Sydney Theatre Company’s Hay Fever

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, April 15.

“I never realise how dead I am until I meet people like you,” says the rather correct “diplomatist” Richard Greatham (Alan Dukes) to the chatelaine of the unorthodox country house to which he’s been invited for the weekend. Call it the Bliss factor, a tornado-like life force that sweeps up everyone in its path. At least it does in Sydney Theatre Company’s exhilarating new production of Hay Fever, which director Imara Savage gives an intense, sexy energy that blows away the cobwebs so often clinging to Coward and his 1925 comedy of bad manners.

At the centre of the whirlwind is Judith Bliss (sublime Heather Mitchell), an actress who is nominally retired but has simply transferred her theatrics to a more intimate setting. As we soon discover, each member of the Bliss family has asked a friend to stay without telling the others. They are not natural hosts and are wildly self-dramatising. There will be complications, not the least of which is who will get to stay in the Japanese room.

STC Hay Fever Heather Mitchell. Lisa Tomasetti

Heather Mitchell as Judith Bliss in Hay Fever. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Richard’s confession to Judith is the key to this work. Hay Fever celebrates those people in the world who burn more brightly than others because they have fewer limits. They are the sun and we are bits of space junk caught gratefully in their orbit, at least for a while.

When Coward wrote Hay Fever, World War I just a handful of years in the past and the Edwardian era was over. Time to have some fun. Coward was only 24 at the time but had been moving in artistic circles for more than a decade – he was a professional actor from the age of 11 and wrote his first West End play at 20. His family was not well off and Coward was entirely self-made. It’s tempting to think that the get-the-guest antics of the Blisses were inspired not only by Coward’s acquaintance with American actress Laurette Taylor and her games-playing family, but were also a reaction to the days in which his mother had to take in lodgers to make some money.

Coward claimed to have written Hay Fever in three days without revision and there’s no reason to doubt him. That’s not a criticism – he wrote Private Lives in “roughly” four days, by his account – but it does remind us not to get too profound about the piece. Indeed, the superficiality is the point of it and Savage – with one caveat – astutely finds the right tone for today’s audience. Her production is invigoratingly untethered from the 1920s, picking up on the contemporary adoration of self while being not in the slightest bit condemnatory.

The daughter of the family, Sorel (Harriet Dyer), indulges in one or two little shows of conscience, voicing the belief that everyone in the family should behave rather better, but her desire to be a nicer, finer person is more pleasing concept than possibility. Nor should it be. Sorel, played by Dyer with a mixture of whiny childishness and acute perceptiveness, is clever enough to know that “the people we like put up with it because they like us”. It’s an unvirtuous circle. When this lot of guests have gone there will be other willing victims.

STC Hay Fever. Lisa Tomasetti

Heather Mitchell, Briallen Clarke, Tom Conroy and Harriet Dyer. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Sorel’s brother Simon (Tom Conroy) and she have no visible occupation and still live at home with Judith and their father, David (Tony Llewellyn-Jones), who writes very bad novels and is not dead, as Judith’s slightly dim young guest and admirer Sandy Tyrell (Josh McConville) had surmised. David is, in fact, in the house and has invited the naive Jackie Coryton (Briallen Clarke) to the country so he might study her as “a useful type”. That Sorel’s guest is the very Richard who is enchanted by Judith hints at the roundelay that develops, one in which Simon’s sophisticated guest Myra Arundel (Helen Thomson) will be discovered by Judith in a compromising position with David. He is lying on top of Myra on the floor.

The teasing Is endless and wickedly manipulative and the guests don’t stand a chance. Nor does the audience really. As Savage showed with last year’s After Dinner, an early comedy by Andrew Bovell (also at STC), she has a great eye for physical comedy and a superb cast to enact it. Richard, for example, gets two of the best sight gags in the show – beautifully played by Dukes – and they give the mature diplomat warmth and colour. Conroy’s Simon plays up his bohemian credentials by drinking wine at breakfast and professing violent love for women despite exuding an air of being not particularly interested in them. Judith is one of the great comic roles in 20th century theatre and Mitchell makes her every whim, tic and idiosyncracy adorable (bar one, but that’s the caveat I’m coming to and it’s not her fault). Mitchell’s pre-Raphaelite beauty is intoxicating, as is her way with a seductive phrase. “I’ve been pruning the calceolarias,” she throatily purrs to Sandy. It’s an invitation to unimagined delights that seduce us all.

In what is perhaps the trickiest role to pull off in this updating, Genevieve Lemon plays Judith’s housekeeper (and former dresser) Clara in the manner of a beloved, eccentric retainer in a conventional British farce. It’s wacky, no doubt about it, but fits in with the idea of theatricality not only as an attribute of the Bliss family but as a style of performance.

STC Hay Fever3

Heather Mitchell, Josh McConville and Helen Thomson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The idea of life as an act is gorgeously reinforced by designer Alicia Clements’s divinely ramshackle conservatory, the centrepiece of which is a claw-foot bath that doubles as a sofa, and the lurid curtains that frame the stage and close at a majestic pace. The boldest example is the inclusion of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, lip-synched by Judith in lieu of a lovely little song at the piano. It is a surreal, provocative choice although not necessarily out of keeping with Judith’s mercurial temperament. Less successful – this is the caveat – is Savage’s decision to replace the names of British newspapers with those of Sydney ones. Judith is proposing a return to the stage and speaks of the thrill of a first night, the critics “all leaning forward with flowing faces, receptive and exultant …” Savage has Mitchell address the audience directly here and, just for a moment, the bubble that encloses these characters bursts. The Winehouse song – just – stays inside that bubble.

That seemed to me a misstep in a production where artificiality is so prized. Savage’s brilliant ending says it all. The climactic touch is a halo of light that envelops the Bliss family, accompanied by a lush, golden-days-of-Hollywood swelling of strings. (Trent Suidgeest is responsible for the lighting; Max Lyandvert for sound design and music.) The guests have slipped away and the Blisses are now at their most relaxed and content, a family very much at peace, albeit noisily, with one another in their own little world.

Hay Fever ends on May 21.

Tragedy sped up

Belvoir, September 23

Nikolai Ivanov sits on a sofa looking desolate as the Lebedevs’ party swirls around him. He’s heading towards 40, he has no money, his relations give him grief, he’s given up on his marriage and he’s drawn to a girl half his age. Oh, and his wife is dying and her doctor blames him for hastening things. Naturally this is a comedy.

As Ivanov (Ewen Leslie) tells Sasha (Airlie Dodds), the young woman who passionately and naively wants to save him from himself, “comedy is tragedy sped up”. True, he’s a wildly self-dramatising man but that doesn’t detract from the truth of what he’s saying. Everyone in this backwater is going hell for leather, trying to extract some purpose and meaning from life while flailing around and behaving ridiculously. It’s just that Ivanov’s skin is much thinner than everyone else’s and his capacity for self-disgust – well-earned, it must be said – much greater.

Ewen Leslie, centre on the sofa, with John Howard, AirlieDodds, Blazey Best, Helen Thomson and John Bell

Ewen Leslie, centre on the sofa, with John Howard, AirlieDodds, Blazey Best, Helen Thomson and John Bell. Photo: Brett Boardman

Director and adapter Eamon Flack sets Ivanov, the playwright’s first completed full-length play, in something that resembles contemporary Russia, what with the photo of Vladimir Putin on the wall, but it’s also very much a version of Australia today. Not a flattering one, it must be said, but punchy and provocative. What do we value in life, what do we have to offer and does any of it matter anyway?

While Ivanov wrestles with his demons, family and friends take a less resistant line. His uncle Matvei Shabelsky (John Bell) could potentially be persuaded to marry widow Marfa Babakina (Blazey Best) in an exchange of valuables: access to his American passport for her; access to her pig-based fortune for him. Sasha’s brittle, try-hard mother, Zinaida Lebedev (Helen Thomson), is no pushover in the money-lending business and places a lot of store by appearances. Pavel Lebedev (John Howard) just goes along with whatever his wife wants. It’s easier.

Ivanov’s cousin Misha Borkin (Fayssal Bazzi) has flexible morals and is a buffoon likeable in limited doses. Even Sasha, in whose shining youth one can see some tiny hope for the future, babbles on about “active love”, a label to rival “conscious uncoupling” as a way of describing the complexities of intimacy.

They do little more than pontificate about money and politics, talk themselves up, gossip cruelly, sing a few songs and get a skin full should the occasion merit. Their uselessness is grotesque and very, very funny. The only people somewhat spared are Ivanov’s wife Anna (Zahra Newman), an intriguing woman “from another country” who shares outsider status with Doctor Yevgeny Lvov (Yalin Ozucelik), who is Turkish. Covertly (Anna) and overtly (Lvov) their judgment hangs over the group. It’s a big cast and a wonderful one, not forgetting the Lebedevs’ hired help, Gabriella, played by Belvoir assistant stage manager Mel Dyer in a performance of pure comedy gold.

Zahra Newman and Ewen Leslie. Photo: Brett Boardman

Zahra Newman and Ewen Leslie. Photo: Brett Boardman

Leslie’s Ivanov is, of course, insanely attractive despite the flaws he describes so vividly and exhaustively and he is, of course, doomed. He goes in for some meta-theatrical posturing about Hamlet, which goes down exceptionally well given Leslie’s history with the Dane (Melbourne Theatre Company in 2011, Belvoir in 2013), and seems to be very much in love with the idea of being the lost soul. Ivanov is a man of poses – the thwarted intellectual, the failed man of action – but Leslie also makes one see the horror of such emptiness as well as its absurdity. “I am in disgrace with myself,” he says, and nothing could be more despairing. He stands outside himself, can see what he is and can do nothing to alter his course.

Needless to say Flack doesn’t allow a drop of sentimentality to intrude. Chekov tried a couple of endings for the play and Flack chooses the one that shows our man as the plaything of fate rather than creator of his own destiny. The joke’s on him.

Ivanov ends on November 1.

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.

The Winter’s Tale

Bell Shakespeare, Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, March 5.

“A SAD tale’s best for winter. I have one of sprites and goblins,” says the boy Mamillius, through whose eyes John Bell filters Shakespeare’s late, great fable. Mamillius’s bedroom, bathed in a fairy-world pastel light and hung with stars, is where everything will happen, a reflection of the lad’s experiences, imagination and desires.

Rory Potter in The Winter's Tale. Photo: Michele Mossop

Rory Potter in The Winter’s Tale. Photo: Michele Mossop

Amidst the child-size chairs, tumble of toys and a dress-up box, Leontes, king of Sicily, launches into a bewildering denunciation of his wife Hermione and orders the deaths of those closest to him, Mamillius dies and his new-born baby sister is abandoned in Bohemia. Sixteen years pass and, magically, harmony is restored after scenes of bucolic simplicity, assumed identities and sweet romance.

Bell’s decision to put Mamillius at the centre is a touching one. The child who was supposedly the image of his father and presumably heir to his throne – where is he at the joy-filled ending? Has the sensitive boy who, “conceiving the dishonour of his mother, he straight declined”, been utterly forgotten?

Not here he hasn’t, and this brings a set of memorable images (a terrific solution to the “exit, pursued by a bear” problem) along with questionable emphases. Bell’s production lacks weight and deep resonance, a situation underscored by the laughter too often elicited where horror or disgust would be more effective. Not all the text is delivered with clarity, either – too often there are long strings of sounds that fail to make sense – although a big bouquet goes to Michelle Doake’s wonderfully centred Paulina. I also very much liked Felix Jozeps who doubles as a courtier in the first half and Prince Florizel in the second.

The production smooths over the two very different halves of The Winter’s Tale, but this isn’t a play that seeks stylistic unity. The first part is hell, or should be, and without strong distinction between Sicily and Bohemia the latter’s trippy flower-power vibe registers as goofy rather than the radiant relief of a world where love and peace may be found.

Myles Pollard’s hearty Aussie bloke reading of the part blunts the extremities of Leontes’s jealousy. He’s one of those vigorous touch-feely men, pummelling and punching, exerting his physical strength. It sets up the picture of a man who doesn’t think very much. That’s a possible way of looking at Leontes’s inexplicable actions, but a reductive one. The Winter’s Tale, as Bell’s production stresses, is a story; something of which to take heed. It’s not one of those all-too-frequent, terribly sad reports of domestic violence we read about every day in the paper, destined to be repeated in a never-ending loop of unreason. A Leontes such as this fails to convince of his profound sorrow, and he is rather sidelined in his reconciliation with Helen Thomson’s poised Hermione – potentially one of the most heart-cracking scenes in all theatre. This production has made it all about the boy.

But what a boy. At Wednesday’s opening Mamillius was played by Rory Potter (he shares the role with Otis Pavlovic). Potter, 13, is already remarkable. His qualities of keen watchfulness, alert intelligence and ability to be still but highly engaged are gold dust.

To have him as observer and at times orchestrator of the drama – he is a mini-Prospero if you will – is not a wildly off-kilter idea but it is limiting. The immense, soul-tearing themes of reconciliation, unswerving commitment to the truth, unalloyed goodness and the power of forgiveness in the face of appalling wrong are diluted. Bell gives us the story of a boy who wants his mummy and daddy to love each other and to be together. It doesn’t seem the best use of The Winter’s Tale.

The Winter’s Tale ends March 29.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 7.

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.