In praise of Sydney’s Ensemble theatre

A History of Falling Things, July 13; Betrayal, July 22

Tucked away in Sydney’s Kirribilli, in a secluded – and highly enviable – spot right on Sydney Harbour, the Ensemble quietly goes about the business it’s been devoted to for nearly six decades. You won’t often read about it in the mainstream press and while many fine actors can be seen there, they are only occasionally boldface names such as those so frequently encountered at Sydney Theatre Company or Belvoir. Never mind. The Ensemble has its own character. In its small auditorium, steeply raked and arranged in a semi-circle around a small acting area, it’s common to see front-row patrons having to pull their feet in swiftly to prevent actors from tripping. The space is intimate and welcoming and the atmosphere comfortable.

The Ensemble describes itself as the “longest continuously running professional theatre in Australia”, having staged its first performances in 1958 with founding director Hayes Gordon, who ran the company for 27 years. The Ensemble is surely also the country’s most stable outfit. Sandra Bates succeeded Gordon and was at the helm for 30 years, retiring fully in January this year after sharing the artistic directorship with Mark Kilmurry for five years. Kilmurry is now solely in charge of the Ensemble’s direction as the company heads towards its 60th anniversary in 2018. (By comparison, Sydney Theatre Company is a whipper-snapper that will turn 40 in 2018.)

Ursula Mills and Matt Zeremes in Betrayal, photo by Clare Hawley-86

Ursula Mills and Matthew Zeremes in Betrayal. Photo: Clare Hawley

Remarkably, the Ensemble has survived without the benefit of any ongoing government funding. The Balnaves Foundation is its major partner and there is a small group of businesses and foundations which are supporting and strategic partners. Individuals donate a small percentage of Ensemble income. But essentially the Ensemble has to put on plays people want to see (and at times that suit them – the Ensemble has exceptionally welcome 11am weekday matinees sprinkled through its seasons). The tagline underneath the theatre’s name on its programs is this: theatre for everyone.

You would not be wrong to think that suggests a reliance on conventional dramas and light comedies, and certainly seasons have had their share of new David Williamsons and old Neil Simons (coming up next month: Barefoot in the Park), but there are also works that have greater resonance. Jane Carafella’s e-baby, a two-hander that deals with surrogacy, will be directed by Nadia Tass, stars Angie Milliken and opens in October. In recent years the Ensemble has brought to Sydney audiences the wonderful Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation (2012), David Auburn’s Proof and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park (both 2014), David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People (April/May this year), Nina Raine’s Tribes (June this year) and Harold Pinter’s Betrayal (playing now).

Betrayal starts at the end and works its way, backwards, to the beginning of an affair between Emma and Jerry. Emma is married to Robert; Jerry is Robert’s best friend. In the first scene, some years after the end of the affair, Emma meets Jerry for a drink to tell him her marriage is over and, inter alia, that she had to reveal the affair to Robert during an all-night argument. As we will discover, this is not exactly true. The Emma-Jerry affair is not the only act of betrayal in this enigmatic three-hander.

Mark Kilmurry’s production is perhaps best described as workmanlike. Pinter’s language in this play is characteristically unadorned; the complexities gather beneath the surface, or should. The intricacies of passion, friendship and gamesmanship are not fully mined here, although the surface is played entertainingly by Ursula Mills as Emma with Guy Edmonds as her husband and Matthew Zeremes as her lover. The real action, however, is in what Emma, Robert and Jerry – particularly Robert – think and know rather than say.

It was a little instructive in this respect to note that Betrayal is described on the Ensemble website as running for approximately 90 minutes without interval. At the performance I saw we were done and dusted within 75 minutes. Those famous Pinter pauses didn’t get a huge look-in.

In repertory with Betrayal is James Graham’s A History of Falling Things. It’s a slight, sweet rom-com with a twist: the two young people whose burgeoning romance we follow suffer from keraunothnetophobia, a particularly precise fear, that of falling man-made satellites. Naturally this makes it hard for them to leave the safety of their homes and the relationship is conducted chiefly via electronic means. But is that enough?

The Ensemble’s production is blessed with Sophie Hensser’s luminous performance as Jacqui and Eric Beecroft’s as the highly strung but likeable Robin (Nicole Buffoni is the sensitive director). Merridy Eastman, Brian Meeghan and Sam O’Sullivan give fine support. It’s a modest piece, to be sure, but heart-warming too as it gives a shot of normalcy to two characters who seem destined to live on the margins. There is a gentle message there.

Anna Gardiner designed the set for both History and Betrayal. In fact, given the interlocking schedules the set is essentially the same for both, with different moveable elements, and not entirely satisfactory for both. It’s a pity.

Still, I was glad to see both plays, and continue to be glad that the Ensemble exists. It has heart. Yes, in lieu of government subsidy it has to balance the books with a new Williamson or an Alan Ayckbourn (and absolutely nothing wrong with that – I’ll be there for Relatively Speaking in November). But often enough it gently challenges its loyal audience, and one suspects Kilmurry may have more up his sleeve in years to come. He launches his second season on August 8.

A History of Falling Things and Betrayal both end on August 20.

A baker’s dozen: 2014 theatre in review

OF the more than 200 shows I saw last year, about a third were plays. Dance, opera, musical theatre and cabaret make up the rest. Unfortunately symphonic and chamber music featured very lightly. Can’t do everything, which is why my theatre viewing in Sydney had many gaps, although I don’t believe I missed anything that would make my list. I hate that I see very little theatre in other cities. Would I have adored to see Miriam Margolyes in I’ll Eat You Last at Melbourne Theatre Company? Yes I would. I just couldn’t find a suitable date (and would, anyway, have had to throw myself on the mercy of MTC supremo Brett Sheehy to get in the house, so scarce were the tickets).

I went to Brisbane specifically to see two productions – the Michael Attenborough-directed Macbeth for Queensland Theatre Company and the La Boite-MTC production of Mike Bartlett’s Cock, which I had seen in New York last year. I didn’t care for the Macbeth, which I found somewhat like a drama class, but it did boffo business for QTC and was a more plausible production than Sydney Theatre Company’s “let’s turn the auditorium around” staging. Cock – a provocative and incredibly infuriating, even irritating, play – was undermined for me by its design of a field of soft pillows that were thrown around. One thing this play is not is soft.

I went to this year’s Melbourne Festival primarily to see the Trisha Brown retrospective but thanks to a Thursday matinee was able to see Lachlan Philpott’s The Trouble with Harry, staged by MKA: Theatre of New Writing. I liked it very much, although it doesn’t make my list. Something else I enjoyed greatly was MTC’s Rupert (also not on the list), shortly finishing a commercial season in Sydney. Well, the phrase “commercial season” is close to being an oxymoron when it comes to Sydney and what is quaintly called the straight theatre. There are few theatres, fewer of the right size, and the ones that are available are either hogged by return seasons of big musicals or, like the Theatre Royal, hovering uncertainly on the edge of redevelopment.

I saw many things in New York and London, and will talk about them tomorrow in my International list. There were a couple of beauties, including a superlative production of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information. I’ll be fascinated to see how Melbourne’s Malthouse copes with its complexities when it puts on its own production next year. First task: get a brilliantly accomplished, totally unflappable stage manager. But more on that tomorrow.

I’m going slightly off-piste here, but I loathe the system, now used virtually everywhere, of giving productions star ratings, as if the piece of theatre were a refrigerator either superbly or deficiently energy-efficient. If plentifully bestowed, stars are a boon to theatre managements as they tout their shows but they reduce the critic to another cog in the publicity machine. They say to the reader – always described as time-poor – don’t bother to absorb the nuances of the discussion; just count the stars and see them twinkle in the advertisements.

My list cannot be described as the “best” plays I saw in 2014. “Best” is a meaningless term. What can be said is that a piece of theatre touched one’s heart, soul and mind more powerfully and lastingly than did others. This is a very personal matter, which is why opinions can differ so greatly. Even in what might think are matters of execution – the appropriateness of a set design, say, or the technical skills of a performer or director – there can be widely divergent views. You should hear the discussions our group has when deciding the finalists and winners of the Sydney Theatre Awards (results announced on January 19).

I love a cracking production of a classic – last year’s Sydney Theatre Company Waiting for Godot, for instance – but am most deeply moved by work that expands and challenges what we think we know about our society. Theatre audiences are overwhelmingly white and comfortably off, but you have only to get on a train to Parramatta to see an infinitely more diverse Australia. And yes, there were plays this year that reflected that.

There are things on my list that didn’t get an incredibly flash production but their virtues shone through. One or two could use a few more drafts. I’ve included three non-Australian works that were graced with exceptional performances.

And one thing I noticed. There are loads of women writers and directors. This was not in any way planned but perhaps points to a breakthrough in which, you know, good people get to do good things. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Finally, there’s nothing more artificial than a list of 10. Yes, we have 10 fingers and 10 toes, so we like that number. Here it has no purpose.

Thirteen plays I loved in 2014, in the order in which I saw them:

Black Diggers, by Tom Wright. Queensland Theatre Company and Sydney Festival (January)

Indigenous Australians signed up for World War I duty in the expectation they would find justice and acceptance on their return. How wrong they were. The rollicking theatriciality and fierce humour were uplifting; the story itself heartbreaking. It was a bit rough and ready on its premiere but who cares? In the centenary year of the declaration of war, it was outstandingly relevant. Wesley Enoch directed.

Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, Back to Back Theatre at Carriageworks (March)

At last Sydney got to see this potent, much-travelled work. The swastika was once a sacred Hindu symbol and the god Ganesh wants to wrest it from the Nazis. At the heart of the matter are questions of who has power and who has the right to tell certain stories, overlain with the certain knowledge that in Hitler’s world the men enacting this play would have faced extinction. It was hold-your-breath, edge-of-the-seat theatre. Bruce Gladwin directed.

Jump for Jordan, by Donna Abela, Griffin Theatre Company (March)

This is such an Australian story. A woman born here of Jordanian parents is both a typical Aussie and someone who has to negotiate the treacherous territory between her parents’ world and her own. Abela’s play energetically dashes between realism, farce and surrealism, but most of all it captures so poignantly the pain migrants must face of leaving behind the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and customs that we call home. It had a terrific cast, in which Doris Younane, as the Jordanian-born mother, was very, very fine. Great set by Pip Runciman too, in which sand spilled into the living room of a suburban Sydney home. Iain Sinclair directed.

Pete the Sheep, based on the picture book by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, adapted for the stage by Eva Di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge. Monkey Baa Theatre Company (April)

Perfect. Just perfect. Pete is a sheep-sheep in a world that reckons there’s only a place for sheep dogs. Pete and his owner beg to differ and they prevail triumphantly. Silly songs, an important lesson in diversity, and fantastic fun for the kids. And for me. Directed by Jonathan Biggins with songs by Phillip Scott.

His Mother’s Voice, by Justin Fleming. bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company at ATYP (May)

His Mother’s Voice could do with some reworking but its subject is entrancing. The play is set mainly in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath and partly in Canberra, moving between time and place. A mother teaches her son the piano despite the risk, and then the reality, of being persecuted for being bourgeois. For Yang Jia, who was played with understated grace and gleaming intelligence by Renee Lim, music is a universal language. The Chinese apparatchiks who harry her see Western music as the enemy of Chinese music; she sees the two as complementary. When her piano is destroyed Yang Lia finds another, incredibly touching, way of continuing her son’s education in the greats of Western classical music. The politics of the Cultural Revolution collide with international politics, and if at times some of the arguments on the Western side seem a little stilted, Fleming’s portrayal of the contradictions acceptable – necessary? – in Chinese thinking is fascinating. Suzanne Miller directed.

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, by Declan Greene. Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company (May)

The title is misleading in one respect because the play is not at all about pornography. But in its expression – so caressing in cadence and so ugly in import – the name brilliantly captures the bleak oppositions that drive Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography. There have never been so many ways to communicate and so little connection. Never so many goodies to fill the home to overflowing yet so much emptiness. Never so much stimulation available at the tap of a keyboard and such a paucity of genuine satisfaction. This epidemic of unfulfilled desire and coruscating loneliness is dissected with laser accuracy. A man and a woman, both unnamed, meet via a dating site. He is married and obsessively into pornography, she is a nurse with an out-of-control shopping habit. Both have a core of self-loathing covered with a thin layer of coping. He is the greater fantasist and she the more self-aware but they’re both in deep, deep trouble. Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs were devastatingly good. Lee Lewis directed.

Henry V, Bell Shakespeare Company (June)

IN an air raid shelter during the Blitz in London, some young people delve into bookshelves and pull out Shakespeare. Their stage is a room with a blackboard and some rackety shelves, their costumes nothing more than what they can put over their school uniforms. As sirens blare and bombs fall, they put on a play about war. There could be few productions of Henry V scrappier, less heroic or more affecting than this. Essentially a bunch of kids in a confined space put on accents and lark about, yet the simplicity and intimacy pierce the heart as surely as King Henry’s archers at Agincourt routed the French. Director Damien Ryan sees nothing worth exalting in Henry’s pursuit of conquest. He sees the damage and the never-ending trail of misery. Inspired and inspirational.

Kryptonite, by Sue Smith. Sydney Theatre Company and State Theatre Company of South Australia (September)

Sue Smith’s beautifully named Kryptonite throws together politics, sex, international business and race. That combo would sap anyone of their strength. Lian and Dylan meet at university. She is Chinese and scrambling to survive in a system that lets her study here but not earn enough money to keep herself. He’s a laidback Australian with a passion for surfing. They make a connection that, over the next 25 years, waxes, wanes and is buffeted by external forces. The massacre at Tiananmen Square is one of them; the rise of Australian business connections with China is another. I found the part for Dylan (Tim Walter) a little underwritten, but Ursula Mills as Lian was stunning. I’d love to see it again. Geordie Brookman directed.

Children of the Sun, by Maxim Gorky, adapted by Andrew Upton. Sydney Theatre Company (September)

I found this so poignant. A well-meaning bourgeois Russian family fails to see revolution brewing all around them. Well, one of them can but no one takes any notice. There isn’t any malice in their lack of understanding about the society in which they live but that won’t help them in the end. I think we can all see a lesson there. Jacqueline McKenzie and Justine Clarke made me cry. Kip Williams directed.

Howie the Rookie, by Mark O’Rowe. Red Line Productions in association with Strange Duck Productions and Sydney Independent Theatre Company, Old Fitzroy (October)

This was theatre as stripped back as it comes. The two 40-minute monologues that form Howie the Rookie were here performed by Sean Hawkins and Andrew Henry (they are sometimes done by one actor), who took us pell-mell into a particularly violent, mordantly funny and wildly alive part of Dublin. O’Rowe’s extravagant text was given a brilliantly restrained setting by Lisa Mimmocchi of no more than a pile of bottle tops and a couple of chairs. Toby Schmitz directed.

Is This Thing On?, by Zoe Coombs Marr. Belvoir (October)

One stand-up comedienne, five versions of herself at different ages, and a riotous night to be had by all. What could have been a madwoman’s breakfast was held together with awesome, anarchic energy by Susan Prior. Kit Brookman and Zoe Coombs Marr directed.

Switzerland, by Joanna Murray-Smith. Sydney Theatre Company (November)

There’s a famous and famously reclusive novelist, an interloper and the spectre of the novelist’s most enduring character. The three collide in Joanna Murray-Smith’s audacious play, which starts innocuously enough as bio-drama, morphs into a psychological thriller and ends as fantastic realism. Sarah Pierse gets possibly the role of her career as Patricia Highsmith; Eamon Farren is the persistent young publisher’s emissary who wants the author to write another Tom Ripley novel. Sarah Goodes directs with a sure, elegant and witty touch. It runs until December 20.

A Christmas Carol, adapted from Charles Dickens by Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks. Belvoir (November)

I adored everything about this. Michael Hankin’s set is spare but full of surprises, Mel Page’s costumes are festive and I had to suppress a desire to run onstage and hug every actor at the end. A Christmas Carol celebrates love and generosity. Amen to that. Anne-Louse Sarks directed. (Fittingly, it runs until Christmas Eve.)

Tomorrow: International theatre ( I promise it will be much shorter)

Love, death, politics …

Kryptonite, Sydney Theatre Company, September 16; Unholy Ghosts, Griffin Theatre Company, September 17; LoveBites, White Horse Productions with Hayes Theatre Co, September 18.

ON the face of it Kryptonite, Unholy Ghosts and LoveBites have nothing in common except taking place in a theatre, but seeing the three on consecutive evenings made me think of them as a group; as independent but connected pieces illuminating fundamental aspects of life’s journey. Love, death, politics …

Sue Smith’s beautifully named Kryptonite throws together politics, sex, international business and race. That combo would sap anyone of their strength. Lian (Ursula Mills) and Dylan (Tim Walter) meet at university. She is Chinese and scrambling to survive in a system that lets her study here but not earn enough money to keep herself. He’s a laidback Australian with a passion for surfing. They make a connection that, over the next 25 years, waxes, wanes and is buffeted by external forces. The massacre at Tiananmen Square is one of them; the rise of Australian business connections with China is another.

Tim Walter and Ursula Mills in Kryptonite. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Tim Walter and Ursula Mills in Kryptonite. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

It’s fertile ground for drama and highly pertinent as, in scenes played out of chronological order, we see how events in the wider world – the Asian world – affect Lian and Dylan personally and politically.

I found the role of Dylan a little underwritten, although perhaps I should see Kryptonite again to see if that’s fair – on opening night I was so swept away by the writing for Lian and Mills’s performance that it was hard to concentrate on anything else. Even at her shyest and most vulnerable Lian is strong, witty and very, very smart. No wonder she becomes a tough and successful operator, although with divided loyalties. Smith has written a mesmerising part and Mills is extraordinary. Geordie Brookman directed.

Unholy Ghosts isn’t so much a play as a group therapy session. I don’t mean this unkindly. I was absorbed by Campion Decent’s story, based on his own experience, but its power is that of personal, intimate revelation. I too have lost my parents, as people of a certain age do. It was only when my father died last year, eight years after the death of my mother, that I realised it was possible for a mature adult to feel orphaned. Decent’s story has the added pressure of parents dying within a short space of time, of them having been acrimoniously divorced, and the hovering presence of a long-dead sister. James Lugton, playing the Son, talks about his dying parents and talks to them, although some of the dialogue sounds suspiciously like people telling people they are close to things they should already know. Father (Robert Alexander) apparently terrified Son when he was a child but we must take that on faith, as the old man we meet is certainly irascible but rather a sweetie. Mother (Anna Volska) is a former actress and loads of fun.

The technical shortcomings include a rather awkward ending, but it was impossible not to be moved by the deeply felt discussion of death: how to face it, how to cope with it.

I saw LoveBites when it premiered at Sydney’s Seymour Centre in 2008. I reviewed it for The Australian and I started my piece this way:

“James Millar is seriously talented. Not yet 30, he’s written, with composer Peter Rutherford, songs about love that are fresh, literate, humane and insightful. The most trampled-over subject in musical theatre has come up sparkling.”

Obviously Millar is a few years older now, but I’m happy with the rest of the sentence and with the conclusion. It’s great to see a revival at the Hayes Theatre, very well cast with Kirby Burgess, Tyran Parke, Adele Parkinson and Shaun Rennie. Troy Alexander directed, there’s smart choreography by Ellen Simpson and designer Lauren Peters uses the small Hayes Theatre Co space astutely by using two revolves. Becky-Dee Trevenen does a pretty good job with the costumes, which the four performers have to change at speed to accommodate their very different characters. The band, under the musical direction of Steven Kreamer, is fine as far as it goes but the sound balance is out of whack and does a disservice to the singers.

But you know what? I’m just going to haul out my 2008 review. Change the names and the design concept and we’re all good.

From The Australian, June 23, 2008

JAMES Millar is seriously talented. Not yet 30, he’s written, with composer Peter Rutherford, songs about love that are fresh, literate, humane and insightful. The most trampled-over subject in musical theatre has come up sparkling.

Earlier this year Millar and Rutherford premiered The Hatpin, a large-scale historical musical based on a fascinating, and true, Australian story. We didn’t have to wait long for their next venture, the song cycle LoveBites. On the surface it may look like a far less ambitious project but this allusive, sophisticated and compressed art brings its own challenges.

Millar tells the story of six unrelated couples who are captured at the moment of falling in love. In the second half we see how it all turned out. There’s no scene-setting, apart from a series of beautifully chosen projections designed by Martin Kinnane, and no expository dialogue. Everything must be conveyed through song in the space of five or six minutes.

Within that tight timeframe Millar has created a set of persuasive individuals whose fate you want to know: Daniel and James from the poorly attended reading group; Madeleine and Poppy, whose courtship starts with the buying of a single flower; Annie and Kevin, whom disaster strikes in the form of a non-working loo.

At almost every point the detail feels vivid and truthful. It’s fun that Georgine has to pretend she’s an ace rock-climber when Peter first asks her out and that the heavenly Kevin works with deaf children. Obviously taken from life is the tryst between a famous film star and a flight attendant in an aircraft toilet, and yes, Ralph Fiennes is name-checked. Rutherford turns this into a breathy, torchy number, called The Captain’s Turned Off the Seatbelt Sign.

The composer gracefully lets the lyrics take centre stage but is sensitive to the needs and moods of each character. There’s wistful delicacy for Poppy in Give It to the Breeze and a buoyant, confident anthem for James and Daniel, Setting the Date. I was less convinced by the poo song that ends the show. It has an impeccable message but feels a bit try-hard compared with the rest of LoveBites.

On piano, Rutherford accompanies a hard-working cast of four, including Millar. The odd little Downstairs Theatre at the Seymour Centre has a hard, dead acoustic and even though they are miked there are times when Octavia Barron-Martin and Sarah Croser in particular sound under-powered. Millar and Tyler Burness fare much better but I hesitate to be definitive about the vocal qualities of any of them in these conditions. They play the show very well under Kim Hardwick’s nicely unobtrusive direction.

Sound quibbles aside, LoveBites is a very significant achievement. Music theatre aficionados take note: a team that can write Bob and Louise is one to treasure. The song captures a lifetime of longing, pain and quiet, ordinary desperation in just a few minutes, and I wasn’t the only one crying by the end.

Kryptonite, Wharf 1, ends October 18; Unholy Ghosts, The Stables, Sydney, ends September 20; LoveBites, Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, ends October 5.