ab [intra], Sydney Dance Company

Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney, May 15.

This one is all about the dancers. It’s about how, to the audience, they look, feel and taste. How astonishing they are in form and function. How magnificent the human body can be and how powerful its effects on an observer.

On the dancers’ side of the fourth wall there’s something more private and alluring going on. Rafael Bonachela’s dancers have always been an integral part of the choreographer’s creative process but they have never looked more fundamentally embedded in the fabric of the piece than here, nor more mysterious.

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Janessa Dufty and Izzac Carroll in Rafael Bonachela’s ab [intra]. Photo: Pedro Greig

ab [intra] (meaning from within) has not the slightest degree of narrative. It is moulded from moods and sensations, aided in no small way by the spare, elegant designs by Damien Cooper (lighting) and David Fleischer (production and costumes). The visual austerity is arrestingly achieved and gorgeous to look at. Fleischer’s vast white space is filled only with light and the dancers’ energy. Cooper sometimes lifts the wattage but his illumination is mostly restrained and filtered, primarily through the persistent haze that gives ab [intra] a dreamy quality.

The exacting simplicity is counterbalanced by Nick Wales’s sumptuous electronica-meets-cello score that intersperses new music by Wales with movements from works by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks. While the cello is the dominant voice (one is reminded that it’s an instrument played with the body intimately wrapped around it), Wales also uses other strings, often heard played pizzicato, the piano and percussion in his richly furnished, emotionally involving aural soundscape.

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Charmene Yap and Davide Di Giovanni in ab [intra]. Photo: Pedro Grieg

It’s fascinating to see how the ferocious, out-there physicality of the dancers is used in the service of a work that teems with secrets. Everywhere you look there are unexpected moves, groupings, gestures and connections that don’t reveal themselves fully, even when certain images or phrases return.

At the beginning light is diffused through slats high above the stage and at all times if dancers come to the front of the stage they are in silhouette. The closer they get to the audience the less they can be seen and the more intriguing they appear.

One very brief interaction, seen early and later repeated, consists of a crouching person stroking the leg of one standing. The two are by no means the centre of attention and, because they are so far forward and to the side, there is little light on them. The meaning is impossible to decipher and yet the image lingers, as do many other small, pungent moments.

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Nelson Earl and Sydney Dance Company in ab [intra]. Photo: Pedro Grieg

These swirl around more formal set pieces. Janessa Dufty and Izzac Carroll’s erotically entwined duo has a glowing, mystical quality. They scarcely leave the ground and are literally wrapped in one another. In the second central duo, Charmene Yap and Davide Di Giovanni are  tender and ecstatic but not entirely knowable either. Their partnering is lush, intricate, often surprising and exceptionally beautiful.

Phenomenal Nelson Earl has an anguished, torso-twisting solo in which he seems to seek escape from himself, implacably observed by a stock-still line of eerily lit others; later, Ariella Casu similarly removes herself from the group to dance to her own rhythm but is euphoric.

And what is happening in all those trios? Three is a magic number – third time lucky – but three’s also a crowd. There is inherent drama in groups of uneven number, a situation Bonachela amplifies when two groups of five face off. And there are, as it happens, eight women and seven men in ab [intra].

It’s impossible to catch everything, no matter how hard you try, which only adds to the intensity of the experience. Everyone on stage has their own part to play, enacting intimate dramas or watching closely as they unfold. Over the years Sydney Dance Company has been home to dancers of remarkable presence and personality. Dufty has been there for a decade, Yap not much less. Both are glorious. At the other end of the scale, Earl joined in 2016, Carroll and Di Giovanni last year and Casu this year. It’s incredibly satisfying to see that even though there’s been quite a bit of change in the ranks recently, that bracing individuality remains. ab [intra] is proof positive.

Ends in Sydney May 26. Then Melbourne, May 30-June 2; Darwin, June 15; Perth, June 28-30; Canberra, August 30-September 1. Regional centres in Western Australia, Queensland and NSW, June 20-August 11.

Love and Information, twice

Minetta Lane Theatre, New York, February 9, 2014

Sydney Theatre Company, July 15, 2015

The script for Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information gives little away at first glance. There are many scenes and no stage directions. Characters are not named and only very occasionally is it clear that lines or actions must be assigned to a man or a woman. There are rarely instructions about whether you need one, two or more people to enact the scene. Every now and again a certain setting is implied but mostly the characters could be anywhere. Most scenes can be achieved with only two speakers or even one but potentially there can be more. Sometimes. The choices open to the director, in other words, are multitudinous.

Sydney Theatre Company-Malthouse Theatre's Love and Information. Photo: Pia Johnson

Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre’s production of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information. Photo: Pia Johnson

But there are also strict parameters. Churchill allows some flexibility about scene order but only within individual “acts” (Love and Information runs without a break for something under two hours). There are seven of these sections, each of which has seven scenes, and the play ends with an immovable final extra scene. Every scene in the main body of the text must be played, plus at least one “Depression”, a fragment of thought (there are 10 or so available) that can be placed anywhere. That means the minimum number of scenes is 51, although there can be more than 70 if a director chooses several Depressions and some or all of more than a dozen optional scenes.

It’s a fascinating combination of freedom and precision, and a structure that brilliantly illuminates one of Churchill’s central ideas. In Love and Information there is almost constant tension between certainty and uncertainty – what we think and what may be the truth; between feeling and fact. Not that we can necessarily trust everything that’s presented as gospel, or have complete faith in everything we are sure we know. In scene after scene there are secrets, deflections, illusions, evasions, misconceptions and revelations. In Wedding Video, for instance, a person can recall only the things that were recorded on that day and nothing else. In Affair, a person struggles to reveal to a friend an infidelity she knows about, one that closely affects the friend. As if happens, the friend has known for ages. Years. More chillingly, in Torture there is the following exchange: “He’ll get to where he’ll say anything.” “We’re not paid extra for it to be true.”

Churchill’s vignettes whizz by like tickertape news flashes, some as short as a few seconds, touching on information and the reception and exchange of it in many guises: scientific data, official reports, personal records, conversation, flirting, arguing, religious belief, gossip, memories and – most potently – memory itself. The accumulation of ideas is exhilarating and if some scenes fall a little flat, well, there’s another along in just a moment. For the most part, though, Love and Information zings along with the kind of wit and economy most writers can only dream of. Here, in its entirety, is the scene titled Sex:

What sex evolved to do is get information from two sets of genes so you get offspring that’s not identical to you. Otherwise you just keep getting the same thing over and over again like hydra or starfish. So sex essentially is information.

You don’t think that while we’re doing it do you?

It doesn’t hurt to know it. Information and also love.

If you’re lucky.

 

What, though, to do with all this stuff?

Love and Information premiered at London’s Royal Court in 2012 in a dazzling production directed by James Macdonald with a set by Miriam Buether. That production was restaged in New York at the Minetta Lane Theatre, which is where I saw it early last year. This year Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre joined forces for a co-production, a significantly different one directed by Kip Williams and designed by David Fleischer.

The play is hugely demanding on cast and crew. Not only are there dozens of short scenes, Churchill instructs that each involves new characters, about 100 in all. Every scene is written as a discrete entity and Macdonald’s production emphasised this disconnection. Beuther’s set, a stark white cube with lines suggesting graph paper, was rendered utterly invisible after each scene. As if by magic (a super-speedy shutter apparently) the bright light was gone and darkness engulfed the space. There was not a flicker of movement to be seen on stage. Seconds later the shutter opened in an instant – more magic – and a new scene appeared. The swiftness of changes, often reasonably elaborate, was extraordinary; almost hallucinatory. (The effect has been likened to a series of snapshots.) First you saw it; then you didn’t; then you saw something completely different.

There was a strong sense of the laboratory, with the gleaming white, the tightly circumscribed space and the implacable, impersonal blackout. The characters were pitilessly under the microscope as they tried to connect with one another in this highly controlled environment.

Williams’s production needed a different solution for the open spaces of the Malthouse and STC’s Wharf 1. Fleischer’s fluid set of large white blocks is lightly suggestive of a maze, although the elements are moved so frequently (and vividly – that swimming pool!) to create other environments that the notion of an experiment is much less strong than with Beuther’s design. The lights might be lowered as the actors move the blocks but they could be seen going about the business of altering the landscape. This flow between spaces, and between actor as character and actor as stagehand, is inescapably part of the piece.

And – this is important I think – there are only eight actors in Williams’s production where there were 16 in Macdonald’s. Williams’s men and women become very familiar and interesting to us as the play progresses. We see them a lot as they come and go, sometimes very swiftly indeed on their way to their next costume change, and Williams also chooses to populate some scenes with more than just the required speakers. Even though the actors are always playing a new part, this is very definitely a group rather than a random set of individuals. I was also very struck by one of Williams’s choices near the end of the production where he lets several scenes flow into one another in complete contrast to Macdonald’s total observation of demarcation between scenes. In the STC-Malthouse production a natural history museum amusingly complete with specimens of early ancestors and a sombre graveyard add associations and atmospherics to scenes written with no suggestion of them.

Ursula Yovich and Harry Greenwood in STC-Malthouse's Love and Information. Photo: Pia Johnson

Ursula Yovich and Harry Greenwood in STC-Malthouse’s Love and Information. Photo: Pia Johnson

Perhaps the easiest way to define the key difference between the productions is to say that Macdonald made one observe how difficult it is to achieve true communication despite the many tools at our disposal, and how fascinating that is to study, and that Williams made one aware of how deeply people need to communicate, no matter how imperfectly they do it. Macdonald’s production looked elegant, sophisticated, cool, distancing. It was a technical tour de force. Williams’s is warmer and more touching. Macdonald leaned towards the information side of the ledger, Williams is drawn to love. There is great value in both and each gave me different insights into the play.

E.M.Forster’s famous lines from Howards End come to mind: “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer.”

Love and Information continues at Sydney Theatre Company until August 15.

Love and information: international theatre in 2014

TWO pieces of 2015 theatre programming in Melbourne would have interested me anyway, but having seen the shows in New York early this year makes them irresistible. Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information (Melbourne’s Malthouse, from June 12, Sydney Theatre Company from July 9) and Jonathan Tollins’s Buyer and Cellar (Melbourne Theatre Company, from October 30) are tours de force requiring actors of great agility, but in very different ways.

Buyer and Cellar is a love-in between an irrepressible, highly indiscreet man and an audience avid for what the Americans call dish. The actor – at MTC it will be the delectable Ash Flanders – plays an under-used actor, Alex, who finds unusual employment with Barbra Streisand. Babs! Could anything be more heavenly?!! Buyer and Cellar amusingly satisfies our seemingly insatiable appetite for celebrity culture but there are some darker threads too, woven through with the lightest of touches. Everything depends, of course, on the charm of the performer playing Alex, given that we’re in his company for 90 uninterrupted minutes. Michael Urie originated the part and became quite the celebrity himself in New York. Rather delicious really.

I am surprised to see on the Malthouse website that Love and Information will feature eight actors. The production I saw used 15 and they were all pretty busy, given that Churchill’s play has more than 100 characters. In an interval-less two hours it presents more than 50 short scenes, some lasting only seconds. You can imagine what it’s like backstage. Churchill touches acutely on the variety of ways in which communication happens and also what it contains. Information can be personal, scientific, mathematical, political, mediated, terrifying, baffling, consoling, right, wrong and so many other things. The production I saw at the Minetta Lane Theatre was first staged at London’s Royal Court in 2012 and was dazzlingly set in a stark white tiled cube that was completely blacked out at the end of each scene to allow nifty changes. I will be fascinated to see what solution Malthouse and STC’s designer, David Fleischer, comes up with.

Three New York highlights:

Shakespeare’s Globe in Twelfth Night and Richard III, both starring the protean Mark Rylance: In the first he was an Olivia in great emotional disarray but able to snap into razor-sharp acuity when needed. He operated at the highest level of artifice but the glittering surface was like a protective shield for the most delicate of emotions. Breathtaking. In Richard III, he was a ratty-looking, manipulative, weasely murderer protected, for the moment, by his powerful position and a psychopathic belief in himself. I will carry with me for a long time the scene in which Richard asks a lackey to put out the news that Lady Anne “is sick and like to die”. Anne – Joseph Timms – was standing beside Richard, who sat on his throne and jovially put his arm around his wife and squeezed her waist. The gesture would seem affectionate, if not for his words and if not for the rag doll-like quiescence with which Anne allowed herself to be cuddled, all the while standing upright, dazed, but still noble. Tremendous stuff.

American Repertory Theater’s The Glass Menagerie, starring Cherry Jones as Amanda Wingfield: This was a production you could see repeatedly and one it’s hard to imagine being bettered. [I wrote this for my blog long before seeing Belvoir’s recent production. I’ll stick by my view.] The director was John Tiffany, whose riveting Black Watch we saw at the Sydney Festival a few years back and Stephen Hoggett, who choreographed Black Watch, was movement director. In this production Tennessee Williams’s memory play was illuminated by so many delicate, resonant, surprising, beautiful and heart-breaking touches: Bob Crowley’s spare set of hexagonal platforms that floated in a dark sea, the skeletal fire escape stairs that diminished in size as they disappeared upwards, the one glass animal that represented Laura’s collection, the way in which Laura made her entrance and exit, the sudden pull of memory that drew Tom into the past, the tenderness and restraint of the scene between Laura and the Gentleman Caller … well, one could go on and on. The performances, all of them, were exquisite – Jones, Zachary Quinto as Tom, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura and Brian J. Smith as the Gentleman Caller suspended time and place.

Two London highlights:

Simon Russell Beale as King Lear: Sam Mendes’s production for the National Theatre wasn’t entirely transcendent but Simon Russell Beale is one of the greatest of all classical actors and he didn’t disappoint. The moments of poignancy as Lear realises he is losing his mind and has thrown away everything of value were devastating. I was sitting quite close to the stage and to see the depths of Lear’s folly, madness and final clarity of vision revealed so piercingly was an experience I won’t forget. And one has to give it to the National Theatre. A company that fields for Lear a retinue of about 25 convincingly riotous soldiers is a company prepared to go the extra mile to achieve a director’s vision. The cast numbered 51 in all.

King Charles III, a “future history” written by Mike Bartlett, at the Almeida, directed by Rupert Goold: Queen Elizabeth II has just died and the formality of Charles’s coronation will follow in due time. But he is already the monarch and must assume the responsibilities of the role immediately. What happens immediately is a clash between the King and his government over a bill to restrict the press. Charles refuses to give royal assent and stubbornly sets off a constitutional crisis that ricochets across the country. There’s a tank out the front of Buckingham Palace before you know it. Prince Harry wants out of the royal family, William is forced into a mediation role and Kate – well, there are exceptionally interesting developments there.

Bartlett treads a sure path between satire and tragedy while using Shakespearean forms and echoes to enrich and amuse. Much is in blank verse and there are references galore, albeit often glancing, to Hamlet, Richard II, Macbeth, Henry IV. This framework lets Bartlett switch from laughter to tears in an instant and to give deep context to the discussion about the role of the monarchy.

For Charles (superbly given life by Tim Piggott-Smith), if he is not able to follow his conscience on individual matters, does he have any power at all? Others have a longer view about the way in which the monarchy can wield influence. As you can imagine, seeing this play with a British audience was a bracing experience.

King Charles III transferred to the West End where it runs until the end of January.

Tomorrow: Opera and musical theatre

Two up, two down

The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Darlinghurst Theatre Company and Workhorse Theatre Company, September 23

Children of the Sun, Sydney Theatre Company, September 24 (matinee)

The Last Confession, Chichester Festival Theatre production, Theatre Royal, Sydney, September 24 (evening)

Wicked, Capitol Theatre, Sydney, September 25

LET’S start with Wicked. It’s not quite The Lion King, which last week was announced as the world’s most successful entertainment with box office of more than $6 billion, but it’s not doing too shabbily. In its 10 years (to The Lion King’s 17) Wicked has grossed about $3 billion worldwide. Normally one doesn’t like to make money the measure of success, but in the musical theatre sphere it tells the story in the simplest possible way. People – lots and lots and lots of people – love the spectacle, the rousing music, the romance and the sense of occasion that these productions so expertly combine. Some audience members will see them once, others will go literally hundreds of times.

And some of us – critics, for instance – will see such productions perhaps three or four times. We are not the swept-away first-timers, nor the intensely (worryingly?) devoted regulars. We can see that every production is the same as the one that went before it, and the one that will follow it. That there is an automatic quality that can seep into the performances unless the cast members have particularly individual gifts.

Lucy Durack and Jemma Rix in Wicked. Photo: Jeff Busby

Lucy Durack and Jemma Rix in Wicked. Photo: Jeff Busby

In this incarnation of Wicked Reg Livermore, playing the Wizard, stands out as such an individual – but then that was always Reg. (I first saw him as Betty Blokk Buster in 1975 and it remains a cherished memory.) I salute Jemma Rix (Elphaba) for her generous, unmannered stage presence despite having performed this role more than 800 times. I found Lucy Durack (Glinda) somewhat frayed of voice and a touch too effortful in the comedy. The ensemble didn’t dance well enough, although the choreography isn’t all that much to write home about.

That said, Wicked has important themes in the acceptance of difference and the need to question oppressive authority (and how relevant are those right now!), and it has two strong women at its centre. Anyone seeing it for the first time should have a terrific night out.

Not such a terrific night out is The Last Confession, a too-wordy exploration of Vatican politics at a most intriguing time in modern Catholic Church history. It deals with the making of popes, the machinations of the Vatican Bank, the exercise of power within the Vatican and the sensationally short reign of Pope John Paul I, who died after only 33 days as pontiff. Was he murdered because he wanted to curb the ambitions of some senior and rather secular men of the cloth?

It’s a brilliant idea for a drama but first-time (and as far as I can tell, only-time) playwright Roger Crane has made dull work of it. The Last Confession is long, clunky and only occasionally gripping.

It does boast some fine acting, most especially from Richard O’Callaghan as Cardinal Albino Luciani, the man who reluctantly accepts the office of pope and immediately makes powerful enemies. The drawcard is David Suchet, the late Hercule Poiret, who perhaps chews the scenery a little too vigorously at times but is a resonant, commanding stage presence. The multinational cast is a very good one but the play and production feel very, very old-fashioned indeed.

There are, however, two unmissable productions in Sydney at present: Sydney Theatre Company’s Children of the Sun and Workhorse Theatre Company’s revival of its 2013 hit The Motherf**cker with the Hat. (I don’t quite get the use of asterisks in a word a seven-year-old could decipher, but at least it’s better than the American version, in which the key word in the title was expressed with a very long dash. Not one letter betrayed what the word might be.)

Troy Harrison in The Motherf**ker with the Hat. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Troy Harrison in The Motherf**ker with the Hat. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Workhorse’s premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s scintillating tragi-comedy took place at the tiny TAP Gallery last year and in truth suited that space better than it does the larger Eternity Playhouse stage. Virtually sitting on the bed and couch with the cast really worked for this sexy, passionate, tempestuous piece, but more people can fit into the Eternity, and Workhorse greatly deserves that audience. Jackie (Troy Harrison) is just out of the Big House, is trying to stay off the booze and drugs and has got himself a job; his adored Veronica (Zoe Trilsbach) has waited for him, but has she stayed faithful? Jackie sees a man’s hat on the table in her apartment and it’s on for young and old. Drawn into the force-10 emotional hurricane are Jackie’s AA sponsor Ralph and his spectacularly discontented wife Victoria (John Atkinson and Megan O’Connell) and Jackie’s cousin Julio (Nigel Turner-Carroll).

Guirgis’s language is a blast – inventive, highly coloured and hilariously profane – but his heart is tender. Trust, hope and love are his themes, explored in a setting that just may make it impossible for them to prosper.

The cast is fabulous and Adam Cook’s direction crackles with energy. And if you haven’t yet visited the Eternity Playhouse, you’re missing a wonderful addition to Sydney theatre.

At the end of the matinee performance of Children of the Sun that I attended, the audience was stunned into silence for quite a few moments. Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Gorky’s play is wondrous. It enlivens the language with modern touches that bring the characters closer but never feels as if it’s trampling on the original spirit of the piece.

Jacqueline McKenzie and Hamish Michael in Children of the Sun. Photo: Brett Boardman

Jacqueline McKenzie and Chris Ryan in Children of the Sun. Photo: Brett Boardman

It’s the mid-19th century and we can see that the comfortable bourgeois life enjoyed by the family Gorky puts before us will not last (Gorky was writing in 1905, in jail). These are essentially good people, but not all of them are paying quite enough attention. There’s a scientist who can see into the future but not what is right in front of him; there’s a woman whose sensitivity to impending disaster is debilitating; there are people trying to love and people – the poor – finding it hard to survive.

Director Kip Williams has assembled a superb cast, with none better than Jacqueline McKenzie’s seer-like Liza. Justine Clarke is very fine as the percipient, neglected wife of chemist Protasov (Toby Truslove) and Helen Thomson manages to make the needy Melaniya less ridiculous than she could easily be. Presiding over the household is Nanny (Valerie Bader in top form), the kind of servant who holds everything together but still has to do the family’s bidding.

David Fleischer’s revolving set, with a detailed family room but otherwise vestigial corners of other spaces, marvelously shows a world in the process of disintegration. We know how it all ended for Russia. Children of the Sun shows it in the process of happening within one family. The ending is devastating, which is why we all sat silent in the darkness, scarcely breathing.

The Last Confession, ends October 4; The Motherf**ker with the Hat ends October 19; Children of the Sun ends October 25; Wicked, no closing date announced for Sydney. Brisbane season opens February 15.