About last week … April 30-May 6

A week of contrasts started on Tuesday at the Sydney Opera House with the marvellous Bernadette Robinson in Pennsylvania Avenue, her follow-up to Songs for Nobodies. Both were written by Joanna Murray-Smith to give a narrative framework for Robinson’s rare talent and if Songs for Nobodies strikes one as the much better work, Pennsylvania Avenue still offers many pleasures. Robinson has an extraordinary ability to summon the voices and spirit of famous singers and is a fine actor as well. Her art is much more than mimicry. Pennsylvania Avenue is flashback theatre set in the White House as a woman, Harper Clements, recalls her life of service to a string of presidents, starting with JFK. The conceit is that she works with the entertainments wing and thus comes into contact with many famous singers over a 40 year-span. The single set rather traps Robinson into walking around, picking up and putting down a box of belongings as she prepares to leave her position (Simon Phillips directed), and the troubles in Clements’s life aren’t as fascinating as the evocation of events such as Sarah Vaughn’s performance at the White House. Nevertheless, the wide range of songs and Robinson’s skill keep you with her, even if at 90 minutes the show feels a tad long. Robinson does a killer Tammy Wynette (Stand By Your Man – associated, naturally, with the Clinton era), her Eartha Kitt (If You Go Away, the English version of Brel’s Ne Me Quitte Pas) is spine-tingling and her Bob Dylan (The Eve of Destruction) is pitch-perfect, if such a term can be applied to the Dylan vocal style. An excellent band, too, tucked away behind the curtain.

Bernadette Robinson

Bernadette Robinson in Pennsylvania Avenue

On Wednesday morning it was off to Wellington and Royal New Zealand Ballet’s The Wizard of Oz, which I have reviewed at length in the post below. A lovely work, albeit one that can grow as it gets more performances. As always, dramaturgical input is something very much needed in the making of story ballets and it is often put too far down the list of priorities. I’ve very much enjoyed reading British critics talking about the need for dramaturgical and directorial input into Liam Scarlett’s new three-act ballet for the Royal, Frankenstein. I’ve been banging on about this for decades. But back to RNZB, where choreographer and artistic director Francesco Ventriglia has a very strong base from which to work. And we’re not talking huge changes.

Thursday night brought the Queen/Ben Elton musical We Will Rock You, which I missed when it was staged in Australia in 2003. My review is in The Australian today (May 9) and I’ll put it up on the blog later in the week. Suffice to say that as someone who was young in the 1970s I had a very good time indeed.

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Casey Donovan as the Killer Queen in We Will Rock You. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thank goodness for Australian Theatre for Young People’s Friday matinee of Spring Awakening, a production I would otherwise not have been able to fit into the schedule. And I would have missed a beauty. It’s salutary to note that Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play was banned in England until 1963, a clear affirmation of its revolutionary nature. Well, and of British idiocy in respect to censorship. Wedekind’s theme of burgeoning teenage sexuality and adult fear and hypocrisy was incendiary then, and now. Despite children having almost unfettered access to sexual material, there are powerful people who still refuse to allow those children to have straightforward, realistic, all-embracing information and discussion.

The 2006 musical by Duncan Sheik (music) and Steven Sater (book and lyrics) is set in the time of Wedekind’s play yet feels utterly contemporary, and not only because of the indie-rock score. The young ATYP actors are shiningly unselfconscious and thoroughly absorbed and absorbing. Jessica Rookeward’s Wendla glows in spirit and voice and the two leading men, James Raggett (Melchior) and Josh McElroy (Moritz) could not be bettered, so passionate and so different. Mitchell Butel, on only his second directorial outing, proves that should acting jobs dry up – unlikely; Butel is one of the busiest and most versatile men on the Australian stage – he can segue effortlessly to the other side. He gets superb performances of detail, clarity and conviction from relatively inexperienced performers and creates an utterly believable world. The design from Simon Greer (set), Damien Cooper and Ross Graham (lights) and David Bergman (sound) is simplicity itself and all the better for it. Amy Campbell’s choreography is brilliant, as is Lucy Bermingham’s musical direction. Bravi.

It appears there may still be some seats for the Spring Awakening matinees of May 11 and 13. I’d advise jumping on them immediately.

Jessica Rookeward and James Raggatt in Spring Awakening. Photo: Tracey Schramm

Jessica Rookeward and James Raggatt in Spring Awakening. Photo: Tracey Schramm

On Friday it was off to Carriageworks and a showing of the four finalists in the Keir Choreographic Award, a generous biennial prize (yay!). I’ll write more about it later but wasn’t surprised that Ghenoa Gela carried off both the main award of $30,000 and the people’s vote, which added $10,000 to Gela’s prize. Put simply, Fragments of Malungoka – Women of the Sea was much more emotionally engaging than the other works; it was warmer, more human, more interesting, more inviting. Gela’s dancers were, despite the shielding of their faces, women of flesh and blood and their movement connected one with resonant questions about meaning inherent in or imposed on indigenous dance.

Pennsylvania Avenue, The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, until May 22.

Spring Awakening, ATYP Studio 1, Wharf 4, Sydney, until May 14.

The Wizard of Oz, various cities in New Zealand until June 12.

We Will Rock You, Lyric Theatre, Sydney, until June 26 and then touring Australia into 2017.

Ladies in Black

Queensland Theatre Company, Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, November 19

BY the end of Ladies in Black its sweet, gawky duckling of a heroine has been transformed into a soignée swan, and in just six weeks. Why, without her glasses and with her hair up, young Lisa Miles is quite a looker. Goodbye school, hello world. This is no superficial alteration: Lisa is on the brink of something momentous, a life where she gets to choose who and what she wants to be. If a beautiful, lusted-after dress is part of the picture after years of wearing garments made at home lovingly, but badly, by mum, well that’s OK.

The slender and charming novel that inspired Ladies in Black, Madeleine St John’s The Women in Black, is a comedy of manners and fable of empowerment. Published in 1993 but set in the late 1950s, it casts an amused eye on an Australia slowly emerging from its blokey, monocultural straitjacket. A young woman blossoms; another discovers literature and the attractions of an experienced European man; a long-married woman has a sexual awakening; and the sophistications of a recent arrival to these shores work their magic. There is one delectable discovery after another.

Kate Cole, Christen O,Leary, Naomi Price, Lucy Maunder, Deidre Rubenstein, Carita Farrer Spencer

The cast of Ladies in Black

In a version of Jane Austen’s famous two inches of ivory – her “four or five families in a country village”- The Women in Black (and thus Ladies in Black, which is a faithful adaptation) inhabits a deliberately limited world, viewed from a female perspective. Like Austen, St John is witty and acerbic while maintaining an aura of smooth politesse. (How about this seemingly throwaway word in The Women in Black? Men talking about their families “joined in with remarks about their own sons and even their daughters”. Even. It’s a killer.)

St John had long been an expat, living in England where she felt she belonged, but her evocation of Sydney in summer is vivid and not without affection as she expertly registers and skewers the social attitudes and restrictions that drove so many Australians like her to flee (she was at the University of Sydney at the same time as Clive James, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes and other luminaries). She touches on inequality between the sexes, the limiting of women’s ambition and the galvanising effect of migration with a soupçon of the sexual revolution thrown in for spice – heavy issues all, but rendered with an airy hand. This is the fable part: pretty much everything turns out wonderfully well.

At the centre of the story is Lisa (née Lesley, a name she feels doesn’t quite suit her). She has just finished her exams for the Leaving certificate and secured a holiday job at Goode’s department store, the place to shop in Sydney. She is assigned to Ladies’ Cocktail (not the alcoholic beverage; frocks) and promised as an additional pair of hands to the cosmopolitan Magda in Model Gowns.

Sarah Morrison, Christen O'Leary

Sarah Morrison as Lisa and Christen O’Leary as Magda

Lisa is a very clever girl and likely to win a Commonwealth Scholarship to university, although as her father points out, what does a girl need with a degree when she’ll shortly be looking after a husband and kiddies? She isn’t a natural rebel but knows her life has more promise than that. The excitingly stylish Magda, a New Australian, as we used to call them (“Continental” to her confrères at Goode’s), treats Lisa like an adult and introduces her to thrilling new ideas. It’s a tumultuous few weeks for all in the domestic sphere and of course at work, where the women are rushed off their feet just before Christmas.

Singer-songwriter Tim Finn came across a copy of The Women in Black at Brisbane Airport and thought it might make a good musical. He hadn’t written one before but seems to be a natural. His openhearted, immediately likeable songs (Finn wrote music and lyrics) are deliciously melodic and flow easily through Carolyn Burns’s lively, compact book. Occasionally the joins show, but Ladies in Black is in excellent shape for a musical having its first outing and succeeds where it really counts by creating warm, believable, engaging characters and by having a top-notch cast bring them to life. Relative unknown Sarah Morrison, who plays Lisa, is a tremendous asset. She is radiant.

Anyone expecting a 21st-century gloss on issues about which it’s difficult to laugh these days will be disappointed. Ladies in Black is about how it was then, bathed in a rosily nostalgic glow that is even equal to the task of laughing at bad husbands. The Bastard Song, sung with sturdy relish by a quartet of women, had the show’s opening-night audience hooting, loving lyrics that include: “He’s a bastard, a bastard, a standard issue bastard, a bastard, coming home half plastered, I don’t know how it’s lasted …” You get the idea.

Kathryn McIntyre, Deidre Rubenstein, Kate Cole, Lucy Maunder

Kathryn McIntyre, Deidre Rubenstein, Kate Cole and Lucy Maunder

There’s no room here for cynics, ironists or revolutionaries. Ladies in Black unashamedly plucks the heartstrings and may even cause a certain dampness in the ocular area. For Australian women of a certain age there is much to remember. “I can see the future and everything I’ve dreamed is waiting there for me,” goes the rousing final number, and Ladies in Black means every buoyant, life-affirming word of it.

Queensland Theatre Company, backed by Queensland Performing Arts Centre, threw a lot of resources into Ladies in Black. Set and costumes are by the go-to designer for big occasions, Gabriela Tylesova (the staging boasts three revolves to facilitate the many changes of scene), and director Simon Phillips, who knows a thing or two about musical theatre, is at the helm. There is plenty to admire but the production nevertheless has the feeling of falling somewhat between two stools: it could be done on a rather more intimate scale or, alternatively, would profit from a grander staging with a lot more bells and whistles. There’s no money pit like the musical theatre.

The former outcome is perhaps more likely than the latter but however it goes, Ladies in Black deserves to have an audience after these premiere seasons in Brisbane and, from January 16, in Melbourne.

Brisbane season ends December 6. Melbourne Theatre Company, January 16-February 27.

Further reading: Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John, by Helen Trinca. Text Publishing, 2013. (Co-Winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, 2014)

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Sydney Theatre, August 10

Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more. On!

Pozzo, Waiting for Godot, Act II

I HAD forgotten to what degree Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pays homage to Waiting for Godot while going backstage at Hamlet, as ‘twere. As the court of Elsinore goes through its well known paces, shown to us only in flickers and fragments, the two courtiers are left to fretfully consider just why they have been tapped to glean what afflicts Hamlet. Like Vladimir and Estragon they puzzle and ruminate, waiting for something to happen, never entirely sure of their shifting ground. That’s ground in the metaphorical sense; in the physical sense they seem rooted to the spot, unable to escape from a claustrophobic set of arches and tunnels that, disconcertingly, look fake but through which others – but not Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – come and go. The two are like actors who have lost the plot, babbling away, unable to find the right spot in the script and move on.

Ewen Leslie, centre, and the players in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Ewen Leslie, centre, and the players in Sydney Theatre Company’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

With Stoppard’s intellect and wit on speed dial – the man was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937; naturally he sees the mordantly funny side of existential angst – one has to be in alert form to keep up on both sides of the spotlights. Simon Phillips directs with unflagging vigour and a keen sense of the absurd, rightly, I think, valuing energy and momentum over textual clarity at times. Well, there are so many words that if you miss one or two, there’ll be another bunch along in a moment. (There isn’t a lot missed, and to be honest a couple of the more abstruse jokes are never going to score big with an audience so best to get ‘em out and move right along.)

Gabriela Tylesova’s design is a marvel of cunning, and not only because it uses the Sydney Theatre stage in a way we haven’t seen before. It is genuinely disconcerting as well as being playful and mysterious. What’s that funnel doing hanging above the stage? At the beginning we see it extrude some bare branches – shades of Godot! – and later there’s a kind of twisty, open-work ladder that trails off into the wings. All very sci-fi and theatrical. Tylesova has had great fun with the costumes too, memorably kitting out Heather Mitchell’s Gertrude as a mad version of Elizabeth I. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern revels outrageously in its play-ness (more Godot!), giving a particularly juicy role to the impresario whose dogged band of mixed nuts is hired to perform for Gertrude and Claudius.  “We are actors. We are the opposite of people,” says the Player, impersonated with lofty self-regard by Ewen Leslie, employing the rich, thespian tones of a man exceptionally impressed with the timbre of his voice.

Heather Mitchell and Christopher Stollery. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Heather Mitchell and Christopher Stollery. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

When it comes to words, however, Toby Schmitz’s febrile Guildenstern is your man, pouring out his thoughts and fears amusingly, obsessively, manically. (Even his hair is jumpy: Schmitz’s usually straight locks are hidden under a riot of curls.) Of course he has every reason to suspect all is not right. Tim Minchin’s Rosencrantz, on the other hand, is not quite so aware of the abyss yawning before them – why toenails don’t grow as swiftly as fingernails is more his speed – but intimations of mortality are everywhere. Schmitz and Minchin, Minchin and Schmitz. They are tremendously vivid and engaging and touching as well as being highly individual. Claudius and Gertrude keep mixing them up, to the point where the lads themselves become a tiny bit unsure about who they are. But that’s because no one else is really real. They are all opening their mouths, saying stuff and playing a part.

I’d like to think it’s fate that provides Sydney with the chance to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Sydney Theatre Company), Hamlet (Belvoir) and Waiting for Godot (STC) in the same year. Indeed, in the same half of the year.  I don’t suppose STC’s Andrew Upton and Belvoir’s Ralph Myers cooked this up together, at least I hope they didn’t. Less fun that way.

Toby Schmitz, Tim Minchin and George Kemp. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Toby Schmitz, Tim Minchin and George Kemp. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

That two of the three plays feature Schmitz is a bonus. What a shame the scheduling of Hamlet makes it impossible for Schmitz – he is the Dane – to play Lucky to Philip Quast’s Pozzo while Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh play Vladimir and Estragon. Or is it Estragon and Vladimir?

What brilliant casts we’re seeing in Sydney this year.

Postscript: The supporting cast for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a knockout, and includes, along with Heather Mitchell, John Gaden as Polonius and Christopher Stollery as Claudius. And a special nod to George Kemp as the player Alfred, put upon in more ways than one.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continues at the Sydney Theatre until September 14.