Sylvia, The Australian Ballet

Sydney Opera House, November 8

The dash for bathrooms and bars was substantially less frantic than usual after the close of Act I of Stanton Welch’s Sylvia. Heads everywhere bowed over their synopsis sheets. What in the name of all the gods in Ancient Greece was going on? How does one show via ballet that Artemis and Apollo – twin gods – “slay Queen Niobe’s army in revenge for a slight to their mother, Leto”? Or why Artemis turns Callisto into a bear? These gods and goddesses really do take a grudge to extremes and their actions are not always easily explained.

TAB _Sylvia_Artists of The Australian Ballet_photo Jeff Busby (2)

The Australian Ballet in Stanton Welch’s Sylvia. Photo: Jeff Busby

Never mind. Once the head-spinning early part of the first act is out of the way Sylvia is an enjoyable romp. Even better, it gives Australian Ballet audiences their first chance to hear the enchanting Delibes score in full, sounding luscious in Sydney in the hands of Nicolette Fraillon and the Opera Australia Orchestra. (Read more about Delibes, the music and the history of Sylvia in my article for Limelight magazine in August.)

There was also a great deal of pleasure in the sparkling performances given on Sydney’s opening night of this co-pro with Houston Ballet. As a kind of corrective to the male-dominated Spartacus seen last year, Sylvia has plenty of strong roles for the women of the company. As in the original libretto, the nymph Sylvia, a huntress in Artemis’s army, falls in love with a lowly shepherd. Welch ups the ante by adding a second match-up between gods and mortals when Eros is smitten with Psyche and plucks Artemis from the periphery to give the ballet a third heroine.

Sylvia - 1pm

Benedicte Bemet as Psyche in Sylvia. Photo: Daniel Boud

Complications ensue, obviously, or there would be no story, but ultimately everything turns out well. On the way to that happy ending Welch floods the stage with Artemis’s band of women warriors; Eros’s retinue of cheeky, hyper-active fauns; various gods and goddesses, by turns stately and vengeful; and on a less elevated level, Psyche’s mum, dad and sisters.

Being from the realm of the gods, Sylvia stays youthful while her husband, known only as The Shepherd, suffers the fate of all mortals and ages, a situation that gives rise to one of the ballet’s most delightful passages. The Shepherd (Kevin Jackson on opening night) is given an older substitute (TAB artistic director David McAllister enjoying himself greatly) as successive generations of offspring are seen growing up. The Shepherd is then magically de-aged by Eros, whose lovely Psyche has also been given demi-god status and thus will not die. (Too much detail?)

Sylvia - 1pm

Ako Kondo as Sylvia and Kevin Jackson as The Shepherd. Photo: Jeff Busby

There are rich pickings for the dancers, and not only for principal artists Ako Kondo (Sylvia on opening night) and Robyn Hendricks (Artemis) and senior artist Benedicte Bemet (Psyche). Smaller roles were taken with much brio by Dimity Azoury, Dana Stephensen, Jade Wood, Imogen Chapman and Natasha Kusen, among others.

Jackson was a sweet presence and sterling partner to Kondo in Welch’s dramatic pas de deux and Marcus Morelli made a splash as Eros, spinning, jumping and flying his way through the action. His swift rise through the ranks (he joined the company in 2013) has been well earned.

Sylvia - 1pm

Benedicte Bemet as Psyche and Marcus Morelli as Eros. Photo: Daniel Boud

Kondo’s warmth and strength made Sylvia as multi-faceted a character as possible within the rom-com scenario and Bemet’s Psyche was adorably funny. Hendricks was meltingly beautiful as Artemis, a goddess indeed. How many other conventional ballets can one think of where there are three such diverse and rewarding leading roles for women?

We must hope Jérôme Kaplan’s set designs looked better in Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre, where Sylvia had its Australian premiere in September, than they did in the smaller Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. In the first act they looked too dark and solid, although later the stage picture was enlivened by Wendell K. Harrington’s projections, which enabled instantaneous scene changes. Kaplan’s costumes were, happily, just delectable.

Sylvia ends in Sydney on November 23.

There will not be light

Next to Normal, Doorstep Arts in association with Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, January 15.

Sweet Charity, Sydney Opera House, January 16, 2015

IF there is a choice to be made between darkness and light, musical theatre will tend to go for the latter. It’s just how it is. Indeed, Next to Normal, a musical in which the central figure suffers from bipolar disorder, ends on that note literally. The last lustily sung phrase from the ensemble is: “There will be” – big pause – “light”.

It’s an absurd, sentimental conclusion to a work that wants to have it both ways – to have dark subject matter but to end on a note of warm optimism. Next to Normal requires its audience to take an impossible leap of faith, based on the evidence the musical sets out before us.

Diana is a mother and wife who, in addition to being bipolar, struggles with anxiety, depression and episodes of delusion. Really, though, the key source of anguish is deeply rooted grief that Diana cannot or will not relinquish.

Natalie O'Donnell (foreground) in Next to Normal. Photo: Yael Stemple

Natalie O’Donnell (foreground) in Next to Normal. Photo: Yael Stemple

This second thread gives Next to Normal its narrative twist and funkiest musical number (I’m Alive) but the intertwining of debilitating mental illness and personal loss feels manipulative. Brian Yorkey’s book and lyrics are undoubtedly sincere in intent but make no persuasive case. If there’s a platitudinous way to say something, it will be found. (Apparently “the price of love is loss but we love anyway”. Ugh.) Likewise, Tom Kitt’s music is generic rock-pop with a strong and regular beat and no great emotional complexity. As to the medical insights Next to Normal offers, the less said the better.

That it won the 2010 the Pulitzer Prize for drama is a mystery for the ages.

Nevertheless, Geelong’s Doorstep Arts does interesting things with the show and I particularly admired Natalie O’Donnell’s Diana. A set consisting of a few rostra and chalk outlines economically conveys Diana’s dislocation and O’Donnell’s warmth and raw honesty appeal strongly. The supporting cast of five works its heart out for director Darylin Ramondo (she could afford to dial down the energy level) and overall makes a good fist of this very flawed show. And I must say it worked rather better for me than did Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2011 production. So that’s a win for regional theatre.

While the little Hayes Theatre Co hosts Next to Normal, its smash hit from last year, Sweet Charity, has burst out of indie-land and started a series of top-end-of-town seasons. Its first port of call is the Sydney Opera House, where Dean Bryant’s production makes a raucous, confident move to the Playhouse stage. (One degree of separation: Bryant directed MTC’s Next to Normal.)

Crucially, Verity Hunt-Ballard is even more luminous this year than last as Charity Hope Valentine, the unschooled, trusting dance-hall hostess – okay, prostitute – whose sweetness and optimism are painfully tested at every turn.

Around her the production is louder and more garish (and The Rhythm of Life number still doesn’t earn its keep, no matter how much everyone loves it) but the clear-sighted vision that made last year’s incarnation so persuasive is still there. Charity may have knocked around a bit but she isn’t so hardened that she can’t be crushed. Sweet Charity originally ended with Charity shrugging philosophically and an assurance to the audience that she’ll keep plugging away with good cheer.

Hunt Ballard’s Charity offers no such comfort. When her dream of escape evaporates there is nothing but desolation.

There will not be light.

Next to Normal ends February 1. Sweet Charity ends in Sydney on February 8. Canberra, February 11-21; Melbourne, February 25-March 8; Wollongong, March 11-15.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on January 19.

Top 10 in dance for 2014

DANCE is my great passion but this year there wasn’t a huge amount to bowl me over.Certainly I saw plenty of fine dancing – when does one not? – but in classical ballet there were few new works of substance. Well, none actually. There were pleasing new versions of existing ballets, although they didn’t quite make it to the list. New versions of oft-told stories is business as usual for ballet.

In Sydney there were new contemporary works I failed to see because the seasons were so short – this city isn’t exactly dance central – but there were a couple of new (or newish) pieces that added some excitement. Happily I was able to travel a bit and that helped me see enough to constitute what I might consider a quorum for a list of notable productions. If I saw it in this country I’ve included it, which is why American Ballet Theatre and Trisha Brown Dance Company appear alongside the locals.

As in my earlier posts looking back on 2014, works are mentioned in the order in which I saw them. There is a supplementary international section at the end. I intend to do a separate post on the men and women of the year so if someone rather than something appears to be missing, they may well be mentioned tomorrow.

DANCE WORKS OF NOTE IN 2014

Am I, Shaun Parker & Company, Sydney Festival and Sydney Opera House (January): A strong addition to this meticulous choreographer’s body of work. It looked and sounded stunning. Nick Wales, who has worked many times with Parker, contributed a new score full of fascinating colours, rhythms and sonorities, played and sung by a group of seven musicians. Meticulous, elegant and sophisticated, Am I ambitiously took ideas from physics, astronomy, neurology, anthropology and other branches of science to chart the path of human development. We are the only creatures who can apprehend ourselves as conscious beings with a limited span. Having evolved to that point, our drive is to survive and replicate, to make love and war, and to think about things too much.

Gudirr Gudirr, Marrugeku, Sydney Festival (January): Dalisa Pigram is a passionate advocate for life in Australia’s north-west. She wove a memorable solo from themes relating to the area’s indigenous history, polyglot population, environmental beauties and present-day challenges. Simultaneously wiry and elastic, Pigram seamlessly incorporated shapes from indigenous dance, martial arts, animal imagery, gymnastics, the nightclub and the circus for a wholly individual effect. When she spoke in her traditional language, Yawuru, it became a liquid element in Sam Serruys’s score, which also included songs from Stephen Pigram.

Interplay, Sydney Dance Company (March): The triple bill of Rafael Bonachela’s 2 in D Minor, Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models and Gideon Obarzanek’s L’Chaim! made a cracking evening. Bonachela’s take on Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor was an intellectually challenging engagement between movement and music; the second new piece, Gideon Obarzanek’s L’Chaim!, had heart and joy; and the revival of Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models – well, that gave the libido a workout.

Chroma, The Australian Ballet (April): Wayne McGregor’s Chroma wasn’t as brilliantly danced as it can be when I saw it but it’s a tremendous work. In seven swiftly moving, grandly conceived scenes the choreographer captures on the dancer’s body some of the myriad neural impulses that make it move, think and feel. Undulation, distortion and hyper-extension are a big part of the movement language but we can also see fragments of the classical ideal shimmering through Chroma. The juxtapositions are absorbing: small and large, inner and outer, action and repose, contemporary and traditional, the body and the space it occupies. Also on this generous quadruple bill, Jiri Kylián’s Petite Mort. The AB always does Kylián well and in Petite Mort there is so much to love: men with fencing foils, intimations of darkness and some outstandingly sexy dancing with lots of little orgasmic shudders.

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre (June): The story of Lieutenant William Dawes and young indigenous woman Patyegarang in colonial Sydney should be better known. In the tumultuous first years of white settlement, as the British colonisers imposed themselves and their culture on what is now the glittering city of Sydney but was then the Eora nation, Dawes studied and recorded the local language. Patyegarang appears to have been his most important teacher. Stephen Page turned this rare and precious relationship into an impressionistic, meditative work.

The Arrangement, Australian Dance Artists (July): This little jewel could be seen by invitation only, and I was one of the lucky ones. Prime mover was artist Ken Unsworth, who may be in his ninth decade but has lost none of his zest for the complexities of human existence, often casting an absurdist eye on events. He made a cameo appearance at the beginning of The Arrangement to usher in a series of scenes connected not by any narrative but by themes of love, longing, the passage of time and the cycle of life. The mature ADA dancers were former London Contemporary Dance Theatre artists Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer and Sydney Dance Company alumni Susan Barling and Ross Philip. The Song Company sang texts by A.E. Houseman, Federico Garcia Lorca, W.H. Auden, Barnabe Googe and Rainer Maria Rilke to Jonathan Cooper’s commissioned music, and it was all very fine indeed. Unsworth finances ADA productions entirely – a great labour of love.

Keep Everything, choreographed by Antony Hamilton for Chunky Move (August): There wasn’t much that was more fun than this. A stage strewn with trash, three incredibly virtuosic and multi-skilled performers, a race through the human story from pre-history to the stars and back again and plenty of stimulating ideas along the way.

American Ballet Theatre, Brisbane (September): Forget Swan Lake; the Three Masterpieces program was the one to see. Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free was highly enjoyable, but the real treats were Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita, which was recently revived by ABT after a 28-year hiatus, and Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas. Glorious works both.

Trisha Brown Dance Company, Melbourne Festival (October): Trisha Brown was a leading figure in the post-modern dance movement in New York and her influence runs deep. The survey of her work at the Melbourne Festival showed exactly why, but it was far from a history lesson or an academic exercise. Brown’s intellectually rigorous and highly technical dance-making is deeply concerned with the physics and geometry of the body and its relation to the space in which it moves, and her purpose is not to mimic or evoke emotional states. Yet the varied program demonstrated one quality above all that animates the work: intense, soul-filling joy.

The Nutcracker, The Australian Ballet (November): Peter Wright’s version of The Nutcracker is frequently said to be the most beautiful in existence, and there is a lot of competition. When I see Alexei Ratmansky’s newish production for American Ballet Theatre I’ll get back to you on who is the winner. But quibbles aside, this certainly is a sumptuous-looking production, even if it looks rather cramped on the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. Even better, it touches the heart.

INTERNATIONAL NOTES:

A highlight of my New York visit early this year was finally getting to see the Jerome Robbins masterpiece Dances at a Gathering, a suite of dances to Chopin piano pieces that has no narrative but is full of connections between the dancers. To see it performed by the company for which it was made in 1969 was a dream come true.

On an all-Balanchine bill at New York City Ballet, Concerto Barocco (1941), was a revelation. Made to the music of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D Minor, Concerto Barocco is said to mark the first appearance of Balanchine dancers in practice clothes, something that would become a feature of many works. Here the women are all in white, with a little skirt. Eight women who form a kind of chorus of handmaidens, two principal women and one man move in unison, canon, mirror one another, and enter and leave in response to the music. Poetry and harmony reign and the detail is delicious: at one point the solo man is gently entangled in a thicket of the supporting women; at another he turns a simple promenade of his partner into courtly admiration. Just lovely.

 Tomorrow: The people who mattered

Horrible Histories; Random Musical

Horrible Histories: Awful Egyptians; Random Musical, Sydney Opera House, July 4.

CHILDREN’S theatre is usually expected to have some educational value. Horrible Histories: Awful Egyptians certainly had that for me. Before yesterday I had never heard of Horrible Histories! I was a complete and utter novice among the eager group of initiates crowding out the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House – well, I say eager; close to hysterical would be nearer the mark for some of those present. It was like being at a gathering of those devoted to an ecstatic religion, one from which I felt inexplicably excluded.

A scene from Horrible Histories: Awful Egyptians

A scene from Horrible Histories: Awful Egyptians

So what did I learn? I think the key take-away was that if the brand is as powerful as this one, you can get away with a great deal. Awful Egyptians has a lot of quite high-end information about Egypt and the Pharoahs – material I thought pitched rather too high for the 6+ recommended age group – interspersed with lots of low comedy. Lots.

When things started to drag there was nothing like a kick in the goolies to get things moving again. The performers mugged in time-honoured, old-fashioned end-of-the-pier fashion (the show originated in Britain), there was slapstick, corny jokes, yukky things flung about the stage and a song or two. I quite enjoyed the mummy-wrap rap. When invited, the kids joined in with gusto; when not invited, some took the initiative themselves. A small lad near me took quite a challenging attitude to some of the material, shouting out criticisms and suggestions.

After a too-long first half, the too-long second half had the advantage of featuring some very speccy 3D imagery, which both my inner child and my outer adult thought well worth experiencing. (Tragically I had no suitable child to take with me, so the inner child had to step up.)

The outer adult loved the ending, which featured Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias. Now I’m pretty sure the six-year-olds wouldn’t have got it, but it’s so great:

And on the pedestal these words appear –

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains.

Beforehand I’d seen Random Musical, which could not be more different from Horrible Histories. It’s in the smaller Studio and has far fewer performances, but in this show the magic of the theatre does the work that in Horrible Histories is done by the magic of technology. This is lo-fi versus hi-fi, sweetness and ingenuity versus the slick and emotionally empty.

In Random Musical a talented team gets on the metaphorical highwire and creates a show based around words supplied by the young audience. Grown-ups are not allowed to put their oar in. Yesterday the musical was called The Zany Ostrich, who turned out to be a pink-feathered creature who really wanted to be a penguin. Something that initially sounded as if it might be a bit of a dead end in fact turned out to be the basis for an incredibly engaging story that was easily able to be followed by the younger set while having enough sophisticated humour for the oldies. (Random Musical is recommended for five and above, which sounds about right. The audience needs to have an interest in and knowledge of vocabulary that can be used creatively.)

When participation was called for it was entered into with the highest of spirits, and the show could profitably have gone further with it. The story had plenty of scope for even more sound effects, and the joy with which kids imaginatively enter theatre in this way is always thrilling.

The plucky team works brilliantly together, but highest marks yesterday went to Rik Brown for his richly comic explorer’s song. And points to Rebecca De Unamuno as a low-fiving penguin. Scott Brennan, Gillian Cosgriff and pianist John Thorn complete this most entertaining and quick-witted group.

Random Musical ends July 14. Weekend shows only except for Wednesday July 10.

Horrible Histories ends in Sydney on July 14. There is now a third show on 5.30pm Saturday July due to heavy demand. Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, July 19-21.

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Nederlands Dans Theater

Bangarra Dance Theatre, Sydney, June 13; Nederlands Dans Theater, Sydney, June 12.

TO its eternal credit Bangarra Dance Theatre has never shied away from difficult material. Yes, it wants the riches of Aboriginal culture to be widely seen and appreciated, but it also tackles the seemingly intractable issues facing many indigenous Australians: the grog, violence, suicide, hopelessness, oppression, dispossession. I’ve been watching the company for more than two decades and each time I am touched by the presence of grace where there could so easily be despair. Even when the subject matter is as wrenching as the story of a young Aboriginal girl taken up and then abandoned by the governor’s family in colonial Tasmania (Mathinna, 2008) or the atomic tests at Maralinga in the 1950s (X300, 2007), the way in which it is presented is unfailingly generous and optimistic. To know and to think is to begin to understand. Not to mention that Bangarra productions always look so inspiringly beautiful.

Bangarra Dance Theatre's Blak. Photo: Greg Barrett

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Blak. Photo: Greg Barrett

Bangarra is in the middle of touring its newest work, a triptych called Blak. It opened in Melbourne in May and is now in Sydney, where it has had to extend its season by a week. Canberra and Brisbane follow.

In many ways Blak is a follow-up to Bangarra’s Sydney Olympics Festival work, the two-part Skin, comprising Spear for the men and Shelter for the women. Blak has a similar structure and many of the same concerns, although comes with an extra section. It opens with Daniel Riley McKinley’s terrific all-male Scar, continues with Stephen Page’s Yearning for the company’s women, and then the two choreographers join to provide the whole company with a celebratory coda, Keepers.

Riley McKinley’s first work, Riley (2010), celebrated the art of his kinsman, Michael Riley, and was an unusually poised beginning. In Scar Riley McKinley doesn’t disappoint on his second outing, showing a genuine gift for structure, the telling stage picture and dramatic clarity. The piece starts with a compelling circle dance, viewed through a powerful, unsettling red haze (Matt Cox’s lighting). Seven men stamp, whirl and tumble in a way that speaks of ritual and the search for it. There are quick vignettes of menace and harm but also of the way contemporary life can learn from the ways of the past, if there is someone to teach them. Waangenga Blanco powerfully takes a central role here.

Yearning is a more diffuse piece with elements of varying strength. But as with 2000’s Skin – it had images that have stayed with me to this day – Page has created some indelible moments. The group opening is fairly anodyne but there are grittier sections that economically show how grim urban life can be: a top pinned to a line is an image of a life lost; women are hunted down by an unsparing spotlight; we hear traditional language emerge from a dropped telephone handset, calling to someone who doesn’t connect with it any more.

Keepers harks back to tradition in a way that’s been more memorably evoked in other works, although it brings the evening to a serene close with another of those knockout Bangarra visuals that are a hallmark this company  (Jacob Nash designed the unfailingly effective sets).

David Page and Paul Mac are the composers, always keeping the regular beat that brings to mind the pulse of the didgeridoo and mixing urban sounds with the lovely melody of traditional language – I say melody, because for us, and for so many indigenous Australians, its meaning is sadly locked away from us.

Bangarra, Sydney Opera House until June 29; then Canberra, July 11-13; Brisbane, July 18-27.

Nederlands Dans Theater

THERE are few companies as glamorous as Nederlands Dans Theater, hence the giddy excitement with which it is greeted by audiences. The dancers are sensual, sophisticated, muscular and theatrically and emotionally alert. In their bodies the elegant rigour of classicism meets and melts into contemporary movement of a particularly assertive kind. Add the attendant celebrity of NDT’s most powerful – we may even say overpowering – influence, choreographer Jiri Kylian, and you have an explosive mix.

It was recently revealed, by the way, that Kylian will withhold his works from NDT for three years from late next year. Not to punish but to challenge, as current NDT artistic director and resident choreographer Paul Lightfoot puts it. On the evidence of last week’s Sydney program – half Kylian, half Lightfoot and his co-choreographer Sol Leon – the hole left will be great and the challenge will be to see what NDT is without Kylian. Tough love indeed.

Two of Kylian’s famous black and white dances, both made in 1990, opened the program. In Sweet Dreams (1990) squares and rectangles of light fade in and out to reveal mysterious actions and interactions. To Anton Webern’s clamorous and astringent Sechs Stucke fur orchester – a bracing, stimulating score women sit on men’s backs, heads, feet; arms are widely spread and angled as if for flight; a couple is spied on high in the distance; apples are walked on, chased or stop up gaping mouths. What it means is up to you and your subconscious.

NDT in Sarabande. Photo: Prudence Upton

NDT in Sarabande. Photo: Prudence Upton

Sarabande followed without pause. It’s an aggressive, mostly unison piece for six men who groan, shout, slap and generally flaunt their masculinity although at times they are hobbled or challenged by it. Only when Bach’s music – the Sarabande from his second Partita – enters in extended form (it is heard at the beginning and then in snippets during most of the piece) is there a sense of calm. Otherwise, despite the references to Japanese ritual, the atmosphere is one of unrest and unease, cemented by the unison howls of laughter at the end. The NDT men looked spectacular: if you wanted you could see this as a piece about the burden of male beauty.

After Kylian the Lightfoot-Leon pieces looked lightweight and, in the case of SH-BOOM! (a 2000 revision of an earlier, shorter piece), tiresome. I found the caperings as amusing as a self-appendectomy except for a sweet nude dance from Cesar Faria Fernandes lit only by flashlight. It ends with a cheeky, boyish pull of the penis, which perhaps doesn’t sound like the greatest of moments but in this context it counts as genius; a human touch among the laboured schtick.

Shoot the Moon (2006) is an attractively staged little psycho-drama much enhanced by Philip Glass’s lovely Tirol Concerto for piano and orchestra. Revolving walls reveal two couples in various states of anguish and a solo man, also anguished. It says nothing more than that people have emotional issues, but does it stylishly. The plush, committed dancing was a treat, with the opening night cast including former Australian Ballet principal artist Danielle Rowe, who looked divine.

The NDT review first appeared in a slightly different form in The Australian on June 14.

Frankenstein

Ensemble Theatre, Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, April 3.

FRANKENSTEIN is a name that despite one’s best efforts to resist brings forth mental images of freaks and bogeymen. Perhaps nothing quite as silly as a lurching giant with bolts through the neck, but something not quite human.

Lee Jones (top) as The Creature with Andrew Henry as Victor Frankenstein. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Lee Jones (top) as The Creature with Andrew Henry as Victor Frankenstein. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Nick Dear’s over-weening scientist Victor Frankenstein is not this kind of sentient wreckage, at least physically, but he is indeed the real monster of Dear’s piece; a demon in fine clothes and from a good family. Frankenstein experiments in areas he ought to avoid, he fails to rise to the challenge of the practical, moral and philosophical questions that arise, and he ultimately reveals himself to be more lacking in humanity – and courage – than the patchwork man he puts together.

Dear’s animating idea for his play, if you’ll forgive me, is to stack the deck against Frankenstein in a way Mary Shelley did not in her 1818 story. Dear sides with The Creature and so do we, from the first unforgettable moments of the play when we are made to share his birth pains and early lessons in the ways in which the different are treated.

And in these moments, and much that follows, lies a weakness of Frankenstein, which is that The Creature is infinitely more interesting than his creator – more intelligent, more feeling, more passionate, more violent, more everything, yet the scientist is treated as if he were just as fascinating. The justly lauded National Theatre production of 2011 in London (seen here via the NTLive series) got around that one by alternating Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in the two roles. That was a double win: not only would it have kept the actors invested as much in Frankenstein as in The Creature, it made audiences want to see it twice. Simple, yet elegant.

Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre doesn’t have a trick like that up its sleeve nor the scenic resources to cast a veil of glamour over the lumpier parts of text and structure. That’s not to say it isn’t well designed for its space (it is), but there’s nowhere for the play to hide, metaphorically speaking. Which leaves Lee Jones’s Creature to carry the show, which he does heartbreakingly well. It’s an incredibly demanding role, and confronting on a number of levels. Jones’s contorted (and we couldn’t help but notice exceptionally well honed) body is the vehicle for extreme physical and metaphysical anguish. Added to that is the necessity of conveying The Creature’s growing sophistication in thinking, reasoning and argument. A third layer is finding the balance between attraction and repulsion, the gaining or forfeiture of sympathy.

When Jones is absent from the stage, which he is for longish stretches, Frankenstein drops considerably in temperature. Andrew Henry is a very creditable Victor, but the character can’t compete with the white heat thrown out by The Creature, who gets the very best writing Dear has to offer.

There are big themes everywhere – the lure of science over religion, intellectual arrogance, the degree of power people seeks to exercise over others, the scarcity of compassion, the effect of brutalisation, whether, as Milton had it, it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven, and so much more. (“You’ve read Paradise Lost,” marvels Frankenstein. “I liked it,” says The Creature in perhaps the shortest and most heavily freighted sentence in the play.)

Only in the figure of The Creature are all these ideas brought to incandescent life. Why do you want me to make a mate for you, Frankenstein inquires of The Creature (Victor really is quite dense). “Because I am lonely,” howls the man who has known a small amount of acceptance and a vast store of cruelty, hate, abandonment and deception. It’s a devastating moment, as is a quieter one: Victor’s fiancée, Elizabeth, asks The Creature his name: “He did not give me one.” Not long after The Creature will get his revenge.

These are the places in Frankenstein that prick the eyes, and there are more than enough of them. On the debit side is that some of the minor characters are clumsily played, which is unfortunate. There are times when the two-hour, no-interval action needs assistance it doesn’t get.

Director Mark Kilmurry may have presided over a somewhat uneven production, but one with punches to the solar plexus that won’t be readily forgotten. Simone Romaniuk’s circle of translucent curtains proves an excellently fluent base for the action and it was a stroke of brilliance to ask Elena Kats-Chernin – a composer of instinctively dramatic gifts – to write a score, here played by cellist Heather Stratfold amidst Daryl Wallis’s evocative sound design.

In the Playhouse of the Sydney Opera House Frankenstein has a space suited to its action. It’s hard to see how it’s going to work in the minuscule Ensemble Theatre in Kirribilli when it moves there after the short SOH season. Under scrutiny as close as that Jones is going to have to give an even braver performance. He looks up to it.

Frankenstein at the Sydney Opera House until April 13; Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli April 17-May 4. A national tour starts in Canberra on May 7. Venues in Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland and NSW follow. The tour ends in Wollongong in August.

Blaze

The Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, January 12

I SINCERELY hope there was no one I knew in the house at the Saturday matinee performance of Blaze because when we all stood to perform Atomic Food – interpreting various comestibles including broccoli, celery and baked beans (you can imagine that one) – I didn’t do as well as I would have liked. The Blaze crew looked great; I looked enthusiastic, as did everyone around me. The place was packed with youngsters – a most heartening sight.

Blaze. Photo: Daniel Boud

Blaze. Photo: Daniel Boud

The Sydney Opera House likes to bring in a crowd-pleasing dance work in January and Blaze fits the holiday brief well, putting the unstoppable exuberance of street dance onstage while keeping things strictly G-rated. There’s a flash or two of perfect pecs right at the start of the show, which I appreciated, but after that the atmosphere is fun and inclusive as the young men throw themselves around like low-flying helicopters and the young women are zesty and full of personality. I liked them all, but Jomecia Oosterwolde lights the room with an astonishing amount of wattage for one so tiny.

Blaze isn’t the most perfectly structured show of its kind – there are too many places when it’s not clear to the audience when to applaud – but its connection with the audience is strong and generous. There are also a few too many endings but the cast managed to pull out even more energy each time, so mustn’t grumble.

Blaze announces right up front that if people want to film or take photographs, that’s absolutely fine by them. It’s an unusual stance, and many in the audience took Blaze up on the offer on Saturday afternoon.  A young woman in front of me appeared set to experience the show exclusively through the medium of her viewfinder as her filming went on and on. What is it, I thought, about people ignoring what’s right in front of them in favour of a reproduction of it?

Then, finally, she put the bloody thing down and started to watch the show. She didn’t pick it up again either. The performance itself, not a second-hand version of it, won out. Phew.

Blaze continues until January 20