Thursday 20 December 2007

Theatre Wrap Up, 2007

 Theatre Wrap up 2007
By Theatre reviewer, Kate Herbert
Published in Herald Sun, Dec 2007

Well I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit tired after a big year of theatre. Although some highlights were expensive musicals and esoteric international productions, a swag of miniatures produced on the smell of an oily rag grabbed my eye.

Strangely, the play that keeps resonating with me was intimate and small budget as well as internationally acclaimed. Sizwe Banzi Is Dead featured two exceptional African actors in Athol Fugard’s 1972 play about apartheid in South African. It was poignant, funny and pertinent in today’s political climate – and directed by the god of theatre, Peter Brook.

Some other incomers thrilled me. Seeing Ian McKellan as a tyrannical but vulnerable old King Lear was a gift and his Sorin in The Seagull was equally distinguished and deliciously cheeky while in the mesmerising Butoh production Kagemi even the curtain call was captivating. The hilarious and versatile Darren Gilshenan and William Zappa inhabited a parade of grotesque characters in The Government Inspector.

Large-scale musicals are back to stay. Spamalot is so funny it hurts while Priscilla is as camp as Rosebud in January. We finally saw Miss Saigon to be impressed by the performers but disappointed by the show. On a smaller scale, the locally grown Keating The Musical was vivacious and the tiny cabaret Intimate Apparel satirised contemporary theatre with acerbic songs.

My year would be incomplete without a scathing and comical political diatribe by Rod Quantock - and this year we had two. John Howard’s Farewell Party was prophetic and Court in the Act was an inventive mock court case that put avid audience members in major roles.

I swooned over Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai, laughed out loud at La Soiree and at Ying Tong, the play that revived Spike Milligan and the Goons. The two major companies, MTC and Malthouse, did not have much to light my fire but neither were they too disappointing except perhaps for The Glass Soldier.

There were plenty of teensy gems in small venues. Red Stitch had a strong program all year and Theatre@Risk gave us the cunningly written and performed Check List for an Armed Robber. Fully Committed demonstrated the formidable talents of Spencer McLaren and Holiday by Ranters Theatre showed us how doing nothing makes novel entertainment.

The Rap Canterbury Tales was a clever pleasure and Sarah Juli’s Money Conversation challenged our view not only of money of but of performance. I save a special accolade for the simply outrageous Mommie and the Minister by Sisters Grimm and for bold and sexy Jane Nolan in Othello Retold.

There were a few nights I would rather have spent in front of the TV. The Perfume Garden might have been better if the writer/lead actor had focussed more on Bollywood and Eagles Nest’s Hamlet was an arduous three hours.

I asked Santa for a riveting 2008 in theatre and am hoping he and Rudolph will deliver.

By Kate Herbert

Monday 17 December 2007

Influenced, by Rowan Ellis, Dec 16, 2007

by Rowan Ellis
La Mama, until Dec 16, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

There is a good idea behind Rowan Ellis’s dark comic play, Influenced, but it has not fulfilled its potential. The balance of verbal gags and exploration of the grim underbelly of sexual deviance is uncomfortable.

Ellis plays Nick, a nervous punter who visits Sasha, a funky, young prostitute played by Megan Alston. Nick, the son of a stand-up comic from the north of England, has an annoying habit of making lame jokes out of every confronting situation and visiting a hooker for the first time seems to be top of his list of uncomfortable moments.

The problem is that every time the dramatic tension in the play begins to rise, Nick’s gags undermine the drama and the relationship temperature plummets to zero. Alston drapes herself seductively across the bed pouting and wriggling like a Persian cat wanting strokes but there is really no sexual tension in the room.

The ups and downs of their communication become repetitive and Nick’s gags become irritating – particularly because they are not funny. Of course Nick is supposed to be a socially incompetent ninny but, as an audience, we still need to have some sympathy for his predicament and to have a laugh.

The two actors, directed by Clayton Buffoni, never really connect with the characters and the frequently trite dialogue feels forced and lacks truth. They both look awkward, not with the material with which they are dealing, but rather with the acting process. Ellis’s comic timing needs work and his dialogue is often incomprehensible.

There is some attempt to cross the boundaries of taste and make the audience feel uncomfortable which is always a good way to make an impact. Nick and Sasha’s first interaction is when he discovers she has a condom lodged where the sun don’t shine and they eventually use kitchen tongs to solve the problem.

It is interesting that both the characters have secret sexual obsessions although the details of these are never clarified.  Nick reveals a preoccupation with his parents’ relationship and we assume he wants Sasha to role-play his mother. He also lets slip a history of violence so perhaps he might hurt Sasha. Rather disappointingly, neither of these scenarios comes to fruition.

Sasha has a sexual history with her stepfather and has fantasies of him siting in her “magic chair” watching her with clients.

In the end Influenced is an unsatisfying play that plants a few dramatic options but does not give us the pay off.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday 11 December 2007

The Pitch, by Peter Houghton, Dec 11, 2007

The Pitch
by Peter Houghton, Malthouse Theatre
Where and When: Beckett Theatre, Malthouse until Dec 16, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

If you have seen a Hollywood blockbuster you will recognise the movie cliches satirised by Peter Houghton in The Pitch. 

If you have ever pitched a screenplay to a producer you might feel faint, so carry smelling salts or just close your eyes and think of England – or Hong Kong, Afghanistan or Paris. Houghton’s fictional movie travels to all these exotic locations.

Houghton, directed by Anne Browning, creates a parade of characters beginning with as the wannabe screenwriter, Walter Weinermann. Walter is desperate to complete his script and prepare for his story pitch to three movie producers with absurdly diverse tastes, politics and backgrounds. Simon is a wealthy English dilettante, Syd is a corporate US film distributor and the third is a feminist critical theorist. He can’t please ‘em all.

The Pitch is a frenetic gallop through place and time in Walter’s movie and Houghton switches between characters at will.  As Walter, he paints a vivid screen picture of the English army in the Hindu Kush in 1936 or of a smoky Parisian nightclub. He vocalises an entire soundtrack including an evocative Afghani chant, an Asian musical theme for Hong Kong and sexy blues for Paris.

He hilariously reproduces sound effects: bombs, gunfire, aeroplane, street fights. Watching Walter’s mind in a panic as he struggles to find the perfect story presentation is like witnessing a man fighting an internal war. He looks as if his head will explode any minute.

The panoramic journey is a spy story about Jones, an assassin portrayed by a cool Clint Eastwood (or it might be a bolshie Russell Crowe). Jones is sent by his spy boss, the oily Anthony Hopkins, to meet the seductive Catherine Zeta Jones and must kill Michael Douglas.

Walter attempts to incorporate every formulaic Hollywood element into his character’s journey: be more than you are; overcome a disadvantage (Clint is illiterate); find love; and seek revenge.

Between plot points we see Walter contending with his own demons about his cool as a cucumber ex-girlfriend, also called Catherine, and her Jesus-freak, recovering alcoholic boyfriend who Walter murders in the guise of Michael Douglas. Revenge is sweet – even if it is fictional.

After three seasons, The Pitch is still a very funny ride – even if it does look a little exhausted.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 5 December 2007

Apples and Ladders, Dec 5, 2007

Apples and Ladders 
created by Sarah Kriegler and Jacob Williams, by Lemony S 
Carlton Courthouse, Dec 5 to Dec 22, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert, on Dec 5 2007

Apples and Ladders, created and performed by Sarah Kriegler and Jacob Williams, is a charming and emotive story that depicts a world in miniature. 

Three diminutive puppets the height of your forearm inhabit a world of tiny houses constructed atop four packing cases. Both puppeteers manipulate them in the style of the Japanese Bun Raku puppets.

Ludvik is a cheerful, round-faced old fella who, each day, collects his mail from the letterbox at his front gate. He strolls creakily down his street to sit playing his accordion. On his return walk, he nods a silent greeting to George, the jaded, lonely old drag queen who swigs booze from the bottle as he waits for the postcard that never arrives.

Each day Ludvik picks an apple from the lush apple tree and delivers it with love to his ailing wife Gertruda who languishes on the sofa.

These frail, old characters are haunted and taunted by a skeletal death figure (called the Knave of Hearts in the program). The menacing skeleton threatens them repeatedly, rattling its nasty, pointing fingers through their windows or leaping upon them without warning from behind the apple tree. He wants to steal not only their lives but also their human warmth, their love, represented in tiny red hearts.

The pint-sized characters come vividly to life with the smallest gestures: a wave of the hand, a tilt of a head, a shiver through the body as Death passes. There is palpable warmth and love in the home of Ludvik and Gertruda that contrasts with the melancholy chill that seeps through the windows of George’s home.

We witness their creeping decrepitude: Ludvik’s stiff and aching back, Gertruda’s lethargy and George’s bitter nostalgia for his days as a chanteuse wrapped in a red boa.

Another whole world appears in shadow puppets inside the boxes on which they stand. When Gertruda dies, taken by the cold hard hands of the Knave, she disappears into this shadowy nether world.

But it is a random act of kindness that chases away the Knave. From his window, George watches Ludvik’s sadness, picks a basket of apples, chases off the Knave’s dangerous advances and delivers the apples to Ludvik.

The evocative music of The Tiger Lilies and atmospheric lighting by Richard Vabre complete this memorable and moving production.

By Kate Herbert

Sunday 2 December 2007

Monty Python's Spamalot, Dec 2, 2007

 Monty Python’s Spamalot
Book and lyrics by Eric Idle, music by Eric Idle & John Du Prez
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Dec 2, 2007 until Feb 2008

Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Spamalot is achingly funny. The first half is so gut-wrenchingly hilarious it makes your face hurt.

Of course, if you were a Monty Python tragic in your youth (me too) you will be daggily delighted to revisit the mad gags from Monty Python and the Holy Grail from which Spamalot was “lovingly ripped off” by Eric Idle.

We even forgive the second half for rambling around like a lunatic, trying to find its narrative. The show reprises The Knights of Ni (“Bring us a shrubbery”), the taunting Frenchmen (“I fart in your general direction”) and Not Dead Fred (“I’m feeling much better”). But it also blows a raspberry at big music theatre - particularly Phantom – and mocks its earnest predictability.

Bille Brown may not be much of a singer but his demented and grinning King Arthur, the epitome of upper-class twit, is delirious with his divine right to rule and oblivious to the hilarity around him. As in the movie, Arthur gallops horseless across 10th century Britain to the clop of coconut shells played by his mud-spattered servant, Patsy (Derek Metzger).

Idle and John Du Prez’s songs are inspired, Mike Nichols direction is inventive, the orchestra is tight, Tim Hatley’s design is vivid and Casey Nicholaw’s choreography is just plain silly. The show is narrated by a smug Historian (Mark Conaghan) and, after a false start in Finland with the Fisch Schlapping Song, Arthur embarks on his hero’s journey seeking Holy Grail. But first he recruits Knights for his Round Table.

The ensemble is impressive. Jason Langley is impish as the cowardly Brave Sir Robin who soils his pants at any hint of danger. Ben Lewis is a riot as Dennis, the revolutionary Communist villager who scrubs up to become the dashing Sir Galahad, golden-haired Brad Pitt of the Britons. David Whitney, after a Pythonesque drag act as Dennis’s Mother, is the portly Sir Bevedere and Stephen Hall is absurdly butch as Homicidally Brave - and latently homosexual - Sir Lancelot.

Conaghan revels in the girlish damsel in distress, Prince Herbert, while Metzger’s exceptional musical comedy technique makes Patsy a highlight. The vivacious and talented Lucinda Shaw, as the Lady in the Lake, grabs the role with both hands. With Lewis, she sings The Song That Goes Like This and returns with The Diva’s Lament, a comical pot shot at big-voiced musical stars. Oh - and John Cleese is God.

Spamalot is a really bonkers, laugh-out-loud romp.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday 27 November 2007

Not What I Am- Othello Retold, 11th Hour, Nov 27, 2007

 Not What I Am- Othello Retold 
 adapted from William Shakespeare, by The Eleventh Hour
11th Hour, 170 Leicester St, Fitzroy, Nov 27 to  Dec 6, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

This interpretation of Othello by The Eleventh Hour is a radical reworking and editing of Shakespeare’s play. Although Iago  (David Tredinnick) remains the primary source of Othello’s (Rodney Afif) escalating doubt and jealousy about his young bride Desdemona (Shelly Lauman), other voices share Iago’s dialogue.

A chorus of cloaked and faceless characters based on the mediaeval charavari (a noisy public humiliation of newly weds), chant and echo, represent a disapproving Venetian community that wants to destabilise the powerful outsider, Othello the Moor. This chorus effectively shares Iago’s destructive and insidious dialogue about lust, revenge, pride and hate.

This retelling is in the most part effective and resonant. The production is atmospheric, intimate and soaked in danger and intrigue. The chorus assists Iago to engineer Othello’s downfall. They creep like a Venetian fog, insinuating their way into Othello’s addled mind and his bedchamber.

This is a sexually charged interpretation of the play. Iago and Amelia (Jane Nolan) writhe and moan in lurid sexual poses, Cassio (Stuart Orr) and Roderigo (Greg Ulfan) wrestle and claw each other while Othello and Desdemona are entwined in lovemaking.

Afif gives his Middle Eastern Moor strength and arrogance. However the dynamic development of his Othello’s fraught emotional journey seems unbalanced, reaching a pitch too early with nowhere to go. Tredinnick simpering, fawning and leering Iago will make your flesh crawl and Nolan’s Amelia is a powerhouse of menacing lust. Her delivery of Shakespeare’s dialogue is particularly potent.

Orr’s Cassio is a raffish fop an Ulfan plays the lovelorn Roderigo with whining histrionics. Lauman’s Desdemona feels like a modern teenager, which clashes at times with the ominous and mediaeval tone of the production.

A dim, golden light (Nik Pajanti) penetrates the delicate, Moorish patterns of the wooden-framed set design (Julie Renton) and bathes the marriage bed, the site of love and murder in filtered morning light. Chanting and an evocative soundscape (Wally Gunn) accentuate the haunting atmosphere.

Anne Thompson’s production isolates Othello, highlighting his “otherness” in a mono-cultural Venice and making him as much a victim of circumstances and politics as Desdemona. The physicality of the performances gives the play a visceral quality not usually present in productions that focus on the words alone.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday 6 November 2007

John Howard’s Farewell Party, Rod Quantock, Nov 6, 2007

John Howard’s Farewell Party 
by Rod Quantock
Trades Hall, until Nov 10, 2007

Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Nov 6, 2007

Rod Quantock is getting in early before the federal election results with his new political comedy show, John Howard’s Farewell Party. 

The show is a roast, perhaps even a vivisection, of our possibly outgoing Prime Minister. Quantock might be hoping for a change of government but he regrets the loss of the ceaseless comic potential of the man who power walks like a wombat on two legs.

Quantock greets us individually at the door and invites us to sign a giant farewell card for John Howard. Everybody writes cheerful, cynical messages.

With supreme irony, the party takes place in the Trades Hall, the bastion of the Victoria union movement. The genuinely ugly Old Council Chambers has a shabby, embarrassed retirement party look to it with tinselly farewell banners, strings of cheap party lights and a wall of sensationalist front page headlines arrayed behind Quantock on the stage.

Quantock rambles around hilariously inside his own mind, quipping that perhaps he should have a plan, (all too predictable for him), jotting down reminders for later, scribbling lists of Howard’s sins on a white board and venting his rage at Howard’s government.

Even if you are a Howard supporter, his material is very funny. Political satire plays no favourites. Kevin Rudd gets a serve (“No world leader has ever been called Kevin”), Kim Beasley is dismissed (“Only North Koreans would vote for a man called Kim”) and Mark Latham – well, we all remember his special breed of political madness. But Quantock vents most of his spleen on the little man himself. He conjures all sorts of fates for him including beating him with Alexander Downer.

Quantock creates ridiculous and funny arguments from unrelated topics. He convinces us that Big Brother really is watching and that the information age will eventually control our lives right down to our fridges and toilets. He questions the notions of free market and democracy and reminds us about the government’s absurd cardboard fridge magnet about terrorism.

The topics of satirical observation are far ranging but some of the greatest jokes come from actual letter to the editor from the Adelaide Advertiser. There’s nothing like a genuinely confused argument from a bigot for a laugh.

So if you are hoping for an election defeat but presume the polls are just wrong again, celebrate early with Rod – and commiserate later.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 31 October 2007

The Chosen Vessel, Oct 31, 2007

The Chosen Vessel 
adapted from Barbara Baynton by Petty Traffickers
 Theatreworks, Oct 31 to Nov 18, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Oct 31, 2007

Australian writer, Barbara Baynton, published her short stories around the turn of the 20th century. Director of Petty Traffickers, Stewart Morritt, adapts three of her bush stories for this production: A Dreamer, Squeaker’s Mate and The Chosen Vessel.

There is some unevenness in the interpretations of the various tales. The more successfully rendered stories – A Dreamer and The Chosen Vessel – combine narration with enactment of the stories­­ while Squeaker’s Mate extracts dialogue and action from Baynton’s narrative. The cast of three gives passionate and committed performances of a range of iconic bush characters.

The Chosen Vessel is a chilling tale of the rape and murder of a young woman (Chloe Armstrong) left alone with her baby in her isolated home. Morritt evokes a potent sense of menace when a dangerous traveller (Joe Clements) approaches her house.

The resonant voice of the narrator (Margot Knight) from behind the audience accentuates the darkness of the narrative. Deep shadows and unsettling, suspenseful pauses heighten its horror. The hostile bush environment is almost as threatening as the violent home invader and the vulnerability of the woman is distressing and she fights to protect her baby if not herself.

The forbidding landscape is also featured in A Dreamer when a young pregnant woman (Armstrong) contends with the elements as she battles her way through the inhospitable bush to visit her mother. Baynton’s themes of motherhood and maternal instinct recur here as the young woman’s physical and metaphorical journey takes her through a storm towards her mother who lies on her deathbed.

Baynton’s recurrent theme of male abuse of women occurs again in Squeaker’s Mate. Squeaker (Clements) is a lazy, dim-witted farmer who relies on his sturdy, masculine wife (Knight), known as his “mate”, to manage all the heavy farm work. When a felled tree cripples her, his shameful neglect of her leads to outright abuse and abandonment. The loyal dog, another of Baynton’s recurrent themes, defends her and pays her faithless husband back in spades. Knight’s rendition of the broken woman as she drags her lifeless limbs around her hut is alarming and disturbing.

These stories have dramatic potential and some of that is realised in these staged versions. The cavernous space distorts the voices at times and the production still needs some editing and tightening.

By Kate Herbert

A Dollhouse, VCA, Oct 31, 2007

A Dollhouse
by Henrik Ibsen, by VCA Drama Graduates 2007
VCA Drama School, Oct 31 to Nov 6, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The loudest door slam in the history of theatre was not to be heard at the conclusion of this contemporary interpretation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Dollhouse (commonly translated as A Doll’s House) directed by Daniel Schlusser for a talented group of VCA graduates.

If you know the play, you understand that tinkering with the ending is theatrical sacrilege. It interferes with the controversial social politics that caused such vehement reactions from Ibsen’s conservative late 19th century Norway.

Schlusser’s adaptation is playful and energetic and locates Nora (Katherine Harris) and her husband Torvald (Nick Jamieson) in a modern context. It deconstructs the play, adding contemporary references and music, an industrial metallic design (Jeminah Reidy) and plenty of 21st century techno toys. 

Ibsen’s dialogue is interrupted with youthful banter and game playing while the stage is littered with toys, stressing the childish behaviour of these characters who struggle with their dysfunctional adult relationships.

A pert Harris plays Nora as a coquettish tease, giving the child-woman a modern naivete that parallels that of 19th century Nora. Jamieson’s Torvald is a control freak with a dangerous edge despite his playfulness, a successful banker who rules his wife with an iron fist but expects her to be pretty, stupid and sexy. It is frightening that a tyrant such as Torvald and a ditz like Nora do not look out of place in the modern era.

Michael Wahr plays the manipulative Krogstad as a relapsing drug addict who tumbles on stage through cupboard doors. His emotional reunion with Edwina Wren as Kristine was moving. Ben Pfeiffer gives a comical but sympathetic portrayal of Dr. Rank who confronts his mortality.

Nora’s disintegrating psychological landscape and loss of faith in the security of the doll’s house in which she has been living are represented clearly in the chaotic noise, confused action and clutter of children’s toys at the end. 

This is feisty reinterpretation of Ibsen. However, when Nora stays with Torvald because he compels her to see her children, the final scene becomes merely a bad marital argument rather than Nora’s shattering realisation of a life wasted and misunderstood, a woman escaping from a socially sanctioned oppression and walking into the unknown with her very survival at risk.

No matter that Ibsen considered changing his ending to appease his critics. The play is nothing without the door slam. Run Nora. Run.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 25 October 2007

(The Pilot Version of…) Something To Die For, Oct 25, 2007

(The Pilot Version of…) Something To Die For
by Ross Mueller
Store Room, Oct 25 to Nov 4, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Oct 25, 2007

(The Pilot Version of…) Something To Die For is a monologue still in development according to the programme.  

Playwright Ross Mueller creates a single role of the Author (David Tredinnick), AKA Mueller himself, who speaks about his experiences in a playwrights’ programme in London amongst other more disturbing things at home.

Tredinnick’s impassioned performance, directed by Aidan Fennessy,  makes this underdeveloped and peculiar script more interesting. He is both funny and poignant as he plays the distracted and awkward Author. He depicts the unravelling of the man as he contends with a blooming breakdown: he is sleepless, jetlagged, drinks too much, eats too little and is experiencing a crisis of confidence in his play writing.

The Author stands at a lectern attempting to describe to us his mental state, his love of his sone Sam and his struggles with the creative process while attending a six-week playwrights’ Workshop at the Royal Court Theatre. At the centre of his addled investigation of this visit to London is his meeting with David Hare, the renowned and admired English playwright.

Mueller repeatedly recounts versions of his encounter with Hare. The story begins again and again as the Author struggles to frame his recollections of the moment and to create a sense of the monumental ordinariness of meeting a hero in the flesh. The Author’s own torment has some parallel in Hare’s play, Via Dolorosa, the monodrama Hare was performing at that time and that investigates his personal journey in the Middle East.

The Author, like Hare, confronts his own Via Dolorosa, the tortuous path travelled by Christ to his crucifixion. “What would you die for?” asks Hare of his playwriting acolytes. The Author/Mueller has a burgeoning awareness that he would die his son Sam.

The monodrama falls into two distinct parts. The first comprises repeated attempts to relate the Author’s shattering experiences at the Workshop. The second, the passionate core of his dilemma, narrates the Author’s nightmare about a plane crash in which he is unable to rescue his little son from drowning.

The two parts of the drama could be integrated and the through line about one’s burning attachment to one’s child could serve the narrative more effectively. As yet, Something to Die For is in an embryonic form and awaits its evolution into a play.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday 23 October 2007

European House– (Hamlet’s prologue without words), Melbirne Festival

European House– (Hamlet’s prologue without words) 
by Teatre Lliure
Melbourne Festival of Arts
Playhouse, Arts Centre, Oct 23 to 27, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Walking to European House I peered into a well-lit apartment. Was the man leaning over the table melancholy or merely pensive?

Watching this production we are voyeurs into the home of a modern Hamlet (Joan Carreras) after his father’s (Victor Pi) death and before the events of Shakespeare’s play.

We witness private and shared moments in various rooms. The familiarity of people’s actions and the invasiveness of this experience resonate after the performance is finished. Although, unlike James Stewart in Rear Window, we do not witness a murder, we know that Claudius (Alex Rigola) poisoned his brother and that Hamlet’s torment is just beginning.

The set design is a modern, three-storey home with its front wall removed to allow peering eyes to view the intimate details of these lives. The action is often simple, always recognisable and on a human scale. Clever lighting (Maria Domenech) shifts our eye but our attention is often split between rooms.

Two servants (Chantal Aimée, Angela Jové) prepare in the kitchen before Hamlet and Gertrude (Alicia Peréz), return home from the funeral, silent and grieving. The conniving Claudius commands the space in the living room, seduces his brother’s grieving widow in her bedroom then falsifies documents – perhaps the will – in collusion with Polonius (Joan Raja) in the study.

We see Hamlet naked in the shower, in his bedroom frenetically doing push-ups, being comforted by his loyal friend Horatio (Ferran Carvajal), stroking the face of Ophelia (Alba Pujol), screaming into a pillow with Guildenstern (Nathalie Labiano) or dancing and laughing with all his young pals.

Claudius and Gertrude tear each other’s clothes off and engage in some graphic and raunchy sexual activity on her marital bed. King Hamlet’s Ghost roves unseen through every room until he leaves a cryptic post-it note with a message for Hamlet.

Laertes (Julio Manrique) disapproves of his sister’s petting with Hamlet and Rosencrantz (Norbert Martìnez) makes a giggling idiot of himself.

European House is a stylish and slick production directed with attention to detail by Rigola who also plays Claudius. The cool and sleek design (Sebastià Brosa, Bibiana Puigdefràbregas OK) is a cool environment housing both passionate and restrained emotions in all characters. The house seems to be near breaking point and there are portents of impending doom when the caged bird dies and Hamlet is given his father’s message.

European House is a compelling and inventive show that tells an intensely human story with no words but with impeccable acting.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 18 October 2007

The Perfume Garden, Oct 18, 2007

The Perfume Garden by Rajendra Moodley
Athenaeum Theatre, Oct 18 to Nov 3, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

We all know that Bollywood movies are fun. They take to a new and ridiculous high the Hollywood musical convention of bursting into song and dance at odd intervals. 

The Perfume Garden by Rajendra Moodley features occasional moments of video Bollywood-style scattered amongst domestic scenes about an Indian family.

These high camp video Indian dance segments, accompanied by the on stage actors who indulge in less elaborate dance antics, are very funny and create a vivid sense of Indian style and location that is lacking in the rather dull stage setting.

Anand (Moodley) is a depressed young Indian-Australian, living with his parents (Anastasia Malinoff, Greg Ulfan) who run a failing spice shop. Anand’s ambition is to write romantic fiction but he has writer’s block. Meanwhile, he is avoiding marrying Devi (Shireen Morris), a traditional India girl who wants permanent Australian residency.

Moodley’s almost sit-com style of writing in the family scenes is unsuccessful much of the time. The dialogue becomes repetitive and the jokes tired. The cluttered domestic stage setting does not assist the Bollywood routines and often interrupts the action.

This is not to say that there are not a few good laughs in the show. There are some funny observations about traditional Indian families and their obsession with making a good marriage, having an enormously expensive wedding, the absurdity of some of the rituals and expectations and the comic value to be had from a 30 year old living at home with his parents.

But the comic highlight is the character of Aya - played by Evelyn Krape - the old woman crippled by a stroke who is resurrected temporarily by Anand’s essential oils and a mysterious Hindu spell. Krape is outrageous and hilarious and she capers about, making suggestive comments and lewd gestures, then wearing a sari and cavorting in her Bollywood dance routines. She is a riot and definitely steals the show despite the narrative being based around Anand.

Moodley obviously draws on his own experience in this role but he still seems a little awkward on stage. There are strong performances from Ulfan as Anand’s anxious dad and Malinoff as the cheerful and obliging mother and from Morris who is delightful as the petulant Indian princess, Devi. A video cameo from Carolyn Bock is a cute satire about an Indian marriage reality show called Big Aunty.

This show is light entertainment but could benefit from more live Bollywood routines and a savage edit of the dialogue and story.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday 16 October 2007

Sizwe Banzi is Dead, Oct 16, 2007 *****

Sizwe Banzi is Dead  *****
Written by Athol Fugard
Directed by Peter Brook
Cast: John Kani & Winston Ntshona
Melbourne Festival of Arts
Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, Oct 16 to Oct 27, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Oct 16, 2007

Sizwe Banzi is Dead is the epitome of actors’ theatre.

Distinguished director, Peter Brook places two inspiring and engaging performers in a virtually empty space to tell a simple story of a man overcoming adversity during Apartheid in South Africa. The compelling story is presented on a human scale with humour and pathos.

The play opens with a long monologue by the cheeky and adorable Habib Dembele as Styles, an African worker who describes and enacts in hilarious detail his workplace at the Ford car plant. Styles escapes from factory drudgery to a photographic studio where he encounters Robert Zwemlizima (Pitcho Womba Konga) who wants a photo to send home to his wife.

What slowly unfolds is a morality tale of Robert, who was born Sizwe Banzi, stumbling drunkenly upon a dead body on the road and facing the dilemma of appropriating the man’s name and identity papers that will permit him to work. Robert-Sizwe has no work papers so he confronts a choice that challenges his moral view, his sense of self and his desire for security and employment to provide for his family.

The intimacy and authenticity of the two performers is enchanting. With his vitality, playfulness and dexterity, the pint-sized Dembele, a writer and political activist from Mali, conjures a parade of characters with only a tilt of the head, twist of the mouth and shift in the body. He miraculously creates three generations of a family who visit Styles for a group portrait. His physicality is fluid as he dances lightly around the stage from character to character.

The magnetic Konga, a rapper from the Congo, brings a quiet and simple dignity to Robert-Sizwe, playing him with warmth as a gentle giant and a moral man facing a great dilemma.

This thought-provoking play was developed by Afrikaner playwright, Athol Fugard with black actors, John Kani & Winston, Ntshona and first performed in 1972. By telling real stories based on the experiences of South Africans during Apartheid, the grotesque injustices visited upon people in their daily lives are brought into high relief in this and Fugard’s other Statement Plays.

Sizwe Banzi is now performed in theatres but, in the 70s, it toured South African townships and the potency and relevance of its story and authenticity of its actors created profoundly emotional reactions in its audiences. 

Apartheid might be past, but prejudice and racial abuse lives among us still. As Robert-Sizwe says, “Our skin is trouble.”

By Kate Herbert

Monday 15 October 2007

medEia by Dood Paard, Oct 15, 2007

 medEia  by Dood Paard
Melbourne Festival of Arts 
Beckett Theatre, Malthouse, Oct 15 to Oct 20, 2007

Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Oct 15, 2007

Euripides’ Ancient Greek tragedy, Medea, has a contemporary face-lift in this minimalist production by Dood Paard, a theatre company from Amsterdam.

The play is stripped back to its essential elements and is narrated by three actors who, for most of the time, represent the Greek Chorus comprising the Women of Corinth. The Chorus comments upon the unfolding action, fully aware that they are totally incapacitated in their role as observers and powerless to alter the path of doom trod Medea and her unfaithful husband Jason.

The play is recreated and performed by Oscar van Woensel, Kuno Bakker and Manja Topper. Their text is delivered directly to the audience in a laconic and understated style. The dialogue is peppered with allusions to modern love song lyrics and often has a wry humour.

The restrained style is interrupted intermittently when an actor transforms into Medea or Jason expressing his or her rage, passionate love, revenge or jealousy. The casualness of the Chorus is starkly in contrast to the sporadic impassioned rants of the protagonists.

Four cool, creamy paper screens, patched with masking tape, create a stark design to reflect the emotional detachment of the Chorus. Each screen is raised from the floor at intervals in the dramatic narrative and then torn down before the next is elevated. 

At intervals, images are projected onto a screen. Snapshots of foreign lands echo Medea’s alienation or pictures of ships and trains suggest her extensive travels. Children, families and villages remind us of her shattered relationships and the disturbing rapidity of the slideshow evokes an unsettling sense of her psychic breakdown.

The dislocated, non-linear structure of the story compels us to confront Medea’s final tragedy throughout the performance. The Chorus damns her as a murderer and a traitor to her own land, a stranger in their country and a potent witch with frightening and violent powers. 

Yet we are aware that Medea is driven by love, blind love for her husband Jason who abandoned her for a younger woman but is still hailed as a hero. We have some sympathy for her predicament if not for her vengeful actions.

medEia is a fascinating and accessible production that expresses the universality of the Ancient Greeks’ plays.

By Kate Herbert

Sunday 14 October 2007

c-90 by Daniel Kitson, Oct 14, 2007

 c-90 by Daniel Kitson
Melbourne Festival of Arts
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre, Oct 14 to 27, 2007

Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Oct 14, 2007

Daniel Kitson is acclaimed as a stand-up comic both her and in the UK but, although in c-90 Kitson stands up while being funny, c-90 is far from stand-up comedy.

It is a poignant storytelling performance delivered at Kitson’s usual frenetic speed but without the scatological language of his comedy gigs. From the moment he enters Kitson transports us to a peculiarly English, woody office inhabited by disenchanted cataloguer, Henry Leonard Bodey.

Although Kitson never becomes the characters he describes in the third person, we see, hear and even smell them as he conjures them and their painfully dull worlds with elaborately constructed language, cunning observations and vivid imagery. With his scruffy beard, thick spectacles and rough suit he looks like one of his characters.

The compulsiveness of Henry is reflected in Kitson’s style of delivery and obsessive attention to detail in his depiction of characters, relationships and locations within the village they all inhabit. He yammers non-stop, indulging in the wordiness of his narrative.

The story takes place on Henry’s retirement day. For decades he received and catalogued 70,000 sad and discarded compilation cassette tapes then filed them, by some unfathomable method, on enormous, wooden library shelves in this forgotten repository. On this, his final day of work Henry, who has not received a new tape for months or years, finds two mysterious, gift-wrapped parcels containing a compilation tape and a cassette player. After years of disappointment, his remaining hours are joyfully spent hunting amongst his tapes for clues to the identity of the unknown benefactor.

We also meet other members of the village. Millicent is also retiring the same day from her career as a lollipop woman. A compulsive-obsessive to rival Henry, Milly insists on knowing everybody’s middle name and using it. She is eccentric and engages in elaborate linguistic play – but only in her mind.

Michael is the only past student who remembers Milly, Thomas is the rude librarian in the Music section of the local library where Milly collects her records, Susan Jane Conway is a teacher on maternity leave and Jessica is the vet who inadvertently injures over animals.

The mad complexity of each character’s inner world is unveiled for us in Kitson’s evocative rivers of narrative. There is an underlying melancholia in the lost dreams, forgotten hopes and missed opportunities of these people and a poignancy in their joy in simple human pleasures.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 11 October 2007

Half Life, by John Mighton, Oct 11, 2007

 Half Life 
by John Mighton by Necessary Angel Theatre Company
Melbourne Festival of Arts
Playhouse Arts Centre, Thurs-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm & 6pm, Mon 11am until Mon Oct 15
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Burgeoning love should be cherished at any age. In his award-winning play, Half Life, Canadian playwright John Mighton explores the complexity and simplicity of a late-blooming romance between Clara (Carolyn Hetherington) and Patrick (Eric Peterson), two nursing home residents.

Mighton’s writing is restrained, often poignant and sometimes funny. His characters’ dialogue often ventures into the philosophical and analytical as they negotiate the dimming landscape of ageing from differing perspectives.

Clara, played with demure elegance and sweetness by Hetherington, is an easy, lovable patient who is visited daily by her attentive son Donald (Richard Clarkson), a neuro-psychologist. When Donald meets Anna (Laura de Carteret), the daughter of new resident, Patrick, we predict a growing romantic attachment between them.

What transpires is the surprising attraction between the bellicose alcoholic Patrick, and forgetful, timid Clara. Patrick will walk over glass or break unbeatable locks to escape for a bottle of booze but, with Clara, he plays cards like a lamb, repeating his stories and amusing her with anecdotes. They believe they met during the war but were separated by Patrick’s secret, code-breaking Army work.

When Anna reveals to Donald that her father and Clara want to marry, Donald invokes his Power of Attorney to stop the marriage and protect his recently widowed mother. What follows is poignant if not tragic. Who are we to interfere in a love match at any age?

Peterson balances brusque humour and belligerence in Patrick while Clarkson brings a wry humour to Donald, playing him with a sturdy determination, loyalty and practicality. Although Mighton does not fully develop Laura, de Carteret gives her an attractive warmth, honesty and optimism.

Maggie Huculak as Tammy the carer is gratingly cheerful and Barbara Gordon is hilariously volatile and aggressive as Agnes who rages against life.  Although Mighton writes Reverend Hill as a broad, cartoon-like character, Robert Persichini creates layers of pathos beneath the humour.

Director Daniel Brooks establishes a sense of other-worldly timelessness in the nursing home by using slow-motion scene changes, muted lighting (Andrea Lundy), eerie soundscape (Richard Feren) and a contained acting style.

Mighton’s play incorporates tenderness and discreet, controlled emotion. It challenges views of ageing and love as well as triggering a sense of melancholia as we watch two people pacing towards death.

By Kate Herbert

Saturday 6 October 2007

Priscilla Queen of the Desert – The Musical, Oct 6, 2007

Priscilla Queen of the Desert – The Musical 
By Stephan Elliott & Allan Scott
Regent Theatre, Oct 6, 2007 to unspecified end date in 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Oct 6, 2007

Start squealing, swilling vodka martinis and donning your stilettos, wigs and false lashes – Priscilla has arrived with more sequins, lurex and high-campery than Liberace. 

“A busload of drag queens lost in the desert. Yes, it does sound like a movie.” And, when it comes to colour and movement, the movie doesn’t hold a fairy-lit candle to the stage show.

Three drag queens (Tony Sheldon, Jeremy Stanford, Daniel Scott) drive a battered bus from Sydney to the Alice Springs Casino to perform a drag show. Stephan Elliott, with Allan Scott, adapts his original movie to include live disco songs, mischievous showgirl/boy choreography  (Ross Coleman) and the wildest costumes (Lizzy Gardiner, Tim Chappel) since Lion King. We see feathers and fans to rival Siegfeld’s Follies, dancing paintbrushes, patty cakes and Australian flora and fauna. Every element is perfectly calibrated, exotically designed and imaginatively directed by Simon Phillips.

But the night belongs to the travelling drag queens played by Tony Sheldon (Bernadette), Jeremy Stanford (Tick/Mitzi) and Daniel Scott (Adam/Felicia). Sheldon’s portrayal of Bernadette, an ageing transsexual from the 1960s Les Girls, balances her heartfelt emotion and her need for subdued, middle-class elegance with her veteran’s skill gained from years of drag shows.

Tick instigates the girls’ journey to Alice Springs, where his ex-wife (Marney McQueen) manages the Casino entertainment, in order to to make first contact with his small son. Stanford is deliciously bold and sassy as Mitzi, Tick’s drag persona, but plays the off-stage Tick with grace and poignancy as he pines for his unknown son. His rendition of I Say A Little Prayer and Always on My Mind are moving.

Daniel Scott fully inhabits the audacious young Adam – stage name Felicia. His flying entrance is exciting and his leather-boy routine to the disco hit, Venus, is outrageously sexy. We fear for the insolent Adam when he is bashed by toughs in Coober Pedy.

Michael Caton is warm and lovable as Bob and the trio is supported by the exceptional voices of the Divas, three female angels who sing suspended above the stage. The enormous volume and richness of the production could not exist without the talented ensemble and versatile band (arrangements – Stephen ‘Spud’ Murphy), evocative production design (Brian Thompson) and lighting (Nick Schlieper).

The chorus numbers are vivid, daring and over-the-top and the hits just keep coming: Don’t Leave Me This Way, Go West, I Love The Nightlife, I Will Survive, Pop Muzik and Shake Your Groove Thing. There are delectable cameos by Colette Mann, Lena Cruz and Trevor Ashley as Miss Understanding singing What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Priscilla is littered with camp innuendo, lip-syncing, disco and impertinence and, man, it’s a fab night out.

By Kate Herbert