Tuesday 28 May 1996

Seven Stages of Grieving , May 28, 1996

Co-written by Wesley Enoch & Debra Mailman
 Next Wave Beckett Theatre from May 28, 1996
Reviewed by Kate Herbert on May 28, 1996

Please see The Seven Stages of Grieving! It is a sensitive monodrama with slides which touches a poignant and distressing minor chord about death and grief like no other show, except perhaps William Yang's Sadness.

Working under the umbrella of Brisbane-based Kooemba Jdarra Indigenous Performing Arts (supported by ATSIC, Arts Queensland, Australia Council), director, Wesley Enoch, with co-writer and solo performer, Debra Mailman devised a piece with heart. It does not preach about aboriginality. It does not romanticise or attack. Any shame and guilt we might feel as a white audience is self-induced  - and we do feel it.

Enoch's research integrates Kubler Ross's five stages of dying and seven phases of Aboriginal history: dreaming, invasion, genocide, protection, assimilation, self-determination and finally and most recently, reconciliation. "Don't tell me we haven't always been fighting," but "Everything has its time" and the time for reconciliation is now.

Mailman is a warm and charming presence on stage with a capacity to engage and transform into a range of characters and styles. She performs a beautifully unified collage of stories, scenes, poems, aboriginal chants and even a stand-up routine about being black.

Her journey through her own familial, cultural and racial grief becomes ours. The performance is intimate. We cannot distance ourselves from this as from a news item or social issue. Here is a young aboriginal woman telling us about her grief and her joy, her family and her people. When she asks, " Are you with me?" we all mumbled, "Yes".

The design by Glenn Francis incorporates a suspended block of ice which melts and drips like tears into a grave of red sand. Duncan King-Smith's montage of natural sounds is an indispensible element.

She powerfully demonstrates disenfranchisement with a pile of sand. Groups of people huddle around the land, all surrounded by a ring of culture and language. Take the children out of the ring and they have no land, no culture, no family, no identity. "Are you with me?" Loudly, "Yes!"
KATE HERBERT     28.5.96      320wds

Saturday 25 May 1996

Burning Time, May 25, 1996

Burning Time by Nicholas Flanagan
 Playbox Merlyn Theatre until June, 1996
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around May 25, 1996

The fault is not in ourselves but in our pasts. Families are blamed for most of our social ills. We were loved to little or too much, abandoned or smothered, too poor or too rich. Parents just can't win. At some point, surely, we must take responsibility for our own lives. Some individuals with appalling childhoods make it out of the mire.

Burning Time, by Nicholas Flanagan, centres around a shattered middle- class Melbourne family. Mother is a viperous alcoholic actress, father a vague, poetry-quoting psychiatrist. There are two sons: Michael, the junkie and Vincent, the composer with ambiguous sexuality plus an aboriginal foster-son (Tony Briggs) and other hangers-on. The narrative does not declare its protagonist until Act Two when the innocent eleven year-old birthday boy, Vincent is shown at his rather more worldly twenty-first birthday.

The play itself is a burning time, running 150 minutes. The most successful moments were its silences during which the sub-text is potent. The aching stillness between the mother (Vivian Garrett) and her old, gay pal, Peter (Robert Grubb) is riveting as they carefully sidestep the real issue, Peter's paedophilia. These still moments were infrequent.

The anger is relentless and tiring. The central characters shout far too much. The cameos (Fiona Todd and Mandy McElhinney) are far easier to watch. We care very little about any of this family. They remain unpleasant and unredeemable in spite of the upbeat ending.

There is potential for a poignant and affecting narrative here but it is clouded by speechifying and overstated social issues. A times the dialogue sounds like a list of information about characters for the benefit of the audience. The play has too many words by half and lacks a sound dramatic structure.

Performances are strong. Garrett's portrayal of Kel's decline from prima donna to alcoholic is sympathetic. Grubb has a quiet dignity as the rather distasteful gay friend. It is ironic and unfortunate that the most likeable character is the most corrupt. Vince Collossimo is vigorously physical as Michael and Schluesser powers through the fraught role of Vincent.


A Dolls House, VCA, May 25, 1996

Written by Heinrich Ibsen
Victorian College of the Arts (Drama School) at St. Martin's Theatre, South Yarra
Reviewed around May 25, 1996

Final year drama college productions are often good but rarely this good. 

The Victorian College of the Arts production of Heinrich Ibsen's A Doll's House is an exceptional piece of naturalistic theatre directed with impeccable subtlety and detail by Grigorii Dityatkovskii, an inspired director/actor from the Maly Theatre of St. Petersburg.

The expectation, having seen Maly's Adelaide Festival shows, was for an abstract, physical interpretation. Instead, we sit close to the action in a studio environment with all the goods and chattels (including acquiescent wife) of a 19th century drawing room.

For 150 minutes we are voyeurs on the demise of this marriage between Torvald (Rodney Power) and Nora Helmer (Felicity Price). Dityatkovskii and his talented actors make ordinary moments extraordinary.

The play lives in real time. Nora opens and arranges Christmas gifts carefully. She thoughtfully decorates her tree. Torvald lights a bevy of candles. All these time-consuming activities might have tested tolerance but, in fact, allow us into their world to care about these little lives in a frighteningly intimate way.

The Norwegian Ibsen was before his time in challenging women 's role in community and marriage and was ostracised for portraying such social sacrilege on stage. Our audiences gasp at Nora's subservient ignorance and her husband's over-bearing paternalism but, to Ibsen's audience, these were acceptable and unquestioned roles.

Felicity Price has a compelling talent which penetrates Nora's emotional life. Her fluttering, childish song-bird of Act One, who is so utterly unaware of the legal and social repercussions of her forging a signature, almost imperceptibly transforms into frightened dove then woman of burgeoning self-awareness flying the coop to discover her place in the world.

Rodney Power is excellent as the bombastic, pompous Torvald. Grant Ryan is sympathetic as the pathetic Dr. Rank and Lauren Clair's sad but worldly Christina is a wonderful foil to Price's naive Nora.

This is a substantial production which earns out attention. I left the theatre enlivened and inspired by such skill in writing, direction and performance.

Saturday 18 May 1996

Away , MTC, May 18,1996

by Michel Gow
M.T.C's schools program., until June 7, 1996
directed by Kirsten Von Bibra
 Reviewed around May 25 1996

There is something of a resurrection in Michael Gow's play Away. Two marriages must be salvaged, a boy's life saved and a woman's mind restored. Relationships are built on sand. They are fragile, vulnerable and mortal, as are we.

The narrative peeks at the summer holidays of three families who are tenuously connected through a school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Teenagers, Tom and Meg (Simon Russell & Jennifer Priest) have a mutual crush  which is disapproved of by Meg's stitched-up mum (Heather Bolton).

Kirsten Von Bibra's production for the M.T.C's schools program emphasises the lighter, comic elements of the play and surprises the youthful audiences with those more poignant.

The implication is that these lives are manipulated by some greater force, namely the fairies from The Dream who squeak and skitter charmingly as they change sets or conjure a storm to force the families to share a holiday and, thence, their secret lives.

The company boasts some fine actors. There are lovely comic performances from Carole Patullo, Robert Lyon as the sweet Lancashire couple and broad clowns from Don Bridges and Heather Bolton as the edgy, fraught Aussies. Alan Dale (ex-"Neighbours") as the schoolteacher demonstrates he can do stage as well as soapies and Joan Murray is sympathetic as his grief-stricken wife. The two younger actors are energetic but lack some subtlety.

The piece held its young audience, tilting frequently from the comic to the dramatic. However, it is unclear why Gow wrote the play ten years ago. It skims the surface of communication issues, dabbles in analogies and myth but provides no deeper understanding. There are problems with pace and dynamic range but it an entertaining show which works at a level appropriate for high school which is the purpose of this particular production.

300 wds

Much Ado About Nothing, May 18, 1996

By William Shakespeare
By Bell Shakespeare Company
At Athenaeum Theatre, until June, 1996
Reviewed by Kate Herbert (around May 17, 1996)

There are some flat patches in this Bell Shakespeare production of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.

I dare to hazard that this may be the result of the multi-talented John Bell playing a duel role of director and Benedick, one of the leads. Possibly this has given him less time to view the whole picture as completely as usual.

The concept of playing the whole piece for its Italianness has great potential, some of which is realised. However, it falls short of its objective with token bits of Italian language introduced, slight accents coming and going and everybody saying "Si" and "andiamo " in a vacuum.

The stage picture and concept is of a travelling circus set in a Renaissance tent which serves for entrances and is backed by rich velvet curtaining. The circus quality is accentuated by the very successful comic business and clown work of actors.  The scene in which Benedick is gulled into believing that Beatrice loves him is a gem as is the second Constable Dogberry scene which highlights the comic skill of Darren Gilshennan.

The ensemble is delightfully versatile and the curtain call demonstrates the very factor which makes this company so successful; they look as if they are having a great time together on stage just like a circus team.

Bell is colourful as Benedick and Anna Volska plays a witty Beatrice. It is perhaps a little disconcerting to see actors of maturity playing these young love adversaries, but maturity gives them quality of performance.

Each season of Bell Shakespeare I am delighted by Duncan Wass, an unaffected and gifted performer.

Vic Rooney brings grandeur to Leonato, Ivar Kants is a stately Don Pedro and David James is naughtily villainous as Don John.  His style of direct complicity with the audience could have been utilised elsewhere.

Music by Jonathon Maher and David King effectively used both an Italianate and circus influence but the two songs, although beautifuly rendered by tenor, Craig Illiot, were inappropriately Andrew Lloyd Webber in style.

The ensemble is delightfully versatile and the lively curtain call demonstrates the factor which makes this company so watchable; they have a great time -just like a circus.


Friday 17 May 1996

An Idiot Among Us, May 17, 1996

 by Mammad Aidani
At La Mama until June 2, 1996
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around May 16, 1996

Ever tried saying a word over and over until it completely loses its meaning? In An Idiot Among Us by Iranian-Australian poet, Mammad Aidani, the said idiot, Ollie (John Penman) struggles in his creeping disengagement from reality to make sense of language. Much of Aidani's experience of spoken English as a second, even third, language is reflected in An Idiot.

The play has a distorted, early Lou Reed world-view; like looking at life through the bottom of an empty vodka glass at four in the morning. Initially, its skewed, absurd observations are funny but relentlessly the piece becomes disturbing and words form a complex mesh through which we must beat a path. The quality of words becomes almost hallucinogenic when strained through Ollie's deranged, self-destructive thoughts. It is exhausting.

The character is obsessed with "re-structuring" himself and the world. Seinfeld fans refer to George thriving on doing the opposite of his instincts.) He has travelled from "egotist" to "idiot".  Ollie dramatic heritage is clearly other isolates such as Beckett's Krapp or Hibberd's Monk O'Neill.

Director, Lloyd Jones, has taken an essentially verbal piece and layered it with carefully and tastefully composed stage pictures and a consistent physical presence of four evocative, provocative actors (Heather O'Connell, Ramez Tabit, Tegan Richardson, Ian De Lacy) and even the stage manager.  The space at La Mama has been re-set to feature The Fireplace and actors shift position unnervingly behind and around the audience seating.

Penman's performance is refreshingly unaffected for this kind of poetic monologue. He is personal without being invasive and provides a poignant, tragic and hilarious snapshot of a delusional man. He scrambles for thoughts and resorts to farting, the only thing which seems to keep him grounded. His emotional pain and existential angst are palpable.

Cast: John Penman, Ramez Tabit, Tegan Richardson, Ian De Lacy

Tuesday 14 May 1996

Banshee, May 15, 1996

Written by Jodi Gallagher
La Mama/ Courthouse Theatre until June 1, 1996
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around May 14, 1996

When a banshee, a female spirit, screams it portends a death in the household. In Jodi Gallagher's play, Banshee, two die: father, Collum and daughter, Imogen (Caroline Bock, Kirk Alexander).

 However, it is not an outside force screaming but the daughter, who has been shrieking in both pleasure and pain for sixteen years. The adult child  at twenty-six, fights a perverse battle between her love and loathing for her drunken, boorish, incestuous father.

Being a 1920's-30's poet and academic, "He doesn't behave conventionally," chorus his wife (Liz Jones) and older lover (Vanessa Ready). "He's an artist," and his poor, ravaged daughter is blamed and guilt-ridden to the point of prostituting herself, slashing her wrists and finally attempting to force her abuser to advertise their love to the world.

As in most incest and rape cases, it is not about love, but power. This case-book narcissist cares nothing for her, allowing her to die 'so he can live'. She wreaks her hollow vengeance after death, interfering with his already failing muse.

Banshee, the text, teeters on the brink of melodrama but holds the line. The first half particularly is a clever conjunction of witty amongst dark moments. Imogen's opening monologue, played with bleak and helpless intensity by Caroline Bock, is a delicately rendered piece.

A few scenes interrupt the flow of the narrative. The entire funeral scene could be lost and some savage edits in the 160 minutes could serve. At times the banter undercuts any genuine sense of danger.  The poetic might have been re-introduced later. It reverts to an essentially naturalistic style which is not assisted by the often mannered acting and over-enunciating of some cast who are not quite connected with the text and a couple of awkward scenes changes.

The forbidden passion between these two is most horribly real in the overtly sexual moments. I found myself repeating as they kissed, "He's not really her father." I was made uncomfortably aware that, one in four women being incest victims, somebody in the audience was suffering.

It is satisfying to see this dreadful creature suffer after ruining the lives of three women: wife, lover, daughter. The incest is almost a vehicle for highlighting the hideousness of his exertion of will over them. "It is essential to be doomed to be a poet", says Collum and the scream of the banshee seals his fate.


Tuesday 7 May 1996

A Cheery Soul, May 7, 1996

Written by Patrick White
MTC, at Playhouse until June, 1996
NB: This is not a full review. Notes only remain from my review (around May 7, 1996)

A Cheery Soul, by Patrick White,  is dark comedy but there are moments of hilarity when the actors were waiting for laughs to die to get lines through. But it has a ghastliness fatalism, an intense and dreadful poetry which makes it painful and excruciating.

Neil Armfield's production is in the best Brechtian heritage acknowledging the audience who are complicit in the whole plot, revealing the lighting, the musicians, the staging and furniture removals. Even the rolling walkway is a feature recognised and stumbled over on purpose.

Robin Nevin brings a palpable enjoyment to the role of Miss Docker. She grins wickedly, almost a female Steptoe. Her maddening criticisms, her grotesque insidious interference, kindly advice are made poignant by her utter desolation when she feels God has judged her.

Strangely she is only touched or affected by creatures: the swaggie and astray blue heeler who pees on her old nylons.  She drives people to distraction so that their own Christian charity is taxed to the very limit to the point where the vicar dies from trying to teach the error of her "militant virtue" from the pulpit.

Melita Jurisic is luminous as the vicar's wife and Ian Scott is sympathetic as the inarticulate parson.
Director- Neil Armfield

Margaret Mills
Robyn Nevin
Melita Jurisic
Ian Scott

Wednesday 1 May 1996

Damien, May 1, 1996

Written by Aldyth Morris
Napier Street Theatre until May 12, 1996
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around May 1, 1996

A monodrama is probably one of the most testing forms for an actor. Damien, performed by Daniel Kyle, is a solo piece of theatre based on the extraordinary life of a Belgian priest.

Father Damien, who was beatified in 1995, single-handedly, with little support from the church or state, ran a leper colony on the island of Moloka'i during the late 19th century.

Kyle, directed by Blair Edgar, does a valiant job as Damien without the assistance of other actors, music or an elaborate design. He struggles with the difficult role of an older man and the enormous task of carrying a two hour show. He is most successful during the second half where the script is more visual and the story gallops on at a pace, telling the tale of his life on the island.

Much of the early text is monotonous and uninspiring, which is surprising given this exceptional man's life. The play comes to life as he watches a leper crawl into a doorway to die then hears pigs dig up the shallow grave to devouring the flesh in the night.

Kyle really becomes Damien as he talks of the beautiful young island girl who attempted to shatter his vow of chastity. Perhaps the desires of a young man were closer to home. His voice fell into its natural rhythm and texture and the performance felt less mannered and earnest.

At other times the character lacked credibility. The nuggetty peasant described as "coarse", "bad- tempered", rough, rude and scruffy, is inappropriately well spoken.

The lighting design sets the self-narration in four distinct areas of the stage one being an evocative rustic table littered with lit church candles.

The play was most effective when it  peopled the stage with characters. The text might have been more dynamic if more emphasis had been given to the roughness of the man and the lighter edge of this indomitable spirit.