Williamson, Fleming

Cruise Control, by David Williamson, Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, April 30

His Mother’s Voice, by Justin Fleming, bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company, ATYP Selects, May 2

DAVID Williamson has been writing plays for more than 45 years and hasn’t lost his touch with the well-crafted one-liner that effortlessly extracts a happy burst of laughter from a full house. He can be very entertaining indeed. His latest work, Cruise Control, has a pretty good stock of zingers in a set-up guaranteed to supply copious opportunities for them.

Three couples on a cruise have failed to arrange private tables for dinner and are thrown together for the duration – over-sharing Americans (Kate Fitzpatrick and Henri Szeps), brash, confident Australians (Helen Dallimore, Peter Phelps) and a tricky English couple comprising nice put-upon wife and self-regarding, philandering husband (Michelle Doake, Felix Williamson). All steam ahead for culture clashes and a big splash of sexual intrigue, leavened with some gentle social commentary occasioned by the presence of warm and wise steward Charlie (Kenneth Moraleda).

Helen Dallimore and Felix Williamson in Cruise Control. Photo: Clare Hawley

Helen Dallimore and Felix Williamson in Cruise Control. Photo: Clare Hawley

There is no profundity here, but Williamson is a keen observer of human tics and foibles and the going is easy for the first half. Alas the second half sails into more turbulent waters and does so rather creakily with an over-explanatory and frankly unbelievable denouement.

Marissa Dale-Johnson’s design makes astute and evocative use of the small Ensemble space, the cast is strong and Williamson, who took on direction duties, acquits himself well in that regard. But perhaps another director might have been able to persuade the playwright to give that second act another couple of drafts. Not surprisingly, though, The Ensemble already has had need to extend the Sydney season by offering performances at Chatswood’s The Concourse after the Kirribilli run.

Justin Fleming’s His Mother’s Voice could also do with another draft or two but its subject is entrancing and already it’s a work of substance and resonance. The play is set mainly in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath and partly in Canberra, fluidly moving between time and place. A mother teaches her son (the very composed 12-year-old Isaiah Powell when young, Harry Tseng when an adult) the piano despite the risk, and then the reality, of being persecuted for being bourgeois. For Yang Jia, played with understated grace and gleaming intelligence by Renee Lim, music is a universal language. The Chinese apparatchiks who harry her see Western music as the enemy of Chinese music; she sees the two as complementary.

Isaiah Powell in His Mother's Voice. Photo: Tessa Tran

Isaiah Powell in His Mother’s Voice. Photo: Tessa Tran

When her piano is destroyed Yang Lia finds another, incredibly touching, way of continuing her son’s education in the greats of Western classical music.

The politics of the Cultural Revolution collide with international politics, and if at times some of the arguments on the Western side seem a little stilted, Fleming’s portrayal of the contradictions acceptable – necessary? – in Chinese thinking is fascinating.

Suzanne Millar choreographs the swirling action (she co-designed the sparse, cleverly flexible set with John Harrison) with admirable clarity and it was a particular pleasure to see so many actors of Asian heritage on stage. How frequently the theatre world talks about diversity, and how infrequently we actually see it.

His Mother’s Voice ends May 17.

Cruise Control ends at The Ensemble, Kirribilli, on June 14. Then Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, Wollongong, June 18-21, followed by The Concourse, Chatswood, for three performances on June 24 and 25.


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.