About last week … April 9-15

It’s 13 years since Li Cunxin published his memoir Mao’s Last Dancer and its appeal hasn’t dimmed. It’s still in print, of course, and there was a condensed version made for young adults and an illustrated children’s book The Peasant Prince. That was also featured in an Adelaide Symphony Orchestra concert in 2009 with excerpts read by an actor, projections of Anne Spudvilas’s illustrations from the book and music composed by Katy Abbott. That’s a lot of mileage.

Now there’s a new theatre piece for children based on The Peasant Prince, created by Monkey Baa Theatre Company, which I saw on April 11 at Monkey Baa’s home, LendLease Darling Quarter Theatre, Sydney.

The Peasant Prince - Jonathan Chan

Jonathan Chan and John Gomez Goodway in The Peasant Prince

In Monkey Baa’s unerring hands a worn old blanket summons a family with few material goods but rich in love. Rolled up it is a cooking bowl, unfurled it’s a bath towel and, wrapped about an embraced child, it is a potent image of a mother’s care. In just a few minutes the wordless, elegant scene gets to the heart of The Peasant Prince. This boy knows what it is like to have nothing and everything. We understand why he will never forget the source of his strength.

As Mao’s Last Dancer relates, former dancer and now ballet company director Li Cunxin was 10 when an emissary from Madame Mao came to his impoverished village in Shandong Province looking for promising children to attend the Beijing Dance Academy. By the way, if anyone doesn’t know how to pronounce Li’s given name, they will know after this. It’s Schwin Sin. (Li is his surname, but from earliest days in Australia he was called Li as if it were his given name and he is happy to answer to that.)

Li was overlooked until a teacher, not knowing why, called the man back and suggested the boy be taken. Having been offered this miraculous way out and up, which must have seemed as alien as space travel, Li could not fail his family. As one of his brothers told him when Li came home for a rare visit, he must tell his mother and father only good things. The sixth of his parents’ seven children had to find the courage, focus and discipline to make the most of his opportunity.

Monkey Baa writers Eva Di Cesare, Sandie Eldridge and Tim McGarry are dab hands at adapting books for young audiences and bring Li’s story to the stage with deceptive economy. The play moves swiftly, with David Bergman’s video designs effortlessly and vividly summoning a village schoolroom, a busy city, a ballet studio, a rural scene, a flight to the US. John Gomez Goodway is bright-eyed Li and, under McGarry’s lucid direction, Jonathan Chan, Jenevieve Chang and Edric Hong play everyone else with admirable clarity.

Momentum falters a little once the action moves to Houston, where Li defected. The happy ballet rehearsal, which is overlong, and the Chinese attempt to send Li home don’t have the same crystalline definition as the rest of this otherwise fine dramatisation.

There is no shying away from the challenges Li faced as a child and the resilience he had to develop; they’re valuable things for children to consider. It’s also an inspirational fable, like one Li hears and loves as a child, about aspiration and achievement. In other words, perfect for its young audience.

Footnote: Monkey Baa’s blissful Pete the Sheep had a national tour in 2014 and is being revived for loads of performances at the Sydney Opera House (July 2-17) and a few shows at Arts Centre Melbourne in late July. I loved it to bits and may well have to go again.

The Peasant Prince ends in Sydney on April 20, followed by an Australian tour to 37 cities. (See monkeybaa.com.au for cities and dates.)

There’s something so enchanting about children’s uncensored reactions to theatre made for them, even if it’s not specifically interactive theatre. At the performance (April 14) I saw of CDP Productions’ Mr Stink, adapted from the popular David Walliams book (Sydney Opera House until April 24), children instantly shouted out when one character asked another a question requiring the answer no and they started clapping happily to the beat in a Bollywood dance number. They’ll find out soon enough they are supposed to sit quietly and not answer back in the theatre, but how lovely to see them thoroughly engaged. Maryam Master does a straightforward job of adapting Walliams’s story of a bullied girl who befriends a homeless man and teaches her family a valuable lesson or two and director Jonathan Biggins – he also directed Pete the Sheep – gets some welcome physical comedy into the mix. The fart jokes, of which there were several, made their mark on each occasion. Some things never grow old.

Mr Stink is for children as young as six years. Flying Fruit Fly Circus’s Stunt Lounge (just finished at the Sydney Opera House) was for those aged 12 or older and features FFFC recent graduates putting on their first independent show. It didn’t entirely make clear its aim of exploring risk in the lives of young people and defining boundaries but the performers (I saw them on April 14) were delightful, with Jess Mews’s magical hoops solo a standout. Director Darcy Grant was a founding member of Circa and that company’s interest in using circus skills in the service of complex dramatic situations was clearly an influence. Circa is now a big deal internationally and has broadened the idea of what circus can achieve so it’s not a bad model.

The Ensemble Theatre in Sydney’s Kirribilli does what it does entirely without government support and has continuously for nearly 60 years – longer than any other professional theatre company in Australia. Obviously the company has to have an eye to repertoire that will fill the auditorium but it makes some extremely astute choices in the pursuit of fulfilling founder Hayes Gordon’s belief that theatre should be a civilising influence.

It was at The Ensemble in 2012, for instance, that I was able to see Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, which Melbourne Theatre Company had staged the year before. The Ensemble also programmed, in 2014, Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Clybourne Park (also seen at MTC). In late May the Kirribilli theatre stages Nina Raines’s Tribes, a much-garlanded play I saw Off-Broadway a couple of years ago. Right now it’s offering David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, a play (it opened on April 13) that tests assumptions about social mobility.

Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan in GOOD PEOPLE, photos by Clare Hawley-26

Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan in Good People. Photo: Clare Hawley

Under Mark Kilmurry’s direction and with a tremendously good cast led by Tara Morice, Good People takes us to South Boston – Southie – where Margaret (Morice) is being laid off from her shitty job at the Dollar Store. She’s been late once too often. Well, many times too often, but the last straw has been reached. She has her reasons, what with having a disabled adult daughter, but she’s also not perhaps the most reliable of employees.

She gets involved in a long-shot scheme to get a job via an old boyfriend Mike (Christopher Stollery), a man who got educated, became a doctor and lives in a very good part of town with his accomplished wife Kate (Zindzi Okenyo). Things don’t turn out too well, in large part because Margaret doesn’t know how to operate in this world. Despite being what she and her friends call “good people”, in this situation she is out of her depth – too angry, needy, calculating and devious.

Lindsay-Abaire’s evocation of Margaret’s world and that of her friends Dottie (Gale Ballantyne) and Jean (Jane Phegan) and her former boss Stevie (Drew Livingston) is vivid and compassionate. Sometimes circumstances just conspire against people, and some other people have all the luck.

Good People runs at The Ensemble until May 21 and if there is any justice will have full houses for every performance.

Last week (April 15) also brought the premiere of Sydney Theatre Company’s Hay Fever, the 1925 Noel Coward comedy. My review is in the April 18 edition of The Australian and I’ll expand on that in a few days on the blog. Let’s just say for now that Heather Mitchell, playing Judith Bliss, is a goddess and director Imara Savage has two for two after her triumph of last year with Andrew Bovell’s After Dinner.

Five plays

The Pride, Side Pony Productions, Bondi Pavilion Theatre, March 25; Fight Night, The Border Project/Ontroerend Goed, Wharf 2, Sydney Theatre Company, March 26 (matinee); The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, Lambert House Enterprises, Gingers at the Oxford Hotel, March 26; Clybourne Park, Ensemble Theatre, March 27 (matinee); Stitching, Little Spoon Theatre, TAP Gallery, March 27.

WHEN I was in fulltime employment I rarely went to a matinee and I saw shows almost exclusively at their opening performance. First nights are usually great fun, of course. The foyer is crowded with friends and acquaintances of the cast and crew and many in the audience know one another well. The best seats in the house are given over to critics, politicians and maybe a celebrity or two; there will be industry figures and perhaps a few representatives of sponsors; and many – sometimes all – in the house will not have paid for their tickets. I don’t want to call this an artificial situation because it is an accepted, regular part of the process of putting on a play, an opera, a ballet or whatever. But it is not representative of the rest of the season.

That standing ovation given to a musical may indeed turn out to have been for one night only, fuelled by the show’s producers and invited celebrities leaping immediately to their feet. The house that didn’t have a spare seat at the premiere may be far easier to access once word of mouth does its influential work. On the other hand, it’s sometimes possible to find much greater enthusiasm for a piece when it’s played for a general public audience than for a tough opening night crowd – the opera is a good example.

Whatever the result, I always find it rewarding to see a show during the run, to observe the make up of the audience, to listen to their comments and to gauge their reactions.

The cast of The Ensemble's Clybourne Park. Photo: Clare Hawley

The cast of The Ensemble’s Clybourne Park. Photo: Clare Hawley

This past week I saw five pieces of theatre, only one of which – Stitching – was having its opening night. It was therefore a good week in which to see paying customers in action. In Fight Night, the audience is literally seen in action because its attitudes help shape the show. It is a deliberately manipulative piece in which the audience is asked to vote for actors representing politicians in an election. Additionally, the audience is asked to give some information about age, income, and attitudes. I was at a matinee, so wasn’t entirely surprised to see that more than 85 per cent of my audience was aged 60 or older.

At Fight Night everyone is given an electronic pad that can register choices, although as is the case with most situations where one appears to have alternatives, there are strong limits to the number and nature of those offered. The actors make their pitches, we vote, they throw in a couple of not entirely democratic twists and turns, and we’re left with one person who is supposed to be the one most of us want. The result is actually deeply unsurprising.

The best bit at the performance I attended was near the end, when one of the actor/politicians persuades some audience members to opt out of this obviously skewed process by handing in their electronic pads and leaving the theatre. One man in this dissident group stomped out, throwing the word fascists at us as he departed. The actor representing the last politician in the race commented that this man hadn’t understood the play, but I thought that unfair. Fight Night only works if the audience pretty much agrees to be manipulated, so I thought it a bit thick to knock someone for having been taken in to the degree that he actually felt something important was really at stake.

If you want to see important things at stake, The Ensemble’s Clybourne Park is the go – if you can get a ticket. The season at The Ensemble’s Kirribilli home was sold out very early but there are two extra performances at The Concourse in Chatswood. It is highly recommended.

In acts set 50 years apart, there is a beautifully wrought discussion about race and history seen through the prism of a family home, although with intimations of the wider world. In the first half a white couple is about to move, their house having been sold to a black family – unseen – who will be the first coloured people in the neighbourhood. In the second half the house, now dilapidated, is about to be demolished. Both situations spark fractious argument undimmed by a half-century of change.

Tanya Goldberg directs an unimprovable cast of seven – Paula Arundell, Thomas Campbell, Briallen Clarke, Nathan Lovejoy, Wendy Strehlow, Richard Sydenham, Cleave Williams – in a production that is exceptionally funny, sometimes quite shocking, and always very, very sharp.

I also very much enjoyed The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, David Drake’s autobiographical 1993 piece (originally a solo show) about growing up gay. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the additional scene Drake has written to take same-sex marriage into account, but Ben Hudson and James Wright’s performances lit up the tiny Gingers space. There’s nowhere to hide for actors and audience members alike when both are scarcely an arm’s length apart and there was lots of lovely eye contact.

Hudson and Wright gave their all in front of a very small audience. It was undeservedly small, but part of the truth of theatre is that the house won’t necessarily be packed at all times – something the inveterate first-nighter doesn’t get to see. The cast of The Pride had the same experience this week as they acted out what was, for me, a fairly ho-hum fable about domination and the loss of it. The Pride has had success elsewhere but I was underwhelmed. As I was about Anthony Neilson’s two-hander Stitching, which has also received praise in other productions. Stitching presents a relationship in big, big trouble. To spice things up it jumps around in time and introduces hot and heavy role-playing.

Unfortunately actors Lara Lightfoot and Wade Doolan were unable to make me believe in their plight or sympathise with it, but others may feel differently. That’s the beauty of an audience, that singular entity made up of many individuals.

The Pride ends on April 5. The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me ends April 6. Stitching ends April 12. Fight Night ends April 13. Clybourne Park ends at The Ensemble April 19 (season sold out); extra performances at The Concourse, Chatswood, April 23 and 24.