Adelaide Festival: Split and Memorial

Split, Lucy Guerin Inc. AC Main Arts Theatre, Adelaide. March 3.

Memorial, Brink Productions, Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide, March 3.

The opening weekend of this year’s Adelaide Festival, the second under the co-artistic directorship of Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy, had brilliance and breadth in equal measure.

The marquee work was Australian composer Brett Dean’s opera Hamlet, which premiered at Glyndebourne last year to much acclaim. It wasn’t exactly a surprise when Hamlet was announced for Adelaide given that Armfield is its director, but wonderful to see it on home soil and with many roles taken by Australian singers. Cheryl Barker scored a considerable success as Gertrude and Lorina Gore was a tremendously affecting Ophelia alongside the original, extraordinary Hamlet of British tenor Allan Clayton.

Hamlet cast a long shadow but all hail to the works of smaller scale that followed and made their own mark.

20170316-GL-Split-0724 Gregory Lorenzutti

Lilian Steiner (top) and Melanie Lane in Split. Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti

Lucy Guerin Inc’s Split was a big hit at Melbourne’s Dance Massive festival last year, deservedly so. Its theme is nothing less than the forces of time and space as they impinge on the individual.

Guerin’s work is supremely elegant in construction. In a softly lit square marked out with white tape, two women – Melanie Lane and Lilian Steiner, both breathtaking, danced in unison.

Their movements were dazzlingly intricate as they covered the space, driven by the beats of British composer Scanner’s pulsating electronic score. Big, tough slicing sweeps of the arms contrasted with warm curves for hips, torsos and shoulders. They moved neatly around the square, diagonally and in straight lines, their degree of synchronisation both a technical wonder and a suggestion that the women were two sides of the one coin.

That idea was given extra momentum by the work’s alternating moods and the decision to have one woman (Lane) clothed and the other (Steiner) unclothed. Nakedness on stage almost always brings with it a sense of vulnerability but Steiner’s composure banished any notion of fragility. She was all strength and essence, gleaming in Paul Lim’s beautiful lighting design like a goddess.

Split is divided into eight sections, each lasting half the time of the preceding one and performed in a space half the size. The mesmerising togetherness of the first section and its choreographic material are repeated in the third, fifth and seventh sections. In the other sections, order is disrupted. There is no attempt at unity and antagonism erupts. On one level we might have been watching two different individuals competing for resources – room to move being the obvious but not the only one – but there was also the sense of internal conflicts made visible.

Right at the end there was only space enough for both women to stand, upright and close together, perhaps in harmony, perhaps forced into uneasy proximity. The wealth of ideas in this brief work, lasting only 40 minutes, was immense.

British poet Alice Oswald’s version of The Iliad, Memorial, is subtitled “an excavation”. In Oswald’s telling, the men identified in her text – 215 of them – are not the familiar heroes of Trojan War legend; they are individuals with families and occupations who lived, as we do, with hopes and dreams, and then died violently.


Helen Morse in Memorial. Photo: Shane Reid

Adelaide’s Brink Productions has carved an almost unbearably moving piece of theatre from this threnody, one in which poetry, music and movement seamlessly join hands, as do Australian and British artists in the making of it. British composer Jocelyn Pook wrote the ravishing score, drenched in the vibrant colours of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and it was played and sung by a lustrous group of musicians led by UK countertenor Jonathan Peter Kenny.

The singers and instrumentalists were arrayed on high at the back of the stage while beneath them a “soldier chorus” of more than 200 people represented Oswald’s 215 named characters. Among them were members of several choirs whose voices, raised en masse at the end, brought Memorial to a conclusion both exalting and emotionally devastating.

At the centre of everything was Helen Morse, who carried the weight of Oswald’s lengthy text on her slight shoulders. Directed by Brink’s Chris Drummond, she was a self-effacing presence as she stood quietly or wended her unassuming way through the army of everyday men, women and children who thronged the stage, sometimes walking in seemingly endless lines, sometimes circling, sometimes standing mute, and at one lovely moment, dancing gently in couples.

As humanity swirled around her, Morse, clad in a red dress of rough cut, told the many stories of lives lost – and the manner in which they were lost – with deep compassion and a voice of infinitely sad beauty.

Drummond’s partner in creating the concept for Memorial, Yaron Lifschitz from famed Brisbane circus company Circa, devised the movement – a monumental task. There were several short sections for three dancers (Tobiah Booth-Remmers, Lina Limosani and Larissa McGowan) but otherwise Lifschitz required nothing remotely virtuosic from the chorus in the way they used their bodies. His direction of the group as a whole, however, was a marvel of complexity as this mass of ordinary folk stood in for those long dead and reminded us of those still to die in countless wars across the globe.

Among Memorial’s co-commissioners is 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts program for the centenary of World War I, and the piece will be staged at the Barbican in London in September this year.

SHIT, by Patricia Cornelius

A Dee & Cornelius/Milke Production. Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney, July 20

Patricia Cornelius gets right to the point, as the titles of recent plays attest. Savages (2013) is the one about men off the leash, and how a toxic mix of testosterone, grievances real and perceived, booze and group dynamics plays out on a cruise ship. Not well, as you might imagine. In SLUT (2008), a young girl is brutally labelled and shamed; in SHIT (2015), three women who have been treated as such pretty much from birth both fight their destiny and fulfil it.


Nicci Wilks, Peta Brady and Sarah Ward in SHIT

Cornelius is, obviously, a provocateur. Note the capital letters. Note the bolshie challenge to an audience member who might want to ring up the box office for a ticket or tell a friend the name of the play they’re about to see. Not to mention the challenge to mainstream theatre companies, who by and large have decided to duck it.  You don’t see Cornelius on our big stages even though, as absolutely everyone points out, she has a mantelpiece groaning under the weight of prestigious awards.

There’s no mystery really. Cornelius is a superb playwright whose chief objective is to disrupt while Australian mainstream theatre is – to co-opt a term with a lot of currency these days – a safe space for middle-class audiences. Not a lot of horse-frightening goes on at companies with large overheads that depend hugely on box office and private sponsorship.

Cornelius wants to scare the shit out of you. She certainly did with Savages, which I saw at a schools performance with a full house of young men from a private secondary college. They were practically shell-shocked from what I could tell – in complete silence when not gasping involuntarily.

SHIT is equally confronting. Well, confronting for the kinds of people who usually go to the theatre and who usually don’t meet the likes of Billy (Nicci Wilks), Bobby (Sarah Ward) and Sam (Peta Brady), women with masculine names to go with their battle-hardened exteriors. The products of neglect and abuse, they’ve done whatever it takes to claim some place in the world. Their resilience is admirable in theory but you’d swap train carriages or cross the road to get away from them. These women are trouble and the damage is too extreme to fix.

Sam was only four and placed with a family where she understood without question that she would never really belong. What she did about it made it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pugnacious Billy can never forget hearing someone say she had been forsaken, the temerity of which makes her shake with rage. Bobby recalls abundant physical contact that, unusually, appears to have been benign, or something approaching it. Kindness is a rare commodity.

Billy, Bobby and Sam are used to the ground constantly shifting under them so it’s no surprise they are mercurial women with hair-trigger tempers. Like poorly trained dogs they might lick you one minute and bite the next. Cornelius’s writing effortlessly straddles the divide. There is so much to like about these sharp, funny, incredibly vivid people but they are also untameable and therefore dangerous. And loud. God, are they loud. Sweary too, of course. “Fuck” and “cunt” get a heavy-duty workout.

Susie Dee’s highly physical production matches the restlessness of the characters and Cornelius’s shifts in place and time. Even when they are apparently still you can feel the jumpy energy coursing through Billy, Bobby and Sam. Marg Horwell’s set is a bleak wall with three openings, emblematic of the women’s cheerless past and descriptive of their inevitable future.

Wilks, Ward and Brady, who have been with the production since its earliest days, are all tremendous. Wilks is like a bantamweight boxer, all mouth, aggression, lean muscle and attitude; Ward’s fascinating Bobby is more complicated and more unknowable. Brady’s Sam hasn’t yet had all the longing and hope knocked out of her but it won’t be long before that’s sorted.

All this in just 60 uncompromising minutes. Cornelius doesn’t moralise, philosophise, offer solutions or platitudes, certainly doesn’t offer comfort and above all doesn’t judge. She just shows. We all should look.

Postscript: Melbourne Theatre Company’s NEON independent theatre project first brought SHIT to mainstream attention, and for this it deserves much thanks. And now Cornelius is in the first cohort of Australian playwrights commissioned to write for MTC’s visionary Next Stage program, announced last month. Perhaps mainstage theatre is about to get a bit less safe.

SHIT ends at the Seymour Centre on July 29. Darwin Festival, August 22, 25, 26 and 27.

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.

2017 Adelaide Festival - Saul - L-R Adrian Strooper

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.

2017 Adelaide Festival - Saul - L-R Christopher Purves (lying)

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.

2017 Adelaide Festival - Betroffenheit - 37 - pic credit Shane Reid

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.

2017 Adelaide Festival - Richard III - Lars Eidinger in front - 04 - pic credit Tony Lewis

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.

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS photo Jeff Busby_1847

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).

STC Hay Fever3

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.

Hidden Sydney and other current theatre

Poor old Kings Cross. It used to have a bit of glamour back in the day, what with its famous crims, flamboyant, unconventional characters and nightclubs that could attract international performers. Now a stroll up Darlinghurst Road of an evening is an exercise in swerving around backpackers and wondering how the small businesses manage to stay afloat.

But 40, 50, 60 years ago the place did have a bit of thrill about it, a louche charm that Hidden Sydney – The Glittering Mile enterprisingly tries to recapture. It’s what’s known as immersive theatre, which essentially means the audience is in the thick of the action and might play some part in it. You needn’t worry though; Hidden Sydney is very gentle in its co-option of patrons.

Up Mansion Lane, just off Ward Avenue in the Cross, audience members mill about in a makeshift box office and bar area before heading inside a building that once housed The Nevada, a famous brothel and gathering place for some of the city’s more colourful identities. It was obviously a pretty swanky place, although now rather down at heel. Still, with the lights kept low it’s possible to get some sense of the long-gone allure.


Fiona Jopp and Thomas Gundry Greenfield in Hidden Sydney. Photo: Jamie Williams

A small group – about 30 at a time at half-hour intervals – is led through rooms and corridors and up and down stairs, pausing here and there for vignettes of life at the margins of legality and respectability. Along the way you find yourself jammed into a Les Girls dressing room hearing some drag-queen confidences up close; a lounge where cheerful and candid advice is delivered about sex work; and a balcony where the inimitable eccentric Bea Miles touches patrons up for a dollar or two. If you don’t care for close contact with your fellow human beings this isn’t the place for you.

Some sections of the 75-minute show are more successful than others. The lengthy – or so it felt – drama relating to the disappearance of activist Juanita Nielsen doesn’t come up trumps and a bartender’s self-congratulatory story about drug-dealing isn’t revelatory. But much can be forgiven when a show includes Virginia Gay as Bea Miles, Ben Gerrard as a delightfully chatty drag performer and Christa Hughes as Judy Garland at The Silver Spade – remember that? – even if Hughes could afford to pull back the act a notch or three. Director Lucas Jervies has an extensive background in dance and it was an inspiration to celebrate the White Witch of Kings Cross, Rosaleen Norton, via a steamy pas de deux from Fiona Jopp and Thomas Gundry Greenfield. Luxury casting indeed if you know your dance world, and fabulously enticing even if you don’t.

Truth to tell the dance is as dangerous as Hidden Sydney gets. A little more edge wouldn’t go astray but it’s a fun idea – and it’s a shame the audience can’t linger too long at The Silver Spade, where Rob Mills, Grant Galea and Aaron Robuck preside smoothly. It’s the final stop in the show and the next group is inexorably on its way.

If you can see only one piece of theatre in Sydney in the next two weeks that would have to be The Drover’s Wife at Belvoir, written by and starring Leah Purcell. You might have to put your name down for returns, mind you, as it’s completely sold out except, at the time of writing, for one performance.


Leah Purcell and Will McDonald in The Drover’s Wife. Photo: Brett Boardman

Henry Lawson’s short story provides the bones for Purcell’s play but she gives it very different flesh. Within the frame of an old-fashioned story of harsh colonial life there is a harrowing demonstration of how entrenched, brutal power works. The unforgiving landscape is as much an antagonist as the undeserving, appallingly vicious men who grab it for themselves. A woman has to be over-flowing with courage, resourcefulness and resilience to control the trouble constantly at her door. When an Indigenous man on the run turns up, the stark white-hat, black-hat scenario turns into something quite other. It becomes a mysterious and ultimately uplifting exploration of identity and connection that transcends the almost unbearably brutal day-to-day existence.

Over at the Old Fitz Theatre in Wooloomooloo there are two plays worth catching and you need only one evening in which to accomplish the feat if you choose the right night (not many left). The early show, James Fritz’s Four Minutes Twelve Seconds, sends a woman into a spin when she gradually learns via that most banal of things, the sex video put online, that her beloved son and her husband are not who she thought they were. It’s a taut, tense drama with a terrific central performance from Danielle King. The current late show at the Old Fitz is Threnody, a new work for six women by Michael McStay that is perceptive and often very amusing about a young woman’s journey from innocence to experience. Its observations about freedom, sex and the great wide world are delivered via a poetic text that packs a lot into 50 minutes. Threnody is perhaps more a curiosity than a stayer but all the women are terrific, particularly Josephine Starte as the inquisitive Virginia.

Hidden Sydney – The Glittering Mile ends October 9; The Drover’s Wife ends October 16; Four Minutes Twelve Seconds and Threnody both end October 8.

Brisbane Festival: En avant, marche!

NTGent and Les Ballets C de la B. Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, September 3.

It was a stroke of genius to build this knotty, sometimes exasperating, always fascinating piece about mortality around the playing of a brass band. Breath. That’s the fundamental thing – breathe in, breathe out. If that is happening, we are still alive.

Wim Opbrouck shambles into a room being set up for a band rehearsal and readies himself to make music. The man used to be a trombonist; now he is too sick for the kind of effort required (“death put a flower in my mouth”, he says; that would be cancer) but he can still make a noise. Cymbals, singing, humming, gargling, talking and the panting that comes from having danced: these are still at his disposal as he chooses not to go gentle into that good night.

It’s the oldest story in the world really, the one about dying, but En avant, marche!, from festival regulars Les Ballets C de la B and theatre company NTGent, is also a heart-swelling hymn to courage and resilience. To marching on.

En anvant marche! 2_phile_deprez

Wim Opbrouck, centre, with members of Brisbane Excelsior Band and, at rear left and right, En avant, marche! cast members Chris Thys and Griet Debacker. Photo: Phile Deprez

In each place En avant, marche! is performed, the production augments its stunning core of musician-singers and actors with a local band – here the wonderful Brisbane Excelsior Band – and the sense of community already embedded in the piece is brilliantly amplified. The room gleams with the shine of trumpets, saxophones, tubas, horns, euphoniums and trombones and is given gravitas by the wearing of formal uniforms.

At one point a few members are asked by Opbrouck to say what they do for a living. In the Brisbane Excelsior Band there are, not surprisingly, some music teachers. There are a couple of engineers. And surely it wasn’t fiction when on opening night one player said he was a funeral director. I do hope not. The rightness of it is absolute.

En avant, marche! throws comedy, dance, music and philosophy together in an anarchic mix that is occasionally baffling and, it must be said, sometimes alienating as a selection of European languages gets an outing. The temperature dips from time to time and the focus can be unclear, but hey, that’s life.

Always there is the music to hold on to, weaving in and out of the action under the serene direction of Steven Prengels. It is, for the most part, comfortingly familiar, consoling and uplifting. Included are selections from opera (Aida; the Miserere from Il trovatore; the luminous quartet from Fidelio, which is gently hummed). There is the nobility of Elgar’s Nimrod and Schubert’s exquisite love letter to music, An die Musik.

Most ravishing is Jupiter’s hymn from Holst’s The Planets. It ends En avant, marche! on a transcendent note. You might think of Holst’s title for the suite from which this comes, Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, or else the English hymn written to Holst’s melody, I Vow to Thee My Country. Or both really: in En avant marche! laughter and death collide and the impermanence of life holds hands with the imperishability of great music. En avant.

En avant, marche! ends on September 7.

In praise of Sydney’s Ensemble theatre

A History of Falling Things, July 13; Betrayal, July 22

Tucked away in Sydney’s Kirribilli, in a secluded – and highly enviable – spot right on Sydney Harbour, the Ensemble quietly goes about the business it’s been devoted to for nearly six decades. You won’t often read about it in the mainstream press and while many fine actors can be seen there, they are only occasionally boldface names such as those so frequently encountered at Sydney Theatre Company or Belvoir. Never mind. The Ensemble has its own character. In its small auditorium, steeply raked and arranged in a semi-circle around a small acting area, it’s common to see front-row patrons having to pull their feet in swiftly to prevent actors from tripping. The space is intimate and welcoming and the atmosphere comfortable.

The Ensemble describes itself as the “longest continuously running professional theatre in Australia”, having staged its first performances in 1958 with founding director Hayes Gordon, who ran the company for 27 years. The Ensemble is surely also the country’s most stable outfit. Sandra Bates succeeded Gordon and was at the helm for 30 years, retiring fully in January this year after sharing the artistic directorship with Mark Kilmurry for five years. Kilmurry is now solely in charge of the Ensemble’s direction as the company heads towards its 60th anniversary in 2018. (By comparison, Sydney Theatre Company is a whipper-snapper that will turn 40 in 2018.)

Ursula Mills and Matt Zeremes in Betrayal, photo by Clare Hawley-86

Ursula Mills and Matthew Zeremes in Betrayal. Photo: Clare Hawley

Remarkably, the Ensemble has survived without the benefit of any ongoing government funding. The Balnaves Foundation is its major partner and there is a small group of businesses and foundations which are supporting and strategic partners. Individuals donate a small percentage of Ensemble income. But essentially the Ensemble has to put on plays people want to see (and at times that suit them – the Ensemble has exceptionally welcome 11am weekday matinees sprinkled through its seasons). The tagline underneath the theatre’s name on its programs is this: theatre for everyone.

You would not be wrong to think that suggests a reliance on conventional dramas and light comedies, and certainly seasons have had their share of new David Williamsons and old Neil Simons (coming up next month: Barefoot in the Park), but there are also works that have greater resonance. Jane Carafella’s e-baby, a two-hander that deals with surrogacy, will be directed by Nadia Tass, stars Angie Milliken and opens in October. In recent years the Ensemble has brought to Sydney audiences the wonderful Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation (2012), David Auburn’s Proof and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park (both 2014), David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People (April/May this year), Nina Raine’s Tribes (June this year) and Harold Pinter’s Betrayal (playing now).

Betrayal starts at the end and works its way, backwards, to the beginning of an affair between Emma and Jerry. Emma is married to Robert; Jerry is Robert’s best friend. In the first scene, some years after the end of the affair, Emma meets Jerry for a drink to tell him her marriage is over and, inter alia, that she had to reveal the affair to Robert during an all-night argument. As we will discover, this is not exactly true. The Emma-Jerry affair is not the only act of betrayal in this enigmatic three-hander.

Mark Kilmurry’s production is perhaps best described as workmanlike. Pinter’s language in this play is characteristically unadorned; the complexities gather beneath the surface, or should. The intricacies of passion, friendship and gamesmanship are not fully mined here, although the surface is played entertainingly by Ursula Mills as Emma with Guy Edmonds as her husband and Matthew Zeremes as her lover. The real action, however, is in what Emma, Robert and Jerry – particularly Robert – think and know rather than say.

It was a little instructive in this respect to note that Betrayal is described on the Ensemble website as running for approximately 90 minutes without interval. At the performance I saw we were done and dusted within 75 minutes. Those famous Pinter pauses didn’t get a huge look-in.

In repertory with Betrayal is James Graham’s A History of Falling Things. It’s a slight, sweet rom-com with a twist: the two young people whose burgeoning romance we follow suffer from keraunothnetophobia, a particularly precise fear, that of falling man-made satellites. Naturally this makes it hard for them to leave the safety of their homes and the relationship is conducted chiefly via electronic means. But is that enough?

The Ensemble’s production is blessed with Sophie Hensser’s luminous performance as Jacqui and Eric Beecroft’s as the highly strung but likeable Robin (Nicole Buffoni is the sensitive director). Merridy Eastman, Brian Meeghan and Sam O’Sullivan give fine support. It’s a modest piece, to be sure, but heart-warming too as it gives a shot of normalcy to two characters who seem destined to live on the margins. There is a gentle message there.

Anna Gardiner designed the set for both History and Betrayal. In fact, given the interlocking schedules the set is essentially the same for both, with different moveable elements, and not entirely satisfactory for both. It’s a pity.

Still, I was glad to see both plays, and continue to be glad that the Ensemble exists. It has heart. Yes, in lieu of government subsidy it has to balance the books with a new Williamson or an Alan Ayckbourn (and absolutely nothing wrong with that – I’ll be there for Relatively Speaking in November). But often enough it gently challenges its loyal audience, and one suspects Kilmurry may have more up his sleeve in years to come. He launches his second season on August 8.

A History of Falling Things and Betrayal both end on August 20.