Saturday, 27 July 2013

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Queanbeyan City Council, The Q

It's been a while since a major amateur company in Canberra put on a Shakespeare production - the last I can think of is Everyman's "Richard III", which was back in 2010. I don't know whether it's the regular visits from Bell Shakespeare or the belief that Shakespeare is a difficult writer, but never the less, there's been a bit of a hiatus in productions since ANU's Paper Moon company put the brakes on in 2008. 

Fortunately, the Bard is eternal (he's also out of copyright) and so he's back, with director Jordan Best compiling a strong cast to give Shakespeare's comedy of love and magic a strong theatrical form. There's a little bit of unnecessary framing device (the songs at the beginning and end, in particular -it doesn't help that there's still an audible clicktrack in the backing tape), but otherwise this is a straight-down the line delivery of Shakesperean comedy.

Which is not to say there's anything by the numbers in this production - this is inventive, clever work on several levels. The foundation of any Midsummer Night's Dream is the four lovers in the middle of the story, and in this case, there's superlative work, in particular from Jenna Roberts, whose glorious indignation whether she's being romantically ignored or romantically pursued is constantly delightful; some great caddish disdain from Duncan Driver accompanies her. It takes Rachael Clapham and Chris Zuber a little longer to find their groove (as people who have basically found their romantic partner at the beginning of the play, there's not quite as much to get into) but certainly Clapham's increasing irritation at the unlikely proceedings before her in the second half grab all their laughs. Chris Zuber's Lysander is a bit more worthily staunch, but he's handsome enough to make any lady want to run off to the woods with him, and keeps Lysander not-too-bright entertainingly.

On the fairy level, Dave Evans is a hyperactive Puck (possibly a little bit too much so - there's a few moments when he gabbles lines), Tim Sekuless and Alison McGregor combine imperiousness and strangeness as Oberon and Titania respectively, fairy attendants Michelle Cooper, Alex McPherson and Carly Savona combine beauty and grace of movement, and Erin Pugh's oppressed Moth is adorable and funny (her Philostrate in the court scenes is snobbishly hilarious, too).

In the Mechanicals corner, Shakespeare's satire on amateur theatre plays delighfully, with plenty of physical shenanigans going on throughout. When the worst you can say is that David Clapham as Starveling is slightly under-used (and that's because I remember how damn good Clapham can be), it's a compliment to the whole thing - Cannell's Quince is delightfully pedantic and annoyed, Cameron Thomas' Bottom delivers several pounds of ham, Ruffy's Snug goes from shy reluctance to superenthusiastic lion with aplomb, Liz Bradley's Snout brings grumpiness and potential violence, and Brendan Kelly's Flute is sweet, clear and enthusiastic.

As for the technicals - Wayne Shepherd's set is fine, if more decorative than necessarily useful most of the time, and requires better lighting than it gets from Owen Horton for full effect. The range of costumes from Cate Ruth, Emma Sekuless and Miriam Miley Read, together with the elabourate jewellery and wing designs by Mia Ching and Ann McMahon, are absolutely gorgeous.  

All in all, this is a fine reading of the play, capturing the humour and magic of the text. 

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Improvention World Gala, Canberra Theatre

I used to enjoy improvisation a lot. Fast-moving, funny, pure creativity right on stage, it amused and delighted me regularly. But lately I've drifted away. And I wasn't quite sure why. But going back, I suddenly relised why. 

Impro is wonderfully affirming for its performers. Your first idea is always your best idea. You are encouraged to accept and be accepted, you are encouraged to throw out ideas like confetti, you are allowed off the leash. But it isn't always a format designed for audiences, and can become massively self-indulgent. And unfortunately, there was an awful lot of self-indulgence on display at the World Gala. 

This was a very sparsely attended show and ... in some ways, it probably deserved to be. A gala is meant to have performers with name recognition, and there was none of that here. The international guest stars were not exactly star-ry - they were all capable, strong performers, but ... you don't get to stick star after your name unless you've actually done something your average audience member would recognise, and with the best will in the world I can't say Patti Stiles, for instance, is really being pulled up in the street for her cameos in "Neighbours" or "John Safran's Race Relations". And the format of the evening didn't lend itself to great scenes for an awfully long time - the various performers challenging each other often led to throwing so many twists and requirements on a scene that meant that actually telling a story, getting in and out and putting a few jokes in between them, kinda fell by the wayside. This stabalised a little in the second half, but even so ... there were an awful lot of scenes that flailed around failing to be interesting. 

I understand the improvisation model - it's more about teaching than it is about performing, to a certain extent (certainly, they suck far more money out of course attendees than they do out of audiences). And that's perfectly okay. But in the end ... theatre needs to be thinking about its audience, and I kinda think this wasn't a case where the audience really got much of a gurnsey.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

At Home at the Zoo, Something Borrowed, Smith's Alternative

Something Borrowed is a new theatre company - Smith's Alternative is a new performance venue - and Edward Albee's "At Home at the Zoo" is a 50% new play (it's simultaneously Albee's earliest and most recent play - "The Zoo Story", which forms act two, is his oldest, while the first half, "Home Life" is his most recent). So much for nobody doing new work  in Canberra...

I was invited to a preview of "At Home at the Zoo", so ... this isn't so much a review as a couple of general comments about the show (as what I saw wasn't quite a finished production). But to start with the play itself - I've got to be honest, I'm not sure whether Albee's extension entirely works, the first half seems a little static and doesn't quite achieve it's stated purpose, to make Peter, previously "man on park bench", a richer character. It's probably going to join the circuit of less-interesting curtain raisers such as "White Liars" (the other half of Peter Shaffer's "Black Comedy"), "Duck Variations" (the other half of Mamet's "Sexual Perversity in Chicago") and "Harliquinade" (the other half of Terrence Rattigan's "The Browning Version") as things-written-to-fill-out-an-evening, rather than successful plays in and of themselves. There are diverting moments in the script and in the performances by Kate Blackhurst and John Lombard, but this is a script that takes a long time to warm up.

The second half, though, is a completely different animal. I've seen a previous production with Canberra theatre regulars Jim Adamick and Jay Sullivan (well, Jay's now a standup, but at the time he had been doing a fair bit of theatre) and hadn't really enjoyed it, but this version comes alive. Graham August's Jerry is a much more actively engaging scene partner (as compared to the WASP-ish distance in act one between Blackhurst and Lombard) meaning that we can get fully engaged in Albee's fifty-year old confrontation on a park bench. There are so many more overtones in "The Zoo Story" - Peter is threatened on all sides, by Jerry's sexual allusions, by the obvious class difference between them, by Jerry's verbal diorrehea ... it's great to see this played out, up close and personal, by a skilled team.

This is sold out for opening night, and unfortunately I won't be able to make it this Friday or Saturday. But hopefully there'll be plenty more opportunities to see the work of Something Borrowed, and plenty more entertaining productions to come.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Happiness is a Bedside Table, Hannah Gadsby, Courtyard Studio

Hannah Gadsby is a surprise package of a comedian. Her recent success as a sidekick on Adam Hills Tonight and presenting various art docos on the ABC hides the fact that this apparent overnight success is seven years in the making (since winning Raw Comedy in 2006), and her personable manner, clever wit and deep insight make her quite good value to hang out with for 80 minutes of stage time.

She returns to canberra stages with a show about maturing, finding contentment and comfort. Which of course, since this is a comedy show, means that we get to explore all the immaturity, discontent and uncomfortableness that's preceded this point. Some of this cuts quite deep - the pain of childhood (and, indeed, adulthood) awkwardness is still very clear - and it's always fascinating, with the jokes coming from a very real, personal place. We're drawn into Hannah's personal stories of her experiences with body dysmorphia, terrifying discoveries of what happens to rabbits during a plague, and a quite brilliant deconstruction of one idiot's insulting internet posting.

Throughout, Hannah's style is something like a genial auntie - despite the darkness of some of the material, she resolutely refuses to be bleak in the face of it. Long-form standup is not for the faint hearted, and Hannah plays it brilliantly, in an evening of rare skill and wisdom.

Hipbone Sticking Out, Big hArt, Canberra Theatre

Big hArt is a group dedicated to creating both quality art and social change. They collaborate with various communities, getting them involved in creating new and different narratives to tell their stories to the wider world, to ensure those stories can effect real social change.

Their latest production, "Hipbone Sticking Out", is as a result of a collaboration with the community of Roebourne in WA. And at this point, it's got to be said, the theatrical production that's resulted isn't quite a successful one - it's flawed in a couple of ways that I'll go into later in the review. But in this case, the theatre production isn't the whole deal of the project, and it may not even be the most important. The engagement in the community has seen work online from a number of young artists in the community - in the lobby, there's fliers and videoscreens showing some of the many, many other projects that have come out of this collaboration - some brilliantly engaging material coming from the young people of Roebourne.

To get back to the show at hand, though - there are several great moments in this show. However it takes a while for the show to work out what it wants to be about, and the mishmash of ideas, particuarly in the first half, damages the stuff that's good. There's skilful ensemble playing and visual effects in the first half, but there's little sense of an underlying narrative or of where any of this is going - the early stages set up a flashback narrative as a young indigenous man, two hours before his death, looks back on the history of his people ... except that suddenly we're getting a history of white people's decision to come to WA instead, with the story told very much through a white perspective through the faces of the Dutch settlers. And this is almost fatal - ripping the story out of the perspective of its participants, and framing it very very awkwardly. It takes us away from where the power and soul of the piece is - with the people of Roebourne and their own personal histories - and into something that feels more like a generic history lesson that could be anybody's story. It's cleverly staged, but... there doesn't feel like anything to hang onto.

The second half comes alive in a much more direct manner. Kicking off with Derik Lynch's clever enticement of the audience, semi-entrapping them, there's then a swerve into a brief, dangerously meta argument which points out the lack of protagonist or uplift in the journey. And ...that's fine, but just pointing out your flaws doesn't make them go away.

Still, the second half has by far the strongest material of the evening - as it starts to tell the story of that young indigenous man facing death. It's a death in custody, and it's told, powerfully and well by the ensemble. We're drawn in, we're engaged, we're told a simple story that comes from these people. Noticably, there's far fewer bells and whistles in the staging for this section. It doesn't need it. It's followed by a recital of Kevin Rudd's speech of apology and ... in the midst of everything that's happened in this last week in politics, it made me remember why Rudd was admirable - that speech is still a sign that politics can, and has, done some good, sometime, somewhere. And the show goes on to establish that, even after these words, the pain and the struggles and the damage still remains ... but the story goes on, and that there is hope.

(Edited to add: I've since been advised that the speech is Paul Keating's Redfern speech, not Kevin Rudd's apology - apologies for my mistake on the matter - this does, I suppose, open the question of whether, after these speeches, anything substantial has changed, and whether this stain on our national character is something we will need to apologise for forever, until it is ingrained that this original sin has been done and is still being perpetuated. Which ... I'm a guy with a blog, I have no answers, just further questions).

I cannot figure out the rationale for the first half of this show. Is it an attempt at context, to frame things better for a presumed white audience, to find a way into the story? Because ... I don't think it's necessary, and as a framing device, it fails (the sign that a framing device has failed is if it only shows up at the beginning and never comes back at the end), and it makes peculiar assumptions about what the audience might want, rather than providing them with the communities own story - which is what we've come to see, and what, surely, the community wants to tell. I found myself massively unengaged by the first half, and completely drawn in by the second. This is a technically very skilled show in many ways. But I wish it knew where its best face was more, and had faith that drawing stories from the community can be genuinely fascinating.