Tuesday 29 November 1994

Glass Mermaid by Tobsha Learner, 29 Nov, 1994



By Playbox Theatre

At Malthouse, South Melbourne until December 10, 1994

Reviewer: Kate Herbert around 29 November 1994

This review was published in th Melbourne Times in early December 1994. KH


Some plays polarise audience opinion. Glass Mermaid by Tobsha Learner is such a play. There were people moved to tears by its handling of a woman dealing with the suicide of her psychiatrist husband and others who were untouched by it.


Whichever side of the critical fence you are, it provides some animated discussion.


Learner's writing style straddles the poetic and the naturalistic. At times it is successful, at others it falls off the saddle. Aubrey Mellor's direction, in conjunction with dramatic lighting by Rachel Burke and design by Jacqueline Everett, creates a brooding and mystical atmosphere to support the poetic content. Having water on stage creates a dramatic tension for the actors and audience and allows some spectacular lighting effects rippling over the water's surface.


There are some moving moments, some very witty dialogue and observations in the text. It is, however, a little confused in the first half with threads of story not being clearly established and a heavy reliance on discussion about an absent character. It moves more swiftly in the second half with greater emphasis on the emotional relationships between the living characters and the impact of Carl's death on their lives. The introduction after interval of a new character, daughter Cassandra, was also timely.


Cathy Downes' dynamic and multi- faceted performance gives range to Sarah, the widow, who is relentlessly fraught. It is a tough call to play grief, loss, anger and obsession without pause.


Julian and Kristin, Sarah's neighbours, often seem extraneous to the action. Kristin particularly seems underwritten, but Nikki Coghill makes the most of the part. Yanko, the Croatian gigolo, provides the most intensely moving narrative thread and the most three-dimensional character. His revelations about the death of his family at the hands of the Serbs is deeply moving writing and Dino Martiko in his Playbox debut does a superb job in the role.




Tony Martin and Mick Molloy, Stand-up, 29 Nov 1994



At Comedy Club until December,1995

Reviewer: Kate Herbert around 29 November 1994.

This review was published in the Melbourne Times in early December 1994. KH


Tony Martin and Mick Molloy are intelligent comics - and they're really funny. Their audience at the Comedy Club may have had the attention span of a gnat but they laughed at the witty, the local, the observational and the wild even if they missed a few of the more esoteric jokes.


These two make a terrific double bill and a great combo. Martin's routine is relaxed, glib and laconic. He uses language with flare and intelligence and reincorporates gags beautifully at a comfortable pace. 


To characterise the differences in their stage personae, Molloy comes on scoffing a beer while Martin swigs Evian. Molloy is a wicked kid doing mischievous material which prompts him to say often with a mock-penitent grin, "Have I gone too far?" His persona is stronger and wilder than Martin which provides a fine balance of style for the night.


Their double routines are less successful than the stand-up but prevent the night becoming simply guys doing stand-up, stand-up and more stand-up. Their 70's folk duo with the awful polo necks is clever but other sketches needed a bit of polishing.


Compere and support act, Darren Casey, began the evening slowly but his second set was hot. Unlike many comedy shows, there is a beginning a middle and an end to the night and the three come together in a final song which may not have broken the laugh boundaries but was very charming.


These guys are really funny, intelligent, informed and appear to suffer less from egomania than many comics. It may not be machine-gun fire pace but who needs it? My face hurt at the end of two hours and that makes it a bloody good night.



Monday 21 November 1994

Death: The Musical by Women's Circus, REVIEW, 21 Nov 1994


At 162 Macauley Road Nth. Melbourne

Thurs-Sat 8.30 pm until Dec 3 1994

Reviewer: Kate Herbert around 21 Nov 1994

This review was published in the Melbourne Times in late November 1994. KH


One of the most exciting things about seeing the Women's Circus is seeing sixty people on stage which is generally cost prohibitive these days. The other wonderful element is that this is an ongoing community project by the very active Footscray Community Arts Centre. It offers opportunities in personal, physical and creative development to women of non-English speaking background, social disadvantage or those over the age of forty.


Death: The Musical makes up in commitment and energy what it lacks in technique and skill. The opening outdoor sideshow events, although a little long, were vibrant, colourful and reminiscent of old vaudeville routines. The more dangerous they were, the more excited the audience. Watching someone walking on glass at close range is terrifying!


The main show, Death, began in earnest as the audience followed a chanting, incense-burning procession (Scarily reminiscent of Catholic Benediction!) into the huge and impressive warehouse where we placed our herbs on the funeral pyre.


The show takes on an earnestness from this point which, in many ways, works against it. The main theme, a woman coping with the death of her mother and following her to the Afterlife, is unclear without program notes and somewhat melodramatic in execution.


The greatest impact is when the vigorous group of women of all shapes, sizes and ages is at its most physical, leaving the storyline aside to tumble, leap, juggle, hang and balance. The scene in heaven with pairs of white angels on trapezes and rope swings was a treat. The Moon Goddess was a spectacle and the finale with fifty women with flags, ribbons, juggling clubs, acrobatics and pyramids was an exciting finish to a passionate performance.


Musical director, Marianne Permezel, with the band, composed circus music to challenge Circus Oz' Julie McInnes. The band played riveting and atmospheric music which supported and, at times, made the scenes. Director, Donna Jackson, has taken creatively used the expansive space, taking advantage of its vastness and the plethora of roll-a-doors for entrances and disappearances of heavenly bodies.


Death: The Musical is a visual treat particularly if you love a broad canvas with a community feel. The kids love it!


By Kate Herbert

Interview with Anthony Wong-: Asian Australian Actors and cross-cultural casting 21 Nov 1994

Written by Kate Herbert 21 Nov 1994

This article published in The Melbourne Times around late Nov or early Dec 1994


Sydney-based actor, Anthony Wong believes having no positive roles models is discouraging for aspiring young Asian actors. "Imagine going to a movie house and seeing someone who looked like yourself portrayed as an idiot, raped of their dignity and dehumanised and multiply that by thirty years and that's what my experience has been like. It has a really damaging effect on your self-esteem."


Wong is a Chinese-Australian who has lived here all his life and speaks a negligible amount of Chinese. He admits he feels like an outsider on many levels. "When I go see Australian movies ... there are many aspects of Australian culture I relate to and then again I'm excluded on all other levels."


He recently went to the Hong Kong film festival and found "it was so wonderfully validating seeing Asian actors and actresses in lead roles playing complex people." Simultaneously, because of the specifically Hong Kong Chinese culture, there are other levels on which he felt excluded. "It's very odd having one foot in each camp."


Australia may have integrated the concept of a multicultural, multi-racial, multi-lingual community into our daily lives, but the film and television industries have not yet caught up. With Justine Saunders and Lydia Miller, Wong met with several commercial television executives earlier this year to discuss increasing cultural diversity on Australian television to represent the reality in the community. The reponse was almost ridiculously narrow-minded.


“’Commercial television isn't meant to be reality. It's meant to be fantasy.’ And I looked at Justine and Lydia and we said, 'How come your fantasy is Anglo-Saxon? White, middle-class and heterosexual.' They didn't have an answer for that."


Wong suggests that television executives and casting agents point the finger at training institutions that produce few trained actors from cultures from other than WASP backgrounds. Strangely, television has a habit of using untrained and often incompetent kid-models in its soaps these days, so this argument hardly counts.


"Every justification is pulled out of the cupboard to justify maintaining the status quo.

'We won't be able to get the people. The Australian public just don't want to see Asians or Kooris. They want to see their own people'." Apart from the fact that Australians are ‘these people’, Wong believes this argument is also fallacious.


"Look at the success of Annette Shun Wah and the commercial success of The Joy Luck Club, The Wedding Banquet, Dragon, Farewell My Concubine, The Last Emperor. Mainstream films with lead Asian actors will strike a chord with Western audiences so this a totally outmoded notion."


When the industry does use Asians on screen, Wong believes they fall into four recurrent stereotypes. Firstly, the enemy: members of the Japanese Yakuzah or Chinese Triad. Then the exotic, delicate beauty we can admire from afar or those who are easy sex objects. There is the image of the sage old man with a goatee who quotes Confucian wisdom and lastly, the demeaning roles of servants and house boys "who get tapped on the head and bring in the tea."


"I know Asians who are television producers, fashion designers, Justices of the Peace, choreographers. Where are these people on our screens?", asks Wong.


It is now time, after years of acceptance, to act politically and publicly on this issue.

From the beginning of his acting career Wong decided to deal positively with a work environment which cast him as an outsider. Being negative “would have been suicidal psychologically… Eleven years down the line I cannot deny there are glaring inequalities...It is important for someone to speak up."


Wong praises Melbourne theatre director, Bruce Myles, who employed what has become known as "Colour-Blind Casting" when he cast Wong in Louis Nowra's The Temple, last year. The role of Nick Albert was obviously not Asian but even so, one Melbourne critic described him as "Laurie Blake's Japanese adviser." Do all Asians look alike to him?


A further criticism by Wong of Western screen representations of Asians is that they over-sexualise Asian women and under-sexualise the men. "Asian women are portrayed to be disempowered sex objects and the Asian men are portrayed as almost devoid of sexuality...It's a very powerful way to strip an entire race of its power."


It is unacceptable for Caucasians to play Asians, says Wong, "given the situation that there's a lack of equality in Australian casting. My principle, my philosophy is that all actors, regardless of race or sexual preference or anything, should be able to play a diversity of roles. If we had a truly egalitarian society where I could go for the kinds of roles that Russell Crowe goes for, for example. I would say 'Go for it!'" Which, of course, is a scenario which remains in an ideal world.


Emotionally, his response is different. "I've seen too many white actors play Asians in such demeaning, demoralising, dehumanising ways that I 'd have a pretty negative reaction unless they were going to play an Asian character with incredible truth and complexity."


It is the dreadful stereotype of the buck-toothed Charlie Chan which has exacerbated the problem and trivialised a whole race. But a stereotype is often the basis of comedy.


“In Wogarama, I was playing a stereotype”, says Wong. 'However, I've done enough other things in my career to counter-balance that. It's always a question of balance...If we had Asians in regular complex roles in film and television, then a stereotype would mean very little."


The Media and Entertainment Arts Alliance, Actors Equity division has attempted to set up a series of guidelines encouraging producers of Commercial television to diversify in its casting and production. According to Wong, it acts more as a reminder than as a policy. Once again it is up to the people in power to implement the suggestions.


Wong sees Asian actors being employed as "otherness machines" or to portray a particular issue. "It's as if the Asian characters are wearing a placard saying, “I'm Phillipino" or "I'm a battered Chinese housewife" and often the program does not encourage you to see beyond the placard."


There is little exploration of the Asian Australian experience on an urban level. "A recurrent theme in film is World War Two Burma railway and Japanese brides," says Wong.


Is there an Australian soap which has Asian next-door neighbours?


Recently, Wong talked about the issue on Radio National program, Arts Today, and was invited to speak at a cross-cultural casting forum at The National Performance Conference in Melbourne in October.


Wong describes being an Asian actor in the west as "like going to a banquet and the Maitre D' says to you, 'You're not to eat anything except the prawn crackers.'...And most of the time you're not even invited to the party. So", he says with a wicked giggle, "I just gate crash."


The protest about the non-presence of Asians on screen is not a sudden event. "It's been building up over generations...Asians have been living in the West for many years integrating the ideas of democracy, self-assertion, political activism. "Certain world events - e.g. Tien A Min Square and the emergence of Michael Chang as a top tennis player – have had implications.


"It's not any one event that triggers it. It's like the 100th monkey syndrome ...It's all gathering in the collective unconscious and then it bursts in one part of the world and people are inspired by that to then take up their own political activism."


The movement to improve the status of Asian actors in screen and theatre is further advanced in America. Asian-American actors such as John Lone, Joan Chen, B.D. Wang who won the Tony award for M. Butterfly, Jason Scott Lee and Brandon Lee have raised the profile of the Asian actor. Much of the credit is due to the Asian-American Theatre which has pressured organisations and unions to political action. Remember the kerfuffle when Jonathon Pryce was to perform the Asian-American role in Miss Saigon In New York?


"Hollywood cannot be complacent anymore. They cannot expect that they can release a movie dragging the old Asian stereotypes out of the closet....and expect the Asian-American community to bow down and accept that." There was vigorous protest in the Asian-American press about The Shadow starring John Lone, which featured a 'Confucius says' kind of thing", explains Wong.


In the U.S., much of the action has been initiated by the Theatre community rather than the screen world and theatre in Australia, says Wong, has been much more willing to accept a range of actors. Theatre is where Wong has had most success breaking the straight jacket of stereotyping. But he believes it is in film and television "where you build a public profile, where you learn you reach a position of recognition, where you can put bums on seats - and that gives you the power to make better decisions in theatre. Screen being a popular medium is where the impact must be felt."


What are our solutions to this problem which is essentially a symptom of short sightedness on the part of directors, producers and writers who are not representative of our whole community? Do we legislate? Invoke Equal Opportunity laws and Affirmative Action clauses?


Wong believes this can create new problems. It could disguise the problem. There is a quota system in the United States which, says Wong, forces producers to employ Asian, Black, Hispanic actors but they can use them in token roles.


"Extras are black or Asian, but the main cast stays white. "The producers can sit back glowing with politically correct pride saying, ’We've done our bit. We've been progressive in our casting’ when all you have seen is an Asian cook in the background frying the dim sims.


"Maybe we need an Asian-Australian theatre or specific funding from Australia Council to fund specifically locally produced work by local Asian dramatists. "


We are all affected by the portrayal by the media of a world populated almost exclusively by the Blond and the Beautiful. But how would one feel growing up watching a screen which does not even acknowledge the existence of your race or else represents your racial group as appalling stereotypes?


It is always a matter of placing members of a particularly invisible group in the arts in positions of creative power: writer, directors, producers, funders. There has been a move by women artists to penetrate the predominantly male arts bureaucracy which is very slowly affecting the marketplace.


Australia does not have a David Henry Hwang (U.S.-Chinese writer of the award-winning M. Butterfly) nor does it have an Asian-Australian Theatre Company. A good model adn precursor would be the developing Koori performance culture with the evolution of the Black Swan Theatre Company, Jack Davis' and Sally Morgan's plays and the Aboriginal and Islander Dance School in Sydney.


Again, at the hands of Myles, Wong played Toni, a male prostitute transvestite, in Michael Gurr's Award winning play, Sex Diary of an Infidel.


"Playing Toni was a huge breakthrough for Australian theatre 'cos here was an actor who on the surface appeared to be a sleezy sex object in some people's minds and turns out to be the angel of the piece."


Wong has been cast in a number of roles in which he is playing sexually assertive characters which, he believes, goes against the stereotypical attitudes to the Asian male. In the Chinese erotic poetry in Gastronomica, as The Swan for South Australian Theatre Company, as Toni and as David in Unidentified Human Remains. "I find it delicious," he quips cheekily.


Training institutions can take initiative by taking affirmative action by targeting applicants from Asian cultures rather than pleading 'nobody applied'. Wong expressed concern that "NIDA [National Institute of Dramatic Art, Sydney] is supposed to be colour blind but it had never been colour blind."


It seems that it is information that the community needs. If we are not Asian-Australians, we probably do not even notice the problem. "It's not important enough. It's not in people's consciousness," says Wong. Our theatre and television industry is Anglo-centric. Not until people get up in arms, hit the press in force, make the public sit up and take notice, will the situation change. So, start talking about it - Now!


KATE HERBERT 21 November 1994

Thursday 17 November 1994

The Shaughraun, MTC/STC/QTC 17 Nov 1994


The Shaughraun by Dion Boucicault

Melbourne Theatre Company & Sydney Theatre Company & Queenland Theatre Company Playhouse until Dec 23

Reviewer: Kate Herbert around 17 Nov 1994

This review was published in the Melbourne Times after 17 November 1994. KH

The Irish have always been known for overcoming adversity, surviving oppression, spinning a bloody good yarn or a self-deprecating joke. The Shaughraun written by Dion Boucicault in 1873, is a feisty melodrama with more punch than those being done by the English at the same time.


The humour of the text seems timeless and still relevant now. It is the wickedness of Conn the Shaughraun himself (Marcus Graham) upon which the play surfs. A shaughraun ("Shok-ron" or "Sha-ron") was the town wag, a fiddle player who kept watch for the police and was often the reason they came a-visitin'.


Graham's delightful portrayal bears a strong resemblance to the Italian Arlequino. He is passionate, impish and athletic in the extreme, leaping effortlessly in and out of windows. He engages the audience, enlist our support and sympathy for his naughty doings and carries on blithely seducin', rescuin', fightin' and dyin'.


The melodrama style is captured superbly by Gail Edwards fast-paced direction and recurrent tableaux effects. Particularly in the second half, it takes on a Keystone Cops speed, complete with chase scenes, hissing and booing by the audience of the villainous Corry Kinchella (Bob Hornery) and abducted damsels.


The romance counterpoints the drama, the slapstick heightens the genuine pain and oppression of this period of English occupation. (So what's changed?)


There are some terrifically energetic performances. Anne Looby as Claire Folliott, is a vibrant and excitingly unpredictable Irish colleen and Mark Owen-Taylor is perfect as her excruciatingly humble lover, English Captain Molineux. Jonathon Hardy as Father Dolan has impeccable comic timing and provides a delicate and poignant moment as he struggles with his moral dilemma, "To lie or not to lie?"


Pagan and Catholic as only the Irish can do. It's a romp and a lot of fun to cheer and yell and boo. It's easy to see why more people went to the theatre at the turn of the century to see melodramas than go now.


Not the least of the performances was by the extraordinary set designed by Dale Ferguson. The Cliffs of County Sligo are recreated on stage in harsh rock and lurid green moss along with the hovels of the poor. The set was almost the victim of a recalcitrant revolving stage on opening night but a 40-minute delay of the curtain and much backstage anxiety and action remedied the problem.


The Shaughraun is both Pagan and Catholic as only the Irish can be. It's a romp and a lot of fun to cheer and yell and boo. It explains why more people went to the theatre to see melodramas at the turn of the century than go to the theatre nowadays.