Circus in Sydney

WHATEVER you call it – circus, burlesque, cabaret, vaudeville, physical theatre, variety, magic – Sydney apparently can’t get enough of it. In January more than a dozen shows falling somewhere within these porous borders have fetched up, most as part of a mini-festival within the Sydney Festival or from other presenters keen to mine this rich vein of entertainment.

Festival director Lieven Bertels sensibly embraced the reality that Sydney in summer isn’t the most cerebral time of year and directed a lot of attention towards the enlarged Festival Village in Hyde Park. He put the Stonehenge-inspired bouncy castle Sacrilege just outside the village perimeter and inside put not one but two tents.

There is, of course, a Spiegeltent, without which it seems no Australian festival is complete. That venue is complemented by the smaller Circus Ronaldo Tent, allowing an impressive flow of circus and music events. (There’s a second Spiegeltent in town at the Entertainment Quarter in Moore Park, housing the circus show Empire, a non-festival event.)

Tents are a pragmatic solution to the need for extra venues but they also add a frisson to proceedings. Amanda Palmer’s cabaret show would always have been immaculate, but it didn’t hurt to have a bit of Spiegeltent magic to top things. There was something very right about seeing her very intimate, confessional, conversational show here. Palmer’s diatribe against Vegemite and song about, ahem, maps of Tasmania, were right at home.

LIMBO"s swaingpoles routine. Photo: Prudence Upton

Evelyne Allard’s dynamic aerial hoop routine in LIMBO. Photo: Prudence Upton

It’s a different world inside the tent walls as performers defy normal physical limits, frequently show lots of flesh and encourage patrons to drop their inhibitions – up to a point. Patrons have to understand who is in charge and performers have to be very good at handling the over-excited or over-refreshed. Even if there isn’t audience participation in the strict sense, the atmosphere of shared experience between performer and paying customer is exceptionally strong. This type of theatre celebrates crossed boundaries and thrilling, fleeting intimacy. Then the circus moves on and we all go back to our daily lives.

It’s fascinating to see how avidly people put themselves forward to be part of the show. Some have a yen to shine a little too brightly, as Tom Flanagan discovered in his lovely show Kaput one afternoon. A woman selected to join him on stage got a bit over-theatrical so Flanagan fireman-lifted her back to her seat and moved on to another volunteer. All part of the risk.

In Kaput, Flanagan channelled silent-movie clowns as he fought a losing battle with inanimate objects. Everything that could go wrong would go wrong, and indeed even more mishaps than were in the script assailed him in the performance I saw, a situation he handled with enormous skill and charm. Also at the family end of things, Circus Ronaldo, gave a masterclass in classic physical comedy in La Cucina dell’Arte.

A late-night act, Scotch and Soda, which runs until the end of the festival, offers a relaxed, down-and-dirty show distinguished by great music and exuberant routines.

The Scotch and Soda team

The Scotch and Soda team

The best of the best, though, is LIMBO, which is packing out the Spiegeltent and also runs until January 27. Director Scott Maidment has ensured there’s tight connection within the cast rather than just a series of disparate acts, the music is blood-pumpingly good and the circus skills are off the chart.

Choreographed as intensely as a dance work, LIMBO nevertheless feels spontaneous and dangerous. It doesn’t hurt that the international cast is drop-dead gorgeous and very come-hither. The exemplar is American Heather Holliday, a sword-swallower and fire-eater with the glossy glamour of a 1950s movie pin-up, but they are all divine. I particularly loved Mikael Bres’s breath-taking Chinese pole turn, which is entrancingly dance-like;  Evelyne Allard’s dynamic aerial hoop routine; and the trio of men weaving and swooping on long swaying poles. Boy, are these blokes ripped.

LIMBO is now the gold standard, helped immeasurably by the quality of the music. Created and directed by Sxip Shirey, the score has rough energy and great sophistication. It’s a show you could see again and again.

Empire claims to have the “sexiest, most daring” artists but the show tries a bit too hard to be transgressive. LIMBO, on the other hand, has sexual energy to burn without being vulgar. There’s no shortage of skill in Empire; it’s just that it doesn’t feel particularly well integrated into a total piece of theatre and much of the music is recorded. Empire does have two particularly strong acts in the foot juggling of Black Flintstone and Big Mac Boy, and the intensely demanding Branch Balance from Memet Bilgin, who builds a huge, airy leaf-shaped sculpture from palm branches so delicately poised that a breath can dismantle it.

As part of Summer at the House, the Sydney Opera House programmed a clutch of magic, circus and cabaret shows, the first of which was The Illusionists 2.0 (it has just moved on to Brisbane). The separate nature of its constituent parts means The Illusionists could continue following the death in Sydney of hypnotist Scott Lewis, but his loss robs the show of its closest contact with the audience.

Overall the show is Las Vegas slick, with lots of loud music, pulsing lights and writhing backing dancers, although there are moments of quiet with Yu Ho-Jin’s truly magical card tricks and the old-fashioned and charming shadow puppetry from Raymond Crowe, billed as The Unusualist.

Raymond Crowe in The Illusionists 2.0. Photo: Daniel Boud

Raymond Crowe in The Illusionists 2.0. Photo: Daniel Boud

Also at the Opera House, Flying Fruit Fly Circus’s Circus Under My Bed has the country’s next generation of circus performers linking impressive acts with a warm story about having to pack up toys and move house. The gambolling, tumbling sheep are an inspired touch, and the circus skills are exciting – although at the performance I saw the biggest reaction came when a performer got a cake pushed into their face. The old ones clearly never lose their charm.

It was interesting to see a young man nail a difficult trick that eluded poor Tom Flanagan, although to be fair, Flanagan had some sore trials to contend with during his show. (A water bottle thrown in the air is impaled on the spike of an umbrella, releasing water and thus giving the impression of rain. The kid took three goes when I saw it and got it first time up when a friend was there; Flanagan gave up after about half a dozen but we loved him anyway.)

And of course it would scarcely be summer in Sydney without Ursula Martinez and her nude-with-handkerchief  turn, Hanky Panky, in La Soiree, which has returned to the Opera House for a long run.

It is cheerful, bawdy burlesque whose oddity acts give it a wacky, distinctive personality.  Asher Treleaven’s Mills & Boon reading was worth the price of admission on opening night, but he was a late substitution for another act and isn’t on every night unfortunately. He’s a real winner. The Chooky Dancers, reduced to a company of three for the tiny round stage in the Studio, do Zorba the Greek, naturally.

The acts come through in a fast and furious manner and while the physical acts are superb, La Soiree depends very much for its punch on perverse comedy. Apart from Hanky Panky there is Miss Behave doing unusual things with scissors, gloves and skewers, Martinez putting on a spangly barely-there costume and setting her bits and pieces on fire, and various acts of physical daring.  It’s all extremely good-humoured, as long as you don’t mind your humour on the rough side.

And that’s only a sample of what’s around in this genre. Circus Oz has also been around, and finishes its regular Sydney summer season weekend.Also on the festival roster are, were or will be Ockham’s Razor, Lady Rizo, Band of Magicians and Bullet Catch. The latter two have had brilliant reviews and I was sorry to miss them.

The Sydney Festival ends January 27. Flying Fruit Fly Circus ends January 25, Empire ends March 2, La Soiree ends March 14. The Illusionists 2.0, Brisbane, from Sunday to January 27.

The urge to perform

I AM not a great fan of audience participation – certainly not for myself, and rarely when I see others roped in. Frequently it involves people making spectacles of themselves or being put in an awkward position they can’t wriggle out of. It almost invariably feels like a power trip on the part of the performers. Alternatively, getting up on stage can go to the non-professional’s head and embarrassment ensues. So no, not a great fan. In fact, I loathe it.

True, I managed to survive a spot of participatory action at The Rabble’s 2013 Melbourne Festival show, Room of Regret, but happily it was in an extremely benign form – the actor, me, and an otherwise empty space in which we gazed wordlessly at each other. I could manage that.

Full marks, then, to Sydney company My Darling Patricia and its latest theatre work, The Piper, which premiered at the Sydney Festival last week. The involvement of a section of the audience is a crucial part of the performance. In fact, The Piper couldn’t take place without these people, who play townsfolk and their children in a version of the Pied Piper story.

And get this. Not only does My Darling Patricia get a substantial workforce for free, the participating audience members pay just as much for their tickets as do those who sit back, relax and enjoy the performance. Respect.

I really do mean that. My Darling Patricia has found a way of involving even very young children in a non-threatening, creative way. The participants do nothing that would require expertise and are guided at all times via headsets. Their freshness and wonder are a delightful part of the experience for those who are only watching.

The Piper is a fun version of the old German legend, filtered through stories by poet Ted Hughes. There’s an over-developed city, countryside despoiled, a shonky mayor whose pronouncements could come straight from today’s media and, of course, a plague of rats that needs to be dealt with. Narration, puppetry, projection and live action combine to make a strong, clear, memorable story. I would have liked to take part and should have commandeered a child to make that possible.

A more recognisable take on audience participation was seen at Empire, the circus production that’s back in Sydney after a very successful outing at the beginning of last year. Empire positions itself at the raunchy end of the spectrum and to this end treats the audience a bit roughly, although why telling audience members to “sit the fuck down” might be considered witty escaped me.

But on to the participation bit. It’s common in shows such as Empire – the family includes La Clique, which morphed into La Soiree – for performers to interact with audience members in a way that might be considered, ahem, rather familiar. Drinks are stolen, laps sat on, heads fondled and so on. On the night I saw Empire a man was brought to the stage and touched up pretty comprehensively. True, he was laughing, as was everyone else (although not old sourpuss me). But what if he’d felt the performers were going beyond what he felt comfortable with? My first thought was that he had to be a plant for the performers to be sure the situation was containable and the act wouldn’t fall in a heap, but my date, highly experienced in this form of theatre, reckoned not.

Which brings us to control. Just as in stand-up comedy, the atmosphere in contemporary circus shows can be a little volatile. People are drinking and they are revved up. Shows such as Empire and La Soiree give people licence to drop their inhibitions; they encourage it. It’s a huge part of the allure. Most audience members know the game and how to play it. The boundaries may be a bit more flexible than those outside the tent, but people tend to be able to judge quite finely what level of abandon is acceptable.

But if they do overstep that invisible line the performers have to tidy things up, just as stand-up comedians have to deal with hecklers in a way that asserts their primacy over the heckler without losing the rest of the room. Indeed, in a way that wins over the room. It’s a quite delicate balance, even if it may not appear to be at the time. It requires a great deal of skill.

At Empire one of the comperes, Anne Goldmann, dealt abruptly with a young man who was making too insistent a noise and she came off as petulant and graceless. Those of us who were near him could see his companion trying to quieten him, and it looked very much as if he had some mild form of impairment. Goldmann, trying to perform, wouldn’t have been able to catch that, but when the two young men left and she shouted “Good riddance” at them, she was the one who came across badly. The put-down was schoolyard quality.

As I say, this is tricky territory. These shows invite raucous interaction with patrons and then have to deal with the consequences in a way that doesn’t rip the fabric of the show’s tone and fits in with the temperature and mood of the audience. Cabaret artist Meow Meow is extraordinarily adept at controlling her audience while acting in an extremely passive-aggressive manner, but then she is a goddess.

There is extensive audience participation in magic show The Illusionists 2.0, playing at the Sydney Opera House – all of it done extremely well and entered into most eagerly by patrons. I was impressed by the skilful handling of volunteers for the hypnotism section, a section of the show that is now, of course, absent due to the death on Saturday of hypnotist Scott Lewis.

I haven’t yet seen Oedipus Schmoedipus, the new show by small company Post in association with Belvoir and the Sydney Festival, but will mid-week and will be watching the non-professionals closely. Like The Piper, Oedipus is highly dependent on volunteers, a crew that changes with each performance. Unlike with The Piper, I gather the Oedipus volunteers don’t have to pay anything, but then they do have to turn up to a rehearsal. And there are 24 needed for each show. Phew!

Tim Crouch’s I, Malvolio, part of the About an Hour mini-fest within the Sydney Festival, is another theatre work that enlists audience members during the course of the show, but it needs only a few. Given that he’s performed the piece several hundred times it’s reasonable to assume Crouch doesn’t have much trouble getting the help he needs. But then none of the shows seem to have the slightest problem getting people up on stage. Everyone may be critic. Just about everyone also seems to harbour a hankering to be a performer.

La Soiree, Sydney Opera House, January 15-March 16

The Illusionists 2.0, Sydney Opera House, ends January 16

I, Malvolio, Sydney Festival, Carriageworks, January 16-19.

The Piper, Sydney Festival, Carriageworks, ends January 19

Oedipus Schmoedipus, Belvoir St Theatre, ends February 2

Empire, the Showring, Entertainment Quarter, Sydney, ends February 16

2013: a retrospective

Here’s my take on the year’s high points. As many have noted before me, “best” is a useless word when applied to the cornucopia available in the arts. Here are the people and productions that most inspired me.

Showgirls usher the gods to Valhalla in Opera Australia's Das Rheingold. Photo: Jeff Busby

Showgirls usher the gods to Valhalla in Opera Australia’s Das Rheingold. Photo: Jeff Busby

“A SHORT show is a good show,” we all carol (me and my fellow critics) as we enter the auditorium for yet another 70- to 90-minute piece of theatre, but put a 10-hour marathon before us and we can’t get enough. So I have lists for big things, small things, individuals, a few words on musical theatre and a couple of miscellaneous thoughts.

It was a strong year, particularly in Sydney theatre, so it was hard to keep the lists tight. Please don’t take anything I say here as an indication of who has taken out honours in the Sydney Theatre Awards, of which I am but one judge on a panel of nine. Argument was fierce and the passions diverse, let me tell you! But here goes from me, in alphabetical order …

Big:

Angels in America, Parts One and Two, Belvoir, Sydney: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This is the best play to have been written in English in my lifetime. Belvoir’s production was very fine.

Cinderella, The Australian Ballet, choreography by Alexei Ratmansky. The amazing Surrealist-inspired set looked waaaay better in Melbourne than in Sydney, but this version of the beloved fairytale to the bittersweet music of Prokofiev as choreographed by the world’s leading classicist is a keeper. (Also wonderful to see Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream with the Bolshoi in Brisbane mid-year – amazing how that company managed to block out the hideous backstage dramas that still dog it.)

Life and Times, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Melbourne Festival: The ums, ahs and pauses of an ordinary life rendered first as a dippy musical, then as a drawing-room mystery. You had to be there (for 10 hours indeed). Sublime, transcendent.

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam: Scintillating Stravinsky Firebird suite and glorious Tchaikovsky fifth symphony. Magic.

The Ring, Opera Australia, Melbourne: not a flawless production, but one that felt right for this place and this time. Director Neil Armfield’s strength is finding the humanity in situations where it may seem to be missing in action and he did it here. Under last-minute mini-maestro Pietari Inkinen (only 33!!) the Melbourne Ring Orchestra put in a blinder. Bravi.

The Threepenny Opera, Berliner Ensemble, Perth International Arts Festival: Not a huge company, but a Robert Wilson production simply cannot be put into any category other than outsized. Stupendously performed, gorgeous to the eye, a knockout band in the pit, witty, sardonic … you get the idea.

Small:

The Floating World, Griffin, Sydney: A devastating production (Sam Strong directed) of John Romeril’s devastating play. I saw the last scene with tears pouring down my face. A rare occurrence.

Giasone, Pinchgut Opera: Apparently the most popular opera of 1649. Worked pretty damn well in 2013.

Independent theatre x 3: I have to mention this trio of splendid plays and productions thereof. I was thrilled to have been able to see Jez Butterworth’s brilliant Jerusalem in Sydney, and done so persuasively by the New Theatre. Workhorse Theatre Company’s The Motherf**ker with the Hat was hold-on-to-your-hats exhilarating, and is getting a re-run in 2014 at the new Eternity Playhouse. Hooray. And in Siren Theatre Company’s Penelope (by Enda Walsh), all sorts of trouble arises when Odysseus’s arrival back home is imminent. As with Workhorse, Siren did a superb job in the tiny confines of the theatre at TAP Gallery.

Owen Wingrave, Sydney Chamber Opera: This young, tiny outfit did Benjamin Britten proud in his centenary year. Really memorable music-making.

Sydney Chamber Opera's Owen Wingrave

Sydney Chamber Opera’s Owen Wingrave

The Rite of Spring, Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Brisbane and Melbourne festivals: In the Rite of Spring centenary year, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s setting in a harsh, cold village was, not surprisingly, dark and threatening. His ending, however, stressed the renewal and healing that is to come. The score was played in Stravinsky’s four-hand version (on one piano); earlier in the year, in Sacre – The Rite of Spring (Raimund Hoghe for the Sydney Festival), we heard the score also played ravishingly by four hands, but on two pianos. Sacre was a difficult dance work for many; I admired it greatly.

School Dance, Windmill Theatre (seen at Sydney Theatre Company in association with the Sydney Festival): loved, loved, loved.

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Super Discount, Back to Back Theatre: Deeply provocative on all sorts of levels. Can’t wait for Ganesh versus the Third Reich to come to Sydney – finally – next year.

Waiting for Godot, Sydney Theatre Company: Luke Mullins, Philip Quast, Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving were an immaculate quartet of players in one of the year’s most heart-piercing productions.

Individuals (performers):

David Hallberg (American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal): Luminous in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella for The Australian Ballet in Sydney. Prince of princes.

Peter Kowitz: Les in The Floating World (see above).

Ewen Leslie: A huge year on the Sydney stage as a desolate Brick in Belvoir’s contentious Australian-accented Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Player in Sydney Theatre Company’s terrific Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and most powerfully – and impressively – as Hamlet for Belvoir, stepping in at short notice when original Dane Toby Schmitz was called overseas for filming duty. A rare change to compare and contrast in one of the roles by which men are judged. Closely.

Catherine McClements, Phedre, Bell Shakespeare: A scarifying performance in a production that was, in my opinion, sorely underrated. Not by me though.

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Amber McMahon: Harper in Angels in America for Belvoir, various roles in School Dance for Windmill, special in everything.

Sharon Millerchip, Bombshells, Ensemble Theatre: Dazzling in Joanna Murray-Smith’s ode to the many faces of womanhood.

Tim Minchin: Lucky old us to see him not once but twice on stage, as a show-stealing Judas in the arena Jesus Christ Superstar and Rosencrantz in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Dead. Or is that Guildenstern? Don’t ask Claudius or Gertrude to help you out.

Luke Mullins: Prior Walter in Angels in America, the quiet centre of Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired, Lucky in Waiting for Godot. Fantastic in all of them. What a year!

Bojana Novakovic, The Blind Date Project, Sydney Festival: I adored this little improvised show. Wish I could have seen Novakovic with many more of her blind dates.

Myriam Ould-Braham, Paris Opera Ballet: Made her debut as Giselle in Sydney in February, making us here the envy of many a Paris balletomane. She was divine, as was fellow etoile Dorothee Gilbert. Both were partnered by the supremely elegant Mathieu Ganio. A joy to see the company here again.

Steve Rodgers: Rodgers has long been one of my favourite actors – so simpatico, even when taking on a difficult subject matter in Griffin’s Dreams in White. And especially in Gideon Obarzanek’s Dance Better at Parties for STC.

Individuals (behind the scenes):

Rafael Bonachela, artistic director, Sydney Dance Company: He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere. Bonachela sees everything and is bringing lots of strong artistic collaborations back for his astoundingly beautiful dancers.

Li Cunxin, artistic director, Queensland Ballet: He’s taken the company back to the classics and people have voted with their wallets. All shows have been sold out and all shows have been extended. I think Brisbane likes him.

Lyndon Terracini, Opera Australia: Got the Ring up. Respect.

Musical theatre:

It was an exceptionally patchy year for musical theatre in Sydney, although Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was really, really entertaining and super-well cast, and the arena version of Jesus Christ Superstar was a blast. The new consortium of music-theatre people, Independent Music Theatre, holds out promise for better things next year, and the feisty little Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre continues to impress.

Miscellaneous:

Best new (only new) theatre in Sydney in 2013: Best is a word that certainly applies here. All hail Sydney City Council for getting the Eternity Playhouse happening. It is a truly beautiful 200-seat house, and an adornment to the city.

Best seat in the house: A11 at Belvoir. The lucky incumbent – male or female, it didn’t matter- got a kiss from Toby Schmitz or Ewen Leslie during Hamlet. Alas I was not one of them.

Clearest indication that critics don’t matter much: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which got the kind of reviews cast members’ mothers would write, did poor business in Sydney. Those of us who wrote about it adored it. We had very little effect.

Doesn’t stop us though.

Angels in America, The Maids, Phedre, Othello

Angels in America, Belvoir, June 5 and 6; The Maids, Sydney Theatre Company, June 8; Phedre, Bell Shakespeare, June 12; Othello, Sport for Jove, June 14.

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

THEATRE, from companies big and small, has been particularly rich in the first half of the year in Sydney. There were exceptional new works, old ones given a jolt and imports done proud; the diversity was such that you pitied those people who remain faithful to just one company. So far this has been a year to be promiscuous in one’s theatre-going and the rest of the year promises to be as tantalising.

In this first half a partial list of favourites would include Belvoir’s rough magic Peter Pan and, at Belvoir Downstairs, Nakkilah Lui’s devastating new play of suburban Aboriginal aspiration and despair, This Heaven; Sydney Theatre Company’s majestic Secret River, adapted from the Kate Grenville novel, and STC’s small and sweet Dance Better at Parties, which grew out of a work by Chunky Move dance company. At the Ensemble, Joanna Murray-Smith’s strong series of female portraits, Bombshells, and Nick Dear’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein were graced by exceptional performances; Van Badham’s The Bull, the Moon and the Coronet of Stars at Griffin irrepressibly mixed ancient myth and modern sex comedy; and the American drama The MotherF**ker with the Hat, seen in the tiny TAP Gallery space, was given a staggeringly good production by independent outfit Workhorse Theatre Company.

The range of theatrical possibility was extended further if you add the visitors: there was a Sydney season for the madly uplifting School Dance, which came from Adelaide’s Windmill Theatre; Bojana Novakovic’s enchanting, and improvised, The Blind Date Project had small seasons in Melbourne and Brisbane before fetching up as a petite gem in this year’s Sydney Festival program; and the Sisters Grimm’s Little Mercy – provenance Melbourne – was outrageously, implacably, divinely irresistible. (I relegate to parentheses the National Theatre’s One Man, Two Guvnors and the achingly beautiful gift of seeing Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy only because they are fully imported.)

A lot of the best theatre was small-scale and fighting well above its weight. Then came June, and with it the possibility of seeing – within the space of 10 days – a cluster of classics that would fascinate if you’d seen them in the span of an entire year. Or two.

Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in The Maids. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in The Maids. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

I think I can get away with saying I believe the two-part Angels in America to be the greatest play written in English during my lifetime. (Waiting for Godot, which premiered a week or so after I was born, was written in French and first staged in that language. So.)

Sydney Theatre Company staged Angels in 1993, less than two years after its San Francisco premiere and a couple of months before its Broadway debut – a great act of percipience on the part of then artistic director Wayne Harrison. Michael Gow directed a piercingly spare production that did everything it needed to: it let this profoundly moving and intellectually searching piece speak for itself. The breadth, depth and reach of Angels is dazzling and Belvoir’s current production, directed by Eamon Flack, understands, as did Gow’s, the central necessities of Tony Kushner’s piece – cast it well, honour its multiplicity of emotions, tease out the many strands of its narrative and tone, clarify the complexity of its language and imagery, and stand back. In other words, don’t have a production that over-decorates a work that is already magnificently ornate.

Angels in America is concerned with but also transcends the questions of AIDS in the 1980s, the Cold War, Reaganite philosophy, climate change, gay politics, right-wing politics, ethics, religion, personal responsibility and much more. In that transcendence lies its connection with audiences today and anywhere. The ease with which Kushner interweaves realism and fantasy is breath-taking. I was reminded when seeing Angels, entirely engrossed, of something New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell wrote in a preface to one of his celebrated profiles of New York characters: “I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual.” And elsewhere he wrote: “You’ve got to get to the true facts.”

Belvoir’s cast is exemplary, led by Luke Mullins as the AIDS-inflicted Prior Walter, who has visions both profane and ecstatic. Marcus Graham has the part of his career as lawyer – and helper of Senator Joseph McCarthy – Roy Cohn (fun fact; his middle name was Marcus). Graham’s Cohn burns like a wildfire that is fuelled by his ambition and certitude, along with the disease he refuses to acknowledge by name. Amber McMahon’s lost-soul Harper, who is charged with one of the play’s most achingly potent images as she escapes the pull of New York, is exceptional. Mitchell Butel’s unwaveringly steady compass as an actor – he is always one of the clearest interpreters of any text in his enjoyably wide repertoire – makes the flexible conscience of Prior’s lover Louis explicable and even worthy of sympathy. And what a joy to see DeObia Oparei as Belize, a part he performed with such distinction for STC all those years ago. Only connect.

The true facts. Again this idea comes into play in Jean Genet’s The Maids, in which Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert play sisters. Claire and Solange act out “ceremonies” in their Mistress’s over-blown boudoir, escaping into cruel fantasies to blot out their sordid reality. They turn on themselves and each other, the interchangeable torturer and tortured holed up in the same prison. In a naturalistic play this blood relationship would test credulity. And yet on deeper levels – those of understanding, of equality of standing, of temperament, of spirit, of intelligence – they are quite clearly soul sisters.

Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton’s translation of Genet’s 1947 play is robust, mordantly funny and chilly, as is Andrews’s direction of his stars.

Blanchett impersonates her Mistress with raucous, savage glee but can be undercut in a micro-second, visibly deflating so that a great beauty becomes a plain nonentity in the blink of an eye. Huppert, tiny as a sparrow, does limber calisthenics while lying on her employer’s bed, and as she opens her legs wide a camera captures the view and conveys it to the audience. It’s a familiar Andrews choice, but so apt on several levels. Not only is surveillance a very real possibility in this sleek, contemporary household, but on a practical level it helps connect the audience in this slightly too-large theatre to the action. It’s a kind of voyeurism too, spying not only on two maids but on the women playing them.

Make no mistake. If The Maids were not starring Blanchett and Huppert it could easily have been slotted into STC’s Wharf 2 space. There is layer upon layer here. Not only are stratospherically famous actresses playing the part of role-playing maids, their Mistress, in a piece of casting announced late, is played by the gorgeous and very, very young Elizabeth Debicki. She is too tender in age to have established such complete dominion over her household help, but let’s not be too literal. Debicki has come to attention recently through her appearance in Baz Luhrmann’s film The Great Gatsby and adds another level of drop-dead glamour. Please don’t think this is a criticism. Far from it. There is something absolutely delicious about seeing a production in which there is an explicit invitation to examine one of its most important strands – the assumption of roles as a way of surviving – from a variety of angles. It keeps the viewer constantly on the qui vive, thinking and re-calibrating.

Debicki, by the way, may be just at the start of her career but she holds her own gallantly with Blanchett and Huppert, and looks so dewily beautiful you could cry. The camera comes in leeringly close to her and to Blanchett and Huppert, both of whom are ravishing in a different way. So much visual information to absorb along with the text. And if you can’t understand Huppert all of the time, too bad. She is an electric presence as she darts about, swings from the clothes racks, plays games of abasement, hitches a ride on a long train of a gown like a playful – or abject – child and so much more. Truth not facts …

French drama is given a second gripping outing with Bell Shakespeare’s Phedre having landed in Sydney after its Melbourne season. Racine’s 1677 drama based on Greek legend is given in Ted Hughes’s plain-speaking, supple translation and given a production that enthrals from beginning to end.

Director Peter Evans’s taste for stillness on stage and for clearly marking entrances and exits has never had a better fit than here. He takes the elegant formality that is a hallmark of classical French drama and converts it into an atmosphere of fear – the kind that makes one freeze with terror.

We are told Phedre has a fatal illness, but what’s really gnawing away at her is forbidden love. Phedre has conceived a passion for her stepson Hippolytus, who in turn loves where he is least allowed. The play opens with most of the players placed separately on Anna Cordingly’s wonderful stage upon a stage. The set resembles a disintegrating country house folly with its jagged hole in the ceiling and signs of decay all about. Kelly Ryall’s soundscape of barely discernible beats, fluttering voices, groans and bells adds to the foreboding.

The scene is static for quite some time as the play’s concerns unfold. The stillness, unusual in our theatre, brings its own tension. When the hell is someone going to do something? And then Phedre touches Hippolytus (a fine, unmannered Edmund Lembke-Hogan), and the tragedy is unleashed.

Catherine McClements’s rail-thin Phedre is, like Marcus Graham’s Roy Cohn, doubly burning up inside. The passion that’s devouring her will get her before the unnamed physical ailment can do its work, that much is evident. McClements gives an unsparing, towering performance. And speaking of towering, Phedre wears difficult, vertiginous shoes secured with gladiator-style straps that are their own form of bondage, as well as being a slightly too-young choice for the queen. I found that oddly touching.

Also tremendously good are Bert LaBonte as Theramene – his long description of Hippolytus’s death is mesmerising – and Marco Chiappi as Phedre’s husband Theseus. Abby Earl as Hippolytus’s secret love Aricia is, unfortunately, too inexperienced in this company. She certainly looks lovely enough to secure the prince but lacks texture and conviction in her delivery.

Similarly, in Sport for Jove’s Othello the casting of Isaro Kayitesi as Desdemona puts the young actress, not long out of training, at an unfair disadvantage. That aside – and one must admit it is a big aside – Othello is riveting. In the Seymour Centre’s small Reginald Theatre, Sport for Jove yet again finds a way of presenting Shakespeare without tricks, with no heavy-handed “concept”, but with force, clarity and a satisfying sense of purpose. It’s as if a light has been turned on. (The way the production always has a fresh surprise up its sleeve without distorting the text is definitively demonstrated by Anthony Gooley’s hilarious Rodorigo and the way in which he shows his devotion to Desdemona. Unmissable.)

Damien Ryan’s Iago is meticulously and persuasively thought out. In Ryan’s hands and under Matt Edgerton’s direction, Iago can’t be faulted for his logic: he’s been passed over and demeaned and he’s going to do something about that in his own good time. Ryan presents a man who is proud, intelligent, implacable and as creatively manipulative as any top politician. He could turn day into night with his arguments, and so he does.

Ivan Donato’s attractive Othello is more good-guy soldier than powerful military chief, which tends to minimise the tragedy of his downfall and give even more oxygen to Iago. And of course there’s always the problem of that handkerchief, the bit of fabric on which the denouement so precariously turns. But Sport for Jove makes a reasonable fist of keeping the stakes high here, anticipating how the drama will end with an inventive and relevant opening image.

I saw the production with a group of students and their attention was held, as was mine, for nearly three and a half hours with just one interval. Enough said.

Angels in America plays at Belvoir St Theatre until July 14 and then Sydney’s Theatre Royal from July 18-28. The Maids, Sydney Theatre, until July 20. Phedre, Sydney Opera House, until June 29. Othello, Seymour Centre, until June 29.

Dance Better at Parties

Sydney Theatre Company, April 9

DAVE would appear to have come to the wrong place. The ugly suburban dance school with its poo-brown floor and unforgiving fluoros offers private lessons in the rumba, tango, paso doble and other glittering ballroom arts. You buy a block of 10, sign here for direct debit, initial the injury waiver please, and at the end of the course you might be eligible for your bronze and be invited to move up to the next level. (Not much chance of anyone failing, you would think.)

Elizabeth Nabben and Steve Rodgers in Dance Better at Parties. Photo: Brett Boardman

Elizabeth Nabben and Steve Rodgers in Dance Better at Parties. Photo: Brett Boardman

But Dave’s ambitions aren’t as lofty as that. He just wants to be less awkward when he goes out, or so he says. What can stumbling through the paso doble do for a bloke who is, quite frankly, a pretty ordinary example of physique and co-ordination?

As it turns out, quite a lot.

Gideon Obarzanek’s deceptively simple, deeply compassionate two-hander Dance Better at Parties is his first production as an associate at Sydney Theatre Company but it’s been brewing for a decade. In 2004 Obarzanek had an idea for a documentary about men and movement that turned into a dance work for his company Chunky Move, I Want to Dance Better at Parties. For some reason Obarzanek leaves that step out of his director’s note for Dance Better at Parties, moving straight on from research for the documentary to his current play.

The dance piece was important, however, in that it was clear which story – there were five – audiences responded to most. One man’s reason for seeking out dance lessons gave Obarzanek his title. “I want to dance better at parties,” the man told the choreographer, but Obarzanek realised  this was code for something much more fundamental: the need for contact, the need to be touched. That one story is the inspiration for Dance Better at Parties.

If you want to say the unsayable, then dance is the way to do it. Dance Better at Parties shows how perilous it can be – where a hand goes, how bodies fit together and how closely – but how potentially exhilarating and liberating. So when Dave (Steve Rodgers) turns up for his lessons with lithe, lovely Rachel (Elizabeth Nabben) there’s a minefield of emotional tumult and sexual tension roiling under the surface conversation about what foot goes where and how to achieve a satisfactorily rolling infinity figure with the hips.

“Take off the shirt, take off the shirt,” Rachel cries enthusiastically, as a way of describing a sweeping arm movement across the chest. Yes, you can see how there might be an undercurrent or two.

Rodgers, who is arguably the country’s most simpatico actor, is funny, heart-breaking and dignified as Dave persists against the odds. Rodgers isn’t a natural mover, bless him, which is as it should be. But when Dave cuts loose and surrenders to the music, he is magnificent. Relative newcomer Nabben delicately handles the difficult nuances of Rachel’s relationship with her clients and delivers Jessica Prince’s choreography as if born to it. (She seems not to have been; her biography doesn’t list any dance training.)

Obarzanek steers the story with immense restraint and knows when to let the dance do the talking. He lets a great deal hang in the air, leaving much up to intuition. For that reason some in the audience on opening night found Dance Better at Parties a little thin and unresolved. I loved its refusal to spell everything out.

There are one or two clunky moments (Dave’s personal revelations don’t fit entirely neatly into Obarzanek’s structure), but never a false or exploitative one. I was quite teary at the end. I blame Steve Rodgers.

***

STC is billing Dance Better at Parties as Obarzanek’s ‘’first foray into text-based theatre”, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. Best known as the founder and artistic director of Melbourne-based Chunky Move – a post he left last year – Obarzanek has often used text in his work. Often his work could be put as easily in the box marked Theatre as the one marked Dance.

Take his 2010 solo Faker, the one that brought Obarzanek back to performing after a long absence from the stage. He had a lot to say, literally, in that one. Or Two-Faced Bastard (2008), made with Lucy Guerin, also a choreographer who uses text liberally. Or I Want to Dance Better at Parties.

Contemporary choreographers have for decades used text as one of their tools. Theatre has been a little slower in getting what dance and heightened movement can add to the mix and it can be something of an acquired taste for audiences whose experience is mostly confined to theatre.

Guerin’s Human Interest Story, for instance, was a co-commission from Melbourne’s Malthouse theatre and Perth International Arts Festival (2010) and was then part of the 2011 Belvoir season in Sydney.

An aussietheatre website review of a Belvoir performance noted this:

Obviously contemporary dance isn’t for everyone, I asked a fellow theatregoer on the way out what she thought and she briskly replied, “Well, it’s an early night.”

The night I attended Human Interest Story the audience by and large seemed interested in and intrigued by it. There was a sense of close attention being paid; the atmosphere felt keener than usual. I attributed this to the audience’s unfamiliarity with dance.

Human Interest Story is closer to the dance end of the spectrum than the theatre end; the opposite is true in the work of UK company Frantic Assembly, whose hyper-active boxing-world drama Beautiful Burnout (Frantic Assembly with National Theatre of Scotland) was part of the Sydney and Perth festivals in the early months of 2012.

In the falling-somewhere-in-the-middle category is a work such as Trust, seen in 2011 at the Perth International Arts Festival. It was co-created for Berlin’s Schaubuhne by German playwright Falk Richter and Dutch choreographer Anouk van Dijk – now artistic director of Chunky Move following Obarzanek’s desire to move on after 16 years.

The same names do keep coming up.

In the past couple of years Australian theatre has been opening up to dance than – or perhaps it might be more exact to say that the work of Obarzanek, Guerin and Kate Champion, previously put into the Dance basket, is now being seen in a broader light.

This is partly due to new leadership at some important companies. At Belvoir, for instance, when designer Ralph Myers took over as the company’s artistic director at the beginning of 2011 he came with a CV that included the design of Obarzanek and Guerin’s Two-Faced Bastard. In 2012 he programmed works that had a strong movement element – Roslyn Oades’s exceptional verbatim theatre piece about boxing, I’m Your Man; Food, a lovely play written by Steve Rodgers and directed by Rodgers with Champion (and now up for a NSW Premier’s Literary Award) – and Guerin’s Conversation Piece.

As the title suggests, Conversation Piece is strong on talk, and it wasn’t simply programmed by Belvoir; it was co-produced with Belvoir and later seen at Melbourne’s Dance Massive festival. Human Interest Story was a co-commission from Melbourne’s Malthouse theatre and Perth International Arts Festival (2010) and was then part of the 2011 Belvoir season. STC commissioned Never Did Me any Harm from Champion’s Force Majeure company and it was part of the Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne festivals of 2012.

You can see from this list, then, that there’s a rather small pool of talent swirling about. But at least it is moving.

Dance Better at Parties continues until May 11. Sydney Theatre Company’s website advises there is a limited number of tickets remaining. Some are released on the day of performance.

Food can be seen at La Boite, Brisbane, April 17-27.

This is an expanded version of a review that appeared in The Australian on April 11.

School Dance, The Blind Date Project, The Peony Pavilion, The Secret River, Sydney Festival

School Dance, Sydney Theatre Company presents the Windmill Theatre production in association with the Sydney Festival. Also Merrigong Theatre Company, Wollongong, February 7-9; Melbourne Arts Centre, April 10-20; Brisbane Powerhouse, July 31-August 3

The Blind Date Project, Ride on Theatre, Sydney Festival

The Peony Pavilion, Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre, Sydney Festival

The Secret River, Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney Festival. Also Perth International Arts Festival, February 25-March 2

AT the performance of School Dance that I attended – a weekday matinee early in the run – there were quite a few empty seats. Bad call on the part of theatre-lovers, because now Sydney Theatre Company’s website is noting very limited availability for the remaining performances. School Dance acknowledges and yes, celebrates teenage male awkwardness, longing and resilience in a piece that is acutely observed, sweet and funny, and uplifting without losing its honesty. Take three self-confessed losers, put them in a tacky school hall, throw in obstacles in the form of a hilariously huge bully and an unattainable girl, stir in some fantasy and off we go. (Not to forget some great 1980s music. It is worth the price of admission alone for the bike ride – leg-powered, not some fancy motorbike – to the Bonnie Tyler anthem Holding Out for a Hero.) Windmill Theatre had success with this last year in its home base of Adelaide so the show is beautifully worked in, featuring the multitudinous talents of Matthew Whittet (writer and actor), Jonathon Oxlade (designer and actor), Luke Smiles (composer and actor) and Amber McMahon (brilliant and indefatigable as all the female characters). Gabrielle Nankivell’s choreography is delicious and Windmill’s artistic director Rosemary Myers brings it all home wittily and movingly.

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

As I left the theatre I heard a man of mature years exclaim that this was the best show he’d ever seen, and there was in his voice the shiny, excited quality of revelation. It’s good to see School Dance is off to Wollongong, Melbourne and Brisbane; early booking is clearly indicated.

The Blind Date Project could probably have run and run in terms of audience demand, although perhaps not in terms of the demand on its performers. Bojana Novakovic is Ana, a woman waiting at a bar for a blind date to turn up. The person who turns up – and it may not necessarily be a man – is different at each performance, and the identity of the actor who will play the blind date is unknown to Novakovic until they arrive bearing a bunch of flowers. The encounter is improvised, albeit with some direction received via mobile phone. Novakovic also clearly has some anchor points she uses. Still, it’s a greatly enjoyable highwire act and one that can take many different paths. The night I saw The Blind Date Project (a late-night show), Charlie Garber arrived fresh from playing Captain Hook in Peter Pan at Belvoir, and he could not have been more darling. I gather not all dates ended quite as well for Ana.

I was delighted to see The Peony Pavilion having (boast, boast) seen the 18-hour full version of this 16th century opera at the 2000 Perth festival. Here it was the merest sliver at 2 ½ hours, but the central love story remained, and it was an opportunity to absorb and savour a style of singing, performance and orchestral playing entirely different from that of Western opera. Kunqu is highly stylised and formal in gesture, but not above throwing in some dazzling acrobatics and other popular entertainment forms. There was a lot lost in this production due to the extreme truncation of the piece, although the cuts weren’t a sop to Western audiences. Only a few of The Peony Pavilion’s 55 scenes are usually performed these days so it was great good fortune to have seen the full work. The Sydney Festival of 1999 was originally to have hosted The Peony Pavilion in its full pomp but visa difficulties delayed the production, and the following year Perth alone took it in Australia.

I imagine there won’t be another chance to see the entire Peony Pavilion again, but then I used to say that about Einstein on the Beach, a mere stripling of an opera that clocks in at about 4 ½ hours, which Melbourne hosted in 1992. And guess what’s coming back to Melbourne from July 31?

The Secret River confronts the fundamental torment on which modern Australia was founded. People were cut off from everything they knew and transported to the other side of the world to make the best, or worst, of it. They may as well have been in outer space given their chances of successful return, and in trying to make a new kind of home they took what wasn’t theirs. People sent here for what may have been petty thieving became government-sanctioned thieves on a grand scale. It was a brutal business.

Andrew Bovell’s adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel, directed by Neil Armfield with Bangarra’s Stephen Page as his associate, is simultaneously monumental in scale and incredibly intimate. The stage, shared by the newcomers and the traditional owners, becomes the ground on which the idea of home, place and identity is argued and fought over. Well, we know how it turned out for the indigenous people, but that in no way diminishes the dramatic impetus nor the anguish.

We can never lose sight of what all this will mean for modern Australian history, but The Secret River tells the story through the eyes of just a handful of people, and therefore in an intensely human way. The story ebbs and flows between the two groups, an unstoppable tragedy in the making as Thames boatman William Thornhill sees his patch of land on the Hawkesbury as the path to reinvention.

STC says Secret River tickets are also scarce – a good start to the year for Andrew Upton, now flying solo as artistic director – so perhaps a trip to the Perth International Arts Festival is indicated for the very keen. I’m looking forward to the first few days of the Perth event, including, of course, the Berliner Ensemble’s The Threepenny Opera, directed by Robert Wilson – a very eye-catching Perth exclusive.

 

A Masked Ball, Semele Walk, Sydney Festival

A Masked Ball, Opera Australia in association with the Sydney Festival, January 16

Semele Walk, KunstFestSpiele Herrenhausen, Germany, Sydney Festival, January 12

Tamar Iveri and Jose Carbo in Opera Australia's A Masked Ball. Photo Prudence Upton

Tamar Iveri and Jose Carbo in Opera Australia’s A Masked Ball. Photo Prudence Upton

WHEREVER or whenever you want to set it, Verdi’s A Masked BallUn ballo in maschera – takes place in a world of privilege where the haves live it large and those less fortunate look for ways to improve their position by any means possible. Opera Australia’s new production, directed by Alex Olle from the Catalan company La Fura dels Baus, locates the action in a contemporary totalitarian society, the kind in which it’s necessary for the ruler and his hangers-on to live within a concrete bunker, albeit one of grand proportions.

In something of a miracle, set designer Alfons Flores has made the Sydney Opera House’s dinky Joan Sutherland Theatre stage look majestically capacious as columns and platforms rise and fall to encompass seamlessly King Gustav’s public rooms, his private office, the lair of the fortune-teller Ulrica, the home of Secretary of State Renato and the execution field where Renato’s wife, Amelia, seeks a remedy for her lovesickness. The view from Gustav’s office is of the security apparatus going about its business, seen via video link. He needs the protection. While Gustav brushes off the warning that someone close to him wants him dead – everyone at court is devoted to him, are they not? – outside there are those who would rise against him if they got the chance and the nerve.

The appearance is monumental and simultaneously enclosed and cut-off. In such a space almost everything stated becomes suspect. When Gustav claims that the love of his people will shield him, you think instantly of Bashar al-Assad, holed up while his country burns around him. Naturally those around Gustav tell him what he wants to hear; perhaps he really believes it, perhaps not. Here, thoughts of North Korea pop up, particularly as the members of Gustav court are not only identically dressed but thoughtfully provided with a number. They are also kitted out with a rather nasty face covering – not so much a mask as a latex hood such as aliens or sex perverts might own. The double-edged notion that no one is showing his or her true face and that the court has been reduced to oppressive conformity is good, but Lluc Castells, the costume designer, could perhaps reconsider the means for expressing it.

Some mental gymnastics are needed to reconcile the Amelia-Gustav love story with the image of an iron-fist ruler. Perhaps Gustav is little more than a puppet figure whose courage is finally revealed through love, but if that’s the case the audience has to do the work. OA’s Gustav, Diego Torre, isn’t up to conveying that kind of nuance. He is impressive at full bore, with a brightly coloured tenor that hits the big moments out of the park but is less adept at bringing finesse and variety to Gustave’s more complex moments.

As Amelia, the lovely Georgian Tamar Iveri is a winner from her first moments. The possessor of a soprano of warm timbre, strong focus and plentiful power at the top, she illuminates Amelia’s longing, confusion and pain with eloquent variety of colour, phrasing and dramatic shaping. Jose Carbo is similarly gripping, his Renato altering course thrillingly from faithful courtier to implacable foe. As with Iveri, Carbo is keenly alert to the shifting emotions of the character, growing in stature and vocal authority as the evening progresses.

Gustav’s page Oscar, conventionally a trousers role but here emphatically a female part, is in the zesty hands of Taryn Fiebig, whose crystalline soprano soars easily over the orchestra and the fine forces of the AOBO chorus. At the other end of the female vocal spectrum, Bulgarian mezzo Mariana Pentcheva plays Ulrica with easy assurance and brings a cast-iron implacability to her lowest register, but her heavy vibrato and squally top are distracting. On opening night conductor Andrea Molino tactfully kept good orchestral cover going whenever Pentcheva had to go beyond her comfort zone.

Molino – he conducted Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men for OA in 2011, an under-appreciated  highlight – was terrific throughout, minus a couple of occasions when singers seemed stretched by his tempi. The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra went like a well-targeted rocket from the outset on opening night and was particularly responsive to the score’s light, bouncy music for Oscar.

Olle’s concept is powerful and generally persuasive – he manages to pull it all together with a big, surprising and extremely strong ending – although overall the ideas are expressed relatively tamely. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to hear that the underscore of protest and dispossession have been ramped up when the production moves to OA’s co-producing companies in Buenos Aires, Brussels, Oslo and Bologna. Were Sydney and Melbourne opera-goers considered too conservative for the kind of provocations for which La Fura dels Baus is famous?  Or is this just the beginning of the journey?  Whichever it is, this is a production calling out for further viewings.

A Masked Ball continues in Sydney until February 12. Melbourne, six performances April 12-May 3. In Melbourne the role of Amelia is shared between Csilla Boross and Jacqueline Mabardi; Lorina Gore sings Oscar

SEMELE Walk brought a huge jolt of energy to the Sydney Festival and oodles of glamour. If you are coming late to the discussion, Semele Walk offered an abridged version of Georg Frideric Handel’s baroque opera – all the hits, none of the slow bits – performed as models paraded a lavish number of looks from British designer Vivienne Westwood.

Devised and directed by Ludger Engels, the marriage of Handel and Westwood was as magical as it was mad. If you wanted to look at the show with a peevish eye, yes, there was an awful lot of loud clumping as attenuated young women wearing sumptuous Westwood and vertiginous heels pony-stepped up and down the long runway in the centre of Sydney Town Hall.

And yes, as soloists Aleksandra Zamojska and Armin Gramer strode from one end to the other their voices left only a vaporous trail behind them. I very much enjoyed the trick of placing choristers from Sydney Philharmonia Choirs amongst the audience, although I imagine it may have been challenging to put the sound together coherently if you were seated next to one of the altos.

On the plus side, the musicians of Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop stayed in one place, together, mostly, and were superb. Some of them were also dramatically kitted out in Westwood and looked extremely funky. Standing in front of them, music director Olof Boman kept a firm hand on the disparate proceedings (they included some electronica), a light hand with Handel’s divine music and even made a brief appearance on the catwalk.

There was no profound correlation between Westwood and Handel waiting to be uncovered. The bones of the story were there: the mortal Semele, married to Zeus, oversteps the mark by demanding to see his full godly glory, and implodes. Semele does sing of pride, vanity and excess, which suits, but essentially there is just a lot of beauty and temperament thrown together in the same space.

On the Westwood side the temperament was to be found in the gorgeous, ornate, fanciful gowns – the models, of course, went about their business with the requisite blank faces, although I think I saw one suppress a smile when Gramer started fondling her frock.

On the musical side Zamojska’s Semele was a whirlwind, furiously racing about looking super-glam in Westwood and rather risky heels. Her soprano is high, silvery, flexible and beautifully placed, making great pleasures of O sleep, why dost though leave me and Myself I shall adore. Graner is a smooth, confident counter-tenor with an impish air who captured well the graceful flow of Where’er you walk.

It was fun to see the fashion crowd and the opera crowd thrown together too – an extension of the onstage drama. A memorable festival experience.

Murder, Cantina, Sydney Festival

Murder

Erth

Seymour Centre, January 8

Graeme Rhodes in Murder. Erth, Sydney Festival

Graeme Rhodes in Murder. Erth, Sydney Festival

IT sounds such a strong idea for a physical theatre piece: the special fascination society has with murder; the music of Nick Cave; puppets and animation from a company with a strong track record in this kind of work: Raimondo Cortese as writer; Kate Champion as choreographer. That’s a lot of talent in the room, and the early development work must have been persuasive. The Australia Council’s Major Festivals program came on board and after the Sydney Festival Murder will be seen at Tasmania’s Ten Days on the Island and the Adelaide Festival. Given that the Melbourne Festival is also listed in the acknowledgements it will presumably be staged there too. That’s extensive, high-profile exposure for a muddled and simplistic work. It’s good-looking, no doubt about that, but Murder has a particularly soft underbelly.

Apparently some people like to kill. Who knew?

An early, rather leaden speech sets out to find an unbroken chain of bloodlust through history. The Greeks and Romans were entertained by seeing people put to death gruesomely, public executions have a long history, if you can’t go to a public execution then grand guignol theatre might provide you with your thing, or these days it’s more likely to be online games. Okay. I might not be entirely convinced that these things constitute a continuum, but if so, Murder is setting out to be a piece about our innermost dark impulses and desires – yes, yours and mine, whether acted upon or lived vicariously.

This turns out not to be the case at all. The narrator, played gallantly by Graeme Rhodes, plunges into a nightmare explicitly sparked by blows of a most individual kind. What is real and what imagined in his life is left open to conjecture, but none of it is pretty. And, unfortunately, not all that interesting or revelatory. The piece turns inward, although not before the narrative of Cave’s Stagger Lee is played out by puppets in detailed fashion. It’s a good old-fashioned Wild West story that has nothing to do with the rest of Murder’s narrative, but provides the show with a continuing visual motif in the form of Stag’s vulpine grin.

Cave’s music is used less than one might have anticipated. The execution song The Mercy Seat tops and tails the show, Cannibal’s Hymn accompanies exactly what you think it would and Red Right Hand forms a backdrop to video-game splatters:

He’s a ghost, he’s a god, he’s a man, he’s a guru

You’re one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan

Designed and directed by his red right hand

Cave sure can write, which is another problem for Murder. Nothing else comes near Cave’s poetic, insightful gift.

A song conspicuously missing from the score is Where the Wild Roses Grow, Cave’s duet with Kylie Minogue. Murder’s director Scott Wright, who devised its concept, told The Australian on January 7 that the song was considered “too loaded” for the show. Where the While Roses Grow is about the murder of a woman by a man who she thinks loves her, and its exclusion exposes Murder’s timidness. It is not quite clear why the song was considered “too loaded” for a show eager to put many perversions on stage, but one possibility is that Murder is very concerned to engage the audience’s sympathy for the central character. He tells of nearly committing a murder as a young man, and we find out it’s someone all of us would probably be thrilled was dead. That would have been a win. And towards the end, a gruesome end pretty much befits a gruesome character.

The puppet work is very beautiful and not at all confronting – another problem for a piece that surely wants to unsettle its audience. There are, however, moments that give a flash of Murder’s potential. I was very much taken by the way in which the prostitute Nellie Brown grieves over her killed lover (and pimp) in Stagger Lee. It felt true and pertinent. Another moment was inadvertent but striking. Puppeteers were manipulating a life-size female figure who was wearing a slinky red frock. As she floated through the air her dress was caught up, exposing brief black knickers. Now remember – this is a show in which all sorts of violence and sex is depicted, so fair enough. Except that a puppeteer gently pulled down the dress so the figure was less exposed. I felt most connected to and interested in the show then than at any other moment. That’s what I thought. What the creators of Murder wanted me to think I really can’t say.

Seymour Centre, Sydney, until January 19.

Cantina

The Famous Spiegeltent,, January 8

FORGET the blurb that describes Cantina as a show that “blurs fantasy and reality, the past, present and future to explore the rapture and torment of desire …” (I quote from the Sydney Festival program). No, despite its claims of deeper meaning and its nods to steamy, aggressive, rough-edged cabaret, Cantina is in fact one of the sweetest and most charming shows of its kind. You just want to hug its multi-talented performers, all of whom seem just that bit more approachable than the ultra slick lot – used to be La Clique, now La Soiree, go figure – also appearing in Sydney as we speak. Contortionist Henna Kailula has a smile so radiant it could power the Spielgeltent’s generator all by itself and her warmth is a crucial part of the evening’s success.

Cantina has the episodic, one-act-after-another form of most similar shows but works with a smaller group of performers. This means they keep returning in various guises, giving Cantina a pleasingly tight structure and the chance to marvel at the array of skills set out for our delectation. Apart from music director Nara Demasson, who apparently is only mono-talented, the other five performers sing, dance and play a variety of instruments on top of their circus specialties, which are also multifarious.

Marvel at the tightrope walk in stilettos, the blurringly fast rope twirl, the rag-doll contortion, the daring acrobatics in a very confined space and so on. And fans of Ursula Martinez from La Clique – she of the world-famous Hanky Panky act – may recognise an homage to this in a delightful magic act involving a newspaper and a penis.

The dance background of co-director and performer Chelsea McGuffin adds an individual touch to Cantina. It was fun to spot in a couple of strenuous acrobatic acts moves more that could have come straight from the ballet.

An extremely cheerful night.

Until January 27.