About last week(s) … June 6-19

A recent holiday took me entirely away from all daily cares and the internet. There was no email, no Twitter, no Facebook, nothing. I heartily recommend it. Now back to Sydney theatre …

Sydney Theatre Company’s magnificent production of All My Sons, directed with piercing clarity by Kip Williams, unfolds with dreadful inexorability and finality. You understand how it is all going to end from the moment it begins. The stage is dominated by a huge, dark house. Well, it’s not a house, it’s a cutout; a façade lacking any homely details. There’s a door that has not a skerrick of welcome in it and some mean windows picked out by artificial illumination.

You couldn’t call Alice Babidge’s design subtle but it lands its punches with savage precision. This is a place that hides things and then sucks the life out of them.

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Sydney Theatre Company’s All My Sons. Photo: Zan Wimberley

It’s not how Arthur Miller envisaged the setting. He wanted the audience to first encounter something normal and peaceful, which is what we saw in the very good Darlinghurst Theatre production that inaugurated Sydney’s Eternity Playhouse in late 2013. In Miller’s directions the fallen tree in the Keller family’s front yard would be the only visual clue to the anguish that unfolds in less than 24 hours and comes to its grim conclusion after night falls. It’s the kind of realism that reflects Miller’s debt to Ibsen’s social dramas.

But Miller was also drawing on classical Greek theatre in which personal tragedy had far-reaching implications for the whole society. Williams’s production is both of Miller’s time – the play was written in 1946 and premiered in 1947 and Babidge’s costumes reflect that – and timeless. The specific sin of Joe Keller is that he profited from selling shoddy aircraft parts that led to the deaths of young American World War II pilots and that he let another man take the blame. The broader, lasting sins are of denial of responsibility, of failure to be a decent member of his community and of a festering guilt that infects everyone. What kind of a world is made when people put their own interests before those of the group? When making money is a higher goal than being just and serving truth.

Joe and Kate Keller have – had – two sons. One, Larry, is listed as missing in action. The other, Chris, hopes to marry Larry’s fiancée Ann. If Kate accepts that, then she has to admit Larry is dead. Ann’s father is the man who took the rap for Joe and she and her brother George have shunned him ever since, believing him to be at fault. The shaky tower of lies and self-deceptions cannot survive Ann’s arrival at the Keller house to discuss her future with Chris.

Williams has gathered an exceptional cast. Every role, down to the smallest, resonates fully. Take, for instance, Bert LaBonté’s Jim Bayliss, the doctor who is neighbour to the Kellers. LaBonté puts a deceptively light underlay of irony beneath his smooth-as-silk exterior. He is a man who understands exactly what compromises he has made for a relatively easy life and what it costs to stick with them. Anita Hegh is super-luxury casting as Jim’s discontented wife Sue, as is Josh McConville as George. His whirlwind entry into the fray doesn’t come until after interval and his burning anger fuels the explosion that rips away all pretence.

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John Howard and Chris Ryan in All My Sons. Photo: Zan Wimberley

Chris Ryan (Chris) and Eryn Jean Norvill (Ann) are very fine as the young couple trying to create a future for themselves but carrying distressing emotional burdens. Chris also went to war and has inevitably been changed; Ann has heavy knowledge that must be revealed if she is to move on. Both bring memorable, affecting delicacy and lucidity to the drama.

John Howard’s Joe is a triumph of bluster and defensiveness wrapped in a body that’s succumbing to the indignities of age. Robyn Nevin’s Kate is harrowing. Her every molecule vibrates with grief and fear. She puts up a reasonable front but she knows, as we do, that the reckoning is at hand. It is almost unbearably painful to watch.

Nick Enright’s A Man with Five Children has something of the flavour of Michael Apted’s 7 Up series but adds a fascinating degree of complexity by putting the documentary maker, Gerry, at the centre. Apted’s series selected a group of seven-year-old children and returned to them at seven-year intervals. Enright moves in more closely. Gerry revisits his children every year and becomes ever more entwined in their lives. Can he be both observer and participant? Do lives change because they are observed? What do you think? A Man with Five Children started life as a student workshop in 1998, anticipating the Australian version of Big Brother by three years. The subsequent explosion of so-called reality TV has made the play appear even more prescient.

Anthony Skuse’s production for Darlinghurst Theatre Company is engrossing, despite the play’s overlong first half. Five adult actors touchingly enact their characters as young children and skittish adolescents as well as their older selves, letting us see the children – and their hopes, mistakes, anxieties and gaucheries – within the grown men and women. Because Gerry (Jeremy Waters) goes back to his subjects so frequently there is the impression of lives unfolding on fast-forward, often precariously.

Jemwel Danao Taylor Wies Jeremy Waters A MAN WITH FIVE CHILDREN (c) Helen White

Jemwel Danao, Taylor Wiese and Jeremy Waters in A Man with Five Children at Darlinghurst Theatre Company. Photo: Helen White

And always there is the elephant in the room: does Gerry’s camera – Gerry – play a substantial role in defining how a life will be lived?

A Man with Five Children (it premiered professionally in 2002) also offers a broader snapshot of Australian society. When we first meet them Jessie (Chenoa Deemal) is an Indigenous girl with enormous promise, cheerful Roger (Jemwel Danao) was born in Australia of Asian descent, clever Susannah (Charlotte Hazzard) is a white European migrant, Zoe (Jody Kennedy) is a defensive working-class kid and Cameron (Taylor Wiese) is troubled and neglected. Through them Enright touches on national identity, multiculturalism, idealism and celebrity culture among much else.

As the children grow some of them find partners whose lives also become part of the texture and a complicating factor. There are some joys but many sorrows, not all of which are Gerry’s fault but a lot that are. Enright nevertheless doesn’t present Gerry as a monster; he is perhaps as much a victim as anyone. The play is beautifully performed by all and exceptionally moving.

After all that sturm und drang, a good laugh. Bell Shakespeare and Griffin joined forces to present Justin Fleming’s Molière adaptation The Literati (based on Les Femmes Savantes). I confess to having found it a touch too long and the text perhaps not entirely as sparkling as some have found it, but the performances are top-notch and Sophie Fletcher’s set is a miracle. Anyone who knows The Stables theatre is aware of its space restrictions. Fletcher has managed to give the impression of a very fancy house and thrown in a revolve to boot. That in itself is hilarious, gives rise to delicious comic business and facilitates one of the show’s finest gags, in which Jamie Oxenbould negotiates a conversation between the two characters he plays, young lover Clinton and Christopher, the father of Clinton’s beloved Juliette. Comedy gold.

Lee Lewis’s tremendously good production thriftily makes do with just five actors and doubles the fun. Gareth Davies has only to impersonate the vile, oleaginous poet Tristan Tosser but along with Oxenbould the others have two roles. The incomparable Kate Mulvany is Juliette’s uptight, bookish sister Amanda – her tussle with a chair is a particular highlight – and a minor functionary; divine Caroline Brazier is Juliette’s hideous mother Philomena and wise scholar Vadius; and Miranda Tapsell is as radiant as ever – she really does have the most eloquent face to be seen anywhere on the Sydney stage these days – as Juliette and seen-it-all housemaid Martina.

The piece is a send-up of literary pretension with a side serve of thwarted romance and can be greatly enjoyed if you don’t think about it too much. Aspects of it aren’t as sharply relevant to modern eyes and ears as Fleming’s earlier, fabulous Tartuffe was, but it does send the audience wafting out on a cloud of ineffable silliness. And that’s not a bad thing at all. No, not to be sneezed at these days.

A Man with Five Children, Eternity Playhouse, until June 26

All My Sons, Roslyn Packer Theatre, until July 9

The Literati, The Stables, until July 16

Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid

Sydney Festival, January 8.

The Hans Christian Andersen tale on which Meow Meow has based her new show is typically gruesome: an innocent young creature gladly endures unspeakable agonies in order to be close to Prince Right, only to see him promptly marry someone else. In an interview in November 2011, with Steve Dow, she said that “The Little Mermaid is about sexual punishment, in many ways for love”. She has all her power taken away “in order to have love”.

Meow Meow, the famously passive-aggressive – and very powerful – kamikaze cabaret artist, might be expected to take this badly. Indeed, she recently told The Australian’s Matthew Westwood that the story “is very resonant for me as it’s a perceived fate or destiny — so often imposed on the tragic female diva — that I do not want.”

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Meow Meow in Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid. Photo: Prudence Upton

So what’s up when she tells her audience that Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid is a show about happiness? She means it, too, in a Meow Meow kind of way. This Little Mermaid takes a scalpel to the original, peels away the layers and peers into the dark. Obsession, self-abnegation and physical mutilation get their moment as Meow Meow prowls, twirls and hobbles her way through the minefield that is romantic love and sticky sex, hoping for a shot at fulfillment.

As always, Meow Meow may be observed on multiple levels simultaneously. The diva’s fabled ability to seduce an audience with fragile neediness and control it with an adamantine will is in full bloom and those expecting Meow Meow to co-opt audience members, crowd surf, bitch about the management and sing like a voluptuous fallen angel won’t be disappointed. On the surface there is much that’s familiar, even cosy. The real action is in the knotty mess of emotions, impulses and desires underneath, particularly in the songs, of which many are new. Listen carefully.

Meow Meow isn’t afraid to tread the primrose path, as in Megan Washington’s gorgeous Making Love: “I don’t mind strings, you can leave them attached.” The opening song, Black’s Wonderful Life, speaks of magic everywhere but loneliness too. Meow Meow’s off-sider in this show, Chris Ryan, gives a piercing account of Schubert’s Am Meer (By the Sea), in which tears of love prove fatal. As I say, listen carefully.

Meow Meow’s ending is a happy one because she chooses it to be so. She may be tossed and buffeted in the sea of love but by god she’s not going to drown. In a funny way Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid has a happy ending too. Our wishy-washy heroine, having displayed her shining goodness, is given a shot at immortality. If that counts as happiness.

Our Meow Meow is made of sterner and earthier stuff of course, but it was nevertheless possible to discern in her show the hint of a gentler, kinder Meow. Perhaps for now.

Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, January 28-February 14; Perth International Arts Festival, February 24-28.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on January 11.

Introductory remarks to 2014 in the rear-view mirror

EARLY next week I’ll be at the Vanguard in Sydney’s Newtown to see Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen’s cabaret show Under the Covers. That will bring my 2014 show total to 207, including a strong final burst of seven outings in my last viewing week of the year. It’s a relatively modest number by previous standards and by those of some of my colleagues, but not negligible. Within that there is a personal best: when in New York early this year I managed to see 20 shows in 12 days.

Obsessive? Perhaps, but the performing arts bring me great joy, illumination and nourishment and have done for more than four decades. More than that, putting in the hours, days, weeks, months and years is the only way one can attain knowledge and understanding. It’s incredibly valuable to see many different productions of great works and sometimes to have long-held ideas (or prejudices) shaken. It’s even more stimulating to be present at a new work that so thrills to the core and has so many ideas you want – and need – to see it again and again.

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America was one such work for me when I saw it in 1993 under Michael Gow’s direction at Sydney Theatre Company, and I did see it again and again – a second time at STC; Neil Armfield’s very different but equally moving version for Melbourne Theatre Company and State Theatre Company of South Australia the following year; on Broadway; the film version; and, just last year, Belvoir’s wonderful production directed by Eamon Flack.

Another work that enthralled me when I first encountered it was Thyestes in the 2010 adaptation of Seneca’s tragedy by Thomas Henning, Chris Ryan, Simon Stone and Mark Winter. I was incredibly lucky to get in. The word had spread like wildfire that Thyestes was extraordinary, I was in Melbourne for only a few days and Malthouse’s tiny Tower Theatre was besieged. The gods were with me, I took my seat, and as I write I relive the intensity of the experience – the gloom in the auditorium set against the unsparing white light of the acting area; the faces of the audience one could see on the other side of the narrow stage that bisected the theatre; Ryan singing Schubert; the jittery tension of waiting to see what fresh hell would be revealed when the shutters that hid the stage between scenes were raised again; the theatrical audacity and intellectual complexity of the ideas …

Did anything this year have that kind of impact? No, I can’t say it did. But genius is rare. The thing is, you don’t always get advance warning. You just have to be there. You have to see a lot of mediocre, adequate, good and excellent work to be in the race to see the exceptional and to be able to assess its worth. It’s not about the numbers themselves, it’s that everything one sees adds something to the information bank, even the most misguided of efforts, and helps create perspective and context.

I don’t think I’m alone in loving a list so, this being the traditional time of year for it,  I’m going to make lots. They will be on people as well as art forms – theatre, opera and music theatre, dance, whatever. They’ll appear, mostly daily, over the next two weeks and end with a kind of mega-list, taking in everything I’ve seen since my first serious theatre experience, a production of Oedipus Rex directed by Tyrone Guthrie I saw when I was 17. (It starred Ron Haddrick and Ruth Cracknell and was staged at the University of NSW’s Clancy Auditorium.) Well, obviously I’m not going to list the lot; just the best bits, as far as memory will allow.

I’ll also add a few thoughts about relevant arts issues as the spirit moves me.

Note: most of my theatre viewing is in Sydney, so there won’t be much joy from elsewhere in that sphere. I do get around a bit, but inevitably my lists will be very Sydney-oriented.

Tomorrow: Theatre

Current Sydney theatre

Blue/Orange, Ensemble, October 29; Emerald City, Griffin, November 10; A Christmas Carol, Belvoir, November 12; Daylight Saving, Eternity Playhouse, November 13; Cyrano de Bergerac, Sydney Theatre, November 18.

WHY did quite a few commentators, myself included, feel we had to advertise our reservations about the prospect of A Christmas Carol? Or to liken ourselves to Scrooge when it comes to a Christmas cheer? I know I didn’t entirely trust that Belvoir wouldn’t do one of its out-there makeovers; perhaps others didn’t want to seem sentimental or – even worse – just a teensy bit unsophisticated.

Well, we learned our lesson. Don’t pre-judge. Don’t be mean. Don’t be cynical. A Christmas Carol is generous and open-hearted and asks the same of us. The adaptation by Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks, who also directs, is faithful to the Charles Dickens story and told clearly and honestly. It’s often very funny but doesn’t shy away from the darkness that threatens to overwhelm Scrooge and its staging is strong and simple – well, let’s say deceptively simple. The ideas are precise and powerful. There is an empty space in which Scrooge’s arid life is lived and recounted and changes are rung with a handful of props and a few trapdoors. And there is fabulously fake snow, dusting every seat in the house. Michael Hankin (set), Mel Page (costumes), Benjamin Cisterne (lighting) and Stefan Gregory (composition and sound design) can be very proud of this one.

Ursula Yovich and Steve Rodgers. Photo: Brett Boardman

Ursula Yovich and Steve Rodgers. Photo: Brett Boardman

Above all there is a cast of cherishable actors whose collective radiance could warm Vladivostok in winter. Kate Box as the spirit of Christ Present is done up like a Christmas present wrapped by an excitable three-year-old, carolers sing sweetly from the stairs dressed in gaudy seasonal pullovers it would have taken Gran all year to knit, Steve Rodgers appears at one point as a Christmas tree, finished off with a major star on top, and Miranda Tapsell as Tiny Tim – well, the woman’s smile could power the national grid. Peter Carroll, Ivan Donato and Eden Falk are splendid in a range of roles and it goes without saying that Robert Menzies, so often seen as a man of much severity, is Scrooge to the life. As for Rodgers and Ursula Yovich as Bob and Mrs Cratchit, it’s the kind of casting that elevates roles that could be a touch dull into something profoundly moving.

The other absolute must in Sydney theatre is Sydney Theatre Company’s Cyrano de Bergerac – not for the staging, which has some problems, but for a clutch of indispensible performances. Top of the list, not surprisingly, is Richard Roxburgh in the title role. He gives Cyrano the kind of bone-deep melancholy that comes from a lifetime of deflecting jibes about his looks and disguising the pain with superior swordsmanship, wit and, above all, panache. Andrew Upton, who adapted and directed (from Marion Potts’s original translation), keeps Cyrano in the 17th century but oh, how it speaks to the 21st century’s obsession with appearance.

All in the large supporting cast are very good, particularly Eryn Jean Norvill as the luminous Roxane; the touching Yalin Ozucelik as Cyrano’s friend Le Bret; the astonishingly versatile and charismatic Josh McConville as over-bearing nobleman De Guiche; and Chris Ryan as the guileless, luxuriantly follicled, not-quite-as-stupid-as-he-looks Christian, through whose shiny good looks Cyrano expresses his love for Roxane.

Electronic sound enhancement – amplification is too strong a word – is needed to combat the difficult Sydney Theatre acoustic. Even so, when Cyrano gets hectic it is not always easy to comprehend all the dialogue. Alice Babidge’s design (with Renee Mulder) has a handsome and effective theatre-within-a-theatre motif which makes a lot of sense but loses some of its power when actors are sent scampering up ladders to use a high, narrow balcony. But it’s Roxburgh’s night, and anyone who loves great acting will want to add this to memories of his Hamlet, Vanya and Estragon. (Not to mention rake Cleaver Greene, of course, a man who would have been entirely at home in certain 17th-century circles.)

Richard Roxburgh as Cyrano. Photo: Brett Boardman

Richard Roxburgh as Cyrano. Photo: Brett Boardman

Also worth a look, if you can get in, is Lee Lewis’s revival of David Williamson’s Emerald City at Griffin. The play, which premiered in 1987, stands up very well. Scriptwriter Colin and his publisher wife Kate move from Melbourne to Sydney; he most eagerly, she most reluctantly. Melbourne is where ideas and values matter; in Sydney it’s all about money and the view. As time goes on, both find their ground shifting under them rather more alarmingly than they expected.

The Ken Done-designed production looks good and makes its points eloquently but it is not entirely satisfying, for good reason. During rehearsal Marcus Graham, originally cast as Colin, and Mitchell Butel, originally cast as brash entrepreneur Mike, asked to switch roles. Lewis agreed. Perhaps it may have worked but we won’t know, because Graham withdrew from Emerald City shortly before opening due to illness. The lateness of all this is illustrated by the fact that Graham’s photograph adorns the cover of the playscript one can buy at the theatre (excellent value – just $10 courtesy Currency Press).

Butel continued as Colin and Ben Winspear valiantly stepped into the breach to play Mike. Well, we can all play casting director, but I think Winspear – a very fine actor – would have been a more natural Colin than he is a Mike. Even three weeks in, which is when I saw it, he was pushing the bolshie externals too strongly. Butel is extraordinarily multi-faceted but I can see why Lewis initially wanted him as Mike. Or perhaps, given what must have been a quite testing rehearsal period, there wasn’t quite enough time for Butel to get absolutely pitch-perfect with his character. He’s very good, no doubt about it – funny, charming and fizzing with energy – but I wanted a deeper sense of his inner conflicts. Lucy Bell – who, as far as I know, was originally cast as Kate and stayed that way – absolutely nails it.

Nick Enright’s Daylight Saving, written only a couple of years after Emerald City, unfortunately has not aged as well as the Williamson. I remember enjoying it back in the day and found it entertaining enough now, but it feels too slight to merit its revival – not quite funny enough, or persuasive enough about human foibles. It’s done very competently under Adam Cook’s direction and I must say I was highly entertained by Belinda Giblin’s flawless turn as the slightly daffy but steely Bunty.

The cast of Daylight Saving: Photo: Helen White

The cast of Daylight Saving: Photo: Helen White

Finally, one for those who enjoy excellent acting wrapped in an argumentative play. Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange puts Dorian Nkono’s Christopher in the middle of a medical-philosophical turf war between aspiring resident psychiatrist Bruce (Ian Meadows) and his wily, manipulative supervisor Robert (Sean Taylor). Questions about correct diagnosis of mental illness, race and social services jostle with more personal matters for the two doctors: the exercise of power and the best way to manage career advancement. There’s a lot going on and much of it is fascinating and thought-provoking, but Penhall loses his grip in the second half, resorting to a frankly ludicrous crisis and consequently weakened conclusion. The three performances are terrific though, particularly Nkono’s depiction of a young man whose condition sends his equilibrium flying off in unpredictable directions but who nevertheless has great charm and knows how to use it.

Ian Meadows, Sean Taylor and Dorian Nkono. Photo: Clare Hawley

Ian Meadows, Sean Taylor and Dorian Nkono. Photo: Clare Hawley

Blue/Orange to November 29, Daylight Saving to November 30, Emerald City to December 6, Cyrano de Bergerac to December 20; A Christmas Carol to December 24

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.

King Kong, Robot Vs Art

King Kong, Regent Theatre, Melbourne, June 19; Robot Vs Art, Bondi Pavilion, Sydney, June 20

WHAT’S wrong with this picture? It’s late in Act II of King Kong and Queenie van de Zandt, as Cassandra, is singing the show’s most stirring number, Rise. As she sings, a chorus swelling behind her – and van de Zandt was in tremendous voice on Wednesday evening – we are to envisage King Kong climbing to the top of the Empire State Building where, we know, he will be destroyed. The climax of King Kong, the extravagantly scaled new musical, is at hand.

But who is Cassandra that she gets the night’s prime position? She’s a character – a device, really – the show really, truly doesn’t need. This is no disrespect to van de Zandt, who is as accomplished a music theatre performer as you’ll ever meet. It’s a structural thing. Cassandra – the name is the giveaway – is there to be the voice of foreboding at the beginning of the piece when film producer Carl Denham (newcomer Adam Lyon) is embarking on his grandiose plans to go to Skull Island, home to Kong.  Cassandra is there to predict this will all come to a bad end. You don’t say …

Cassandra is given relatively little stage time, so at this late crucial point in King Kong the big anthemic number is sung by a character in whom there is absolutely no audience investment. Obviously she’s covering the set change that places Kong on the top of the Empire State Building. Obviously there should be more than that.

King Kong

Esther Hannaford and King Kong

King Kong is, should be, about nothing but the highest stakes, something the show’s one unequivocal success proves. King Kong – the beast, not the show – is utterly, extraordinarily, splendiferously magnificent. King Kong producer Global Creatures has given audiences a creature to inspire awe and pity; to marvel at and to weep over – or at least potentially. As operated by a group of puppeteers called the King’s men, Kong expresses feelings unmatched by any living thing on stage.

The body of Kong contains the key themes writ extremely large: colonisation, oppression, exploitation, migration, the outsider and, above all, devotion. The show touches on all this, albeit  too many times with an unnecessarily heavy hand, but hasn’t yet managed an effective balance between the characters the audience needs to care about and those it doesn’t. I longed for a scene on the boat back from Skull Island that would show Kong in captivity and starlet Ann Darrow (Esther Hannaford) developing her compassion for him; without it Act II gets underway with the audience having to connect an awful lot of dots. On the other hand, I longed for savage cuts to be made to scenes featuring Carl Denham. The character is deeply unpleasant and Lyon lacks the adamantine charisma that can give an awful but seductive charm to such men.

Since King Kong’s premiere in Melbourne last Saturday night there has been interesting and fruitful discussion about whether it really is a musical, or a spectacular, or a new direction in theatre that takes the book musical, adds elements unknown in the golden era of the 1950s, and creates something new. That’s all good to talk about, but is a separate issue from the nitty-gritty of King Kong’s weaknesses. The flaws have nothing to do with genre. They have to do with logic, shape, rhythm, tone and character development.

And some of the dialogue is execrable, as if it’s what has remained after the scissors have been wielded over-enthusiastically to fit in more spectacle. (Craig Lucas, who is credited with the book, is a highly experienced and successful writer.) “I must be dreaming,” says Hannaford helpfully as scantily clad dancing girls emerge from nowhere on the Skull Island-bound ship for a fantasy scene. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Surely there’s a better way to signal this if you doubt the audience’s ability to get what’s happening. Such dead language, and there are many other examples, is entirely at odds with the originality of the piece’s visual and musical aspirations.

I loved the way the music mixed original songs (not all entirely memorable) with existing material, particularly when it included 1920s and 1930s references. There are brief snatches of Brother Can you Spare a Dime, I Wanna be Loved by You and the Lutheran hymn carol Joy to the World, the Lord is Come. There is stunning use made of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s Get Happy, given surreal treatment with traces of Weimar Republic-era desperate wit. As the escaping Kong starts his rampage, a line of platinum-blonde chorines keeps the show going: “Get ready for the judgment day,” they sing. Quite.

An eclectic approach is also taken to the show’s tone. There are traces of cheesy Saturday morning adventure flick, 1930s romantic comedy, futuristic sci-fi, camp send-up and early Dr Who – a hugely ambitious position that, I think, can only work if anchored by the strongest emotional through-line.

Hannaford and Chris Ryan, as Ann’s love interest Jack Driscoll, do their best with the insufficient time they have to connect deeply – and they’d be helped by a more dramatic setting for their falling-in-love dance scene. In a show so ear- and eye-poppingly decked out with son et lumiere they look quite lost and dull here. And Jack appeared to be singing about men killed while building the San Francisco bridge (que?), or did I get that wrong?

(On another matter relating to lyrics, does Cassandra really sing about people falling at the top of Act II? It was in a context that made me immediately think of September 11, 2001. Not sure that will be right for Broadway, should that be in the offing.)

King Kong needs a lot more work to achieve its goal of being the “timeless love story” it bills itself as, but gee, I hope it gets there. The big fella at its centre deserves it. All hail to Kong’s creators, who have given the huge creature expression, character and eloquent articulation. The puppeteers who animate Kong are involved in an intricate choreography that is entrancing in and of itself, but more pertinently they and the great wires that support Kong so visibly get right to the heart of the story. As men swarm over, around and under Kong there’s not only the excitement of his moving presence but a premonition of his subjugation. From the moment we first see Kong he’s already captive.

King Kong shows in Melbourne only. It is currently taking bookings through to October 13 for groups and August 18 for the general public.

Robot Vs Art, presented by Tamarama Rock Surfers

NOT in Melbourne, but from Melbourne, comes Travis Cotton’s surreally comic sci-fi morality tale Robot Vs Art. A bit like King Kong in some respects, at about a millionth of the budget. There’s even a bit of the early Dr Who vibe about it.

In a not-too-distant dystopian future, robots rule the earth of which humans have made such a hash. After some wholesale slaughter the men and women who remain are put to work as underground miners while the robots set about creating a weird kind of Eden. But then Executive Bot (Simon Maiden) has a mind to investigate this puzzling art stuff; stuff that apparently has some emotional value, whatever that is. Giles (Daniel Frederiksen) is a human who has done a bit of playwriting – cue many hilarious theatre in-jokes – and is charged with finding a way of getting art, and thus feeling, across to robots. This involves him working with unlikely thespians Claw Bot (Paul David Goddard) and Fembot (Natasha Jacobs).

Some of the message-making is pretty heavy-handed (honestly, the similarities to King Kong keep piling up) but the show is a delight. Rough and ready to the nth degree, packed with great jokes, performed with tremendous elan and with a nice twist at the end. Much recommended.

 Bondi Pavilion until July 6.