Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Thursday, July 25, 2013
Friday, July 19, 2013
The Hansard Monologues: A Matter of Public Importance (Merrigong Theatre Company, Seymour Theatre Centre and Casula Arts Powerhouse) runs in Wollongong from July 19-20. Conceived and produced by Peter Fray, written by Katie Pollock and Paul Daley, directed by Timothy Jones.
I didn’t expect to be as affected by The Hansard Monologues: A Matter of Public Importance as I was. The problem for me with a lot of political theatre is that the stories they are telling are too big to relate to: happening on a national, or at least a large, scale, without humanisation. But although this show grapples with some huge issues, the same issues with which Australia’s 43rd parliament has grappled, it is as much about the people in the parliament as it is the issues. And this becomes a source of frustration: when there is so much politicking at a personal level, how can anything ever get done?
The Hansard Monologues is a work of verbatim theatre, with all the dialogue taken by writers Katie Pollock and Paul Daley from statements made on the record by Australian politicians in Hansard. It is read simply but eloquently and effectively by three actors standing at podiums: Camilla Ah Kin, who reads Julia Gillard and other ALP luminaries, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, who covers the coalition (wearing, fittingly, a blue tie), and David Roberts, who floats between, playing key Independents and Greens, as well as other politicians from both parties. It covers a huge swathe of ground, focusing on, among other things, the debate surrounding asylum seekers, the carbon tax, and same-sex marriage.
The show is framed by the situation in Afghanistan, and this is probably only the significant structural weakness I found with the play. I understood what effect this was supposed to have – how can a nation so fundamentally divided send an army overseas? how can these people talk and argue and talk more when people are dying? – but ultimately, it felt a little tokenistic. Instead of using the Afghanistan situation as a way to divide other policy debates from each other, perhaps it might have been better simply to include it as an issue in its own right.
Otherwise, this is a fantastic work of verbatim theatre, revealing as much about the speakers as it does about the issues. This was particularly true of Julia Gillard, who came across as, to borrow words once spoken of Abraham Lincoln, big enough to be inconsistent. Gillard delivered some cracking speeches in her tenure as Prime Minister and Ah Kin delivers them with a kind of steely-eyed fortitude. Her rendition of Gillard’s misogyny speech was particularly wonderful, as well as Gillard’s parting words: “take your best shot”. By contrast, Tony Abbott and several other Coalition members, especially Christopher Pyne, are revealed as petty political point-scorers, more concerned with winning than doing the right thing. When Gillard was ousted by Rudd a few weeks ago, one of the things that was said was that history would be kind to her. She is not painted in a wholly flattering light in this show, but one cannot help but admire her.
The most affecting part of The Hansard Monologues comes at the beginning, when the focus is put on the back-and-forth debate over asylum seekers. The theatre company could not have known that on this day, July 19, the government would take such a horrific political stance on this issue, in a move which will essentially close Australia’s borders. Viewing this part of the show in this context is visceral – almost literally sickening. The show follows the debate as it goes round in circles, as the parliament argues and argues and argues and takes six week recesses and cannot achieve anything. Their debate is punctuated by tragedies as more and more refugees die, their lives slipping away as the parliament continues to disagree on what should be done with them. It is here that the gulf between the political and the personal becomes horrifically obvious, perhaps never more pointedly than on this day, when in the interests of stopping the boats, the parliament seems to have lost sight of the people aboard them, people who are real, who are desperate, and who are dying. The Hansard Monologues is not partisan on this issue, but treats it with the gravity it deserves. It creates a wholly appropriate sense of frustration in us as audience members as we witness the debate go on and on and ultimately go nowhere – and when the words of Sarah Hanson-Young are shared, outlining the story of Hussain, orphaned by the Taliban and in detention on Christmas Island for many months while the government argued, we are forced to realise that this issue is one that, like the politicians, has a human face.
Thursday, July 18, 2013
So in addition to my long-winded, rambly reviews and occasional pseudo-academic essay-style indulgences, sometimes I interview artists about the cool things they’re doing. I was super excited to be able to chat to the fabulous Jess Bellamy about her upcoming show Shabbat Dinner, which is on as part of the Bondi Feast Festival. Read on to hear about food, family, and all the exciting things Jess is doing both in this show and in the future.
JM: Hi Jess! Let’s start with an easy one. Tell me a bit about Shabbat Dinner. What was your inspiration?
JB: Shabbat Dinner is a new performance piece that I have been writing alongside director and dramaturg Anthony Skuse. It started out with the idea of simply enacting a communal ritual that is significant to a lot of Jewish families. Whether or not a family is religious/observant, Friday night holds weight for most Jews. It's a night that means family. It's also a lot of fun and very relaxing – an evening spent with your loved ones, eating familiar and tasty foods, with no expectation apart from simply being there.
As the show developed from this kernel, more ideas started to form within the overall structure of the ritual. Anthony prompted me to consider the mythological base from which so much Jewish law and instruction stems. The writing of this show also took place as the same time that I was helping to pack up my grandparents' family home. The play began to focus itself around the struggles that my grandmother Miriam faced around the period of WWII: not just pertaining to survival, but to gender roles and to familial obligations. And the show has since become something quite big and unexpected.
JM: Is it true that you’re catering the dinner yourself?
JB: I will be cooking a Shabbat dinner from scratch from my audience. It will all be vegetarian, and as close to my memories of Baba's cooking as possible.
JM: Family and food are tied so deeply together for so many people - is it very confronting to invite people into this very personal space for you? Exciting? Are there elements of the story you're telling that can only be expressed by food? What is it like using food as a new dramatic tool for storytelling?
JB: For my family, food has always been a big deal. For my Ukranian family in particular, food is a symbol that we are surviving and thriving. There are times when my family went without food, so we take it seriously. My late grandmother was an amazing cook and I didn't collect enough of her recipes when she was dying. Part of this show is my attempt to recover those recipes, from the scraps and shards of recipes written in Russian (and without any direction as to how long to cook any of the things). My Mum has been translating a lot of them for me, as I don't even speak the language. It is difficult to express how meaningful it is to taste something that you thought you had lost forever, that you thought your grandmother had died with. To realise that you can now make your own version of this classic.
Food is the structure of the play - a three course meal - but food is also the method in which we get people to come together to communicate.
JM: Are you terrified for having to cook for that many people? Have you considered doing a behind-the-scenes-of-Shabbat-DinnerMasterchef style reality thing? That would be EPIC.
JB: I am a bit scared of the cooking ahead of me, but we have found ways to make it more realisable. A behind the scenes special mockumentary is certainly a good idea!!
JM: I find the idea of food and ritual is really fascinating. Theatre itself is kind of ritualistic – we file into the darkness of the theatre, sit down, and wait for dramatic enlightenment to fall upon us. Have you discovered any parallels between your subject matter and the theatre as you've been developing the piece? What about tensions or contradictions or challenges? And are you sticking with the familiar theatrical rituals or are you doing something a bit different?
JB: It has been nice to think about the divisions between theatrical ritual and other more domestic rituals. One thing I've always loved about theatre is that it's so easy to break the silent agreement we've made with regards to decorum. One person fainting, or screaming, could disrupt an entire show. And two shows are never the same.
And here's the interesting thing about ritual – I've realised that ritual is a way to make sense of a confusing world by giving oneself order and regularity. If you know that, come Friday evening, you'll be in the same house, eating the same dinner, with the same people, it is a reassuring thought. It can also be something you rail against as a teenager who wants to go out with her friends. But then I imagine the same ritual from the perspective of my grandparents. For people who have suffered – who spent 6 years of war being flung from separate ends of countries at a moment's notice –it must be quite reassuring to know that every Friday is the same. The same safety, the same regularity, the same comfort.
We will not be sticking with conventional theatre rituals –we will be inviting the audience up in shifts to share some food with us. While up there, they will be expected to listen to the play unfold, but they will also be participants in the play. I don't mean awkward audience participation (no one will ask you where you lost your virginity). What I mean is, if we sing a song that you recognise, you are welcome to sing it with us. If you just want to eat your challah bread and stare dagger-eyes at us, then you are welcome to stick to that.
JM: I love the idea of a three course meal being the structure of the show – is this an idea you arrived at fairly early on, or did it come later? Have you discovered different nuances to the different courses as you've been developing the show? And talk me through how you developed the menu for the show - the process you've gone through recovering your grandmother's recipes sounds so fascinating. I remember collecting my grandmother's recipes after she died, and you are absolutely right that being able to taste something you thought you never would again is so, so powerful. For me, there were also some that I either could not reproduce, try as I might, or that I ended up adapting and reinventing. Is this something you've done a lot of, especially considering your Shabbat dinner is vegetarian?
JB: The structure of a three course meal made a lot of sense, and then we let the content of each course shape the direction of the story we told. So, for example, the richness of a bright red borscht soup evokes blood and menstruation - and these ideas get explored in the piece. We also found many Biblical references to relate to these images too, and have woven all of them together. When collating the menu for this show, I thought about what a typical Shabbat dinner with my family would entail. It was usually the same food. Until we all went vegetarian, it was a chicken soup, followed by chicken katletki (garlicky chicken pattties) with rice and salad. When my parents, sister and I went vegetarian, we had to sub in something different. We would experiment with borscht and with a delicious clear soup with wheat dumplings that we called "dumple soup". I have asked a lot of culinary questions of my Mum and Sister to see what they remember from these dinners, and devised a pretty accurate menu from these gleanings. It has required some Russian-to-English translations from my Mum and a lot of trial and error in my kitchen!
The idea of reinvention that you speak of is an interesting one, and this is definitely something that came across. My Mum even noted, when emailing me a recipe of Korzhicky cookies, that perhaps Baba's recipe had now become her recipe, via her translation of it into English. And then once I cook it using my own style of mixing/measuring/etc, it becomes a new recipe again. I've realised that all these things are just readings of existing readings. There is no definitive way to make anything, and the beauty of history is that we try afresh in every generation to reimagine something ephemeral. Isn't it funny how I see Baba's recipe as the "kernel", when in reality, she probably had the same recipe taught to her from someone else? Recipes are history, and as a result, they are powerful. DELICIOUSLY powerful.
JM: Let's talk about your creative team. You've been working with director Anthony Skuse, and it sounds like you've been having an awesome time collaborating! Who else is involved in Shabbat Dinner, and in what capacity? And what's it like for you, fabulous lady playwright that you are, being on stage and more involved in the performative side of things?
JB: I have had a wonderful time with this particular creative team. Anthony Skuse is a joy to work with because he asks precise and challenging questions to expand your understanding of the story you're writing, then sends you home with an armful of books, a bunch of famous artworks to google, and some Laurie Anderson music. He is a cultural encyclopedia, and he has wrenched this play into an entirely new territory for me. Along the way, we have involved some very talented and generous women: Lara Rosenthal, Sara Swersky, Samantha Young and Eloise Snape. The only other bloke is musician Simon Friedlander, who will be providing a score for the evening.
It has been pretty scary to get back into the performing side of things. I have neglected that side for quite a few years, ever since I became a freelance playwright. While I often read my work at events like Story Club and You Are Here Festival, I have a piece of paper in my hands as a safety blanket.None of that here! I also have to try and "act" too, which is a very terrifying and brave thing to do. I have always had a lot of respect for actors, but have even more now! As well as the acting, I'll be serving you all dinner. Pretty good deal for $15, really!
JM: And finally, what's coming up next for you? Where should people who love Shabbat Dinner go to get more Jess in their lives?
JB: This is a big year for me, I'm excited to say! If you want a bit more Jess in your theatregoing life, you can find me at the following things:
This Saturday night I am reading a story about the fateful summer where Taylor Swift and I were best friends and womyn's collective haunts together.
In August I am participating in a multi-playwright festival called LoveNOT in Manila, Philippines!
In September, a show that I have devised with Clockfire Theatre called The Grief Parlour opens at Riverside Theatre as part of the True West season. This is a beautiful piece of theatre inspired by LeCoq mime and movement that explores that very impossible yet natural desire to have one final moment with your loved one when they die. It is a funny, touching piece with treats in store for lovers of physical theatre and beautiful music. See more here.
I have a family show at atyp in October called Compass, which is an exploration of school camps, moral compasses and our understanding of 'the outsider'.
FINALLY I have a play for teenagers in Canberra in late October as part of their Triptych season.
If Shabbat Dinner sounds like just the kind of awesome you need in your life, you can read more about it and buy tickets on the Bondi Feast website here. Thanks again to Jess for taking the time to chat to me!
Friday, July 12, 2013
Dangerous Corner runs at the Genesian Theatre from July 6 – August 10 2013. By JB Priestley, directed by Peter Lavelle.
I’m not sure why Genesian Theatre elected to put on JB Priestley’s Dangerous Corner. It is really not a very interesting play. Even Priestley himself said that, “It is pretty thin stuff when all is said and done”. I’m not sure even a brilliant production of it could make it more than cursorily intriguing. If there’s ever been a play that more egregiously breaks the show-don’t-tell rule, I don’t know what it is. Dangerous Corner not only breaks this rule, but smashes it into smithereens. It’s six people sitting around talking about stuff that’s already happened. Literally. That’s pretty much the whole play.
I’m a huge champion of genre fiction on the stage, whether that means romance or crime or paranormal or thriller or horror or whatever, and so I really wanted to like this play. I think the mystery and the whodunit genres work beautifully onstage, as the mystery literally unfolds before the audience’s eyes and they, like the characters, have to solve it in real time. And there are few things as exhilarating as a well-done onstage thriller: the immediacy of the form heightens nearly every aspect of this genre. There was an excellent production of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None in Canberra a few years ago that I still think about often. I would love to see more of this kind of thing on Sydney stages.
Dangerous Corner bills itself as “part whodunit, part thriller”, and it falls absolutely flat. It capitalises on none of the advantages that the theatre can bring to the mystery and the thriller genres. Instead, it is six people talking in a room. There are no clues (crucial to the whodunit) beyond the initial one that sparks the discussion, and no menace (critical to the thriller). These are problems with the script, which is why I wonder why Genesian has saddled themselves with this play when there are much better ones in this genre that they could choose. And while I’m not sure how this play could ever be particularly good (although the play ran for six months, even the initial reviews in 1934 were poor), this production is mediocre at best. Despite the fact the whole show is set in one room and characters very rarely leave, there is no sense of claustrophobia, or of the characters feeling trapped. There should be a powerful psychological intensity, as character after character finds themselves revealing what they thought they would never reveal. The theatre should become a pressure cooker, with each revelation being more explosive than the last. In this production, it doesn’t even come close. It is stilted, laboured, and awkward, making no real emotional or psychological impact. Simply put, it's dull.
In his director’s note, Peter Lavelle writes that he wanted to make this production “fresh and relevant”, taking a “modern approach” and using method-acting. I’m not sure if this is entirely the right choice, particularly as the 1934 setting is maintained. I understand not wanting to put on “a crusty old melodrama from a bygone age”, but I just don’t think this is really the genre in which to go for realism, considering how preposterous and sensational the plot is. This is a space for the spectacular, for the heightened and the emotional. One of the problems with aiming for realism is that you’re forced to play things very sincerely. I think this would have been a much more enjoyable production if it was more self-aware and made fun of itself a little more. The sinister should have been made very sinister; and the ludicrousness should have been highlighted, rather than glossed over. There is simply not enough meat in this script to take it too seriously.
I would like to commend Peter Henson for his costume design. This is a very visually appealing play, and the costumes are gorgeous. If the production itself had gelled with the aesthetic of the costumes – that is, spectacular – then it might have been a better show. I really don’t think Genesian did themselves any favours by selecting this play for their season, but if a genuinely good production of Dangerous Corner does exist, it is not this one.
Thursday, July 11, 2013
Top Girls runs at the New Theatre from 9 July – 3 August 2013. By Caryl Churchill, directed by Alice Livingstone.
Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play Top Girls is a seminal work of feminist theatre. Despite this, I think that is possible that an anti-feminist reading of the play could be advanced, one that condemns all the characters in it for their choices and criticises women who attempt to combine corporate success with a family. Thankfully, New Theatre’s production does not take this direction. This is an excellent production of Churchill’s play – lucid, pointed, and incisive, critical not of the choices its female protagonists make but of the oppressive system that has forced them to make them.
Top Girls follows the story of businesswoman Marlene (Julia Billington, in an outstanding performance). The show famously opens with a dreamlike sequence in which she dines with famous women from history, other women who have broken the mould, shattered the glass ceiling, and pursued success outside the typical mould of marriage and motherhood. The exception to this, Patient Griselda (Ainslie McGlynn), who obeyed her husband in all things, is treated with some derision by the other women, who scoff at and are horrified by her choices. These women are from all different periods and different walks of life, but their struggles and sorrows are surprisingly similar. All are unusual and remarkable for doing things that would not be especially extraordinary for a man, whether becoming a high powered executive like Marlene, travelling the world alone like Isabella Bird (Cheryl Ward), or becoming pope like Joan (Sarah Aubrey). In the next two acts, we see Marlene in the real world – first, the corporate world, where we see her as a hardnosed, ruthless businesswoman; and the second, with her family, whom she is visiting for the first time in six years. We see quite clearly just how much Marlene has had to sacrifice to achieve the success that she has, and how impossible success can be for other women.
The focus the show casts on the unhappiness and loneliness of these women – especially Marlene – is where I think it is possible for an anti-feminist lens to be applied. It would be possible (although certainly not Churchill’s intent) to see Marlene’s unhappiness, as well as the unhappiness of her fellow successful women, as a direct result of her ‘unfeminine’ choices. But no one is allowed to be happy in this play, a fact that this production highlights deftly. Marlene’s foil is her sister Joyce (played fantastically by Sarah Aubrey), who has followed the more conventional path, and is still clearly miserable. This production does a great job of emphasising what I think is the real underlying message of Top Girls: the unhappiness that these women experience is not the fault of the individual women, but because they must live in a culture that is distinctly unfriendly to them. Marlene must make outrageous sacrifices to carve out a space for herself in the professional world, and she is still blithely asked to give up her success by the wife of a male executive who was competing for the same position, because he has children and will not like working for a woman. Likewise, Joyce, abandoned by her husband, is reduced to domestic drudgery to make ends meet. For Angie (Claudia Barrie), whom Joyce has raised, the future seems to be hopeless: she has no hope of a career, nor of finding a man to support her. They exist in a culture that has no space for autonomous women in it, even if these women do their best, like Marlene, to compete with and beat men at their own game.
What hope there is seems to be in sisterhood, in female support networks, and this is another aspect of Churchill’s script that director Alice Livingstone has managed to highlight very well, albeit subtly. There is an inherent sense of competition between many of the women of the play – between the successful women at the dinner in the first act, who regularly talk over one another; between Marlene and the co-workers who have become her employees; and most especially between Marlene and Joyce. But there is a possibility of sisterhood and support. The women at the dinner find common ground. Marlene’s co-workers are friends, gossiping to each other about their lives. And while the tension between Marlene and Joyce is certainly not resolved, the class issues between them an almost insurmountable barrier, there is still a glimmer of hope. “I do love you,” Joyce says to Marlene, reaching out and pressing her hand. In this production, this is an incredibly poignant and powerful moment.
The only real problem I had with this production was the portrayal of Lady Nijo (Bishanyia Vincent) in the first act. The geisha-style makeup, along with the strong accent, ran the risk of turning this character into a racial stereotype. The performance did get more nuanced as the act progressed, but the portrayal of non-white characters by white actors is obviously an area which needs to be navigated with care (if not navigated around altogether).
Otherwise, this production is a fantastic realisation of Churchill’s script. The emphasis on female support networks as important in navigating the oppressive culture is not only a commentary on Thatcherism, which was prevalent at the time Churchill was writing, but remains important as a feminist tenet. This production also offers a powerful argument for an inclusive and intersectional feminism, one that cuts across many boundaries, the most pointed one in this case being class. Alice Livingstone has directed a lucid and intelligent production, abetted by some truly inspired performances. This is definitely a show you should go and see.
Wednesday, July 10, 2013
The Threepenny Opera (SUDS) runs at PACT in Erskineville from July 3 – July 13 2013. Book and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht, music by Kurt Weill, directed by Clemence Williams.
This is a really fantastic production of The Threepenny Opera. I’m never quite sure if this is the kind of thing Bertolt Brecht would like people to be saying about his work – maybe he would take “fantastic” as a sign I enjoyed it too much instead of it making me think deeply about money and property and capitalism and all that jazz – but I’ll stand by it. This is a very clever production: simple, elegant, and thoughtful. Director Clemence Williams has done a fantastic job bringing this incredibly difficult piece of theatre to the stage.
One of the defining principles of Brechtian theatre, often called epic or dialectical theatre, is the Verfremdungseffekt. This serves to ensure that the audience do not become too deeply immersed in the story of the play: they are always alienated from it, actively aware that it is an artifice, with the idea being that this will allow them to see the story lurking beneath. To put it really simply, the purpose of this effect is to ensure that the audience cannot suspend disbelief.
This is actually really, really hard to do, because as viewers, we are so used to suspending disbelief. The musical seems like kind of an ideal form for the Verfremdungseffekt to be achieved – what is more unrealistic than people breaking into spontaneous, perfectly rhyming, perfectly scanning song, often in synchronisation with a large number of different people? However, with the rise and immense popularity of the big scale musical, we as an audience have come to take this as a given. We are perhaps too familiar with the form. Often, the musical is the only form of theatre some people consume, with songs becoming almost an integral part of the immersive theatre experience. How, then, is the Verfremdungseffekt to be achieved?
In this production, this problem is solved by emphasising the “threepenny” aspect of The Threepenny Opera. It is only fitting that a show so concerned with the politics of poverty be gloriously low-budget, and this production embraces it totally. Operatic synopses are projected on a white wall via an old school overhead projector, handwritten in black marker. The set is almost entirely boxes and ropes. There are empty plates at Macheath and Polly’s wedding feast. And when the performers do jarringly break into song, the artifice of the musical is highlighted. There are no Britney-style mikes and choreographed dancers here – instead, the actors must retreat to the microphones at the sides of the stage, or wait as one is lowered from the ceiling on a rope. One is reminded of Tony Kushner’s stage direction in Angels in America: “it’s OK if the wires show”. Here, one feels, the wires showing are a necessity. As we follow the story of Macheath and Peachum and all the various women they claim to own in one way or another, we become aware of another deeper level of meaning: a broader meditation on property, on poverty, on morality, and on capitalism.
This show is wonderfully cast. Finn Davis is fabulously slimy as Peachum, a sinister Dickensian villain who will not stand for another man taking possession of his daughter, whom he perceives as his own personal property. Patrick Morrow is similarly excellent as Macheath, charismatic and amoral, treating both his criminal career and his career as a seducer as a kind of art. These are the two poles around which the drama revolves: Peachum likes to exploit the poor and Macheath likes to exploit women. The performances offered by these two actors are perfectly pitched: engaging, but not so consuming they we are not aware they are acting. I’d also like to mention the four lead actresses – Caitlin West (Mrs Peachum), Julia Robertson (Polly Peachum), Bridget Haberecht (Lucy Brown), and Zerrin Craig-Adams (Low Dive Jenny) – who turn in outstanding performances. And the ensemble is great as well. Casting actors against gender type – some of the whores are played by male actors, some of the gang members by female actors – was a particularly clever (and typically Brechtian) move.
There are probably a few things I could nitpick about this production if I really put my mind to it, but overall, I don’t have anything negative to say. This is a genuinely exceptional show, cleverly directed and excellently performed. The first time I attempted to see it, on opening night, I was foiled by a train suspension that left me stuck in Wollongong. I am so, so glad that I got another opportunity to attend, because it was definitely worth it.
Thursday, July 4, 2013
Rocket Man (subtlenuance) runs at the Tap Gallery from July 4 -14 2013. Written and directed by Paul Gilchrist.
There is a lot going on in Rocket Man. Perhaps too much. It is only 65 minutes long, but in that time, it covers art and violence, sex and psychopathy, lies and mirrors, friendship, symbolism, and truth, as well as managing to be incredibly meta- theatrical. The danger of cramming a play full of so much stuff is that it will drown the story. That doesn’t quite happen here – this is an engaging show, which I enjoyed a lot – but on occasion, it treads a fine line.
The first character we meet is the rocket man of the title, Neil (Daniel Hunter). He has met a girl, Veronica (Sylvia Keays), an actor. (Neil is not an astronaut, but he tells that when he meets girls who say that are actors). It is the morning after the night before and they are in her bedroom. She is asleep, and he is going through her things, perusing the detritus of her life. When she awakes, late for a reading (not an audition), they have a conversation about art that spirals into something much different and darker, growing to include Veronica’s flatmate Claudia (Alyssan Russell), who is a casualty nurse, and Claudia’s boyfriend Justin (Stephen Wilkinson), who has known Neil since school. Veronica believes that art – specifically, theatre, her chosen profession – is a tool for good, revealing hidden truths and changing the world. Neil vehemently disagrees: something that ends up revealing a great deal more about him than perhaps he intended.
The narrative impetus of this play comes from gradually unpeeling the layers of Neil’s personality. While he initially seems quite charming and open, as the play progresses, something far more sinister begins to emerge. Daniel Hunter plays this role with aplomb. He is maybe a little too shout-y at the very end, but otherwise, he balances the charisma and darkness of his character wonderfully. I have a feeling Justin might have been intended to be a little more sympathetic than he actually was, and Veronica seemed to be a little slow on the uptake at times, but otherwise, the other characters are also well-drawn and well-played. In particular, the sharehouse dynamic was immediately familiar and believable, with its constant alarm clock beeping and careful negotiation of shower time.
Where Rocket Man falls down is the places where it becomes most overtly didactic. The dispute between Neil and Veronica about art is very important, but in places, it feels like an essay rather than an organic argument. It feels like an editorial voice breaking through the wall of the text, inserting Important Points About Art into a story where they do not necessarily belong. Unfortunately, this happens particularly at the crisis between Neil and Veronica, when we (and she) finally begin to realise that there is something deeply wrong about this man. This should be an incredibly interesting and tense moment, imbued with psychological weight and complexity, but it gets swamped. At one point, Claudia asks Justin derisively if he did not understand the subtext of Neil and Veronica’s argument. It’s hard to blame him: a lot of that subtext is drowned in pontificating about art.
This is not to say that the points this show makes about art are bad, because they’re not – there’s just too much of it. If this play was redrafted again and pared back a bit, I think it would improve both the psychological impact and the actual arguments about art. In this case, I think less might turn out to be more. The early discussion Neil and Veronica have is interesting both on a textual and subtextual level, revealing their characters as well as their views about art – if this level could be maintained throughout the whole show, I think the problem with the narrative being swamped would be mitigated.
Rocket Man is deeply self-aware, and there are a lot of references to debates currently taking place about adaptations and auteur directors and the general theatre culture of Sydney. I’m normally not a fan of this level of metatheatricality, and there are sections which feel like a long exercise in I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE. However, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this aspect of the show. Normally, I find meta stuff self-indulgent, but in the context of the discussion about art, it was pointed and entertaining. Kudos.
Overall, I liked this show a lot. I feel like if the didactic bits in the script were pared back a little, shaving maybe five or ten minutes off the show, then Rocket Man would be dynamite: powerful, psychologically complex, and intense. As it is, it is still very good, but at times, it runs the risk of collapsing under its own weight.