Recent theatre in London

We went to three shows on the weekend.

Stewart Lee at Leicester Square theatre. Stewart Lee’s new show is hilarious. Not uniformly so, one gag went on for far too long, but gee whiz he sets a high standard. And as he said, we bought tickets for his experiments for a new TV show. He was within his rights to lie with his back to us farting for the entirety. And I dare say that would have been fairly amusing too.

Oresteia at Trafalgar Studios. There are two major productions of this going on at once in London. One is at The Globe. The other is an Almeida show, originally on in Islington, but moved to Trafalgar Studios, a new venue for me. I stand corrected in thinking that the new MTC playhouse has the stingiest legspace imaginable. This space could actually be worse. At least, however, Trafalgar is a small theatre in the first place. The MTC is enormous and should know better.

As for the show, I was a little disappointed, finding it cold and rather inaccessible with no chance to sympathise, let alone empathise with any of the characters. On top of this, Electra mysteriously disappears at some point. I have yet to come to the bottom of that.

Horniman’s Choice at Finborough Theatre. It was going to see this that confirmed my suspicions about Oresteia. I guess all theatre that came after Orestea took its cue from it. Here we have some of the same themes explored, but in a starkly different context. Orestea is a tragedy – that is to say, it is about kings. Horniman’s Choice is life in the poor North of England. It’s about the mines, soldiers coming back from WWI and the terrible choices faced by women: the workhouse if old, the streets if young. It’s about God.

I should say ‘they’re’ not ‘it’s’ since this is a collection of one act plays. Bloody brilliant they were too. The Finborough is a teensy theatre up a rickety staircase above a pub. It boasts on its site that these are the first professional UK productions of these plays for more than 90 years. The result is outstanding and one wonders, not for the first time, how much theatre that is utterly deserving never sees the light of day past its debut. Oresteia had three and a half hours to draw me in and failed. These intense miniatures grip from the start. I dare say I wasn’t the only one who had tears starting now and then, really an achievement to go from stranger to that in a few minutes.

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The Battle for Troy at the Stork theatre

My brother Bernard put his finger on what was wrong with this reading. One of the actors acted. I’ve never thought to articulate this before, but it is quite a different matter to read a part than to act it. Probably you have to be a reader to appreciate this and coming from a family who read out loud as part of growing up, this should have been obvious to me.

How lucky are we in Melbourne to have the Red Dwarf hologram, Jane Montgomery Griffiths, now resident here? She read, read fabulously and to be honest I would have been content for her to do the whole lot.

As usual for The Stork, and deservedly so, the performance was packed out. Even though it missed the mark for us, it was still well worthy of seeing. In fact both Bernard and I came home planning to pull out our Homers. Enough said…

West East theatre starts up in Melbourne.

Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me by Frank McGuinness
fortyfivedownstairs
45 Flinders Lane Melbourne

Three men sit in front of you in chains for a couple of hours.

If you want to know what it is like, the situation of hostages – it could be anywhere, but this time it is Beirut – go to see the dramatisation of it. This imaginary world is real. The real world you see on the television is not.

In that sense this play reminds me of The Pilot, which Red Stitch put on a few years ago. Seeing a man captured and tortured in front of you is so much more real in pretence than it is in actuality as observed through the antiseptic medium of YouTube and TV.

Richard Stables, Trent Baker and Ezra Bix make up the cast – wonderful job. The play’s proven itself long before it has made its appearance in Melbourne. It’s a triumphant start for the newly established West East Theatre. Created by Baker and Stables, who were founding members of Red Stitch, they say:

Ultimately West East seeks to transport the audience to another place, another world in which they are totally connected; emotionally and spiritually.

In this aim they have certainly succeeded. The audience is privileged to be sharing space with these unfortunate souls as they create an imaginary world which must make do during their years of incarceration. Maybe why we are so moved to laugh and cry with them is that these are just ordinary people. A doctor, a journalist, a teacher – Ezra’s character Michael is very confused when he first wakes up in this room in chains. He is in Beirut because he can’t get a teaching job in England. He was only making a flan for guests and needed to buy pears. How does one get from that position to chains in a dungeon? And how can one possibly survive 4 years of it?

Do go and see it to find out. It’s on until May 17.
Bookings at fortyfivedownstairs

What if Emma Bovary had seen Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk?

On Thursday I had the good fortune to see Shostakovitch’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. It was the depiction of a woman in the provinces of mid-nineteenth century Russia married to an impotent dullard, with a father-in-law whose own lecherous feelings towards her made him see her as a licentious whore. If she is not one in practice, he knows she must be one in intent. The father-in-law keeps constant watch on his daughter-in-law to make sure she is not doing with another what he wishes to do to her himself. She is unfulfilled in every sense and knows there must be something better in life. Eventually, despite the menacingly watchful guard of the father-in-law she manages to take a lover.

The scene in which she first meets her lover impresses upon us just how appalling her predicament is. The men under her husband’s employ are gang-raping a servant girl. Fifty or so men are on stage inciting the soon-to-be lover of Katerina into the rape. He has set about his task enthusiastically. Katerina is such a strong, confident woman she is able to walk into this situation and take control of it, saving the girl. Yet she is so powerless that she must fall in love with this man, even as she watches him rape another, because he is actually the best of a remarkably bad bunch. Such was the Russia that the Bolsheviks wished to transform.

The lover is good-for-nothing. A woman less desperate would have been able to see that. If Emma Bovary had been watching Lady Macbeth, at that point when she attends the opera, she would have recognised it too. She would, like the rest of us, have been pleased when Katerina kills her father-in-law after he discovers her lover and has him brutally flogged. When Katerina next kills her husband this too would have seemed – if not quite morally correct, then certainly a very understandable way to proceed. We want happiness for Katerina.

But at some point, as Katerina begins to pay the cost for what she has done, through her enduring guilt, would not Emma have called out to Katerina ‘don’t take that path’. To be bored, unfulfilled, to live a mean life – all would be better than the path she was instead choosing. Katerina’s murders are discovered. As she ends up in a convict labour camp watching her husband making love to one of the other convicts, would not Emma have thought to herself ‘Thank heavens I have a husband who loves me? A husband who is able to bear me children. Sophisticated and cultured surrounds. Thank heavens I am not Katerina’.

We, the observer, can see that distinction. We can see that life in the Russian provinces at not such a different period of time from that of Emma’s, is a nasty brutish violent existence. We can see that Emma is surrounded by culture, material comforts, company, purpose in life, albeit in menial domestic roles. We see, further, that Emma can have – and does have – both domesticity and romance. What would Katerina have given to have Emma’s life? A husband who loved and cared for her, the possibility of children, and lovers if need or whim dictated. Luxury. Would Katerina have admonished Emma?
‘Stop, go no further along this path of self-destruction, be happy with what you have, it is so much more than it might be.’

Yet even though Emma’s life is as blessed as Katerina’s is wretched, even though we feel that Emma chooses her fate, whilst Katerina’s is forced upon her and even though we feel that Katerina has a nobility of spirit keeping her pure even as the scummy world around her drags her down, a spirit that is not obvious in Emma, still we empathise with Emma.

And, in fact, it is precisely that Emma does choose her fate which makes her character admirable. Never does she give up on her dream and hopes. The lines that stand out for me in the book are:

They knew one another too well for any of those surprises of possession that increase its joys a hundred-fold. She was as sick of him as he was weary of her. Emma found again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.

She knows what she wants is impossible and yet she will not give up. She does what we all want to do. Madame Bovary isn’t a study of boredom and frustration, nor is Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. They are about belief and about being true to one’s beliefs no matter what.

There is significant difference between us, the readers, and these two characters. We do not, in general, any longer hold with the practice of having beliefs. Consequently we would not be foolish enough either to kill for our happiness or to die for lack of it. We need to step outside ourselves to understand Emma. To be irritated with Emma is to be mean-spirited. We take it for granted that we will marry for love and that we will be in love with the person we choose to spend our life with. We fall in love whenever, and with whomever, we please. Don’t judge Emma in terms of what you are. Judge Emma for what you would be in her shoes.

That state of romantic love is entirely necessary to our being. We may not believe in it, but we nonetheless cannot escape it. Does anything make that more clear than the demise of Emma’s husband? It is not, after all, with Emma’s death that the novel ends. Far from it. We watch Charles suffer and die a perfect romantic death from grief. Ironically, it would have been enough to make Emma love her husband…if only she could have seen it.

So, what would have happened if Emma saw Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk? Would she have advised Katerina against several murders and suicide? No. She would have seen the utter inevitability of Katerina’s fate. What would have happened if Katerina had been magically transported into Emma’s place? She would have died for want of what she desperately desired and could not find. Their fates were both inescapable.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is on in Melbourne until May 9. If you only go to one opera in your life, make this the one. I’d use the ‘c’ word, if only it had not been abused so. Two people leave a film: ‘That was SO confronting’ ‘You mean, the way he asked for –‘ ‘Yes, milk in his long black’. But truly Lady Macbeth is a deeply moving, gut-wrenching production with fabulous music, a great libretto and a wonderful cast.

Who Killed Emma Bovary?
Adapted by Colin Duckworth in his usual impeccable manner it is on at Stork Theatre’s new home in St Kilda until May 10. Booking details below. Emmaline Carroll holds the audience throughout with her portrayal of Emma, while Adrian Mulraney plays all the other roles to perfection as usual.

stork-theatre1

Realism by Paul Galloway at MTC

I can recall the last time the MTC did something that excited me. It was Copenhagen and it was too long ago. If you want safe, professional theatre the MTC’s the place. If you want something that will excite you like you haven’t been excited since your first ever visit to the theatre, go to Red Stitch. The amazing thing is that Red Stitch, despite being brave, has almost no duds.

Still, the MTC has to come up with something special now and then and Realism by Paul Galloway is just that. I don’t want to describe it in detail as it will spoil the dramatic effect of what happens. Suffice to say it is hugely entertaining, almost a farce, while being as moving as a play must be which is fixed in Soviet Russia of the 1930s. It’s important that the cast is excellent: in the hands of lesser actors I don’t think this clever play would work.

Galloway talks about his life, writing and this play in particular here.

He says there that:

I love theatre because it’s not important. And long may it remain so. If it were important, Governments would be interested in it and they’d screw it up for everyone. In the Soviet Union under Stalin, the arts and literature became so important that people were murdered and imprisoned over it. Theatre should never be worth dying for. It should merely be worth living for—one of many things worth living for in a good and varied life. Who’d want it any other way? After all, what is pleasure but the feeling that arises from doing what you don’t need to do?

It’s a provocative thought and I can’t say that I altogether agree with it. It was the lot of the people Galloway writes about that they didn’t want to be important but were made so. Still, art – and theatre in particular – has from time to time seen its obligation to be part of a struggle. It has chosen to be there in the thick of it. Actually, the more I think about it the more I know Galloway is wrong. Theatre is important. Fortunately that does not mean it mustn’t be entertaining. I think Galloway, in Realism, manages to be both.

Stork Theatre is back!

This has got to be the highlight of the year for Melbourne theatre-goers.

My first experience of Stork was, alas, only a couple of years ago when I went to one of their famed Camus productions: The Outsider. I was hooked. Stork’s unique claim to fame might be that it specialises in the dramatisation of literature, rather than drama per se…or it might be that it is are just so good.

Last year saw the temporary demise of Stork Theatre when its home, The Stork Hotel, was demolished to build apartments. Clearly Melbourne needs more apartments while it has way too many small intimate theatre venues of quality. Melburnians will know what I mean…

It is so exciting to discover that they have finally found a new home in St Kilda and their first production of 2009 starts this Friday: Who Killed Emma Bovary? by the wonderful Colin Duckworth from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

Who Killed Emma Bovary? 22 April-May 10 St Kilda
Who Killed Emma Bovary? 22 April-May 10 St Kilda

The highs and lows of Melbourne theatre 2008

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 Confusing

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.