Oedipus Schmoedipus

Belvoir, January 15

FOR each performance of the utterly baffling theatre work that is Oedipus Schmoedipus, two dozen volunteers are recruited to perform in the piece. As it turns out they are responsible for a good half of the action, so that was a pretty good wheeze on the part of creators Zoe Coombs Marr, Mish Grigor and Natalie Rose, the trio that calls itself Post – or post, with a lower case p, for reasons unclear to me.

The heavy workload of the volunteers gives Coombs Marr and Grigor, who also appear, an early mark. They don’t even reappear for the curtain call, which one could charitably construe as honouring those who have done the heavy lifting, or uncharitably construe as letting others take the blame for this puerile piece of nonsense.

The show starts with Coombs Marr and Grigor enacting ever more gory deaths. Despite all the chatter about how gruesome the opening is, I thought it a tough, promising start to a show purporting to delve into the subject of death and theatre. But the promised examination of the nature of death, what we may think it is, how we deal with it, what theatre has say about it and anything else that may have been of value remain resolutely unexamined. Gotcha!

Zoe Coombs Marr, Mish Grigor and volunteers in Oedipus Schmoedipus. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Zoe Coombs Marr, Mish Grigor and volunteers in Oedipus Schmoedipus. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

The thing is that Oedipus Schmoedipus is essentially a memento mori, a reminder of the quality all living things share, their inevitable end. Here’s what I reckon. Would it not have been a lot less trouble to simply ask patrons to gather in the Belvoir bar and have the volunteers to walk around the foyer whispering “Remember you must die” to people? That would save an awful lot of rehearsal time and make something for Belvoir at the bar to boot. Obviously you’d have to charge much less for the tickets (the full price is $68) but then you’d save on the cost of opening the upstairs theatre.

You’d also save having to bring in three stage managers to spend between five and seven minutes of the 65-minutes of Oedipus Schmoedipus cleaning a lot of fake blood from the floor. Not the most valuable use of theatre time or patrons’ money I’ve seen, and just a wee bit cynical on the part of the creators.

After the break for cleaning, the piece descends into an extended and extremely superficial skit that glibly references the theatrical canon, indulges in laborious word play and requires the volunteers to expose themselves in silly costumes and silly dances. The Caspar the Friendly Ghost bedsheets with eye-holes thing near the end is truly, bottom-clenchingly dire.

These lovely, willing people manage to emerge with some dignity despite all and yes, it’s touching when volunteers volunteer that they are going to die. It’s just not news.

Oedipus Schmoedipus is hokum. It’s very, very hard to see how it won a prized place on the Belvoir Upstairs program, and as part of the Sydney Festival to boot.

Baffling.

Oedipus Schmoedipus ends February 2.

The urge to perform

I AM not a great fan of audience participation – certainly not for myself, and rarely when I see others roped in. Frequently it involves people making spectacles of themselves or being put in an awkward position they can’t wriggle out of. It almost invariably feels like a power trip on the part of the performers. Alternatively, getting up on stage can go to the non-professional’s head and embarrassment ensues. So no, not a great fan. In fact, I loathe it.

True, I managed to survive a spot of participatory action at The Rabble’s 2013 Melbourne Festival show, Room of Regret, but happily it was in an extremely benign form – the actor, me, and an otherwise empty space in which we gazed wordlessly at each other. I could manage that.

Full marks, then, to Sydney company My Darling Patricia and its latest theatre work, The Piper, which premiered at the Sydney Festival last week. The involvement of a section of the audience is a crucial part of the performance. In fact, The Piper couldn’t take place without these people, who play townsfolk and their children in a version of the Pied Piper story.

And get this. Not only does My Darling Patricia get a substantial workforce for free, the participating audience members pay just as much for their tickets as do those who sit back, relax and enjoy the performance. Respect.

I really do mean that. My Darling Patricia has found a way of involving even very young children in a non-threatening, creative way. The participants do nothing that would require expertise and are guided at all times via headsets. Their freshness and wonder are a delightful part of the experience for those who are only watching.

The Piper is a fun version of the old German legend, filtered through stories by poet Ted Hughes. There’s an over-developed city, countryside despoiled, a shonky mayor whose pronouncements could come straight from today’s media and, of course, a plague of rats that needs to be dealt with. Narration, puppetry, projection and live action combine to make a strong, clear, memorable story. I would have liked to take part and should have commandeered a child to make that possible.

A more recognisable take on audience participation was seen at Empire, the circus production that’s back in Sydney after a very successful outing at the beginning of last year. Empire positions itself at the raunchy end of the spectrum and to this end treats the audience a bit roughly, although why telling audience members to “sit the fuck down” might be considered witty escaped me.

But on to the participation bit. It’s common in shows such as Empire – the family includes La Clique, which morphed into La Soiree – for performers to interact with audience members in a way that might be considered, ahem, rather familiar. Drinks are stolen, laps sat on, heads fondled and so on. On the night I saw Empire a man was brought to the stage and touched up pretty comprehensively. True, he was laughing, as was everyone else (although not old sourpuss me). But what if he’d felt the performers were going beyond what he felt comfortable with? My first thought was that he had to be a plant for the performers to be sure the situation was containable and the act wouldn’t fall in a heap, but my date, highly experienced in this form of theatre, reckoned not.

Which brings us to control. Just as in stand-up comedy, the atmosphere in contemporary circus shows can be a little volatile. People are drinking and they are revved up. Shows such as Empire and La Soiree give people licence to drop their inhibitions; they encourage it. It’s a huge part of the allure. Most audience members know the game and how to play it. The boundaries may be a bit more flexible than those outside the tent, but people tend to be able to judge quite finely what level of abandon is acceptable.

But if they do overstep that invisible line the performers have to tidy things up, just as stand-up comedians have to deal with hecklers in a way that asserts their primacy over the heckler without losing the rest of the room. Indeed, in a way that wins over the room. It’s a quite delicate balance, even if it may not appear to be at the time. It requires a great deal of skill.

At Empire one of the comperes, Anne Goldmann, dealt abruptly with a young man who was making too insistent a noise and she came off as petulant and graceless. Those of us who were near him could see his companion trying to quieten him, and it looked very much as if he had some mild form of impairment. Goldmann, trying to perform, wouldn’t have been able to catch that, but when the two young men left and she shouted “Good riddance” at them, she was the one who came across badly. The put-down was schoolyard quality.

As I say, this is tricky territory. These shows invite raucous interaction with patrons and then have to deal with the consequences in a way that doesn’t rip the fabric of the show’s tone and fits in with the temperature and mood of the audience. Cabaret artist Meow Meow is extraordinarily adept at controlling her audience while acting in an extremely passive-aggressive manner, but then she is a goddess.

There is extensive audience participation in magic show The Illusionists 2.0, playing at the Sydney Opera House – all of it done extremely well and entered into most eagerly by patrons. I was impressed by the skilful handling of volunteers for the hypnotism section, a section of the show that is now, of course, absent due to the death on Saturday of hypnotist Scott Lewis.

I haven’t yet seen Oedipus Schmoedipus, the new show by small company Post in association with Belvoir and the Sydney Festival, but will mid-week and will be watching the non-professionals closely. Like The Piper, Oedipus is highly dependent on volunteers, a crew that changes with each performance. Unlike with The Piper, I gather the Oedipus volunteers don’t have to pay anything, but then they do have to turn up to a rehearsal. And there are 24 needed for each show. Phew!

Tim Crouch’s I, Malvolio, part of the About an Hour mini-fest within the Sydney Festival, is another theatre work that enlists audience members during the course of the show, but it needs only a few. Given that he’s performed the piece several hundred times it’s reasonable to assume Crouch doesn’t have much trouble getting the help he needs. But then none of the shows seem to have the slightest problem getting people up on stage. Everyone may be critic. Just about everyone also seems to harbour a hankering to be a performer.

La Soiree, Sydney Opera House, January 15-March 16

The Illusionists 2.0, Sydney Opera House, ends January 16

I, Malvolio, Sydney Festival, Carriageworks, January 16-19.

The Piper, Sydney Festival, Carriageworks, ends January 19

Oedipus Schmoedipus, Belvoir St Theatre, ends February 2

Empire, the Showring, Entertainment Quarter, Sydney, ends February 16

The year ahead

And coming up in 2014 …

LAST year it was easy to point to the events in dance one thought would be unmissable (not so very many) and theatre (vast amounts). Mostly performances and productions delivered pretty much what one thought they would and moments of transcendence were few, but I guess they always are. Sydney Theatre Company’s Waiting for Godot, Griffin Theatre Company’s The Floating World and Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life and Times (for the Melbourne Festival) are among the shining few, and opera offered tremendous occasions in Opera Australia’s Ring cycle and Pinchgut’s Giasone.

This year is a bit harder to read, particularly in theatre. There’s a handful of sure things – well, likely sure things, if that makes any sense at all – alongside some more intriguing propositions. Note that I’m only talking about Sydney theatre because that’s where I see most in this art form. Otherwise I get around a bit.

The events are in chronological order – which incidentally reveals a few unfortunate clashes for the dedicated dance fan – American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake (Brisbane) and The Australian Ballet’s La Bayadere (Melbourne) open August 28; West Australian Ballet’s La fille mal gardee (Perth) and ABT’s Three Masterpieces triple bill opens September 5. Akram Khan’s DESH opens in Brisbane on September 6.

Dance:

Dido & Aeneas, Sasha Waltz & Guests. From January 16, Sydney Festival. Purcell, the Akademie fur Alte Musik, singers, dancers and a huge tank of water.

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre. From June 13 in Sydney, then Canberra, Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne. Stephen Page’s new work on the meeting of minds between Lieutenant William Dawes and Patyegarang, a young indigenous woman, in colonial Sydney.

Romeo and Juliet, Queensland Ballet. From June 27, Brisbane. Kenneth MacMillan’s version (the best in my opinion) and guest stars Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo, Steven McRae and Daniel Gaudiello.

The Red Shoes, Expressions Dance Company, from July 18, Brisbane. Choreographer Natalie Weir tackles this much-loved, influential – albeit rather creepy – story of obsession in the ballet world. Intriguing.

American Ballet Theatre, from August 28, Brisbane only. First up is Kevin Mackenzie’s Swan Lake, but I’m more interested in the triple bill, which includes Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita, which was recently revived by ABT after a 28-year hiatus. From September 5.

La Bayadere, The Australian Ballet, from August 28 in Melbourne, then Sydney. Choreographer Stanton Welch promises Bollywood colour and energy and a clearer, speedier version than usual. The beloved Kingdom of the Shades scene will, of course, be as expected.

La Fille mal gardee, West Australian Ballet, from September 5. This sweet and sunny ballet, updated to 1950s rural France, is seen in Perth and then will go to Queensland Ballet in 2015. QB’s Coppelia, choreographed by ballet master Greg Horsman (opening April 24 this year), goes to WAB next year in a sensible sharing of resources.

DESH, Akram Khan, from September 6, Brisbane Festival. I have longed to see this since its premiere and missed it at the Melbourne Festival in 2012. This is one occasion on which I won’t rail against the tendency of arts festivals to program work from a fairly small (admittedly stellar) group of dance artists.

Theatre:

Noises Off, Sydney Theatre Company, from February 17. I first saw Michael Frayn’s brilliant farce about 30 years ago and laughed like a loon. The memories are vivid; let’s hope they can be matched – surpassed even! – by this new production.

Ganesh versus the Third Reich, Back to Back Theatre, Carriageworks, from March 12. At long last Sydney gets to see this hugely admired work.

Hedda Gabler, Belvoir, from June 28. Ash Flanders will star. And yes, he’s a bloke who often performs in female guise. Flagrant nicking of a role a woman should have or a revelation? We shall see.

Macbeth, Sydney Theatre Company, from July 21. STC is giving over the auditorium of the Sydney Theatre to the actors and putting the audience on the stage. Hugo Weaving stars. Sounds promising, no?

Emerald City, Griffin Theatre Company, from October 17. David Williamson never really went away, despite the protestations of retirement, but he’s having quite the resurgence these days (Travelling North gets things moving at STC from January 9).

Opera and musical theatre:

Madama Butterfly, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, Opera Australia, from March 21. No explanation required.

Strictly Ballroom the Musical, from March 25, Sydney. No explanation required.

The King and I, Opera Australia and John Frost, Brisbane, from April 15, then Melbourne and Sydney. I saw this lovely production when it premiered in 1991, directed by Christopher Renshaw, designed by Brian Thomson and with frocks by Roger Kirk that got their own applause. There’s no reason to think it won’t be a winner again, particularly with Lisa McCune rather than Hayley Mills as Anna.

Into the Woods, Victorian Opera, Melbourne, from July 19. Stephen Sondheim. Say no more.

The Riders, Victorian Opera, Melbourne, from September 23. New Australian opera from Iain Grandage with libretto by Alison Croggon, based on Tim Winton’s book.

2013: a retrospective

Here’s my take on the year’s high points. As many have noted before me, “best” is a useless word when applied to the cornucopia available in the arts. Here are the people and productions that most inspired me.

Showgirls usher the gods to Valhalla in Opera Australia's Das Rheingold. Photo: Jeff Busby

Showgirls usher the gods to Valhalla in Opera Australia’s Das Rheingold. Photo: Jeff Busby

“A SHORT show is a good show,” we all carol (me and my fellow critics) as we enter the auditorium for yet another 70- to 90-minute piece of theatre, but put a 10-hour marathon before us and we can’t get enough. So I have lists for big things, small things, individuals, a few words on musical theatre and a couple of miscellaneous thoughts.

It was a strong year, particularly in Sydney theatre, so it was hard to keep the lists tight. Please don’t take anything I say here as an indication of who has taken out honours in the Sydney Theatre Awards, of which I am but one judge on a panel of nine. Argument was fierce and the passions diverse, let me tell you! But here goes from me, in alphabetical order …

Big:

Angels in America, Parts One and Two, Belvoir, Sydney: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This is the best play to have been written in English in my lifetime. Belvoir’s production was very fine.

Cinderella, The Australian Ballet, choreography by Alexei Ratmansky. The amazing Surrealist-inspired set looked waaaay better in Melbourne than in Sydney, but this version of the beloved fairytale to the bittersweet music of Prokofiev as choreographed by the world’s leading classicist is a keeper. (Also wonderful to see Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream with the Bolshoi in Brisbane mid-year – amazing how that company managed to block out the hideous backstage dramas that still dog it.)

Life and Times, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Melbourne Festival: The ums, ahs and pauses of an ordinary life rendered first as a dippy musical, then as a drawing-room mystery. You had to be there (for 10 hours indeed). Sublime, transcendent.

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam: Scintillating Stravinsky Firebird suite and glorious Tchaikovsky fifth symphony. Magic.

The Ring, Opera Australia, Melbourne: not a flawless production, but one that felt right for this place and this time. Director Neil Armfield’s strength is finding the humanity in situations where it may seem to be missing in action and he did it here. Under last-minute mini-maestro Pietari Inkinen (only 33!!) the Melbourne Ring Orchestra put in a blinder. Bravi.

The Threepenny Opera, Berliner Ensemble, Perth International Arts Festival: Not a huge company, but a Robert Wilson production simply cannot be put into any category other than outsized. Stupendously performed, gorgeous to the eye, a knockout band in the pit, witty, sardonic … you get the idea.

Small:

The Floating World, Griffin, Sydney: A devastating production (Sam Strong directed) of John Romeril’s devastating play. I saw the last scene with tears pouring down my face. A rare occurrence.

Giasone, Pinchgut Opera: Apparently the most popular opera of 1649. Worked pretty damn well in 2013.

Independent theatre x 3: I have to mention this trio of splendid plays and productions thereof. I was thrilled to have been able to see Jez Butterworth’s brilliant Jerusalem in Sydney, and done so persuasively by the New Theatre. Workhorse Theatre Company’s The Motherf**ker with the Hat was hold-on-to-your-hats exhilarating, and is getting a re-run in 2014 at the new Eternity Playhouse. Hooray. And in Siren Theatre Company’s Penelope (by Enda Walsh), all sorts of trouble arises when Odysseus’s arrival back home is imminent. As with Workhorse, Siren did a superb job in the tiny confines of the theatre at TAP Gallery.

Owen Wingrave, Sydney Chamber Opera: This young, tiny outfit did Benjamin Britten proud in his centenary year. Really memorable music-making.

Sydney Chamber Opera's Owen Wingrave

Sydney Chamber Opera’s Owen Wingrave

The Rite of Spring, Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Brisbane and Melbourne festivals: In the Rite of Spring centenary year, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s setting in a harsh, cold village was, not surprisingly, dark and threatening. His ending, however, stressed the renewal and healing that is to come. The score was played in Stravinsky’s four-hand version (on one piano); earlier in the year, in Sacre – The Rite of Spring (Raimund Hoghe for the Sydney Festival), we heard the score also played ravishingly by four hands, but on two pianos. Sacre was a difficult dance work for many; I admired it greatly.

School Dance, Windmill Theatre (seen at Sydney Theatre Company in association with the Sydney Festival): loved, loved, loved.

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Super Discount, Back to Back Theatre: Deeply provocative on all sorts of levels. Can’t wait for Ganesh versus the Third Reich to come to Sydney – finally – next year.

Waiting for Godot, Sydney Theatre Company: Luke Mullins, Philip Quast, Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving were an immaculate quartet of players in one of the year’s most heart-piercing productions.

Individuals (performers):

David Hallberg (American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal): Luminous in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella for The Australian Ballet in Sydney. Prince of princes.

Peter Kowitz: Les in The Floating World (see above).

Ewen Leslie: A huge year on the Sydney stage as a desolate Brick in Belvoir’s contentious Australian-accented Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Player in Sydney Theatre Company’s terrific Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and most powerfully – and impressively – as Hamlet for Belvoir, stepping in at short notice when original Dane Toby Schmitz was called overseas for filming duty. A rare change to compare and contrast in one of the roles by which men are judged. Closely.

Catherine McClements, Phedre, Bell Shakespeare: A scarifying performance in a production that was, in my opinion, sorely underrated. Not by me though.

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Amber McMahon: Harper in Angels in America for Belvoir, various roles in School Dance for Windmill, special in everything.

Sharon Millerchip, Bombshells, Ensemble Theatre: Dazzling in Joanna Murray-Smith’s ode to the many faces of womanhood.

Tim Minchin: Lucky old us to see him not once but twice on stage, as a show-stealing Judas in the arena Jesus Christ Superstar and Rosencrantz in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Dead. Or is that Guildenstern? Don’t ask Claudius or Gertrude to help you out.

Luke Mullins: Prior Walter in Angels in America, the quiet centre of Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired, Lucky in Waiting for Godot. Fantastic in all of them. What a year!

Bojana Novakovic, The Blind Date Project, Sydney Festival: I adored this little improvised show. Wish I could have seen Novakovic with many more of her blind dates.

Myriam Ould-Braham, Paris Opera Ballet: Made her debut as Giselle in Sydney in February, making us here the envy of many a Paris balletomane. She was divine, as was fellow etoile Dorothee Gilbert. Both were partnered by the supremely elegant Mathieu Ganio. A joy to see the company here again.

Steve Rodgers: Rodgers has long been one of my favourite actors – so simpatico, even when taking on a difficult subject matter in Griffin’s Dreams in White. And especially in Gideon Obarzanek’s Dance Better at Parties for STC.

Individuals (behind the scenes):

Rafael Bonachela, artistic director, Sydney Dance Company: He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere. Bonachela sees everything and is bringing lots of strong artistic collaborations back for his astoundingly beautiful dancers.

Li Cunxin, artistic director, Queensland Ballet: He’s taken the company back to the classics and people have voted with their wallets. All shows have been sold out and all shows have been extended. I think Brisbane likes him.

Lyndon Terracini, Opera Australia: Got the Ring up. Respect.

Musical theatre:

It was an exceptionally patchy year for musical theatre in Sydney, although Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was really, really entertaining and super-well cast, and the arena version of Jesus Christ Superstar was a blast. The new consortium of music-theatre people, Independent Music Theatre, holds out promise for better things next year, and the feisty little Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre continues to impress.

Miscellaneous:

Best new (only new) theatre in Sydney in 2013: Best is a word that certainly applies here. All hail Sydney City Council for getting the Eternity Playhouse happening. It is a truly beautiful 200-seat house, and an adornment to the city.

Best seat in the house: A11 at Belvoir. The lucky incumbent – male or female, it didn’t matter- got a kiss from Toby Schmitz or Ewen Leslie during Hamlet. Alas I was not one of them.

Clearest indication that critics don’t matter much: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which got the kind of reviews cast members’ mothers would write, did poor business in Sydney. Those of us who wrote about it adored it. We had very little effect.

Doesn’t stop us though.

Goodnight, sweet prince

Hamlet, change of cast, Belvoir, Sydney, November 26

THEATRE critics don’t often revisit a production. They go to the opening, write, and move on. They must. Other plays, other companies relentlessly crowd the diary and then the season is over and the chance disappears. The critic has to make judgments swiftly, and very possibly on a performance that is not as good as it will become. But that’s the way it works. The review is a snapshot of that one occasion.

Toby Schmitz and Robyn Nevin in Belvoir's Hamlet. Photo: Brett Boardman

Toby Schmitz and Robyn Nevin in Belvoir’s Hamlet. Photo: Brett Boardman

By and large that’s fine. Few productions, within the four to six weeks of their run, will alter so fundamentally that another viewing will change critical opinion. It also must be remembered that critical opinion isn’t a singular, unified beast. It’s a collection of disparate views, often wildly differing.

Only infrequently, therefore, does a production make an ironclad case for being seen again. Simon Stone’s Hamlet for Belvoir came into this category through chance. The production opened on October 12 with Toby Schmitz playing the prince of Denmark, but he was released when shooting on a US TV series, Black Sails, in which he is involved, was brought forward. (Black Sails is described as a prequel of sorts to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.) Series one doesn’t premiere until January 25 but early buzz was so good a second series was commissioned by cable channel Starz and it started filming this month.

One can’t help thinking of when Geoffrey Rush withdrew from Belvoir’s 2003 50th anniversary production of Waiting for Godot to take a role in some pirate film. Yes, that would be Pirates of the Caribbean. That went pretty well for Rush. You wouldn’t want to stand in the way of an opportunity like that. But Godot hadn’t yet opened and John Gaden nobly stepped into the breach.

In the case of Hamlet Schmitz would need to leave two weeks before the scheduled closing date.

Quite a challenging situation, you would think, having to replace such a charismatic leading man, and in Hamlet to boot. Belvoir, however, hit the jackpot with the availability and willingness of Ewen Leslie to step in. Not only is Leslie one of the finest stage actors of his generation, he had played Hamlet in Melbourne in 2011, although this assignment was a very different one. Leslie would have to forget huge swaths of text and come to grips with a re-ordering of that which remained.

Stone’s Hamlet isn’t one for everyone, particularly those who don’t know the play, and while I would suggest this production isn’t one for the ages, its explosive energy and intensity of purpose make riveting theatre. Hamlet has been ruthlessly pared back – take out the interval and there’s not much more than two hours of drama – and is presented in black and white. This is literally so in design terms, with the first half set (such as it is; a wall of curtains and row of bog-standard chairs) a study in black and the second act performed in a bright white box in which only the grand piano from Act I remains. The first setting acts as a visual equivalent to the dark deeds that unhinge Hamlet and the second provides a bright canvas for all that blood. Grief and death are Stone’s preoccupations and he goes at them pell-mell.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously said of Edmund Kean that seeing him act was “like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning”. It wasn’t entirely the compliment it sounds. The meaning, it seems, is that with Kean you didn’t get the whole picture. Nevertheless, that wonderful phrase conveys the crackle and electricity of performance and could justifiably be used to describe this Hamlet and its strictly limited palette. The wonderful Nathan Lovejoy gets to be both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; Anthony Phelan is the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and in one of the production’s most touching moments is assigned Horatio’s beautiful words, “Goodnight, sweet prince”; an audacious puppet show economically replaces the travelling players; and so on.

All these things were immediately legible on a first viewing. The second viewing brought into sharper focus the production’s intimacy and complicity with its audience. The auditorium lights are often high and several times Hamlet crosses the invisible barrier between stage and seating. Even if not physically doing that, he makes searching eye contact. The idea of a soliloquy as ideas spoken aloud is transformed into a feeling of being inside Hamlet’s head as he tries to think things through. Leslie is particularly direct and powerful in this. At the performance I saw, when he demanded, “Am I a coward?”, you could feel people restraining themselves from answering. Thus, when the final scene is filled with blood-soaked characters, some of them are, strictly speaking, not yet dead. But as the duel scene rapidly unfolds, it is not unreasonable to apprehend these last moments as flickers of Hamlet’s dying thoughts. He sees dead people and so do we.

Stone’s production is not in essence changed by the change of cast, but naturally there are differences between Schmitz and Leslie. Schmitz was witty and unpredictable, wearing his rage and grief like banners of war in high-definition colours. Even when he was wracked with sobs there was the sense he was very aware of his effect and of how events may unfold. Leslie’s torment is no less overtly expressed yet feels more private. Deep thinking and even deeper desolation are his lot.

While on the subject of spellbinding performances, the weekend brings not only the last chance to see Hamlet, but also Marshall Napier in All My Sons at the new Eternity Playhouse for Darlinghurst Theatre Company. Napier is towering in a very fine, absolutely traditional staging of Arthur Miller’s domestic tragedy. There’s happily a little more time to see Paul Blackwell in John Doyle’s Vere (Faith) for Sydney Theatre Company. Blackwell is devastating as a physicist falling into the black hole of dementia.

Marshal Napier and Toni Scanlan in All My Sons. Photo: Brett Boardman

Marshal Napier and Toni Scanlan in All My Sons. Photo: Brett Boardman

Waiting for Godot runs until December 21, with as thrilling a quartet of performances as you could find anywhere from Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast and Luke Mullins. In the bewilderingly under-appreciated Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – by audiences, that is; the crits were the kind you’d write for yourself but houses have been small – Tony Sheldon and Matt Hetherington are a riot.

What of roles for women, we ask? Things are a bit thin on the ground at the moment, although Harriet Dyer is harrowing in Machinal at Sydney Theatre Company and Toni Scanlan magnificent as Kate Keller in All My Sons.

Like Hamlet, All My Sons had a key cast change during the run when Meredith Penman could do only a couple of performances as Anne due to another commitment. I didn’t see the well-reviewed Penman but her replacement, Anna Houston, was superb.

Remember how a couple of years ago there was a hoo-ha about lack of opportunities for female directors in theatre? That situation seems to have shifted appreciably, which is good. But what about towering roles for women. Well, this year we’ve had The Maids for Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, and Joanna Murray-Smith’s Fury for Sarah Peirse, and newcomer Taylor Ferguson was given the title role in Miss Julie, although I found the production misbegotten.

I thought the unforgettable women of The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe were quite right when they made a joke about how they should have been in Belvoir’s Upstairs theatre instead of the tiny Downstairs space. But they weren’t.

As for next year, well, Sydney will see a man playing Hedda Gabler – Ash Flanders at Belvoir. But he will be directed by a woman, Adena Jacobs.

Hamlet and All My Sons end December 1. Vere (Faith) and Machinal end December 7. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels closes December 8. Waiting for Godot ends December 21.

The Chocolate Frog and other plays

The Floating World, Griffin, Sydney, October 9; Hamlet, Belvoir, Sydney, October 16; The Chocolate Frog, Parramatta Correctional Centre, October 22; Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker, Melbourne Festival, October 25

 Hamlet: Denmark is a prison

Rosencrantz: Then is the world one

Hamlet: A goodly one; in which there are many confines

wards and dungeons, Denmark being one of the worst

A COUPLE of weeks ago I was invited to see a performance of Jim McNeil’s first play, The Chocolate Frog. It was a one-night-only affair at Parramatta Correctional Centre, now decommissioned as a prison but the place in which in 1970 McNeil, then serving a lengthy jail sentence for armed robbery, started writing drama.

The connection with the justice system went further than writer and venue. The performers themselves had criminal records, and after serving their sentences had come to acting through an unusual program. While casting extras for TV programs including various Underbelly series, former actor and now agent Grant Thompson met some people who had done time. It gave him the inspired idea of training former prisoners for film and television work.

Toby Schmitz and Robyn Nevin in Belvoir's Hamlet. Photo: Brett Boardman

Toby Schmitz and Robyn Nevin in Belvoir’s Hamlet. Photo: Brett Boardman

This story of reinvention will be told in a three-part TV series for Foxtel arts channel Studio, being made by Screentime and expected to be screened next year. Because the series has followed the process that led to the casting and performance of The Chocolate Frog I can’t give too much detail about the performers. We saw some of them deliver Shakespearean monologues before the play began, and we saw a tremendously involving performance of The Chocolate Frog. We heard a few stories, and when Thompson spoke he was on the verge of tears, so proud was he of his students’ achievements.

Theatre has touched these lives profoundly, and we in the audience were profoundly moved. I wish I could write more about one performer in particular but that would pre-empt the story to be told in Taking on … The Chocolate Frog. Let’s just say the filmmakers have riveting material to work with.

I saw The Chocolate Frog – prison slang for dog, or informer – shortly after Griffin’s The Floating World and Belvoir’s Hamlet, and shortly before Belarus Free Theatre’s Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker at the Melbourne Festival. All of them are plays of imprisonment, either physical or psychological or both. Simon Stone’s much-cut “I see dead people” Hamlet foregrounds the grief that unmoors the Prince and from which he can’t escape. In The Floating World Les Harding, former World War II Japanese prisoner of war, is sent mad by memory and guilt. Minsk 2011 describes the surreal ways in which reality is altered in a totalitarian society and is performed by actors who are either in exile or in danger of arrest but who still have the deepest attachment to their home.

From Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker. Photo: Sarah Walker

From Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker. Photo: Sarah Walker

Minsk 2011, a thrilling and challenging piece, had a very short festival season but The Floating World and Hamlet are still running in Sydney. I admired Hamlet very much and am thrilled I’ll be seeing it again when Ewen Leslie takes over the title role from Toby Schmitz. We don’t often get a chance to see important work through the prism of two very different actors.

As for The Floating World, it is a crucial piece of theatre. John Romeril’s 1975 play is as relevant as ever, it is given much honour by its cast in Sam Strong’s pitch-perfect production and it was an idea of genius to stage it now. Next year will be one of much soul-searching as the centenary of the start of World War I is commemorated. Peter Kowitz’s Les is devastating: I saw the final scene with tears pouring down my face. What horrors so many men have suffered.

Valerie Bader and Peter Kowitz in The Floating World. Photo: Brett Boardman

Valerie Bader and Peter Kowitz in The Floating World. Photo: Brett Boardman

I was reminded too that the Yirra Yaakin-Belvoir production of Robert J. Merritt’s The Cake Man was written in prison, in Sydney’s Long Bay, and was first staged in 1974 with Merritt allowed to attend the opening under guard. It deals with another kind of imprisonment – white imperialism. For so many of us, these plays are as close to the experience of oppression as we’ll ever get. How fortunate we are.

The Cake Man is being performed in Perth at present and comes to Sydney in two weeks.

The Floating World ends at The Stables, Kings Cross, on November 16. At Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, from November 19.

Toby Schmitz gives his last performance as Hamlet at Belvoir on November 17, after which Ewen Leslie takes over. Hamlet ends on December 1.

The Cake Man, Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre, Perth until November 9. Belvoir, Sydney, November 14-December 8.

Miss Julie

Belvoir, Sydney, August 29

WHEN Simon Stone is attracted to a text, anything can happen. In this he is reminiscent of Barrie Kosky, whose ferocious intelligence and unswerving commitment to a highly personal vision has given us some of the country’s most memorable and challenging theatre and opera. It’s impossible to leave a Kosky production feeling indifferent. One may be unconvinced (Opera Australia’s Nabucco) or transported (the revelatory Vienna Schauspielhaus production of Poppea seen in Sydney in 2009), but not untouched. And so it is with Stone, although his work operates at a cooler temperature. On the transporting side there is The Wild Duck, “after Ibsen”, which he co-wrote with Chris Ryan and directed; and his adaptation (with Ryan, Thomas Henning and Mark Winter) and direction of Thyestes, “after Seneca”. It is one of the most remarkable pieces of theatre I’ve seen in the past decade. On the unconvincing side of Stone’s ledger lies, for me, Miss Julie, written by Stone “after Strindberg”. I’ll come to my reasons later.

Brendan Cowell and Taylor Ferguson in Miss Julie. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Brendan Cowell and Taylor Ferguson in Miss Julie. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

All those “after”s reflect one of Stone’s greatest interests – using an established theatre text as a jumping-off point, a choice that sets up an intricate and fluid set of expectations. These expectations will be coloured by one’s thoughts about translation, adaptation, appropriation, homage, “inspired by”, and what fidelity to an original source really means and whether it matters anyway. (A big argument right there!) You may ponder whether the piece you saw should still bear the title Ibsen or Strindberg or Seneca gave their play when Stone’s version looks and sounds so different. To which Stone may respond – and I’m just guessing here – that the piece feels the same at a fundamental level, and that’s the crucial point. (There’s probably a marketing issue here too. The Wild Duck is a great name with pretty good recognition in theatre circles; Little Eyolf not so much, hence 2009’s The Only Child, which was terrific.)

Delving down a little further, I’m interested in the degree to which audience members would be familiar with the texts just mentioned, and others like them. I think it would be fair to say few people, if any, would have read the source plays in their original language. Some keen theatre-goers may have boned up by reading a translation, but this is an area of deep subtlety. A small example: I have two translations of Miss Julie, dating from my long-gone university days. In Strindberg’s startlingly misogynistic introduction to the play he writes about “the half-woman, the man-hater”, and both my translations put it exactly that way. Warming to his theme, Strindberg says of this woman: “The type implies degeneration…” (Translation by Elizabeth Sprigge, 1955.) Or he says: “She is synonymous with corruption.” (Translation by Michael Meyer, 1964.) I think there’s a significant difference between the two assertions. The second is much more active, determined and implacable, and degeneration and corruption don’t mean the same thing anyway. It’s possible more modern translations may give other nuances. Of course Stone is not offering what we might call a straightforward translation of these plays, but what we know, or think we know, of them affects how we receive the Stone version, particularly if it’s still called The Wild Duck. Or Miss Julie.

I acknowledge there are probably many people who couldn’t care less how a production came to be or what it’s called, as long as they feel they’ve had a good night in the theatre. But for me, going to see a Stone production involves a great many micro-adjustments of perception and attitude; an intellectual balancing act. This is invariably stimulating, although there can be a concurrent diminution of emotional engagement, depending on the degree to which I feel the re-versioning is successful – a shorthand word for about a million things coming together to my satisfaction that may be completely different from your million things.

In Stone’s productions of Death of a Salesman and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof there was an intriguing use of what we might call translation. The words stayed the same – well, Stone initially chopped off the final scene of Salesman but had to reinstate it when Arthur Miller’s estate got cranky – but both were played with Australian accents. This was quite a provocative directorial decision, given the status of Miller and Tennessee Williams. Not only are they giants of 20th century American playwriting, they are taken to be writers of the American experience.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof worked for me (mostly) in a way Death of a Salesman did not. If you’re interested, I reviewed the Williams in March.

Stone’s version of Miss Julie, directed by Leticia Caceres, puts Strindberg’s drama of sex and class into a contemporary Australian setting. The unseen 19th century nobleman becomes an absent politician on the brink of the prime ministership. Jean (Brendan Cowell) is his driver, doubling as a minder for Julie (Taylor Ferguson), who is left at home with the help while her father is away. Jean’s long-suffering girlfriend Christine (Blazey Best) is a housekeeper who cooks. Stone’s text absorbs a great deal of Strindberg’s detail: as the play opens Christine is seen in the kitchen cooking; Jean describes a party at which Julie forces him to dance with her; Julie has a boyfriend, to whom she metes out some physical punishment; the boss’s wine is commandeered; and so on in a multitude of ways. We even see for a time a pair of Julie’s shoes eye-catchingly placed against a wall of Robert Cousins’s clean, lean set – an echo of the master’s boots in Strindberg that, according to the original stage directions, are placed in a prominent position. They are there to remind us of the power imbalance.

Looked at in one light, Stone has carefully followed the original. In the overall arc of the drama, however, there are changes and emphases that shift the central concern of Strindberg’s play. I watched the Belvoir production as if with double vision: on one level seeing Strindberg’s play and on another failing to recognise Strindberg’s thesis.

Stone’s all-important decision was to make Julie just 16 rather than in her mid-20s. To underscore the unsuitability, to put it mildly, of what happens, Jean is no longer 30 but closer to 40. There’s plenty of rather grubby sexual warfare but Strindberg’s class-struggle theme can find little room to breathe here, swept away by the nasty little cat-and-mouse games (Jean and Julie alternating as feline and rodent) skittering around in front of us. It’s not easy to find a convincing way of presenting as tragedy contemporary class differences and aspirations, and Stone hasn’t found it here.

Julie is a clever, damaged, neglected, manipulative handful; Jean is an idiot who, as directed by Caceres, one simply cannot believe in. Would a rich and powerful politician hire a man so lacking in polish? Would such a man have ever been employed as a sommelier in “one of the best hotels in London” (now there’s a place that gets class divisions)? Where is the man who, in Strindberg, has educated himself towards becoming a gentleman? And would Julie’s father, so necessarily concerned for his reputation, have left her in Jean’s care? An older Julie and a wilier Jean would have made infinitely more sense to me.

Brendan Cowell in Miss Julie. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Brendan Cowell in Miss Julie. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

My first thought was that Stone’s Jean is a fantasist; has to be. His behaviour in the second act supports that idea to a degree, although if he is a fantasist that casts doubt on anything he says or does, which is not useful in this play. Strindberg’s Jean, on the other hand, has prepared himself most carefully for his dreams of betterment. He’s a very astute man. Stone in some ways appears to align his Jean with Strindberg’s Julie and vice versa, but that only further muddies the picture.

In Stone’s writing Julie’s extreme youth makes her wild oscillations of behaviour explicable, but she is too immature to have meaningful control of her destiny. Her actions also eliminate another important idea in Strindberg, that of honour. She’s just a mixed-up kid, flailing around. And the ending, while theatrically effective, just doesn’t ring true. Julie might be running a bit wild, but this? I don’t accept it – although others obviously do, given the many highly laudatory reviews Miss Julie has received.

For Belvoir and Melbourne’s Malthouse next year Stone turns his hand to a subject I imagine few would have predicted. A version of Philip Barry’s 1939 comedy The Philadelphia Story, better known by many in its musical theatre form, High Society, will be “created by” Stone, who will also direct. The unusual “created by” tag suggests that not much of the original will remain and that jibes sent in Stone’s direction about authorship of revised classics have hit home. Belvoir’s season launch material promises a “radical new lens” on Barry’s play, a light entertainment involving a wealthy woman, her fiancé, her former husband and a newspaperman. To date Stone has mostly walked the dark side of the street, so the really radical thing would seem to be the promise of lots of fun and fabulousness. I look forward to it.

All of which is a very long way of saying Stone is someone who can make people care about what he does, argue about it, puzzle over it, attack it, defend it, love it, hate it, have an attitude towards it…

This makes him one of the current theatre’s most valuable assets.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Sydney Theatre, August 10

Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more. On!

Pozzo, Waiting for Godot, Act II

I HAD forgotten to what degree Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pays homage to Waiting for Godot while going backstage at Hamlet, as ‘twere. As the court of Elsinore goes through its well known paces, shown to us only in flickers and fragments, the two courtiers are left to fretfully consider just why they have been tapped to glean what afflicts Hamlet. Like Vladimir and Estragon they puzzle and ruminate, waiting for something to happen, never entirely sure of their shifting ground. That’s ground in the metaphorical sense; in the physical sense they seem rooted to the spot, unable to escape from a claustrophobic set of arches and tunnels that, disconcertingly, look fake but through which others – but not Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – come and go. The two are like actors who have lost the plot, babbling away, unable to find the right spot in the script and move on.

Ewen Leslie, centre, and the players in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Ewen Leslie, centre, and the players in Sydney Theatre Company’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

With Stoppard’s intellect and wit on speed dial – the man was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937; naturally he sees the mordantly funny side of existential angst – one has to be in alert form to keep up on both sides of the spotlights. Simon Phillips directs with unflagging vigour and a keen sense of the absurd, rightly, I think, valuing energy and momentum over textual clarity at times. Well, there are so many words that if you miss one or two, there’ll be another bunch along in a moment. (There isn’t a lot missed, and to be honest a couple of the more abstruse jokes are never going to score big with an audience so best to get ‘em out and move right along.)

Gabriela Tylesova’s design is a marvel of cunning, and not only because it uses the Sydney Theatre stage in a way we haven’t seen before. It is genuinely disconcerting as well as being playful and mysterious. What’s that funnel doing hanging above the stage? At the beginning we see it extrude some bare branches – shades of Godot! – and later there’s a kind of twisty, open-work ladder that trails off into the wings. All very sci-fi and theatrical. Tylesova has had great fun with the costumes too, memorably kitting out Heather Mitchell’s Gertrude as a mad version of Elizabeth I. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern revels outrageously in its play-ness (more Godot!), giving a particularly juicy role to the impresario whose dogged band of mixed nuts is hired to perform for Gertrude and Claudius.  “We are actors. We are the opposite of people,” says the Player, impersonated with lofty self-regard by Ewen Leslie, employing the rich, thespian tones of a man exceptionally impressed with the timbre of his voice.

Heather Mitchell and Christopher Stollery. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Heather Mitchell and Christopher Stollery. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

When it comes to words, however, Toby Schmitz’s febrile Guildenstern is your man, pouring out his thoughts and fears amusingly, obsessively, manically. (Even his hair is jumpy: Schmitz’s usually straight locks are hidden under a riot of curls.) Of course he has every reason to suspect all is not right. Tim Minchin’s Rosencrantz, on the other hand, is not quite so aware of the abyss yawning before them – why toenails don’t grow as swiftly as fingernails is more his speed – but intimations of mortality are everywhere. Schmitz and Minchin, Minchin and Schmitz. They are tremendously vivid and engaging and touching as well as being highly individual. Claudius and Gertrude keep mixing them up, to the point where the lads themselves become a tiny bit unsure about who they are. But that’s because no one else is really real. They are all opening their mouths, saying stuff and playing a part.

I’d like to think it’s fate that provides Sydney with the chance to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Sydney Theatre Company), Hamlet (Belvoir) and Waiting for Godot (STC) in the same year. Indeed, in the same half of the year.  I don’t suppose STC’s Andrew Upton and Belvoir’s Ralph Myers cooked this up together, at least I hope they didn’t. Less fun that way.

Toby Schmitz, Tim Minchin and George Kemp. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Toby Schmitz, Tim Minchin and George Kemp. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

That two of the three plays feature Schmitz is a bonus. What a shame the scheduling of Hamlet makes it impossible for Schmitz – he is the Dane – to play Lucky to Philip Quast’s Pozzo while Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh play Vladimir and Estragon. Or is it Estragon and Vladimir?

What brilliant casts we’re seeing in Sydney this year.

Postscript: The supporting cast for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a knockout, and includes, along with Heather Mitchell, John Gaden as Polonius and Christopher Stollery as Claudius. And a special nod to George Kemp as the player Alfred, put upon in more ways than one.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continues at the Sydney Theatre until September 14.

Angels in America, The Maids, Phedre, Othello

Angels in America, Belvoir, June 5 and 6; The Maids, Sydney Theatre Company, June 8; Phedre, Bell Shakespeare, June 12; Othello, Sport for Jove, June 14.

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

THEATRE, from companies big and small, has been particularly rich in the first half of the year in Sydney. There were exceptional new works, old ones given a jolt and imports done proud; the diversity was such that you pitied those people who remain faithful to just one company. So far this has been a year to be promiscuous in one’s theatre-going and the rest of the year promises to be as tantalising.

In this first half a partial list of favourites would include Belvoir’s rough magic Peter Pan and, at Belvoir Downstairs, Nakkilah Lui’s devastating new play of suburban Aboriginal aspiration and despair, This Heaven; Sydney Theatre Company’s majestic Secret River, adapted from the Kate Grenville novel, and STC’s small and sweet Dance Better at Parties, which grew out of a work by Chunky Move dance company. At the Ensemble, Joanna Murray-Smith’s strong series of female portraits, Bombshells, and Nick Dear’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein were graced by exceptional performances; Van Badham’s The Bull, the Moon and the Coronet of Stars at Griffin irrepressibly mixed ancient myth and modern sex comedy; and the American drama The MotherF**ker with the Hat, seen in the tiny TAP Gallery space, was given a staggeringly good production by independent outfit Workhorse Theatre Company.

The range of theatrical possibility was extended further if you add the visitors: there was a Sydney season for the madly uplifting School Dance, which came from Adelaide’s Windmill Theatre; Bojana Novakovic’s enchanting, and improvised, The Blind Date Project had small seasons in Melbourne and Brisbane before fetching up as a petite gem in this year’s Sydney Festival program; and the Sisters Grimm’s Little Mercy – provenance Melbourne – was outrageously, implacably, divinely irresistible. (I relegate to parentheses the National Theatre’s One Man, Two Guvnors and the achingly beautiful gift of seeing Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy only because they are fully imported.)

A lot of the best theatre was small-scale and fighting well above its weight. Then came June, and with it the possibility of seeing – within the space of 10 days – a cluster of classics that would fascinate if you’d seen them in the span of an entire year. Or two.

Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in The Maids. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in The Maids. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

I think I can get away with saying I believe the two-part Angels in America to be the greatest play written in English during my lifetime. (Waiting for Godot, which premiered a week or so after I was born, was written in French and first staged in that language. So.)

Sydney Theatre Company staged Angels in 1993, less than two years after its San Francisco premiere and a couple of months before its Broadway debut – a great act of percipience on the part of then artistic director Wayne Harrison. Michael Gow directed a piercingly spare production that did everything it needed to: it let this profoundly moving and intellectually searching piece speak for itself. The breadth, depth and reach of Angels is dazzling and Belvoir’s current production, directed by Eamon Flack, understands, as did Gow’s, the central necessities of Tony Kushner’s piece – cast it well, honour its multiplicity of emotions, tease out the many strands of its narrative and tone, clarify the complexity of its language and imagery, and stand back. In other words, don’t have a production that over-decorates a work that is already magnificently ornate.

Angels in America is concerned with but also transcends the questions of AIDS in the 1980s, the Cold War, Reaganite philosophy, climate change, gay politics, right-wing politics, ethics, religion, personal responsibility and much more. In that transcendence lies its connection with audiences today and anywhere. The ease with which Kushner interweaves realism and fantasy is breath-taking. I was reminded when seeing Angels, entirely engrossed, of something New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell wrote in a preface to one of his celebrated profiles of New York characters: “I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual.” And elsewhere he wrote: “You’ve got to get to the true facts.”

Belvoir’s cast is exemplary, led by Luke Mullins as the AIDS-inflicted Prior Walter, who has visions both profane and ecstatic. Marcus Graham has the part of his career as lawyer – and helper of Senator Joseph McCarthy – Roy Cohn (fun fact; his middle name was Marcus). Graham’s Cohn burns like a wildfire that is fuelled by his ambition and certitude, along with the disease he refuses to acknowledge by name. Amber McMahon’s lost-soul Harper, who is charged with one of the play’s most achingly potent images as she escapes the pull of New York, is exceptional. Mitchell Butel’s unwaveringly steady compass as an actor – he is always one of the clearest interpreters of any text in his enjoyably wide repertoire – makes the flexible conscience of Prior’s lover Louis explicable and even worthy of sympathy. And what a joy to see DeObia Oparei as Belize, a part he performed with such distinction for STC all those years ago. Only connect.

The true facts. Again this idea comes into play in Jean Genet’s The Maids, in which Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert play sisters. Claire and Solange act out “ceremonies” in their Mistress’s over-blown boudoir, escaping into cruel fantasies to blot out their sordid reality. They turn on themselves and each other, the interchangeable torturer and tortured holed up in the same prison. In a naturalistic play this blood relationship would test credulity. And yet on deeper levels – those of understanding, of equality of standing, of temperament, of spirit, of intelligence – they are quite clearly soul sisters.

Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton’s translation of Genet’s 1947 play is robust, mordantly funny and chilly, as is Andrews’s direction of his stars.

Blanchett impersonates her Mistress with raucous, savage glee but can be undercut in a micro-second, visibly deflating so that a great beauty becomes a plain nonentity in the blink of an eye. Huppert, tiny as a sparrow, does limber calisthenics while lying on her employer’s bed, and as she opens her legs wide a camera captures the view and conveys it to the audience. It’s a familiar Andrews choice, but so apt on several levels. Not only is surveillance a very real possibility in this sleek, contemporary household, but on a practical level it helps connect the audience in this slightly too-large theatre to the action. It’s a kind of voyeurism too, spying not only on two maids but on the women playing them.

Make no mistake. If The Maids were not starring Blanchett and Huppert it could easily have been slotted into STC’s Wharf 2 space. There is layer upon layer here. Not only are stratospherically famous actresses playing the part of role-playing maids, their Mistress, in a piece of casting announced late, is played by the gorgeous and very, very young Elizabeth Debicki. She is too tender in age to have established such complete dominion over her household help, but let’s not be too literal. Debicki has come to attention recently through her appearance in Baz Luhrmann’s film The Great Gatsby and adds another level of drop-dead glamour. Please don’t think this is a criticism. Far from it. There is something absolutely delicious about seeing a production in which there is an explicit invitation to examine one of its most important strands – the assumption of roles as a way of surviving – from a variety of angles. It keeps the viewer constantly on the qui vive, thinking and re-calibrating.

Debicki, by the way, may be just at the start of her career but she holds her own gallantly with Blanchett and Huppert, and looks so dewily beautiful you could cry. The camera comes in leeringly close to her and to Blanchett and Huppert, both of whom are ravishing in a different way. So much visual information to absorb along with the text. And if you can’t understand Huppert all of the time, too bad. She is an electric presence as she darts about, swings from the clothes racks, plays games of abasement, hitches a ride on a long train of a gown like a playful – or abject – child and so much more. Truth not facts …

French drama is given a second gripping outing with Bell Shakespeare’s Phedre having landed in Sydney after its Melbourne season. Racine’s 1677 drama based on Greek legend is given in Ted Hughes’s plain-speaking, supple translation and given a production that enthrals from beginning to end.

Director Peter Evans’s taste for stillness on stage and for clearly marking entrances and exits has never had a better fit than here. He takes the elegant formality that is a hallmark of classical French drama and converts it into an atmosphere of fear – the kind that makes one freeze with terror.

We are told Phedre has a fatal illness, but what’s really gnawing away at her is forbidden love. Phedre has conceived a passion for her stepson Hippolytus, who in turn loves where he is least allowed. The play opens with most of the players placed separately on Anna Cordingly’s wonderful stage upon a stage. The set resembles a disintegrating country house folly with its jagged hole in the ceiling and signs of decay all about. Kelly Ryall’s soundscape of barely discernible beats, fluttering voices, groans and bells adds to the foreboding.

The scene is static for quite some time as the play’s concerns unfold. The stillness, unusual in our theatre, brings its own tension. When the hell is someone going to do something? And then Phedre touches Hippolytus (a fine, unmannered Edmund Lembke-Hogan), and the tragedy is unleashed.

Catherine McClements’s rail-thin Phedre is, like Marcus Graham’s Roy Cohn, doubly burning up inside. The passion that’s devouring her will get her before the unnamed physical ailment can do its work, that much is evident. McClements gives an unsparing, towering performance. And speaking of towering, Phedre wears difficult, vertiginous shoes secured with gladiator-style straps that are their own form of bondage, as well as being a slightly too-young choice for the queen. I found that oddly touching.

Also tremendously good are Bert LaBonte as Theramene – his long description of Hippolytus’s death is mesmerising – and Marco Chiappi as Phedre’s husband Theseus. Abby Earl as Hippolytus’s secret love Aricia is, unfortunately, too inexperienced in this company. She certainly looks lovely enough to secure the prince but lacks texture and conviction in her delivery.

Similarly, in Sport for Jove’s Othello the casting of Isaro Kayitesi as Desdemona puts the young actress, not long out of training, at an unfair disadvantage. That aside – and one must admit it is a big aside – Othello is riveting. In the Seymour Centre’s small Reginald Theatre, Sport for Jove yet again finds a way of presenting Shakespeare without tricks, with no heavy-handed “concept”, but with force, clarity and a satisfying sense of purpose. It’s as if a light has been turned on. (The way the production always has a fresh surprise up its sleeve without distorting the text is definitively demonstrated by Anthony Gooley’s hilarious Rodorigo and the way in which he shows his devotion to Desdemona. Unmissable.)

Damien Ryan’s Iago is meticulously and persuasively thought out. In Ryan’s hands and under Matt Edgerton’s direction, Iago can’t be faulted for his logic: he’s been passed over and demeaned and he’s going to do something about that in his own good time. Ryan presents a man who is proud, intelligent, implacable and as creatively manipulative as any top politician. He could turn day into night with his arguments, and so he does.

Ivan Donato’s attractive Othello is more good-guy soldier than powerful military chief, which tends to minimise the tragedy of his downfall and give even more oxygen to Iago. And of course there’s always the problem of that handkerchief, the bit of fabric on which the denouement so precariously turns. But Sport for Jove makes a reasonable fist of keeping the stakes high here, anticipating how the drama will end with an inventive and relevant opening image.

I saw the production with a group of students and their attention was held, as was mine, for nearly three and a half hours with just one interval. Enough said.

Angels in America plays at Belvoir St Theatre until July 14 and then Sydney’s Theatre Royal from July 18-28. The Maids, Sydney Theatre, until July 20. Phedre, Sydney Opera House, until June 29. Othello, Seymour Centre, until June 29.

Forget Me Not

Belvoir, Sydney, April 24.

IT was all for the best, apparently, the practice of rounding up children and sending them as far away as possible to conditions of near slavery. Not being in any position to consent to the arrangement, the more than 3000 youngsters who came to Australia from the UK formed a second kind of stolen generation in this country, with all the attendant trauma. The last consignment arrived as recently as 1970.

Colin Moody and Mandy McElhinney in Forget Me Not. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Colin Moody and Mandy McElhinney in Forget Me Not. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

In the past few years there have been attempts at reparation and the restoration of family ties, if such is possible. Those efforts provide the scaffolding for Forget Me Not, which is concerned with reaching to the heart of the considerable damage done.

Tom Holloway’s play, a co-commission between Sydney’s Belvoir and Liverpool’s Everyman and Playhouse, divides its time between Australia and the UK as deeply hurt and hostile Gerry (Colin Moody) is pushed towards discovering who he is. Gerry and his jittery, disaffected daughter Sally (Mandy McElhinney, wonderful as always) scrap constantly – as he says, he’s been a shitty father – and he’s only sketchily co-operative with Mark (Oscar Redding), who will arrange a possible reunion in Liverpool.

There’s no actor to touch Moody in conveying emotional fragility clothed in bloody-mindedness.  The externals are there in the long unkempt hair and untidy, tightly sprung, restless body. His burning eyes, defensive language and occasional confidences do the rest. In one of Holloway’s most poignant touches, Gerry needs to be told where to sit whenever he’s in someone else’s space but makes a huge production of it at the same time. “You develop a thick skin,” says Gerry early on, but everything he says and does puts the lie to that. His is practically transparent.

Matching his incandescence is elderly Liverpudlian Mary (Eileen O’Brien), a tiny little thing blessed with courage, humour and resilience. Mary is Holloway’s shining jewel in Forget Me Not, fully realised and judged to perfection by O’Brien.

Holloway’s play is starkly written, often too much so. The language, with its frequent repetition of words and phrases designed to delay interaction, doesn’t always match the ferocity with which it’s delivered under Anthea Williams’s direction. More problematic, however, is the structure Holloway has chosen. It comes with a late twist that feels unsupported by what’s gone before.

Nevertheless, the essentials of this saddest of stories are powerfully conveyed. The more lasting memories of Forget Me Not will be Gerry’s rage, disgust and fear as he gulps down wine to anaesthetise himself. They will be of Mary’s glow as she finds a point of common memory with Gerry and her last-ditch stand to make sense of the senseless. And finally, they will be of the potential for healing.

Ends May 19.

This review first appeared in The Australian on April 26.