The high points.
It is no great surprise that the best has been brought to us by Red Stitch.
One or two duds, by my reckoning, but otherwise it was a wonderful season. Theatre that avoids dialogue, narrative and plot leaves me cold as a rule. It is so often an excuse for having nothing to say, but if nothing is adequately cloaked in obscure form maybe the audience won’t notice. Especially if it is only 60 minutes long, which is, as far as I can tell, the concentration span of current theatre audiences.
Yet this year Red Stitch brought us a play which was fascinating in its structure and techniques: Red Sky Morning, a premiere production sponsored by the company. It is a play in which the cast of three (if we exclude the dog) is often speaking to us at once. How, and to whom, should we be listening? Although at one level I guess you make a choice – and wish you could see it three times to listen three times – I suspect that this production has been designed to make you listen to the ‘right’ thing. If you go with the flow you will focus on what you should. The most remarkable thing about this play, though, was that it managed to be clever and still deeply moving. It was, ahem, just 60 minutes long, but the length was perfect because it was so intense and so demanding of the audience.
From Red Stitch’s point of view, the thing that was especially different about this play, was that it was written by an Australian (Tom Holloway). I’ve been to about five seasons of Red Stitch and I think this is only the second Australian play they have produced. That they have both been highly worthy of production (unlike much of what the MTC performs of homegrown plays) is a testament to their judicious selection process.
On the theme of interesting structure, Pool (No Water) has to be mentioned. My heart sank a bit when this one started. Just another piece of theatre with no story, no narrative, no communication between characters….but wait! Clever techniques yes, and clever, amusing content as well which keenly observed the predicament of our would-be artists. The acting, the set, the direction, it was all five star. The play had scarcely started before I was making a note to myself that I wanted to see it again. Maybe this was the very best thing I saw in Melbourne this year.
Along more conventional lines, The Winterling (Jez Butterworth) – with its black, if not absurd, sense of menace was stunning. It is a pity that so many people who see theatre of the absurd don’t understand how to watch it. But more on that in another post. The Pain and the Itch (Bruce Norris), the most conventional play produced by Red Stitch this year was a highly polished piece of entertainment. Fascinating to see that an audience which was specifically being pilloried to death by this play, nonetheless found it so amusing. I guess they all thought it pertained to their neighbour, rather than to themselves.
In a way, though, I think one would have to say that the most important production of Red Stitch this year was its penultimate: Marie Antoinette, The Colour of Flesh (Joel Gross). Important for its implications for the Red Stitch company itself. The last time they attempted such a thing, a conventional narrative historical play, it was at the end of 2006: Hellbent, a modern, pared down version of The Duchess of Malfi. Perhaps it failed in part because it took a fine play and turned it into something less. But one could not help feeling, too, that the actors weren’t up to it. Once you take away distracting structure and odd techniques, once you force actors to address each other, to have relationships on stage, the acting is really up for scrutiny. For those in Melbourne who have been with Red Stitch for the long haul, the improvements in their acting have been a joy to see.
This is reflected in the production of Marie Antoinette. It is as if the skills of the company are now honed sufficiently that they can put it all on the line, bare themselves as pure actors and survive. I suspect that the audiences for this production weren’t as big as they deserved to be. How dull are Melbourne theatre-goers that they can’t cope with being outside of their comfort zone. In this case, the typical Red Stitch viewer wants to see short, ‘modern’ ‘plays’. A piece of history – even though recently written – and, not to put too fine a point upon it, a LONG piece of history – nup. They aren’t up for it. Hang your head in shame if you are reading this and one of those who didn’t go to see this show.
A special accolade for Olivia Connolly as the queen. I hope I will be forgiven for saying that over the years the male members of the troupe have outshone the females with the obvious exception of Kat Stewart. Otherwise it has tended to be the guest females who have provided the strong acting performances. Connolly in this role has a difficult job as the role spans great character change. I thought she managed this in fine style.
Red Stitch might have brought us most of the highs, but not the only ones. In a Melbourne Festival with little to attract me in terms of theatre, I happened to stumble upon An Oak Tree by Tim Crouch. Yet another piece of theatre which managed to be structurally and technically different, and still content and acting are important to it. How easily could this be a novelty which was most likely to fail.
Tim Crouch plays one of two roles in the play. The other is taken on by an actor who knows nothing of the play until he steps onto the stage at its start. At that point everything he does is determined, not improvised. He is given a script, he has sound in his ear which occasionally directs him, the other actor tells him what to say. Blatantly, right in front of us. ‘Now you say “….”‘ and then the mystery guest actor says “….”.
One of the remarkable things about this play is that it makes it quite clear that we believe what we see in the theatre even though it flaunts its made-up nature in front of us. As an audience we were deeply moved by what was a harrowing story, while the actors all but said ‘hello, we are just pretending here’.
One doesn’t know whom the second actor will be until the play starts. The night I went it was Kim Gyngell. I couldn’t help feeling it was the perfect choice, but I dare say most audiences think that on the night. Approximately 250 actors have taken on the role, often women. In the Melbourne four night run, the other actors included Geoffrey Rush and Jane Turner. At the end of the performance my companion and I hadn’t even left our seats and were already regretting that we could not see at least one more performance of it for contrast. Bravo Tim Crouch.
The low points.
It was a year without The Stork Theatre and thus I see I did survive its absence, but what a shame to have had to do so. It is an indispensable part of the Melbourne theatre scene. One can only hope it reemerges soon, before it has become used to its own lack of existence.
Hmmm. MTC’s production of David Williamson’s The Scarlet Parrot. Shame on the MTC for using an inadequate actor – Caroline O’Connor – in a major role. I have never seen an actor in a professional troupe miked before – a good actor doesn’t have to be. When I wrote and complained to the MTC, I received the following reply:
Caroline O’Connor is definitely a stage actor, having appeared in numerous productions in Australia and overseas. As you can see, she is the leading lady in this production and as such it is important to preserve her voice for the duration of the season, which is why in a large theatre such as the Playhouse, it was necessary to mike her.
The decision to mike an actor is made corresponding to the individual play and actor.
When I enquired as to when else the MTC had used a miked actor I was told, referring to the last few seasons:
Magda Szubanski in The Madwoman of Chaillot and Joel Edgerton in the Pillowman. Mics were used in the Season at Sarsaparilla as well.
Now why doesn’t that surprise me. Edgerton is a screen actor who hadn’t seen a stage in the eight years preceding this role. Magda, to the best of my knowledge is also not a stage actor. I guess it has to be accepted that the MTC makes its money by employing film and TV starts instead of stage actors, thus attracting more bums on seats.
Getting back to the Parrot, there are enough good unemployed actors about to think the MTC could have grabbed one for this role. O’Connor is a musical actress with just enough acting competence to get through a musical. Enough said.
By the way, I can’t be the only theatre-goer out there who finds the sound of miked voices offensive? Can I???? I was a bit shocked when not one person I’ve talked to noticed she was miked when it was so obvious from her first words. Perhaps it is because she’s a musical performer and therefore is always miked. People were used to her voice having that sound to it.
Every year I think Red Stitch has won the marbles when it comes to the picking of modern plays to produce. Honestly, it has the MTC’s entire marble collection…the MTC can’t even play any more unless it could perhaps win some back off The Malthouse (now that shouldn’t be too hard). But lately I’ve started wondering if the truth is that the MTC doesn’t want me as a subscriber. It can’t keep everybody happy. If the majority of the subscribers think that Caroline O’Connor is ace and the highlight of their season, who am I to disagree?
The Lower Depths by Gorky at Fortyfivedownstairs was much anticipated. Alas there was something wrong with it. Directing? Acting? Interpretation of character? Inadequate script? It was certainly not the setting which, being in the bowels of Flinders Lane, was perfect. I wanted to blame the script until I found out that both Renoir and Kurosawa, two of the greatest 20th century film directors had chosen to use it. I am anxiously waiting to see what they have done with Gorky’s script. Maybe it is a case of a piece being trapped in its own historical moment. Perhaps what could work for these two directors in the middle of the 20th century – such a different historical period from our own – cannot work now.
Was this too was the problem with Beckett’s Endgame, put on by Eleventh Hour. Although it has been reviewed as the perfect production of Endgame, if it is that, one can only conclude that even perfection cannot save this play.
My mother got it in one when she said it was a ‘cold’ play. Precisely. I don’t know if I have ever been to theatre that was less engaging. Of the experienced theatre goers I went with, one fidgeted, one napped and the other did sums of the people sleeping over the other side of the stage (the stage was between two banks of audiences that faced each other. I spent the performance fearful that the one fidgeting was going to knock the one napping onto the stage. Frankly, I didn’t think the play would be able to cope with this extra character.
There was much clapping when the actors were done, but it was the sound of clapping which is obligatory. If it went on a little longer than obligatory clapping might, this is only because the audience could not but appreciate the efforts of two characters who had spent the night in rubbish bins.
But perhaps the notion that it is a cold play (unlike Waiting for Godot) doesn’t completely explain the gap between performance and audience to be observed in this play. Perhaps, like The Lower Depths, it is a play that cannot be made relevant to our world.
A Taste of What is to Come
45downstairs continues to put on some of the most interesting theatre in Melbourne. Earlier this year I was lucky enough to be part of the audience of John Stanton’s And When He Falls, a one man show surfing through Shakespeare’s interpretation of Plantagenet kings.
On for one night only, it was a work-in-progress which will no doubt tour in the near future. I scarcely know whether to say ‘what an actor’ or ‘what a writer’. Stanton was able to be anything from an ancient bishop with the palsy to an infantile young man in a trice. What fun this must have been for an actor with an affinity for Shakespeare. At the same time as being all these characters he connected the extracts he performed with an account of the history forming the background to the plays. We went away both entertained and educated.
Is that the message to take home here? That Shakespeare can make history eternally relevant whilst Gorky and Beckett cannot?
Bring on 2009. Do subscribe to Red Stitch, it is by far and away the best value for your theatre dollar. That’s it for now.