’ve seen this year. I had a great night – I’d normally call a show that clocked in at two hours twenty minutes a touch on the long side, but I didn’t even notice. Go and see this one. No, really, I mean it. Even if just to see Dean Vince do that thing with the pearls.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Private Lives

Private Lives ran at Belvoir St from 22 September-11 November and is now on tour. In Wollongong 14-17 November and Canberra 21-24 November. By Noel Coward, directed by Ralph Myers.

Private Lives is a champagne comedy. Let’s be real. It’s light and frothy and screamingly funny. It’s full of Cowardian bon mots and one-liners that are agonisingly hilarious. Belvoir’s production of it (which I saw twice, once at Belvoir, once at Merrigong) is definitely full of fizz. It’s sharp and snappy and perfectly cast – I mean, Toby Schmitz as Elyot Chase? how was that not going to work? But what I find interesting – and something which I think the Belvoir production highlights – is the darkness percolating below the surface. Beneath the banter of Elyot and Amanda (and, eventually, Victor and Sibyl) is something dangerous, devastating, and deadly serious. Underneath the fun, there’s destruction.

In her 2009 book A Vindication of Love, Cristina Nehring writes:

“I bear the bodily scars of a loss or two in love. I have been derailed by love, hospitalised by love, flung around five continents, shaken, overjoyed, inspired, and unsettled in love. But... I feel new. Ready for the next round.” (p.275)

There are some serious flaws with Nehring’s book which I won’t get into here, but watching Private Lives, I could not help but think of this quote. Nehring subscribes to the view of love articulated by Denis de Rougemont, love as the sublimated desire for death (something I write about a lot in my academic life which I’ve managed to shoehorn into my theatre reviews before – see here). For love – or, more correctly, passion – to flourish, there must be an undercurrent of destruction. Love is not really adoration or veneration. In Private Lives, Sibyl and Victor adore Elyot and Amanda respectively, and that love is nowhere near enough: it is pale, insipid, fruitless. Love is tied to the desire to possess: to want someone so desperately you want to climb inside their skin (which happens almost literally in Private Lives). Elyot and Amanda cannot live with each other and cannot live without each other because they each want to control the other, to dominate, to lead, to possess. Nehring writes that, “theatrics are at the very heart of romance” (p.65), and between these two, there are theatrics aplenty. The entire play is based on the explosive theatricality of their relationship. They love and desire each other so much that they cannot help but want to destroy each other: Elyot’s cut lip and Amanda’s black eye in the third act are potent physical reminders of this.

It was a brave decision by Ralph Myers to leave the domestic violence of Private Lives in the script. (I went along to Belvoir’s Sunday Forum, where he said that when he was preparing to direct the play, a lot of people he talked to advised him that it had to be cut.) Does it pay off or not? I’m not sure. Looking at the play purely as a champagne comedy? Probably not. Both times I saw it, the room went silent when Elyot and Amanda discuss the first time he hit her – not just I’m-not-laughing-at-this-present-moment silent, but oh-holy-shit silent. People going along looking purely for just light fizzy fun will probably find it offputting. I guess whether it works or not depends on how much darkness you want to find in the show. Private Lives certainly doesn’t function as an endorsement of this kiss-with-a-fist style relationship. Elyot and Amanda’s love is consuming, but it isn’t idealised (this is, as it happens, where I think Nehring’s book on love falls down: her overt fetishisation of destruction and inequality). Intellectually, I found it quite interesting. In literary terms, the relationship of Elyot and Amanda is a throwback to love in medieval romance, before the marriage plot in the novel. Their love isn’t domesticated – when they tried to domesticate it, it failed spectacularly. Love is innately individual for them and will not be bound within a social institution. This harks back to Nehring again, who writes that, “Love is always against something as ardently as it is for somebody” (p.103). This kind of thing is the stuff I can – and do – nerdle about all day long. But on a purely visceral level? God, watching two people beat each other up is deeply uncomfortable.

The actual reason I saw this play twice was a) I liked it, but mostly b) I’m really interested in how stuff translates from big city mainstage to different stages on tour. This is something I thought I’d have a lot more to say about than I actually do. The Upstairs theatre at Belvoir and the IMB theatre at IPAC are fundamentally very different spaces – if nothing else, they’re totally different shapes – but this play translated beautifully. I think the cast did take a little while to adjust to the massive IMB theatre: it’s so big that the jokes seem to take more time to reach the back, and the timing at the beginning in the Wollongong performance was a little uneasy compared to when I saw it in Sydney. Their adjustment was swift, however, and the third act was sidesplittingly hilarious, even the second time round. Both Tobies, Schmitz and Truslove, are real standouts. Schmitz’s dry, sardonic delivery is perfect for Elyot’s witticisms; and Truslove is a total comic natural.

This has all been a very long-winded and nerdy way of saying that I really like this play. It made me think a lot more than I was expecting it to – it’s not often I come out of a comedy and smash out 500 words on the Theory of Love™. I definitely think it could make some people very uncomfortable and should maybe come with a trigger warning, but it really is wonderfully performed and absolutely desperately funny. I’m not entirely sure why everyone was spending so much time hanging out in what appeared to be the hotel corridor, but you should go along and see it and work it out for yourself. If nothing else, it totally wins the award for Best Use Of Phil Collins On The Stage Ever!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Saint Joan

Saint Joan runs at the Genesian Theatre from November 3 - December 1 2012. By George Bernard Shaw, directed by Kevin Jackson.
The story of Joan of Arc, Maid of Orleans, is an iconic one. A peasant girl with no knowledge of war of military strategy, she starts hearing the voices of saints in her mind and, following their advice, becomes the commander of the armies of France. After several successful campaigns, she is captured by the English, and after being tortured, she is burned at the stake as a witch and a heretic, her legacy not being recognised until her canonisation in the 1920s. It is an incredibly interesting story. A peasant virgin rising to become a major military commander in fifteenth century France? How is that not fascinating? Unfortunately, George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan hones in on some of the least interesting parts of the Joan story. Genesian Theatre’s production of Shaw’s play is a solid one, and there are lots of things to like about it – not least the robust performance of Sabryna Te’o as Joan – but there is no escaping the wordiness of Shaw. The story of Joan is drowned in a sea of ponderous verbiage.

Anyone who has read any feminist theory will be familiar with the phrase “the personal is the political.” Saint Joan focuses very much on the political and not the personal, and this is to its detriment. It is about politicians, not people. Joan the person is the interesting part of the Joan of Arc story, this totally disenfranchised peasant girl who becomes a political figure, believing she is destined to lead armies and win back France for God. Joan is the lens through which the story becomes extraordinary. By focusing on the broader political interactions, this is nullified. A Joan of Arc story should be about Joan. Bernard Shaw’s play is not. Joan is in it, sure, but we view her at a distance. (Saint Joan does not pass the Bechdel test: it cannot, because Joan is the only female character. The entire play is either a group of men talking about Joan or Joan arguing with a group of men. It’s kind of a sausage fest.)

Saint Joan is famously a play without a villain: every character has clear motivations for their actions and ultimately believes they are doing the right thing, even when the things they are doing are heinous. The problem is that there are so many characters that they eventually blend into one big soldier/clergyman/Frenchman/Englishman conglomerate mass that you could label “dude that is anti-Joan”. I certainly lost track of them after a while, and I’m relatively familiar with the Joan of Arc story. I shudder to think what someone new to the story would have thought.

The play is, of course, a classic, and it’s probably heresy to say that I don’t like it much. But I don’t, so call me heretic. The political intrigue of the whole thing might be interesting to some, but seeing a bunch of dudes arguing about Joan? I don’t care. Show me Joan. Show me what she’s thinking. Show her to me when she’s alone, just her and her voices. Show her to me when she’s commanding men rather than arguing with them. Sabryna Te’o did a great job as Joan in this production. I was always excited when she came on stage. Her Joan was brave and bold, occasionally vulnerable, but always noble. Her rendition of Joan’s famous speech about preferring to die to being locked up was heartfelt and totally lovely. She’s a wonderfully vibrant performer and I hope to see her on stage again soon. Unfortunately for Te’o and for the audience, Bernard Shaw has left out and/or glossed over the most interesting parts of Joan’s story: her experience of voices from heaven, finding a divine sword beyond a church altar, her role as a soldier. This isn’t a story about Joan – it’s a story with Joan in it. Unfortunately, the people around Joan are really not that interesting, and trying to sustain interest in them for three hours? It’s an ask.

To be honest, I’m not sure if it is really possible for me to ever really enjoy a production of Saint Joan. I’m not a Shavian. I’m just not. His tendency to show people talking about things ad nauseam rather than doing them just doesn’t do it for me. (Here’s my review of STC’s Pygmalion from earlier this year: I’ve been a heretic for a while.) There are some really good performances from the Peter Brook-esque colourblind cast of the Genesian production of Saint Joan. If you like Bernard Shaw and like this play, you’ll probably like this production of it: Kevin Jackson is a very skilled director, and it shows. Considering how wordy it is, it is a taut production, and Jackson draws strong performances from his cast. It’s well designed and well lit and very visually appealing. But personally, I think that if you want a Joan of Arc story, you can probably do better than Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. If you want to know about Joan of Arc the person, rather than the political machinations of those around her? Go elsewhere.