King and the king-maker

The Legend of King O’Malley, Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney, December 2

Rupert, Theatre Royal, Sydney, December 3

IT’S delicious to think that Federation-era politician King O’Malley and present-day media baron Rupert Murdoch could have met, and a shame I have no reason to think they did. They are endlessly fascinating and important characters in Australian history, one having his heyday in the first two decades of the 20th century and the other a dominant figure at century’s end.

How could they have met? Well, the newsworthy O’Malley – in at the birth of the Commonwealth Bank, proponent of Canberra as the nation’s capital and responsible for the American spelling of the Australian Labor Party – lived until he was 99 and died in Melbourne at the end of 1953; Murdoch had inherited his father’s newspaper business the year before. I can see it happening.

But despite the lovely symmetry of O’Malley being an American-turned-Australian and Murdoch an Australian-turned-American, and of both being over-powering personalities, it’s not a connection that would immediately spring to mind except for a happy coincidence of theatre programming.

In the indie corner is Don’t Look Away’s most welcome revival of The Legend of King O’Malley, written by Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis in 1970. In the heavy-hitter’s corner is David Williamson’s bio-drama Rupert, which premiered at Melbourne Theatre Company last year and is now having a commercial season in Sydney. They are brilliant companion pieces.

King O’Malley is rough as guts and Rupert is a highly engineered piece of work, but the two productions share an irrepressible energy, the kind that brings to mind licking a finger and sticking it in a power socket. Both are biographical, kind of, but really they’re about politics. And power. Why these men want it, get it, keep it.

Both productions smash the imaginary fourth wall to talk directly to their audiences and have the swaggering, hyper-charged physicality of vaudeville. It’s a style that cuts the crap and doesn’t mind taking a strong, challenging position. King O’Malley feels bracingly immediate in its less-than-flattering depiction of political manoeuvring; in Rupert there’s a remarkably vivid depiction of how amped-up editors and journalists speak and behave. It’s a, shall we say, punchy mode that seemed to stun many in the audience of the matinee I attended, and I mean that literally. At times the shock was palpable. (I laughed immoderately, but I am a long-time member of the profession. Memories, memories.)

It was splendid to be reminded of King O’Malley’s fascinating career and of the play’s importance in the creation of the Australian theatrical new wave. It was equally riveting to see laid out the audacious, barnstorming career of Rupert Murdoch. You won’t feel at the end of either play that you know the men, but you will know what they did and the society in which they did it. You may even ponder your role in the political process: do you think for yourself, or let others do it for you?

You’ve still got time to see both these productions. Do it.

The Legend of King O’Malley ends December 13.

Rupert ends December 21.

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

Williamson, Fleming

Cruise Control, by David Williamson, Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, April 30

His Mother’s Voice, by Justin Fleming, bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company, ATYP Selects, May 2

DAVID Williamson has been writing plays for more than 45 years and hasn’t lost his touch with the well-crafted one-liner that effortlessly extracts a happy burst of laughter from a full house. He can be very entertaining indeed. His latest work, Cruise Control, has a pretty good stock of zingers in a set-up guaranteed to supply copious opportunities for them.

Three couples on a cruise have failed to arrange private tables for dinner and are thrown together for the duration – over-sharing Americans (Kate Fitzpatrick and Henri Szeps), brash, confident Australians (Helen Dallimore, Peter Phelps) and a tricky English couple comprising nice put-upon wife and self-regarding, philandering husband (Michelle Doake, Felix Williamson). All steam ahead for culture clashes and a big splash of sexual intrigue, leavened with some gentle social commentary occasioned by the presence of warm and wise steward Charlie (Kenneth Moraleda).

Helen Dallimore and Felix Williamson in Cruise Control. Photo: Clare Hawley

Helen Dallimore and Felix Williamson in Cruise Control. Photo: Clare Hawley

There is no profundity here, but Williamson is a keen observer of human tics and foibles and the going is easy for the first half. Alas the second half sails into more turbulent waters and does so rather creakily with an over-explanatory and frankly unbelievable denouement.

Marissa Dale-Johnson’s design makes astute and evocative use of the small Ensemble space, the cast is strong and Williamson, who took on direction duties, acquits himself well in that regard. But perhaps another director might have been able to persuade the playwright to give that second act another couple of drafts. Not surprisingly, though, The Ensemble already has had need to extend the Sydney season by offering performances at Chatswood’s The Concourse after the Kirribilli run.

Justin Fleming’s His Mother’s Voice could also do with another draft or two but its subject is entrancing and already it’s a work of substance and resonance. The play is set mainly in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath and partly in Canberra, fluidly moving between time and place. A mother teaches her son (the very composed 12-year-old Isaiah Powell when young, Harry Tseng when an adult) the piano despite the risk, and then the reality, of being persecuted for being bourgeois. For Yang Jia, played with understated grace and gleaming intelligence by Renee Lim, music is a universal language. The Chinese apparatchiks who harry her see Western music as the enemy of Chinese music; she sees the two as complementary.

Isaiah Powell in His Mother's Voice. Photo: Tessa Tran

Isaiah Powell in His Mother’s Voice. Photo: Tessa Tran

When her piano is destroyed Yang Lia finds another, incredibly touching, way of continuing her son’s education in the greats of Western classical music.

The politics of the Cultural Revolution collide with international politics, and if at times some of the arguments on the Western side seem a little stilted, Fleming’s portrayal of the contradictions acceptable – necessary? – in Chinese thinking is fascinating.

Suzanne Millar choreographs the swirling action (she co-designed the sparse, cleverly flexible set with John Harrison) with admirable clarity and it was a particular pleasure to see so many actors of Asian heritage on stage. How frequently the theatre world talks about diversity, and how infrequently we actually see it.

His Mother’s Voice ends May 17.

Cruise Control ends at The Ensemble, Kirribilli, on June 14. Then Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, Wollongong, June 18-21, followed by The Concourse, Chatswood, for three performances on June 24 and 25.

 

The year ahead

And coming up in 2014 …

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

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

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

Dance:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatre:

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

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

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

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

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

Opera and musical theatre:

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

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

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

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

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

Noel and Gertie, The Removalists

Noel and Gertie, a CDP production, Glen St Theatre, Sydney, May 25.

The Removalists, Tamarama Rock Surfers, Bondi Pavilion, Sydney, May 29

NOEL Coward and Gertrude Lawrence met as child actors and immediately and lastingly took to one another. Sheridan Morley’s evocation of their bond, Noel and Gertie, was created in 1981 to be performed at a benefit, although its careful construction meant it had a later life in several theatre seasons in the 1980s in London. It’s a wisp of a piece: amusing, charming and deftly avoiding anything too personal – not that Morley was unacquainted with this subjects as he had written biographies of both. He chose, however, to concentrate on the glamour, wit and style of the pair as refracted through the theatah.

Lucy Maunder and James Millar in Noel and Gertie. Photo: Nicholas Higgins

Lucy Maunder and James Millar in Noel and Gertie. Photo: Nicholas Higgins

Naturally this means lots of lovely songs, sensitively accompanied on grand piano by music director Vincent Colagiuri, and happy reminders of Coward’s stage works. Scenes from plays – Private Lives, of course; Blithe Spirit; Tonight at 8.30 – are stitched together neatly with the music and material from diaries and letters to paint a fond and rosy picture with just a tinge of melancholy. Coward and Lawrence’s youth when they started in the business is the excuse for a rollicking Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington, and Has Anybody Seen Our Ship? from Red Peppers, one of the 10 short plays that make up Tonight at 8.30, is cheerful, uplifting nonsense.

The show, however, leans more towards reflection. Parisian Pierrot, from the revue London Calling!, was written for Lawrence and is beautifully sung by Lucy Maunder, as are Sail Away and If Love Were All, which contains the phrase so often associated with Coward, “a talent to amuse”. It was much more than that, of course, although not necessarily recognised right away by the critical establishment. James Millar, as Coward, is given the lovely line that in the early days he was forced to accept “the bitter palliative of commercial success”. What a Noel-y thing to say.

Under Nancye Hayes’s light-touch direction Maunder is an enchanting Gertie, poised and soignee to just the right degree. Millar could find just a little more gloss for the Master but he has time, given the lengthy tour Noel and Gertie is about to embark on.

And just a few words on The Removalists …

THERE could be no greater contrast to Noel and Gertie than David Williamson’s The Removalists (1971), written in the playwright’s gritty early years (it was written in the same year as Don’s Party and the year after The Coming of Stork).

The Tamarama Rock Surfers production, directed by Leland Kean, is a beauty: tough, lean, as shocking today as it was four decades ago. Constable Ross (Sam O’Sullivan), fresh out of the academy, turns up for his first day of work to find he’s in a little suburban police outpost where if things are big, they need the attention of a bigger station, and if they are small, they’re probably too small to worry about.

Justin Stewart Cotta

Justin Stewart Cotta in The Removalists

The sergeant (Laurence Coy) is one of those incredibly passive-aggressive types who has the art of manipulation so well-honed it’s as natural as breathing. Or, in his case, as sitting down and deflecting work. Except when there might be a bit of advantage to be taken.

The Removalists is a NSW HSC drama text and the performance I attended was an early evening one for students. It was fascinating and heartening to see the group of mainly young men so attentive to the piece, and also taken aback by the casual sexism Williamson so deftly illuminates. I assume the students had already read the play so knew where it was all heading, but the way the Sarge patronised the women who had come for his help, made vile insinuations and put his hands everywhere had some in the audience literally gasping.

Terrific performances all round, by the way, with a special mention to Justin Stewart Cotta as Kenny, the over-bearing, boorish husband who knocks around his wife a bit and gets rather more back than anyone intended.

Noel and Gertie ends at Sydney’s Glen St Theatre on June 1. Then Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, Penrith, June 5-6; Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, June 11-15; Frankston Arts Centre, Frankston, June 20; Whitehorse Centre, Nunawading, June 21-22; The Concourse, Chatswood, June 26-29; Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, Queanbeyan, July 2-7; Dubbo Regional Theatre, Dubbo, July 10; Orange Civic Theatre, Orange, July 12-13; Laycock Street Theatre, Gosford, July 16-18; Manning Entertainment Centre, Taree, July 20; The Space, Adelaide Festival Centre, Adelaide, July 23-27.

The Removalists ends June 15.