Wednesday 28 March 2007

Exit the King with Geoffrey Rush, Malthouse, March 28, 2007

Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco
translated by Isabelle Mangeot-Hewison, Geoffrey Rush and Neil Armfield.
Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse Theatre
March 28 to April 21, 2007
Tues 6.30pm, Wed to Sat 8pm, Sun 5pm
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on opening night, March 28, 2007
Featuring Geoffery Rush

Eugene Ionesco’s King Berenger (Geoffrey Rush) orders the sun to rise, trees to grow and clouds to disperse. Ridiculous as it seems, his behaviour is not unlike that of some despots who rule small nations.

Rush is hilarious and magnetic, invoking his comic genius to play the 400-year old sovereign, Berenger, in Ionesco’s existentialist tragicomedy, Exit the King. Dressed in pyjamas and an ermine robe, he staggers on rubbery legs, tumbles to the floor repeatedly and performs sights gags with his sceptre and crown.

In the faded grandeur of his throne room, designed by Dale Ferguson, Berenger is surrounded by the trappings of royalty, his wives and remaining servants. He has 90 minutes to live; he will die at the end of the play. What follows is a chaotic blend of farce and tragedy as Berenger faces mortality after centuries of tyranny and arrogance, complacency, warmongering and oppression.

His dogged grip on life saps the blood out of his kingdom, causing its deterioration; land falls into an abyss and his few remaining subjects are geriatrics. His know-all Doctor (Bille Brown) and calculating first wife, Queen Marguerite (Gillian Jones), blatantly welcome his forthcoming demise. Death stages a political coup for them.

Although written in 1962, the play resonates with contemporary issues. Power corrupts, war achieves nothing, leaders rule carelessly and we seek the fountain of youth, unwilling to face the inevitability of death. Berenger embodies the five stages of grieving. He denies, rages, bargains, weeps and, finally, grudgingly accepts his fate and takes poignant delight in the banalities of daily existence.

Directed with a deft hand by Neil Armfield, Rush balances comedy with pathos in the king’s struggle to accept death. His interpretation of Ionesco’s monologues and moments of stillness is moving. We all crave redemption, a reprieve from death’s call.

The rhythm of the play feels uneven and there is more comedy and pathos to be had from supporting characters.

Julie Forsyth is deliciously funny and eccentric as the downtrodden, exhausted but devoted maidservant, Juliette. Brown plays the Doctor with supercilious coldness. As the loyal Guard, David Woods is comically addled, lumbering in his unwieldy coat of arms, spouting proclamations about the King’s health.

Rebecca Massey, makes young wife, Marie’s whining and weeping very funny. Gillian Jones, as Queen Marguerite, captures her calculating pragmatism and relentlessness although, at the start of the play, she seems to be playing a more naturalistic style.

By Kate Herbert

Friday 23 March 2007

Mojo by Jez Butterworth, March 23.2007

 Mojo by Jez Butterworth
 Chapel off Chapel, Thurs to Sat, March 23 to April 1, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The five men in Jez Butterworth’s black comedy, Mojo, are London villains, wide boys, dodgy blokes who skate on thin ice both with the law and other crims. The play has echoes of Shepard, Mamet and the English movie, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

Butterworth captures the vernacular of 1950’s East End and kneads it into comic dialogue. Syd (Lee Mason) and Sweets (Justin Hosking) look and sound like a Vaudeville double act, their rapid-fire patter zipping along like a stand-up routine. The familiar rhythm and repetition of the cockney dialect translates into very funny, dysfunctional overstatement.

Their boss, Mickey, (Brett Swain) is a sturdy bulldog of a bloke who strikes the fear of God into Syd, Sweets and the rather dim Skinny Luke (David F. Passmore). The only one of the tribe that is not afraid of Mickey is Baby (Mark Diaco), the son of their unseen Big Boss, Ezra.

Everything falls apart when Ezra’s dismembered body is found in two bins behind his Soho nightclub where they all work. A rival gang boss seems the likely culprit and the motive concerns ownership of Silver Johnny (Felix Allsop), the wildly popular club singer who has all the girls swooning.

The gang scrambles to deal with the loss of its leader and to establish its new hierarchy. Swain plays the tough and dangerous Mickey with the humourless bravado of a man who knows he is in charge. Mason, as the pill-popping Syd, makes us believe, initially, that Syd might be capable of greater things but his panic at the new and bloody circumstances reveals his weaknesses.

Hosking plays Syd’s speed-freak sidekick, Sweets, as a smiling and deferential servant trying not to upset his master. Passmore makes the halitosis-plagued Skinny a whining, obsequious, resentful victim. As Baby, Skinny’s torturer and the most volatile and genuinely dangerous of these low level villains, Diaco is arrogant, supercilious and cool as a cucumber.

Terence O’Connell’s direction takes advantage of Butterworth’s swift dialogue and relentless pace. He captures the seedy 1950’s Soho nightclub environment that is enhanced by Cara Kushlin’s simple but effective design. The cockney rhythms are difficult to replicate but, most of the time, the cast manage to embody the frenetic babbling of the gang’s drug-affected speech. Mojo is a really entertaining roller coaster ride.

By Kate Herbert

elmo, La Mama, March 23, 2007

elmo  by Ben Cittadini 
La Mama, March 23 to April 1, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on March 23, 2007
Ben Cittadini’s play, elmo,  focuses on the burgeoning but dysfunctional relationship between Linda (Sarah Derum) and Serge (Craig Darryl Peade). They meet daily in a park, at first accidentally then by design or choice.
Linda is unhappily married to Enzo, who Serge insists on calling Elmo. She is a dissatisfied 32-year old who works in the city. Serge is evidently workless but engages in rather ineffectual exercise in the park and carried a huge blue sports bag.
Cittadini, directing his own play, attempts to break theatrical conventions of pace and rhythm by interpolating interminable pauses between lines of dialogue and scenes. The effect has distant echoes of Pinter but lacks any sense of menace. Initially, it works to provide a sense of real time passing, of the tedium of their lives and their rusty and awkward communication. Eventually, it is simply annoying. The play runs 70 minutes but should be 40.
Some intrigue unfolds in the relationship as Linda reveals snippets of her unhappy marriage to Enzo. Slowly we hear that he wants children but she does not want to bear them; he is tight with his money and she has a gambling problem; she likes Asian food and he does not.
Serge, in contrast, is a layabout who lives nearby in a messy, dirty house. He slowly reveals that not only has he been following Linda but he has also been stalking her husband, phoning their house posing as a market researcher.
These two marginalised people find some solace in the anonymity of their regular meetings.
At times, elmo has charm and interest; there are a few gentle laughs, some simple observations of character and interaction and a few tests of an audience’s tolerance. However, its relentlessly slow rhythm undermines much of its charm.
The actors are often inaudible and, in a small space, this is inexcusable. Cittadini purposefully avoids any theatricality of style but we do need, at least, to hear them. Derum has limited range as Linda playing one note throughout. Peade’s perpetual motion is annoyingly repetitive and makes Serge look like a silly child.
 Theatre that attempts to bore an audience appeals to a very small group.
By Kate Herbert

Thursday 15 March 2007

Ashes to Ashes by Harold Pinter, March 15, 2007

Ashes to Ashes by Harold Pinter
 fortyfivedownstairs,  Wed to Sun, March 15 to March 2, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Ashes to Ashes, a short play first staged in 1996, is not one of Harold Pinter’s most famous or popular plays although it reverberates with his idiosyncratic themes, characters and style of  “menace”.

Sam Strong’s production has no elaborate design (Melissa Page) or bells and whistles - not even the police siren that opened the original production. This version is sparse, performed in a vast, empty space with barred windows, distressed brick walls and stark lighting (Danny Pettingill) rather than in a set reflecting the middle-class, English home of Devlin (Simon Stone), the professor, and his wife, Rebecca (Sarah Gleeson).

Strong’s direction is as spare as the space. He focuses on Pinter’s language and the intensity of the pair’s relationship. The play, like many of Pinter’s, is a battle for domination constructed around the unpredictability of sex and relationships and the ambiguities and inadequacies of language.

The truth is a slippery fish and, in Pinter’s hands, it shifts and changes constantly. Although Devlin and Rebecca are long married, they talk like strangers, their dialogue falling like stones between the cracks of their relationship. She reminisces about a past lover, a mysterious and dangerous man who adored her, tried to strangle her and ripped babies from the arms of their mothers at a train station.

Devlin struggles to comprehend her revelations; but one cannot own another’s past, despite one’s intimacy in the present.

Pinter’s language is riddled with miscommunication and confusion. Rebecca is evasive, almost mesmerised by her memories; Devlin is confrontational and demanding. Their relationship cannot “start again” it can only “end again and again”.

Gleeson is pert and cool as the cryptic Rebecca and plays her as an unreachable young woman musing on a past just remembered. As Devlin, Stone is like a prowling animal pouncing on every crumb his wife throws him, trying to penetrate her opaque veneer.

Rebecca’s violent memories, whether real or fabricated, resonate with images of war, the Holocaust, Nazis and other ethnic cleansers. There are echoes of a universal consciousness or memories of shared human pain.

This production, although it has some of the script’s hypnotic quality and confusion, lacks its full intensity, its aching sense of loss and the violence of its imagery. Perhaps this is exacerbated by the youth of the two actors. The weighty history and emotional baggage of the characters seem more appropriate for much older actors.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday 13 March 2007

Love Child by Joanna Murray-Smith, March 13, 2007

Love Child by Joanna Murray-Smith
HIT Productions
Athenaeum Theatre March 13, then touring Victoria: Sale Mar 20, Warragul Mar 22, South Morang March 24, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on March 13, 2007

How does one get to know an intimate stranger? That is, how does one handle the first meeting with the child – or the mother - one has never known? Joanna Murray-Smith’s play, Love Child, directed deftly by Bruce Myles, depicts one such meeting of mother and daughter.

In 1968, at the age of 17, Anna (Amanda Muggleton) gave up her baby for adoption and moved on with her life at university as a political activist and then with her work as a documentary film editor. After 25 years, she receives a letter from young soap opera star, Billie (Melinda Dransfield), and the pair meet at Anna’s home for their mother-daughter reunion.

The meeting is awkward – well - perhaps excruciating is a more fitting description. The two are completely mismatched. Anna is reserved, polite and neat. Billie is voluble, intrusive, messy, egotistical, insecure and – let’s be honest – thoroughly dislikeable. It is astonishing that Anna allows her to stay longer than 10 minutes.

Billie expected someone more motherly while Anna simply tries to cope with having a guest in her private, sterile, designer home (Judith Cobb). Anna grew out of the feminist revolution that broke the patterns of gender politics while Billie has no appreciation of the political change wrought by the previous

generation of women.

Love Child is an uncomfortable ride. Like both characters, we are hoping for harmony and love but the Age of Aquarius is long gone. Director, Bruce Myles, accentuates the discomfort and dissonance throughout the play.

Muggleton is brittle and edgy as Anna who only thinly disguises her emotional fragility with her crisp designer outfits. Dransfield plays Billie as smug, judgmental and demanding, her ulterior motives being hidden until the final moments.

Murray-Smith propels the relationship from discomfort through conflict into complete breakdown. There is an unhealthy blend of guilt and revenge, concern and punishment.

The dialogue is like a Socratic argument between generations. Billie sometimes becomes more of a voice of her generation rather than a character. The pair are polar opposites and, to some degree, stereotypes.

It is the final revelation by Billie that shocks us. How callous is this girl and how selfish?

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 8 March 2007

Grace by GoD BE IN MY MouTH, March 8, 2007

Grace by GoD BE IN MY MouTH
By James Brennan 
Theatreworks, March 8 to March 2, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on March 8, 2007

There are certainly some compelling performances and eccentric images and concepts in Grace, written and directed by James Brennan. However, the whole of this abstract piece is not as well conceived as its individual parts.

Although the play has a simple linear story, the style relies more on absurdism than on narrative. Wade (Luke Mullins) and Serbia (Katrina Milosevic) are 14-year old twins who were separated at age four and raised in foster homes.

The play is set on the crumbling roof of a building (Adam Gardnir OK) where they believe their rich uncle, whose wealth they will inherit, is in residence. After attending their father’s funeral, they climb ten flights of stairs to a rooftop inhabited only by pigeons and wait for uncle to show himself.

The twins are an unlikely pair. Serbia is large, loud, vulgar and belligerent while Wade is small, timid, dull and child-like. Both wear school uniforms but Serbia’s is tattered and makes a fashion statement with the addition of torn black tights and heavy make-up.

Here the play leaves the real world. The most attention-grabbing images occur inside a huge, upstage birdcage with three life-size pigeons. The Uncle, played with alacrity by Brian Lipson, spends most of the play inside the cage dancing a slow, sensual, bird-like dance, climbing his wire walls like a caged parrot resigned to his prison.

Milosevic captures the volatility of Serbia and Mullins makes the peculiar Wade a little dangerous. Despite their strong performances, Lipson is the feature of this play. He manages to make the Uncle intense yet relaxed, engaging yet alienated, beautiful and repellent, dangerous but caring.

This birdman is dressed in a dilapidated black suit and huge sunglasses. When he does emerge to meet the children, his behaviour is eccentric. He swills water from a bucket, speaks in cryptic phrases, sings snatches of a hymn, offers them something bottled in 1997 and instructs the pigeons to perform a “masque” for the three humans. The birds are his servants.

Uncle’s weirdness does not bode well for Wade, who has hopes for a family life, or for Serbia who wants to take his money and run. By the end, Uncle has revealed his past and theirs and made sure they will be twins forever.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 7 March 2007

The Ghost Writer, Ross Mueller, MTC, March 7, 2007

 The Ghost Writer by Ross Mueller
Melbourne Theatre Company
 Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, March 7 to April 21, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

In Ross Mueller’s The Ghost Writer, we are confronted by near death experiences, nightmares, the palpable presence of a ghost, a vision of Jesus and the mysterious death of a child. 

The atmosphere reeks of impending doom and past tragedy while the persistent, haunting sound scape (Darrin Verhagen) and dramatic lighting (Paul Jackson) maintain our sense of anticipation.

Brihanna’s (Margaret Harvey) story and that of Megan, her lost four-year old, is shrouded in mystery. Publisher, Robert (John Wood), engages his daughter, Claudia (Belinda McClory), to ghost write Brihanna’s tale of despair. Meanwhile Claudia, whose own life is clouded by secrets and lies, must confront her own demons. Her secretive affair with an attractive, anonymous man (Raj Sidhu) becomes startlingly interwoven with the child’s murder case.

Claudia is obsessed with finding the truth about Megan, her father is preoccupied with profit, the illiterate, volatile Brihanna is determined to “write” a bestseller and West (Sidhu), a Crown Prosecutor, is haunted by the victims he failed.

Mueller’s script is more conservative and less abstract than his previous work but it retains his capable crafting of a story and slow revelation of the underlying truth of the characters. His dialogue is intelligent, well observed and often very funny. Although the truth of both Brihanna and Claudia’s stories is evident very early, we are happy to go along for the ghost train ride.

McClory, playing the ailing, “emaciated” Claudia looks positively skeletal under stark lighting in Stephen Curtis’s cold grey set. She gives Claudia a vibrating intensity and fragility that allows us to sympathise with such a cool character.

Wood is hearty and entertaining as the acquisitive Robert. Harvey relishes Brihanna’s vocabulary of expletives and gives a tough and comical edge to this uneducated mum from a small country town. Sidhu is charming and languid as West, revealing his depth later in the play. Alaeyah Blaufuhs is magnetic as the ghostly child.

Director, Julian Meyrick, allows the comedy of Mueller’s script full rein without losing its eerie atmosphere and supernatural elements. Mueller’s play resonates with his themes of justice, human tragedy and intimacy. It has the texture of both a ghost story and a murder mystery – incorporating a few good laughs.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 1 March 2007

Harp on the Willow by John Misto, March 1, 2007

Harp on the Willow by John Misto
Comedy Theatre, March 1 to 25, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on March 1, 2007

An interesting biography does not always translate into a good play. 

In Harp on the Willow, John Misto overcomes the problem by using only two short watershed periods in the life of Irish folk singer, Mary O’Hara (Marina Prior and Lucy Maunder).

The first, in the 1950s, comprises Mary’s few early years of fame as a singer on record, radio and television during which she married American poet, Richard Selig (Tom Wren), who died tragically of cancer when Mary was only 21. The second is from 1972 to ‘73 at the end of Mary’s 12 years in the contemplative Benedictine order as Sister Miriam.

The entire story makes sense when the real Mary O’Hara steps on stage after the curtain call: tall, elegant and restrained. Her composure, and film of a young Mary singing with her Celtic harp explain her enduring charm.

Although not a musical, the play, directed by Andrew Doyle, includes original recordings of Mary and provides numerous opportunities for live song. Prior captures all of the humorous, acerbic and nostalgic aspects of Sister Miriam and sings a pretty version of Danny Boy, the haunting Flower Duet from Lakme, a playful Gaelic ditty called Haigh Didil Dum (OK) and the rousing Lord of the Dance.

As the young Mary, Maunder is feisty and sensual and prettily sings Blow The Wind Southerly.  Several choral numbers, including Pie Jesu and The Hallelujah Chorus, beautifully combine the voices of Prior, Maunder and Julie Hudspeth.

Hudspeth (replacing Joan Carden) is often hilarious as the indomitable Mother Raphael who compels Mary to play her harp again. Christopher Stollery is exceptional as Tyrone Kane, the grieving, alcoholic American who, while seeking Mary’s help on his road to recovery, unwittingly inspires her to take back her life. Wren makes the premature death of the youthful, energetic Selig compelling.

We assume that Misto takes some licence with Mary’s story and certainly with the language used in the convent. There are blasphemies, jokes at the expense of Saint Wallburga who cut off her nose to spite the Vikings, jokes about chicken manure, the Irish and potatoes, the Archbishop and The Catholic Weekly. Misto gets plenty of comic mileage out of the nuns’ ignorance of popular culture and politics.

The set (Mark Thompson) is cramped and busy, the style of the play outmoded and the story a little predictable but the production is entertaining and often enchantingly old-fashioned.

By Kate Herbert