Wednesday 29 October 2008

Spinning Straw -Mounting a Production, Oct 29, 2008

Mounting a Production

Spinning Straw, by playwright, Kate Herbert
Carlton Courthouse Theatre, Oct 29 to Nov 15, 2008

Jenny Lovell, Julia Markovski, Geoff Wallis in Spinning Straw. Photo; Joe Calleri

Creating a new play can be joyous, playful and endlessly rewarding – if you are lucky. If you are unlucky, all the demons of theatre conspire to make it a living hell. Think of all the time and effort, all the things that can go wrong when planning a wedding. The wedding goes well – then you have to do it again every night for three weeks. That’s theatre.

I have been luckier than most in the development of my new play, Spinning Straw, being blessed with three talented and intelligent performers who challenge me as both writer and director. Yes, I am doing both because, when writing a script, I create not only the words but also the entire vision of the piece on stage. The sound, lights and design form a background for the voices and physicality of the actors.

During rehearsal, Director Me often asks questions of Writer Me. “What did you mean here? Can we change this or cut that line?” I swap hats and Writer Me looks puzzled then responds. The script changes in the rehearsal room with actors. When I hear dialogue coming out of their mouths sometimes lines need tinkering – or cutting.

Spinning Straw is a comic-tragedy; it’s both funny and grim. I can’t seem to write a play that is strictly one or t’other. This is challenging for the actors as they map their path from characters dealing with alcoholism or family violence to mad, cartoonish creatures in the Rumpelstiltskin fairy-tale.

The play is about a young, pregnant boozer and pill popper called Annie – she prefers to be called Pig – and her older neighbour, Margaret, who tries to keep Pig sober during her pregnancy.

The script evolved from various stimuli over the past year. I was moved by a documentary about long-term heroin addicts trying to straighten up when they had a new baby and by the public concern about widespread, teenage binge drinking. I was horrified when my tertiary students told me that they got plastered from Friday night to Sunday every week.

I saw another program about the high incidence of teen pregnancy and spoke to someone who worked in adoption and foster care. The drama work I did with kids in detention gave me a background to the dysfunctional home life for Pig.

We are bombarded with so many romanticised images of infants that we forget that babies are hard work. Trying to kick a substance habit while dealing with a newborn must be a nightmare and managing a baby when still a child yourself must be terrifying and confusing.

If you are wondering how this play could be a comedy, this crazy kid, Pig, is funny despite her failings. Se emerged fully formed from the back of my mind and continues to amuse and astonish me.

Kate Herbert

Monday 27 October 2008

The Big Quiet, Oct 27, 2008 ***

The Big Quiet
 La Mama Explorations Season,  by AMES
La Mama, Oct 27, 28 & 29, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Oct 27, 2008

The Big Quiet is a community project developed by professional theatre workers (Gorkem Acaroglu & Christian Leavesley) with a group of young, recently arrived immigrants and refugees who are studying English with Noble Park AMES (Australian Multicultural Education Services). 

As part of the La Mama Explorations season, it allows this group of non-actors to explore story and language. The charm of the piece lies in the warmth and commitment of the performers.

Each person describes his or her experience of the silence that they perceive in Australia, having left countries that are heavily populated, noisy and bustling. Two gently absurdist stories involve the confusion arising from one person believing he is in an airport while the other thinks she is in her own home. The audience of fellow language students were delighted with the comedy.

Explorations continues with eight more shows running for three days each until November 23.

By Kate Herbert

Sunday 26 October 2008

The Mysteries of the Convent, Sept 25, 2008 ***

 The Mysteries of the Convent 08
By Peepshow Inc.
 Abbotsford Convent, Wed to Sun, Sep 26 to Oct 5
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The Mysteries of the Convent, a return season of the 1007 show by Peepshow Inc. draws on the history of the Abbotsford Convent, formerly run by the contemplative Good Shepherd Order of nuns but now an artists’ precinct. 

It is a sprawling site by the Yarra and is steeped in the fraught history of its original residents.

This eccentric and often fascinating, site-specific performance incorporates puppetry, visual elements, music and comedy. 

The audience goes on a guided tour and encounters both real and animated characters who represent the nuns and young women who lived and suffered in the convent. 

They appear and disappear mysteriously through doors, stairways and even out of laundry baskets.

By Kate Herbert

Saturday 25 October 2008

In The Arms of a Lion, Sept 25, 2008 **

In The Arms of a Lion 
By Peter Van Der Merwe (OK)
Northcote Town Hall, Tues to Sun until Oct 4
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Sept 25, 2008
Stars: **

Born in South Africa, Peter Van Der Merwe was 10 when Apartheid was dismantled in 1990. Although he missed the horror years of abuse and segregation, he lived through the crisis of the aftermath in the 90s.

In his solo show he depicts, through diverse characters, the racism and other prejudice that still exists after radical political change. Surprisingly, Van Der Merwe focuses more attention on the sexual prejudice visited upon his central narrator, a young gay man, than on racial issues.

The character tells the story of coming out to his bigoted, Christian fundamentalist family. Van Der Merwe plays the boy’s mother despairing about her fallen angel son and his sister who accuses him of destroying their family’s untarnished, white history.

The characterisations dealing specifically with more outrageous racists are most successful. It is chilling to see the smugly smiling South African Defence Forces officer looking like Hitler Youth and giving a lecture to children about terrorist bombs. Van Der Merwe’s portrayal of a fundamentalist preacher reveals the twisted rhetoric that justified racial abuse by deeming it to be God’s will.

The direction (Penelope Chater) does not mask the episodic structure and lack of a clear through line. Costume changes and shifts between characters interrupt dramatic development. However, there are some fascinating stories about South Africa.

Kate Herbert

Monday 20 October 2008

Samuel Beckett: Endgame 1958-2008 , Oct 20, 2008 ***

Samuel Beckett: Endgame 1958-2008  
By Eleventh Hour Theatre, Melbourne International Arts Festival
170 Leicester St., Fitzroy, Oct 20 to Nov 8, 2008

Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Oct 20, 2008

Stars: ***

The Eleventh Hour production of Beckett’s Endgame has four admirable actors (David Tredinnick, Peter Houghton, Evelyn Krape, Richard Bligh) who display an exceptional understanding of Beckett’s style and form.

They capture the absurdity, the existential dilemmas, the slapstick and verbal comedy and the eccentricity of the characters and dialogue.

Endgame, in classic Beckett style, is a grim, comic view of human existence. It highlights human foibles, physical weaknesses, ageing, desperation and confusion as well as the awful reality of our personal power relationships.

Directors, William Henderson and Anne Thompson focus effectively on the physicalisation of characters and adherence to Beckett’s principles of style. Julie Renton’s design uses distressed walls and canvas to create a grey environment that is highlighted by Niklas Pajanti’s dusky, evocative lighting. Miwako Abe adds atmospheric live violin.

By Kate Herbert

Thursday 16 October 2008

21.100.100, Oct 16, 2008 ***

Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, Melbourne International Arts Festival
200 Gertrude St. Fitzroy, Tues to Sun until Oct 25
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

One could spend hours perched on tiny stools at Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces gallery, listening to this sound installation. 

100 21st century sound artists from different countries around the globe are represented here. In two clinical, white gallery rooms one picks up headphones that are devoted to each artist to listen to each design.

The works range from vinyl, techno-music through environmental sounds, designs echoing Japanese traditional music, remixed voices, random industrial sounds and many more. It’s free, so you can pop in for a minute or an hour.

Kate Herbert

Echolocation, October 2008 ***

by Alex Stahl, Melbourne International Arts Festival
Walkway under Princes Bridge, all day,  Oct 16 to 25, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***
If you walk out of Fed Square, along the Yarra walkway under Princes Bridge, you will find a little sign that tell you to call a number and leave a voice message, any message. 

Then walk under the bridge and above your head is a line of speakers that look like lamp shades. Out of the speakers comes distorted bird song recorded from birds that flock under the bridge. 

Your voice will be “remapped, remixed, reverberated,” to merge with the birdsong. I dare you to recognise yourself. 

What a great idea! And it’s free.

7 Important Things, Oct 16, 2008 ****

 7 Important Things
By Nadia Ross and George Acheson, by STO Union
Fairfax Studio, Oct 16 to 19, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Oct 16, 2008

7 Important Things is a gentle and beguiling hour of story telling by Canadians, Nadia Ross and George Acheson. The show tells the story of George’s own life.  

 In the rebellious 1960s he ran away from home when his father insisted he cut his hair. He chased freedom in a world that tried to cage him. He lived the happy, dope-smoking, hippy life in Vancouver and California only to become disillusioned with it and eventually turn to heroin.

The performance is simple and engaging. Ross directly addresses the audience while Acheson is like a device to tell his own story. 

He does not look directly at us until the last moments. The pair works on an empty stage, using only a huge bolt of fabric, a couple of chairs, a hand-held tape recorder and photos of George as a young man to tell his story. 

7 Important Things is a captivating hour.

By Kate Herbert

Wednesday 15 October 2008

Book of Longing, Oct 15, 2008 ***

Book of Longing
Music by Phillip Glass, lyrics & images by Leonard Cohen
Melbourne International Arts Festival
State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Oct 15 to 17, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Phillip Glass’s music does not suit all palates and the same could be said of Leonard Cohen’s songs. 

The Book of Longing is a collision of Cohen’s poetry with Glass’s contemporary composition and the pair seems to have a deep affinity for each other’s work. The show feels like a night over a vodka glass in a smoky club. Enlarged versions of Cohen’s line drawings (self-portraits, nudes and mandalas) provide a backdrop that draws the eye.

 Glass’s 12-piece ensemble plays his haunting, often sonorous and occasionally ebullient music to accompany Cohen’s poetry which includes long ballad-narratives, love poems and meditations. Glass’s instrumentation is often beguiling but the melodies for the four voices become repetitive.

But it is the short, jokey pieces recorded by Cohen in his deep and rusty tones that grab you and recall his early songs.

 By Kate Herbert

England, Oct 15, 2008 ****

by Tim Crouch, Melbourne International Arts Festival
 Ian Potter Centre, NGV, Federation Square, Oct 15 to 18, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Oct 15, 2008

Tim Crouch has my vote for compelling, intimate and emotional performance. Crouch and Hannah Ringham perform England in the Ian Potter Centre at Fed Square. The performance style is simple and direct address to the audience. 

We are ushered into the temporary exhibition called Look where we stand, listening to the pair tell us their story in the first person.

It is, initially, an amusing chat peppered with references to visual art and life in London, the actors speaking as the one character and often using overlapping dialogue. It evolves into a darker tale: the story of a heart transplant patient facing death, surviving surgery, then meeting the grieving wife of the heart donor and discovering a grim tale of third world organ donation.

Saturday 11 October 2008

an oak tree, Oct 10, 2008 ****

an oak tree 
by Tim Crouch, Melbourne International Arts Festival
When & Where: Oct 10 to 13, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Tim Crouch’s play, an oak tree, allows the audience to experience the evolution of a theatrical performance. Although we do not participate directly, we are complicit in the piece as it unfolds before us. 

The narrative being enacted is only one component of the whole performance.

It is about a hypnotist (Crouch) presenting his live show to a pub audience. On this particular night, one of his on-stage guinea pigs is the devastated father (Jane Turner) of a child that the hypnotist killed in a car accident three months earlier.

What makes this performance so compelling is the fact that the second actor (turner) in the show arrives on stage without having ever seen a script, hard the story, been apprised of the character he or she is to play and without any rehearsal.

There is perhaps nothing more fascinating to watch than the mind of an actor in a whirl as she listens, thinks, imagines and then acts. We are witnessing the moment of creativity without any mediating action or preparation, as we do when watching truly improvised performance. It is magical and we are not only present but complicit in the moment of creation.

Crouch chats directly to us before the narrative itself begins. During the performance he guides his guest, Turner, by direct instructions, over an earpiece or through reading from a script. What we see is both the narrative of he two actors interacting as if in rehearsal and the story of the emotionally crippled father confronting his grief and the man who caused it.

an oak tree has a piercing and poignant quality. Both characters are damaged by their experience of the car accident. The hypnotist is no longer in control of his performance and the father is removed from his wife and younger child because he imagines his dead daughter alive in shape of the oak tree at the site of her death.

Each performance of an oak tree will be a new experience for all because every actor will embody the character differently and engage with Crouch and the audience in his or her own way.

This is my treat for this year’s Melbourne Festival. Nothing else will come near it for sheer emotional truth and immediacy.

Kate Herbert

Friday 10 October 2008

Food Court , Oct 9, 2008 ****

Food Court 
By Back to Back Theatre

Melbourne Arts Festical
Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse,  9-12 Oct

Reviewer: Kate Herbert


The final scenes of Food Court have the disturbing and otherworldly quality of a Grimm’s fairytale. This is in stark contrast to the first, simple and gently amusing scenes. 

Two women (Rita Halabarec, Nicki Holland) appear dressed in garish, gold leotards and engage in a banal conversation about food while a cheeky actor (Mark Deans) holds a boom microphone above their heads and another (Scott Price) helps to move their chairs.

The women start to taunt another women (Sarah Mainwaring), calling her fat, smelly and ugly. Their taunts quickly turn to abuse and ridicule. “Lose some weight”, they crow. “Learn to speak English.” But it does not stop here. They ritually humiliate her, force her to strip naked and dance for a staring crowd then beat her. It is victimisation of a terrifying and extreme kind.

The live music of The Necks provides an eerie sound scape to this narrative. The design (Mark Cuthbertson) and lighting (Andrew Livingston) heighten the sinister atmosphere. The violation of the woman occurs behind a huge scrim and actors seem to float in a ghostly moonscape with lowering trees and shadows.

Back to Back Theatre is a company with a unique voice that stems from having a cast of people with disabilities. Because some of the actors have unclear speech, all the dialogue is projected onto the screen which adds both humour and, at times, a sense of alienation.

Mainwaring’s distress is amplified when she cries out the words of Caliban, the outcast and abused servant from Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest. The playfulness of the opening scenes is finally replaced by the horror of persecution.

Director, Bruce Gladwin, began devising this show from an overheard conversation but his execution of the ideas is an adventurous and challenging exploration of aggression directed toward those who are different or vulnerable.

Kate Herbert

The Big Game, Polyglot, Oct 10, 2008 **

The  Big Game 
By Polyglot Theatre, Melbourne International Arts Festival

Meat Market, Nth Melbourne, 10-12 Oct, 2008

Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Oct 10, 2008


The Big Game fills the huge Meat Market space with an oversized board game. Around the board, the audience of children sit in teams – Rainbow, Ocean, House, Volcano and Swamp – barracking for their protagonist who rolls the dice and plays the game and faces challenges on the road.

The Big Game grew out of input from children in the Carlton high-rise flats and has great potential. But this “game as performance” needs refining. The show is too loose and often confusing. The introductory puppet narrative –  about kidnapping the puppet daughter of the grumpy King of the Volcano to force him to allow children to play – needs clarity. The game that follows moves too slowly to be entertaining for those watching.  The audience was restless.

After the show, children can form their own teams and play the board game themselves. The Big Game is a good idea that still needs some fine tuning.

Kate Herbert

Wednesday 8 October 2008

Marie Antoinette: The Colour of Flesh, Oct 8, 2008

Marie Antoinette: The Colour of Flesh 
By Joel Gross by Red Stitch
Red Stitch, Oct 8 to until Nov 8, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Oct 8, 2008

Joel Gross’s recent play, Marie Antoinette: The Colour of Flesh, is a work of “faction”. It is a blendino (OK) of historical facts, supposition, rumour, innuendo and creative fiction surrounding the Austrian princess who married Louis XVI to become the maligned Queen of France and a victim of the Revolution.

Gross creates an elaborate construct involving Marie Antoinette (Olivia Connolly), “the over-indulged, big-jawed Queen”, Elisa (Erin Dewar), her pretty portrait painter, and a fictional lover, Count Alexis de Ligne (Brett Cousins).

The production, directed deftly by Denis Moore, is most successful when the characters are passionate and emotionally abandoned. 

Dewar is pert, wry and natural as the Parisian beauty from peasant background.
She and Cousins shine in the scene where Elisa begs Alexis not to leave to fight the American War of Independence.  Connolly is moving when revealing that Marie’s marriage bed secrets and during her final tragic imprisonment.

Peter Mumsford’s simple but evocative design gives the illusion of gilt Baroque tables and chairs floating against the walls above a chequerboard floor.

By Kate Herbert

Desert Island Dances, Oct 8, 2008 ****

Desert Island Dances 
By Wendy Houston with John Avery
Fairfax Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, 9-13 Oct, 2008
Melbourne International Arts Festival
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Oct 9, 2008

Wendy Houston’s Desert Island Dances is a guileless, engaging and funny stroll around Houston’s eccentric blend of movement and dialogue. Houston chats directly to us. Her performance style is so natural and relaxed that it feels conversational. It has the open-ended quality of improvisation.

Houston is warm, charming and her humour arises from her childlike playfulness as well as her ironic perspective on creativity, imagination and artistic endeavour. There are goofy moments when she swathes herself in cloth, bangs her head and sees stars or when she scuttles about inside a wooden chest or draws a chalk graph representing the interest level of the audience.

Others moments are gently philosophical such as when she ponders notions of presence and absence or wandering attention. John Avery’s music and sound adds comical and poignant layers to the work.

She dresses casually and comfortably and moves effortlessly demonstrating her loose physicality. Her stage design is created on the run as she sketches with white chalk a palm tree, a boat, a star-filled sky or a circle on the floor.

It is as if we are listening to a friend muse, witnessing her as she ambles around her home, offering gems of homespun philosophy and mildly self-deprecating jibes. Houston is a treat.

Kate Herbert

Wednesday 1 October 2008

Mame, Oct 1, 2008 ****

Book by Jerome Lawrence & Robert E Lee, Music & Lyrics by Jerry Herman, by The Production Company
State Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Oct 1 to 5, 2008
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The musical of Mame was based on Patrick Dennis’s novel-memoir, Aunty Mame and, if the story is true, Dennis had a wild and woolly childhood living with his eccentric aunt’s madcap behaviour and surrounded by her bohemian friends.

The character of Mame Dennis is an ideal vehicle for the vivacious Rhonda Burchmore who employs plenty of her signature vibrato, rich and fruity vocal tones as well as elegant dance moves. The vivid, glamorous and unorthodox Mame is a role for a belter and for a performer who stands out in a crowd and Rhonda fits the bill.

Mame rises “at the crack of noon”, drinks martinis for breakfast and mixes with bohemians and actors. When she inherits her nephew, Patrick (Thomas New), she initiates the boy into the world of cocktails parties and sends him to The Laboratory of Life, progressive school where the students study while naked.

Gary Young directs the show deftly and Orchestra Victoria, conducted by Peter Casey, fills the State Theatre with big numbers including the show-stopping title song, Mame. There are plenty of memorable tunes such as the rousing ensemble number It’s Today, Open A New Window, We Need a Little Christmas and Bosom Buddies.

Although this production is staged without an extravagant design, it boasts some marvellous performers, vibrant choreography (Andrew Hallsworth) and a powerful and talented chorus.

Nicki Wendt plays Vera Charles, theatre star, infamous lush and Mame’s friend and rival. Wendt plays the acerbic, sozzled Vera with dry humour and a gravelly voice. Although she has a pitch problem singing Man in the Moon, her comic timing is excellent and her duet with Burchmore in Bosom Buddies is compelling.

Lara Mulcahy is simply a scene-stealer as Agnes Gooch, Patrick’s hilarious, blousy, myopic and lovable nanny. Her comedy is impeccable and she wins the audience with Gooch’s Song that is riddled with innuendo. Thomas New has charm as young Patrick and Alex Rathgeber (OK) as Older Patrick has a warm presence and lyrical voice.

Although it has dated, there was irony in the mention of the Great Depression and huge stock market losses during our current market. Hilariously Vera  quips, “Thank God I never put anything aside.”

Mame is an iconic piece of American music theatre with at least two great ensemble numbers and plenty of toe-tappers to keep the audience entertained.

Kate Herbert