Tragedy sped up

Belvoir, September 23

Nikolai Ivanov sits on a sofa looking desolate as the Lebedevs’ party swirls around him. He’s heading towards 40, he has no money, his relations give him grief, he’s given up on his marriage and he’s drawn to a girl half his age. Oh, and his wife is dying and her doctor blames him for hastening things. Naturally this is a comedy.

As Ivanov (Ewen Leslie) tells Sasha (Airlie Dodds), the young woman who passionately and naively wants to save him from himself, “comedy is tragedy sped up”. True, he’s a wildly self-dramatising man but that doesn’t detract from the truth of what he’s saying. Everyone in this backwater is going hell for leather, trying to extract some purpose and meaning from life while flailing around and behaving ridiculously. It’s just that Ivanov’s skin is much thinner than everyone else’s and his capacity for self-disgust – well-earned, it must be said – much greater.

Ewen Leslie, centre on the sofa, with John Howard, AirlieDodds, Blazey Best, Helen Thomson and John Bell

Ewen Leslie, centre on the sofa, with John Howard, AirlieDodds, Blazey Best, Helen Thomson and John Bell. Photo: Brett Boardman

Director and adapter Eamon Flack sets Ivanov, the playwright’s first completed full-length play, in something that resembles contemporary Russia, what with the photo of Vladimir Putin on the wall, but it’s also very much a version of Australia today. Not a flattering one, it must be said, but punchy and provocative. What do we value in life, what do we have to offer and does any of it matter anyway?

While Ivanov wrestles with his demons, family and friends take a less resistant line. His uncle Matvei Shabelsky (John Bell) could potentially be persuaded to marry widow Marfa Babakina (Blazey Best) in an exchange of valuables: access to his American passport for her; access to her pig-based fortune for him. Sasha’s brittle, try-hard mother, Zinaida Lebedev (Helen Thomson), is no pushover in the money-lending business and places a lot of store by appearances. Pavel Lebedev (John Howard) just goes along with whatever his wife wants. It’s easier.

Ivanov’s cousin Misha Borkin (Fayssal Bazzi) has flexible morals and is a buffoon likeable in limited doses. Even Sasha, in whose shining youth one can see some tiny hope for the future, babbles on about “active love”, a label to rival “conscious uncoupling” as a way of describing the complexities of intimacy.

They do little more than pontificate about money and politics, talk themselves up, gossip cruelly, sing a few songs and get a skin full should the occasion merit. Their uselessness is grotesque and very, very funny. The only people somewhat spared are Ivanov’s wife Anna (Zahra Newman), an intriguing woman “from another country” who shares outsider status with Doctor Yevgeny Lvov (Yalin Ozucelik), who is Turkish. Covertly (Anna) and overtly (Lvov) their judgment hangs over the group. It’s a big cast and a wonderful one, not forgetting the Lebedevs’ hired help, Gabriella, played by Belvoir assistant stage manager Mel Dyer in a performance of pure comedy gold.

Zahra Newman and Ewen Leslie. Photo: Brett Boardman

Zahra Newman and Ewen Leslie. Photo: Brett Boardman

Leslie’s Ivanov is, of course, insanely attractive despite the flaws he describes so vividly and exhaustively and he is, of course, doomed. He goes in for some meta-theatrical posturing about Hamlet, which goes down exceptionally well given Leslie’s history with the Dane (Melbourne Theatre Company in 2011, Belvoir in 2013), and seems to be very much in love with the idea of being the lost soul. Ivanov is a man of poses – the thwarted intellectual, the failed man of action – but Leslie also makes one see the horror of such emptiness as well as its absurdity. “I am in disgrace with myself,” he says, and nothing could be more despairing. He stands outside himself, can see what he is and can do nothing to alter his course.

Needless to say Flack doesn’t allow a drop of sentimentality to intrude. Chekov tried a couple of endings for the play and Flack chooses the one that shows our man as the plaything of fate rather than creator of his own destiny. The joke’s on him.

Ivanov ends on November 1.

Raise the roof

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, October 22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miracle City ends November 16

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

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.