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.

Three premieres

The Aliens, Old Fitz Theatre, August 27; La Traviata, Belvoir Downstairs, September 1; Bull, Old Fitzroy Theatre, September 3

AMERICAN playwright Annie Baker has been mentioned, many times, in the same breath as Chekov and it’s a comparison that has merit. Baker, who is only 34, probes beneath the surface of apparently ordinary and often fragile lives to unearth the struggle and the wonder of life. Nothing much happens, unless you think that an intimate understanding of how people connect with one another counts as a lot.

I was able to see The Flick – first produced in 2013, winner of a Pulitzer Prize last year – when in New York earlier this year and found it profoundly moving. (Melbourne’s Red Stitch was smartly on the case, producing it last year with direction by Nadia Tass.) Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre staged Baker’s 2009 play Circle Mirror Transformation, set in a community adult drama class, in 2012, and now at the Old Fitz it’s possible to see The Aliens, written in 2010 (no one can accuse Baker of slacking) and given a luminous production by Outhouse Theatre Co.

Jeremy Waters, James Bell and Ben Wood in The Aliens. Photo: Rupert Reid

Jeremy Waters, James Bell and Ben Wood in The Aliens. Photo: Rupert Reid

KJ (Ben Wood) and Jasper (Jeremy Waters) hang out in the cruddy garbage area at the back of a café and shoot the breeze about music, writing (Jasper is a Charles Bukowski aficionado) and relationships in a patchy, tentative, affectionate kind of way. Their conversation is all stops, starts and gaps but far from empty. Hurt, aspiration, bravado and need are often expressed as much in what is not said as what is.

When shy young café employee Evan (James Bell) ventures out the back to try to shoo them away – this is private property – KJ and Jasper stand firm. They are going nowhere, and for the tiniest moment you think The Aliens might fall into convention; that Evan will be bullied by these older, bigger, apparently more worldly men. But no. KJ and Jasper draw him into their little circle and supremely delicate connections are made. The performances are perfectly pitched. One does wonder why actors of the calibre of Wood and Waters are not seen more often and Bell is quite, quite magical.

Hugh O’Connor’s design is spot-on, with its crappy furniture and weeds poking through the cracks, and Craig Baldwin directs with a huge heart.

Mike Bartlett’s Bull, which is just finishing a short late-night season at the Old Fitz, is given its Australian premiere by Renaissance Productions with Rowan Greaves directing. It is a kind of companion piece to the same playwright’s Cock, which was so effectively staged at the Old Fitz earlier in the year. But unlike Cock it has only one idea, swiftly rendered in a four-hander that takes less than an hour to deliver the message that some people are natural victims who will be at the mercy of the amoral.

Romy Bartz, George Kemp and Philippe Klaus in Bull. Photo: Geoff Sirmai

Romy Bartz, George Kemp and Philippe Klaus in Bull. Photo: Geoff Sirmai

Thomas (George Kemp) is the one destined to fail and Isobel (Romy Bartz) and Tony (Philippe Klaus) are his tormentors. As in Cock, three characters dominate the action with a fourth – here the corporate trio’s boss, played by Craig Ashley, entering late in the day – but the piece is not much more than a few brutal punches to the head turned into a rather longer fight than strictly necessary.

Sydney audiences will see Bartlett in a much more expansive mode when his King Charles III comes from London’s Almeida via Broadway during Sydney Theatre Company’s 2016 program. It’s wildly interesting in form and content – I saw it at the Almeida last year – as Bartlett projects forward to the earliest days of the reign of Prince Charles as British monarch. (King of Australia, too, undoubtedly.)

Also of interest in smaller-scale Sydney theatre is Sisters Grimm’s La Traviata, even if it’s not as revolutionary as one might have expected. Sisters Grimm – writer-director Declan Greene and writer-performer Ash Flanders – were inspired by Verdi’s 1853 opera as a piece of social criticism (the composer wanted it performed in modern dress but to get it on at Venice’s La Fenice had to make it a historical piece). But new work doesn’t always become what was originally intended. The political arguments flagged in the Creators’ Note in the program don’t make themselves felt strongly enough, but on the plus side it turns out you can do La Traviata in a theatre as small as Belvoir Downstairs and do it justice. In the course of a discussion about the value of art in a society that knows the cost-benefit ratio of everything, Melbourne duo Sisters Grimm have created a touching and memorable version of Verdi’s opera.

Emma Maye Gibson in La Traviata. Photo: Patrick Boland

Emma Maye Gibson in La Traviata. Photo: Patrick Boland

It’s wildly truncated and mostly lipsynched but the essence is there and it’s staged in a way that would cause no palpitations in, say, Germany, where regietheater (director’s theatre) reigns. Well, obviously it’s a hit-and-run version of the big thing, but it’s good. The countryside where Violetta and her lover Alfredo live is dotted with sheep, flower-entwined swings fall from the ceiling and Violetta’s gown is a cage. In Marg Horwell’s sets and costumes there are also jokey visual references to Lohengrin and Carmen. There’s quite a lot going on if you know your operas.

When the axe falls on Violetta’s happiness it is shown in devastating manner by Emma Maye Gibson, ever more desperately seeking approval from the audience, even to the point of standing on her head to sing (enter The Magic Flute). This is the courtesan as performer, but it’s also the performer as courtesan, touting for applause and money.

La Traviata is at its most original and thought-provoking here. The first third is an overlong satire on arts funding that, despite the warmth of Flanders, Gibson and Zindzi Okenyo, is more than the teensiest bit lame. Flanders does shout rather desperately in lieu of insights.

But the rest more than makes up for it. In the final third of the show the audience is invited to talk with the cast and each other and – surprisingly – the feeling is not the usual terror of audience participation but warmth and inclusion. Then opera singer Michael Lewis, the fourth cast member, comes to the fore, telling a deeply personal story about mortality before assuming the role of Violetta.

When it was announced last year as part of Belvoir’s 2015 season, La Traviata was proposed as a critique of current Australian arts politics. The word protest was used, although it’s hard to read this production as a call to arms. Instead it looks into the heart of the artist, the person who needs to perform and to be loved. What are the transactions required to achieve that?

Along the way La Traviata is also a love letter to the operatic art form, despite the pro forma sniping at the start (boring, long, elitist). Who better, indeed, than Sisters Grimm to understand the power of a theatre of grand emotions and extravagant gestures?

Bull ends September 12; The Aliens ends September 19; La Traviata ends September 20.

Reviews of The Aliens and La Traviata first appeared in The Australian on August 31 and September 3.