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.

Zest and immediacy

Bell Shakespeare, Canberra Theatre Centre, June 15.

As Bell nears the end of its long run of Henry V, here’s what I wrote after its premiere in Canberra…

IN an air raid shelter during the Blitz in London, some young people delve into bookshelves and pull out Shakespeare. Their stage is a room with a blackboard and some rackety shelves, their costumes nothing more than what they can put over their school uniforms. As sirens blare and bombs fall, they put on a play about war.

There could be few productions of Henry V scrappier, less heroic or more affecting than this. Essentially a bunch of kids in a confined space put on accents and lark about, yet the simplicity and intimacy pierce the heart as surely as King Henry’s archers at Agincourt routed the French. Director Damien Ryan sees nothing worth exalting in Henry’s pursuit of conquest. He sees the damage and the never-ending trail of misery.

These things are of course explicit in Shakespeare’s text and in others of his history plays. At the end of Henry IV Part II Lancaster predicts that “ere this year expire/ We bear our civil swords and native fire/ As far as France” and Henry V ends with the Chorus reminding us that in the near future Henry VI “lost France and made his England bleed”. But the elan of Henry V’s rhetoric and his stunning success at Agincourt often lead the way in the theatre. The brilliant “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” oratory at the Siege of Harfleur and the magical St Crispin’s day speech – “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” – are hard to resist.

Ryan does resist, adding prologue of excerpts from Richard II and Henry IV to beef up the point. No matter what the talk of peace there is always conflict, often on the most convoluted of pretexts. It was a joy to see the complicated Salic Law explained by Keith Agius’s Chorus, teacher clad in a knitted cardie and wielding a stick of chalk.

The Chorus has earlier famously called on the audience to use its “imaginary forces” to summon vast fields, large armies, prancing horses and bellicose monarchs. “For ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,” he says. But Ryan – whose productions for his own company, Sport for Jove, are always marvelously lucid – clearly sees that getting through all that virtually impenetrable Salic Law business would be a mighty slog if we were left to our own devices. The blackboard diagrams are really rather useful.

Apart from Michael Sheasby as Henry, everyone in the terrific 10-strong cast plays multiple characters in the style of a boys’ and girls’ own adventure yarn. Anna Gardiner’s design gives them little more than shelves to become city walls, a tavern, a king’s receiving room and barricades on a battle field and it works wonderfully. Not to mention practical: there’s a huge national tour coming up. The air of improvisation gives the action zest and immediacy and there is none of that dread impression of a production created solely for the purpose of being able to be packed up quickly and thrown in the back of a truck.

Sheasby is a light-voiced Henry who at first sounds like an attractive but unseasoned actor thrown by chance into a part. By the time Henry is skulking around at night eavesdropping on the troops to see what they think of him, and then as he woos the French princess Katharine (played with much wit by Eloise Winestock), Sheasby has blossomed nicely. But his primary role is not Henry, by turns benevolent and blood-thirsty as the political needs dictate, it is a boy playing Henry. The sense of distance between performers and performed is always strong, particularly as from time to time they repeat key points or throw in a stage direction or two to reorient themselves in the text.

Despite the appearance of robust mucking up this is delicate work and it is beautifully choreographed, not just physically but also in the quicksilver changes of mood and beautifully judged musical accompaniment. Steve Francis composed the score and created the sound design; actor Drew Livingston, who was the amusingly dogged Fluellen among other roles, wrote vocal music of grace and beauty.

The inspiration for the setting comes from reports of plays and entertainments being put on in shelters during the Blitz, when war rained down relentlessly on the heads of non-combatants and was greeted with stoic resistance. Ryan uses the imagery potently and at one point deeply shockingly. There’s a lot more going on than plucky Brits outwitting Johnny Foreigner as Ryan seamlessly layers past and present.

This is not a production in which Shakespeare’s language reigns. Henry’s big speeches are dialed down and are just part of the messy flow of war. I think Ryan’s chief point is that the boys in the shelter aren’t yet old enough to be seduced by that “little touch of Harry in the night”, bestowed to bolster courage and commitment on the English soldiers. But the Blitz happened in the early 1940s. Perhaps the following year, or the one after, they’d be old enough to be sent to fight.

Ends in Canberra June 28, followed by an extensive national tour ending in Sydney November 15.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 17.