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.

Eeny, meeny, miny, mo

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, February 10.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blood Brothers ends March 15.

Zest and immediacy

Bell Shakespeare, Canberra Theatre Centre, June 15.

As Bell nears the end of its long run of Henry V, here’s what I wrote after its premiere in Canberra…

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

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

These things are of course explicit in Shakespeare’s text and in others of his history plays. At the end of Henry IV Part II Lancaster predicts that “ere this year expire/ We bear our civil swords and native fire/ As far as France” and Henry V ends with the Chorus reminding us that in the near future Henry VI “lost France and made his England bleed”. But the elan of Henry V’s rhetoric and his stunning success at Agincourt often lead the way in the theatre. The brilliant “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” oratory at the Siege of Harfleur and the magical St Crispin’s day speech – “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” – are hard to resist.

Ryan does resist, adding prologue of excerpts from Richard II and Henry IV to beef up the point. No matter what the talk of peace there is always conflict, often on the most convoluted of pretexts. It was a joy to see the complicated Salic Law explained by Keith Agius’s Chorus, teacher clad in a knitted cardie and wielding a stick of chalk.

The Chorus has earlier famously called on the audience to use its “imaginary forces” to summon vast fields, large armies, prancing horses and bellicose monarchs. “For ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,” he says. But Ryan – whose productions for his own company, Sport for Jove, are always marvelously lucid – clearly sees that getting through all that virtually impenetrable Salic Law business would be a mighty slog if we were left to our own devices. The blackboard diagrams are really rather useful.

Apart from Michael Sheasby as Henry, everyone in the terrific 10-strong cast plays multiple characters in the style of a boys’ and girls’ own adventure yarn. Anna Gardiner’s design gives them little more than shelves to become city walls, a tavern, a king’s receiving room and barricades on a battle field and it works wonderfully. Not to mention practical: there’s a huge national tour coming up. The air of improvisation gives the action zest and immediacy and there is none of that dread impression of a production created solely for the purpose of being able to be packed up quickly and thrown in the back of a truck.

Sheasby is a light-voiced Henry who at first sounds like an attractive but unseasoned actor thrown by chance into a part. By the time Henry is skulking around at night eavesdropping on the troops to see what they think of him, and then as he woos the French princess Katharine (played with much wit by Eloise Winestock), Sheasby has blossomed nicely. But his primary role is not Henry, by turns benevolent and blood-thirsty as the political needs dictate, it is a boy playing Henry. The sense of distance between performers and performed is always strong, particularly as from time to time they repeat key points or throw in a stage direction or two to reorient themselves in the text.

Despite the appearance of robust mucking up this is delicate work and it is beautifully choreographed, not just physically but also in the quicksilver changes of mood and beautifully judged musical accompaniment. Steve Francis composed the score and created the sound design; actor Drew Livingston, who was the amusingly dogged Fluellen among other roles, wrote vocal music of grace and beauty.

The inspiration for the setting comes from reports of plays and entertainments being put on in shelters during the Blitz, when war rained down relentlessly on the heads of non-combatants and was greeted with stoic resistance. Ryan uses the imagery potently and at one point deeply shockingly. There’s a lot more going on than plucky Brits outwitting Johnny Foreigner as Ryan seamlessly layers past and present.

This is not a production in which Shakespeare’s language reigns. Henry’s big speeches are dialed down and are just part of the messy flow of war. I think Ryan’s chief point is that the boys in the shelter aren’t yet old enough to be seduced by that “little touch of Harry in the night”, bestowed to bolster courage and commitment on the English soldiers. But the Blitz happened in the early 1940s. Perhaps the following year, or the one after, they’d be old enough to be sent to fight.

Ends in Canberra June 28, followed by an extensive national tour ending in Sydney November 15.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 17.