In praise of Sydney’s Ensemble theatre

A History of Falling Things, July 13; Betrayal, July 22

Tucked away in Sydney’s Kirribilli, in a secluded – and highly enviable – spot right on Sydney Harbour, the Ensemble quietly goes about the business it’s been devoted to for nearly six decades. You won’t often read about it in the mainstream press and while many fine actors can be seen there, they are only occasionally boldface names such as those so frequently encountered at Sydney Theatre Company or Belvoir. Never mind. The Ensemble has its own character. In its small auditorium, steeply raked and arranged in a semi-circle around a small acting area, it’s common to see front-row patrons having to pull their feet in swiftly to prevent actors from tripping. The space is intimate and welcoming and the atmosphere comfortable.

The Ensemble describes itself as the “longest continuously running professional theatre in Australia”, having staged its first performances in 1958 with founding director Hayes Gordon, who ran the company for 27 years. The Ensemble is surely also the country’s most stable outfit. Sandra Bates succeeded Gordon and was at the helm for 30 years, retiring fully in January this year after sharing the artistic directorship with Mark Kilmurry for five years. Kilmurry is now solely in charge of the Ensemble’s direction as the company heads towards its 60th anniversary in 2018. (By comparison, Sydney Theatre Company is a whipper-snapper that will turn 40 in 2018.)

Ursula Mills and Matt Zeremes in Betrayal, photo by Clare Hawley-86

Ursula Mills and Matthew Zeremes in Betrayal. Photo: Clare Hawley

Remarkably, the Ensemble has survived without the benefit of any ongoing government funding. The Balnaves Foundation is its major partner and there is a small group of businesses and foundations which are supporting and strategic partners. Individuals donate a small percentage of Ensemble income. But essentially the Ensemble has to put on plays people want to see (and at times that suit them – the Ensemble has exceptionally welcome 11am weekday matinees sprinkled through its seasons). The tagline underneath the theatre’s name on its programs is this: theatre for everyone.

You would not be wrong to think that suggests a reliance on conventional dramas and light comedies, and certainly seasons have had their share of new David Williamsons and old Neil Simons (coming up next month: Barefoot in the Park), but there are also works that have greater resonance. Jane Carafella’s e-baby, a two-hander that deals with surrogacy, will be directed by Nadia Tass, stars Angie Milliken and opens in October. In recent years the Ensemble has brought to Sydney audiences the wonderful Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation (2012), David Auburn’s Proof and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park (both 2014), David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People (April/May this year), Nina Raine’s Tribes (June this year) and Harold Pinter’s Betrayal (playing now).

Betrayal starts at the end and works its way, backwards, to the beginning of an affair between Emma and Jerry. Emma is married to Robert; Jerry is Robert’s best friend. In the first scene, some years after the end of the affair, Emma meets Jerry for a drink to tell him her marriage is over and, inter alia, that she had to reveal the affair to Robert during an all-night argument. As we will discover, this is not exactly true. The Emma-Jerry affair is not the only act of betrayal in this enigmatic three-hander.

Mark Kilmurry’s production is perhaps best described as workmanlike. Pinter’s language in this play is characteristically unadorned; the complexities gather beneath the surface, or should. The intricacies of passion, friendship and gamesmanship are not fully mined here, although the surface is played entertainingly by Ursula Mills as Emma with Guy Edmonds as her husband and Matthew Zeremes as her lover. The real action, however, is in what Emma, Robert and Jerry – particularly Robert – think and know rather than say.

It was a little instructive in this respect to note that Betrayal is described on the Ensemble website as running for approximately 90 minutes without interval. At the performance I saw we were done and dusted within 75 minutes. Those famous Pinter pauses didn’t get a huge look-in.

In repertory with Betrayal is James Graham’s A History of Falling Things. It’s a slight, sweet rom-com with a twist: the two young people whose burgeoning romance we follow suffer from keraunothnetophobia, a particularly precise fear, that of falling man-made satellites. Naturally this makes it hard for them to leave the safety of their homes and the relationship is conducted chiefly via electronic means. But is that enough?

The Ensemble’s production is blessed with Sophie Hensser’s luminous performance as Jacqui and Eric Beecroft’s as the highly strung but likeable Robin (Nicole Buffoni is the sensitive director). Merridy Eastman, Brian Meeghan and Sam O’Sullivan give fine support. It’s a modest piece, to be sure, but heart-warming too as it gives a shot of normalcy to two characters who seem destined to live on the margins. There is a gentle message there.

Anna Gardiner designed the set for both History and Betrayal. In fact, given the interlocking schedules the set is essentially the same for both, with different moveable elements, and not entirely satisfactory for both. It’s a pity.

Still, I was glad to see both plays, and continue to be glad that the Ensemble exists. It has heart. Yes, in lieu of government subsidy it has to balance the books with a new Williamson or an Alan Ayckbourn (and absolutely nothing wrong with that – I’ll be there for Relatively Speaking in November). But often enough it gently challenges its loyal audience, and one suspects Kilmurry may have more up his sleeve in years to come. He launches his second season on August 8.

A History of Falling Things and Betrayal both end on August 20.

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.

Frankenstein

Ensemble Theatre, Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, April 3.

FRANKENSTEIN is a name that despite one’s best efforts to resist brings forth mental images of freaks and bogeymen. Perhaps nothing quite as silly as a lurching giant with bolts through the neck, but something not quite human.

Lee Jones (top) as The Creature with Andrew Henry as Victor Frankenstein. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Lee Jones (top) as The Creature with Andrew Henry as Victor Frankenstein. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Nick Dear’s over-weening scientist Victor Frankenstein is not this kind of sentient wreckage, at least physically, but he is indeed the real monster of Dear’s piece; a demon in fine clothes and from a good family. Frankenstein experiments in areas he ought to avoid, he fails to rise to the challenge of the practical, moral and philosophical questions that arise, and he ultimately reveals himself to be more lacking in humanity – and courage – than the patchwork man he puts together.

Dear’s animating idea for his play, if you’ll forgive me, is to stack the deck against Frankenstein in a way Mary Shelley did not in her 1818 story. Dear sides with The Creature and so do we, from the first unforgettable moments of the play when we are made to share his birth pains and early lessons in the ways in which the different are treated.

And in these moments, and much that follows, lies a weakness of Frankenstein, which is that The Creature is infinitely more interesting than his creator – more intelligent, more feeling, more passionate, more violent, more everything, yet the scientist is treated as if he were just as fascinating. The justly lauded National Theatre production of 2011 in London (seen here via the NTLive series) got around that one by alternating Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in the two roles. That was a double win: not only would it have kept the actors invested as much in Frankenstein as in The Creature, it made audiences want to see it twice. Simple, yet elegant.

Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre doesn’t have a trick like that up its sleeve nor the scenic resources to cast a veil of glamour over the lumpier parts of text and structure. That’s not to say it isn’t well designed for its space (it is), but there’s nowhere for the play to hide, metaphorically speaking. Which leaves Lee Jones’s Creature to carry the show, which he does heartbreakingly well. It’s an incredibly demanding role, and confronting on a number of levels. Jones’s contorted (and we couldn’t help but notice exceptionally well honed) body is the vehicle for extreme physical and metaphysical anguish. Added to that is the necessity of conveying The Creature’s growing sophistication in thinking, reasoning and argument. A third layer is finding the balance between attraction and repulsion, the gaining or forfeiture of sympathy.

When Jones is absent from the stage, which he is for longish stretches, Frankenstein drops considerably in temperature. Andrew Henry is a very creditable Victor, but the character can’t compete with the white heat thrown out by The Creature, who gets the very best writing Dear has to offer.

There are big themes everywhere – the lure of science over religion, intellectual arrogance, the degree of power people seeks to exercise over others, the scarcity of compassion, the effect of brutalisation, whether, as Milton had it, it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven, and so much more. (“You’ve read Paradise Lost,” marvels Frankenstein. “I liked it,” says The Creature in perhaps the shortest and most heavily freighted sentence in the play.)

Only in the figure of The Creature are all these ideas brought to incandescent life. Why do you want me to make a mate for you, Frankenstein inquires of The Creature (Victor really is quite dense). “Because I am lonely,” howls the man who has known a small amount of acceptance and a vast store of cruelty, hate, abandonment and deception. It’s a devastating moment, as is a quieter one: Victor’s fiancée, Elizabeth, asks The Creature his name: “He did not give me one.” Not long after The Creature will get his revenge.

These are the places in Frankenstein that prick the eyes, and there are more than enough of them. On the debit side is that some of the minor characters are clumsily played, which is unfortunate. There are times when the two-hour, no-interval action needs assistance it doesn’t get.

Director Mark Kilmurry may have presided over a somewhat uneven production, but one with punches to the solar plexus that won’t be readily forgotten. Simone Romaniuk’s circle of translucent curtains proves an excellently fluent base for the action and it was a stroke of brilliance to ask Elena Kats-Chernin – a composer of instinctively dramatic gifts – to write a score, here played by cellist Heather Stratfold amidst Daryl Wallis’s evocative sound design.

In the Playhouse of the Sydney Opera House Frankenstein has a space suited to its action. It’s hard to see how it’s going to work in the minuscule Ensemble Theatre in Kirribilli when it moves there after the short SOH season. Under scrutiny as close as that Jones is going to have to give an even braver performance. He looks up to it.

Frankenstein at the Sydney Opera House until April 13; Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli April 17-May 4. A national tour starts in Canberra on May 7. Venues in Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland and NSW follow. The tour ends in Wollongong in August.