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.

Three premieres

The Aliens, Old Fitz Theatre, August 27; La Traviata, Belvoir Downstairs, September 1; Bull, Old Fitzroy Theatre, September 3

AMERICAN playwright Annie Baker has been mentioned, many times, in the same breath as Chekov and it’s a comparison that has merit. Baker, who is only 34, probes beneath the surface of apparently ordinary and often fragile lives to unearth the struggle and the wonder of life. Nothing much happens, unless you think that an intimate understanding of how people connect with one another counts as a lot.

I was able to see The Flick – first produced in 2013, winner of a Pulitzer Prize last year – when in New York earlier this year and found it profoundly moving. (Melbourne’s Red Stitch was smartly on the case, producing it last year with direction by Nadia Tass.) Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre staged Baker’s 2009 play Circle Mirror Transformation, set in a community adult drama class, in 2012, and now at the Old Fitz it’s possible to see The Aliens, written in 2010 (no one can accuse Baker of slacking) and given a luminous production by Outhouse Theatre Co.

Jeremy Waters, James Bell and Ben Wood in The Aliens. Photo: Rupert Reid

Jeremy Waters, James Bell and Ben Wood in The Aliens. Photo: Rupert Reid

KJ (Ben Wood) and Jasper (Jeremy Waters) hang out in the cruddy garbage area at the back of a café and shoot the breeze about music, writing (Jasper is a Charles Bukowski aficionado) and relationships in a patchy, tentative, affectionate kind of way. Their conversation is all stops, starts and gaps but far from empty. Hurt, aspiration, bravado and need are often expressed as much in what is not said as what is.

When shy young café employee Evan (James Bell) ventures out the back to try to shoo them away – this is private property – KJ and Jasper stand firm. They are going nowhere, and for the tiniest moment you think The Aliens might fall into convention; that Evan will be bullied by these older, bigger, apparently more worldly men. But no. KJ and Jasper draw him into their little circle and supremely delicate connections are made. The performances are perfectly pitched. One does wonder why actors of the calibre of Wood and Waters are not seen more often and Bell is quite, quite magical.

Hugh O’Connor’s design is spot-on, with its crappy furniture and weeds poking through the cracks, and Craig Baldwin directs with a huge heart.

Mike Bartlett’s Bull, which is just finishing a short late-night season at the Old Fitz, is given its Australian premiere by Renaissance Productions with Rowan Greaves directing. It is a kind of companion piece to the same playwright’s Cock, which was so effectively staged at the Old Fitz earlier in the year. But unlike Cock it has only one idea, swiftly rendered in a four-hander that takes less than an hour to deliver the message that some people are natural victims who will be at the mercy of the amoral.

Romy Bartz, George Kemp and Philippe Klaus in Bull. Photo: Geoff Sirmai

Romy Bartz, George Kemp and Philippe Klaus in Bull. Photo: Geoff Sirmai

Thomas (George Kemp) is the one destined to fail and Isobel (Romy Bartz) and Tony (Philippe Klaus) are his tormentors. As in Cock, three characters dominate the action with a fourth – here the corporate trio’s boss, played by Craig Ashley, entering late in the day – but the piece is not much more than a few brutal punches to the head turned into a rather longer fight than strictly necessary.

Sydney audiences will see Bartlett in a much more expansive mode when his King Charles III comes from London’s Almeida via Broadway during Sydney Theatre Company’s 2016 program. It’s wildly interesting in form and content – I saw it at the Almeida last year – as Bartlett projects forward to the earliest days of the reign of Prince Charles as British monarch. (King of Australia, too, undoubtedly.)

Also of interest in smaller-scale Sydney theatre is Sisters Grimm’s La Traviata, even if it’s not as revolutionary as one might have expected. Sisters Grimm – writer-director Declan Greene and writer-performer Ash Flanders – were inspired by Verdi’s 1853 opera as a piece of social criticism (the composer wanted it performed in modern dress but to get it on at Venice’s La Fenice had to make it a historical piece). But new work doesn’t always become what was originally intended. The political arguments flagged in the Creators’ Note in the program don’t make themselves felt strongly enough, but on the plus side it turns out you can do La Traviata in a theatre as small as Belvoir Downstairs and do it justice. In the course of a discussion about the value of art in a society that knows the cost-benefit ratio of everything, Melbourne duo Sisters Grimm have created a touching and memorable version of Verdi’s opera.

Emma Maye Gibson in La Traviata. Photo: Patrick Boland

Emma Maye Gibson in La Traviata. Photo: Patrick Boland

It’s wildly truncated and mostly lipsynched but the essence is there and it’s staged in a way that would cause no palpitations in, say, Germany, where regietheater (director’s theatre) reigns. Well, obviously it’s a hit-and-run version of the big thing, but it’s good. The countryside where Violetta and her lover Alfredo live is dotted with sheep, flower-entwined swings fall from the ceiling and Violetta’s gown is a cage. In Marg Horwell’s sets and costumes there are also jokey visual references to Lohengrin and Carmen. There’s quite a lot going on if you know your operas.

When the axe falls on Violetta’s happiness it is shown in devastating manner by Emma Maye Gibson, ever more desperately seeking approval from the audience, even to the point of standing on her head to sing (enter The Magic Flute). This is the courtesan as performer, but it’s also the performer as courtesan, touting for applause and money.

La Traviata is at its most original and thought-provoking here. The first third is an overlong satire on arts funding that, despite the warmth of Flanders, Gibson and Zindzi Okenyo, is more than the teensiest bit lame. Flanders does shout rather desperately in lieu of insights.

But the rest more than makes up for it. In the final third of the show the audience is invited to talk with the cast and each other and – surprisingly – the feeling is not the usual terror of audience participation but warmth and inclusion. Then opera singer Michael Lewis, the fourth cast member, comes to the fore, telling a deeply personal story about mortality before assuming the role of Violetta.

When it was announced last year as part of Belvoir’s 2015 season, La Traviata was proposed as a critique of current Australian arts politics. The word protest was used, although it’s hard to read this production as a call to arms. Instead it looks into the heart of the artist, the person who needs to perform and to be loved. What are the transactions required to achieve that?

Along the way La Traviata is also a love letter to the operatic art form, despite the pro forma sniping at the start (boring, long, elitist). Who better, indeed, than Sisters Grimm to understand the power of a theatre of grand emotions and extravagant gestures?

Bull ends September 12; The Aliens ends September 19; La Traviata ends September 20.

Reviews of The Aliens and La Traviata first appeared in The Australian on August 31 and September 3.