Current Sydney theatre

Blue/Orange, Ensemble, October 29; Emerald City, Griffin, November 10; A Christmas Carol, Belvoir, November 12; Daylight Saving, Eternity Playhouse, November 13; Cyrano de Bergerac, Sydney Theatre, November 18.

WHY did quite a few commentators, myself included, feel we had to advertise our reservations about the prospect of A Christmas Carol? Or to liken ourselves to Scrooge when it comes to a Christmas cheer? I know I didn’t entirely trust that Belvoir wouldn’t do one of its out-there makeovers; perhaps others didn’t want to seem sentimental or – even worse – just a teensy bit unsophisticated.

Well, we learned our lesson. Don’t pre-judge. Don’t be mean. Don’t be cynical. A Christmas Carol is generous and open-hearted and asks the same of us. The adaptation by Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks, who also directs, is faithful to the Charles Dickens story and told clearly and honestly. It’s often very funny but doesn’t shy away from the darkness that threatens to overwhelm Scrooge and its staging is strong and simple – well, let’s say deceptively simple. The ideas are precise and powerful. There is an empty space in which Scrooge’s arid life is lived and recounted and changes are rung with a handful of props and a few trapdoors. And there is fabulously fake snow, dusting every seat in the house. Michael Hankin (set), Mel Page (costumes), Benjamin Cisterne (lighting) and Stefan Gregory (composition and sound design) can be very proud of this one.

Ursula Yovich and Steve Rodgers. Photo: Brett Boardman

Ursula Yovich and Steve Rodgers. Photo: Brett Boardman

Above all there is a cast of cherishable actors whose collective radiance could warm Vladivostok in winter. Kate Box as the spirit of Christ Present is done up like a Christmas present wrapped by an excitable three-year-old, carolers sing sweetly from the stairs dressed in gaudy seasonal pullovers it would have taken Gran all year to knit, Steve Rodgers appears at one point as a Christmas tree, finished off with a major star on top, and Miranda Tapsell as Tiny Tim – well, the woman’s smile could power the national grid. Peter Carroll, Ivan Donato and Eden Falk are splendid in a range of roles and it goes without saying that Robert Menzies, so often seen as a man of much severity, is Scrooge to the life. As for Rodgers and Ursula Yovich as Bob and Mrs Cratchit, it’s the kind of casting that elevates roles that could be a touch dull into something profoundly moving.

The other absolute must in Sydney theatre is Sydney Theatre Company’s Cyrano de Bergerac – not for the staging, which has some problems, but for a clutch of indispensible performances. Top of the list, not surprisingly, is Richard Roxburgh in the title role. He gives Cyrano the kind of bone-deep melancholy that comes from a lifetime of deflecting jibes about his looks and disguising the pain with superior swordsmanship, wit and, above all, panache. Andrew Upton, who adapted and directed (from Marion Potts’s original translation), keeps Cyrano in the 17th century but oh, how it speaks to the 21st century’s obsession with appearance.

All in the large supporting cast are very good, particularly Eryn Jean Norvill as the luminous Roxane; the touching Yalin Ozucelik as Cyrano’s friend Le Bret; the astonishingly versatile and charismatic Josh McConville as over-bearing nobleman De Guiche; and Chris Ryan as the guileless, luxuriantly follicled, not-quite-as-stupid-as-he-looks Christian, through whose shiny good looks Cyrano expresses his love for Roxane.

Electronic sound enhancement – amplification is too strong a word – is needed to combat the difficult Sydney Theatre acoustic. Even so, when Cyrano gets hectic it is not always easy to comprehend all the dialogue. Alice Babidge’s design (with Renee Mulder) has a handsome and effective theatre-within-a-theatre motif which makes a lot of sense but loses some of its power when actors are sent scampering up ladders to use a high, narrow balcony. But it’s Roxburgh’s night, and anyone who loves great acting will want to add this to memories of his Hamlet, Vanya and Estragon. (Not to mention rake Cleaver Greene, of course, a man who would have been entirely at home in certain 17th-century circles.)

Richard Roxburgh as Cyrano. Photo: Brett Boardman

Richard Roxburgh as Cyrano. Photo: Brett Boardman

Also worth a look, if you can get in, is Lee Lewis’s revival of David Williamson’s Emerald City at Griffin. The play, which premiered in 1987, stands up very well. Scriptwriter Colin and his publisher wife Kate move from Melbourne to Sydney; he most eagerly, she most reluctantly. Melbourne is where ideas and values matter; in Sydney it’s all about money and the view. As time goes on, both find their ground shifting under them rather more alarmingly than they expected.

The Ken Done-designed production looks good and makes its points eloquently but it is not entirely satisfying, for good reason. During rehearsal Marcus Graham, originally cast as Colin, and Mitchell Butel, originally cast as brash entrepreneur Mike, asked to switch roles. Lewis agreed. Perhaps it may have worked but we won’t know, because Graham withdrew from Emerald City shortly before opening due to illness. The lateness of all this is illustrated by the fact that Graham’s photograph adorns the cover of the playscript one can buy at the theatre (excellent value – just $10 courtesy Currency Press).

Butel continued as Colin and Ben Winspear valiantly stepped into the breach to play Mike. Well, we can all play casting director, but I think Winspear – a very fine actor – would have been a more natural Colin than he is a Mike. Even three weeks in, which is when I saw it, he was pushing the bolshie externals too strongly. Butel is extraordinarily multi-faceted but I can see why Lewis initially wanted him as Mike. Or perhaps, given what must have been a quite testing rehearsal period, there wasn’t quite enough time for Butel to get absolutely pitch-perfect with his character. He’s very good, no doubt about it – funny, charming and fizzing with energy – but I wanted a deeper sense of his inner conflicts. Lucy Bell – who, as far as I know, was originally cast as Kate and stayed that way – absolutely nails it.

Nick Enright’s Daylight Saving, written only a couple of years after Emerald City, unfortunately has not aged as well as the Williamson. I remember enjoying it back in the day and found it entertaining enough now, but it feels too slight to merit its revival – not quite funny enough, or persuasive enough about human foibles. It’s done very competently under Adam Cook’s direction and I must say I was highly entertained by Belinda Giblin’s flawless turn as the slightly daffy but steely Bunty.

The cast of Daylight Saving: Photo: Helen White

The cast of Daylight Saving: Photo: Helen White

Finally, one for those who enjoy excellent acting wrapped in an argumentative play. Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange puts Dorian Nkono’s Christopher in the middle of a medical-philosophical turf war between aspiring resident psychiatrist Bruce (Ian Meadows) and his wily, manipulative supervisor Robert (Sean Taylor). Questions about correct diagnosis of mental illness, race and social services jostle with more personal matters for the two doctors: the exercise of power and the best way to manage career advancement. There’s a lot going on and much of it is fascinating and thought-provoking, but Penhall loses his grip in the second half, resorting to a frankly ludicrous crisis and consequently weakened conclusion. The three performances are terrific though, particularly Nkono’s depiction of a young man whose condition sends his equilibrium flying off in unpredictable directions but who nevertheless has great charm and knows how to use it.

Ian Meadows, Sean Taylor and Dorian Nkono. Photo: Clare Hawley

Ian Meadows, Sean Taylor and Dorian Nkono. Photo: Clare Hawley

Blue/Orange to November 29, Daylight Saving to November 30, Emerald City to December 6, Cyrano de Bergerac to December 20; A Christmas Carol to December 24

The drama of Patricia Highsmith

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, November 7

In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man

WHEN Sydney Theatre Company artistic director Andrew Upton announced STC’s 2014 program in September last year, he made a particular point at a media briefing of thanking Los Angeles’s Geffen Playhouse, which was allowing STC to give the first performances of a play the Geffen had commissioned – Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland.

Sarah Peirse as Patricia Highsmith. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarah Peirse as Patricia Highsmith. Photo: Brett Boardman

I don’t know when Murray-Smith was first inspired to write about American novelist Patricia Highsmith (and inspired is precisely the word) but it seems to have been quite a while ago. In her program note to the STC production now running, she thanks, among others, “the late, great Gil Cates from the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles for commissioning this play”. Cates died in October 2011, so Switzerland must have been on Murray-Smith’s slate for more than three years.

This is a long way of saying that Murray-Smith appears to have been nicely ahead of the curve in proposing Highsmith as a dramatic subject: there’s currently a resurgence of interest in the writer and the witty and elegant Switzerland is right in the midst of it.

This year there has been a film adaptation of Highsmith’s The Two Faces of January, starring Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst, as well as Virago’s release of various Highsmith novels as e-books and in paperback. Todd Haynes has finished filming Carol, the Highsmith book originally released in 1952 as The Price of Salt and under a pseudonym, as it deals with a lesbian affair. (It was republished as Carol, under Highsmith’s name, late in the author’s life.) For those who like a neat connection, Carol – it is to be released next year – stars none other than Upton’s wife and former co-artistic director at STC, Cate Blanchett.

Highsmith was born in Texas, lived a great deal of her adult life in France and died in Switzerland in 1995, shortly after her 74th birthday. It’s something of a surprise she hadn’t succumbed earlier. She smoked a couple of dozen Gauloises a day until an operation for lung cancer made her decide to quit, and was an alcoholic who could consistently put away a bottle of spirits over a few days in addition to the beer she enjoyed, apparently from as soon as she rose in the morning. Her food intake was limited in quantity and type. She loved cats, although if her biographer Andrew Wilson has his facts right she cared for them in very odd ways, and she had a thing for snails, not to eat but as pets. She was a great hater and bizarrely mean with money, but must also have been greatly magnetic. Highsmith’s love life, one that occasionally included men, was exceptionally eventful.

Murray-Smith gives a pungent sense of this intriguing personality in what, at first, appears to be an ultra-conventional two-hander about a character whose idiosyncrasies emerge through conversation with a much less colourful secondary figure. Highsmith, nearing the end of her life, is living alone in Switzerland. In Murray-Smith’s imagined scenario, a young man representing her publisher arrives bearing jars of peanut butter (one of Highsmith’s few favoured foods) as a prelude to asking for one more novel featuring the author’s most famous creation, Tom Ripley.

From there, while rigorously maintaining the style and appearance of a naturalistic – even old-fashioned – drama, Switzerland morphs into a psychological thriller and then what Dostoevsky called fantastic realism. It’s audacious, surprising and very apt as Murray-Smith’s play takes on the qualities of Highsmith’s art, in form and atmospherics, and applies them to the writer’s life. (What a gift Highsmith’s last choice of residence was for Murray-Smith: neutral Switzerland, home of the cuckoo clock, the numbered bank account and more nuclear shelters per capita than any other country in the world.)

In an economical 100 minutes, expertly paced by director Sarah Goodes, the multi-layered Switzerland reveals the vulnerabilities of a woman who concealed much about herself from the world (no wonder she had a thing for cats and snails) and felt insufficiently valued in her homeland as it also it burrows beneath the surface with Ripleyesque skill to examine the interconnectedness of writer and subject.

Slouching around in mannish shirts and trousers, Sarah Peirse brilliantly inhabits the defensive, acerbic, cranky Highsmith (the photograph of the author reproduced in the program is incredibly telling) while Eamon Farren’s initially cowed but increasingly smooth and assured Edward is a marvel of transformation. Both fumbled a little with the lapidary text on opening night – just a couple of slips and hesitations – and a few of Murray-Smith’s bon mots about American life and literary figures didn’t get quite the reception they should have, or the reception was muted by the few extra nano-seconds it took for the audience to absorb the meaning. Switzerland therefore wasn’t as immaculately taut as its form demands, although I imagine Peirse and Farren are in top gear now. They are both exceptionally good.

As for the American references, I can hear the Geffen audience hitting its mark precisely – it would be fun to be there.

Switzerland ends December 20 in Sydney. It opens March 3 at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre, Geffen Playhouse. No cast, director or production team has been announced.

Women to the fore

New Breed, Sydney Dance Company, Carriageworks, Sydney, November 4

AN enduring issue in dance is the predominance of male choreographers. This is overwhelmingly evident in ballet; less so in contemporary dance. Nevertheless, if you look at Sydney Dance Company’s programs over the past few years, the choreographers invited to join artistic director Rafael Bonachela on the mainstage have mostly been men, many highly established around the world. It can appear a very closed circle. Access begets success begets solid reputation begets work.

Juliette Barton in her solo Scrutineer. Photo: Jack Saltmoras

Juliette Barton in her solo Scrutineer. Photo: Jack Saltmoras

Bonachela, to his great credit, is chipping away at the problem. At the late lamented Spring Dance festival he fielded an all-woman program of new work in 2012 and got a beauty out of it, Larissa McGowan’s Fanatic, which has since been seen playing with the big boys. This year’s New Breed showcase of new work included three women. True, two of them, company dancers and first-time choreographers Juliette Barton and Charmene Yap, made small, short works, but they were both terrific. The third woman, Gabrielle Nankivell, made the undisputed hit of the night.

Nankivell’s Wildebeest unflinchingly shows humankind as pack animal, one-on-one antagonist and vulnerable individual, the balance constantly and unsettlingly shifting. Nankivell has an exceptionally sure feel for mood and structure as bodies came together in strongly formal groups or scattered in eruptions of wild physicality, impelled by insistent cues in Luke Smiles’s shivery, thundery soundscape. Often they mysteriously disappeared into the gloom of Matthew Marshall’s brilliant lighting design, which precisely evoked the way dust is suspended in the air after a herd has raced through desolate land.

Wildebeest is an ambitious 25-minute work for 13 dancers and there is much more one could say about it. I hope to have that opportunity on a mainstage SDC program in the near future.

The brevity of pieces made by Barton (Scrutineer) and Yap (Do We) makes it impossible to tell whether they have a full-scale work in them, but Barton’s piercingly personal solo for herself was riveting and Yap’s playful duo for Holly Doyle and Bernhard Knauer revealed considerable wit and poise. (It was interesting to note the use animal imagery in four of the five pieces – wildebeest in Nankivell’s, an elephant in Lee Serle’s work and dogs in Cass Mortimer Eipper’s, while Yap brought a touch of higher primate behaviour into the picture. At the beginning of Do We, Doyle and Knauer approached each other with some caution, then had a good old sniff to establish whether they were friend or foe before ripping into their high-energy mating game. What does all this mean? Couldn’t say.)

Holly Doyle and Bernhard Knauer in Do We. Photo: Peter Greig

Holly Doyle and Bernhard Knauer in Do We. Photo: Peter Greig

Serle’s White Elephant was an enigmatic piece in which dancers rarely connected emotionally but movement rippled through them to be taken up by others. There was indeed an elephant in the room, involved as a mysterious anchor point for Barton and Fiona Jopp as they stretched and unfurled as if extensions of the beast. As they did this others whispered through paper trumpets, calling on Celeste for help if my ears didn’t deceive me – which if you know your children’s books, was a reference to Babar the elephant.

White Elephant may sound unfathomable but I found its surreal mystery intriguing and its 17-minute timespan raced by. It felt a little sketchy, though, which is not unreasonable in the context of New Breed. The fifth work on the program, Mortimer Eipper’s Dogs and Baristas, unfortunately left me entirely unmoved with its unremarkable observations on human interaction presented with a goofy circus vibe.

Obviously all the works benefited from being able to harness the considerable skills of the SDC dancers. I would say, however, that at the moment the women of the company are looking more individual and interesting than the men. Barton in her own work and in White Elephant, Doyle in Do We, Jopp in White Elephant, Janessa Dufty in Wildebeest and Jesse Scales in Dogs and Baristas gave performances that wormed their way into the memory and hold on with some tenacity.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on November 7.

Old wine in new bottles

The Grand Chapiteau, Entertainment Quarter, Sydney, October 28.

THE theme of Cirque du Soleil’s Totem is nothing less than the progress of the human race. The show begins with the thrilling sight of a man descending from the highest reaches of the vast Cirque tent, his mirror-encrusted bodysuit catching the light as he swirls in space. Beneath him a group of sleekly reptilian figures chants and swarms. The distant future and distant past meet. Or something like that. It’s a creation story akin to that in the film Prometheus – visitor from another planet sparks life on earth.

As is the case with all Cirque du Soleil shows, a broad and malleable idea is used to develop a striking visual identity and loose through-line. Underneath everything is pretty much the same: the acrobatics, the juggling, the aerial displays and other traditional acts of skill and daring, performed by the best exponents in the world. Cirque cast lists are a mini United Nations.

Denise Garcia-Sorta and Massimiliano Medini in Totem

Denise Garcia-Sorta and Massimiliano Medini in Totem. Photo: Matt Beard

This ability to marry time-honoured circus thrills with high-end production values has made Cirque an international entertainment juggernaut that this year celebrates its 30th anniversary. How many times can you put old wine in new bottles? Endlessly, it would appear. Cirque has 19 different shows on the go at the moment, nine of them in permanent residency primarily in Las Vegas. It’s a long way from the small Canadian town where Cirque had its origin as a group of street performers.

For Totem’s image-making Cirque went to celebrated Canadian director Robert Lepage, a deserved darling of international arts festivals (The Seven Streams of the River Ota, Needles and Opium, The Far Side of the Moon, Lipsynch and more) and a noted opera director. New York’s Metropolitan Opera went to him for its most recent Ring cycle.

Lepage has a fertile imagination but can impose only so much coherence on an episodic form. What do five supremely accomplished and delightful young Chinese women who catch bowls on their heads while riding tall unicycles have to do with the evolution of humankind? Apart, of course, from the fact they are clearly much more highly perfected physical specimens than you or I? Apparently they represent Mother Earth’s “ultimate balancing act” in providing food from season to season.

Sarah Tessier and Guilhem Cauchois on the fixed trapeze

Sarah Tessier and Guilhem Cauchois on the fixed trapeze. Photo: Matt Beard

Best to ignore the over-blown explanations provided in the program and go with the moment. Lepage’s scenario jumps from the primeval ooze (gymnasts on high bars) to muscly blokes on a beach (Roman rings) via American First People (small hoops) in the blink of an eye. Science (various acts of manipulation) jostles with romance (fixed trapeze duo, roller-skating pair). The earth’s mineral wealth finds a frankly bizarre correlation in two women who foot-juggle squares of fabric weighted with sparkly bits, but Marina and Svetlana Tsodikova were certainly spectacular. I was slightly taken aback, however, when Crystal Man, he who set in motion the evolution of life on this planet, was lowered from the heights a couple of times to pick up a chair and carry it back up. An interglactic removalist service? Most peculiar.

Despite the air of grandiosity all Cirque productions have hovering over them, Totem also manages to find some moments of simplicity and they resonate most strongly. Eric Hernandez’s hoop dance has strength and integrity: it is more than a circus act. The fixed trapeze act for Sarah Tessier and Guilhem Cauchois is a beautifully choreographed and sweetly enacted pas de deux for young lovers while roller-skaters Denise Garcia-Sorta and Massimiliano Medini offer a steamier, more hard-edged version of togetherness.

Kym Barrett's design for Totem's unicyclists

Kym Barrett’s design for Totem’s unicyclists. Photo: Matt Beard

There was a Native American vibe to Garcia-Sorta and Medini’s costumes for no logical reason but they looked fabulous in Kym Barrett’s designs, as did the unicyclists and the 10 men in the gasp-inducing Russian bars finale, in which men are flung high into the air so they may twist and somersault at their leisure. This was man attempting to escape earth’s surly bonds and coming pretty close.

On the debit side the music is live but sounds canned, the lyrics are nonsensical and the clowns aren’t funny. But then that’s the Cirque way. After all these years of global triumph why would they change the formula?

After the Sydney season Totem runs in Melbourne from January 21, Brisbane from April 10, Adelaide from June 11 and Perth from July 31.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on October 30.

Raise the roof

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, October 22

GLORY hallelujah! Miracle City has been resurrected. It is alive and it is well, if a little in need of fine-tuning.

An explanation for those not steeped in music-theatre lore: in 1996 Nick Enright and Max Lambert’s show had a short season at Sydney, Theatre Company and it was good. But for various reasons it wasn’t revived and soon acquired quasi-religious status. But to every thing there is a season and Miracle City has found a natural home at Hayes Theatre Co, with its 110 seats and committed music-theatre audience. The small, bare-bones space is perfect for Miracle City’s setting, a regional Tennessee television station from which the Truswell family conducts its evangelical Christian ministry and tries to raise money for an ill-considered theme park.

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Michael Hankin’s rudimentary set of a sparkly curtain, a few monitors and some backstage bits and bobs strikes exactly the right note. The Truswells have a long-standing ministry but they are nowhere near the league of the Reverend Millard Sizemore, a bully with a private jet, oily authority and vast sense of entitlement. Rick Truswell doesn’t lack for ambition, however, and has grandiose plans, advertised regularly during the family’s Sunday program. Naturally funds are required. From their unprepossessing studio the family intersperses its home-spun homilies and rousing songs with calls for donations that will enable the completion of the theme park they have called Miracle City. “First you pray, then you play,” say the ads, but before that can happen someone has to pay. Rick Truswell needs money, he needs it badly, and, as it transpires, will do anything to get it.

In real time – just under 90 minutes – the veneer of good cheer and good works shatters. Idolised men are shown not only to have feet of clay but to be viciously corrupt and a woman married at 16 finds the strength to be her own person. (The echoes of A Doll’s House are pleasing as the woman is played by Blazey Best, who recently starred in an updated version of Ibsen’s play for Belvoir.)

With their exercise of iron-clad patriarchial control, Rick Truswell (Mike McLeish) and his mentor Sizemore (Peter Kowitz) could be old-school Stalinists, except with way, way better music. Which is where Miracle City really nails it. Lambert and Enright’s songs are heaven, absolutely crucial to the show’s tightrope-walk between satire and seduction. There are up-tempo exhortations to raise the roof, share the load and to take up arms until the war is won, and there is a strong temptation to leap to one’s feet and join right in.

The country-and-gospel score hits bull’s-eyes again and again. Marika Aubrey, Hilary Cole, Esther Hannaford and Josie Lane are all in knockout vocal form as they deliver the effortless mix of shiny-eyed faith and glossy showbiz. Hannaford, who plays the troubled Bonnie-Mae, is magnificent in the show’s standout number I’ll Hold On, and Aubrey leads a storming Raise the Roof, but really everyone gets a strong vocal moment. Who knew Best (Lora-Lee Truswell) could sing like that? She’s a revelation, as is young Cameron Holmes as baby of the family Ricky-Bob. Keep him on your radar. Jason Kos as floor manager of the Truswells’ show rounds out this highly appealing cast.

The difficulty is in managing the shift from clean-living serenity to ugly reality in such a short time. Director Darren Yap has allowed McLeish and Kowitz, both charismatic, to become too obviously villainous and therefore less chilling than they might be. But to be fair, the piece probably needed a few more drafts to enrich overly emblematic characters. Rick Truswell has the usual reclamation story (he was a no-account wrong-doer until he met Lora-Lee when she was just a girl), Aubrey is the tough, astringent gal who can look after herself, Hannaford the woman with a painful past and Lane the adoring disciple who sees nothing. Cole has a little more to play with as Loretta, the teenager with a combustible mix of rebellion and naivety, and Best has the most complex path to tread as she touchingly shows the illusions of 20 years being stripped away in moments.

Best is an intensely sympathetic actor who negotiates the swift transition from subservience to vulnerability to defiance with appealing dignity, willing us to believe in a situation that doesn’t entirely ring true.

The dramaturgy isn’t perfect, but this is nevertheless an absorbing evening created by a lavishly talented group of people. Apart from designer Hankin, the composer leads a terrific five-piece band, Kelley Abbey choreographed, Roger Kirk did the costumes and Hugh Hamilton the lights. These are people normally seen on far bigger projects. But then this is Miracle City. Back at last.

Miracle City ends November 16

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on October 2

It’s a wrap

Trisha Brown Dance Company

Trisha Brown Dance Company. From All Angles: Pure Movement Program 1, October 23; Early Works, October 26 (afternoon); Pure Movement Program 2, October 26 (evening)

Chunky Move, Complexity of Belonging, October 9

Heiner Goebbels, When the Mountain Changed Its Clothing, October 26 (afternoon)

The Trouble with Harry, October 23 (afternoon)

TRISHA Brown’s dance-making is deeply concerned with the physics and geometry of the body and its relation to the space in which it moves, is intellectually rigorous and highly technical. Her purpose is not to mimic or evoke emotional states. And yet there is one quality above all that animates the work: intense, soul-filling joy.

A selection of Early Works – mostly from the 1970s, most performed in silence – held an audience spellbound on a beautiful Melbourne afternoon as the Brown company did balancing things with lengths of wood (various Sticks pieces), used one another as counterweights (Leaning Duets), were arranged and rearranged around the space without missing a beat (Group Primary with Movers) and, with a complete lack of showiness, revealed the virtuosity in the apparently simple (Accumulation, Spanish Dance). The dancers, who wore plain white trousers and tops, were barefoot, warm, sweet, composed and serene. The program lasted only an hour but time seemed to be suspended. It was an unforgettable, radiant experience that took us to the bedrock of Brown’s art.

An archival image of Spanish Dance. Photo: Babette Mangolte

An archival image of Spanish Dance. Photo: Babette Mangolte

The two Pure Movement programs, staged in Arts Centre Melbourne’s Playhouse, covered work from the 1970s to 2011. The wide range is deliberate, as TBDC is part way through an international celebration of Brown’s career and influence: the choreographer, who turns 78 shortly, announced her retirement about two years ago. While there are no narrative influences in the work, a key ingredient is the sensuality and sumptuousness of the body in motion and stasis, even in a work as muscular, angular, sculptural and stern as Newark (Niweweorce) (1987) – the only piece to appear on both programs. Presumably for practical reasons to do with international touring Donald Judd’s backdrops for Newark were not seen, although Robert Rauschenberg’s diaphanous set for Set and Reset came along for the ride (Brown really did mix it with the greats of contemporary art). When Newark was performed in New York early last year the drops were described in The New York Times as “rising and falling at different depths of the stage and so redefining the space, each in a single different primary color”. I was sorry not to experience this aspect of the piece.

I was more sorry, though, not to see Son of Gone Fishin’ (1981) twice or, indeed, on a continuous loop. It was on the first program and was a swirl of impulses and connections as four women and two men grouped, regrouped or went their own ways to music from Robert Ashley’s opera Atalanta. The complexities and incremental changes were mesmerising, as were repeated details such as Jamie Scott draping herself briefly across Olsi Gjeci’s back, or the two of them holding hands for just a moment. Scott, by the way, proved herself the heroine of the season by being quietly charismatic in everything she did: the solo If you couldn’t see me (1994) in which she never faces the audience; the glorious solo Accumulation (1971), in which gestures and movements build one upon the other until the body is fully and gorgeously engaged while the feet never leave the ground; as the instigator of Spanish Dance, a sexy quintet for women to the sound of Bob Dylan; and in just about everything else.

On a local note, it was splendid to see Rogues (2011), a duet made for and with Australian dancer and choreographer Lee Serle and TBDC dancer Neal Beasley, who was also outstanding in a variety of works. Brown was a Rolex mentor to Serle, who is now back home. He (tall) and Beasley (short) danced side by side, constantly in motion and constantly in sync with each other’s presence.

I had not seen Brown’s work in the flesh although have seen much that’s influenced by her, unfortunately often in a too-dry, overly introspective way. The juiciness of Brown’s dance and her dancers is a delight, as is the sense of connection with the audience, even in a conventional theatre setting. Brown’s retirement means her company is in the process of defining how her pioneering work will be preserved, a situation the companies of Merce Cunningham (seemingly successfully), Martha Graham (disastrously) and other ground-breakers have faced. This is a delicate matter for TBDC but it brought Melbourne Festival audiences a great boon.

The Brown retrospective ended the Melbourne Festival. First up in early October was Complexity of Belonging, a large-scale dance-theatre work from Chunky Move. It was fascinating and somewhat depresseing to see how Complexity of Belonging side-stepped the promise of its title to offer something rather shallow. Talk about first-world problems.

Chunky Move's Complexity of Belonging

Chunky Move’s Complexity of Belonging

The co-creators, Chunky Move artistic director Anouk Van Dijk and Falk Richter, director in residence at Berlin’s Schaubuhne, have worked together on four earlier projects, one of which was Trust, seen at the Perth International Arts Festival in 2011. It too was about a first-world problem, but one of great resonance. As I wrote at the time, “Made in 2009, Trust was born among the ruins of international finance and sees in that collapse a crisis at the individual level. The lack of honesty and transparency in big business is mirrored in personal relationships: mistrust is rife.” In this work movement emerged powerfully and persuasively as being as relevant to the thesis as the text. This was not the case with Complexity of Belonging, where it felt added on.

The wide Sumner stage at Melbourne’s Southbank Theatre, home to Melbourne Theatre Company, was dominated by a huge cyclorama with a photographic image of open sky and low-lying land (Robert Cousins designed the set). The Australian Outback, one imagines, even though Complexity of Belonging was quickly established as being entirely urban in nature, dealing with a set of well-off, articulate city-dwellers.

The program noted only that the image, Big Sky, was by Oliviu Lugojan-Ghenciu, whose website describes him as a London-based “architect and motion designer”. Intriguingly, all the early online results that come up with his name relate to a project he carried out in Australia a few years ago called GravityONE: A choreography for militarised airspace. Lugojan-Ghenciu calls it an architectural work and an animation, and the description for it starts this way: “The remote territories of the Australian Never Never are anything but empty. The history of these landscapes is one of nuclear testing, rocket launches and black military technologies.”

Complexity of Belonging went nowhere near such dark thoughts. Here the big sky was just a big sky. It was instantly legible shorthand for the vast, empty Australian interior and stood as a metaphor for the feelings of separation, loneliness and otherness expressed by the decidedly metropolitan characters. Except that it felt like an Australia viewed through a decidedly European lens that sees this place and its people as exotic, in a superficial way. You know, “Australia, it’s so far away.” Well, not if you live here.

Van Dijk and Richter write of their collaborations that the concept begins “from the same central question: what do we currently observe happening in our own relationships and in the broader social context?” In Complexity of Belonging the social context wasn’t at all broad. There was some talk about gay marriage not being legal in Australia, some observations about race (relatively mild), an unpleasant reference to the recent Malaysian Airlines disaster (the one in our hemisphere), digs at our “no worries, howya goin’” discourse, and a sentimental co-option of Aboriginal thought regarding the nature of time.

At 90 minutes Complexity of Belonging was overlong, but more pertinently I found it tedious. The Brisbane Festival is a co-presenter, so I assume it will be restaged there and potentially elsewhere. Will there be some rethinking? I do hope so.

My other Melbourne Festival events (this year the tally was shamefully low, but you can’t do everything) were Heiner Goebbels’s When the Mountain Changed Its Clothing and the new Lachlan Philpott drama The Trouble with Harry.

When the Mountain is monumental music-theatre in construction and intent, but fell short for me in practice. The 39 girls and young women of Vocal Theatre Carmina Slovenica were wondrous performers, singing complex music from a wide range of traditions while enacting rituals of discovery and growth. The score included Schonberg, Brahms, classical Indian (extraordinary), contemporary and central European vocal music; the text was taken from writings of, among others, Marina Abramovic, Gertrude Stein, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Ian McEwan. It was certainly eclectic.

I admired the concept and the skill greatly. The young women’s poise and virtuosity were a delight. But admiration failed to blossom into whole-hearted immersion in the performance. While spoken texts were delivered in English, song texts were not made available – a great lack, given the centrality of the music. I felt there was a huge part of the performance denied me.

Lachlan Philpott’s The Trouble with Harry has been given a deeply absorbing premiere by MKA: Theatre of New Writing. It is a multilayered affair – a slice of Sydney history; a true-crime story; an elegy for an unconventional relationship hiding in plain sight within conventional society; and a pungent evocation of early 20th-century working-class life. Most of all it is a humane reclamation of Harry Crawford’s story. The closing images are heart-breaking.

Crawford (Maude Davey), born Eugenia Falleni, lived for many years as a married man and was convicted of the murder of his wife Annie (Caroline Lee). Naturally the trial was a sensation but Philpott’s interest lies far from there. He rescues Harry from the one-note notoriety and gives him a complex individuality. The robust poeticism of Philpott’s writing, matched by Alyson Campbell’s fluid direction, gives The Trouble with Harry a slightly hallucinatory quality, as does the decision to relay the sound to the audience via individual headsets. The effect is simultaneously highly personal and other-worldly.

The wonderful cast of six is completed by Elizabeth Nabben as Harry’s daughter Josephine; Daniel Last as Annie’s son, also named Harry; and Emma Palmer and Dion Mills as narrators and other characters. Very much recommended.

The Trouble with Harry continues at Northcote Town Hall until October 9.

Zest and immediacy

Originally posted on deborahjones.me:

Bell Shakespeare, Canberra Theatre Centre, June 15.

IN an air raid shelter during the Blitz in London, some young people delve into bookshelves and pull out Shakespeare. Their stage is a room with a blackboard and some rackety shelves, their costumes nothing more than what they can put over their school uniforms. As sirens blare and bombs fall, they put on a play about war.

Michael Sheasby and Darcy Brown in Henry V. Photo: Michele Mossop.

Michael Sheasby and Darcy Brown in Henry V. Photo: Michele Mossop.

There could be few productions of Henry V scrappier, less heroic or more affecting than this. Essentially a bunch of kids in a confined space put on accents and lark about, yet the simplicity and intimacy pierce the heart as surely as King Henry’s archers at Agincourt routed the French. Director Damien Ryan sees nothing worth exalting in Henry’s pursuit of conquest. He sees the damage and the never-ending trail of misery.

These things…

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