The Chocolate Frog and other plays

The Floating World, Griffin, Sydney, October 9; Hamlet, Belvoir, Sydney, October 16; The Chocolate Frog, Parramatta Correctional Centre, October 22; Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker, Melbourne Festival, October 25

 Hamlet: Denmark is a prison

Rosencrantz: Then is the world one

Hamlet: A goodly one; in which there are many confines

wards and dungeons, Denmark being one of the worst

A COUPLE of weeks ago I was invited to see a performance of Jim McNeil’s first play, The Chocolate Frog. It was a one-night-only affair at Parramatta Correctional Centre, now decommissioned as a prison but the place in which in 1970 McNeil, then serving a lengthy jail sentence for armed robbery, started writing drama.

The connection with the justice system went further than writer and venue. The performers themselves had criminal records, and after serving their sentences had come to acting through an unusual program. While casting extras for TV programs including various Underbelly series, former actor and now agent Grant Thompson met some people who had done time. It gave him the inspired idea of training former prisoners for film and television work.

Toby Schmitz and Robyn Nevin in Belvoir's Hamlet. Photo: Brett Boardman

Toby Schmitz and Robyn Nevin in Belvoir’s Hamlet. Photo: Brett Boardman

This story of reinvention will be told in a three-part TV series for Foxtel arts channel Studio, being made by Screentime and expected to be screened next year. Because the series has followed the process that led to the casting and performance of The Chocolate Frog I can’t give too much detail about the performers. We saw some of them deliver Shakespearean monologues before the play began, and we saw a tremendously involving performance of The Chocolate Frog. We heard a few stories, and when Thompson spoke he was on the verge of tears, so proud was he of his students’ achievements.

Theatre has touched these lives profoundly, and we in the audience were profoundly moved. I wish I could write more about one performer in particular but that would pre-empt the story to be told in Taking on … The Chocolate Frog. Let’s just say the filmmakers have riveting material to work with.

I saw The Chocolate Frog – prison slang for dog, or informer – shortly after Griffin’s The Floating World and Belvoir’s Hamlet, and shortly before Belarus Free Theatre’s Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker at the Melbourne Festival. All of them are plays of imprisonment, either physical or psychological or both. Simon Stone’s much-cut “I see dead people” Hamlet foregrounds the grief that unmoors the Prince and from which he can’t escape. In The Floating World Les Harding, former World War II Japanese prisoner of war, is sent mad by memory and guilt. Minsk 2011 describes the surreal ways in which reality is altered in a totalitarian society and is performed by actors who are either in exile or in danger of arrest but who still have the deepest attachment to their home.

From Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker. Photo: Sarah Walker

From Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker. Photo: Sarah Walker

Minsk 2011, a thrilling and challenging piece, had a very short festival season but The Floating World and Hamlet are still running in Sydney. I admired Hamlet very much and am thrilled I’ll be seeing it again when Ewen Leslie takes over the title role from Toby Schmitz. We don’t often get a chance to see important work through the prism of two very different actors.

As for The Floating World, it is a crucial piece of theatre. John Romeril’s 1975 play is as relevant as ever, it is given much honour by its cast in Sam Strong’s pitch-perfect production and it was an idea of genius to stage it now. Next year will be one of much soul-searching as the centenary of the start of World War I is commemorated. Peter Kowitz’s Les is devastating: I saw the final scene with tears pouring down my face. What horrors so many men have suffered.

Valerie Bader and Peter Kowitz in The Floating World. Photo: Brett Boardman

Valerie Bader and Peter Kowitz in The Floating World. Photo: Brett Boardman

I was reminded too that the Yirra Yaakin-Belvoir production of Robert J. Merritt’s The Cake Man was written in prison, in Sydney’s Long Bay, and was first staged in 1974 with Merritt allowed to attend the opening under guard. It deals with another kind of imprisonment – white imperialism. For so many of us, these plays are as close to the experience of oppression as we’ll ever get. How fortunate we are.

The Cake Man is being performed in Perth at present and comes to Sydney in two weeks.

The Floating World ends at The Stables, Kings Cross, on November 16. At Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, from November 19.

Toby Schmitz gives his last performance as Hamlet at Belvoir on November 17, after which Ewen Leslie takes over. Hamlet ends on December 1.

The Cake Man, Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre, Perth until November 9. Belvoir, Sydney, November 14-December 8.

The Bull, the Moon and the Coronet of Stars

Merrigong Theatre Company, Wollongong, April 23

FOR a little piece – two-hander, 75 minutes, minimal set, few props – The Bull, the Moon and the Coronet of Stars gets a lot done. Like those traveller’s towels that mop up the lord knows how many times their weight in water, Van Badham’s new play has a lean look and a thirsty embrace. A love letter to language, mythology and love itself, it’s clever, sexy, funny and uplifting.

A warning, though, to those who don’t know their Theseus from their Thesaurus: boning up beforehand on some Greek legend could pay dividends.

Matt Zeremes and Silvia Colloca in The Bull, the Moon and the Coronet of Stars. Photo: Brett Boardman

Matt Zeremes and Silvia Colloca in The Bull, the Moon and the Coronet of Stars. Photo: Brett Boardman

The Bull, the Moon takes messy, ordinary stuff – lust, infidelity, oops – and elevates it to the realm of the gods. That’s a long way to travel, you may think, but Badham makes delightful sense of it. Broken hearts are as plentiful as office workers at happy hour, but to someone suffering the torments of thwarted passion the pain isn’t one bit common; it is all-consuming and epic. It thus pleases Badham to conflate the fleeting affair between Marion, an artist-in-residence at a museum, and staff member Michael, a writer of press releases, with that of Ariadne and Theseus, maze, string, Minotaur and all.

The story unfolds almost entirely in the telling rather than the showing but things get pretty steamy, I can tell you, as Badham revels in sumptuous imagery and its erotic and comic possibilities.

When Marion (Silvia Colloca) is abandoned – no, the writer didn’t leave a note, the bastard – she becomes dry and angry, hacks her hair off, throws away the blue dress that showed off her ripe figure and takes a job leading art classes for old chooks at a resort. Enter sommelier and pants-man Mark (Matt Zeremes, who also plays Michael).

Things get really frisky as the wine flows, the unseen gaggle of elderly ladies turns into a glorious band of bacchantes and the spirit of Dionysus, super hottie of the ancient world, rules.

Under Lee Lewis’s direction Colloca and Zeremes, both of them adorable, deftly manage a text that gives neither a moment of rest and slides without warning from dialogue to interior comment and from reality to free-flowing imagination. Badham trips herself up at one point by going for the extra degree of difficulty that over-lapping lines presents, but it’s a small quibble. When the Coronet of Stars finally enters the picture I defy any romantic not to be thrilled.

Griffin Theatre Company, Sydney, May2-June 8. Hothouse Theatre, Albury-Wodonga, June 13-22.

This review first appeared in The Australian on April 25.