Thursday 30 July 1998

The Drover's Boy, July 30, 1998

The Drover's Boy by Ray Mooney
at Athenaeum 2 from July 29, 1998
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Reviewed July 1998

The wrongs done our aboriginal population by the English are myriad. We know about stolen land and children, murdered tribes and disease. Many other abuses go uncatalogued. Ray Mooney's play, The Drover's Boy, deals with one.

Last century, drovers travelled with flocks over vast tracts of the outback. It was illegal for black women to 'fraternise' with white men, so drovers who were attached to an aboriginal woman took her on the track dressed as a 'drover's boy'. Was this abuse or genuine attachment?

Mooney's play began in 1985 as a one-acter which director Peter Oyston combined with others by Jack Davis and Jennifer Playnter. Its characters appeared in Black Rabbit (Playbox 1988) but it has taken 13 years for The Drover's Boy to be staged.

Archie, the seasoned drover, (Jim Daly) travels with his flock accompanied by callow youth, Stanley (Wilde Mooney) and Jackey, an aboriginal 'boy' (Pauline Whyman) They cook, yarn and tease. Archie teaches Stanley about the wild and tells him stories of the tribes.

They listen to the wild life, stop mid-sentence to watch an owl, listen to a dingo, stare at a snake. Time is elastic. The night seems endless. The space is enormous, the light is startling and the land is dry and ominous.

Their quiet world changes radically when Macca, (John Brumpton) the racist violent drover hunting for a sheep thief, invades.

The Drover's Boy is a worthy work. The script, like a Bertholt Brecht play, is didactic, educating us without involving us in the victims' emotional torment. Mooney peppers the play with poetic language, snatches of drover's songs, rhymes and old Aussie slang.

My reservations are that the narrative leaves us craving more information about the 'boy' and there is a too sudden dramatic leap towards the end, although this does lift the level of dramatic tension.

Daly plays Archie with an edge of lunacy and as Jackey, Whyman is engaging. Brumpton brings a whiff of danger and Wilde Mooney, the writer's teenage son, makes a fine debut as the ingenuous Stanley.

Director, Greg Carroll, takes risks, sometimes unsuccessfully. The style is inconsistent with some awkward moments but the sense of the wildness of the environment is strong, enhanced by Joe Dolce's soundscape and the splashing of real rain through the old roof of the Athenaeum.

Tuesday 28 July 1998

Theatre Summit,l June 26 & 27, 1998

Theatre Summit
At North Melbourne Town Hall June 26 & 27, 1998
by Kate Herbert

"We want theatre to have a sexy future not just a noble past." Liz Jones, Artistic Director of Melbourne's precious theatre institution, La Mama in Carlton, voiced the desire of theatre workers who devoted two days to devising a five year plan for the Victorian theatre industry.

One resolution proposed that we be called a "theatre community" not "industry" :a term used to legitimise artists in a world committed to 'product', financial outcomes and economic rationalism.

The sense of isolation experienced by theatre artists is merely a microcosm of our society. People feel undervalued and insecure in workplaces, face redundancies, unreasonable hours, short contracts and alienating work environments. The wider community is experiencing the insecure lifestyle which artists have endured their entire working lives but to go any further into insecurity would be the death of the arts.

With the new philistinism that seems to be creeping into our politics, theatre workers are having to defend themselves against those calling, "Why give you money? What use is theatre?"

A country is defined by its social and cultural policy. The latter predetermines who is subsidised. With the shrinking arts funding pie we have lost our best middle-level theatre companies. Actors are out there hunting for waiter jobs - probably competing with their administrators.

State and federal funds still go to state theatre companies via the Australia Council's Major Organisations Fund and Arts Victoria. Individual projects are still funded. However, the middle ground has been eroded and companies that provided work for theatre artists and an exciting alternative to major companies, are in hibernation.

Theatre has its own eco-system. Its parts are interdependent. Mainstream companies are worried that this may diminish the development of new audiences for their own work: a trickle-up negative effect.

A huge marketing push is needed to inform the general population that theatre is not just for the elite. Yes. It is a risk. New plays, unlike movies, do not have the advantage of runs all over the world and $20 million budgets. But the beauty of the theatre is its immediacy. You can see and hear the actors. In some cases you are so close you could touch them, hear them breath, see them sweat.

Every night is different and you, as audience, are part of the equation. Unlike film, without you, the show does not exist. It can transport you in a way nothing else can. Remember, theatre stems from mystical, ritualistic and religious canons.

Few other industries need to constantly justify themselves as does theatre. It is exhausting. We need a catch cry "Theatre is sexy!" or "Go to a Show!" Playwright, John Romeril, suggests a "Go to a Show Week".

Melbourne needs to relish and promote its extraordinary theatre scene. It is unlike any other city in the country. Huge musicals are not the key to our identity. The diversity of our theatres, the proliferation of small companies, unusual shows , street theatre, festivals and quirky venues is what makes Melbourne's theatre scene idiosyncratic.

It is the fact that, in any one week, there are 6-8 new Australian productions opening unlike any other city in the country, in fact, the world. It is not the blockbuster musical which, as Kennett suggested, will make Melbourne the third "theatre city" after London and New York.

The five year plan includes resolutions such as developing a Theatre Centre which provides not only master training for actors as does the Actors' Centre in Sydney, but a whole administrative infrastructure for smaller companies an individual artists and houses a Peak Body to argue for the survival of the industry.

Theatre needs to reach more people so touring must be further fostered. Cheaper ticket prices for industry members and students would help keeps theatres alive and attract new young audiences.

The forging of relationships with local governments will provide a new source of funding and venues and enable theatre to go back into specific communities. This is reminiscent of the heyday of Community Theatre but in a new modern form.

Diversity is what makes Melbourne special. Why not sell this to the tourists? "See ten shows in five days. Visit the Playhouse, La Mama, a garage in Footscray, a cupboard in Fitzroy - and see great theatre."


Sunday 26 July 1998

Behind Closed Doors, July 26,1998

Behind Closed Doors adapted writings of Robert Walser
at La Mama until August 2, 1998
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Tucked into La Mama's snugness is a literary and theatrical gem.
Howard Stanley's solo show, Behind Closed Doors, is a truly delightful, 'must-see' performance of adapted writings of Robert Walser (1878-1956).

"We don't need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much," demonstrates the simplicity of Walser's poetic vision. Stanley is the perfect representation of the humble, peculiar and hilarious voice of the writer.

Disconnected writings join seamlessly in this adaptation by Stanley in conjunction with Wayne Macauley and director, Adrian Guthrie who has returned after a 20 year absence. His work in the 70's with Stanley and others at Claremont Theatre was part of Melbourne's early experimental theatre.

The performance is stripped bare and so is Stanley. When the piece begins, he is crouching cramped in a tin tub in an almost Munch-like silent scream. His mad grin and odd physical antics punctuate Walser's naive and poignant words. His timing is impeccable and his quirky delivery adds an ironic note to the lilting music of the text.

There is a sweet sadness in Stanley's simple fool who is reminiscent of Geoffrey Rush's character in Diary of a Madman. Stanley has always been Melbourne's answer to Sydney's Oscar-winning Rush but has remained inexplicably undiscovered.

He is the perfect charming clown - and I do not mean fuzzy orange wig and white face. His past work has always been exceptional, unpredictable and on the cutting edge. In one show, he scampered about naked then let loose a dozen stray dogs amongst the audience. In a gallery show, he required people to pay with a cheque that bounced. He was known on the comedy circuit as "The Comedian's Comedian" for his character Howard Slowly.

The man in the bath-tub pre-empts a later reference to a writer who lived in a woman's bathroom. He attends a job interview - naked - from his tub. He searches for a room, seeks romance with a potential land-lady, marvels at women's legs, their desire to wear trousers and to vote: "Voting so boring!"

He jitters about his ageing and his nervousness. He acknowledges his weirdness. He dresses coyly, behind a striped sheet, adding silk shirt, vest and jacket in his journey from tub to poetic visionary. Walser's words reflect his warmth, his childlike joy, his love of the landscape and, tragically, his own later madness.

This is a must-see show.
By kate Herbert

Friday 24 July 1998

CLOSER , MTC, July 24, 1998

CLOSER by Patrick Marber MTC
At Fairfax Studio until August 22, 1998
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

"Liar, liar. Pants on fire!" Everybody lies in English playwright, Patrick Marber's Closer. Like his chronic gamblers in Dealer's Choice, they are all out of control but in Closer the lack of control relates to love..

Dan (Marco Chiappi), a needy, aspiring novelist who writes obituaries, meets Alice, (Asher Keddie) a brazen 20 year-old stripper, when she walks into London traffic without looking. This is how she lives her life.

Anna, (Jane Menelaus) a stylish photographer, meets Dan when she takes his publicity shot for his soon-to-fail novel. Larry, (Robert Menzies), a dermatologist and social primitive, encounters Anna, by Dan's contrivance, in an aquarium. They all fall in love: serial monogamy. Ah, the nineties!

The characters are not likeable but the actors are. Menelaus is subtle and magnetic as Anna, Chiappi plays Dan as the hopeless romantic, Keddie is a perky Alice and Menzies is a suitably unpleasant and vulgar Larry.

The secrecy of guilty sex is attractive. These modern people are easily bored or disillusioned. They crave their fantasies made real.

Designer, Judith Cobb's romantic blue moon looms over the space that is piled with furniture echoing the temporary state of all four relationships.

But Marber's people, despite several split ups and lots of tears, never manage to gain our sympathy or elicit our compassion. They remain shallow and lack warmth. The actors rattle around in the cavernous space as if it is too huge to allow them to be intimate.

The problem is not in performances nor in Bruce Myles sleek direction, but in the writing. The dialogue is often funny but never penetrates the surface. They speak in glib phrases that alienate us. The narrative is entertaining but thin. Marber places all dramatic moments off stage.

His history in stand-up comedy writing may keep Marber distant from the personal. He is one of the international wave of young men who have been too quickly promoted onto the mainstage.

His women.speak like men, almost as the mouthpiece for male fantasies. The two men engage in a funny, grotesque internet sex chat, Dan pretending to be a woman to tease his unwitting victim. The internet chat is sexual in a pornographic, adolescent way. These days, we are unshockable.

Men's attitude to pornography is still the main lapse in understanding between genders. Women speak a different language. Larry should have guessed it was a man on the other end of his cyber fantasy. We hope all men are not trapped in this phallo-centric stage.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday 21 July 1998

Speaking in Tongues, Playbox, July 21, 1998

Speaking in Tongues by Andrew Bovell
Playbox at Beckett Theatre until August 15, 1998
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Reviewed around July 20.

People's lives bleed into one another's, not necessarily by design, often by accident. They may actually meet, intersect, even run parallel or simply reverberate, resemble or echo each other. Six degrees of separation: we are all only six acquaintances away from each other.

In Andrew Bovell's play, Speaking in Tongues, nine characters played by four actors, share lives and even unwittingly share partners. They plunge headlong or dip blithely into each other's world's only to damage or abandon, perhaps to advise, reconcile or empathise. Whatever their relationships, they speak different emotional languages, hence the title.

Bovell's writing is always crisp, stylish and witty. His signature is the fracturing of time, space and dialogue. He splices several scenes and locations, creating intersecting voices, echoes in one scene of another, twanging ironic chords and reminding us that there are so few stories in this little human world. We all suffer the same pains and joys.

In creating this text, he has cleverly merged two earlier plays: Distant Lights from Dark Places and Like Whiskey on the Breath of a Drunk You Love. Additional narrative, for those familiar with these or the monologues from Confidentially Yours provides a further compelling back-story for familiar characters. It is not simple storytelling. There are diversions and detours at every turn.

Four consummate actors (Heather Bolton, Robert Meldrum, Merfyn Owen, Margaret Mills) double roles and are directed skilfully and unobtrusively by Ros Horin who directed the 1996 production at the Griffin Theatre, Sydney. Sleek design, (Liane Wilcher) adaptation (Nicola McIntosh), evocative lighting (Nigel Levings) and subtle music (Sarah de Jong) complete the piece.

Mills' Jane, a frightened fawn seeking change, is counter-pointed by Bolton's tough Sonia. Owen's forceful copper, Leon, balances not only his timid wife but his casual lover's sensitive, betrayed husband. Power and weakness, betrayal and loyalty, deception and reconciliation pull these characters together like magnets.

Bovell's dialogue plays with the fragmentation of everyday communication and the actors balance superbly the vocal dynamic, interplay of voices and roles, the canon effect of the dialogue and the cryptic emotional landscape.

Strangers' life stories can be catalysts for change or clarity. These characters are deeply affected by chance crossed paths. Leon cannot forget the man whose lover never returned from Europe. Neil obsesses about a stranger whose wife was stranded on a country road and disappeared.

There are some hiccups in this piece that may be due to the collision of styles but it is a resonant and challenging peep into nine lives.


Tuesday 14 July 1998

Faith Healer, July 13, 1998

Faith Healer by Brian Friel
Presented by The Old Van
 At The Shed VCA Dodds St. Sth Melbourne until August 2, 1998
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Reviewed around July 13, 1998

Who needs a design with everything that opens and shuts, elaborate lighting, digital sound and a ridiculous budget when you can see an impeccably written play performed by three remarkable local actors in a shed?

Fiona Blair's interpretation of Faith Healer by Brian Friel is such a production. The "shed" is a surprisingly warm and comfortable portable classroom in the grounds of the VCA. Even if it were not, this play would warrant enduring some discomfort.

Faith Healer uses the same narrative device as Friel's recent play, Molly Sweeney that had a stellar season for the MTC. Three characters speak in monologues. As their shared history unfolds, we become complicit in each one's version of the facts. Events and their relationships are coloured by their selective memories.

Irishman, Frank Hardy (Kurt Geyer), is a talented faith healer with a chequered record. He travels Scotland and Wales with his ex-lawyer wife, Grace (Jane Nolan) and his manager, the lovable ingenuous cockney, Teddy (Richard Bligh).

The trio bump about the drizzly countryside in a rattle-trap of a van fitted with a smelly primus stove, visiting remote villages and presenting healing as an almost vaudevillian revue to rival Teddy's previous client, Rob-Roy, the bag-piping whippet.

Several incidents are significant to all three. It takes two and a half riveting hours of intimate contact with Frank, Grace and Teddy for us to glean the truth about that village in the far north of Scotland where a baby is buried, that Fred Astaire number they used for openers and that fateful night in the pub in Ballybeg, Ireland

The marriage is fraught. Both Frank and Grace have abandoned their families only to attempt belated reconciliations. Frank lives in a fantasy world. Grace only wants devotion. Teddy stays twenty years on the road with them because he loves both too much. They are victims of themselves and each other. Artists should never marry. Says, Teddy. His whippet is proof positive.

Blair has focused on the text and the actor, which is the key to Friel's work. All three actors bring a detailed and intelligent eye to the script, bringing alive the sub-text. Geyer is charming as the charismatic, whiskey-soused Frank. Bligh is sweet and endearing as the poor doormat, Teddy. Jane Nolan is heart-rending as the shattered Grace measuring her progress by the hours she sleeps and the cigarettes she smokes.

British director, Peter Brook praises "Poor Theatre" This is.a prime example.


Tuesday 7 July 1998

Cakes Men Like July 7, 1998

Cakes Men Like, by Sat on the Hat
Athenaeum II, July 1998
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Reviewed around July 6 1998

If you are looking for a cheap and novel lunch activity to interrupt your working or shopping day in the city centre, look no further than the Athenaeum Theatre II on Collins Street. While you watch a half-hour show, you can sup on soup provided by Heinz and yummy bread donated by Pott's Bakery. All this for only $5.

Soup Kitchen Theatre began this terrific little earner eight years ago and it has now been commandeered by another small company, Sat on the Hat. The first show of this winter season is Cakes Men Like that will be followed by Trudy Hellier's Trapped opening on August 4.

Cakes is a simple cautionary tale about housewifery in the 50's. This, of course, lends itself to satirical observations, songs from the period and some slightly patronising commentary from our high-horse 90's.

Director Greg Dyson works with three women, Charlie Laidlaw, Rosina Gannon and Amanda Armstrong, who portray three diverse characters who are trapped in the never-ending cycle of pleasing the men in their lives with their kitchen creativity.

The men invent appliances to make the lives of the women easier but, in fact, they end up literally incarcerated in their fridges singing Doris Day tunes, posing by the Frigidaire and telling their favourite cake recipes. It is like a fractured 50's Women's Weekly advertisement.

The catch is that, occasionally, the women go completely bonkers - inside their own heads. The pressure of being nice, providing for hubbie and kids, and keeping up appearances, is all too much.

The three are performers and devisers of this light, entertaining, if sometimes didactic piece. Laidlaw and Gannon are members of the very clever clown ensemble, Four on the Floor who are known for very physical comedy with sweet, wacky characters.

There is some of this style in Cakes but the pace is slower and the comedy less punchy. It could benefit from a bit more action and a lot less static talk. It is a dated style reminiscent of 70's feminist street theatre that damned the housefraus and their over-bearing husbands.

The comparisons of men to the kind of cakes they like were very funny. One tubby chap likes dumplings. Another eats meringue, " Crusty on the outside, sweet and sticky inside." But their dream man is a fruitcake. Rich, fruity and you can put him a way for a long time and he's even better when he comes out.

By Kate Herbert