Distinctions and evaluations

Les Misérables, Capitol Theatre, Sydney, April 26; Aida, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, Fleet Steps, Sydney, April 27

A COUPLE of years ago I interviewed Stephen Sondheim ahead of the Melbourne season of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and I’m afraid I really didn’t get anything out of him that he hadn’t said many, many times before. This included his definition of the difference between opera and musical theatre. When, for instance, Sweeney Todd was presented on Broadway, it was a musical, he said. When Sweeney Todd was staged by an opera company, it was an opera.

It’s a reasonable point. As Bernard Williams writes frankly in The New Grove Dictionary of Opera (1992 edition), after discussing operetta, Singspiel, the use of Sprechgesang and so on: “The relations between opera and the other forms that are contrasted with it are thus complex, and the distinctions (in particular, that between opera and operetta) are to some degree arbitrary. The present position is that ‘opera’ is to some extent an evaluative term, used to refer to sung drama which is either ‘serious’ enough, or traditional enough in form and technique, to be staged in an opera house.”

Simon Gleeson and Hayden Tee in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

Simon Gleeson and Hayden Tee in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

That last phrase points to the circular nature of this knotty question of classification. A sung drama can be called an opera because it’s considered worthy of being in an opera house – which of course depends on whom is doing the considering, or evaluating. Sweeney Todd in an opera house? It’s an opera. Perhaps, although I don’t care what you want to call it, other than a great, great work. (Grove: Opera, It., from Lat. opera, plural of opus, ‘work’.)

Just to muddy the issue, the work of a contemporary company such as Sydney Chamber Opera is staged at Carriageworks, a multi-arts venue that concentrates on new work. I doubt that Kate Miller-Heidke and Lally Katz’s hour-long work The Rabbits, of which Opera Australia was a co-producer, will be seen in a traditional opera space, not to mention that the singers are amplified, which for many people would bar it from being called an opera. Perth International Arts Festival, a co-commissioner with the Melbourne Festival, cannily called The Rabbits “a new work of operatic theatre”.

PIAF was right to make that distinction, and I don’t think in this case it is arbitrary. The Rabbits’ music, while it had some qualities one might consider operatic (overlapping vocal lines, for instance), was not of the complexity one associates with opera – not quite “traditional enough in form and technique”. But to get back to my point about Sweeney Todd, who cares what box you put it in, as long as it’s good?

The openings in Sydney of Les Misérables and Aida on consecutive nights brought to the fore these distinctions and evaluations.

It goes without saying that musically speaking, Aida, this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, starts any face-off with the unbridgeable advantage of having been written by Verdi. The composer of Les Mis, Claude-Michel Schönberg, is no Verdi, although the same can be said of many – most? – composers of opera, let alone those firmly assigned to the musical theatre realm. Schönberg nevertheless writes memorable, effective melodies that vividly colour and support the stage action.

Walter Fraccaro arrives in triumph in Aida. Photo: Prudence Upton

Walter Fraccaro arrives in triumph in Aida. Photo: Prudence Upton

Schönberg also allows himself a few “serious” references as most Le Mis aficionados know, and they fit seamlessly into his score, which is interesting. Jean Valjean’s Bring Him Home may well remind lovers of Madama Butterfly of the Humming Chorus, and I am grateful to Robert J. Elisberg’s blog for alerting me to the ways in which Little Cosette’s Castle on a Cloud has resonances of Rameau.

One reason, though, why Schönberg and his music theatre confrères will never sound like operatic composers is the non-negotiable requirement that music-theatre lyrics be clearly understood at every moment. In his fine New Yorker obituary for Andrew Porter, the greatly esteemed music critic who died a few days ago, Alex Ross wrote: “Like Wagner, he believed that operas should generally be performed in the native language of the audience—a conviction that marked him as something other than a purist.” Like opera used to be, musical theatre is the theatre of the people and therefore presented in the language of its audience – although when opera is sung in English one sometimes still needs recourse to the surtitles, partly because there may be multiple vocal lines and partly because sometimes diction isn’t what it could be or the conductor isn’t being helpful with the orchestral balance.

Another difference is that music-theatre lyrics pretty much say what they mean and mean what they say. There are few music-theatre lyricists as sophisticated and multi-layered as Sondheim. One may enter a production of a successful musical with no knowledge and leave with full, uncomplicated apprehension of every turn of plot and emotion. You can call it unsubtle if you will, but it’s powerful magic and it’s why Andrew Lloyd Webber is a very rich man. (He likes his Puccini too – Music of the Night from The Phantom of the Opera employs a phrase very like one in Quello che tacete in La fanciulla del West. Let’s put it this way: royalties were paid to Puccini heirs.

Milijana Nikolic as Amneris in Aida. Photo: Prudence Upton

Milijana Nikolic as Amneris in Aida. Photo: Prudence Upton

So far Aida is out in front by quite a margin, although it’s fun to think that perhaps Les Mis could be considered the more serious drama, in that its love triangle (Eponine-Marius-Cosette) is subordinate to the theme of oppression and revolution. In Aida the love triangle (Amneris-Radamès-Aida) is to the fore with political upheaval secondary.

Musically, though, Aida is the goods. Late-stage Verdi in his pomp.

But we’re not just listening. Sung drama is a combination of score, libretto, vocal quality, acting and staging.

In its current production Aida’s musical splendours are forced into the service of an astonishingly vulgar presentation. What was director Gale Edwards thinking? The dominating scenic element in Mark Thompson’s design, a giant head of Nefertiti, is inspired but presides over a sad mish-mash of images and ideas. It is one of those concepts that throws in costuming from across the ages to indicate that the themes are timeless. So there are modern business-suited guards, Fascist soldiers, priests of Ancient Egypt, women overpowered by gargantuan gowns, female dancers in a kick-line (don’t ask) wearing abbreviated versions of traditional African attire and male dancers got up as jackals with a 1970s rock-star vibe by way of a D-grade sci-fi film. Well, it’s work for the dancers, although not choreographer Lucas Jervies’s finest hour.

The mute reference to current Middle East oil politics is very odd. Why all those barrels stacked up the back? It’s not as if Egypt is one of the great oil-producing countries and at war with Ethiopia over the resource. Obviously we were meant to think about current geo-politics but the idea looked and felt tacked on.

Les Mis, ensconced at the rather operatic Capitol Theatre, pulls together its various themes brilliantly. I saw it first in Melbourne in July last year and wrote then: “The staging has the fluidity of a dream, emphasised by darkly romantic atmospherics created by projected backgrounds (Matt Kinley’s designs were inspired by Hugo’s paintings). The stage picture is often startlingly beautiful and always theatrically effective.”

Simon Gleeson as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. Photo: Matt Murphy

Simon Gleeson as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. Photo: Matt Murphy

There seem to be more directors than you can poke a stick at for Les Mis but despite the crowd (two directors, two in charge of musical staging) the production is exceptionally coherent. From a staging perspective, Les Mis is the goods. Producer Cameron Mackintosh has done it again, and this summation indicates the most fundamental difference between opera and musical theatre. The first is the art of the composer, the second the art of the producer. And yes, I know there are many who think producers aren’t artists, but then I think of Diaghilev and dismiss that argument. And yes, there are exceptions, such as Sondheim, who is always the exception.

Fortunately for Aida, on opening night there were two stellar performances. Soprano Latonia Moore was a glorious Aida with dark power at the bottom of the range and warm glow at the top. She acted every moment with conviction and made Ritorna Vincitor and O Patria mia the shining dramatic highlights. As Amneris, mezzo Milijana Nikolic, tall and glamorous, deftly wrangled her series of eye-popping frocks – brava! – and persuasively made the transition from haughty, conniving princess to woman of feeling.

The principal artists over at Les Mis were equally thrilling. Simon Gleeson (Jean Valjean) and Hayden Tee (Javert) are tremendous singing actors who have different challenges – Gleeson has to make saintliness compelling and touching; Tee to make blind obsession worthy of understanding. And may the gods of opera forgive me, but both were much more vocally interesting than Walter Fraccaro as Aida’s Radamès. The night I heard him Fraccaro gave a performance that was unsubtle and unvarying. He can sing loudly, that’s for sure. (There were some issues with the amplification at Aida, but all the principals were singing under the same conditions …)

Further down the cast list Aida was graced by the splendid Amonasro of Michael Honeyman and David Parkin’s Ramfis. In Les Mis, Kerrie Anne Greenland (Eponine), for whom this is her first professional engagement, was spectacularly good. In Melbourne I thought her voice wonderful but that she sang the notes all in the right places and rather too dutifully in her big song, On My Own. In Sydney she was able to move within the music to make it individual. She’s a tremendous talent. After what sounded a nervous start – there was a very pronounced beat in the voice – Patrice Tipoki sang feelingly and movingly as the unfortunate Fantine.

Others in Les Mis fared less well. I thought the directors allowed Lara Mulcahy as Madame Thénardier to overdo the grotesque comic business (when you overshadow the Thénardier of Trevor Ashley it’s quite a feat), that Euan Doidge was a too small-voiced Marius, that Emily Langridge was a very unsettled-sounding Cosette and that Chris Durling lacked that last necessary drop of personal and vocal charisma as Enjolras, leader of the student revolutionaries.

Wouldn’t you think those quite serious reservations would knock Les Mis out of the running for Best Sung Drama in the final week of March 2015? But no, they didn’t. Les Mis was, despite the glories of Latonia Moore and despite Verdi, the much more satisfying theatrical experience. And don’t blame Opera on Sydney Harbour, an innovation I adore: Last year’s Best Sung Drama? That would be Madama Butterfly, on the harbour.

Highland fling

Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane, May 20.

IN August Bournonville’s enduringly popular Romantic ballet, a young man dozes by a vast open fireplace and is woken by an apparition, a beautiful winged creature who kisses him. Immediately enraptured, he tries to catch her but she eludes his grasp and, in an effect that never fails to delight, disappears up the chimney but not from his thoughts.

It’s not a propitious start to his wedding day and the omens only get worse.

La Sylphide takes place in two worlds, that of the flesh and that of the spirit, although they are not entirely separate dimensions. While humans go about their cosy domesticity, supernatural forces hover, whisper and pounce. The safety of hearth and home can’t be taken for granted.

James flees the conventional future laid out for him and heads to the forest in search of his sylph and a passionate, magical life that he realises too late is unattainable. La Sylphide is a “be careful what you wish for” cautionary tale, pitting stay-at-home ordinariness against fatal attraction.

Qi Huan as James in La Sylphide. Photo: David Kelly

Qi Huan as James in La Sylphide. Photo: David Kelly

Queensland Ballet performs La Sylphide in Peter Schaufuss’s 1979 production, which is essentially faithful to the familiar Bournonville version with some additions and alterations. Schaufuss upgrades James’s home from a Scottish farmhouse to a manor house and gives him more dancing with an extra brooding solo in Act I and a kind of interior monologue expressed as a pas de trois for James, his bride-to-be Effie and the sylph.

The trio feels unnecessary but at the opening performance there was joy in every second spent on stage by Qi Huan, plucked out of retirement by QB artistic director Li Cunxin to dance James. Qi spent nearly a decade with Royal New Zealand Ballet and now teaches at New Zealand School of Dance.

The singular Bournonville dance language is notable for its intricate footwork and floating levitations. Qi’s astonishing elevation gave him all the time in the world for multiple razor-sharp beaten steps in the air, his double tours – to left as well as right – were landed with exceptional poise and precision and the deep, deep plies Schaufuss favours were plush. Purists would undoubtedly think the latter a distortion of Bournonville stylistic modesty but they were undeniably exciting. Qi acted superbly too. His retreat from the stage is a mystery.

Not all audiences will see Qi, of course, as there are five casts for this 10-performance run. If that seems a lot, it is proof of Li’s desire to stretch as many of his dancers as possible and to challenge them in this lovely, incredibly demanding style. Not that Li was able to cast James five times from within. There is another male guest artist for the season, Luke Schaufuss, a dancer with Birmingham Royal Ballet and Peter Schaufuss’s son. The family affair is taken further: Peter’s daughter Tara dances with Queensland Ballet and while on opening night she was a featured Sylph, she is also cast as the Sylphide.

The QB men cast as James are the company’s only male principal, Hao Bin, and soloists Shane Weurthner and Camilo Ramos, the latter in his first weeks with QB. He, like the company’s new principal artist Yanela Piñera, is from National Ballet of Cuba.

I assume Li would like to get his company to the size and level at which he could confidently cast all the major works from within but that’s not done quickly or easily. It is, however, fascinating to watch the process of company building.

The first performance introduced the glamorous Piñera, who seemed a rather flesh-and-blood Sylphide as did fellow principal Clare Morehen as the Lead Sylph. Both are still feeling their way with the spirit of this radiant style, as is Weurthner, who gave a bit too much as Gurn, the man who loves and finally wins Effie.

Sarah Thompson’s sweetly glowing Effie made a strong impression and it was wonderful to see Mary Li in her element as the witch Madge, engineering James’s downfall with scarily cheerful, robust malevolence.

Some muddy horns aside, Queensland Symphony Orchestra played the Herman Lovenskjold score with verve for conductor Andrew Mogrelia, whose pacing and shaping of the overture vividly established the ballet’s quicksilver mood and themes.

La Sylphide ends on March 31.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 24.

Quintett, Frame of Mind

Sydney Theatre, March 9 and 10.

IT was a great coup for Rafael Bonachela to secure William Forsythe’s Quintett for Sydney Dance Company. It is a jewel of the contemporary repertoire with so many facets and colours it could be seen again and again without exhausting its possibilities.

And to see it danced as was on its opening night night – well, Sydney is blessed. Quintett is incredibly demanding technically but its first cast of Chloe Leong, Jesse Scales, David Mack, Cass Mortimer Eipper and Sam Young-Wright made only radiance visible.

Chloe Leong and David Mack in Quintett. Photo: Peter Greig

Chloe Leong and David Mack in Quintett. Photo: Peter Greig

Forsythe created Quintett in 1993 as his young wife, Tracy-Kai Maier, was dying. It’s not, however, a work shrouded in sorrow, nor does it shake its fist at death despite flashes of anger. Quintett vibrates with life and with qualities that imply continuance: endurance, resilience, consolation.

Relationships between the three men and two women are in constant flux, as is the movement language: wherever there is an odd number there is an inbuilt level of anticipation, surprise and often tension. Crawling, falling, flailing, distorting, watching, leaving and arriving are all part of the physical mix but Quintett also repeatedly returns to the beautiful formalities and certainties of ballet. There are fixed points of visual order as Forsythe challenges the possibilities of what the body can do in dance.

Order is also imposed gently but rigorously by the score, Gavin Bryars’s Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, in which the looped voice of an old man singing phrases of a hymn could conceivably play until the stars turn cold. A 26-second fragment is played repeatedly, first unaccompanied and then with quietly growing and changing orchestral support that flows and lulls serenely, never presuming to swamp the slightly tremulous and hesitant vocal line. As the few words are heard again and again, one becomes aware of the halts, where the breath is taken, the tiny stress on the word “yet”, and so on. There is so much in apparently so little.

Bryars came across the man, a tramp, in 1971. His name is unknown and he died not long after but in Jesus’ Blood there remains for all time his unfailing optimism. In this way he lives on.

As the curtain falls a woman tries to leave the stage but is several times prevented, gently pushed back into the fading light. Her dance will continue whether there is anyone to see it or not. She too lives on in the glow of memory.

Speaking of memory, some may recall another use in dance of Jesus’ Blood. Maguy Marin’s 1981 work May B also uses Bryars’s first version of the work (the initial 26-minute arrangement was later expanded into a version lasting three times that length and includes Tom Waits vocals entering near the end). May B was presented at the 1992 Adelaide Festival and then had a Sydney season and is a work performed to this day.

In the first SDC Quintett cast the balletic qualities of the performers gave their lines brilliant clarity. It’s worth mentioning that David Mack and Cass Mortimer Eipper are both former members of West Australian Ballet. Sam Young-Wright – exceptionally tall with an arabesque that goes on forever – was perhaps an unexpected member of the first cast as he was plucked from Sydney Dance Company’s first Pre-Professional Year group to join the company only this year. He looked wonderful, as did ethereal Chloe Leong (also a new company member) and tiny but magisterial Jesse Scales.

The next night’s Quintett cast had a rougher, more ferocious quality. Some of the edges of the lines were blurred but the emotional stakes were incredibly high. Richard Cilli, recently returned to SDC after some time in Europe, looked quite anarchic in places and Juliette Barton was incredible, dancing with burning fervour. Janessa Dufty was a relatively late replacement for the injured Charmene Yap but fitted into this cast seamlessly. Bernhard Knauer and Todd Sutherland completed this wonderful group

Quintett is followed by a new full-company work by Bonachela, Frame of Mind, choreographed to thrillingly muscular music written by Bryce Dessner for the Kronos Quartet (heard here in recording).

Sydney Dance Company in Frame of Mind. Photo: Peter Grieg

Sydney Dance Company in Frame of Mind. Photo: Peter Grieg

Bonachela has described himself as a movement junkie and this taste frequently leads him to include more steps per bar of music than are strictly necessary. One can feel over-stimulated or over-satiated – or, as in Frame of Mind, there are times when dance and score are in competition with one another so that attention is split rather than focused. Nevertheless, Frame of Mind fruitfully reaches for intimate moods and stage pictures that imply characters and narratives to a degree unusual in Bonachela’s work.

An intriguing atmosphere is created by Ralph Myers’s evocative set – mottled, angled walls against which dancers lounge broodingly. Myers of course, as well as being a set designer, is artistic director of Belvoir and once again one has to salute Bonachela for the connections he has made and continues to make in Sydney’s cultural life. His eagerness to collaborate widely has been one of the defining characteristics of his time at SDC and has brought the company great riches.

The large window (with wide sill) in one of the walls is perhaps a rather obvious metaphor for a frame of mind, but it looks very beautiful with Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting shining through and provides a contemplative perch for dancers in quieter moments.

Bonachela has his dancers surge and retreat in a multiplicity of combinations and there is a terrific frisson when the 16 men and women coalesce on several occasions into hard-core unison – yes, that may be an oldie but it’s still a goodie.

Several times during Frame of Mind there were fleeting traces of Quintett in one or two balletic shapes and stuttering bodies, or at least that’s what it seemed to me. They implied a spirit of homage to Forsythe and while I’m not sure if they were intended, or if I am reading too much into them, they felt absolutely right.

Frame of Mind ends in Sydney on March 21. Canberra, April 30-May 2; Melbourne, May 6-16.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 11.

Sydney Opera House, February 28

IN the guise of a sweet and playful romance, As You Like It drives its characters (and ourselves) to seek answers to life’s deepest questions. Who am I? What is my purpose? What is my rightful place?

As the story begins the world is in disarray. A ruler has been usurped, an arrogant man refuses to fulfil his responsibilities towards his younger brother and a woman, Rosalind, is wrongfully banished from home. She escapes to the Forest of Arden where all is made well. Wrong-doers repent of their sins, lovers find their right match and order is restored.

Taking on the guise of a boy, Ganymede, Rosalind is the prime mover of events; the director, if you will, as well as a player in the comic roundelay.

John Bell, Gareth Davies, Kelly Paterniti and Zahra Newman. Photo: Rush

John Bell, Gareth Davies, Kelly Paterniti and Zahra Newman. Photo: Rush

Peter Evans’s production for Bell Shakespeare skips rather too lightly through the thickets. The suggestion of a 1950s setting gives an opportunity for some very pretty frocks (by Kate Aubrey-Dunn) and finger-snapping tunes (Kelly Ryall) for the songs but confers no great insights. Michael Hankin’s set design – saggy canvas backdrop and a “forest” of flowers on hanging ropes – is almost perverse in its refusal to make theatrical magic. Jaques famously describes all the world as a stage, but in this As You Like It all the world appears to be gathered backstage.

And yet, there is, in Zahra Newman’s Rosalind, a shining tribute to powerful women that is extraordinarily potent in the light of today’s politics. She is an acute thinker, has courage, resourcefulness and is a person of action in thought and deed. Newman bounces about the stage with enlivening vim and vigour. She makes things happen.

Only the most cursory nod is made to her assumption of a male persona as Evans gives a wide berth to contemporary gender politics. Newman wears a suit that does nothing to disguise her womanliness. It’s a costume that allows her to exert control.

There are losses, and some may find them too great. Evans makes nothing of the difference in temperament and style of the rustic folk in the Forest of Arden and the escapees from court and Shakespeare’s boy-girl, girl-boy confusions are excised along with the attendant laughter and inherent complexity. But the gain is in the fierce concentration on Rosalind as a woman of wit and substance who will lead us to the heart of the matter as others flail about blindly or, in the case of John Bell’s brilliantly dry Jaques – an accountant type with notebook and pencil – privilege thinking over feeling.

It’s hard to believe it is 25 years since Bell founded his company, and that this is his last year as its leader (well, for the last little while co-artistic director with Evans). His command of the stage remains undimmed. There are few more delightful lines in As You Like It than Jaques’s “Let’s meet as little as we can,” which got a huge laugh. It reminded me of the best cartoon in the world, by Bob Mankoff for The New Yorker, in which a businessmen on a phone says in response to someone seeking to get into his diary: “No, Thursday’s out. How about never – is never good for you?”

Evans’s cast of 11 is attractive and funny (well, Gareth Davies finds it hard to make Touchstone amusing but he’s not Robinson Crusoe in that). Charlie Garber’s Orlando had women at the matinee I attended audibly sighing in sympathy with him and what a treat to see Tony Taylor (doubling Adam and Corin) back on stage.

Overwhelmingly, though, it’s Newman’s show.

Ends March 28. Canberra, April 7-18; Melbourne, April 23-May 10.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 3.

Everything old is new again

Capitol Theatre, Sydney, February 20 and February 24.

GRAEME Murphy’s Swan Lake has been a touchstone production – and a fortunate one – not only for The Australian Ballet as a whole but for many dancers. At its premiere in Melbourne on September 17, 2002, Simone Goldsmith started the evening as a senior artist and ended it as a principal. Steven Heathcote was Prince Siegfried, as he would be so frequently until his retirement in 2007 and Margaret Illman was an unforgettable Baroness von Rothbart, the third party in the tangled triangle at the heart of the ballet.

By the time the production opened in Sydney on November 28, 2002, senior artist Lynette Wills had assumed the role of the Baroness and she, like Goldsmith, found herself promoted to the company’s highest rank at the after-show festivities. She had waited a long time, and this role gave her the breakthrough.

Over the years young dancers who started out as wedding guests or swans in 2002 graduated to larger roles: the corps de ballet list in September 2002 includes Adam Bull, Andrew Killian, Lana Jones, Amber Scott, Leanne Stojmenov and Danielle Rowe, all of whom would become principal artists and dance Odette, Siegfried or the Baroness. All are still with the company with the exception of Rowe, now with Netherlands Dance Theatre.

In the case of Madeleine Eastoe, then a soloist and now a long-serving principal artist, the path to Odette was swift. I first saw her in December of 2002 and most recently five days ago when Swan Lake opened in Sydney. She was lovely then and is extraordinary now.

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

From the start audiences loved the interpretation created by Murphy, his creative associate Janet Vernon and designer Kristian Fredrikson. It looked absolutely luscious and its story, while being set in an Edwardian world, was clearly influenced by the troubled marriage of Prince Charles and Diana. It was, and is, a wildly glamorous and highly emotional piece of theatre. The AB didn’t hold back. The Murphy Swan Lake has been staged almost every year since 2002, although not always in Australia. It is the work invariably chosen to take on tour and has been seen in Paris, Tokyo, London, New York, Los Angeles and other cities. Later this year it will tour to Beijing.

For this Sydney season Swan Lake continues its role as a trailblazer. It’s not being seen at the AB’s usual home of the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House but is at the Capitol, a venue devoted almost exclusively to large-scale musical theatre. Amusingly, this is because the Wicked juggernaut is tying up Queensland Performing Art Centre’s largest theatre, which is where one would expect the AB to be at this time of year – and the Capitol is the very theatre vacated only last month by Wicked before it headed north.

There is obvious potential to broaden the company’s reach beyond the rusted-on ballet crowd by coming to this venue and the undeniable truth is that Swan Lake looks much better on the Capitol stage than at the Opera House (Opera Australia is ensconced there as usual in February so the Joan Sutherland Theatre was unavailable anyway).

Lockett, Bernet, Nanasca and Martin as the Cygnets. Photo: Branco Gaica

Lockett, Bernet, Nanasca and Martin as the Cygnets. Photo: Branco Gaica

Friday’s opening night was strong, which didn’t surprise given that the company knows the work inside out (this was the 185th performance). What lifted Swan Lake into another realm was the riveting connection between Eastoe and her Siegfried Kevin Jackson. This is truly one of the exceptional partnerships of Australian ballet.

She was all air, light as a feather blown across water; he was all earthy desire and anguish, a flawed and complicated man. As a partner Jackson is not quite in the league (who is?) of Heathcote and Robert Curran – they both danced with Eastoe many times in this ballet – but his immersion in the role and his interpretation of it were electrifying. He wasn’t afraid to look brutal in his treatment of Odette as she unravels on her wedding day, having seen the extent to which Siegfried is in thrall to the Baroness. But he seemed more desperately unhappy and frustrated than a hardened brute, and his Act II lakeside pas de deux was filled with tenderness.

Eastoe has not changed her approach to Odette; she just seems more and more luminous every time. Of the eight Murphy Odettes I’ve seen she is the most heart-rending. Each has had a strongly individual character – a hallmark of this production is that markedly different interpretations are equally valid – but with Eastoe you see innocence slaughtered. It is devastating.

Ako Kondo has exceptional allure but on Friday I thought her vampy Baroness was still a work in progress. In Tuesday’s cast Kondo’s fellow senior artist, Miwako Kubota, was more multi-layered and sympathetic. Kubota made you see the Baroness’s pain as well as her desire. (By the way, Kubota was also in the corps in 2002 when Swan Lake premiered.)

Senior artist Juliet Burnett finally got her chance to dance Odette, and did so partnered by fellow senior artist Rudy Hawkes. It was a persuasive match. Hawkes was an entirely different Siegfried from Jackson. Here was a prince entirely out of his emotional depth, fulfilling his duty as expected and finding things falling apart disastrously and unmanageably on his wedding day. Burnett’s Act I Odette was somewhat spiky in temperament and unstable. This bride, who appears compliant and unsure of herself, is not entirely subservient.

Burnett hasn’t entirely worked these contradictions into a seamless whole. It interests me that Burnett is a very fine writer about dance and thinks deeply about her work; on Tuesday, particularly in Act I, she telegraphed some of that thinking a little too forcefully. When her strong, clear ideas were transformed into action and into feeling they had powerful dramatic authority.

In pure dance terms Burnett and Hawkes had a few moments on Tuesday night that didn’t go entirely to plan – and they were just a few – but they also put their own stamp on the choreography, making many key images entirely fresh with different accents or textures. This is why balletomanes go to a particular ballet repeatedly: not to see it again, but to see it made anew.

Other thoughts:

Brooke Lockett, Benedicte Bernet, Karen Nanasca and Heidi Martin must now be the Cygnets of choice. They are adorable.

No one does a dash across the stage and hair-raising body-slam as vividly as Reiko Hombo (Young Duchess-to-be).

Sometimes it’s just impossible to erase memories of past exponents of certain roles. Take the Guardian Swans, for example. I can still see Danielle Rowe and Lana Jones. Perfection.

Colin Peasley – what can you say? He’s 80 and still getting out there on stage as the Lord Admiral, as ramrod straight as ever.

 Swan Lake ends on Saturday February 28.

Unfinished business

Belvoir, February 18

KILL the Messenger is as simple as theatre gets. There’s a bare space – designer Ralph Myers in particularly pared-back mode – and some projected photographs, five actors, a couple of props, 75 minutes and we’re done.

The rigour, almost at the level of ruthlessness, is thrilling. Playwright Nakkiah Lui requires your attention and she gets it not with tricks and trimmings but with theatre’s most basic tools: a story and actors to tell it in a way that excites the emotions and demands immersion in its ideas. There’s a touch of the slide-show theatre so eloquently developed by William Yang and elements of documentary theatre intertwined with fictionalised narrative, all handled with a tremendously sure touch.

Nakkiah Lui and her gran, Joan. Photo: Brett Boardman

Nakkiah Lui and her gran, Joan. Photo: Brett Boardman

Lui’s searing first play, This Heaven, was seen at Belvoir two years ago in the small Downstairs theatre and it was clear there was an important new theatrical voice in town. Kill the Messenger is in the bigger Upstairs space and it deserves the room.

An aside: Ralph Myers’s artistic directorship has been notable for the openings he has given to Indigenous theatre artists and to women. Obviously Lui ticks both those boxes at the same time, which is pleasing. Naturally the nay-sayers will want to call this political correctness. It’s not – it’s correcting the bias of god knows how many decades and it is good. And good not just because it’s righting a wrong, but because it’s producing great work. But back to the work at hand …

Kill the Messenger slips easily back and forth in time and between real life and imagined encounters as Lui examines how easily people – her people, Aboriginal people – can essentially be invisible in a white world. The politics are strong and well argued but there’s a deep pool of personal grief too. Lui’s grandmother, Joan, died after an ages-old bureaucratic arrangement meant no one took any responsibility for her rotting home. No care, either.

There is a heart-rending photograph of Joan after she fell through the floor of her termite-infested home. We’ve already seen her looking suitably grandmotherly, with soft white hair and dark specs. Now the skin around her eyes is angrily puffed and red. The glasses are gone, obviously, because who needs them in a hospital bed, and anyway, they would be too painful to wear. Lui rightly lets the image pretty much speak for itself.

It’s par for the course for young Indigenous playwrights to be called “angry” and ”raw”. They are clichés really, just like older Aboriginal men and women are always, but always, described as “dignified” in a way older white people rarely are. These things are intended as compliments, of course, but I’m not sure that the thinking behind them is particularly deep. Lui touches on this early in Kill the Messenger when she says: “You want this to feel raw and honest, like a real snippet of an experience; an Aboriginal experience … Here is my tale of black oppression”.

She is being truthful but ironic too. The audience, which generally speaking is overwhelmingly white, wants a story. Lui wants to engage in something truthful, which is why she says her play doesn’t have an ending. Which it obviously does have, at the 75-minute mark when we leave the theatre, and doesn’t have in the sense that the issues are in any way resolved. It’s an unfinished play because it’s unfinished business. There are lots of layers – Lui doesn’t have a law degree for nothing.

Kill the Messenger was created from the knowledge that Indigenous Australians suffer injustices and slights that others do not and they can have dire consequences, so in that sense there is anger. But there is also great sadness and frustration, and in this play a challenge to audience members to examine their own actions and perceptions. Kill the Messenger is far from a one-note outburst.

The play’s second strand involves a young man, Paul (Lasarus Ratuere), whose drug addiction made him unwelcome when he sought medical care. Because she never met him Lui dramatises his plight and creates an incredibly sympathetic portrait of a charming, vivid, damaged soul. His sister Harley (Katie Beckett) comes alive explosively as she struggles with her wayward sibling’s failings and also tries to get answers from Alex (Matthew Backer), an emergency department nurse whose situation is not as black and white as it may seem.

Sam O’Sullivan as Lui’s boyfriend Peter completes the fine cast – almost.

Lui’s boldest stroke is to put herself in the play, right at its centre. Sometimes she’s acting herself (she’s very good), often she talks directly to the audience and near the end she touchingly places herself in conversation with Paul, who we know from the play’s first moments is going to kill himself. Lui has great stage presence – she’s warm, direct, unaffected and game. As she comments after getting close and personal with O’Sullivan, she thought when she wrote Kill the Messenger that elfin Miranda Tapsell would be playing her. Very cute.

Lui is sharp, funny, passionate and compassionate. She knows how to shape a debate, when to get mad and when to stay calm, and not necessarily in the places you might expect. Kill the Messenger simultaneously draws you in and keeps you on your toes, which makes for stimulating and entertaining theatre. The writing and construction show no signs of strain, for which praise must go also to director Anthea Williams and dramaturg Jada Alberts.

And I love that Lui will get out there every night to tell and retell what happened to Joan and Paul. It’s as if she doesn’t quite trust us; that we might otherwise be able to tuck this away as fiction if she’s not there to bear witness.

Joan. Her name was Joan.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on February 20.

Ends March 8.

Eeny, meeny, miny, mo

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, February 10.

WILLY Russell isn’t a great lyricist and not much more than a journeyman composer but he’s no slouch with a heart-tugging story as his life-affirming plays Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine prove. The 1983 musical Blood Brothers also mines gritty British working-class life, although with a darker purpose.

There are twin boys furtively separated at birth, one taken by a childless, well-to-do family and the other raised by his natural mother, a woman with too many offspring and not enough money. The crucial moment of decision – the eeny-meeny-miny-mo moment that determines which baby stays and which one goes – will influence the course of their lives. And their deaths, which are shown in the first minutes. All the rest is flashback, or to put it another way, fate.

Blake Bowden and Bobby Fox in Blood Brothers. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Bobby Fox and Blake Bowden in Blood Brothers. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

It’s winning the postcode lottery that sorts the cream from the crap in this tough northern England town. Blood Brothers is a Greek tragedy about the British class system; an uneven, passionate piece told with bold, broad, obvious strokes and a tuneful, repetitive score. A couple of the tunes are like buses to Bondi, coming along every 10 minutes or so, the Marilyn Monroe motif is worked way beyond its capacities and there’s a lumpy structure that oversells things that could be dealt with quickly and races through more important matters. But who cares? Certainly not the show’s multitudinous devotees.

Any flaws one can discern in Blood Brothers, and there are plenty, haven’t hurt the musical one bit. Far from it. Only Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera have had more music-theatre performances on the West End, and both have the advantage of being built along monumental lines. Blood Brothers is a much more modest operation. But something about its stern absolutes got under the skin. Blood Brothers is a product of the Thatcher era and Russell’s very real understanding of a divided Britain.

The 1988 revival ran for nearly 25 years and it’s commonplace to hear about people reduced to sobs at its ending, even though they know exactly what is to happen. For all its faults Blood Brothers spoke to its people and its heart-on-sleeve politics are still relevant. The divide between rich and poor continues to widen and privilege continues to bring unearned abundance.

The new, small-scale production at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co goes at it with touching fervour. Scrappy Mickey Johnstone (Bobby Fox) and posh Edward Lyons (Blake Bowden) come across each other as seven-year-olds (“nearly eight”) and discover they share a birthday although they are unaware of their true connection. Their ease with one another – their essential alikeness – is in contrast to the gulf between stitched-up Mrs Lyons (Bronwyn Mulcahy) and fecund Mrs Johnstone (Helen Dallimore).

The action takes place over several decades on Anna Gardiner’s deliciously economic fold-out set, one that alas doesn’t have room to show the economical but driving four-piece band led by Michael Tyack. The musicians are banished to backstage, robbing the production of some rawness it could use with much profit.

The lengthy scenes with the boys as children show Fox and Bowden surprisingly convincing as kids in short pants, and then songs that hurtle the story forward as the deadly outcome shown at the start by the Narrator (Michael Cormick) comes closer. Cormick sings up a storm but in such a small space the inherent portentousness of the Narrator is magnified.

Andrew Pole directs with a lively, assured touch but backs away from the howling anger that is the raison d’etre of Blood Brothers. There is much to enjoy as the Narrator lugubriously invokes Fate, the impoverished Johnstone family bristles with rude energy and Mrs Lyons is a Valium crumb away from emotional collapse, but the Lyons family is overly caricatured and Dallimore’s fresh-faced, fresh-voiced Mrs Johnstone, appealing though she is, doesn’t look or feel like a woman who has had nine children and the toughest of lives. I didn’t emerge tear-stained.

Perhaps a more dangerous show will develop. Perhaps even has since opening night. Meanwhile, Blood Brothers is worth seeing for its brave heart and the lovely triangular dance of life between Mickey, Edward and Linda, the girl they both love. Christy Sullivan is a luminous Linda and Fox’s yearning Mickey and Bowden’s sweetly honourable Edward are just wonderful.

A version of this review ran in The Australian on February 12.

Blood Brothers ends March 15.