Saturday 28 July 2007

King Lear, Royal Shakespeare Company, July 28, 2007

King Lear by William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
State Theatre, Victorian Art Centre, July 28 to Aug 4, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 28, 2007

In Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear, natural laws are inverted; children betray parents, sibling murders sibling, the good are exiled, the wicked elevated, the wise ignored, the innocent executed and a King descends into madness.

King Lear (Ian McKellan), a proud, powerful father, banishes his loving, plain-speaking child, Cordelia (Romola Garai), and foolishly divides his kingdom between his grasping daughters, Goneril (Frances Barber) and Regan (Monica Dolan). His folly strips him of power and respect.

McKellan’s Lear begins as tyrannical and proud, oblivious to his own vulnerability. He is commanding but playful and his division of kingdom is a game to taunt his daughters. His fatal flaw is his inability to differentiate the treacherous flattery of Goneril and Regan from the genuine love of Cordelia (Romola Garai) and Kent (Jonathan Hyde).

Lear is like an infant dragged screaming from the womb into the light. To escape his daughters’ treachery he descends into madness, travelling from pride to disbelief, frustration to rage and despair. “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child,” he laments. Lear’s defencelessness is heartbreaking in the achingly painful storm scene. He is mankind stripped of all regalia: “a bare, forked animal”.

When Lear recovers his wits, McKellan appears monkish, hopeful of a peaceful life with Cordelia then inconsolable at her death. He journeys from greatness with ignorance toward impotence with wisdom. As Lear’s mind and power diminish, Christopher Oram’s architectural design cunningly disintegrates.

The poignant scene between tragic shells of former great men, the distracted Lear and the maimed Gloucester (William Gaunt), is compelling. Gaunt’s performance is sympathetic and restrained, revealing kindness, humour and pathos in Gloucester.

Barber’s Goneril is conniving, passionate and wicked. Dolan’s Regan is grotesque, swilling wine and cheering as Gloucester’s eyes are gruesomely gouged. Unfortunately, Garai’s Cordelia lacks the dignity and weight to balance her sisters’ treachery. Cordelia’s gaucheness in the opening does not elicit sympathy and her later scenes crave a young Queen’s nobility and grace.

Guy Williams is vicious and self-serving as Cornwall and Julian Harries brings dignity to “milk-livered” Albany. Hyde is rich-voiced and distinguished as the saucily blunt Kent and Sylvester McCoy’s Fool is a Music Hall clown. Phillip Winchester plays Edmund with a rather too camp villainy and Ben Meyjes captures Edgar’s feigned madness but is too cool facing his father’s suffering.

Trevor Nunn’s direction of the large ensemble is taut, ensuring that Shakespeare’s text is lucid and that characters and relationships are emotionally complex. His location of the production in pre-revolutionary Russia provides a parallel to Lear’s totalitarian regime but does not further illuminate the play. This riveting if conventional production is a showcase for McKellan’s consummate talent and enlivens Lear for a contemporary audience.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 19 July 2007

A Man For All Seasons, Complete Works Theatre Company, July 19, 2007

What: A Man For All Seasons by Robert Bolt by Complete Works Theatre Company
Where and When: July 18-20, 21, 25 at 7.30pm, July 18-20, 23-26 at 10.30 am then touring Victoria
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 19, 2007

A Man For All Seasons, by Robert Bolt, provides a glimpse into the life and death of Saint Thomas More (Paul English), Chancellor to Henry VIII (Philip Cameron-Smith). More, a lawyer and pious Catholic, sealed his fate by refusing to condone the divorce of Henry from Catherine of Aragon or to sign the bill that confirmed Anne Boleyn’s children as rightful successors to the throne.

English plays More with gentleness, warmth and quiet dignity. More’s forbearance and good humour in the face of betrayal and personal attacks are capably depicted in Bolt’s script.

Although Bolt’s language is heightened and often poetic capturing the tone of the Tudor period, it is accessible to a modern and even a school-age audience. The story is narrated by The Common Man played by Syd Brisbane who skilfully transforms into various working-men: More’s servant, his gaoler, a boatman and other servants.

An accomplished cast supports English. Stewart Morritt imbues the ambitious Thomas Cromwell with an imposing and sinister quality. Cromwell’s actions are self-serving and often malicious as he sends his spies to seek information to damage More’s reputation.

Carole Patullo portrays More’s wife Alice as loyal and sympathetic, a woman struggling to understand her husband’s decisions. The gaol cell scene between English and Patullo is a moving celebration of love and loss.

Philip Cameron-Smith is an impressively rowdy and unpredictable Henry, Dino Marnika is charmingly amusing as the Spanish Ambassador and Brian Vriends is a sturdy Norfolk. Phillip McInnes plays the oily, treacherous Rich, Eryn Jean Norvill is poised as More’s daughter and Angus Grant plays her self-righteous husband, Roper.

Andrew Blackman’s direction is simple and uncluttered, focussing on More and his relationships to others. The flexible design (Mark Wager) provides a muted grey environment with three opaque screens and a wooden table setting.

Thomas More sacrificed his life rather than his religious and moral code. He chose to remain silent rather than support a parliamentary bill that broke with the Pope and gave Henry rule over the Church. This is a play about commitment to one’s conscience and beliefs. More chose to be righteous and honourable rather than pander to a powerful King’s desire to change wives.

By Kate Herbert

The Eisteddfod by Lally Katz, July 19, 2007

 The Eisteddfod written by Lally Katz, by Stuck Pig Squealing
 Tower Theatre, CUB Malthouse, July 19 to 29, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 19, 2007

The performers (Luke Mullins, Katherine Tonkin) and direction (Chris Kohn) are the features of The Eisteddfod. The script is credited to Lally Katz but her program note suggests significant contribution by cast and director that could explain the episodic, often jumbled nature of scenes.

The Eisteddfod borrows from absurdist theatre writers such as Ionesco and Beckett. The narrative occurs in a non-realistic place where the world of the imagination is the only reality.

Since the death of their parents eleven years earlier in a freak pruning accident, Abolone (Luke Mullins) and Gerture (Katherine Tonkin) live a totally isolated life inside one room. Their days revolve around each playing roles in the other’s bizarre fantasies. They are children in adult bodies.

Tonkin is sympathetic as Gerture, the under-confident sister living in the shadow of her vibrant, successful brother who was mother’s favourite. She languishes in unrequited love for her imaginary lover, Ian, whose relentlessly cruel treatment of her is the creation of her brother who portrays Ian in their role-play. To avoid Ian/Abolone’s heartlessness, Gerture escapes into a catatonic state where she enacts her banal fantasy of being a teacher in an imaginary school.

In turn, Abolone enlists Gerture to play Lady Macbeth to his Macbeth in an imaginary upcoming Eisteddfod competition. The first prize is a one-way ticket to Moscow. Between childish games and sexual play, re-enactments of mum and dad’s fraught marriage and their own arguments, Abolone and Gerture rehearse Macbeth with hilariously awful Scottish accents.

However they try to escape each other through their separate fantasies, their lives and imaginations are permanently entangled.

Kohn and the actors create an almost musical rhythm for the characters, orchestrating a dynamic ebb and flow of energy between scenes. Mullins is compelling as he shifts effortlessly from arrogance to despair or playfulness to cruelty. Tonkin captures both the innocence and guilty pleasure of Gerture in her imaginative play.

Adam Gardnir’s (OK) design, lit evocatively by Richard Vabre, is a small and claustrophobic platform with cunningly hidden shelves, recesses and curtains. Jethro Woodward’s soundscape completes the surreal environment.

The play is entertaining but, unlike the great absurdists, it lacks any penetration of the psychological depths of these characters or investigation of the philosophical concepts of imagination, despair, isolation or dependence.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 18 July 2007

Sweet Charity, The Production Company, July 18, 2007

 Sweet Charity
Book by Neil Simon, Music by Cy Coleman, Lyrics by Dorothy Fields by The Production Company
Where and When:  State Theatre, Wed to Fri 7.30pm, Sat 2pm & 7.30pm, Sun 3pm, until July 18 to 22, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 18, 2007

Sweet Charity, when it was first staged on Broadway in 1966, introduced a new form of musical. 

Bob Fosse’s stylised idiosyncratic choreography was startling. Fosse’s original, darker concept, based on Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, was about a good-hearted prostitute.  When Fosse involved Neil Simon, Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, the story became more palatable and Sweet Charity was born.

The consummate playing of Orchestra Victoria, conducted by John Foreman does justice to Coleman’s memorable tunes including The Rhythm of Life, If My Friends Could See Me Now and the sultry Big Spender.

Ross Coleman’s inventive choreography does not replicate Fosse’s but it captures the essence of Fosse’s sexy jazz moves and variations in pace and rhythm. The Rich Man’s Frug is funky, exciting and each chorus scene is polished and exciting despite the chorus having to dance on a tiny strip of floor.

This production, directed by Nancye Hayes, lacks some of the pizzazz usually associated with Charity. Not having a full production is normal in a concert production and the short rehearsal season could account for some awkward moments and sloppy timing. However, there is some obvious miscasting that reduces the impact.

Sharon Millerchip is a cute and perky poppet playing Charity Valentine, the dance hall hostess who looks for love in all the wrong places. Millerchip is an accomplished dancer. She plays Charity with a cheeky, downmarket edge but lacks the requisite over-the-top sassy, brassy quality. Her singing is competent but she hit a few flat notes before interval.

 Matt Hetherington is delightfully kooky as Oscar Lindquist, the anxious and painfully shy tax accountant who falls in love with Charity before finding out that her day job is not in a bank. His scene trapped in the elevator with Charity is hilarious and his thrilling voice and commitment to the role raise the level of the show in the second half.

Alan Fletcher as Vittorio Vidal lacks the sensuality of an Italian movie star such as Marcello Mastroianni and often sounds strangely Transylvanian rather than Italian. Alan Brough’s voice and presence cannot carry the gutsy role of Big Daddy diminishing the impact of the crazy Rhythm of Life Church scene.

The chorus works hard but Big Spender lacks any dangerous sexuality. Nonetheless, if you love Sweet Charity, take a look at this concert show.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 11 July 2007

The Quivering by SacredCOW, July 11, 2007

 What: The Quivering by SacredCOW, produced by La Mama
Where and When: Carlton Courthouse, July 11 to 22, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

In Homer’s Odyssey, the seductive song of the mythical Sirens was malevolent and deadly. 

The bird-women, with sweet voices, lured hapless seamen onto the rocks. Odysseus evaded this fate by strapping himself to the mast and stuffed his sailors’ ears with wax so they could not hear the temptresses’ song.

The Quivering, by SacredCOW, directed imaginatively by Nikki Heywood, provides another Ancient Greek interpretation. The Sirens’ were invoked in funereal rites and were depicted as with compassionately singing the souls of mortals from the earthly pain of life into death.

Sharelle (Dawn Albinger), Maureen (Julie Robson) and Singrid (Scotia Monkivitch), the three Sirens, appear chanting and seductive, dimly lit and near-naked in a watery landscape. They tease and taunt us, inviting us to a boat journey that awaits us and for which we are unprepared.

The play is an irreverent, titillating blend of ritual, comedy, physicality and lyricism. These accomplished women create an intoxicating chorus, echoing and repeating sounds, words and movements rhythmically and seductively.

Each actor has a quirky style. Sharelle is the wicked, curvaceous temptress; Maureen is a taunting chanteuse straight from the suburbs; Singrid is a cheeky, clown-faced joker.

Albinger and Robson sing haunting melodies while Monkivitch as the Poet simultaneously speaks the lyrics. They are our “Creamy, Dreamy Mermaids” who entice us with their melodies. The trio dress themselves as roadside diner waitresses in uniforms and aprons, perhaps to make weary and fearful travellers feel at ease. They even offer a menu of lamb and roast bird.

But it is not all cosy and comforting. They tease us, saying, “Are you with us? There’s something out there. You know you want it.” Their dialogue turns to the horrors of death, the rotting of flesh and cracking of bones. They perform in an eerie, whitewashed landscape (John Levey OK) with sheets covering rocky outcrops. A cold, steel mortuary table stands in the centre and morticians rituals and funeral rites are performed over their bodies wrapped in white shrouds.

The sound design (Brett Collery, Julie Robson, Catherine Mundy) is unnerving and evocative, incorporating voice, music and sound effects. The white space is washed with projected moving imagery (Suzon Fuks OK) of watery scenes and oceans of floating, phantom figures.

The Quivering is a fascinating, atmospheric and enthralling depiction of the Sirens by an inventive company.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 4 July 2007

My Grandma Lived in Gooligulch, July 4, 2007

What: My Grandma Lived in Gooligulch by Graeme Base with Garry Ginivan
Where and When: July 4 Clocktower, July 7 Nunawading, July 10 Darebin, July 11 Werribee, 13 July Kyneton, National Theatre July 17-19 then touring Victoria2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 4, 2007

My Grandma Lived in Gooligulch, adapted from Graeme Base’s children’s book, is a lively and cheerful musical theatre show for three to eight year-olds. The simple narrative, beautifully harmonised singing and both human and puppet characters enthral the littlies.

Kate (Ashlea Pyke) is a stroppy city kid who travels, under duress, to Gooligulch to stay with the Grandma (Brenda Clarke) she barely remembers. Kate is rude because she resents missing all the city fun during the school holidays. She huffs and puffs because she cannot receive a signal on her mobile. Life without SMS is unbearably primitive.

Gooligulch is a fictional, magical country town with a population of 32, most of whom are native animals that can speak. The puppet creatures lead full lives. Goanna and Dingo play cards with Rat who is an inveterate cheat; clever Cocky teases the silly Galahs; the town gossips - Emus wearing pearl necklaces and carrying handbags - run the Gossip, Hearsay, Chit Chat and Chinwag Association.

Graeme Base’s book, adapted effectively for stage with director Garry Ginivan, depicts Kate’s journey from ignorance of the country to knowing and loving both its animal residents and her courageous and eccentric Gran.

There are simple lessons about tolerance to be learned through the entertainment. The final message is, “If you always look for a new horizon you will never be disappointed. You just have to adjust your eyes.”

The show is designed for three to eight year olds and the six actors engage the very young audience with singable songs, physical antics and charming characters. Dean Lotherington’s original arrangements are staged with panache by musical director Mark Jones. The opening song is a rousing chorus of Gooligulch Is The Place To Be. The city boys taunt Kate about her trip to the country with a song called What Do You Want To Do That For? And Kate’s surprise birthday is celebrated with Come Along to the Billabong.

The supporting cast (Luke Tonkin, Andrew Dunne, Cameron MacDonald, Daniel Schumann) create a fine chorus of voices and a parade of comical characters. Ginivan keeps the action lively and engaging being careful to ensure that even the big-eyed night creatures are not frightening.

This show is fun for all the family and is touring Victoria.

By Kate Herbert

The China Incident by Peter Houghton, July 4, 2007

 What: The China Incident by Peter Houghton
Where and When: La Mama, Wed to Sat 7pm, Sun 5pm until July 4 to 15, 2007
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on July 4, 2007

Take a huge breath before The China Incident because you will be holding your breath throughout this comic roller coaster. 

Peter Houghton’s solo political satire, performed by Anne Browning, depicts Bea Pontifec, a totally immoral international think tank consultant and political advisor to world leaders.

Bea’s office has seven phones. On the black she advises the bloodthirsty leader of an African nation on how to reframe a massacre to describe it as a counter insurgency. The red is a direct line to the US President who wants Bea to find some dirty secrets he can use to manipulate the five party talks with North Korea, although Mr. President is more interested in Bea’s underwear.

Meanwhile, on the blue phone, Bea seeks assistance from her secret lover, Colin, at the UN and juggles several family crises on her mobile. Bea is high maintenance and high cost but her ex-husband is a hippy, her daughter, Penny, plans a tacky marriage to a suburban boy with a boring family and her son is arrested for drug dealing.

Houghton’s dialogue is smart and hilarious and Browning does it justice. Her performance is accomplished as the over-achieving, egotistical Bea who becomes even more monstrous when she deals with her hapless family.  She is rude and supercilious to her daughter’s in-laws and fiancĂ©. She is intolerant of Penny’s choices and insensitive about her wedding plans. She insults her ex-husband and abandons her son.

Browning begins in perfect control of Bea’s little world, engaging in effortless contortions to manage geopolitical horrors. Her dialogue is machine gun rapid, her movements like a caged and starved predator. Bea thrives on pressure and revels in the power she wields.

Bea’s one weakness is Colin, the unavailable lover, and Browning’s swift shifts from hard-nosed cow to seductive and simpering teenager as she speaks to him are very funny. She switches attitude from phone to phone, the arch-manipulator, the consummate PR consultant with no heart but an eye on the money.

As Bea’s phone problems become progressively more unmanageable, Browning plays her with a rising hysteria combined with a continuing belief that she can control the world. The outcome of her phone juggling could start a war and end her career. Or will it? Cockroaches survive any disaster and Bea is vermin of the first order.

By Kate Herbert