About last week … April 9-15

It’s 13 years since Li Cunxin published his memoir Mao’s Last Dancer and its appeal hasn’t dimmed. It’s still in print, of course, and there was a condensed version made for young adults and an illustrated children’s book The Peasant Prince. That was also featured in an Adelaide Symphony Orchestra concert in 2009 with excerpts read by an actor, projections of Anne Spudvilas’s illustrations from the book and music composed by Katy Abbott. That’s a lot of mileage.

Now there’s a new theatre piece for children based on The Peasant Prince, created by Monkey Baa Theatre Company, which I saw on April 11 at Monkey Baa’s home, LendLease Darling Quarter Theatre, Sydney.

The Peasant Prince - Jonathan Chan

Jonathan Chan and John Gomez Goodway in The Peasant Prince

In Monkey Baa’s unerring hands a worn old blanket summons a family with few material goods but rich in love. Rolled up it is a cooking bowl, unfurled it’s a bath towel and, wrapped about an embraced child, it is a potent image of a mother’s care. In just a few minutes the wordless, elegant scene gets to the heart of The Peasant Prince. This boy knows what it is like to have nothing and everything. We understand why he will never forget the source of his strength.

As Mao’s Last Dancer relates, former dancer and now ballet company director Li Cunxin was 10 when an emissary from Madame Mao came to his impoverished village in Shandong Province looking for promising children to attend the Beijing Dance Academy. By the way, if anyone doesn’t know how to pronounce Li’s given name, they will know after this. It’s Schwin Sin. (Li is his surname, but from earliest days in Australia he was called Li as if it were his given name and he is happy to answer to that.)

Li was overlooked until a teacher, not knowing why, called the man back and suggested the boy be taken. Having been offered this miraculous way out and up, which must have seemed as alien as space travel, Li could not fail his family. As one of his brothers told him when Li came home for a rare visit, he must tell his mother and father only good things. The sixth of his parents’ seven children had to find the courage, focus and discipline to make the most of his opportunity.

Monkey Baa writers Eva Di Cesare, Sandie Eldridge and Tim McGarry are dab hands at adapting books for young audiences and bring Li’s story to the stage with deceptive economy. The play moves swiftly, with David Bergman’s video designs effortlessly and vividly summoning a village schoolroom, a busy city, a ballet studio, a rural scene, a flight to the US. John Gomez Goodway is bright-eyed Li and, under McGarry’s lucid direction, Jonathan Chan, Jenevieve Chang and Edric Hong play everyone else with admirable clarity.

Momentum falters a little once the action moves to Houston, where Li defected. The happy ballet rehearsal, which is overlong, and the Chinese attempt to send Li home don’t have the same crystalline definition as the rest of this otherwise fine dramatisation.

There is no shying away from the challenges Li faced as a child and the resilience he had to develop; they’re valuable things for children to consider. It’s also an inspirational fable, like one Li hears and loves as a child, about aspiration and achievement. In other words, perfect for its young audience.

Footnote: Monkey Baa’s blissful Pete the Sheep had a national tour in 2014 and is being revived for loads of performances at the Sydney Opera House (July 2-17) and a few shows at Arts Centre Melbourne in late July. I loved it to bits and may well have to go again.

The Peasant Prince ends in Sydney on April 20, followed by an Australian tour to 37 cities. (See monkeybaa.com.au for cities and dates.)

There’s something so enchanting about children’s uncensored reactions to theatre made for them, even if it’s not specifically interactive theatre. At the performance (April 14) I saw of CDP Productions’ Mr Stink, adapted from the popular David Walliams book (Sydney Opera House until April 24), children instantly shouted out when one character asked another a question requiring the answer no and they started clapping happily to the beat in a Bollywood dance number. They’ll find out soon enough they are supposed to sit quietly and not answer back in the theatre, but how lovely to see them thoroughly engaged. Maryam Master does a straightforward job of adapting Walliams’s story of a bullied girl who befriends a homeless man and teaches her family a valuable lesson or two and director Jonathan Biggins – he also directed Pete the Sheep – gets some welcome physical comedy into the mix. The fart jokes, of which there were several, made their mark on each occasion. Some things never grow old.

Mr Stink is for children as young as six years. Flying Fruit Fly Circus’s Stunt Lounge (just finished at the Sydney Opera House) was for those aged 12 or older and features FFFC recent graduates putting on their first independent show. It didn’t entirely make clear its aim of exploring risk in the lives of young people and defining boundaries but the performers (I saw them on April 14) were delightful, with Jess Mews’s magical hoops solo a standout. Director Darcy Grant was a founding member of Circa and that company’s interest in using circus skills in the service of complex dramatic situations was clearly an influence. Circa is now a big deal internationally and has broadened the idea of what circus can achieve so it’s not a bad model.

The Ensemble Theatre in Sydney’s Kirribilli does what it does entirely without government support and has continuously for nearly 60 years – longer than any other professional theatre company in Australia. Obviously the company has to have an eye to repertoire that will fill the auditorium but it makes some extremely astute choices in the pursuit of fulfilling founder Hayes Gordon’s belief that theatre should be a civilising influence.

It was at The Ensemble in 2012, for instance, that I was able to see Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, which Melbourne Theatre Company had staged the year before. The Ensemble also programmed, in 2014, Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Clybourne Park (also seen at MTC). In late May the Kirribilli theatre stages Nina Raines’s Tribes, a much-garlanded play I saw Off-Broadway a couple of years ago. Right now it’s offering David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, a play (it opened on April 13) that tests assumptions about social mobility.

Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan in GOOD PEOPLE, photos by Clare Hawley-26

Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan in Good People. Photo: Clare Hawley

Under Mark Kilmurry’s direction and with a tremendously good cast led by Tara Morice, Good People takes us to South Boston – Southie – where Margaret (Morice) is being laid off from her shitty job at the Dollar Store. She’s been late once too often. Well, many times too often, but the last straw has been reached. She has her reasons, what with having a disabled adult daughter, but she’s also not perhaps the most reliable of employees.

She gets involved in a long-shot scheme to get a job via an old boyfriend Mike (Christopher Stollery), a man who got educated, became a doctor and lives in a very good part of town with his accomplished wife Kate (Zindzi Okenyo). Things don’t turn out too well, in large part because Margaret doesn’t know how to operate in this world. Despite being what she and her friends call “good people”, in this situation she is out of her depth – too angry, needy, calculating and devious.

Lindsay-Abaire’s evocation of Margaret’s world and that of her friends Dottie (Gale Ballantyne) and Jean (Jane Phegan) and her former boss Stevie (Drew Livingston) is vivid and compassionate. Sometimes circumstances just conspire against people, and some other people have all the luck.

Good People runs at The Ensemble until May 21 and if there is any justice will have full houses for every performance.

Last week (April 15) also brought the premiere of Sydney Theatre Company’s Hay Fever, the 1925 Noel Coward comedy. My review is in the April 18 edition of The Australian and I’ll expand on that in a few days on the blog. Let’s just say for now that Heather Mitchell, playing Judith Bliss, is a goddess and director Imara Savage has two for two after her triumph of last year with Andrew Bovell’s After Dinner.

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.

February wrap

A quick look at what February brought in the theatre in Sydney, and beyond …

Travis Cardona in This Heaven, Belvoir Downstairs. Photo: Brett Boardman

Travis Cardona in This Heaven, Belvoir Downstairs. Photo: Brett Boardman

AT this year’s Perth International Arts Festival I was able to see, in one evening, the festival’s biggest and smallest pieces of theatre – The Threepenny Opera from the Berliner Ensemble, weighing in at about three hours and filling His Majesty’s Theatre, and Remor, an 11-minute piece for two performers, an audience of about 10 and taking place in a space smaller than many a garden shed. Fittingly, the Remor shed was indeed inside the Festival Gardens.

I don’t think it’s a festival unless I can see at least two performances in one day – I’d prefer to see three or four; just a personal quirk – so the Threepenny Opera/Remor day was a satisfying one. Remor was a wordless physical theatre in which a man and a woman, oblivious to one another, enacted the terrifying restlessness of someone locked away with no hope of release. It was rough, sweaty theatre.

The Threepenny Opera was the exact reverse: urbane, sophisticated, knowing, visually exquisite and performed with immense poise, clarity and wit. I loved that the actors weren’t much chop as singers but put their songs across as if they were; I loved that Macheath looked like a perverse version of matinee idol Leslie Howard, Peachum as if he were wearing a Noh mask and Tiger Brown as a ringer for Conrad Veidt in his Cabinet of Dr Caligari days; I adored the band playing that tremendous Kurt Weill music … Well, you get the picture. It was a brilliant piece of programming from Jonathan Holloway.

Back in Sydney, February offered theatre productions as diverse as Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy (Gaiety Theatre in association with Mardi Gras), George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (Sydney Theatre Company), Great Falls by Lee Blessing (The Ensemble) and This Heaven by Nakkiah Lui, at Belvoir Downstairs.

Torch Song Trilogy suffered from feeling and looking like a museum piece. Director Stephen Colyer didn’t find a way of bringing the politics and emotional tangles into the here and now, where they certainly still exist. Great Falls isn’t such a great play – too contrived in so many places – but under director Anna Crawford, Erica Lovell and Christopher Stollery give cracking performances which almost persuade you the play has more merit than it does.

Mrs Warren’s Profession is a play Sydney Theatre Company subscribers appear to have been hanging out for. An extension was announced before it even opened. The question of how one is to survive in an unequal world is evergreen, as is the question of who gets to judge whom. Sarah Giles’s production is a little too cool for my taste, with Lizzie Schebesta getting the rectitude of Vivie but not enough else. Helen Thomson is seen to great advantage as Mrs Warren, her ripeness a welcome contrast to the brittleness of the rest, but I don’t think I was supposed to side with her as strongly as I did.

Lui’s This Heaven is the work of a young writer with a supple voice and something to say. Under Lee Lewis’s direction it has emerged as a shattering piece of theatre. In its essentials the story is far from unique. There’s an Aboriginal man from out west in Sydney, an arrest, a death, the attempt to get justice, the failure to get it, the inevitable anger, and a chilling aftermath. The characters are engrossing and the action unfolds as precisely as in an ancient Greek tragedy.

Lui has the ability to see the reality of individuals – how their circumstances, their nature, their ambitions, their limitations shape them – and to show them as flawed and changeable without losing focus or seeming forced. Equally important is how resonant This Heaven is. It’s rooted firmly in a very specific story, but is not limited by it. The play isn’t perfect – there’s a somewhat uneasy start and one or two clunky moments – but it’s been given a superb production that deserves all the praise that’s been heaped on it. The performances from Jada Alberts, Joshua Anderson, Travis Cardona, Eden Falk and Tessa Rose are tremendously strong, with Cardona and Anderson just heartbreaking.

Great Falls continues at The Ensemble until March 9. This Heaven continues at Belvoir Downstairs until March 18. Mrs Warren’s Profession, until April 6 and July 4-20.