Sunday, 29 March 1998

"State of Play" Victorian Playwrights' Conference, March 28-29, 1998

"State of Play" Victorian Playwrights' Conference
Malthouse March 28-29, 1998

 Article by Kate Herbert

The thud of 30 feet pounding the floor of the Hoopla Room above, interrupted the forum: "A variety of writing approaches" downstairs at the Malthouse.

Why would 15 writers wag this animated discussion? Simple. They wanted to do Jenny Kemp's "Generative Writing" workshop. Why were they jumping? To free the mind and body for inspiration after a morning of analysis.

Playwrights live a schizophrenic existence. The split between the creative act and producing and selling one's work is mind-bending; no wonder that Glen Perry's 7 point plan for playwrights includes "Give up writing" - twice.

We've all given up before - and twice on Sundays. Almost every discussion involved despair at the government's elimination of the middle-sized theatre companies and venues that provided a balance between the cheap and cheesy fringe and the ritzy mainstage. A healthy industry, and a government truly committed to culture in the community, supports all three layers.

"How many times a day are you touched by an artist?" quotes Graham Pitts. "Hundreds," replies John Romeril. Writers weave the fabric of our culture, tell our stories, create images and resonances that enrich our lives. They struggle to survive in an economic and social environment that cares more for profit than cultural enrichment.

This insidious decline in support places artists in competition instead of collaboration. A country relies on its culture for its identity. If we stifle their creativity, promote spectacle over creativity, buildings over art, uniformity over diversity, what are we showing the world? - American musicals and a failing Casino?

Says Andrew Bovell, ' Stop telling us we can't afford it and start counting the cultural cost." The government insists that the private sector will take up the slack, which is not viable. Said Bovell, "It is the government's responsibility to sustain the organisations and institutions which nurture our culture."

Even the language which theatre workers are now forced to use is derived from commerce. "Purchaser-provider models", "tendering", "pro-active", and the unnerving, "Outsourcing". The last takes creative control and responsibility from theatre companies and plumps it into one central body that decides who to support, what is a good play, and what an audience sees. So much for autonomy and creativity.

Writers are jaded. We are accustomed to having no 'career path", says Liz Jones, which makes us better prepared for new government work practices "But", quipped one delegate, "were turning into desiccated dried-up old work nodules."

Opportunities are shrinking with the disappearance of companies such as Anthill and Whistling in the Theatre, venues such as The Church and Napier Street, and funding cuts to innovative middle-sized companies: Theatreworks, Kickhouse, IRAA.

The great joy of the conference is feeling part of a peer group in a job which is chronically solitary. The importance of positive working relationships between artists, particularly writers and directors, was exemplified by Nick Enright and Neil Armfield in the creation of their hugely successful  stage production of Tim Winton's Cloudstreet.

Script development attracted much discussion. Aubrey Mellor (Playbox) dreams of an ensemble of actors to develop scripts yearround. Chris Corbett proposed 'active' models from the US that purposefully cultivate writers for the future rather than our 'passive' models which wait for scripts to arrive.

Roger Hodgman and Janis Balodis suggest schmoozing a director with a company that can mount your work. Unsolicited scripts, we heard, never get produced, even though Playbox  and MTC receive 300 scripts each a year.

At least Geoffrey Milne's statistics demonstrated a marked increase in Australian plays produced nationwide since 1968. Plays by women leapt from 15% in 1973 to 25% in 1993. Melbourne's achievements top other states with 36% of plays being by women in 1996, which was over 40% of the Australian content.

However, these are often smaller productions at La Mama or in the Fringe or Comedy festivals. It’s funny that the conference was about 50% women but the writing workshop had only one man present.

Are the men more interested in product than process?

Two of the final conference motions call for "State and Federal governments and both parties to accept and actively pursue their responsibilities for the development of a diverse, vital and economically viable Australian theatre" Here's hoping.

Janis Balodis suggested, "Hugging a critic". as a way to disarm them, eliminate their sense of power and make them give up. Perhaps "hug a politician” would be more effective. As a critic, I'd quite like to be hugged by writers..



Motions (passed unanimously)
1 That this conference call on state and federal governments and both parties to accept and actively pursue their responsibilities for the development of a diverse, vital and economically viable Australian theatre.

2 That this conference call on institutions which represent us : companies, guilds, unions, membership organisations and training institutions to take a pro-active position and collaborate in the development of policy and a theatre industry plan.

3. That this conference recommend peer assessment of writing grants, diversity of opportunities for funding development and the production of new Australian works of theatre be established on primary principles in government theatre and arts policy.

Thursday, 26 March 1998


Reviewed by Kate Herbert on or around March 25, 1998

La Mama is an organisation that provides for artists the freedom to experiment in a safe environment, the luxury of testing the water with untried ideas, and attempting a new skill in the theatre arena.

In the case of Kurt Geyer in his monodrama, Singsing, an actor has written and performed his own work which has some resonance of his own life's journey towards ' the golden place" he dreamed of as a child.

Geyer, directed by David Latham and with musical accompaniment and occasional interjections by pianist Tuck Leong, is alone on stage but creates a series of characters living in different time periods and locations, but linked by a common thread

Maria Karl Schnee is a cook in Dubbo in 1942. He has a shadowy past as a rent boy in Sydney and an unfortunate first name for a gay man who wants to be a drag queen chanteuse. His father, Gustav, is a disturbed bigot living in New Guinea. His aunt, Theodora, was an aviatrix who flew to PNG and was not eaten by the locals. Clarence Moon is revealed to be Karl's long-suffering secret admirer.

Geyer peppers the hour with snatches of popular songs, with particular emphasis on Maria in the Sound of Music. Some other odd choices appear. Two numbers from Dave Mason (The Reels) seem to be included simply because Mason came from Dubbo.

To quote Carl, "I'll never make a chanteuse.". Geyer is certainly no musical star and he would fare better staying in his lower vocal register.

The piece takes off dramatically when we meet Gustav. The tone darkens, tension heightens and the lighting better defines the space and focuses our attention squarely on the neurotic behaviour of the character

Even more successful was the final scene with Clarence. The text comes alive, emotional intention is clear, the journey of the play is completed. It is a pity that this touching fragment of story was not more fully explored at the expense of others.

Geyer is committed to his material which seems to draw on some personal experience  First plays are inevitably imbued with a fresh, nervous energy but are often fraught with difficulties and riddled with problems. Singsing is no exception.

It is cheerful and charming but suffers from some major script flaws and awkward moments in its performing. It feels uncomfortable and needs a stronger physicality and a rigorously re-worked script.


Thursday, 19 March 1998

White Neda by Bagryana Popov, March 19, 1998

White Neda by Bagryana Popov
at La Mama until March 29, 1998
Reviewed by Kate Herbert on or around March 18, 1998

Folk and fairy tales inevitably deal with the dark side. The Grimms recorded gruesome German folklore and these stories were not uncommon in other parts of the continent.

Bagryana Popov, founding member of Hildegard Theatre and Petrunka Bulgarian choir, interprets for the stage the Bulgarian folk tale of White Neda confronting the human fear of one's unknown destiny.

Popov, with stylish and simple direction by Nancy Black, integrates diverse vocal and movement skills with fine live percussion by Elissa Goodrich.

Neda, who lives alone, is rapturous about the visit of her nine brothers and their eight wives and eight nephews for a three day feast. She is enthralled by her brother's folk-tale of the Yuda at the well who threatens to disfigure a man unless he lies with her. He bargains for his life and saves himself by marrying her.

When, in deep night, Neda herself is compelled to fetch water to soothe her thirsty nephew, she is confronted with a 'real' Yuda at the well who wills her to go with her. Neda bargains by vowing to return on St. George's Day. Her brothers suggest she fool the Yuda by dressing in nun's black robe on her return. But death cannot be duped.

Popov's physicality and self-narration is effective and affecting. Her vocalising is particularly compelling in conjunction with Goodrich's extraordinarily evocative xylophone which reverberates with wind in the forest, darkest night and the drip of water. The persistent water imagery is a potent reminder of our deeper, emotional lives. The singing sound of one finger round the rim of a wine glass was inspired.

Ilka White's design and Paul Jackson's subtle lighting provide a fittingly spare environment for this rustic parable about death. One cannot hide from one's fate. The allegory could be interpreted more broadly as being about transformation, passing from one phase into another, about growing up and leaving behind childish things, almost as a hero's journey to acceptance of oneself.

The ending is a poignant, lyrical image of Neda, naively dressed in her nun's habit, choosing to leave with the Yuda. The early, joyful, skittering steps of the earlier, more innocent Neda are replaced by a more mature, ritualistic pace. We are left with a sense of a life incomplete, without children and husband, cut off before its time.


Tuesday, 10 March 1998

Misalliance, G B Shaw, MTC, March 10, 1998

Misalliance by George Bernard Shaw
Melbourne Theatre Company
At Playhouse until April 4, 1998
Reviewed by Kate Herbert on or around March 9, 1998

It's no wonder George Bernard Shaw so accurately depicted both the middle and the upper classes. He married money and was able to indulge his socialist philosophies, modern opinions and his dilettante-ish dramatic writing.

Evidently the irony of this alliance eluded him; not so the 'misalliances' in his play of the same name. G.B.S. (Grievous Bodily Satire?) wrote Misalliance in 1910, when the flying machine was relatively new and women were yet to have the vote in England  It was a period of rapid social change. Shaw was provocative and his characters speak with an almost contemporary voice at times about the role of women, parents, justice, class system work and social ethics.

The play takes place in the blatantly 'new money' Surrey home of underwear manufacturer, John Tarleton, (Max Gillies) His bored daughter, Hypatia (Marta Dusseldorp) is to marry the hilariously foppish and academic Bunny (David Tredinnick) but fantasises about adventures. They materialise in the guise of a runaway airplane that crashes into the garden carrying Joey (Jolyon James) and Lena, an exotic and shamefully independent Polish acrobat (Pamela Rabe).

Shaw's dialogue is scathingly witty, wicked, irreverent and presumably shocking at the time.  The comic characters are painted with broad brushstrokes and most of the cast have a field day with the gags which come thick and fast. They romp about in Tony Tripp's sumptuous design of a wealthy country estate conservatory.

Tredinnick plays Bunny with an outrageously lip-quivering wimpishness. It is a delight to behold him skipping and prancing tossing barbed jibes at his victims before dissolving into unmanly fits of weeping to avoid a beating. Gillies is masterly and demonstrates his impeccable comic timing as the avuncular Mr. Tarleton who has never had an original idea in his life.

As his earthy wife, Maggie King is superbly underplayed and perfectly paced. Peter Houghton is the consummate buffoon as a pompous young socialist clerk who has come to seek revenge. Pamela Rabe, yet again, is radiant as the sensual, robust unwilling seductress, Lena Szczepanowska.

No social group or ideology escapes Shavian cynicism. The rich, the poor, the educated, the ill-read, the 'glorious young beasts', the ageing, the brawny: all get a jolly good tongue-lashing.

Some of the cast seem a little uncomfortable in their characters and the final thirty minutes dragged but the show is light, frothy and funny - if you like Shaw.


Saturday, 7 March 1998

Sisterella, March 7, 1998

Sisterella, book, lyrics, music by Larry Hart
 At the Regent Theatre from March 1998
Review by Kate Herbret around 5 March 1998

Imagine Cinderella as the unassuming daughter of a recently deceased billionaire. Her secretly wicked stepmother has at least two previous rich, dead husbands, a couple of lovers and two appalling daughters.

When poor Cinders inherits the fortune, step-mummy has her certified. It's hard to get to the ball to marry the prince when you're locked up and dosed up on lithium, so her fairy godfather invests her with 'attitude' or "Fump'. (Yes, fump?)

Such is the narrative of American, Larry Hart's funky new musical, Sisterella. Hart is responsible for virtually everything: book, lyrics, music, direction and even an onstage role that showcases a fine voice.

Hart has written some great tunes - thirty-two in fact, ranging from gospel to romantic ballads and raunchy chorus numbers with lots of bump and grind.

Sisterella is built around its tunes, which are more successful than the rather banal lyrics, thin story and cheap, adolescent jokes. It could benefit from cutting five or ten extraneous, often sentimental numbers that slow down the pace.

The audience rose to its feet and clapped like seals at the final curtain in spite of a half hour delay. The show is a hoot because of its funky music, great voices, energetic ensemble, well-drilled choreography (Raymond G. del Barrio), monumental design (Michael Scott-Mitchell), garish costumes (Cordula Albrecht) and spectacular lighting (Trudy Dalgliesh).

The onstage star of the show is New Zealander, Tina Cross, playing step-mum, Dahlia. She has a rich voice, wicked presence, the best songs and her villain is much more interesting than Ella who bleats throughout.

The engaging and talented Della Miles as Ella is never given a chance to belt out a song. Wanda Houston and Billie Stapleton as the sisters give bold, gutsy performances as the foodie who wants be a Country and Western singer, and the tacky rough-neck.

Sisterella is shamelessly riddled with stage musical references and High Camp. It looked as if we'd stumbled into Mardi Gras with guest spots from the Village People and a drag queen fairy godfather (Keith Wright). All the women are tarts, harradins or victims

If you can tolerate some Amercian schmaltz and you check your brain and your politics at the door, you'll have a good time at Sisterella.


Adelaide Festival 1998: Theatre -

Adelaide Festival 1998: Theatre Program  Week One
Reviewed by Kate Herbert in early March, 1998
Published in Herald Sun.

Robert LePage, Seven Streams of the River Ota
La Tristeza Complice by Belgian Ballet C de la B
Snakesong: Le Pouvoir by Needcompany Belgium
The Architect's Walk's
TS Eliot's Wasteland by Fiona Shaw / Debra Warner

It's inevitable. After every Adelaide Festival, I return exhausted but inspired. The sheer vitality of the place, teeming with artists both international and local, creates an environment of creative energy that cannot be reproduced in any other time or place.

Robin Archer's theatre program promised much and gave even more. There was a thread of urban decadence and sadness throughout many shows, a darkness relieved by hysterical, inexplicable laughter or deeply spiritual moments.

It is impossible to adequately translate into language the experience of the most compelling pieces. The hypnotic effect of seven and a half hours in the theatre watching Robert LePage's Seven Streams of the River Ota, is indescribable.

The final poignant moments of La Tristeza Complice (Belgian Ballet C de la B) are profoundly moving. I leapt to my feet. It was an overwhelming assault on the senses, slamming into the solar plexus with its chaotic characters and nervy cacophony of movement.

The best shows are unpredictable. During Snakesong: Le Pouvoir (Needcompany Belgium) it is impossible to anticipate what they might do next. Writer/director Jan Lauwers' exploration of sex and violence through variations on the myth of Leda and the Swan is brutal, sexual and bizarre. It breaks form, adheres to no theatrical conventions and yet the actors are exceptional and the experience unforgettable -particularly my panic attack during the ten minute total black out.

Most shows concentrate on the visual. In addition to its panoply of characters, River Ota has a superbly designed traditional Japanese house which transforms into a cramped New York tenement,  bleak concentration camp, lavish Amsterdam library or backstage at a Feydeau farce.

Director Mary Moore's set for Masterkey is a series of movable wardrobes stuffed with the personal memorabilia of six alienated old Japanese women in a Tokyo boarding house. The Architect's Walk's spare birch tree design is simple but evocative and Snakesong's minimalist design dots the space with marbled pedestals and a dead swan. Designers are now becoming directors.

Video technology is omnipresent. In Ota, it fills the rice paper screens, recalls past or evokes new worlds. In Masterkey, it spills over wardrobes, creating new dimensions and surprisingly emotional responses. Natural Life transformed a 19th century landscape with footage of Australiana.

Natural Life has live piano accompaniment like a Victorian melodrama. Snakesong, filled the space with provocatively loud, recorded original music while La Tristeza, used ten onstage accordions playing Purcell. Japanese dancer, Juku Wada, works with a surround-soundscape ambushing us from hidden speakers.

Shattered language echoes the disconnected images we witness. The demented fringe-dwellers in La Tristeza, yell at us. The epic, River Ota, alternately gushes with language or subsides into silence. One scene, called "Words", is a barrage of multi-lingual translation that demonstrates the torrent of language to which we are subjected daily. Snakesong's dialogue is simultaneously translated to and from Italian and English.

Combine the visually rich and layered words of TS Eliot's Wasteland with the fragile and magnetic presence and resonant voice of Fiona Shaw, and the deceptively simple direction of wizard Debra Warner, and you have a riveting and swift (37 minute) piece of passionate verse theatre.

We are witness to devastation and tragedy. In River Ota grips the heart with its lyrical study of victims of Hiroshima, Nazism and AIDS, drawing together damaged lives on several continents. In Architect's Walk we see the Nazis bearing their post-war punishment, while in Natural Life white men abuse women and Aboriginals. Masterkey watches the decline if six women into despair and the violations in Snakesong are distressing.

Almost all maintain a sense of humour in the face of such despair. We need hope and laughter and the flip side of tragedy is humour. La Tristeza is hilarious, Snakesong weirdly funny and Ota has scenes of witty naturalism and even a Feydeau farce on stage..

The Asian influence is enormous in many works. Masterkey incorporates Japanese actors and performance styles while Ota is set partly in Japan and Uttapriyadarshi is by a North Indian company performing a Buddhist myth.

The festival theme, "the sacred and the profane", permeates the entire program and the audience is transformed and transported by most. This is why we go to theatre.