Friday 29 April 1994

Strategy for Two Hams by Raymond Cousse, Anthill Theatre, April 29 1994


At Anthill Theatre until, May 15 1994

Reviewer: Kate Herbert around April 29 1994

This review was published in The Melbourne Times after April 29 1994


Strategy for Two Hams by Raymond Cousse shares themes of incarceration and prison psychosis with Someone Who'll Watch Over Me. But instead of the predicament of Beirut hostages, it witnesses he last hours of a pig on Death Row at the slaughterhouse under the supervision of a cretinous swineherd. 

Cousse draws unsettling parallels between piggy lives and the human condition. The pig obsesses about humanism, philosophy, morality, freedom of action and freedom of thought. The depressing existential dilemmas seen in Kids' Stuff are again present. The pig, like any condemned person, awaits death, rambling and reminiscing like an old digger about his life.


This hog seems more concerned with details such as the dimensions of his "cell" or the position of his bucket. The latter is a statement about his freedom of choice. It is a sad little detail, an outward sign of the last vestiges of his dignity.


He is proud of his small achievements. How he has cared for his hams, taking to the meadows to enrich them. He is like the animal, bred for eating, in Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Universe. which comes proudly to the table so the diner may select his cut.


This sad, helpless creature faces with equanimity his last hours. Slaughter is his destiny.  He even boasts of how, in his youth, he took his hams to the meadows to enrich them. His can barely wait to get to the dinner plate.


Counterpointing this poignancy against the humour and the grossness of the images of slaughter had the potential to move an audience deeply. Unfortunately, this potential remains unrealised in Jean Pierre Mignon's production. Mignon, who also directed the original production in 1982, has kept an unnecessarily tight rein on both the actor Ian Scott and the play's dynamic range.


The smart wordiness of Cousse's text is testament to its origins as a novel. In this production it translates as almost a lecture-demonstration. It demands a vigorous physicality to enhance and enliven the semantic arguments of this bucolic pig.


Scott's usually hilarious clowning and wry humour are seen only intermittently. He is somehow not quite credible as the pig not merely because he lacks the porky corpulence of Cousse who lost 30 kilograms to perform the original production. When he is allowed to get physical by the middle of his performance, the show takes a dynamic leap and, as the season progresses this energy may translate to the rest of the play.


By Kate Herbert



Tuesday 19 April 1994

Steven Berkoff: One Man – The Tell-Tale Heart, Actor, Dog, April 19 1994


At Athenaeum Theatre April 19 to 23 April 1994

Reviewer: Kate Herbert around April 22 1994

This review was published in The Melbourne Times after April 22 1994


Steven Berkoff likes to be watched; watched with admiration, even adoration. Unlike most theatre actors, he is a celebrity who attracts acolytes, many of whom were present at the opening of One Man. "If he moves clap him," is their motto.


For over two hours he is alone on stage. His detractors might suggest that this is because nobody can work with such an ego. Fans would argue that he fills the stage with his enormous presence and needs no supporting cast.


In all three pieces: The Tell-Tale Heart, Actor and Dog, Berkoff demonstrates he is a master of theatrical technique. He plays all roles, shifting effortlessly and precisely between madman and old man in The Tell-Tale Heart and between actor, mother, father, various wives and casting directors in Actor. His transformation from Bovva Boy to Bull Terrier in Dog is uncannily accurate and instantaneous.


Berkoff is a master of body and voice. His vocal gymnastics are dizzying albeit sometimes unnecessarily elaborate, and his creation of space objects through mime is extraordinary. In fact his skill is so palpable, we often watch the technique not the drama.


This is particularly so in The Tell-Tale Heart, Berkoff’s adaptation of Poe's story of a lunatic who murders an old man whose "vulture's eye" distresses him. He seems to spotlight the mechanics of his work by indicating and almost satirising his own method.


Berkoff is a masterly clown. The Bovva Boy in Dog, is a terrifying but hilarious portrayal, heightened to the bizarre, of a violent Cockney thug. Clowns utilise repetition to advantage and Berkoff is no exception. We watch him milk a laugh by repeating it over and over, often beyond its natural life (although I suspect the acolytes would have watched till the casting agents came home). He even got laughs from integrating an intrusive aeroplane into the story.


His work has always been risky, outrageous, riddled with taboos and often offensive. Remember East? The original draft was too rich even for the progressive actors who read it. Berkoff takes an idea and raises the stakes: " I'll see your grossness and raise you a sadism."

Dog offends with images of the Bovva Boy "tongue-kissing" his pooch who in turn scoffs his vomit. Tasteless - pardon the pun.


The most emotionally affecting piece, Actor, is about a permanently "between jobs" actor, is dotted with misogyny which feels uncomfortably like Berkoff's own rather than just that of the character's.


There is little emotional contact in these three pieces and although his mastery is unquestionable, one wonders if there is anything for the general public in this show or is it an ego on parade to be stroked by his adoring fellow artists?


By Kate Herbert


Sunday 10 April 1994

Tania Lacey in All of Me, REVIEW, Melbourne Comedy Festival, April 10, 1994


At Lower Melbourne Town Hall

Melbourne International Comedy Festival 1994

Reviewer: Kate Herbert around April 10, 1994

This review was published in The Melbourne Times after April 10, 1994


In All of Me, Tania Lacey bares nearly all, not only physically but emotionally. You might consider standing on stage in your underwear to be exhibitionism, but the teensy bra and knickers presage the personal revelations and vulnerability which are to follow.


All of Me is a one-woman rave, stand-up, cabaret, dance thing in which Lacey reveals her dark secrets about wildly obsessional behaviour with men, ballet, men, food, men, smokes, drinks and – well – more men.


The material is personal and truthful. She quips often about her therapist being responsible for the content. It is not unusual for comics to use audiences for therapy, but they don't always own up. Lacey is feisty, spunky and driven on stage.  She struts, dances and yaps, playing herself and various other characters with outrageous energy.


There are some very funny sequences about being a "90's woman". Lacey's theory that we are either "Party Girls" who make 'em laugh or "Pouty Girls" who take 'em home, is too close to the truth. Her impressions of "Bad Boys', New Men and Dream Lovers are glaring indictments of our endless capacity to be duped by morons and bastards.


Lacey savages not only pouters and men, but also herself.  "I was a fat ballerina." She does a great, abusive fall-down drunk and some very unflattering and truthful whimpering as herself in ‘lerv’ with yet another jerk.


The material is nearly stand-up, but the show has a more theatrical edge which is probably its major flaw. There are some jumpy lighting changes and, given that costume changes are on-stage, it seemed unnecessary to black out for anything else. It slowed the show and Lacey is at her best when going hell-for-leather.


She runs on a fierce adrenalin and engages an audience readily with both her wild jokiness and her shifts into truthful anguish. These could have been melodramatic if she were not so sincere. The show ends on a rather moving self-revelatory note.  "Other people's laughter always seemed more real than my own." Laughter can mask deep sadness and there is a genuine poignancy which filters through this pacey and hysterical performance.


Kate Herbert     10.4.94     380 wds

Act Safe-Physical Theatre and its Risks, April 10, 1994


Feature Article: Act Safe- Physical Theatre and its Risks

Writer: Kate Herbert on April 10, 1994

This article was published in The Melbourne Times after April 10, 1994


The last few years have borne witness to some gruesome accidents in the theatre.


Anni Davey fell head-first breaking her neck during a Circus Oz performance in Perth. Heather Tetu dropped nine metres from a trapeze in her show at Jupiter's Casino in Surfers' Paradise in '92 smashing both ankles and putting her in a wheelchair until recently. She spends 16 hours a day in therapy.


An actor in All of Me, the Legs on the Wall show, fell and smashed her jaw during the Adelaide Fringe. Camilla Sobb miraculously survived two shipping containers falling on her during rehearsal for STC's The Visit at the Opera House recently.


The Actors' Equity branch of the Media and Entertainment Alliance is at present consolidating a new Health and Safety policy for artists in live performance. Which, says Merryn Canning, Melbourne Equity organiser, has been in the pipeline for at least five years.


Insurance covers injuries generally but Canning says that companies seem loth to insure performers. "They think they're wild beasties. I think they have this image of everybody tearing along motorways at four in the morning, coked out of their heads drinking champagne out of bottles. Instead of everybody being tucked up in bed with their milo learning their lines, which is closer to reality cos we're also very poor."


 The draft policy, formulated by Sean Marshall, Equity Organiser in Sydney is doing the rounds to offices all over the country. Marshall says that it is geared to mainstream theatre employer-employee relationships.


Employer groups are legally bound to take responsibility for safety issues. The problem is that, in the entertainment industry, many artists are self-employed or are engaged in collective work developed outside of the normal worker-employer framework. Individual artists are not always as careful of their own welfare says Canning and they are out of her jurisdiction.


Sean Marshall draws comparisons between stunt actors and physical theatre workers. Stunties have very rigorous codes of safety and they are never live. They work on television and film sets where there is a great capacity to cheat the eye and provide safety factors which are unseen by the audience.


Osteopath, Stephen Sexton, treats many of the bodies broken and damaged in live performance. He believes that the fatigue of physical performance is a major factor in injury. Extra work is involved in touring, setting up a tent, rigging seating and equipment, doing late shows, multiple performances, working difficult and unfamiliar venues to limited time frames. All this adds to the normally high stress of performance and can reduce concentration and cause accidents.


Sexton believes the ego often prevents artists seeing the danger to which they are subjecting themselves when fatigued. Artists will try tricks not suited to their stature or beyond their skill level. 


 Obviously it is not just performers who cause accidents. Directors may demand more of their company than is safe or possible through ignorance or exuberance. I have seen unskilled actors hanging by their, running barefoot on unsafe surfaces, bruised or damaged from rehearsals or workshops.


Although Sexton suggests that 80-90% of the injuries he treats are the result of performer error, fatigue or over-doing it. Equipment failure, says Sexton, causes much grosser injuries. A trapeze platform fell from under Nikki Ashton recently and, two years ago, a broken foot loop caused Anni Davey's fall from a trapeze.


Anni Davey recommends that artists take responsibility for their equipment and therefore their lives, by always checking if not rigging, their own equipment. In some cases the artists are not allowed to rig because of union job demarcations. Artists put their trust in their support staff. Technicians and stagehands are responsible for rigging and safety checks. Davey suggests that technicians, particularly Stage Managers and Production Managers, should be specifically trained in rigging for circus.


Davey says many producers crop "bump-in" (set-up) time to cut costs.  Circus Oz tours internationally and is often employed by festival management and festivals like Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Edinburgh have a very tight turn-around time on shows. At least a two-day bump-in is essential for Circus but some producers demand one day which is inadequate.


Guy Hooper who has worked for Death Defying Theatre, Circus Oz, MRPG and Back to Back, has the dubious honour of being the only person ever to injure himself falling onto an air-bag crash mat.  Having come from a theatre background, Hooper wanted to increase his skills and test his nerve by sitting on a trapeze bar, but he had omitted to learn how to fall properly. He was covered by WorkCare and the Circus looked after him, but Hooper believes it was his responsibility to educate himself.


Rigorous and extreme physical theatre training such has Butoh has come into vogue recently bringing physical problems for actors, even though they "are reasonably fit and very committed", Hooper suggests a slow build up to this training is necessary to avoid injury.


Hooper was impressed by the attitude of a speaker at the Contemporary Performance Workshops in Sydney in October 1993. This physiotherapist advised artists to avert injury by learning how to maintain their bodies' fitness, flexibility, balance and strength. To emphasise one only can be dangerous. Flexibility without strength can leave joints without muscles to support them.


We are yet to see the long-term effects of physical theatre, says Hooper. We have seen dancers with hip replacements and shot knees and are starting to see acrobats with chronic tendonitis from repetitive stressful actions.


Physical Theatre now characterises Australian performance. So how we do we change this damaging scenario and preserve the well-being of our artists? Anni Davey fears that being "prescriptive" about safety issues could lead to being "restrictive". Guy Hooper believes more could be done in companies to ensure members have seen demonstrations and understand application of techniques in practice. Stephen Sexton recommends some kind of monitoring of fatigue levels and safety codes.


It would seem that it is an issue of education. Artists, directors, trainers, technicians and producers need to be informed of dangers, controls, guidelines and policies and should be encouraged to take responsibility for themselves.


One thing is certain. We cannot stop artists performing or taking risks.  Says Sexton, "That's part of being a performer. If you take that away from them, they're not going to be any good, are they?" The physical buzz must be stronger than the survival instinct or Anni Davey would not be hanging off that ol' trapeze again.


By Kate Herbert

Saturday 2 April 1994

Circus Oz -REVIEW- April 2 1994


Circus Oz At Tent in City Square

Reviewer: Kate Herbert around April 2, 1994

This review was published in The Melbourne Times after April 2, 1994


Throw me a safety line! I've just seen Circus Oz! There is nothing like a circus to get your adrenalin going. Vicarious danger is thrilling, physical prowess is awe inspiring and Oz has heaps of both.


The show is very loosely based on of a cafe staffed by acrobats. The cafe, however, becomes unnecessary, even intrusive. The most successful characters, the cowgirls and warriors, are unrelated to the theme.


The live band, under musical director Julie McGuinness, creates an atmosphere of excitement and magic for the acts. They also fly! Director Stephen Burton has cleverly structured the show, so every sequence builds dramatically to fever pitch. The warrior fire-juggling escalates in spectacle and danger. Bicycles follow scooter, skateboard and uni-cyclists, building up to the eight-person bike balance.


The trapeze is the location for exceptional feats. Anna Shelper is abandoned and almost reckless in the air and Master Lu Guang Rong, originally from the Nanking Acrobats, is breath-taking. His humility, grace and graciousness belie the fact that he is balancing on his head on a trapeze spinning hoops on his ankles and wrists or on his hands on a wine bottle on top of ten trays of glasses. The man defies gravity and sanity and he looks like he's meditating as he does it!


The show is peppered with a couple of great comedy acts. Darryl John's contact lens juggling was a hoot and very silly. Lisa Small and Nicci Wilkes (stage manager) do a delightful cowgirl sister double act. They wrangle shopping trolleys, spin plates of spaghetti and whip balloons from between the knees of an unsuspecting volunteer.


Some performers are not actors, so the purely physical acts or those integrating physical feats with characters were the more successful. One major problem with the show was the opening which was unfocused and insubstantial, relying on some bad acting.


It is not easy to make old tricks look and feel fresh, but Oz is still finding ways to break tradition, integrate theatre, circus and rock music to create the perfect feast for all ages. The show has a generous spirit, youth, vigour and excitement. And boy! Can those bodies move!

Kate Herbert  2 April 1994