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.

The festive season

THE last crumbs of Christmas cake have scarcely been brushed from the lips, the last Champagne bottles are not yet in the recycling bin and New Year’s resolutions are still full of shiny potential. ‘Tis the season for rest, recreation, family and friends. Or, for those of us whose calendars are ruled not by the earth’s rotation or religious observance but by cultural activity, it’s festival time.

And I don’t just mean in my hometown Sydney, where the annual festival – this year celebrating its 40th birthday – starts on January 7 and runs until Australia Day. The Perth International Arts Festival, with new artistic director Wendy Martin at the helm, starts on February 12 and goes into early March, overlapping with the Adelaide Festival, starting on February 26 and ending March 14.

I include the New Zealand Festival too – February 26-March 20 – because it’s about as easy for an east coast resident to get to Wellington as Perth (less flying time; more queuing for airport security).

That’s the first quarter of the year accounted for, right there.

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Paul White in Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s Nelken, to be performed at the Adelaide Festival. Photo: Alexandros Sarakasidis

There is, of course, a great deal of non-festival activity in every big Australian city. In Sydney, for instance, Sydney Theatre Company ran King Lear through the Christmas period and it closes on January 9. Belvoir opened Jasper Jones today, January 6, Melbourne Theatre Company hosts the transfer of Queensland Theatre Company’s new musical Ladies in Black from January 16 and so on. These companies provide year-round nourishment but the festival experience is something else: concentrated, distinctive and heightened.

Yes, there can be an element of déjà vu as old favourites return (I’m thinking Batsheva Dance Company, choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkoui and director Robert Wilson, for instance) but there are, almost by definition, performances and performers one would never otherwise see: The Giants in Perth last year and the Berliner Ensemble with The Threepenny Opera in 2013; Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life and Times: Episodes 1-4 (2013) and the heart-stoppingly wonderful Trisha Brown retrospective (2014) in Melbourne; and Semele Walk (2013) and The Black Rider (2005) in Sydney to name very, very few.

Go further back and there’s Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota, which I saw in Perth but it also went to Adelaide, in 1998, and in the same year Belvoir’s theatrical adaptation of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (Sydney and Perth). All these things are big and mostly far-from-mainstream events that wouldn’t be likely to happen outside a festival. In 2016 the equivalents are Thalia Theater Hamburg’s Woyzeck in Sydney (Robert Wilson is a co-creator), William Kentridge’s Refuse the Hour in Perth and Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch and The James Plays Trilogy in Adelaide.

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Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Fase, to be performed at the Sydney Festival. Photo: Anne Van Aerschot

The very small equally finds a festival footing. Leafing through some old programs I am reminded that in 2006 About an Hour, the powerfully affecting and effective (and very affordable) mini-festival within the Sydney Festival was deliciously devoted to contemporary dance from Australia and abroad, although there was one ring-in in the form of The Tiger Lillies, the anarchic British punk cabaret outfit who, as it happens, return to Sydney this year.

Events whack up against one another in fruitful or clashing combinations. There’s something about a festival that encourages viewers to take risks – risks our hometown arts organisations might perhaps eye a little enviously. But one has to remember that the festival material brought in from abroad comes to us well-honed, sometimes over years, and has survived the brutal winnowing process all new work goes through. So in some ways it’s not at all risky while having the potential to broaden the experience and perspective of viewers.

On a pragmatic level, this first-quarter cluster of festivals enables some sharing of events, although there are fewer double-ups than you might think. The cities are far-flung enough that only the truly dedicated audience member will travel to each, but are sufficiently in the same neck of the woods for an international artist wanting to maximise travel time. This year Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, The Tiger Lillies, theatre pieces The Object Lesson, The Events and Every Brilliant Thing, circus spectacular La Verità and new cabaret show Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid will be seen in more than one festival city. Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs! was seen in several (non-festival) Australian cities leading up to the Sydney appearances.

The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet_cr. Martin Tulinius_07

The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet, Perth International Arts Festival. Photo: Martin Tulinius

A comparison of programs reveals some very tempting changes of repertoire in two cases. For instance, in Sydney The Tiger Lillies gives us The Very Worst of the Tiger Lillies while Perth is treated to The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet, a mind-boggling prospect. I don’t think I can get to it unfortunately, which is a huge, huge regret.

I will, though, move heaven, earth and frequent flyer points to get to Wellington for Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch where, from March 17-20, the company performs a double bill of Café Muller and The Rite of Spring. Bausch’s Rite is considered one of the very best of the more than 100 (and counting) choreographies to one of the greatest of dance scores.

But before that, on March 9, the company performs the full-length Nelken (Carnations) in Adelaide. As a bonus, it offer the rare chance to see one of Australia’s most inspiring contemporary dancers, Paul White, who has been a member of the company since 2012. There are two other Australians with Pina Bausch – Julie Shanahan, a member since 1988, and Michael Carter, who joined last year.

An incomplete list of things I’d like to see, in no particular order:

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch (Adelaide, Wellington)

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs! (Sydney)

Alan Cumminh Sappy

Actor and singer Alan Cumming 

Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid (Sydney and Perth festivals; also Melbourne and Auckland)

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich and Vortex Temporum (Sydney)

Woyzeck (Sydney)

The Rabbits (Sydney; premiered in Perth in 2015)

The Tiger Lillies (Sydney, Perth)

The James Plays Trilogy (Adelaide)

Apocrifu, by Sidi Larbi Cherkoui

Every Brilliant Thing (Perth, Wellington)

Simon Stone and Belvoir’s The Wild Duck (Perth

Theatre artists of the year (and my inaugural Artist of the Year)

One person’s best is another person’s “I can’t believe we saw the same show”. Which if course we never do or can. We each bring to the theatre our history, our personality, our experiences, our experience, our tastes and our bête noirs.

So why these lists at year’s end? Well, they serve as reminders of ephemeral arts, they pay tribute to artists and they bring together things we saw through the year as individual events. Their power accumulates when seen collectively. They are proof of the richness of our cultural life.

Unlike my 2015 year in dance, which I posted on Tuesday, most of the theatre I saw this year – including musical theatre of all kinds – was in Sydney. There were also a couple of forays to New York, where much enjoyment was had.

Therefore, like my dance list, the following things are simply those productions and people I was really, really glad I saw.

By the way, for the first time ever I have decided to nominate an Artist of the Year. Scroll down to the bottom if you’d like to know right now.

2015 AT HOME

This year in Sydney the independent sector kept bobbing up with little gems. How producers and performers keep doing it with such limited resources is one of the great mysteries of life. Bless them one and all for their commitment. I hesitate to say poverty appears to be good for them but they are super-resourceful and awe-inspiringly creative. It was an honour to have seen Sport for Jove’s Of Mice and Men, Siren Theatre Co’s Misterman, Outhouse Theatre Company and Red Line Productions’ The Aliens, Oriel Group with Red Line Productions’ I Am My Own Wife, and Apocalyse Theatre Company’s The Dapto Chaser, seen at Griffin.

It was, you may have noticed, a pretty blokey time in the indie world (although Kate Gaul directed the wonderful Misterman). This became a subject of much discussion in 2015 and there are serious, sensible, inclusive plans to increase diversity right across the board in the live performance and screen arts.

Thomas Campbell - MISTERMAN 1

Thomas Campbell in Misterman, directed by Kate Gaul

That said, I was incredibly heartened to see standout contributions from some the small number of women writers and directors in this year’s theatre. Kate Gaul, as mentioned; Mary Rachel Brown, who wrote one of my year’s great favourites, The Dapto Chaser; Imara Savage at the helm of Sydney Theatre Company’s gloriously funny-sad After Dinner, by Andrew Bovell; playwright Lally Katz’s The Cat, half of the silly and sweet Belvoir Downstairs double bill The Dog/The Cat (Brendan Cowell wrote The Dog); and the miraculous American playwright Annie Baker (The Aliens).

I saw more than 200 shows this year in dance, theatre, musical theatre, opera, cabaret and circus and as I pondered the non-dance list it became clear that for me, it was the Year of the Woman as far as performance was concerned. Yes, I loved Ewen Leslie in Belvoir’s all-round engrossing Ivanov; Josh McConville in After Dinner – god that man is good; American tenor and rapidly rising superstar Michael Fabiano in Faust for Opera Australia; Simon Gleeson in Les Misérables; James Millar as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda; and, without exception, all the men in the indie shows I listed above (they had very, very strong casts).

Ivanov3

Zahra Newman and Ewen Leslie in Ivanov. Photo: Brett Boardman

Nevertheless, my memories glow just that bit more brightly when I think about the following …

I had just the best time at Matilda. Four times, in fact, as I went to see each of the girls in the title role. My admiration for Molly Barwick, Sasha Rose, Georgia Taplin and Bella Thomas knows no bounds. Each carries the show on very young shoulders. I had tears in my eyes at the end each time of this life-affirming show and may well pop down to Melbourne to do it all over again. Matilda starts there in March at the lovely Princess, which will suit it very well indeed. And there will be four new Matildas. A duty to go, really.

Also in Matilda, the heart-rendingly beautiful Elise McCann as Miss Honey.

And what about Amy Lehpamer? She’s unimprovable in The Sound of Music as she was earlier in the year for a much smaller audience as Tracy Lord in High Society at the Hayes in Sydney. Speaking of High Society, I was bowled over by Virginia Gay as Liz. She gave one of the most accomplished, nuanced and touching performances of the year and gave a master class in how to sing Cole Porter. Also at the Hayes, actor Mitchell Butel’s impressive debut directorial outing – the musical Violet – was crowned by Samantha Dodemaide’s blazingly passionate performance in the title role.

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Amy Lehpamer as Maria in The Sound of Music. Photo: James Morgan

It’s not an easy business getting a new musical off the ground but Queensland Theatre Company did it with Ladies in Black, with music and lyrics by Tim Finn and a book by Carolyn Burns. Based on Madeleine St John’s novel The Women in Black, it is packed with deliciously memorable songs and is unstoppably optimistic as it follows the dreams and aspirations of a young woman coming of age at the turn of the 1960s. It’s set in a women’s department store among the frocks, and thus is dominated by a big (and top-notch) female cast, headed as we speak for a season at Melbourne Theatre Company from January 16. Sarah Morrison plays young heroine Lisa Miles with a lovely mixture of determination and vulnerability.

Sarah Morrison, Christen O'Leary

Sarah Morrison as Lisa and Christen O’Leary as Magda in Ladies in Black

I pity anyone who missed Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura’s return visit to Opera Australia with Madama Butterfly (Sydney and Melbourne, after last year’s mind-blowing performance in Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Butterfly and an earlier visit to Sydney). Australian soprano Nicole Car is getting a fantastic – richly deserved – reception at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden for her Tatiana in Eugene Onegin; luckily we saw her in Onegin and Faust this year and she will appear in OA’s Luisa Miller in Sydney very soon. It’s likely overseas houses will start snapping her up regularly. In the contemporary opera sphere, Jane Sheldon was unforgettable in Sydney Chamber Opera’s searing An Index of Metals.

NOTES FROM ABROAD:

I saw Annie Baker’s The Flick in New York with the original cast (Melbourne was fortunate enough to see a production directed in 2014 by Nadia Tass for Red Stitch and revived this year). It is the play – indeed the production among all art forms – I keep coming back to. The three-hander is set in a down-at-heel cinema where hope flickers as forlornly as the out-of-date film equipment the unseen owner insists on keeping. For close to three hours two men and a woman engage in desultory conversation while sweeping up popcorn, changing reels and jockeying for position. Brilliant.

I also had a fun experience with Theatre for One, which is exactly what it says. You pop into a booth and an actor performs a short play just for you. Sitting practically knee-to-knee, you have nowhere to look but into each other’s eyes. Interesting. I saw two works and wish I’d been able to stay to complete the set of six.

On the musicals front Christopher Wheeldon’s direction and choreography of An American in Paris were blissful and what a treat to be able to see the pint-sized powerhouse Kristin Chenoweth in Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s rarely seen On the Twentieth Century.

A detour into celebrity casting:

Call me shallow but I love it. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan in Skylight; Helen Mirren in The Audience; Darren Criss in Hedwig and the Angry Inch; New York City Ballet star Robert Fairchild in An American in Paris. Criss, best known for the TV series Glee, was the surprise package: a knockout.

ARTIST OF THE YEAR:

Jacqueline Dark as Amneris in Opera Australia's Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour - Aida. Photo Hamilton Lund

Jacqueline Dark in the eye of the storm as Amneris in Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

Okay folks, I’m calling it. My Artist of the Year is Jacqueline Dark, thrilling and versatile mezzo frequently seen with Opera Australia; kick-arse cabaret artist who can write her own material, as we saw in Strange Bedfellows, her cheerfully outrageous show with partner in crime Kanen Breen; and now music-theatre sensation with her Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music. Obviously she can get to the summit and back with ease in Climb Ev’ry Mountain, but she gets the acting part of it so right too. That said, Dark could have won this title just on the basis of her courageous performances as Amneris in Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Aida early this year. Apart from the challenge of having to sing from on high – you can just see Dark in Nefertiti’s eye – the weather was appalling, costumes became waterlogged and thus as heavy as a hod of bricks, and yet the show had to go on. Dark sounded fabulous, of course. She is a trouper of the highest order.

Jacqui Dark, Kanen Breen. Pic- Kurt Sneddon

Strange Bedfellows Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

 

There will not be light

Next to Normal, Doorstep Arts in association with Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, January 15.

Sweet Charity, Sydney Opera House, January 16, 2015

IF there is a choice to be made between darkness and light, musical theatre will tend to go for the latter. It’s just how it is. Indeed, Next to Normal, a musical in which the central figure suffers from bipolar disorder, ends on that note literally. The last lustily sung phrase from the ensemble is: “There will be” – big pause – “light”.

It’s an absurd, sentimental conclusion to a work that wants to have it both ways – to have dark subject matter but to end on a note of warm optimism. Next to Normal requires its audience to take an impossible leap of faith, based on the evidence the musical sets out before us.

Diana is a mother and wife who, in addition to being bipolar, struggles with anxiety, depression and episodes of delusion. Really, though, the key source of anguish is deeply rooted grief that Diana cannot or will not relinquish.

Natalie O'Donnell (foreground) in Next to Normal. Photo: Yael Stemple

Natalie O’Donnell (foreground) in Next to Normal. Photo: Yael Stemple

This second thread gives Next to Normal its narrative twist and funkiest musical number (I’m Alive) but the intertwining of debilitating mental illness and personal loss feels manipulative. Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics are undoubtedly sincere in intent but make no persuasive case. If there’s a platitudinous way to say something, it will be found. (Apparently “the price of love is loss but we love anyway”. Ugh.) Likewise, Tom Kitt’s music is generic rock-pop with a strong and regular beat and no great emotional complexity. As to the medical insights Next to Normal offers, the less said the better.

That it won the 2010 the Pulitzer Prize for drama is a mystery for the ages.

Nevertheless, Geelong’s Doorstep Arts does interesting things with the show and I particularly admired Natalie O’Donnell’s Diana. A set consisting of a few rostra and chalk outlines economically conveys Diana’s dislocation and O’Donnell’s warmth and raw honesty appeal strongly. The supporting cast of five works its heart out for director Darylin Ramondo (she could afford to dial down the energy level) and overall makes a good fist of this very flawed show. And I must say it worked rather better for me than did Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2011 production. So that’s a win for regional theatre.

While the little Hayes Theatre Co hosts Next to Normal, its smash hit from last year, Sweet Charity, has burst out of indie-land and started a series of top-end-of-town seasons. Its first port of call is the Sydney Opera House, where Dean Bryant’s production makes a raucous, confident move to the Playhouse stage. (One degree of separation: Bryant directed MTC’s Next to Normal.)

Crucially, Verity Hunt-Ballard is even more luminous this year than last as Charity Hope Valentine, the unschooled, trusting dance-hall hostess – okay, prostitute – whose sweetness and optimism are painfully tested at every turn.

Around her the production is louder and more garish (and The Rhythm of Life number still doesn’t earn its keep, no matter how much everyone loves it) but the clear-sighted vision that made last year’s incarnation so persuasive is still there. Charity may have knocked around a bit but she isn’t so hardened that she can’t be crushed. Sweet Charity originally ended with Charity shrugging philosophically and an assurance to the audience that she’ll keep plugging away with good cheer.

Hunt Ballard’s Charity offers no such comfort. When her dream of escape evaporates there is nothing but desolation.

There will not be light.

Next to Normal ends February 1. Sweet Charity ends in Sydney on February 8. Canberra, February 11-21; Melbourne, February 25-March 8; Wollongong, March 11-15.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on January 19.

Love and information: international theatre in 2014

TWO pieces of 2015 theatre programming in Melbourne would have interested me anyway, but having seen the shows in New York early this year makes them irresistible. Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information (Melbourne’s Malthouse, from June 12, Sydney Theatre Company from July 9) and Jonathan Tollins’s Buyer and Cellar (Melbourne Theatre Company, from October 30) are tours de force requiring actors of great agility, but in very different ways.

Buyer and Cellar is a love-in between an irrepressible, highly indiscreet man and an audience avid for what the Americans call dish. The actor – at MTC it will be the delectable Ash Flanders – plays an under-used actor, Alex, who finds unusual employment with Barbra Streisand. Babs! Could anything be more heavenly?!! Buyer and Cellar amusingly satisfies our seemingly insatiable appetite for celebrity culture but there are some darker threads too, woven through with the lightest of touches. Everything depends, of course, on the charm of the performer playing Alex, given that we’re in his company for 90 uninterrupted minutes. Michael Urie originated the part and became quite the celebrity himself in New York. Rather delicious really.

I am surprised to see on the Malthouse website that Love and Information will feature eight actors. The production I saw used 15 and they were all pretty busy, given that Churchill’s play has more than 100 characters. In an interval-less two hours it presents more than 50 short scenes, some lasting only seconds. You can imagine what it’s like backstage. Churchill touches acutely on the variety of ways in which communication happens and also what it contains. Information can be personal, scientific, mathematical, political, mediated, terrifying, baffling, consoling, right, wrong and so many other things. The production I saw at the Minetta Lane Theatre was first staged at London’s Royal Court in 2012 and was dazzlingly set in a stark white tiled cube that was completely blacked out at the end of each scene to allow nifty changes. I will be fascinated to see what solution Malthouse and STC’s designer, David Fleischer, comes up with.

Three New York highlights:

Shakespeare’s Globe in Twelfth Night and Richard III, both starring the protean Mark Rylance: In the first he was an Olivia in great emotional disarray but able to snap into razor-sharp acuity when needed. He operated at the highest level of artifice but the glittering surface was like a protective shield for the most delicate of emotions. Breathtaking. In Richard III, he was a ratty-looking, manipulative, weasely murderer protected, for the moment, by his powerful position and a psychopathic belief in himself. I will carry with me for a long time the scene in which Richard asks a lackey to put out the news that Lady Anne “is sick and like to die”. Anne – Joseph Timms – was standing beside Richard, who sat on his throne and jovially put his arm around his wife and squeezed her waist. The gesture would seem affectionate, if not for his words and if not for the rag doll-like quiescence with which Anne allowed herself to be cuddled, all the while standing upright, dazed, but still noble. Tremendous stuff.

American Repertory Theater’s The Glass Menagerie, starring Cherry Jones as Amanda Wingfield: This was a production you could see repeatedly and one it’s hard to imagine being bettered. [I wrote this for my blog long before seeing Belvoir’s recent production. I’ll stick by my view.] The director was John Tiffany, whose riveting Black Watch we saw at the Sydney Festival a few years back and Stephen Hoggett, who choreographed Black Watch, was movement director. In this production Tennessee Williams’s memory play was illuminated by so many delicate, resonant, surprising, beautiful and heart-breaking touches: Bob Crowley’s spare set of hexagonal platforms that floated in a dark sea, the skeletal fire escape stairs that diminished in size as they disappeared upwards, the one glass animal that represented Laura’s collection, the way in which Laura made her entrance and exit, the sudden pull of memory that drew Tom into the past, the tenderness and restraint of the scene between Laura and the Gentleman Caller … well, one could go on and on. The performances, all of them, were exquisite – Jones, Zachary Quinto as Tom, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura and Brian J. Smith as the Gentleman Caller suspended time and place.

Two London highlights:

Simon Russell Beale as King Lear: Sam Mendes’s production for the National Theatre wasn’t entirely transcendent but Simon Russell Beale is one of the greatest of all classical actors and he didn’t disappoint. The moments of poignancy as Lear realises he is losing his mind and has thrown away everything of value were devastating. I was sitting quite close to the stage and to see the depths of Lear’s folly, madness and final clarity of vision revealed so piercingly was an experience I won’t forget. And one has to give it to the National Theatre. A company that fields for Lear a retinue of about 25 convincingly riotous soldiers is a company prepared to go the extra mile to achieve a director’s vision. The cast numbered 51 in all.

King Charles III, a “future history” written by Mike Bartlett, at the Almeida, directed by Rupert Goold: Queen Elizabeth II has just died and the formality of Charles’s coronation will follow in due time. But he is already the monarch and must assume the responsibilities of the role immediately. What happens immediately is a clash between the King and his government over a bill to restrict the press. Charles refuses to give royal assent and stubbornly sets off a constitutional crisis that ricochets across the country. There’s a tank out the front of Buckingham Palace before you know it. Prince Harry wants out of the royal family, William is forced into a mediation role and Kate – well, there are exceptionally interesting developments there.

Bartlett treads a sure path between satire and tragedy while using Shakespearean forms and echoes to enrich and amuse. Much is in blank verse and there are references galore, albeit often glancing, to Hamlet, Richard II, Macbeth, Henry IV. This framework lets Bartlett switch from laughter to tears in an instant and to give deep context to the discussion about the role of the monarchy.

For Charles (superbly given life by Tim Piggott-Smith), if he is not able to follow his conscience on individual matters, does he have any power at all? Others have a longer view about the way in which the monarchy can wield influence. As you can imagine, seeing this play with a British audience was a bracing experience.

King Charles III transferred to the West End where it runs until the end of January.

Tomorrow: Opera and musical theatre

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.

Robert Curran

In the first of an occasional conversation and discussion series, former Australian Ballet principal artist Robert Curran talks about his sometimes frustrating, not yet achieved but deeply considered and tenaciously sought transition from dancing to an artistic directorship

ROBERT Curran gave his last performance with The Australian Ballet on November 26, 2011 – as Danilo in The Merry Widow – and took a year off to prepare for what he hoped would be his second act: running a ballet company. Such a role hasn’t yet come his way so the preparations continue, with Curran determined to prove he has what it takes.

To that end, earlier this year he took the position of rehearsal director for Bangarra Dance Theatre, a company with 13 permanent dancers based in Sydney. He still has a mortgage in Melbourne so doesn’t have a permanent base in the harbour city. He couch-hops, he says. Curran has a long-distance relationship, another sacrifice he’s prepared to make to achieve his goal.

Robert Curran at Bangarra's Sydney headquarters. Photo: Quentin Jones

Robert Curran at Bangarra’s Sydney headquarters. Photo: Quentin Jones

Curran, now 36, spent his entire 16-year career at the AB, where for a decade he held the top rank. He succeeded Steven Heathcote as the AB’s undisputed leading man, a title that is still up for grabs at the national company. He was much missed during last year’s season of Onegin. The title role in John Cranko’s ballet would have been a perfect fit for someone whose partnering gifts were unequalled in his time with the AB and still remain unequalled. But, as Curran says about the timing of his retirement, there’s never a good time to stop, but there is a right one.

He has been setting himself up for the future more than a decade. He has a degree in business studies (including psychology, human resources and marketing) and a certificate of elite dance instruction from the Australian Ballet School. He choreographed four short works for the AB’s experimental Bodytorque program and co-founded a small Melbourne-based, project-based, contemporary ballet company, JACK, which is currently on hiatus.

As well as working with indigenous dance company Bangarra, Curran has been asked to choreograph Nixon in China for Victorian Opera.

Curran and I spoke recently at length about his commitments with Bangarra and how he has gone about making himself an attractive candidate for an artistic directorship. His openness is engaging and his insights enlightening. This is an edited transcript of his views on ballet. – DEBORAH JONES

The ballet of the future:

I DEVOUTLY believe the classic ballets are just as important as a Turner or a Manet. Everyone should see the Coppelias and Giselles. That foundation is very important. For a dancer, the kind of training needed is invaluable. Those ballets need to be ongoing.

But we need new versions of the classics, and at the same time we need to push into collaboration with actors, onstage musicians, circus artists, to create works that will be tomorrow’s classics. Collaborations that come out of a more multi-disciplinary approach might create something that could be considered worthy of joining the canon of Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Coppelia, Giselle. It might be a version of a story we haven’t heard of yet and [performance artist] Marina Abramovic is involved somehow. It might be that in 100 years dancers are fighting to keep that alive.

“I have this vision of a classical ballet dancer who has full dramatic skills, who can sing, can speak, can project their voice, can be in film, can be up in the air, multi-disciplinary, rich in their art form.”

I love going to the theatre, hearing the rumpty-tumpty music of Don Quixote or La Bayadere, or sitting in the dark hearing the overture to Suite en Blanc. You know you’re in for a pure classical treat. But I also like sitting in a traverse theatre [as he did recently] with 20 other people seeing a show with one actor playing every single role. The weirder, the crazier the better. I have this vision of a classical ballet dancer who has full dramatic skills, who can sing, can speak, can project their voice, can be in film, can be up in the air, multi-disciplinary, rich in their art form.

You need to be talking on stage, singing on stage, miming, putting yourself way outside your comfort zone. What you learn about your art from experimentation you can apply to Swanhilda or Odette. There is a maelstrom of activity [elsewhere] that is sometimes lacking in classical ballet. For many dancers there’s no awareness that you need to extend yourself.

I was reading Jennifer Homans’s Apollo’s Angels and was incensed at her last chapter [in which she expressed the view that ballet was in its death throes] … We could talk about this for hours. People have this expectation that we’re going to have to grow another limb to make dance new and exciting. The beauty of classical ballet is the rigour that results from that training; it’s the collaboration and trying new combinations rather than trying to come up with new movements.

There is no new movement. You go forward and back and sideways and up and down. You have two arms and two legs and one head. That’s kind of it.

Life at Bangarra:

I ARRIVE at around 8 o’clock and try to get as much administration done before class, which is at 10. So I’m doing schedules, co-ordinating a lot of the Safe Dance program for the dancers. I’m in charge of all their physio with the in-house team, organising teachers and pianists. There’s a lot, a lot of admin. I enjoy doing it; it gives me a good insight into management, dealing with a lot of different people, getting things to work for people as much as possible, and then I either teach class or I try to do class with the dancers.

“If you see someone working on their own body with a focus that starts before class and finishes after class it’s an important example.”

They have class every day for an hour and a half – ballet, contemporary, theatre craft, yoga, Pilates. It depends on what they need at the time. There’s a long-term and a short-term strategic thing in my mind about what’s best [to develop the dancers] technically and what’s appropriate for the time of week and year.

Stephen [Page, Bangarra’s artistic director] is very trusting about that – he’s too busy to deal with it. He has his over-arching artistic vision for the company and he would most certainly let me know if that wasn’t being reached or was heading in a different direction. He’s great about giving me the responsibility about doing what’s best for the dancers to facilitate their work.

[After the early administration work] either I teach class or do it. I’m trying to keep in shape. Where possible it’s good to set an example and I like the idea of being fit and healthy and being able to demonstrate without risking life and limb. It’s for my own safety but it’s also important for younger dancers to observe someone who knows what they’re doing for themselves.  If you see someone working on their own body with a focus that starts before class and finishes after class it’s an important example.

Rehearsals start at 12. At the moment Blak is being created – I’m not actively involved in those rehearsals but like to be in the room wherever possible.  Daniel [Riley McKinley, 27] is a dancer and choreographer for Blak, so he’ll need another set of eyes to help him. He’s very open to collaborating with the dancers and with me. He’s very open-minded and intelligent about opening up a dialogue. A very smart man.

Soon after he joined Bangarra Curran went to northeast Arnhem Land with the company on one of its regular trips back to country …

AND what a mind-blowing experience that was! Of course I had my mental model of what it was like and it was a very strange experience to have that mental model blown away. I was really happy to have it blown away.

We went to local sacred sites and held a workshop [in Dhalinybuy]. Bangarra dancers were teaching and being taught by the local children. Then we went to Bremer Island where [Bangarra cultural consultant] Kathy Marika is from. And that was amazing too. It was a tropical holiday but with such intense, wonderful cultural saturation.I found it almost intimidating.

I felt my perception of my responsibility growing exponentially, which was a little bit disturbing but also inspiring. It reaffirmed this opportunity I’d been given, but it’s impossible not to notice that I’m not one of them. Impossible to not notice that and to be aware that this is not my world. My world is traditional ballet and the future of that. It’s challenging.

So how did Curran come to be at Bangarra?

I’M not embarassed to say that I got a little disillusioned with my search for artistic directorships. I do think there is a prevailing conservatism; either that or people are lying to me. Because everyone that gave me feedback on all of my applications said that my vision was exciting and inspiring but my lack of experience was the only thing that meant it couldn’t go forward. I began to get very disillusioned about the whole process, thinking, how am I going to get the experience before I get a job that’s going to give me the experience?

“Robert said to me straight up if a ballet job came up he would go. We’re very open. I just hope that job doesn’t come up just yet. He’s a decent man and he’s passionate, he just hunts quietly.”

– Stephen Page in The Australian, February 14, 2013

I wanted to have 12 months off [after leaving the AB] but I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that about two months in I began to get itchy and not content to have it last that long. By November I was starting to really get my feet back in the water and I heard on the grapevine that my predecessor at Bangarra was leaving. It’s such a small world.

I’ve always had a huge amount of respect for Stephen. I’ve watched all of Bangarra’s shows; I really do respect what this company has done and is doing. So when the job came up I thought, well, I’m back in the studio, out of my comfort zone. I’ve always taken for granted what ballet staff do and artistic administration do, and it’s been great for me to get a deeper understanding of how much is involved. That’s a very valuable lesson for me.

The year off:

[AFTER his last show in Sydney] I had one night in Melbourne then went straight to New York for four or five weeks. I spent almost every day with American Ballet Theatre. They were wonderful. They opened the doors, said go where you want, meet who you want. Do what you want. In reality I didn’t spend that much time hovering behind Kevin McKenzie. It’s a really difficult thing to organise. I spent the time getting to know the company and their operations.

Then I went to [UK dance leaders’ forum] DanceEast. That was an interesting exercise because it really was getting at the crux of leadership. Not concentrating on networking or skills development, but very much more exploring what it means to be a leader in the arts.

A standout experience was the World Theatre Festival in Brisbane [in February 2012]. The potential for collaboration across artistic genres and artistic technologies was something I spent two weeks revelling in. It was such a wonderful two weeks. I went from London to Russia – I spent a lot of time in Russia, then went to Japan and then straight to Brisbane. There were some pretty exciting people – Belarus Free Theatre, Il Pixel Rosso, the Italian-British multimedia arts company, [Italian theatre company] Motus. It was really thrilling and inspiring.

I did a workshop with Il Pixel Rosso and and Motus. Il Pixel Rosso was specifically about multimedia, Motus was about the creative process and their methods of creation. I was really open and ready for it. I wanted to be outside my comfort zone, I wanted to get away from plies and fondus – for a period of time. Not to shun them, but get away from them for a time.

I thought it would be a good idea for me to spend some time exposing myself to other forms of theatre. I went to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, I saw the Bolshoi any number of times, I went to Kabuki theatre in Japan, symphonies, Melbourne Theatre Company, Sydney Theatre Company. Any night I had free I was filling up with being in the theatre. Which is something I never got to do as a dancer. That was also contributing to my desire to experience more and see how it can apply to dance.

Does he feel he is now on his way?

IT depends on the day, to be honest. What I’m desperate for is for some company to take a risk and employ someone who has a really exciting vision, and then trust in the rest of their organisation – that there will be conversation and the existing administration, the existing dancers will safeguard the organisation. It’s a risk; I do get that.

“I should never, ever be artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, ever. I wouldn’t want to be … It’s not the right job for me and I’m not the right person for the job.”

I’m busy, I’m working hard, but Stephen knows that I’m looking for bigger things … I want more responsibility. I love the dancers in Bangarra, I love what this company does, and at the moment that’s fuelling me to go in and do the best I can do, but at the end of the day I have got a vision for ballet that I would like to put on a company.

We’re talking about a classical ballet company. We’re talking between 30 and however many classically trained dancers and what their potential is and fully exploring that potential. As I have respect for the heritage of Aboriginal dance, I have the same respect for the heritage of classical ballet, but I am really, really excited about throwing a bunch of actors and musicians and designers and classical dancers together in a room and seeing what exciting things they can come up with for whatever medium, be it film, stage, site-specific, flash mob-y, whatever.

It sounds trite, and it’s been said before, but they become the classics of tomorrow. That’s in my mind. That’s not being fulfilled at Bangarra. It’s not possible. I should never, ever be artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre, ever. I wouldn’t want to be. It’s not the right fit. It’s not the right job for me and I’m not the right person for the job.

What is the involvement with Nixon in China?

THE second half of the second act is a scene where Pat and Richard Nixon go to the National Ballet of China to see The Red Detachment of Women. I’m not going to try to recreate it – the production is contemporary, a little bit sparse, and Victorian Opera doesn’t have the budget for 50 women in military costume.

There are four dancers and there is a lot of interaction with the principals. I’m trying to focus on ideas of liberation and what kind of emotional involvement there is in that, all framed within the American visit. Is America there to liberate China, or is China already liberated and trying to show America that they are?

I’m working on it only for three weeks so it’s a very short turnaround, but Bangarra’s tour to Melbourne coincides with the production of Nixon so it’s perfect for me. It will be stressful, but I’m really excited about collaborating and extending myself.

Are there any boundaries?

WOULD I go anywhere? Yes. Sydney is not my home. I’m couch-hopping. I wouldn’t say I’m hedging my bets, but it’s ridiculous to spend $400 a week on rent … I’m seeing this year as an opportunity to clarify my vision so when the opportunity arrives I can confidently say, “Look, I’d like to do a new version of this; I’d like to put this ballet with this ballet with this ballet.” I’ve done that in however many applications I’ve done. But I am contemplating and consolidating that vision.

Last year was a year of flux [vacancies came up at Queensland Ballet and West Australian Ballet]. Whether I’ve missed the boat and it’s another 10 years before there’s this kind of flux I don’t know. But I keep my ear to the ground. It’s a really difficult transition to make. I thought I was doing the right thing with my teacher’s course, bachelor of business, starting JACK Productions – but it’s not enough. I’ve made sure in the [Bangarra] contract that the company won’t have difficulty if I leave [early]. It clashes a bit with my feelings about how things should be done, but the [ballet] year in Europe and America starts in September; here in January. There’s a disconnect.

“It’s important to have leadership experiences that are not limited to your own art form. I believe passionately that ballet is still relevant, and have a great passion for it, but we do need to keep up, to be adaptable, flexible and open-minded.”

– Robert Curran, The Australian, November 29, 2011.

Applying to Queensland Ballet was by far the best experience. Their recruiting process was really, really good. It was my first [application] and they really walked me through it. It was a time full of hope for me, but they managed my disappointment as well. The fact that Li [Cunxin]  turned up with all his wonderful assets, there was no way anyone was getting to get a look in. And West Australian Ballet had their eye on Europe. [WAB appointed Belgian ballet master and rehearsal director Aurelien Scannella to the post.]

Leaving The Australian Ballet:

NOT dancing Onegin was a real wrench. It was difficult. I didn’t want to do Onegin and not enjoy it because of all the other things going through my head at that time. There was no other way for me to look at it than I was on the other side of the hill and sliding down. I was never going to be opening night Onegin. That decision had already been made. It wasn’t just that in and of itself [that sparked his retirement]. It was a combination of things – can I constantly prove that I’m worthy of doing the work that these young boys are ready to do?

I was being told that these people were ready and I needed to share. I had an awesome year with The Merry Widow, After the Rain, Concerto, then after that was told I needed to step back, to share. I understood that; but that didn’t happen to Steven Heathcote. I was his understudy until he decided to go.

But I got to do a traditional Swan Lake in Hong Kong in August 2011 with Jin Yao [previously a guest artist with the AB]; a beautiful production. I really, really loved it. I miss performing, and I really, really miss partnering. It could bring me to tears talking about it.

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Blak opens on May 3 in Melbourne before touring to Wollongong, Sydney and Brisbane.

Victorian Opera’s Nixon in China opens in Melbourne on May 16.