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.

Proof; Boys Like Me

Proof, Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, February 25 (matinee)

Boys Like Me, Courtney Act, Sydney Theatre, February 25

DAVID Auburn’s Proof had a Sydney Theatre Company season in 2003 with George Ogilvie directing Jacqueline McKenzie and Barry Otto as the father and daughter maths whizzes who share a genius for numbers and potentially a similar fate. The play won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize and the Tony award for that year, but I failed to see why. Proof has some sterling qualities, it’s true, but they are contained within a highly conventional and disappointingly creaky structure. It was an enjoyable experience because of the quality of the performances, but not a wholly satisfying one.

I’ve just caught up with The Ensemble’s current production, which is also impressive from a performance perspective (Sandra Bates directed) but no more plausible from a dramatic one. Matilda Ridgway beautifully negotiates the task of making bolshie, anxious Catherine highly sympathetic and the scenes with her father Robert (Michael Ross) are most moving. Catherine McGraffin and Adriano Cappelletta have the unenviable job of playing a pushy sister and a not terribly successful mathematician who are there to set the conflict in motion.

Matilda Ridgway and Michael Ross in Proof. Photo: Clare Hawley

Matilda Ridgway and Michael Ross in Proof. Photo: Clare Hawley

The notion of proof that gives the play its title is given very short shrift indeed. Odd that Auburn should have been so garlanded for it. Still, the production is worth seeing for those lovely few scenes between Catherine and Robert.

COURTNEY Act’s cabaret show, for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, is called Boys Like Me. Depending on where you put the emphasis, the title can means two things; both of which meanings, as Act explains, are true. Men are extremely attracted to Act, and how not? She is a witty, glamorous beauty. But as Act was born Shane Jenek, she is also a man. The most beautiful man in the world, as the promotional material has it, and I’m not going to argue. Certainly there is industrial-level maquillage to aid the impression, but it’s flawlessly done. And the drag persona is just part of the story, one that Act describes as living on the divide between genders.

Boys Like Me is a touching, generous and warm-hearted show about the fluidity of gender as it applies to Act and to many others in their individual ways. Her special guest last night, for instance, was Chaz Bono, a transsexual, although the point of their song together, Gender Rebels (a version of Bosom Buddies) was pretty much that you should forget about the labels. Bono isn’t the singer his parents – Cher and Sono Bono – were but you had to admire the attitude and the statement.

Act got cosy with her audience very early, confiding aspects of her, ahem, personal life that would be considered waaaaay too much information in many circles. It takes a lot of class and style to make intimate anecdotes such as these seem amusing and appealing rather than crass – and they did. It was delightful to hear that Act’s parents were in the house and had always backed their boy. Yes, apparently even when hearing sex-life details no parent would actively seek out. Bless.

It helps that Act has lovely comic timing and a sweet way with a putdown. “I was in Adelaide. Always a precarious start to a story …” was the introduction to one story, swiftly followed by an apology to that city.

Act is a fine singer as well as a charming raconteur. Highlights for me were Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl and, from Wicked, I’m Not that Girl. So touching in this context.

Act played the diva role to perfection, donning a series of glittering gowns and showing a great deal of extremely well-turned leg. The show would have benefited from running straight through rather than losing momentum with an interval but Act manages to carry the day nevertheless, aided by an excellent band.

Act now lives in Los Angeles and is a contestant in the current series of the show RuPaul’s Drag Race, a reality series about drag queens now in its sixth season. RuPaul is a showbiz legend so this is no small thing. It was divine, then, to know this hasn’t gone to Act’s head in any way. She has a sharp eye for absurdity and captured beautifully Hollywood’s boundless appetite for the unusual. She reckons that when she discovered the existence of an American TV show called Hillbilly Handfishin’ she knew there was a place for her. I looked it up, and it’s true. It’s a series about catching fish with your bare hands and feet. Go Courtney.

Proof ends at the Ensemble Theatre on March 8.

Bombshells

Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, March 20

“I’M so fucking happy,” screams Theresa McTerry, bride-to-be, slamming down the bubbles. It won’t be the first time she says that. Protesting a little too much, perhaps? Theresa’s monologue is the fourth of six that make up Bombshells, Joanna Murray Smith’s cunningly named piece about women in a state of discovery. There are bombs thrown everywhere: little ones perhaps, given the suburban setting for five of the six pieces, but bombs capable of inflicting much damage nevertheless on those involved.

Sharon Millerchip as Theresa in Bombshells. Photograph: Steve Lunam

Sharon Millerchip as Theresa in Bombshells. Photograph: Steve Lunam

It goes without saying Bombshells needs an actress of many and varied gifts to carry it off. It was written for Caroline O’Connor and thus asks for a triple threat performer. In Sharon Millerchip it certainly has that, and the Ensemble has a gold-plated hit on its hands.

Murray Smith has astutely allowed some latitude in shaping Bombshells for 2013 (it was first performed in 2004) and for Millerchip. There are some up-to-date cultural references – predictably Theresa has a bit of a Kim Kardashian thing – and a wildly successful interpretation of the final section, in which nightclub singer Zoe has become a German cabaret artist.

Bombshells gets off to a reckless, breathless start with Meryl, a harried new mother with older children to wrangle, a home to run and a very keen sense of how she is failing to cope with anything approaching serenity or even competence. Millerchip makes Meryl extremely endearing, pouring out the torrent of words with a dogged awareness that it’s impossible for her to achieve what others seem – laughably – to think possible.

The least successful section comes second as Tiggy gives a lecture on cacti that turns into a cry of anguish. It’s simultaneously obvious and awkward. Millerchip is on happy territory with the third monologue, in which schoolgirl Mary O’Donnell attempts to run off yet again with top prize at her school’s talent show. Without her, you understand, it would not be a talent show; it would just be a show. Precious.

The fifth monologue is the only one for which Millerchip is demonstrably too young, but she has the right delicacy and astringency of touch for the story of a widow, ever busy doing things with other widows, who unexpectedly has a chance to be desired again.

Theresa’s wedding is the most complex of the pieces. As it starts, and as it is played by Millerchip, the audience laughs at the character rather than with her, no doubt about it. I found that very uncomfortable, which is not a bad thing in the theatre. Theresa has been captured by the whole romance of the thing: a big wedding, having snaffled a bloke, having done what everyone expects of someone like her. But she’s got plenty of go in her and she isn’t stupid. Millerchip finds the underlying bleakness without hammering the point.

Sharon Millerchip as Zoe in Bombshells. Photograph: Steve Lunam

Sharon Millerchip as Zoe in Bombshells. Photograph: Steve Lunam

Bombshells ends with diva on the slide Zoe who rallies to put on a performance, albeit a shaky one, and insinuate herself with the audience. Millerchip creates a Marlene Dietrich-style chanteuse of slinky manner, smoky vocals, suggestive banter and only a passing acquaintance with sobriety, a situation which accompanist Lindsay Partridge handles with urbane charm. (Partridge also composed some additional music; Max Lambert was the original composer.)

On Wednesday night the audience immediately jumped to its feet for Millerchip. Quite right too.

Bombshells continues at the Ensemble, Sydney, until April 13.