Wednesday 22 February 2006

Edge: The Story of Silvia Plath, Feb 22, 2006

 Edge: The Story of Silvia Plath
by Paul Alexander
Athenaeum Theatre 1, until Feb 22 to 25, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Feb 22, 2006

Angelica Torn is mesmerising as the fractured Silvia Plath in Paul Alexander’s play, Edge. She prowls like a caged animal on the cavernous and ruined stage.  The distressed, painted wall of the theatre is a fitting backdrop to Plath’s shattered life and tormented mind.

Plath comes alive, ironically, in these her last moments, as Torn narrates Silvia’s tortured life before her suicide; in despair, she put her head in the gas oven in her dingy flat in London while her children slept upstairs.

Edge is a perfect title for this edgy performance by Torn and the fraught state in which Plath lived and wrote her poems, an autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, and countless articles and journals. She was a formidable but fragile talent.

Writer and director, Paul Alexander, puts minimal stage action into the script or the production. Torn sits, writing at her desk or perched on a chair centre stage, talking to us about the death of her father, her relationship with her mother, her marriage to the celebrated poet, Ted Hughes, her suicide attempts, her perfectionism and her own exceptional talent as a poet.

For over two hours, Torn hypnotises us, just as Hughes worked his rough magic on Plath. She is a compelling presence as the ambitious, complicated and searingly self-critical Plath.

Words tumble from her lips in a torrent, as if Plath is unable to control her thoughts turning into speech. Torn uses a haughty Boston accent, precise, clipped articulation and a rapid arch delivery, almost dodging punctuation to express Plath’s galloping recollections.

As she self-narrates Plath’s life, Torn shifts into dramatic replays of the most pungent of Plath’s memories. We are hauled back into her childhood experience of her rigid disciplinarian father’s foolish death from treatable diabetes.

We see her first melodramatic suicide attempt when she hurls herself onto her mother’s bed, demanding they kill themselves.

We witness her violent electric shock therapy by a quack psychiatrist and then the milder, talking therapist who forced her to confront her dead father’s grave.

But most rivetting is Torn’s depiction of Plath’s relationship with Hughes. Her verbal description of Ted as a lusty, brooding, cruel, emotional thug and her physical portrayal of his violence combine to conjure an unhappy picture of the marriage.

Plath describes herself as “tragically brilliant”. She can also be intensely dislikeable, selfish and, perhaps, cruel. However, Torn makes her sympathetic and inspiring, playing her with an ironic eye on Plath’s own folly and fate.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 16 February 2006

The Cheapest Hotel in Victoria, Feb 16, 2006

The Cheapest Hotel in Victoria 
by Kieran Carroll
 La Mama, Feb 16 to March 5, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Feb 16, 2006

In The Cheapest Hotel in Victoria, three blokes spend a stingy holiday at the Fed Up and Had It Hotel in a mythical town in Victoria. It is a disaster for all sorts of reasons –like all their summer holidays for the last 18 years.

Kieran Carroll’s central idea is quirky and has potential to be a good comedy. The writing, although not as skilful, is reminiscent of Barry Dickins’ plays, incorporating Australianisms, anachronisms, nostalgia grumpy geezers, beer and grubby claustrophobic rooms.

There is plenty of effort from the actors but the performances are uneven, often strained and sometimes out of control. The direction (Carroll & Matthew Charleston) is awkward and lacks a clear vision to make the comedy and characters consistent and alive.

Jamie Robertson has some broad, comic moments as Des, a womanising beer-swilling oaf with an inflated view of his own magnetism.

Luke Doxy plays his absurdly conservative, nostalgic and repressed mate, Ray, who although he is only 27, pines for the heyday of past Liberal Party heroes, for tomato and cheese on Savoy crackers and Reader’s Digest.

Mal, played by Charleston, is the stitched-up, miserly holiday master. Every year, he chooses the cheapest hotel, the crumbiest room and rations the lads’ food, beer and fun. The only fun he allows them is the occasional dancing to the distant strains of Cold Chisel on the jukebox.

The three share a seedy, old, double bed mattress throughout the play. It is an absurd notion that would work better with stronger direction.

The production feels undercooked and uncomfortable, the writing sometimes overly adorned and the performers unsure of the style.

Charleston uses an unfortunate, mouth-twisting characterisation that makes much of his dialogue incomprehensible. Doxy’s understated delivery is a good choice and Robertson has some broadly comical moments playing Des’s roguishness and machismo.

The fourth character, Mr. Barnstormer, (Nial Carroll) is like something from a Ionesco absurdist play, but Carroll’s timing and delivery are awkward.

The final appearance of the publican, dressed as a World Championship wrestler could be funny, but Domenic Phelan overplays the role by shouting.

The political and social references in Carroll’s script certainly have comic potential but this production needs some tightening.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 9 February 2006

An Inspector Calls, by J. B. Priestley, Feb 9, 2006

An Inspector Calls by J. B. Priestley 
Royal National Theatre
 Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, Feb 9 to Feb 26, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Feb , 2006

An Inspector Calls is a thrilling and atmospheric theatrical production. Dirctor, Stephen Daldry’s, inspired vision elevates J.B. Priestley’s 1945 mystery to a new level of innovative, contemporary theatricality.

Priestley, a confirmed socialist, wrote a morality play that challenged the rights and pretensions of the English upper class and highlighted the powerlessness of the impoverished.

The enigmatic, dogged Inspector Goole (Pip Donaghy) arrives unexpectedly at the opulent home of Arthur Birling (David Roper), shattering their celebratory dinner party with his investigations into their involvement in the suicide of a young woman each of them exploited.

Daldry directs the virtuoso cast with attention to detail. Each moment has delicate nuances. The play is as much about the space between words as it is about dialogue. We see each thought; every pause colours the moment with emotion, questions and suspicion.

Dramatic tension rises as the ruthless inspector interrogates characters, peeling away their veneer of civility, status and control.

Ian McNeil’s startling design is a phenomenal feat of engineering. Stephen Warbeck’s music is haunting and penetrating and Rick Fisher’s lighting is evocative.

Daldry’s production is layered with metaphor. We see the cracks in the class system, both physically and metaphorically. The stately home cracks open to reveal a lavish, claustrophobic interior, echoing the shattering of the characters’ fragile outer shells.

Rain drizzles on stage, resonating with the despair of the victims. A poor child watches, peering through windows, always an outsider. A shabby group stares mutely, witnesses to the downfall of their oppressors.

The cast’s timing and delivery are impeccable. As Inspector Goole, Donaghy finds a relentless, terrier-like quality and balances blazing rage with cool irony. Emma Darwell Smith shimmers with a startled fawn naivete and a burgeoning awareness of her unwitting crimes.

The family begins to examine its formerly unseen conscience. Sandra Duncan shows the crumbling of Sybil Birling’s stately haughtiness and Roper blusters and bellows suitably as Arthur. Mark Healy portrays the decline of Gerald Croft’s arrogance into despair and Mark Field shifts Eric’s drunken giggling into outrage. Diana Payne Myers,as Edna, is the perfect silent servant.

Some audience might struggle with the subtlety, slow deliberation and allegorical nature of the play but this is a magnificently crafted piece of theatrical genius with a director’s enthralling vision alive in every moment.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 8 February 2006

Rent, Feb 8, 2006

Book, Lyrics and Music by Jonathan Larson 
Stella Entertainment
National Theatre, St. Kilda, Feb 8 to Feb 25, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Feb 8, 2006

When Rent opened, it was the first new, successful rock musical for some time. It hit the New York stage with a bang in 1996, winning four Tony Awards.

Rent has a compelling rock score by Jonathan Larson who also wrote the book and lyrics. Stella Entertainment, a high-level, amateur music theatre company, stages the first major production of Rent in Melbourne since the premiere.

Larson lived a tragic life similar to that represented in his show, Half of his impoverished, main characters live with the AIDS virus. Larson himself died from AIDS shortly before the premiere of his show.

His turn of the millennium, New York Boho culture, echoes that of Puccini’s La Boheme of the 19th century. There is even an ailing Mimi (Jessica Featherby) who arrives asking Roger (Cole Rintoul), the songwriter, to light her candle.

The singing in this production is skilful and accompanied by an accomplished onstage band with musical direction by Andrew Leach.

Peter Fitzpatrick’s direction keeps the relationships and emotional journey focal There are, however,problems with some unimaginative staging of the chorus and some awkward abstract movement sequences that pull focus from the central characters.

The choreography (Roman Berry) and dancers are capable but their costuming as painted cat-like or ghostly spirits, distracts from the urban grunge style of the show. When Angel, the transvestite victim of AIDS, returns after death as a guiding spirit, his absurd, grey tutu outfit ruins the poignancy of the scene.

Paul David Watson, as the narrator and aspiring film-maker, Mark, has a simple, charming style and bright voice.. As Roger, Cole Rintoul’s voice captures the lament of the faded rock songwriter and AIDS victim,

eatherby is raunchy as the young heroin addict, Mimi, and Phillip Haby gives resonance to Collins, the Philosophy lecturer. As his transvestite lover, Angel, Adrian Li Donni has a pure tone and vibrant presence. The fine voices and professionalism of Jessica Enes (Maureen) and Erin Keleher (Joanne) give substance to their roles. Keep an ear out for the soaring voice of featured soloist, Natalie Calia

Rent is sung through and, sometimes Larson’s recitative becomes dreary and awkward. The chorus numbers are effective, particularly the rousing La Vie Boheme and the very singable and moving song, Seasons of Love.

Larson’s narrative bumps along uncomfortably in the final half hour and his characters’ urban, squatter, anti-establishment attitudes pall, but the music and singing is terrific by this young company.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 1 February 2006

Delicacy by Julian Hobba, Feb 1, 2006

Delicacy  by Julian Hobba 
 Trades Hall, Carlton, until  Feb 4, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Feb 1, 2006

Delicacy, written by Julian Hobba, is a compelling piece of theatre for all sorts of reasons, including the performances, direction, writing and design.

However, it is the subject matter that makes it a peculiar and disturbing experience. This two-hander is based on the true story of a German man who wanted to eat another man and found a willing victim on the internet.

One would expect the cannibal to be Hannibal Lector come to life but what makes the play even more bizarre is the fact that Denny (Luke Mullins) is a passive, weak recluse and his victim, Neil (Paul Denny), is a brute.

Hodda cunningly constructs the story and dialogue so that the world of these two men seems almost banal in its domesticity prior to the moment that blood starts to run.

For most of this short play, we watch the submissive Denny preparing his mother’s special recipe as a final dinner for his belligerent companion, Neil, who sits at the dinner table slavering over internet pornography.

Their actual purpose is veiled until quite late in the play and we could be watching two dysfunctional friends in a typical evening at home. They discuss work, Denny’s late mother, Neil’s wife, the internet. There are only cryptic references to their cannibalistic pact.

Much of their interaction is funny. If one did not know the true story, or anticipate the horror, this could be a light comedy. But the atmosphere turns on a sixpence when Denny, sick of Neil’s delaying tactics, demands Neil leave which, in turn, compels Neil to raise the stakes and bring forward their bloody deadline.

Mullins is rivetting as the subservient Denny. He plays him with a dainty physicality and effete subservience, pacing like a silent servant around his kitchen. As Neil, Paul Denny manages to combine a brutish power with a charming and sensual physicality.

Hodda makes these men real and believable. We have some small insight into their fractured pasts, their daily worlds, disturbed psyches and appalling obsessions.

Director, Wesley Enoch, keeps the pace steady and the mood light until the dreadful turning point. Anna Cordingley’s design provides the ordinariness of a well-equipped kitchen but we are aware of the knives and iron pots that await their intended use.

Delicacy is a very clever play. If you are squeamish about blood, shut your eyes here and there.

By Kate Herbert