Wednesday 28 October 1998

The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde, Oct 28, 1998

By Thomas Kilroy, Abbey Theatre
 Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, October 28, 29, 30, 31, November 1, 1998

We all know of Irish-born Oscar Wilde, brilliant, self-absorbed, razor-tongued, who wrote a swag of comic classics. Most know nothing of his abandoned wife, Constance. Thomas Kilroy, with Ireland's Abbey Theatre, has redressed this inequity with his play The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde, here for the Melbourne Festival.

Oscar married bright, young Constance Lloyd in1884 only to betray her soon after with innumerable young men. The steel-cold aristocratic lad who eventually broke both their hearts was Lord Alfred Douglas, AKA Bosie, the inter-galactically narcissistic son of the creep responsible for boxing, the Marquis of Queensberry.

Bosie (Andrew Scott) describes himself as Oscar's inspiration and Constance (Jane Brennan) as his peace. To Oscar (Robert O'Mahoney) she is his lifeline to land and he blithely uses her as his life raft, water wings, goggles and snorkel. Watching these three, one wants to warn Constance, slap Oscar and strangle Bosie.

Director, Patrick Mason, has created a deceptively simple, gloriously theatrical production blending visual, mimetic, and textual elements with exceptional finesse. Images, language and emotions are heightened. Oscar speaks in familiar epithets. He poses and parades while Bosie struts and swaggers. The style tilts toward the mannered and teeters on the hyper-real.

The grand scale and sleek lines of Joe Vanek's set exaggerate the puniness of Wilde in relation to his tragic fate. A terrifyingly tall, narrow staircase is the site of Constance's mysterious 'fall'. Oscar is whisked upward in his gaol cell and huge black screens slam shut like a rectangular camera aperture.

Constance, Oscar and Bosie meet, greet and argue on a simple round downstage but Mason has used the vast depths of the Playhouse to accentuate the smallness of these lives by overwhelming them with enormous puppet figures representing the Magistrate who convicts Oscar and Constance's disreputable father.

His retinue of six attendants, disguised by fencing masks, provide a silent chorus, a jury, a classless commentary. They establish location, attitude, atmosphere with David Bolger's clean, crisp choreography and are a sensitive counterpoint to the dense dialogue. They manipulate and accompany the sweet, pale puppets, the Wildes' innocent sons.

The performances are uniformly inspiring. Scott, as the dilletante Bosie, is suitably dissolute and despicable while O'Mahoney pontificates and carps as Oscar. Brennan, in the most sympathetic character, is dignified, vivid and tragic as Constance. If only we could have shouted a warning down the ages: "Jump ship, Connie. He'll do you no good." Talent is no measure of a man's worth.


Saturday 24 October 1998

Stolen , Playbox, Oct 24, 1998

by Jane Harrison, by Playbox
Merlin Theatre until November 14, 1998

As a whitefella, it is easy to remain at arm's length from the Stolen Children of our aboriginal nation, easy to say "Sorry" and to want reconciliation. But actually being one of the stolen generation must be incomprehensibly hard.

Stolen, a collaboration between The Ilbijerri Theatre Co-operative and Playbox, sketches the stories of five children stolen from their aboriginal families in early childhood. We see them dragged from mum, told she is dead, terrified when incarcerated in a children's home, traumatised when abused by 'weekend' foster fathers or bosses.

This play left me weeping for broken lives, tortured souls and scattered families - and I was just an audience member, a white one at that. The company of aboriginal actors are immersed both as artists and as individuals.

Jimmy's (Paul Briggs) life degenerates into petty crime and tragedy, Ruby's (Kylie Belling) into servitude and mental illness. Sandy (Stan Yarramunua) maintains a sense of dignity in his original culture as an adult while Anne's (Tammy Anderson) adoptive family nearly expunge all relationship to her native culture.

Jane Harrison developed the script for Ilbijerri between 1992-97 with assistance from Reichstein Foundation, Australia Council and Playbox.

Stolen is directed with finesse by Wesley Enoch who co-wrote and directed The Seven Stages of Grieving about reconciliation. He was Artistic Director of Kooemba Jdarra Theatre from 1994-97.

The play is not a linear narrative. We see and hear snatches of each child's "theft" interspersed with his or her later experiences, mothers' letters to the lost children and adoptive parents' diatribes about gratitude. "Be good or the welfare'll get ya," chants Jimmy's mum prophetically.

The play begins at a cracking, almost playful, pace then tilts us into darker territory. Enoch conjures profound emotional responses from simple images. Nancy (Pauline Whyman OK) lines up 26 Christmas presents awaiting her adult son's return. Ruby returns with a girlish pink gift after each abusive weekend. A steel-frame bed is used as a gaol cell.

Slides of tin cans or barbed wire ar set against derelict concrete wall of Richard Roberts design. Richard Frankland's evocative soundscape tinges the air with anguish.

Stolen pays homage to those who survived and those who perished because of this appalling policy to separate children from their families - and lie about it. It is a sweet, startling and moving experience.

Thursday 15 October 1998

Panacea, Oct 15, 1998

by Arena Theatre
at Old Police Garage Russell Street October 15-November 1, 1998
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Young people are incessantly bombarded with visual input: imagery from film and television, billboards, computer programs or magazines. They catch life in sound bites or TV grabs.

If this forms their primary experience, there is logic in presenting young audiences with performance in the style of a music video.

In its AnthoPop trilogy, Arena Theatre, under the artistic direction of Rosemary Myers, has developed a hybrid theatrical form combining video, computer graphics, amplified music, miked voices and fragmented narrative. It is steeped in popular culture that cocks a snoot at traditional forms of narrative and characterisation. It has taken them on a tour to North America with Autopsy.

Panacea, part of the Melbourne Festival, is the most successful of the trilogy. Devised by Myers with Bruce Gladwin and written by Julie-Anne O'Brien and David Carlin it extrapolates on a true story.

Axel, an 11-year old East German, is training to swim for the 1974 Moscow Olympics but his performance is enhanced with steroid treatment which enlarges his heart and causes his subsequent drowning.

This play, of all three, has some emotional impact. Axel (Brandon Burns), a sweet, naive child, is a pawn of the Communist state. His mother (Nadja Kostich) is the most affecting character. Her desire for a better life, a house provided by the state and success for her son, finally cost her his life.

The accompanying video design (Daniel Crooks & Pete Circuitt) is vivid, rapid fire and evocative. It provides not only moving imagery but also a kind of stage set. Its large screens divide the space and provide levels for the cavernous Russell Street Police Garage. Lighting by Ben Cobham again completes the visual spectacle.

Other narrative threads are woven into the basic tale. Petra, (Genevieve Morris) once a child swimmer, is now a drug-addled adult. Shelley, (Fiona Todd) now an Australian sporting fashion icon, is wracked with resentment about her loss in the 74 Olympics.

The over-simplified plot allows confusing (unintentional?) connections between performance-enhancing drugs and recreational drug abuse, between lesbianism and steroid use. It also relentlessly represents East Germany as the bogie man in the sporting arena.

The politics of this play become questionable. A simplistic portrayal of any of these issues is dangerous. Let's not value style over content to the detriment of clarity.
 By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 14 October 1998

Out of Chaos by Jill Curry, Oct 14, 1998

At Athenaeum Theatre II until October 24, 1998
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

People who find themselves in the public eye generally do all in their power to keep their personal lives behind closed doors. Choosing to expose one's private life is courageous. Translating personal trauma into theatre is an enormous challenge.

Playwright, Jill Curry, has done just this. She has pulled the curtains on her psychological breakdown and created a piece of theatre about a woman in a similar emotional situation. Caroline Holmes, played with passion and total commitment by Victoria Nicolls, is the primary carer for her recalcitrant, aged father and has now been offered a promotion in Event Management.

She is under pressure to mask any anxiety because, at the slightest whiff of stress or aberrant behaviour, her family cry "breakdown" again. Her husband (John Higginson) is well meaning but uncomprehending. Her daughter (Natalie Carr) is supportive but frightened. Her self-centred sister (Natalie Shostak) is more concerned about who will care for dad.

It is not my intention to belittle the courage which generated this play nor the genuine trauma of the writer but, unfortunately, Curry's attempt to make theatre of this painful experience is unsuccessful. Real life experience needs to be filtered and transformed to make good drama.

There is no dramatic arc to the story. Perhaps a less literal representation of the family's experience might have created more dramatic tension. Caroline's journey has no surprises.

The style, structure and even Kim Baston's direction, are reminiscent of a 1970's Theatre-In-Education play devised to demonstrate a social issue. There are some very awkward dream sequences and childhood flashbacks. The pace, overall, is very slow.

The characters are under-developed and their dialogue is repetitive often deteriorating into cliches. The shadowy, ever-present psychiatrist mouths platitudes such as, "It's all right to be angry," or "You feel guilty about this," as if they were insightful.

Caroline's fractious dad is a colourful character who is pivotal to the jealousies between the two sisters. It could have been interesting to put him on stage, although playwright Alan Ayckbourne suggests an off-stage character can be compelling.

I wish I could have felt more positively about this play but, in spite of its origins in truth, as theatre it does not do justice to the depth of the anguish experienced in mental illness.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday 13 October 1998

So Wet, 13 Oct 1998

By Samantha Bews 
At North Melbourne Town Hall Meeting Room
13-18 October, 1998
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Being cool usually ends up looking just plain silly. At least if you are  under 30 being cool, you have licence to look indulgent, ridiculous and idiotic in your platinum hair, skin-tight vinyl or arse-hugging lime-green mini.

The cool rules are: "Never dress for the weather"; "Always be more visible than the next idiot"; "Always look and sound as if you are just about to orgasm"; "Wear uncomfortable shoes"; and most importantly, "Pout! Pout! Pout!"

Fashion is intrinsic to Samantha Bews solo show, So Wet.It comments on the idiocy of fashion by being idiotically fashionable. In this stylishly performed short piece, directed with finesse by Nancy Black, we pursue a gloriously vain and leggy creature, with a fabulously cool wardrobe.

From midnight to 7am we scuttle after her from party, to depressed friend, to warehouse 'rave', to window-shopping then peculiar activities in Russell Street followed by late episodes of Bonanza tucked up with Horlicks in cottontails at home.

Bews struts and preens, poses and seduces as the profoundly shallow Shirley. She prances into a high-profile party to seduce a toy-boy, only to see him leave with another boy. Some episodes appear to be snatches from life but we hope the pretentious, selfish Shirley is not Bews' alter-ego.

This is definitely a good show for the Fringe Festival.However, its intended irony is not obvious enough and the character is sketchy. There is some clever lyrical text and Bews creates several well-observed cameos, but the intention of the play remains mirky and the narrative thin and directionless. The writing needs to develop the inner world of Shirley or to emphasising the latent tragedy of this tale of the night.

She is a polished performer who uses movement to create atmosphere, character and location. Shirley's regal parade around the first party accompanied by her bottom-wiggling and profiling is a treat. Bews' stylised interpretation of the "Dance. Dance. Sleaze. Sleaze,"of the warehouse party is simple but clever.

The much publicised fab outfits are made visible on stage by the simplest suggestions, shoes: a wardrobe of extraordinary platforms to make a 70's Glitter fan drool. Set on stage throughout, they suggest the silver dress, black mourning, the sweaty lime-green mini and blood red Geisha costume.

The men's lace-ups were discordant both on set and in their strange penultimate scene. Perhaps the intrinsically male violence perpetrated by Shirley at 5am, represents her naive attraction to the dark side, but it just does not work.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 7 October 1998

More of a Little & Marlene by Jeanne Little, Oct 7 1998

At Capers Restaurant
More of a Little: Wed-Sat October 7-17,
Marlene: October 11 &12
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Jeanne Little has broad vowels that go on forever daaaaarling - and she's faaaaabulous! This reviewer did not expect to be so genuinely entertained by the mouth with the eyelashes who won a Gold Logie by wearing gladbags on Midday television with Mike Walsh and John Michael Howson.

Little is a truly warm and engaging cabaret performer and she can sing! Really! Who'd have expected such a rich controlled lower register to come from that rasping shrillness and nasal twang?

Her often hilarious narrative about her rise from poverty to Superstardom is intercut tastefully with familiar tunes: I get a Kick Out Of You, I Get Along Without You Very Well, You're The Cream in My Coffee. Some are comic, such as The Worst Pies in Sydney and Put It Back On, about the tubby stripper and Facelift, about a nip and tuck gone wrong.

Others touch a more serious note. I'll Be Here Tomorrow from Jerry Girls, which she performed for three years in Sydney with Judie Connelly and Marcia Hines, is a song with poignant lyrics which became the theme of the battle against AIDS.

Her version of Piaf's La Vie En Rose is also a part of her Marlene show which is showing the weekend of October 11 and 12. Evidently it is well worth a visit having been a hit in Sydney, the San Francisco cabaret festival and - well, all over really.

Jeanne's life story becomes a litany of shriekingly funny muddles, disasters and surprise successes. Her exploding pies at the Easter show, J.M Howson flying through the air in a pink suit, her fried permed hair, her first see-through plastic dress: all are hilarious. She even managed the biggest hoots from a gag about being near death. That's comic class!

Her second calling as a fashion design guru is evident on stage. Her outfits range from the elegant to the grotesque: a glorious silver lame gown follows a bizarre fat stripper costume.

Her miraculous survivor mother had a favourite expression. "It's not failure that's the problem. It's low ambition." Here is a very talented comic cabaret artist a la Carole Channing who has not been taken seriously here in Melbourne since she did that dreadful Sleeman-Ford commercial. It's time to forgive and forget. Jeanne Little rules! And the food is faaaabulous!

Kate Herbert

Tuesday 6 October 1998

Conversations with my Father, 6 Oct 1998

By Herb Gardner 
Saltpillar Theatre
St. Martins Theatre until October 18

"English don't do the job," quips the Jewish mother when her husband insists she speak English in Conversations With My Father. English can't turn an answer into a question like Yiddish can. There is an enormous difference between, "Wake up!" and the Yiddish phrase, "Sleep faster. We need the pillow."

Herb Gardner is a delightfully laconic, witty, urbane New York Jew who writes about the underdog, "the endearing outcasts" of this relentless city, such as the two old geezers in I'm Not Rappaport, which was performed by the MTC in 1993.

In this play, directed economically by Caroline Stacey, Gardner draws mercilessly on his own Russian-Jewish background, plundering his fraught relationship with his father for every painful episode from babyhood to Pop's death.

At two years of age, Charlie (Ernie Schwartz) has not spoken and his mother calls him "a piece of meat with eyes". His father demands baby Charlie astonish them with the first words, "I'm Charlie Ross and I don't take no shit from nobody," which, fantastically, he does.

Charlie is revisiting his life with his father, Eddie Ross nee Goldberg, after dad's death. Eddie (Jonathan Glickfeld) was obsessed with becoming American. He bought a bar in Canal Street in the south of Manhattan, changed his name and language, finally eliminated all Jewish religion and renamed his wife's (Nici Gray) Yiddish menu as Mulligan Stew and Apple Pie. She decided to get "wacky and deaf" to cope.

The bar is peopled with US wartime immigrant eccentrics. Zaretsky (Maurie Johns) is a star of the Yiddish Theatre, much admired by Charlie and maligned by Eddie who believes all artists are Luftmenchen: Airpeople.

The others include Blind Hannah (Faye Joske), old Nick (Ian Rubenstein) who believes he is Santa, Finney the Irish bookie (Jacob Oberman) and Italian standover man, Scalso (Pip Mushin) and his Irish thug (Elliot Epstein).

The play is really about a man who has never come to terms with his father who was a irrational, unpredictable and mercurial, a "Switcheroo" who "lived at the top of his voice and the edge of his nerves".

It is Eddie who is the centre of the story and the adult Charlie pays homage to him in his career as an award-winning novelist. He simply canot understand or really love him even after his death. He wants all the misunderstanding and grief to evaporate.

The performances are very good but Glickfeld is a standout as Eddie. He is credible and passionate but charming and lovable - which is what Gardner wrote.

By Kate Herbert

Sunday 4 October 1998

King Lear, Bell Shakespeare, Barrie Kosky, September 1998

I have been slowly posting my reviews from last century. Yes, I'm back to 1998 now. See this review of Kosky directing Lear for Bell in 1998. Great memories. KH

 By William Shakespeare

 Bell Shakespeare Company

Athenaeum II, Melbourne, until September 19, 1998

To misquote Gloucester in King Lear, "Like flies to wanton directors are we; they use us for their sport." Barrie Kosky is nothing if not a naughty, irreverent director and his interpretation of Lear for Bell Shakespeare is certainly not classical.

Imagine Texas Chain Saw Massacre colliding with the cartoon South Park and a Hollywood musical with gorgeous costumes and you have an inkling of the cacophony of styles. Do not expect Lear as you think you know it. Be prepared to discard your prejudices at the box office.

The text still follows its narrative and uses Shakespeare's language, but whole chunks have been excised, as have characters such as Cornwall, Albany, France and Burgundy. In fact, this production might be more successful with even more text removed. It is most effective and affecting when it relies on the imagistic, the musical and the high-tech soundscape (Peter Eades).

Some of the earlier scenes feel cluttered with text. The exception is the last scene that relies on slow, rhythmic, evocative imagery. The emotional thread, which is lost earlier in the play, is revived in the death throes of the whole company.

The lurid violence and mayhem of this production is reminiscent of the French Grand Guignol, a bloody style if ever there was one. Gloucester's (Russel Kiefel) eyes are sucked from his head, his bastard son, Edmund (Benjamin Winspear), is disembowelled by his brother Edgar (Matthew Whittet) who smears himself with excrement as a lunatic disguise. Lear's retinue are a litter of rabid doggy-men with prosthetic phalluses.

John Bell is a potent presence as Lear and is strongest in his final failing moments. Kiefel, as the second betrayed father, the counterpoint to Lear, is a poignant and ingenuous Gloucester.

Louise Fox is delightfully burlesque as the Fool who is somewhere between Eartha Kitt and Shirley Temple. Many Elizabethan witticisms are replaced with contemporary musical references and her rendition of "My Heart Belongs To Daddy" was a gift. Live piano and brass (Kosky, John Brennan, Keith Stirling) provide a further dimension.

The most compelling performance is from Melita Jurisic as Lear's eldest daughter, Goneril, who she plays as a brooding, sultry movie queen with a sensual, provocative darkness in voice and manner.

Grotesquery is rife. The final scene sees the stage littered with bloody bodies more in the style of Hamlet than Lear. The production highlights the filial betrayal and the gruesome consequences of greed and petty jealousies. Get a look at it. You won't see another like it.

By Kate Herbert Sept 1998