Saturday 24 October 2009

Faces in the Crowd by Leo Butler ***

 By Leo Butler, Red Stitch Actors Theatre
At Red Stitch Actors' Theatre, Oct 24 to Nov 7, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

With nearly half of our married population facing divorce in their lives, Leo Butler’s Faces in the Crowd may hit a nerve in many people. This two-hander depicts an intense, uncomfortable, warts-and-all insight into the weird reunion of a couple ten years after separation.

Their meeting is emotionally bloody. Dave (David Whiteley), after five years of marriage to Joanne (Sarah Sutherland), disappeared ten years ago, leaving Joanne in the north of England with huge debts, unanswered questions and a deep incomprehension of why she was left without a word. Dave was never heard of again – until now.

And the pain gets worse. Joanne, after recent contact from Dave, arrives at his fancy London studio flat. She is bitter, angry and sniping at him. He is contrite initially, conciliatory, inviting her to walk by the Thames.

Whiteley and Sutherland capture the awful discomfort and awkwardness of this couple that now have nothing in common. We wonder whether they ever did when he describes how he felt trapped, dead and needed to escape when their marriage was at an end.

We also wonder why the heck he invited her to his home and why she came. They snipe and bicker, defend themselves and attack with cruel words and even physical violence. And why is Joanne slowly and surreptitiously and with what appears to be almost shame, peeling her clothes off ? And why is Dave not commenting?

But all becomes clear when we realise that she is taking her pound of flesh or, rather his seed. Joanne is closing 40 and wants a baby – and Dave owes it to her.

The acting is skilful. Whiteley captures the slick, smug tone and demeanour of this evidently successful corporate player and middle-aged womaniser. He has an edge of violence balanced with his smooth talking and courtesy. Sutherland gives Joanne the brittle, shattered look of the abandoned wife and her petite frame makes Joanne vulnerable and childlike. Her Northern accent gives her an alien quality that she accentuates to highlight the changes that time has wrought on her estranged husband.

Sam Strong’s production is claustrophobic, containing the actors in a set (Dayna Morrissey) that gives them barely room to dodge each other’s blows and verbal attacks. Strong keeps the pair jammed up against each other which accentuates their lack of intimacy by their desperate and dangerous proximity.

This play will leave you with clenched fists and holding your breath.

By Kate Herbert

Tuesday 13 October 2009

When The Rain Stops Falling, MTC ****

by Andrew Bovell, Melbourne Theatre Company with Brink Productions
 Sumner Theatre, MTC, October 13 to November 22, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Rain falls, rivers flood and lives are changed during the eight decades of When The Rain Stops Falling. This family epic tale is about the human condition. What else? It allows us to view, through the foggy glass of time, the evolution of a family over four generations as the bloodlines of two families collide.

It is a melancholy tale about fraught people who cannot express their emotions so they clam up and cut off their loved ones, leaving them alone and broken. There is a sense of hollowness and quiet despair in every person.

The play begins in 2039 in Alice Springs, returns to London in 1959 and continues in South Australia in 1988 and 2013. It covers an expansive physical, psychological and emotional landscape but also zooms in on minute character details. We witness the echoes of traits that jump generations. Everybody suffers a tragedy, is abandoned and feels the absence of a person, of love or of purpose.

Parallel to the human story is the devastation of the land and the climate. There is drought and flooding rain. What begins as a turn of phrase – “People are drowning in Bangladesh” – becomes fact.

It rains on stage. Gabriel York (Neil Pigot) stands under an umbrella. A fish falls out of the sky. It is a miracle, like manna from heaven. Fish are now a delicacy near extinction. The man, addressing us directly, explains the phone call and impending visit from the son (Yalin Ozucelik OK) he abandoned when the boy was a child. By sending the fish, the heavens provide lunch for the son.

Pigot is magnetic and poignant as both Gabriel and his own grandfather, Henry. His opening scene is compelling and the highlight of the show. There are fine performances from Ozucelik, Anna Lise Phillips, Kris McQuade, Carmel Johnson, Paul Blackwell and Michaela Cantwell. Quentin Grant provides evocative live music.

Bovell’s script was developed in collaboration with director, Chris Drummond, designer, Hossein Valamanesh, (OK) and actors. However, the spare style, complex dramatic structure, interlocking narrative threads and reincorporation of dialogue and themes are signatures of Bovell’s writing.

The audience must work to draw together the elements. Not until the final scene are we certain where this story is heading. The production is quirky and interesting but the repetitive, almost rippling rhythm slows it down, reducing a little the impact of such resonant themes.

By Kate Herbert

Sunday 11 October 2009

Terminus by Mark O’Rowe ****

By Abbey Theatre, Melbourne International Arts Festival
Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse,  until Oct 13, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Be prepared for stark staging and grim, poetic, contemporary Irish language in Terminus, written and directed by Mark O’Rowe. The play is comprised of three lyrical but gritty monologues that begin in a realistic style then transmute into grotesque and violent fantasy, becoming mythical and otherworldly. 

Each character is desperate and alienated and all paint a verbal picture of a bleak world peopled with dangerous, crazy characters. It is like a Grimm’s fairytale set in contemporary Ireland.

Three actors (Kate Brennan, Andrea Irvine, Karl Shiels) are dotted across the empty stage, picked out by dramatic lighting (Philip Gladwell) and reflected in barely visible shards of glass (design by Jon Bausor). Their separate stories are by turns shocking or tender and their journeys seem unconnected until we catch the threads that weave them together.

Character A (Irvine), a mother and a phone counsellor, embarks on an odyssey through grimy Dublin dives. By trying to save a pregnant girl from a vicious attack, she seeks atonement for her own betrayal of her daughter’s trust.  B (Shiels) is a serial killer, a profoundly shy loner who sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for a beautiful singing voice. (Wouldn’t you?) His damned soul now returns to take its revenge.

The na├»ve, lonely young woman, known as C (Brennan), looks for love after being betrayed by her mother who seduced her boyfriend. She is lured up onto a huge crane and falls to – well surely it must be to her death.

The acting is gripping with all three actors finding a pulsating, musical rhythm in their monologues. The direction focuses on the richness and vocal quality of the spoken language as well as the vibrant characterisations. 

O’Rowe’s style has much in common with Thomas’s Under Milkwood or Joyce’s Ulysses. It is littered with irregular rhyming and rhythmic, bubbling language that creates a vivid, verbal landscape. The violence and violation is exhausting and almost unbearable by the end, but the word pictures are powerful.

Terminus is about death and violence and love and loss. It is a battle for life with demons and angels, mothers and daughters, lovers and killers, ugly murders and gory accidents. The three lives converge in several horrible accidents. No one is safe, nothing is sacred and lives are disposable.

By Kate Herbert

Friday 2 October 2009

And No More Shall We Part ***1/2

By Tom Holloway, by A Bit of Argy Bargy
Black Box, Arts Centre, Oct 2 to 10, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2

Take a box of tissues for this poignant play. And No More Shall We Part, by Tom Holloway, is 80 minutes of despair, loss, grief and love. With unsentimental truth and sensitivity, Margaret Mills and Denis Moore portray the grim, quiet normality of a married couple at a crisis point.

Within minutes of seeing Pam (Mills) lying under the pale covers of her single bed and Don (Moore) perched on a chair beside her we know that Pam is waiting to die – and very soon.

Holloway, with director, Martin White, depicts an ordinary, domestic world in which a couple, after 30 years of marriage, faces their final conflict. Pam suffers a terminal illness that will soon rob her of any quality of life and leave in crippling pain. She chooses voluntary euthanasia – a process that remains a criminal act here for anyone assisting the suicide.

As Pam lies at home in her child-sized bed they share recollections from their shared life: a camping trip, their first night in a double bed, their children. The scenes shift between this final night and other recent, painful moments. We see Pam inform Don of her decision to end her life. On a later occasion Don, in rage and confusion, calls her decision “selfish” and demands they go to Switzerland where euthanasia is legal. Their final silent meal together is achingly painful.

Moore grabs our sympathy with his compassionate portrayal of this awkward, mercurial and desperate man whose moods swing from distraction to panic and anger as he struggles to accept that his wife is leaving him forever. Mills brings dignity, stoicism and decisiveness to Pam who takes control of her own death while Don grapples with his impending aloneness. She calmly reminds him of happy times and bluntly demands he comply with her last wishes.

White finds some dynamic range within the ordinariness although he employs too many silent, dimly lit scene changes that seem unnecessarily and excruciatingly slow. The ending is not what we expect and in some ways this makes it even more distressing. You are not in for a happy time in this show but it is compelling.

By Kate Herbert

The Suicide Show ***

by A Bit of Argy Bargy, Full Tilt
Black Box, Victorian Arts Centre,  Oct 2 to 10, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

If you call a production The Suicide Show, the nature of the content is self-evident. You might not expect a cabaret-style show with songs – mostly by famous artists – and monologues that all relate to depression or suicide. The dark theme is depicted in diverse forms; some perversely comical, others grim.

The 16 songs and vignettes directly address the audience in a typically confronting cabaret manner. Some dialogue material is by Tom Holloway and the cast devised the remainder. (Mark Jones, Fernando Gallardo, Duncan McBride, Adam Pierzchalski (OK), Gabriel Piras, Kaelis Zaid (OK)).  The inimitable Mark Jones arranged the songs and music and his rich vocal tones, powerful physical presence and riveting gaze make him the most compelling performer.

The show opens with the trumpeting strains of Fanfare For The Common Man (Aaron Copland).  Of the songs that follow, some are spoken in a recitative style while others are sung. The styles and arrangements are diverse including a capella, power ballad, latin, choral harmonies and love ballad. Director, Martin White, plays with the staging and and adds inventive lighting and projection (Adam Hardy, Kim Kwa, Stewart Haines).

The titles tell the story: People Equals Shit by the suicidally named Slipknot; Lithium by Nirvana whose leader was a famous suicide; Something Is Not Right With Me (Coldwar Kids): Better Off Dead, a quirky song about unrequited love by Randy Newman; and Hurt (Nine Inch Nails) that is about inflicting and experiencing pain.

Holloway wrote original lyrics to Mates, a wry song depicting a suicidal man whose friends try to cheer him up. What A Day, performed with a brittle, dark humour by Jones, is a monologue about a drunk who decides today is the day he will step onto railway tracks and wait for a train.

A show about suicide would not be complete without Lou Reed, whose songs are like life through the bottom of an empty vodka glass at four in the morning. Good Night Ladies is sung with ironic cheer by five voices.

So take a valium or two or pop the top off a beer and get out there and groove to the black beat of The Suicide Show.

By Kate Herbert