Sydney Dance Company with ACO2 and Katie Noonan. Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay, Sydney, September 29.

BENJAMIN Britten was in his 20s when he wrote the three works to which Rafael Bonachela responds so ardently in Triptych. Innocence, desire, joy, playfulness and sensuality all have their role in the music and the evocation of the bloom and juice of youth is captivating.

Bonachela has revived two dances from 2013 and newly created a third for an evening in which movement and music have a lively – and, it’s wonderful to say, live – conversation. Even better, the 16 string players from ACO2 are not confined to a pit but sit on a platform at the rear of the stage, generating warmth and visceral connection, advantages we humans still have over machines in an age where much – most – contemporary dance is performed to recorded music. Well, there is one drawback: sometimes the eye is drawn inexorably over the heads of dancers to a musician making a particularly arresting contribution. Thomas Gould, directing from the violin, has form with Britten and he has the group – the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s youth ensemble – playing superbly.

Janessa Dufty and Bernard Knauer In Simple Symphony. Photo: Peter Greig

Janessa Dufty and Bernard Knauer In Simple Symphony. Photo: Peter Greig

The dancers responded eagerly, as has Bonachela. In his hands Sydney Dance Company never looks less than elegant, sleek, powerful, sophisticated, glamorous and any other adjective you might think of in this neck of the woods. Those qualities make the company always highly watchable but the effect can be emotionally cool, a situation amplified, if you will forgive the little wordplay, when the music is coming from speakers. One understands why the reliance on recording – it’s the economy, stupid. So we must be very grateful for the times when finances allow a program such as Triptych.

Simple Symphony and Les Illuminations (performed together as Les Illuminations) were a big success when first seen at the Sydney Opera House two years ago. They were supposed to have been part of the Opera House’s Spring Dance festival, of which Bonachela was artistic director, but the Opera House pulled the plug on the four-year-old event “for financial reasons”. It seemed there wasn’t enough audience appetite for a dance festival of this kind in Sydney.

Les Illuminations survived to be seen for handful of performances in the Studio at the Opera House and was also performed in Brisbane last year, but that was for one night only. You couldn’t say Les illuminations has been over-exposed. Now, in company with Variation 10, also to music by Britten, the dances will be seen much more widely.

The four light-hearted movements of Simple Symphony (1933-34) propel a series of duos and a quarter that suggest the larks of lovers tumbling about on a summer’s afternoon. The mood is light, bright and optimistic. Janessa Dufty with Bernhard Knauer and Fiona Jopp with Todd Sutherland caught the sunny nature of the music and were sweetly uncomplicated in their relationships, twirling each other about with sparkling eyes, fleet feet and much give and take. Jopp supported Sutherland as he extended his leg high to the side while on demi-pointe, a gorgeous, generous unfolding of the body; Dufty used Knauer’s horizontal body as a steadying point for a cheerful cartwheel; every now and again a dancer would lightly touch their partner’s face. Just lovely.

Simple Symphony was followed immediately, as in 2013, with the darker intimations of the song cycle Les Illuminations (1939). Once again soprano Katie Noonan was the divinely silky, agile interpreter of texts by bad-boy French symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud as two rather more dangerous couples took the field. Cass Mortimer Eipper and Charmene Yap with Juliette Barton and Richard Cilli were the opening-night protagonists, dressed in slinky black garments that had a touch of kink about them. Eroticism rather than flirtation is the game. Barton in particular was dramatic and dangerous but all four had quite an edge as they prowled and entwined. There’s was real frisson when they swapped partners, ending up with their own sex. The women were spiky and tough while the men were more tender, a salute to the orientation of poet and composer.

Juliette Barton and Richard Cilli in Les Illuminations. Photo: Peter Greig

Juliette Barton and Richard Cilli in Les Illuminations. Photo: Peter Greig

Bonachela’s new full-company piece, Variation 10, takes its cue from qualities Britten saw in his composition teacher Frank Bridge or felt for him, including charm, humour, vitality, sympathy and reverence. Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (1937) is an open-hearted tribute to the man who, as author and conductor Paul Kildea writes, taught Britten “how to live and think as an artist”. Bonachela takes a fairly literal approach. Knees are lifted comically high in Aria Italiana (humour) and Chant (reverence) is a mournful solo given gravitas on opening night by Cilli. Funeral March (sympathy) not surprisingly has a sombre feel but was energised with fierce physicality.

Jesse Scales and David Mack were outstanding in Funeral March, answering the throbbing beats from the plucked double bass with passionate intensity. But everywhere you looked there were dancers giving individual shading and detail to Bonachela’s high-octane choreography. Bonachela has a way with partnering that gives women equal strength and authority with men, a desirable state not always seen in dance and a great credit to him.

It’s a shame Toni Maticevski’s costumes for Variation 10 don’t flatter the men but you can’t have everything. His earlier work for Simple Symphony and Les illuminations is just right.

Triptych ends in Sydney on October 10. It will be seen in Germany at Theatre im Pfalzbau, Festpiele Ludwigshafen, on November 28 and 29, featuring the German State Philharmonic of Rhineland-Palatinate.

In Melbourne on October 25 Les Illuminations, featuring Taryn Fiebig, will be performed with Variation 10 and Project Rameau, accompanied by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, for a program titled Illuminated. Illuminated will then be performed in Hong Kong on November 13 and 14.

Variation 10 will be performed with 2 One Another at Stadtheater Fürth, Germany, November 18-22.

François Chaignaud, Ken Unsworth and Australian Dance Artists

Dumy Moyi, Carriageworks, Sydney, September 30; Departures, Ken Unsworth Studio, Sydney, October 1.

In the recent exhibition of dance and the moving image 24 Frames per Second, staged beautifully and expansively at Sydney’s Carriageworks, I kept returning to one work. It was François Chaignaud’s The Sweetest Choice, a suite of five films, each eight or nine minutes in length. As I wrote then, “The setting is California’s Death Valley, the unaccompanied song is a baroque aria by Purcell O solitude, my sweetest choice! and the dance is described as ‘precarious’. The voice is fragile, the body is almost naked except for a shamanistic decoration of foliage and the choreography is elusive but the effect is mesmerising.”

Chaignaud is in Sydney briefly with Dumy Moyi, an intimate 35-minute work performed with a small audience seated on three sides in a long rectangle in one of Carriageworks’ wonderful spaces. I described Carriageworks in my 24 Frames piece as Sydney’s other great secular cathedral (the first, of course, is the Sydney Opera House): the soaring ceilings, open performance and gathering areas, little side theatres that feel like chapels and the exposed industrial materials from which it is built give the monumental effect of a centuries-old place of worship.

Dumi Moyi, Carriageworks, 2015

Francois Chaignaud in Dumi Moyi. Photo: Zan Wimberley

Carriageworks is therefore a highly sympathetic setting for Dumy Moyi, a piece of elusive meaning but richly perfumed. Chaignaud appears in fantastical garments, if such a prosaic word can be attached to the feathered, fringed, sequined, beaded, woven and hooped array of decorations he wears around the near-naked body we can see quite clearly. His eyes are heavily laden with glitter and his fingernails long, drawing attention to his gaze and the fluid quality of his hand movements.

The adornments catch the light as Chaignaud prowls, poses and crouches and jumps, creating a mini aurora borealis around his body. As he moves he sings songs in original languages from Ukraine, Russia, Spain and England using a variety of voices. The response of the viewer – there are only 40 spaces for each performance – will inevitably be entirely personal. Chaignaud may be seen as paying homage to ancient indigenous ceremonies, or as a visitor from another planet, or a particularly inventive drag queen or all these things and more simultaneously.

I loved the extravagance of the layers of costume he wears and discards, making his body more visible and more vulnerable. We all wear costumes to present an image to the world, one which may or may not be accurate. Dumy Moyi, by the way, is translated as “my thoughts”.

The next evening I was lucky enough to be invited to artist Ken Unsworth’s Sydney studio for his annual collaboration with Australian Dance Artists, a collective of mature dancers. They also work outside the mainstream and give performances that live long in the memory. I’ve written about them before here. The short story is this (I crib from myself): “Australian Dance Artists was founded by Norman Hall, who collaborates on choreography with the four current ADA dancers – former London Contemporary Dance Theatre artists Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer and Sydney Dance Company alumni Susan Barling and Ross Philip. Their collective experience is immense, but would be of academic interest if they were not, all of them, still exceptionally potent performers.”

Anca Frankenhaeuser, left, with Australian Dance Artists. Photo: Regis Lansac

Anca Frankenhaeuser, left, with Australian Dance Artists. Photo: Regis Lansac

This year’s work is Departures, a piece that ruminates on time, love and death. Unsworth has again commissioned composer Jonathan Cooper to write a score (and it is a keeper), it is played live by members of the Australian Piano Quartet and augmented with harp and a second violin, the performance also features two singers, and there is a set containing many sculptural wonders. They include two huge structures, one with a central moving spiral staircase, that the dancers move around, within and up. Departures also has a startling coup de théâtre that involves Unsworth painting on a big paper screen, and it begins with moving spheres that evoke the skies and the passing of the ages.

So, a big production for a small space. Unsworth seems to allow himself few limits. At one point Frankenhaeuser delicately traverses a vertiginous slope (and it is really steep) while others pop their heads through little doors. The surreal is never far away. Imagine, if you will, Clive Birch singing (Unsworth is the librettist for a long and very lovely song) for what seems like five minutes or more while suspended upside down, and the other singer, young Rioghnach Wegrecka, radiant as she steps from one brilliantly coloured chair to another.

The piece starts with the dancers pummelling and manhandling Unsworth – he really doesn’t spare himself – in a emphatic and rather pragmatic image of the artist being tossed away. But the final image is, typically, one of transcendence.

It’s actually rather unkind to keep going on about it. Departures can be seen by invitation only. But it’s a salutary reminder that dance doesn’t belong only to the young and of Unsworth’s extraordinary generosity of spirit and imagination.

Dumy Moyi, Carriageworks, has performances today, October 2, at 6.30pm, 8.30pm and 10.30pm and tomorrow at 4.30pm, 6.30pm, 8.30pm and 10.30pm.

Into the woods

Melbourne, September 15

THE Australian Ballet and its audiences have a great deal invested in David McAllister’s new Sleeping Beauty, in both senses of the word. The first is financial: this Beauty cost more than $2 million to produce and 70 per cent of its financing was provided by ballet-lovers. The program lists hundreds of supporters, some of whom gave gifts of more than $50,000 and others more than $20,000. The second investment arises from the first. Because the enterprise is so grand and so expensive, The Australian Ballet has promoted The Sleeping Beauty to saturation point through every channel possible. Even those only slightly interested in the AB would have known of its progress. When expectations are raised to this extent the pressure to succeed is equally intense.

Lana Jones as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

Lana Jones as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

The first performance – described in grandiose manner as a “global premiere” – was greeted with a standing ovation, an event relatively rare for ballet in this country. The sense of relief was palpable. The Sleeping Beauty looked every bit as sumptuous as promised, and more. The first-cast Princess Aurora and Prince Désiré, Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson, were a glowing pair at the centre of a setting that could effortlessly overshadow dancers of less consequence; Amber Scott created an indelible impression as the Lilac Fairy, gossamer-delicate, dispensing calm and goodness and making one believe implicitly in her natural authority; and it was wonderful to see former AB principal artist Lisa Bolte, who now works behind the scenes with patrons, as a radiant Queen in whom it was easy to see the Aurora she once was. This was inspired casting.

Gabriela Tylesova’s design, which drinks deeply of Baroque and rococo influences, is almost absurdly beautiful. Tylesova revels in saturated colours, flounces upon ruffles, embellishments, beads, crystals and feathers. There are columns, chandeliers and romantic vistas. She has created an eye-filling, mouth-watering fantasy world that throws out a huge challenge to McAllister: match this if you can, buddy. Well, he asked for it. There have been a few rumblings about the design being oppressively opulent but this greatest of ballet scores can bear the weight. It invites and deserves a magnificent mise en scène. It also requires storytelling that can fill the space and amplify the music. It’s in the latter sphere that Beauty doesn’t fully succeed despite the involvement of Lucas Jervies, a choreographer and director working as McAllister’s sounding board and adviser.

Amber Scott, centre, as the Lilac Fairy in The Australian Ballet's The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

Amber Scott, centre, as the Lilac Fairy in The Australian Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Sleeping Beauty is set in a strictly hierarchical society that cascades down from the King and Queen. Knowing your place is paramount. Order is everything. In the ballet harmony is disrupted and then restored through the superior might of good and the healing power of pure love.

The production takes a fresh line on the event that sets the story in motion, the lack of an invitation for the fairy Carabosse to Aurora’s christening. In a quite lengthy piece of business it’s made clear that Catalabutte – I suppose these days you’d call him the King’s principal private secretary – is an active participant in the Carabosse disaster. He is loath to invite the dark fairy, the synopsis tells us, although the ballet itself does not, indeed would not be able to, indicate why. (Apparently she hasn’t been around for a while.) Catalabutte dithers a bit, makes a weak attempt to run the matter past a preoccupied King, then tears up the invitation. McAllister must have thought this stronger than having Carabosse left off the list because of system failure but it’s odd that a functionary would be given such agency. Carabosse is a powerful figure, as we soon see.

The failure of the palace administration to run smoothly, effectively and according to protocol reveals a crack in the structure, and that precipitates a devastating event. That’s why most productions present the exclusion of Carabosse as a clerical error rather than an active, personal decision on the part of an underling.

Lynette Wills as Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty

Lynette Wills as Carabosse in The Sleeping Beauty

The Carabosse issue is compounded in this production: she reappears at points in the story where her presence is simply not called for. Once the Lilac Fairy has ruled that Aurora will not die when she pricks her finger, when it’s abundantly plain that the influence of the Lilac Fairy trumps that of Carabosse, why would Carabosse turn up, only to be routed once more? She might have a wicked streak but she isn’t stupid: in fact in this production she is titled the ancient Fairy of Wisdom. On opening night former AB principal artist Lynette Wills invested Carabosse with much dark allure, although it was puzzling she should wear pointe shoes when there is little choreographic call for them. It’s not a flattering look.

The nature of this world would also have been more clearly defined by the presence of supernumeraries to fill out the court, which looked under-populated for such a lavish establishment. And I missed the presence of children acting as pages and rounding out the garland dance. A court such as the one Tylesova creates would be replete with pages attending the courtiers who wait upon minor royalty who attend the monarch. Yes, it would cost, but the ship sailed on that aspect a long time ago.

Another idle thought. Would the King and Queen walk about holding their baby in the manner of fond 21st century parents? It diminished their grandeur for me.

Matt Donnelly, Lana Jones and Lisa Bolte. Photo: Jeff Busby

Matt Donnelly, Lana Jones and Lisa Bolte. Photo: Jeff Busby

McAllister has kept key passages of traditional choreography, put his own stamp on some elements and created linking material to make the transitions needed to cover cuts. The ballet was made to come in at under three hours (with two intervals) for family-friendly reasons. Well that, and I imagine also for cost reasons involving orchestra and crew. (Even Alexei Ratmansky in his reconstruction for American Ballet Theatre and La Scala this year cut the Panorama and Entr’acte that accompany the Prince’s journey to the castle where he will discover Aurora. It’s lovely music but if you have your eye on the clock …)

It was a bold move to excise most of the traditional fairytale divertissements from the Act III wedding celebration (though not Bluebird/Princess Florine) but they aren’t much missed. The wedding party is a stupendously lavish affair, presented as a masked ball in the style of Louis XIV. Very clever, eye-poppingly decorated, and showing footmen lighting candles on huge chandeliers that then rise up majestically is a splendid touch. Fairytale characters including the cats, Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots and Cinderella are evoked in fancy-dress costumes worn by the Prince’s friends – people we saw rather too briefly in the very heavily truncated hunting scene of Act II after which the Lilac Fairy shows the lonely Prince his future love in a vision. It would have been helpful to see just a little more of the friends in Act II to make the connection more evident in Act III. But the basic logic works and it’s an imaginative decision.

Gabriela Tylesova's Act III setting for The Australian Ballet's Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

Gabriela Tylesova’s Act III setting for The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

I am very much looking forward to seeing Beauty again – and other casts – when it comes to Sydney in November. After that, in honour of the title McAllister bestowed on his whole 2015 program, I will examine my own Year of Beauty. By November I will have seen four different productions: the Ratmansky for American Ballet Theatre, McAllister’s, Greg Horsman’s for Queensland Ballet and the touring version from Russian National Ballet. At that time I will write in detail about the performances, including that of Alina Cojocaru in Brisbane, Gillian Murphy and Sarah Lane for ABT and further Australian Ballet casts.

The Sleeping Beauty ends in Melbourne on Saturday. Perth, October 7-10. Sydney, November 27-December 16.

High and low

High Society, Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, September 7; Anything Goes, Sydney Opera House, September 8   

IN one giddy night of mayhem, pairs of lovers – former, would-be, should-be, desperately mismatched – ricochet around in the search for a safe harbour. Intoxicants are taken, identities are mistaken, the low-born mingle with the high-born, a man is very much an ass and everything turns out for the best in the end.

No, not A Midsummer Night’s Dream but High Society, which in the hands of director Helen Dallimore and a blue-chip cast is a blissful demonstration of just how foolish we mortals can be. Throw in a selection of Cole Porter songs (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, True Love, Let’s Misbehave and many more) and the happiness is complete.

The 1997 musical (book by Arthur Kopit, additional lyrics by Susan Birkenhead) is based on the 1956 film based on Philip Barry’s 1940 play The Philadelphia Story. Rich and beautiful Tracy Lord (Amy Lepahmer, adorable) is about to marry George Kittredge (Scott Irwin, hilarious) so upright you could use him as a plumbline and thick with it. Tracy’s former husband CK Dexter Haven (Bert LaBonte, coolly suave) pops by to solve a problem and cause mischief simultaneously and two party-crashing journalists (Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox, perfection) stir the pot and arouse passions.

Michelle Barr, Amy Lehpamer and Phillip Lowe in High Society

Michelle Barr, Amy Lehpamer and Phillip Lowe in High Society

Tracy’s parents are having a spot of marital bother of their own, her Uncle Willie is a drunken, lascivious old goat and young sister Dinah is a sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued observer and meddler. It’s all go in the Lord household as a pre-wedding bash for 700 guests gets underway.

How to manage that in a 110-seat theatre? Amusingly and effectively, as it happens, with set designer Lauren Peters cunningly representing the glamorous big-house, old-money setting with a simple set of moveable arches. She even gets in a cheeky reveal after interval. Not only are changes of location achieved in an instant, there’s a pleasing swirl that echoes the emotional eddies and flows. The four-piece band – yes, only four – under Daryl Wallis’s direction achieves wonders and the sound balance is far better than usual at the Hayes, which is a big win.

LaBonte gives a slow-burn performance that speaks of feelings kept in check under a glossy and sophisticated exterior and Jessica Whitfield is very funny as Dinah, the wise-beyond-her-years kid who wants to save Tracy from herself. With Delia Hannah as Tracy and Dinah’s mother Margaret, Russell Cheek as Margaret’s errant husband Seth, Laurence Coy enjoyably chewing the scenery as Uncle Willie and Michelle Barr and Phillip Lowe as the two-person chorus of household servants, it’s a classy cast from top to bottom.

And you’d have to go a long way to see better than Lepahmer, Gay and Fox. Lepahmer looks a million dollars in her slinky red gown and is a greatly gifted, all-singing, all-dancing comedienne. Fox gets writer Mike Connor’s mix of cracking hardy and regret at wasted talent. And as Liz Imbrie, Gay gives a performance that should have music-theatre fans from around the country rushing to see it. In love with Mike, avoiding Uncle Willie’s clutches, seeing everything and understanding all, she is smart and witty and heartbreaking.

The contrast between High Society and Anything Goes, seen – partially – the following evening, couldn’t have been greater. The light, fizzing comedy so necessary for Cole Porter’s imperishable melodies and the featherweight storyline of Anything Goes (young lovers; social climbing; a nightclub singer who was previously an evangelist; gangsters on the run) is AWOL. There is little other than Dale Ferguson’s lovely costumes to evoke the drop-dead glamour of a sea crossing from New York to London in the 1930s. Director Dean Bryant leans too heavily on material that should be nimble and buoyant as it flies through the serial improbabilities of the book. I was so disheartened I left at interval so my comments, necessarily brief, must therefore be seen in that light. The second half may have delighted.

High Society ends October 4. Anything Goes ends October 31. 

Three premieres

The Aliens, Old Fitz Theatre, August 27; La Traviata, Belvoir Downstairs, September 1; Bull, Old Fitzroy Theatre, September 3

AMERICAN playwright Annie Baker has been mentioned, many times, in the same breath as Chekov and it’s a comparison that has merit. Baker, who is only 34, probes beneath the surface of apparently ordinary and often fragile lives to unearth the struggle and the wonder of life. Nothing much happens, unless you think that an intimate understanding of how people connect with one another counts as a lot.

I was able to see The Flick – first produced in 2013, winner of a Pulitzer Prize last year – when in New York earlier this year and found it profoundly moving. (Melbourne’s Red Stitch was smartly on the case, producing it last year with direction by Nadia Tass.) Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre staged Baker’s 2009 play Circle Mirror Transformation, set in a community adult drama class, in 2012, and now at the Old Fitz it’s possible to see The Aliens, written in 2010 (no one can accuse Baker of slacking) and given a luminous production by Outhouse Theatre Co.

Jeremy Waters, James Bell and Ben Wood in The Aliens. Photo: Rupert Reid

Jeremy Waters, James Bell and Ben Wood in The Aliens. Photo: Rupert Reid

KJ (Ben Wood) and Jasper (Jeremy Waters) hang out in the cruddy garbage area at the back of a café and shoot the breeze about music, writing (Jasper is a Charles Bukowski aficionado) and relationships in a patchy, tentative, affectionate kind of way. Their conversation is all stops, starts and gaps but far from empty. Hurt, aspiration, bravado and need are often expressed as much in what is not said as what is.

When shy young café employee Evan (James Bell) ventures out the back to try to shoo them away – this is private property – KJ and Jasper stand firm. They are going nowhere, and for the tiniest moment you think The Aliens might fall into convention; that Evan will be bullied by these older, bigger, apparently more worldly men. But no. KJ and Jasper draw him into their little circle and supremely delicate connections are made. The performances are perfectly pitched. One does wonder why actors of the calibre of Wood and Waters are not seen more often and Bell is quite, quite magical.

Hugh O’Connor’s design is spot-on, with its crappy furniture and weeds poking through the cracks, and Craig Baldwin directs with a huge heart.

Mike Bartlett’s Bull, which is just finishing a short late-night season at the Old Fitz, is given its Australian premiere by Renaissance Productions with Rowan Greaves directing. It is a kind of companion piece to the same playwright’s Cock, which was so effectively staged at the Old Fitz earlier in the year. But unlike Cock it has only one idea, swiftly rendered in a four-hander that takes less than an hour to deliver the message that some people are natural victims who will be at the mercy of the amoral.

Romy Bartz, George Kemp and Philippe Klaus in Bull. Photo: Geoff Sirmai

Romy Bartz, George Kemp and Philippe Klaus in Bull. Photo: Geoff Sirmai

Thomas (George Kemp) is the one destined to fail and Isobel (Romy Bartz) and Tony (Philippe Klaus) are his tormentors. As in Cock, three characters dominate the action with a fourth – here the corporate trio’s boss, played by Craig Ashley, entering late in the day – but the piece is not much more than a few brutal punches to the head turned into a rather longer fight than strictly necessary.

Sydney audiences will see Bartlett in a much more expansive mode when his King Charles III comes from London’s Almeida via Broadway during Sydney Theatre Company’s 2016 program. It’s wildly interesting in form and content – I saw it at the Almeida last year – as Bartlett projects forward to the earliest days of the reign of Prince Charles as British monarch. (King of Australia, too, undoubtedly.)

Also of interest in smaller-scale Sydney theatre is Sisters Grimm’s La Traviata, even if it’s not as revolutionary as one might have expected. Sisters Grimm – writer-director Declan Greene and writer-performer Ash Flanders – were inspired by Verdi’s 1853 opera as a piece of social criticism (the composer wanted it performed in modern dress but to get it on at Venice’s La Fenice had to make it a historical piece). But new work doesn’t always become what was originally intended. The political arguments flagged in the Creators’ Note in the program don’t make themselves felt strongly enough, but on the plus side it turns out you can do La Traviata in a theatre as small as Belvoir Downstairs and do it justice. In the course of a discussion about the value of art in a society that knows the cost-benefit ratio of everything, Melbourne duo Sisters Grimm have created a touching and memorable version of Verdi’s opera.

Emma Maye Gibson in La Traviata. Photo: Patrick Boland

Emma Maye Gibson in La Traviata. Photo: Patrick Boland

It’s wildly truncated and mostly lipsynched but the essence is there and it’s staged in a way that would cause no palpitations in, say, Germany, where regietheater (director’s theatre) reigns. Well, obviously it’s a hit-and-run version of the big thing, but it’s good. The countryside where Violetta and her lover Alfredo live is dotted with sheep, flower-entwined swings fall from the ceiling and Violetta’s gown is a cage. In Marg Horwell’s sets and costumes there are also jokey visual references to Lohengrin and Carmen. There’s quite a lot going on if you know your operas.

When the axe falls on Violetta’s happiness it is shown in devastating manner by Emma Maye Gibson, ever more desperately seeking approval from the audience, even to the point of standing on her head to sing (enter The Magic Flute). This is the courtesan as performer, but it’s also the performer as courtesan, touting for applause and money.

La Traviata is at its most original and thought-provoking here. The first third is an overlong satire on arts funding that, despite the warmth of Flanders, Gibson and Zindzi Okenyo, is more than the teensiest bit lame. Flanders does shout rather desperately in lieu of insights.

But the rest more than makes up for it. In the final third of the show the audience is invited to talk with the cast and each other and – surprisingly – the feeling is not the usual terror of audience participation but warmth and inclusion. Then opera singer Michael Lewis, the fourth cast member, comes to the fore, telling a deeply personal story about mortality before assuming the role of Violetta.

When it was announced last year as part of Belvoir’s 2015 season, La Traviata was proposed as a critique of current Australian arts politics. The word protest was used, although it’s hard to read this production as a call to arms. Instead it looks into the heart of the artist, the person who needs to perform and to be loved. What are the transactions required to achieve that?

Along the way La Traviata is also a love letter to the operatic art form, despite the pro forma sniping at the start (boring, long, elitist). Who better, indeed, than Sisters Grimm to understand the power of a theatre of grand emotions and extravagant gestures?

Bull ends September 12; The Aliens ends September 19; La Traviata ends September 20.

Reviews of The Aliens and La Traviata first appeared in The Australian on August 31 and September 3.

‘They shall be themselves’

Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, August 21.

THE Tempest starts in tumult and ends in calm. Prospero, ejected from his dukedom of Milan 12 years before, is going home. His daughter, Miranda, is to marry the heir to the throne of Naples, ending the enmity between two great houses. Ariel and Caliban, the light and dark creatures enslaved by Prospero on his strange island of exile are set free. Virtue has won over vengeance.

John Bell’s reading of Shakespeare’s late romance shimmers with light, fills the air with music and reaches into the heart with the most wonderful simplicity. Unburdened by contemporary social and political theory, it is concerned with self-discovery. Prospero has paid the price for putting his head in his books and letting his ambitious brother, Antonio, do all the heavy lifting in Milan. In the course of one afternoon – the timeframe is highly explicit – the key players in the story come together and harmony is restored.

Matthew Backer and Brian Lipson in The Tempest. Photo: Prudence Upton

Matthew Backer and Brian Lipson in The Tempest. Photo: Prudence Upton

“My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore and they shall be themselves,” says Prospero near the end. They shall be themselves: it is the most profound of all outcomes.

The Tempest opens with a cracking storm and shipwreck as Prospero’s enemies, handily passing by, are tossed on to the island. Alan Johns’s operatic score, designer Julie Lynch’s wildly billowing curtains and Damien Cooper’s expressive lighting immediately conjure a world of theatrical magic in which anything might happen.

We see two young people fall in love at first sight, regicide attempted, buffoons ape their betters and insanely plot a coup, sorrows endured and wonders beheld. Lipson’s Prospero, orchestrating these events, is less a tyrant than mercurial, slightly distracted professor. For all his powers he is intensely human, admitting “some vanity of my art”, hugging Miranda (Eloise Winestock) fiercely and keeping Ariel (Matthew Backer) captive with something that feels very like an ageing man’s neediness. When Backer stands beside Lipson, looking very much a younger version of him, there is a sense of what Prospero wanted to be – a free spirit unburdened by the cares of office. But that is not possible in the real world.

Ariel is very much at the centre of things, watching gravely and intently as the tasks he has been assigned bring the pieces of the story together. Backer is transcendent, a seamless amalgam of intelligence, other-worldliness, understanding and yearning. And he is given some delicious pieces of business too, making spirit-world light of lifting a log the young Ferdinand finds so heavy and clutching his ears in pain as a badly sung song assaults his senses.

There’s much joy and laughter too in the Stephano-Trinculo subplot, in which Hazem Shammas and Arky Michael come up a treat in commedia dell’arte antics and fantastical clothing and are howlingly funny. In this fine cast Winestock is at present too skittish but has one of the evening’s most delicious moments, Felix Gentle is a sweet-mannered Ferdinand, Damien Strouthos powerfully conveys Caliban’s hurt and Robert Alexander has effortless nobility as Prospero’s old friend Gonzalo. Maeliosa Stafford’s bluff King Alonso and Shammas and Michael doubling as Antonio and Sebastian complete the company.

This Tempest would delight on any occasion but has particular poignancy as Bell farewells the company he founded 25 years ago. In the epilogue Prospero speaks directly to the audience and asks for its good will. He has wanted only to please and needs the audience’s approbation before he can leave his enchanted island. “Let your indulgence set me free,” he says as the lights go out.

On opening night the audience rightly stood as one and turned to Bell, giving him a sustained ovation. It should be noted, however, that next year he directs for Opera Australia and next month appears in Belvoir’s Ivanov. Bell’s revels are not ended, not by a long shot.

The Tempest plays in Sydney only and ends on September 18.

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

Matilda the Musical and memories of childhood

Matilda the Musical, Lyric Theatre, Sydney

I’M sorry. I make no apology for the following revelation because it’s relevant. I was the intellectual of the Kindergarten class at St Columba’s, Ballarat North. I could read before I started school and thus, when the teacher – not a sympathetic one, I fear – took us endlessly through a huge alphabet chart on the wall (A apple, B bat, C cat and so on) I thought I would go mad. I can still see it, and shall we say this was some small time ago, when we all sat in rows at wooden desks with inkwells. I also had a lazy eye and zero coordination. Being chosen last for rounders was a given, and in the foot races we were forced to take part in I always came last. Unless Helen Sherry was in my group, and then I came second last.

What balm, then, Matilda the Musical is for little girls and boys like me, and for me too these many decades later. Those memories are forever green, unfortunately.

Bella Thomas as Matilda. Photo: James Morgan

Bella Thomas as Matilda. Photo: James Morgan

Tim Minchin so gets that. Take one of his early songs in Matilda, School Song, in which the alphabet is trawled to build up to a climactic: “Just you wait for Phys Ed”. That not only gets Z done and dusted in sensational style, it speaks to the monumental terror so many of us felt when forced to get our heads out of a book and our puny bodies on to the sports field. The humiliation was intense and complete.

The staging of this song piles Pelion on Ossa (classical reference!) by having the senior students played by adults. Remember how big the big kids looked when you started school. It’s that, magnified. All this happens shortly after a rousing opening number in which Matilda’s youngsters boast of just how marvelous their parents’ think they are. They are in for a shock.

Minchin, Dennis Kelly (book), Peter Darling (choreography), Rob Howell (sets and costumes) and Matthew Warchus (original direction of this Royal Shakespeare Company production) create wonders from Roald Dahl’s story. Matilda is exhilarating fun while being very, very brainy. Books, language, courage, resilience and imagination are celebrated as weapons of rebellion against the philistine and the mean-spirited. There’s an inescapable darkness in Matilda but a beautiful spirit of optimism prevails. It’s magical and it has something to say to everyone.

Molly Barwich as Matilda with Elise McCann as Miss Honey. Photo: James Morgan

Molly Barwick as Matilda with Elise McCann as Miss Honey. Photo: James Morgan

Given the subject matter, Matilda the Musical has to rest its case on small shoulders. There are superb performances from James Millar (silken-voice, despotic headmistsress Miss Trunchbull), Elise McCann (divine Miss Honey) and Marika Aubrey and Daniel Frederiksen (Matilda’s ghastly parents, the Wormwoods). The kids are all a delight too, but Matilda has to be the shining centre.

There are four girls playing our heroine in rotation, obviously not five-year-olds but several years short of teenagehood. I have seen two of them, Molly Barwick (10) at a preview and Bella Thomas (11) at last week’s opening night. They were very different and both enchanting. I very much want to see Sasha Rose and Georgia Taplin, obviously out of professional interest, and also because it means I get to see Matilda again.