Adelaide Festival opening weekend

Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy, who have signed on as joint artistic directors for three Adelaide festivals (this year, 2018 and 2019), set the bar high on their first opening weekend and floated over it with ease. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it looked easy. It can’t be underestimated how much work went into securing the Glyndebourne Saul, directed by Barrie Kosky, for an exclusive Adelaide season and to restage it with mostly new singers and musicians, so all hail to Armfield and Healy. And, of course, they had to pay for it. It’s a mammoth show.

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Barrie Kosky’s production of Saul at the Adelaide Festival

Saul was, of course, always going to be a hot ticket. The prospect of seeing Kosky’s vastly admired production of Handel’s oratorio saw opera-lovers poised over their keyboards months ago to pounce on tickets as soon as they were released. Those secured, one then had to be quick to get into Crystal Pite and Jonathan Young’s Betroffenheit. There were only two performances of a dance work that has shaken audience members to their core wherever it has been seen and seats quickly went.

Also on this first weekend, the Schaubühne Berlin Richard III had a particular pull for those who had seen its star, Lars Eidinger, as an unpredictable and entertaining Hamlet at the 2010 Sydney Festival, although the fame of the company was recommendation enough. There was also the revival of Armfield’s production of The Secret River (which unfortunately I couldn’t see), taken out of a theatre building and staged in the Anstey Hill quarry, reportedly to great advantage. There was more, but these were the most prominent events.

Saul which premiered at Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 2015, is everything one had been led to expect, only more so. More electrifyingly immediate in effect, more ravishing in design, more complex in its theatrical exploration of the text and more thrillingly performed. Saul is by turns celebratory, brutal, grotesque, tender and bleak. In Kosky’s hands it becomes an intensely human story of conflict and a proud leader brought low by jealousy.

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Christopher Purves (lying) as Saul, Christopher Lowery as David and Adrian Strooper as Jonathan in Saul at the Adelaide Festival

Baroque specialist Erin Helyard, artistic director of Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera, was in sparkling form as conductor of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and managed to appear on stage as well as a striking chamber organ soloist (chorus master Brett Weymark, associate conductor for Saul, was on hand to pick up the baton when Helyard was otherwise engaged).

A much smaller work but no less affecting, Betroffenheit was created as a response to one man’s devastating loss, grief, guilt, despair and, ultimately, need to go on. Its first half is a wild, vivid and fantastical journey through anguish and addiction; the second a restrained, pure dance recapitulation of the material that brings a sense of resolution, or as much as might be possible.

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The cast of Crystal Pite and Jonathan Young’s Betroffenheit. Photo: Shane Reid

Writer and actor Jonathan Young is the man whose pain lies at the heart of Betroffenheit. His young daughter and two of her cousins died in a fire, and while the work doesn’t go into great detail about the tragedy, Young’s appearance as the central character makes Betroffenheit intensely personal even as its concerns could be those of anyone who has suffered as he did.

Pite is a choreographer whose movement, no matter how apparently abstract, has emotional force. The dancers, in particular Jermaine Spivey as Young’s inner voice, were spectacularly good as the glitzy, hopped-up demons seducing and assailing this broken man.

It’s no surprise that Pite has of late become much sought after in the classical world as well as the contemporary sphere. She is a tremendous artist.

I was much less taken with Richard III than I had hoped but two out of three and all that … Many thanks, by the way, to Armfield and Healy for programming in a way that made it possible to see Betroffenheit (5pm) and Richard III (8pm) on the same day. Not every festival director does this but it made sense to think about the large contingent of interstate visitors who wanted to see both pieces on Saturday after the Saul opening on Friday.

Lars Eidinger’s bovver-boy Richard isn’t short of confidence, that’s for sure. He’s happy to strip off to show Lady Anne the goods on offer, he barks and croons into a microphone like a low-rent nightclub performer who is unaware he’s not as good as he thinks he is, and he takes a piss in public just because he can. He wears close-fitting headgear that suggests a readiness to use himself as a battering ram; or alternatively advises he’s a seriously unwell man who binds his forehead to keep his brains from falling out.

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Lars Eidinger (front) as Richard III. Photo: Tony Lewis

There’s not much charm, to put it mildly, nor an overwhelming sense of menace. The lack makes Richard’s success as an arch-manipulator unconvincing. The words are there (mostly in German with English surtitles, occasionally in English) but why they work as Richard intends is a mystery.

Thomas Ostermeier’s Schaubühne Berlin production begins with a bang but as it unfolds, interval-less, for two and three-quarter hours the energy dissipates. On Saturday night Eidinger seemed to feel that he wasn’t winning the entire audience over as he would wish. Several times he ostentatiously looked across his shoulder at the surtitles as if to question why there wasn’t more of a reaction. (I have to assume he wasn’t checking that the surtitle operator was doing a good job of keeping up.) And when Eidinger urged the audience to shout demeaning phrases at Buckingham there was by no means a general rush to take up the offer.

Ostermeier’s ending was practical, in that it eliminated the battle at Bosworth Field and left us with a Richard so spooked by the ghosts of those he’d murdered that he went entirely mad, although such a result didn’t seem to follow necessarily from what had gone before. Nor did Richard’s final action, a re-run of the fate of Kevin Spacey’s Richard in the Old Vic version that toured widely. The impulse behind the image differed in the two productions, however, and I didn’t buy what Ostermeier was selling.

Saul and Richard III both end on March 9.

My 2016 Artists of the Year …

Last year I decided to institute my personal Artist of the Year award. There’s no money attached, of course, and I think we’d have to say it confers only a modest amount of fame. I was rather thrilled , however, to see that my inaugural winner, the multi-faceted mezzo Jacqui Dark, was subsequently featured in her home town newspaper, the Courier in Ballarat, Victoria, so that was nice. I was a little dismayed that the Courier didn’t realise that I, too, am Ballarat-born – this played no part in the AOTY decision-making, I hasten to say – and my father was once editor of that newspaper. But it was a long time ago.

This year’s recipients – and yes, it’s a group I honour in 2016 – will be used to getting little or no money. They also mostly escape the glare of widespread publicity and can walk the streets unmolested by fans keen for a selfie. They are, however, heroes to me. They are the independent artists who simply will not go away and shut up, despite bearing the brunt of our Federal Government’s unforgiveable raid on the Australia Council in 2015. They put on new work, take creative risks, nurture talent, and their ticket prices are often astonishingly low. And they might be doing this in a profit-share arrangement.

It is not a good time for the arts in Australia. There were, of course, plenty of pieces of theatre, dance, opera and musical theatre I was very happy to see in 2016. A small number were exceptional, as were a good handful of performances. We can still manage that. What we don’t have is any true, deeply engrained reverence for culture as a necessity of life. That’s why some of our brightest and most interesting artists are working for tuppence ha’penny.

In this context I’d like to give a special shout-out to the Red Line Productions team who run Sydney’s Old Fitz Theatre; to Sport for Jove, which consistently punches way above its weight; to Hayes Theatre Co for giving a dedicated home to musical theatre; and to the wonderful Women in Theatre and Screen (WITS) group. WITS has been indefatigable in giving encouragement to and increasing visibility and opportunities for women in the arts.

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Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill in Little Shop of Horrors. Photo: Jeff Busby

So, best shows of the year?

Starting with the indies, Sport for Jove’s tremendously affecting Antigone; the absorbing revival of Louis Nowra’s Inner Voices from Don’t Look Away in association with Red Line Productions; and – this one surprised me – a deeply, deeply touching production of the 1928 R. C. Sheriff classic Journey’s End, from Cross Pollinate Productions in association with Norton Crumlin and Associates. I was very keen to see the play as it’s a name I keep coming across in reading about early 20th century drama, but I thought it might be drearily musty by now. Not in Samantha Young’s production, seen at Australian Theatre for Young People’s Walsh Bay base.

Also seen at ATYP was a marvellous production of the musical Spring Awakening, sensitively directed by Mitchell Butel. He might soon find he is in more demand as a director than he is as an actor, which would be a lot. The other huge musical theatre highlight was Little Shop of Horrors at Hayes Theatre Co. This was a mainstream production (Luckiest Productions and Tinderbox Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co) that toured after its debut but it was born at the indie Hayes. Also on the music front, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra gave a glorious trio of concerts, conducted by David Robertson, featuring Stravinsky dance scores The Rite of Spring, The Firebird and Petrushka. Absolute heaven for this balletomane.

Two of Sydney’s smaller mainstream theatre companies, the Ensemble and Darlinghurst Theatre Company, provided some of this year’s most memorable productions. At the Ensemble, Tara Morice led a terrific cast in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People; and I can’t tell you how riveting it was to see Patricia Cornelius’s gut-punching Savages at the Darlinghurst with a matinee audience comprised almost entirely of teenaged boys. I bet their post-show discussion was interesting – and one could feel just how forcefully this brilliant piece of writing about masculinity and pack behaviour struck them. Also at the Darlinghurst, Mary Anne Butler’s Broken was eloquently realised.

Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan in GOOD PEOPLE, photos by Clare Hawley-26

Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan in Good People. Photo: Clare Hawley

The invaluable Griffin Theatre Company is unfortunately struggling with pressing funding issues but soldiers on stoutly to provide a platform for new Australian work. And who would have thunk it? After the, ahem, disappointment of his playwriting debut Every Breath (Belvoir, 2012), Benedict Andrews came up with a fascinating portrait of a woman’s disintegration in Gloria.

Mainstream theatre wasn’t overflowing with riches. However, at Sydney Theatre Company I did love Hay Fever, directed by Imara Savage, who has a great feel for comedy; and the devastating production of All My Sons, directed by Kip Williams.

I won’t write about dance again (my post yesterday gave a round-up in that area) but will mention a few dance performances in my baker’s dozen list of stand-outs – Kevin Jackson as Nijinsky in John Neumeier’s ballet of that name for The Australian Ballet, Elma Kris of Bangarra Dance Theatre in the title role in Stephen Page’s Nyapanyapa, and Kristina Chan in her own work A Faint Existence for Force Majeure (one of the small-to-medium companies that has to reinvent itself after funding cuts). In theatre and musical theatre, in no particular order I was entranced by Robyn Nevin (All My Sons), Anthony Warlow (Fiddler on the Roof), Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill (Little Shop of Horrors), Alex Jennings (My Fair Lady), Heather Mitchell (Hay Fever), Sam O’Sullivan (Journey’s End), Marta Dusseldorp (Gloria), and Andrea Demetriades and William Zappa (Antigone).

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Heather Mitchell, Josh McConville and Helen Thomson in Hay Fever. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Opera Australia’s revival in Melbourne of the Neil Armfield Ring Cycle was extraordinary, and splendidly cast from top to bottom. The themes of greed and lust for power resonated particularly strongly. Earlier in the year the rarely performed Verdi opera Luisa Miller was given a striking production and had a dream cast; and My Fair Lady was deservedly wildly successful. Also from OA, the al fresco version of The Eighth Wonder – we sat in front of the sublime building that is the subject of Alan John and Dennis Watkins’s opera – was a sensational idea, superbly executed. One couldn’t help but think of Joe Cahill when, as premier of NSW, he convened a conference in 1954 to discuss the establishment of an opera house in Sydney. He said then: “This State cannot go on without proper facilities for the expression of talent and the staging of the highest forms of artistic entertainment which add grace and charm to living and which help to develop and mould a better, more enlightened community …”

We could probably do with a Joe Cahill or two right now.

About last week … April 23-29

I could be wrong but I think the only Jonathan Dove opera to have made it to a professional stage so far in Australia is Flight, which I saw in 2006 when the Adelaide Festival presented the Glyndebourne production. The prolific Dove is something of a rarity, being a living opera composer whose more than two dozen works in the genre are much in demand around the world (except, it would seem, Australia). He told The Times of London last year that during 2015 there would be “17 new stagings of 11 of my operas in eight different countries”.

So it was a huge pleasure to be able to see Dove’s Mansfield Park (2011) staged by Operantics, the Sydney-based company founded last year to create performance opportunities for young singers. Home base is North Sydney’s Independent Theatre. It has a comfortable 300-seat auditorium and judging by the very good house at the April 24 matinee Operantics is already hitting the spot with just its third production.

Dove and librettist Alasdair Middleton hit the spot too with their adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel of goodness rewarded. Gentle Fanny Price lives at Mansfield Park with well-off relatives and is secretly in love with her cousin Edmund. She might be considered the most insignificant member of the household but only she understands the dangers posed when vivacious, worldly Mary and Henry Crawford enter their lives and create emotional mayhem.

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A scene from Operantics’ Mansfield Park. Photo: John Kilkeary

The action is wittily presented in two “volumes” and 18 “chapters”, each announced by the singers. Dove’s score, written for piano duo, flows freely and melodically, alert to the comedy and self-serving dramatics of most of the characters while giving Fanny some gentle, heartfelt music. A burbling undercurrent suits the rural setting and provides a very busy workout indeed for the accompanying pianists, in this case the heroic Nathaniel Kong and Geena Cheung. Only some very high-lying music for Mary Crawford and a couple of the more complex ensembles created real difficulties to understanding the text without surtitles; otherwise the Operantics cast of 10 sang with admirable clarity and, in the modest but effective production, were engaging actors.

It’s a real ensemble work, most winningly presented, so I won’t single out anyone other than Katie Miller-Crispe: she sang the role of Maria, is Operantics’ artistic director and was production manager for Mansfield Park. Brava. And in late September Operantics plans to stage Bellini’s La sonnambula. The company certainly doesn’t want for ambition.

The Detective’s Handbook, at Hayes Theatre Co, isn’t much more than an extended skit on an inconsequential subject but it does announce impressive new music-theatre talent in writer Ian Ferrington and composer Olga Solar (the latter is just 22). The musical is a spoofy murder mystery set in 1950s Chicago with the familiar tropes of mismatched detectives, femmes fatale and puns galore. Many people really enjoyed its helium-balloon lightness but for me the affectionate homage to the classic noir detective novel didn’t have enough to maintain interest for 80 minutes.

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Justin Smith and Rob Johnson in The Detective’s Handbook. Photo: Clare Hawley

What it does have is Ferrington’s sophisticated, rhythmically complex wordplay and Solar’s lovely, nostalgic jazz score. I particularly liked the song for world-weary detective Frank Thompson (delivered beautifully by Justin Smith) early on in the piece and had there been stronger character development along those lines The Detective’s Handbook could have been both funny and more complex.

The Detective’s Handbook came out of New Musicals Australia’s development program and has had input from the best in the business. The great cast is directed by Jonathan Biggins, music direction is by veteran Michael Tyack, James Browne designed and choreography is by Christopher Horsey. As I wrote in The Australian this week, the loving production gives The Detective’s Handbook more than it warrants but let’s call it an investment in the future. It would be good to think Ferrington and Solar are already working on something else.

I managed to catch Patricia Cornelius’s tough, gut-wrenchingly powerful Savages at Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Eternity Playhouse a few days before the end of its season. I went to the Wednesday matinee when the house was pretty much sold out to students, all of them young men. They were clearly listening closely and I imagine won’t forget it quickly. I do hope not. Savages sticks like glue to four close mates as they take a holiday on a cruise ship. They owe it to themselves to have a great time, and to have it together. To leave all the crap behind, to rewrite history, to drink, to bond, to root. What could possibly go wrong with pack mentality rampant?

Cornelius’s play has a dark poetry and is both all too understandable and deeply confronting. Under Tim Roseman’s direction, Josef Ber, Thomas Campbell, Yure Covich and Troy Harrison were frighteningly good. Frighteningly.

The late-night Old Fitz Theatre show on Wednesday brought more violence in the shape of Orphans, from Seeker Productions. In Savages mateship and misogny are the toxic ingredients; in British playwright Dennis Kelly’s Orphans they are family, a broken society and racism. While Kelly’s concerns are abundantly clear I ultimately found Orphans unpersuasive (and overlong) despite intensely involved performances from Liam Nunan, Jacki Mison (who also produced the play) and Christopher Morris.

Friday night brought a complete change of pace with The Australian Ballet’s Symphony in C, a staging of George Balanchine’s mighty homage to classical style paired with a clutch of divertissements.

My review appears in The Australian tomorrow (May 2). I’ll put up a more detailed analysis later in the week.

The Detective’s Handbook ends on May 7.

About last week … March 18-25

British director Matthew Warchus had two musicals open within about four months of one another. One was Matilda the Musical, the Royal Shakespeare Company production that premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon in November 2010 before opening in the West End in October the following year; and Ghost the Musical, based on the popular 1990 film, which started life in Manchester, England, in March 2011. Ah well. Not everything can be one for the ages.

Ghost hasn’t been a disaster, although it didn’t win over Broadway. It had a respectable West End run, been on tours of the US and UK and has been seen in a dozen countries. But unlike Matilda, it has no particular distinction. The music and lyrics by Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics, although it’s not easy to tell) and Glen Ballard are efficient at best and some of the lyrics, to which book writer Bruce Joel Rubin also contributed, are best forgotten, or at least easily forgotten.

After opening in Adelaide in January, the Australian production is now in Sydney until mid-May, after which it heads to Perth. Well, I say Australian production. Most of the cast are locals; the production itself is a replica, as is the way of international musicals.

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Wendy Mae Brown and Rob Mills in Ghost the Musical

When I saw it on March 19 I thought it conventional entertainment with a decent heart, engaging performances (from Jemma Rix as Molly in particular), too much reliance on projections that looked oddly old-fashioned and really naff choreography. Full marks to the creative team for not overplaying that pottery scene, although one suspects many in the audience are there for exactly that moment. There are few truly first-rate stage musicals made from a non-musical film: Dirty Dancing, no. Doctor Zhivago, no, although Lucy Simon’s score is attractive. An Officer and a Gentleman, no, no, no. (Incidentally, that trio all started life in Sydney in out-of-hemisphere tryouts.) It’s hard to live up to the audience’s expectations when a film has been extraordinarily successful. Perhaps that why Little Shop of Horrors, based on a Roger Corman quickie filmed in just two days, is a winner. By the way, the brilliant new production of Little Shop that finished recently at Hayes Theatre Co in Sydney opens in Adelaide on April 20, Melbourne and Canberra next month, then to Brisbane in July and back to Sydney.

On March 22 I went to the Sydney Opera House to see choreographers Lloyd Newson (on hiatus from the company he founded, DV8 Physical Theatre), Kate Champion (founder of Force Majeure) and Rafael Bonachela (artistic director of Sydney Dance Company) take part in a Culture Club talk. The title was Everyone Can Dance but fortunately moderator Caroline Baum said she didn’t know where that was meant to go and neither did anyone else. So they spoke about a lot of other stuff. The conversation ranged widely over issues such as the employment of diverse kinds of bodies in dance (disabled, larger than the norm, from different cultures and traditions), recent conversations in the UK about the quality of contemporary dance training and opportunities for female choreographers, and how each of the three speakers approaches dance-making.

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Baum, Newton, Champion and Bonachela in conversation. Photo: Prudence Upton

Newson addressed a particularly thorny issue when he said that a dancer such as David Toole, who has no legs, made him question what it meant to be able-bodied. Nevertheless, Newson still needed any dancer with whom he worked to have a certain level of expertise. “Do you make concessions?” (He doesn’t want to.) Bonachela talked a little about the difficulty of coming into Sydney Dance Company after the death of artistic director-designate Tanja Liedtke. If he was going to put his stamp on the company there would have to be changes. He said of himself: “I am optimistic by choice.”

Champion spoke of the differences between actors and dancers. “Dancers are very willing. They will do anything, go anywhere. Actors are sometimes not so willing,” she said, although she added that sometimes she wished dancers “would express their feelings a bit more and actors a bit less”. Her most intriguing comments were on opera. Champion was associate director on Neil Armfield’s production of the Ring Cycle for Opera Australia in 2013 and is again listed as that on OA’s website for the revival late this year in Melbourne. Opera is “not my favourite thing”, she said. She’d been told everyone should do one Ring Cycle in their life but having done it she says “opera is not my natural fit”. But she wanted to be out of her comfort zone, and did it because of her respect for Armfield.

The week’s three theatre productions could not have been more different. Brisbane outfit Shake & Stir Theatre Co’s Wuthering Heights (Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, March 22) was disappointing – too reliant on a narrator to tell the story and acted in blustery fashion. I very much enjoyed British company 1927’s Golem (Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay, March 23), a surreal cautionary tale about the surrender of free will. And later that day I saw Bell Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with a full house that enjoyed it immensely. Some of the mainstream reviews were very sniffy indeed about Peter Evans’s production, which goes to show that so often the reviews really don’t matter. The energy of the young men in particular was charming and invigorating. It may not be an interpretation for the ages but it speaks to an audience, that much is clear. Romeo and Juliet is in Canberra until Saturday and opens in Melbourne on April 14.

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Turandot – this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. Photo: Prudence Upton

This year’s opening performance of Opera on Sydney Harbour – Turandot – was blessed with perfect weather (March 24). Same thing for each of the four previous openings. OA’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini must have special powers. My review in the London-based Opera magazine is yet to appear so I’ll confine myself to saying that the key singers in the first cast are first-rate – Dragana Radakovic (Turandot), Riccardo Massi (Calaf) and Hyeseoung Kwon (Liù) – and Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng gives the opera welcome ceremonial grandeur in place of ersatz exoticism. Dan Potra’s design is a beauty, dominated by a spiky tower and a fire-breathing dragon. The fireworks are placed rather strangely after Nessun dorma! but people cheered anyway. Turandot, which is double cast, runs until April 24 is a good’un.

Theatre artists of the year (and my inaugural Artist of the Year)

One person’s best is another person’s “I can’t believe we saw the same show”. Which if course we never do or can. We each bring to the theatre our history, our personality, our experiences, our experience, our tastes and our bête noirs.

So why these lists at year’s end? Well, they serve as reminders of ephemeral arts, they pay tribute to artists and they bring together things we saw through the year as individual events. Their power accumulates when seen collectively. They are proof of the richness of our cultural life.

Unlike my 2015 year in dance, which I posted on Tuesday, most of the theatre I saw this year – including musical theatre of all kinds – was in Sydney. There were also a couple of forays to New York, where much enjoyment was had.

Therefore, like my dance list, the following things are simply those productions and people I was really, really glad I saw.

By the way, for the first time ever I have decided to nominate an Artist of the Year. Scroll down to the bottom if you’d like to know right now.

2015 AT HOME

This year in Sydney the independent sector kept bobbing up with little gems. How producers and performers keep doing it with such limited resources is one of the great mysteries of life. Bless them one and all for their commitment. I hesitate to say poverty appears to be good for them but they are super-resourceful and awe-inspiringly creative. It was an honour to have seen Sport for Jove’s Of Mice and Men, Siren Theatre Co’s Misterman, Outhouse Theatre Company and Red Line Productions’ The Aliens, Oriel Group with Red Line Productions’ I Am My Own Wife, and Apocalyse Theatre Company’s The Dapto Chaser, seen at Griffin.

It was, you may have noticed, a pretty blokey time in the indie world (although Kate Gaul directed the wonderful Misterman). This became a subject of much discussion in 2015 and there are serious, sensible, inclusive plans to increase diversity right across the board in the live performance and screen arts.

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Thomas Campbell in Misterman, directed by Kate Gaul

That said, I was incredibly heartened to see standout contributions from some the small number of women writers and directors in this year’s theatre. Kate Gaul, as mentioned; Mary Rachel Brown, who wrote one of my year’s great favourites, The Dapto Chaser; Imara Savage at the helm of Sydney Theatre Company’s gloriously funny-sad After Dinner, by Andrew Bovell; playwright Lally Katz’s The Cat, half of the silly and sweet Belvoir Downstairs double bill The Dog/The Cat (Brendan Cowell wrote The Dog); and the miraculous American playwright Annie Baker (The Aliens).

I saw more than 200 shows this year in dance, theatre, musical theatre, opera, cabaret and circus and as I pondered the non-dance list it became clear that for me, it was the Year of the Woman as far as performance was concerned. Yes, I loved Ewen Leslie in Belvoir’s all-round engrossing Ivanov; Josh McConville in After Dinner – god that man is good; American tenor and rapidly rising superstar Michael Fabiano in Faust for Opera Australia; Simon Gleeson in Les Misérables; James Millar as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda; and, without exception, all the men in the indie shows I listed above (they had very, very strong casts).

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Zahra Newman and Ewen Leslie in Ivanov. Photo: Brett Boardman

Nevertheless, my memories glow just that bit more brightly when I think about the following …

I had just the best time at Matilda. Four times, in fact, as I went to see each of the girls in the title role. My admiration for Molly Barwick, Sasha Rose, Georgia Taplin and Bella Thomas knows no bounds. Each carries the show on very young shoulders. I had tears in my eyes at the end each time of this life-affirming show and may well pop down to Melbourne to do it all over again. Matilda starts there in March at the lovely Princess, which will suit it very well indeed. And there will be four new Matildas. A duty to go, really.

Also in Matilda, the heart-rendingly beautiful Elise McCann as Miss Honey.

And what about Amy Lehpamer? She’s unimprovable in The Sound of Music as she was earlier in the year for a much smaller audience as Tracy Lord in High Society at the Hayes in Sydney. Speaking of High Society, I was bowled over by Virginia Gay as Liz. She gave one of the most accomplished, nuanced and touching performances of the year and gave a master class in how to sing Cole Porter. Also at the Hayes, actor Mitchell Butel’s impressive debut directorial outing – the musical Violet – was crowned by Samantha Dodemaide’s blazingly passionate performance in the title role.

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Amy Lehpamer as Maria in The Sound of Music. Photo: James Morgan

It’s not an easy business getting a new musical off the ground but Queensland Theatre Company did it with Ladies in Black, with music and lyrics by Tim Finn and a book by Carolyn Burns. Based on Madeleine St John’s novel The Women in Black, it is packed with deliciously memorable songs and is unstoppably optimistic as it follows the dreams and aspirations of a young woman coming of age at the turn of the 1960s. It’s set in a women’s department store among the frocks, and thus is dominated by a big (and top-notch) female cast, headed as we speak for a season at Melbourne Theatre Company from January 16. Sarah Morrison plays young heroine Lisa Miles with a lovely mixture of determination and vulnerability.

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Sarah Morrison as Lisa and Christen O’Leary as Magda in Ladies in Black

I pity anyone who missed Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura’s return visit to Opera Australia with Madama Butterfly (Sydney and Melbourne, after last year’s mind-blowing performance in Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Butterfly and an earlier visit to Sydney). Australian soprano Nicole Car is getting a fantastic – richly deserved – reception at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden for her Tatiana in Eugene Onegin; luckily we saw her in Onegin and Faust this year and she will appear in OA’s Luisa Miller in Sydney very soon. It’s likely overseas houses will start snapping her up regularly. In the contemporary opera sphere, Jane Sheldon was unforgettable in Sydney Chamber Opera’s searing An Index of Metals.

NOTES FROM ABROAD:

I saw Annie Baker’s The Flick in New York with the original cast (Melbourne was fortunate enough to see a production directed in 2014 by Nadia Tass for Red Stitch and revived this year). It is the play – indeed the production among all art forms – I keep coming back to. The three-hander is set in a down-at-heel cinema where hope flickers as forlornly as the out-of-date film equipment the unseen owner insists on keeping. For close to three hours two men and a woman engage in desultory conversation while sweeping up popcorn, changing reels and jockeying for position. Brilliant.

I also had a fun experience with Theatre for One, which is exactly what it says. You pop into a booth and an actor performs a short play just for you. Sitting practically knee-to-knee, you have nowhere to look but into each other’s eyes. Interesting. I saw two works and wish I’d been able to stay to complete the set of six.

On the musicals front Christopher Wheeldon’s direction and choreography of An American in Paris were blissful and what a treat to be able to see the pint-sized powerhouse Kristin Chenoweth in Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s rarely seen On the Twentieth Century.

A detour into celebrity casting:

Call me shallow but I love it. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan in Skylight; Helen Mirren in The Audience; Darren Criss in Hedwig and the Angry Inch; New York City Ballet star Robert Fairchild in An American in Paris. Criss, best known for the TV series Glee, was the surprise package: a knockout.

ARTIST OF THE YEAR:

Jacqueline Dark as Amneris in Opera Australia's Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour - Aida. Photo Hamilton Lund

Jacqueline Dark in the eye of the storm as Amneris in Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

Okay folks, I’m calling it. My Artist of the Year is Jacqueline Dark, thrilling and versatile mezzo frequently seen with Opera Australia; kick-arse cabaret artist who can write her own material, as we saw in Strange Bedfellows, her cheerfully outrageous show with partner in crime Kanen Breen; and now music-theatre sensation with her Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music. Obviously she can get to the summit and back with ease in Climb Ev’ry Mountain, but she gets the acting part of it so right too. That said, Dark could have won this title just on the basis of her courageous performances as Amneris in Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Aida early this year. Apart from the challenge of having to sing from on high – you can just see Dark in Nefertiti’s eye – the weather was appalling, costumes became waterlogged and thus as heavy as a hod of bricks, and yet the show had to go on. Dark sounded fabulous, of course. She is a trouper of the highest order.

Jacqui Dark, Kanen Breen. Pic- Kurt Sneddon

Strange Bedfellows Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

 

Verdi to the Divinyls

See, they say ‘Get to your homes ASAP, stay inside, stay protected, don’t drive unless absolutely necessary and stay away from waterways’ and I hear ‘Hop in your Holden and get on down to sing an opera set in the desert on a floating pontoon with no sides or roof, on the biggest body of water in the immediate vicinity in a sleeveless chiffon dress.’ Cos that’s just how I roll, bitches!

– Jacqueline Dark, mezzo-soprano, preparing for a Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour performance of Aida on April 22 (April 21 performance were cancelled due to “unprecedented weather conditions” and the big wet was by no means over).

IF you’re not regularly checking in on Jacqui Dark’s larger-than-life life as chronicled on her Facebook page you are doing yourself a grave disservice. Irreverent, smart, exceptionally funny and greatly gifted, Dark is a cherishable original.

Tonight she gives her final performance as the vengeful Princess Amneris in Aida for HOSH, the last of 13 shows for her cast (it alternated with another). Early afternoon precipitation flagged a potential Singin’ in the Rain show as it was on Tuesday (interval Facebook post: “Our dressing room smells like wet dog …”), although things were looking brighter by mid-afternoon. But rain or no, the performance was expected to go ahead. [NOTE: Aida was indeed performed, although social media photos of Daria Masierio, in the title role, wearing a cape in the second half over her sleeveless gown suggested conditions were chilly.] Opera singers are not quite the precious, cossetted creatures of (lazy) general opinion. In fact, says Dark, difficult conditions can warm create camaraderie between audience and singers. “It’s like we’re all in this together, let’s make this something special. They appreciate us continuing and we appreciate them sitting there.”

Keeping an eye on things ... Jacqueline Dark as Amnesia is Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour's Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

Keeping an eye on things … Jacqueline Dark as Amneris in Opera Australia’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

It’s been a testing schedule (Amneris is a big sing to tackle every second night) but there’s no time for rest after tonight. On Wednesday Dark will be onstage at Sydney club The Vanguard in corset and fishnets singing Brecht, Weill, Amanda Palmer, Rickie Lee Jones and some of her own material in Strange Bedfellows: Under the Covers. By her side will be Kanen Breen, fellow opera star, multiple Helpmann Award winner (as is Dark) and gay co-parent although not biological father of her son Alexander, nearly three. It goes without saying he’s an original too (well, I mean Breen, but it sounds as if Alexander is proving to be rather an individual himself).

Not all opera singers can successfully make the transition from Verdi to the Divinyls – also on the Under the Covers songlist – or indeed to other forms of music considered less challenging than opera. It’s trickier than it may seem to conquer an entirely different vocal technique and musical style, as the, ahem, unidiomatic Kiri Te Kanawa-Jose Carreras foray into West Side Story amply demonstrates. But Dark was singing cabaret and musicals right from the start, about 20 years ago, and although Breen came later to the cause, he proved at the first Under the Covers performances late last year he could have been born in a smoky bôite. (Read my review for The Australian of the December show here.)

So yes, Dark and Breen can certainly do it, despite preconceptions some might have about opera singers straying from their usual realm. It’s early days but interest has been keen. Dark and Breen have successfully taken their show to Melbourne’s Butterfly Club and will appear at this year’s Queensland and Adelaide cabaret festivals. There is a DVD in the making, a venture in Melbourne late this year that can’t yet be discussed and some thoughts about perhaps taking Strange Bedfellows offshore next year. The two are also throwing around ideas for a new show to succeed Under the Covers – perhaps something with a dark, Grimm’s fairtytale kind of theme. “We’ve got enough repertoire, even in a narrowed down list, to have enough stuff for three or four shows,” says Dark. “Plus we keep hearing things and say, ‘we have to sing that’.”

Strange Bedfellows Dark and Breen. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Strange Bedfellows Dark and Breen. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

“We have to sing that” is undoubtedly the key to the passion project that is Strange Bedfellows – that and the bond forged between Breen and Dark together 20 years ago when they sang in the chorus of the now-defunct Victoria State Opera’s production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Ruddigore. It’s safe to say the production was something of a disaster (I saw it) but at least Breen and Dark got their deep connection out of it. A further result: actor, satirist, writer and director Jonathan Biggins was also in the cast and has offered to advise the Strange Bedfellows.

They’d welcome that, because at the moment the two are multi-tasking with a vengeance. For this aspect of their working life they are their own writer, wardrobe designer, manager, agent, entertainment lawyer and public relations specialist. They’ve worked their contacts and social media, had some crucial help from friends and work with Daryl Wallis as music director, but essentially Strange Bedfellows is a two-person outfit. They’ve made the pitches to venues and festivals, they sort out their own contracts, and if something goes wrong with lighting or sound they have to take charge. (Dark says something about learning how to do a lighting rig and I’m not sure she’s joking. She could probably do it – she is quite the brainiac with a degree in physics.)

They even arranged a series of celebrity endorsements that may be seen on YouTube. I heartily recommend that of beloved Australian soprano Emma Matthews; others offering their thoughts are Lou Diamond Phillips, Stuart Skelton, Cheryl Barker and Kate Miller-Heidke. Those contacts are fairly speccy.

It is, however, a far cry from the world of a big company like Opera Australia, where until recently the two were permanent ensemble members with everything on tap. Becoming a freelance artist has brought its uncertainties but also its rewards. Chief among them was the opportunity to bring Strange Bedfellows to life. It’s an idea they’ve been throwing around for about 15 years. They even wrote some material, including a version of Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It that Breen sings for me, with Dark joining in. Let’s just say time hasn’t diluted any of its deliciously subversive taste.

The desire to challenge and provoke remains today, with Exhibit A a pedophile-inspired medley in Under the Covers and Exhibit B a song involving a dog – not a real one, as a complainant seemed to think – and unusual sexual practices. A later show might include something about violence against women. They don’t want to be preachy, they say, but along with being entertaining they do want to make audiences consider some unsettling issues. “If people go away questioning themselves, that’s a start,’’ says Dark.

“I’ve always wanted to do a cabaret show. I absolutely love it, the intimacy of it. Kanen and I had been on salary [with OA] – me for 10 years, Kanen for 15 years. If you’re full-time you have a very heavy workload and we never had time to do it before. It’s incredibly exciting to create your own work – terrifying, but incredibly exciting. And it’s great to push yourself to do, but you feel so vulnerable. Excited and scared, as Sondheim would say.”

While Strange Bedfellows might be fulfilling, the amount of behind-the-scenes organisation it takes is “laborious and exhausting”, says Dark. Not to mention not exactly lucrative at this point. Happily, however, Dark and Breen are far from disappearing from the operatic sphere. Dark is covering the role of Eboli in Opera Australia’s Don Carlos and sings the role of Marcellina in the new David McVicar production of The Marriage of Figaro. Breen appears in the Melbourne season of Miller-Heidke and Lally Katz’s The Rabbits for Opera Australia and is Beadle Bamford in Victorian Opera’s Sweeney Todd, among other engagements.

That work is their bedrock and helps keep the bank manager happy, but in their new situation they have also to make their own opportunities “and not sit on our bums and wait for work to come to us and assume it’s going to”, says Dark. “You’ve really got to get out there. The more we’ve done that the more we’ve loved that.”

They are incredibly disarming in their modesty about what they’re doing and their roll-up-the-sleeves attitude to getting the job done. Says Breen: “We’re not saying we’re experts at cabaret or that we’re particularly gifted, but what we do have is a preparedness to give it a red hot go and immerse ourselves in the style and emotion of the music, which is what we both get out of our opera work as well.

“It’s very rewarding to us as performers to be able to explore different avenues of that expression and delivery that isn’t always afforded on the operatic stage.”

Cabaret:

The Vanguard, Sydney, April 29 and May 3; Adelaide Cabaret Festival, June 5-7; Queensland Cabaret Festival, June 14; Melbourne Cabaret Festival June 19-20.

 Opera:

Don Carlos, Opera Australia, Melbourne May 20-29; Sydney July 14-August 15; Sweeney Todd, Victorian Opera, Melbourne, July 18-25; The Marriage of Figaro, Opera Australia, Sydney, August 6-29; The Rabbits, Opera Australia, Melbourne, October 9-13

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.