Wednesday 28 July 1999

A Major Event: Rod Quantock, July 28 1999

The Final Report from the Comedian General on the state of the State Written and performed by Rod Quantock at Trades Hall until September 4, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The words "politics" and "absurd" should be incompatible but Rod Quantock provides plenty of evidence to the contrary. To our left-leaning Comedian General, the phrase "democratic Victoria" is an oxymoron. In fact, the state  he believes the state is filled with several brands of ordinary morons.

Can it be true that this is Rod's Final Report on the State of the State? After years of acerbic political satire, Quantock says he is hanging up his chalk and blackboard and handing in his anti-Kennett placard. I don't believe him. I don't want to believe that, just because everything has been sold off in Victoria, he has no more to say.

The title, A Major Event, should at least get him a government grant. No. Not possible evidently because he is a vigorous government critic. His popularity, then, should place the event on the state's calendar. No. He doesn't drive ridiculously fast cars or cut down trees or design huge pointy buildings nor knock over heritage terraces.

He doesn't own newspapers or casinos or banks. He is not part of the 60% who approve of Jeff. He doesn't have Alan Stockdale's eyebrows or John Laws voice or Packer's money.

Do you get my drift? Quantock is one in a million - 18 million actually. His is a finely honed mind and he has created another intelligent, informed, charming yet worrying show. It is also screamingly funny..

The old chalkboard makes its final appearance in the appallingly designed Council Chambers at the Trades Hall. Quantock scrawls his creative equations, eccentric diagrams and mad theories all over the board until everything is overwritten and interwoven. Power, money, privatisation, E-Tag and poker machines all blur into one great catastrophe that is Victorian politics: tragic and somehow hilarious.

He says there is nothing more to be done. Marches do not work. Victorians could not even muster the energy to publicly protest over the elimination of tram conductors much less that of trams, hospitals or schools. 

He finishes this, his "last" show, (think of Melba's farewell gigs) with a call for solutions to the problem from the audience.  Even if you voted for Jeff, you might have to laugh. If not, we are truly doomed to a laugh-free zone into the next millennium.

By Kate Herbert

Sunday 25 July 1999

Stolen by Jane Harrison, July 25 1999

Stolen by Jane Harrison
 at Beckett Theatre Malthouse, July 24 until August, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

This second season of Stolen, by Jane Harrison is, theatrically, a smoother ride but is still a emotional roller coaster. The stories of five aboriginal children who were stolen from their families are so achingly sad that they are difficult to watch.

This is not to suggest that the play is all trauma and darkness. It is a romp in parts, with some sweet and funny moments. We watch children at play, being naughty, missing mum, keeping secrets, hoping for home. We hear myths about the creation of the white man who stole babies and the evolution of the red desert sand.

The play went to stage initially during the Melbourne Festival last year, in a co-production by Ilbijjeri Theatre Co-operative and Playbox. The script has involved many artists in its development that may be the reason it does not have one consistent voice.

This revival replaces two actors. Lisa Maza demonstrates substantial acting skill as Ruby, the child who becomes the target of a white man's abuse. Elliot Maynard plays Jimmy who, as a child, awaits his mum's return to collect him until he is told, falsely, that she is dead.

Shirley (Pauline Whyman) is a sturdy girl who, as an adult, is determined to find her own children who were also stolen. Sandy (Stan Yarramunua) is a wanderer who ran from the welfare as a tot and continues to search for "home". Anne, (Tammy Anderso)  the palest-skinned child adopted by a white family, is torn between two families and two cultures.

The company is strong ensemble that is enhanced by Wesley Enoch's vision as a director. The script is a non-linear narrative that merges past with present. Enoch uses stylised physicalisation to heighten dialogue and adds simple visual imagery with projections against Richard Roberts evocative demolition site. Stark lighting (Matt Scott) creates deep shadows through metal beds that double as gaol. The soundscape by David Chesworth is atmospheric.

The performances capture the charm and warmth of this community who have suffered so much at the hands of the white brothers and sisters. But it is the actors' personal statements at the very end that set the tears rolling. The audience could have applauded for hours if the cast had not left the stage.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 22 July 1999

The Prima Facie Kid, July 22 1999

 written and performed by Angus Cerini
at La Mama until August 2, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Angus Cerini has an enormous power generator secreted somewhere in La Mama. He burn so much energy during his 70 minute solo show, The Prima Facie Kid, that on can almost see sparks fly from him.

This is the fourth in a series of short works Cerini has written and performed since 1997. The others are Recidivist, Dennis is Dead and F...wit. They all focus on issues of male violence, which Cerini believes must be addressed or rather confronted by his generation.

The Prima Facie Kid, directed by Karen Corbett, falls into two distinct parts. In the first, Cerini is an agitated clown who, we discover, entertains sick and dying children in hospital. He is driven by his quest to help the children forget their grief and pain. This character and his story make very moving theatre and could have successfully sustained the entire play.

However, he is so overwhelmed by his ongoing contact with such tragedy that he becomes the proverbial sad clown,  drunk clown, to be precise. Cerini's writing is a grab bag of hilarious dialogue, non-sequiturs, TV references, social commentary and naughtiness.

The clown remains pivotal in the second half and there are some fascinating ideas, allusions and characters but there is far less cohesion or clarity in the narrative. It is extremely confusing for this weary brain.

A powerful character is introduced as a story told by the clown. He is tattooed dad who murdered a child abuser. After this interlude, the clown is more wretched, drinker and the dialogue is interrupted by quick television news style grabs from a court case.

Cerini is a fine talent with exceptional energy and director Karen Corbett has kept the pace pumping and filled the space with emotional action. The play could benefit from the odd silence or stillness to accent the rest of this relentless toboggan ride but it is a potent piece with something to say.

Kate Herbert

Wednesday 21 July 1999

Shadows and Light , John Bolton, 21 July 1999

Written and performed by John Bolton 
at Trades Hall until August 6, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

It is refreshing to be spoken to in the theatre. 

Usually we sit in darkness and listen and, if we are naughty, whisper the odd comment to our neighbour. John Bolton seems to look each one of us in the eye and have a personal chat about his life in art and love and Zen Buddhism.

Of course, he doesn't only talk. Bolton, who only recently closed his acting school in Williamstown, is a consummate mime and clown who trained in Paris in the 70's at L'Ecole Jacques Le Coq. Paris features prominently in Shadows and Light.

The art of storytelling is a subtle one and Bolton has a very individual and effective style that could be called "self narration": That is, he tells the story while he plays it physically. He even adds songs and costumes and some audience participation. the style is warm, charming and ever so engaging. You'll wish you had a cup of tea and bun by the fire.

The show is a series of anecdotes. It begin with his childhood in England which is told through shadow puppets. The drama school tales are hilarious because of the myriad British characters he plays, shifting from one to t'other without missing an accent.

Bolton peoples the stage with characters, all of who are believable an complete. Extraordinarily, they bleed into his own narration as he tells his own story.

He performed in a children's theatre troupe in Edinburgh, (hence the audience participation) busked through France, met, a mad drunken American, his wife-to-be and, finally, arrived at mime school in Paris. All these acting school types are more hilarious if you've worked in this environment with such pompous egomaniacs, but they are funny even without the personal experience.

The piece moves swiftly until the more poignant and intimate moments about his parents and death. There are moments toward the end, when there is a touch too much sentimentalism as he lights lamps to commemorate particular people. However, such honesty is lacking on the mainstage and we could do with more real sentiment rather than less.

The amazing thing is that Bolton manages to make Buddhism as funny as clowns. It is a very sweet show. I laughed out loud - very loud.

By Kate Herbert  

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, MT, 21 July 1999

By Bertolt Brecht 
translated by Ranjit Bolt 
Melbourne Theatre Company at Playhouse until August 21, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The final line is the most chilling moment in Bertolt Brecht's, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. "The bitch that bore him is on heat again."

It is a comment to halt thunderous applause mid-clap and force an audience to gasp and reflect on the rise of Hitler and to be vigilant. A tyrant can arise when we are looking away.

Arturo Ui is written on two levels. Its surface narrative is about the juggernaut rise to notoriety of Arturo Ui, a Chicago gangster. The other layer refers to Hitler's Germany in the 30's, from which Brecht, an ardent Marxist, escaped to Scandinavia then to the US where he wrote Ui in 1942 which was not performed until 1958 in Stuttgart.

Simon Phillips' production captures Brecht's cabaret-style theatre and is riddled with dualities. It combines slapstick and high-tech and the gangsters are both ridiculous and frightening, Ian McDonald's original music (requiring special permission from Brecht Family) is lively yet ominous and Dale Ferguson's miniature Chicago design is cute but powerful.

Ranjit Bolt's exceptional translation maintains the Shakespearian rhyme and five-beat metre of Brecht's original text as well as including pertinent quotes from Shakespeare.

Brecht's intention was to educate the public about political issues. He hammers us once or twice too often with the parallels between Ui and Hitler. Nonetheless, his criticisms of fascists and power are clear.

Arturo (Frank Gallacher) owns almost everybody in Chicago except the moral old Dogsborough, (Terry Norris) He offers "protection" they offer "support".

Gallacher is compelling as the emotional psychopath, Arturo who has no qualms about ordering killing of even his best friend, Ernesto Roma (Linal Haft). His transformation from the Chaplinesque opening image to the Hitler-look alike, is frightening.

He is supported on stage by a fine cast of fourteen men and only one woman, Rachael Tidd who plays a bevy of female roles. Most play a musical instrument. Haft, as the consummate loyal lieutenant, has enormous range and should be seen more often.  Paul Capsis is bitter-sweet as the Marlene-style singing narrator, Gerry Connolly and Jim Daly provide some fine comic turns.

Although the text needs half an hour edited out, the show is entertaining and "didactic" in the best possible Brechtian manner. It is a pity Brecht's Berliner Ensemble is closing down in a fortnight.

By Kate Herbert

Monday 19 July 1999

Possession by Glen Shea , 9 July 1999

 by Glen Shea
at National Theatre July 9, 10, 11, 17, 18, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

New plays by indigenous Australian artists are no longer a rare occurrence. Over the past two years we have seen a series of plays including Up The Road, Seven Stages of Grieving, Stolen and Box the Pony to name a few. All of these were moving and theatrically skilful indigenous plays produced by major festivals, theatre companies and independent artists.

These productions deal with issues of dual culture, reconciliation and grief amongst other things, and all have been the product of experienced indigenous performers, directors or writers who have created potent theatrical experiences for our audiences.

Koori actor, Glen Shea, a graduate of NIDA in Sydney, has written Possession as part of Wi Iri We Homeborn, the Indigenous Arts Festival that coincides with the 61st NADOC Week.

Despite its good intentions, this play does not meet the standard of the aforementioned productions in terms of script, direction, production values or performance.

Two men and a woman, evidently siblings, inhabit what appears to be a strange kind of nether world where their past is muddle with their present, and where their regrets and conflicts are paramount.

A white "host" interjects occasionally, making poetic statements and coaxing them to remember the horrors of their shared childhood and the violence of their father who abused them. They are riddled with guilt and shame that has shattered their family, but they seek reconciliation and absolution.

The problems lie not in the basic concept of the play but in its execution. The script initially seems to follow Jean Genet's "No Exit", in which three people are trapped together in a hell of their own making. However, Possession is obtuse rather than abstract that leaves narrative unclear. The song that followed the play could be integrated as an effective chorus.

Dialogue shifts between the obvious and the melodramatic forcing characters to remain two-dimensional. The actors (David Ngoombujarra, Kathryn Hartman, Peter Docker, Glen Shea) compensate by over-acting.

Direction by Shea, who also performs, is unimaginative and staging is static with five chairs and tables set on a semi-circle on a stage much too big for this play. The play would benefit from further development and dramaturgical advice.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 15 July 1999

Quintet , 15 July 1999

By Graham Henderson at La Mama until August 1, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The collision of the poetic and the theatrical can be a fine accident. Some of Graham Henderson's prolific writing (he has written 42 plays since 1976) makes lyrical theatre. Others are less successful.

Quintet is a collection of five short poetic monologues and duologues. All wallow in reverie about love and passion, aloneness and pain, each viewing them from a different angle. The language is dense and reflective, apart from the Beckettian clowns of The Desert and the Sea.

Characters remain internalised without any physical presence, which is the nature of the poetic theatre. All are set against a design incorporating falling water, (Stuart Vaskess) the sound of which is accented by live guitar and violin (Cousin Frank, David Branson).

Ithica is a monologue performed by Louise Morris. She stands in blue light, speaking of her inexplicable illness and her lover on whom she relies for her recovery.

The Desert and the Sea, performed by Phil Roberts and Danny Diesendorf, is the only piece in which characters communicate directly, albeit absurdly. They wait in the desert for a train to stop. They are travelling salesmen with a case full of tinned sardines which provides them with sustenance and a reminder of the Ocean from which sprang one of the men some twenty years   gills prove his briny origins.

Face is the most theatrically effective and emotionally affecting piece. It is also the most proficiently performed. David Branson), director of three of the pieces, looks almost bruised standing in a harsh overhead spotlight. He speaks of despair and loneliness and his chance meeting with an exotic woman who came to love him. It is an impassioned and restrained performance of a text that is less obtuse than much of the other writing.

White  (Diesendorf, Rebecca Rutter) goes further into obscurity than is comfortable in the theatre. Two people stand in the doorway obsessing over dust, death and all things white. The main flaw here is the weakness of the performers.

Room again focuses on lovers but, this time, we view them in short filmic grabs lying on white bedclothes in white clothing as they dream away days in each other's arms locked in a room.

Henderson's themes of the discovery of love and companionship, work in part for the stage but demand strong performers to make them theatrical .

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 14 July 1999

The Lover and The Collection, MTC, 14 July 1999

by Harold Pinter 
MTC Fairfax Studio until August 14, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

In a recently screened interview with Harold Pinter, he exuded an atmosphere akin to that of his plays. He was cryptic, slow to respond, considered, laconic and often hilarious without cracking a smile. He has a stately presence, a bulky sensuality, resonant voice and a wicked irreverence for just about everything.

Melbourne Theatre Company have twinned two of his short plays: The Lover and The Collection. They are a happy marriage.

The Collection is directed by Jenny Kemp) with a delicate restraint and balance which matches Pinter's sharply honed dialogue. It is enhanced by a spare, cool design (Richard Roberts) with its flat grey surfaces and sleek furniture.

Bill (David Tredinnick), a clothing designer and Ex-"Slum Slug", lives with the older Harry (Bruce Myles) in an ambiguous relationship and a flash apartment. James (Robert Menzies) blunders in to interrogate Bill about James' own wife (Melita Jurisic).

The play moves in a near circle, with the end echoing the beginning. Similarly, The Lover appears to return to its start but, in both, nothing is the same and nothing is resolved.

The Lover, with lively direction by Bruce Myles, has a far greater sense of the menace which is characteristic of Pinter's theatre. An innocuous suburban husband and wife seem to tolerate each other's lovers but it becomes clear that their world is twisted by their bizarre secret life. Both plays revolve around a sexual fantasy in some way.

All four performances are delightfully eccentric and combine an emotional intensity with heightened physicality. The outcome is interesting: melodrama viewed through a broken glass.

Tredinnick as Bill has a boyish seductiveness and his background dancing in the second play is hilarious. Myles is edgy and dry as Harry while Menzies presses alarm bells with his dangerous characters in both plays.

The 180 -degree turn in the characters in The Lover, is disturbing and comic and the seduction scene is both erotic and lunatic. Jurisic hits a peak of her hallmark eccentricity in this scene. Pinter is not a writer to be described. See these plays. They are gems.

By Kate Herbert

Friday 2 July 1999

Two by Jim Cartwright, 2 July 1999

Dolman Theatre Company
Beckett Theatre until July 17, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

English playwright, Jim Cartwright, was responsible for the extraordinary stage version of the film, Little Voice and there are echoes of its style in his earlier play, Two. It has the tenor of Northern England's working class people, their drinking holes and habits and even their fraught relationships.

Dolmen Theatre Company, the company that staged another two-hander, Brian Friel's Winners, in 1998, produced Two. The script, which is the greatest strength of this production, is a series of two-shot scenes in a Lancashire pub run by a bickering couple. They are the only pair we see more than once.

Cartwright creates a parade of bizarre, tragic, comic and poignant characters who inhabit the entire spectrum of dysfunctional relationships.

We see the mousy, abused woman who cannot look up without being accused of  flirting by her manipulative, jealous, emotionally abusive husband.

Then there is the converse of this pair in the demanding sex-pot wife who fantasises about wrapping her thighs around enormous, hulking men only to be reminded that she is married to Superwimp who cannot even beat a path to the bar for two lemonades without cringing.

One lovingly written couple is the sweetly eccentric pair who arrive wearing puffy, sensible parkas and proceed to watch an old movie on the pub television. They describe themselves as "fat and old". She weeps over Elvis and fears another breakdown. He dreams of being a fat, old, movie star.

The problem with this production is that the performances of all these delightful characters are less than three-dimensional. Dominica Ryan and Paul Dawber, with director David Myles, make a valiant effort but there is something important missing from the recipe.

There is too little differentiation between the playing of the diverse personalities and physicalities, particularly from Ryan who has too limited a vocal range for so many roles.

The comic delivery and timing is uneven and scene changes are too slow. The production lacks dynamic range and the emotional layering is superficial even in the final scene of despair and pathos between the publicans. It is a good effort but the production does not meet the quality of the script.

By Kate Herbert