Tuesday, 27 January 1998

Titanic by Theater Titanick, Jan 27, 1998

Titanic by Theater Titanick
Forecourt Sydney Opera House Jan 20-24
Perth Esplanade Feb 12-19, 1998
Reviewed by Kate Herbert 27 Feb, 1998, Sydney

Apocalyptic events take turns fascinating humanity. The 'now' catastrophe is Titanic which has us in its inevitably watery grasp.

In contrast to the movie, the international prize-winning Theater Titanick from Germany, present Titanic outdoors in its full, elemental glory - with fire and water 'in your face'.
As the company of seven actors plus myriad skilled technicians, construct, launch, celebrate and sink the ship, an audience of 20,000 on the forecourt of the Sydney Opera House risk their designer outfits in the face of 30,00 litres of spewing water and pyrotechnics.

Like other European companies such as La Fura dels Baus, this is techno-theatre. However, Titanick uses machines rather than video technology, live musicians instead of recorded sound.

It is raw, immediate, chaotic and phenomenal entertainment that leaves one well and truly gob-smacked by the finale.

The Bouffon clown characters include a chook-like cook, socialite passenger, smug owner, decadent captain, goofy waiter, gauche sailor-boy and a crippled engineer.

They scuttle about like trapped creatures, being hoisted in bathtubs, harnessed to pulleys or enslaved to a giant wheel.

Titanic, in best black clown tradition, is both hilarious and poignant. Without language, it highlights the vanity of the upper class, the relentlessness of nature and the fragility of life.

As the ship sinks, the crippled crewman hopelessly stuffs his crutch into the breached hull.

Meanwhile, above, the passenger, owner and captain feast on roasted pig, tossing morsels of (real) chicken into the ravening crowd. The class system is highlighted. As they bathe in hot tubs on deck, the desperate crew bails water below.

The audience witnesses the mechanics of theatre; the effort of construction and the experience of drowning are palpable.

The peace of the early journey that followed the clamour of construction and the blazing glory of the launch, is shattered by a cataclysmic, fiery flood which leaves the huge space littered with drenched bodies, smashed plates and a flaming tower. The silence after such chaos is deafening.

The location at Point Bennelong, is a natural amphi-theatre set between the sails of the Opera House, which echo the ship, and tall cliffs. It resonates with compelling music: didgeridoo, bass, drums, accordion and french horn, ad is flooded with evocative, dramatic light.

Titanick is based in Munster and Leipzig and has toured Titanic throughout Europe since 1993. One of its founding members. Clair Howells, is Melbourne-born. Perhaps someone with vision will book Titanic or its new production about war, Troja, for the Melbourne Festival.

It's our turn to gape and cheer.

Titanic by Theater Titanick 

By Kate Herbert 27 Feb, 1998

Sunday, 25 January 1998

Into The Woods , MTC, Jan 25, 1998

Into The Woods by Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine
Melbourne Theatre Company, Playhouse until February 21, 1998
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around Jan 24, 1998

Fabulous. Stephen Sondheim's Into The Woods is simply fabulous in both senses of the word.

Firstly, it is an exceptional piece of music theatre and secondly, it takes a Bamix to several familiar fables and blends them into an extraordinary whole.

Roger Hodgman, in another successful collaboration with Musical Director Jean McQuarrie, has produced the third in a series of Sondheims for the Melbourne Theatre Company. It incorporates a14 piece orchestra, spooky forest picture-book design (Tony Tripp) and evocative lighting (Jamieson Lewis).

Sondheim is the star of this show, which is not to belittle any individual contributions. His lyrics, with James Lapine's book, weave together Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk, creating a complex fabric of character and narrative that illuminates the existential dilemmas of our puny lives. His witty lyrics include such references to Jack's beanstalk as, "If the end is right, it justifies the beans."

Fairy Tales, said child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, "teach us that a struggle against severe difficulties in life. is an intrinsic part of human existence."  Children must learn that "Sometimes people lead you half-way through the woods." Sondheim owes much to Carl Jung's psychological landscape. He has manufactured not one, but myriad heroes' journeys.

Like Parsifal, Red Riding Hood and Jack must escape their mothers in order to mature. Cinderella and Rapunzel must confront and abandon their fantasies about Princes Charming rescuing them. The Baker must reconcile his becoming a parent. "Careful the wish you make", says the lyric. You might just get it.

Sondheim's second half spirals downward into darkness with the disintegration and reformation of this "kingdom far away'. This production captures the peppiness of the first half but labours a little after interval.

The ensemble of fifteen grabs this huge task and run with it. All are deliciously individual and eccentric, even though some may be miscast. Anthony Weight has a fine voice and wonderful comic presence as Jack, and the hilarious Gina Riley, as .the Baker's Wife, has the funniest curtsey ever. Lisa McCune is charming as Cinderella.

A Narrator can be intrusive but Peter Carroll is magnetic. Tamsin Carroll plays Red with cynicism and wit and Rhonda Burchmore's Witch is wild, if a little outside the style of the piece.

 This is a must-see show.  See it - or face the dark side.


The Leenane Trilogy by Martin McDonagh, Jan 25, 1998

The Leenane Trilogy by Martin McDonagh
Druid Theatre/Royal Court Theatre
At Footbridge Theatre Sydney until January 31, 1998
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around Jan 24, 1998

Nine and a half hours at the theatre, including food and nap breaks, is more than a day's work.

Such are the demands of Martin McDonagh's Leenane Trilogy, although theatre wimps may choose to see it on three separate nights.  They are far less taxing than eleven hours of Peter Brook's majestic Mahabarata or Phillip Glass's minimalist Einstein on the Beach.

Plays by 'angry young men' are all the rage now and The Leenane Trilogy is no exception. The Druid Theatre co-production with The Royal Court (which produced the original 'angry young man' play, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger), has gripped Ireland, England and New York and now has Sydney by the scruff of the neck.

Characters in Leenane, an isolated village in Western Ireland, rage and brutalise, booze and pontificate, murder and suicide in three loosely connected but discrete narratives. They are light and excruciatingly hilarious pieces that skitter across the top of the more serious issues, only occasionally breaking the surface to penetrate their deeper implications. This makes them easy to digest but a less than satisfying meal.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane, McDonagh's first professional play, was staged in 1996 after its development through Druid's new writers' program. It is, like the others, comic realism with a huge dollop of Irish absurdity and grotesquery and a rough structure.

At forty and relentlessly single, Maureen Folan (Marie Mullen)  is trapped caring for her grotesque, whining mother (Anna Manahan). Maureen's virginal desperation is relieved by the romantic reappearance of lonely Pato Dooley (Brian F. O'Byrne). But Mag burns invitations and letters delivered by Pato's younger brother, Ray (Aidan McArdle) in a ferocious act of sabotage that ends in murder and madness.

Sound deadly serious? Strangely, no. Maureen's rise and decline provide the most tragic moments.but, essentially, Mc Donagh writes like a stand-up comic. In all three, he is seeringly funny about his Irish cousins, their boozing, cursing, superstition, rampant emigration, incompetence and parochialism

He pulls the rug out from under darker scenes before we are drawn into a trilogy more emotionally and intellectually challenging, but probably too harrowing to contend with in a single sitting without valium.

A Skull in Connemara, the least evolved text, ambles about its narrative, cracking jokes and skulls in its path. Mick Dowd (Maeliosa Stafford) is suspected of having murdered his wife. As gravedigger, he must exhume her bones to make room for new corpses. It escalates into a hilarious drunken romp as Mick and dizzy young Mairtin (David Wilmot) smash old bones with mallets, listening to ' music to hammer dead fellas by' which is 'more fun than hamster-cooking.'

This play is brutal black comedy but is weakened by a rambling structure, some obvious jokes and adolescent attempts to shock we who are virtually unshockable by references to vomit or urine.

The final play, The Lonesome West, has the most electrifyingly comic dialogue. McDonagh's machine-gun gags, cruel family rivalries and village frustrations, are rife.

Brothers Valene, the pasty-faced wimp (O'Byrne) and Coleman, the barbarian (Stafford) have buried their father who was shot 'accidentally' after criticising Coleman's hairdo. The two exist in a living hell, tormenting each other to distraction. Valene blackmails Coleman into signing away his inheritance. Coleman destroys Valene's collection of holy figurines and waters his formidable brew, pocheen.

The drunken and maudlin Father Welsh (David Ganly), whose name no-one can ever remember, makes it his last wish that they cease fire.

McDonagh cooks up a comic feast of their feeble attempts to form a truce..

Welsh,a tragic figure makes 'a terrible priest' because 'you are a terror for the drink and you have doubts about Catholicism.' says his seductive teenage admirer, Girleen (Dawn Bradfield). One of the sweetest, most intimate and satisfying moments in the plays is the farewell scene between Girleen and her priest.

Gary Hines swift direction is unequivocally exceptional as are all performances Mullen captures the fragility and despair of the beauty queen, and Manahan the mother's grossness. O'Byrne's range in all three is commendable, particularly as the childish Valene.

This is an exhaustive rather than exhausting stretch in the theatre. The plays are relentlessly, achingly funny but they are by no means masterpieces.


Tuesday, 20 January 1998

MIKA Haka on Heels, Jan 20, 1998

MIKA Haka on Heels
Universal Theatre 1 until Feb 1, 1998
Reviewed by Kate Herbert around Jan 19, 1998

You can get away with murder if you're charming and Mika could charm the pants off a Presbyterian choir.

His pastiche of songs, dance and silly banter is hilariously trashy and defying definition.

It falls somewhere between Les Girls and Madonna - with a Maori bouncer tossed in for good measure. This is good-humoured cabaret thtat does not take itself too seriously - which is lucky because it is very rough round its gold-trimmed edges.

Mika himself is an ex-aerobic champion with a wicked grin and equally wicked falsetto and a body to kill for. He romps and smirks and teases while two 'girls' provide tacky choreographic background to his "Maori Spice.".

It is his ease, warmth and naturalness that have made Mika a star in New Zealand and a hit at the Edinburgh Festival. This is the first leg of an international tour: Perth, Sydney for Mardi Gras then Asia and Europe. Dong the Haka (You know: war dance, tongues, much stamping) in Heels is part of his strategy of satirising male behaviour by exaggerating blokiness on stage.

Recorded music (Gareth Farr) accompanies the songs which include a few classics of the 60's and 70's: Light My Fire, Say a Little Prayer, Walk on By, It's Not Unusual. There is also a smattering of TV themes such as Wonderwoman and Marina the Mermaid accompanied by mermaid tummy dancing on stools.

Some of Mika's original songs are terrific such as the seduction of the Macdonald's order boy, "Do you want fries with that?' 'The Dresser' is a clever funky song about a transvestite caught out by his wife. Others are less successful.

This is bizarre and hilarious trash that cries out for a glitzy stage design to complement the glam costumes, instead of the Universal theatre and its grubby floor. Hello Crown Casino! This show would walk all over Red Hot and Rhonda.

The dancing duo, The Uhuras, are Mika's support and they make a weird but graceful pair, one being fine-boned and athletic and the other lusciously plump and sensual.

The Maori references are plentiful. Kiri Tre Kanawa 'a Maori from London' features in the curtain call and Mika manages a very funny facial likeness to the expatriate diva. Pauline Hanson gets a slapping. .'I'm here to make indigenous babies with her."
This show has broad appeal. Take the aunties. They'll probably love it.

Thieving Boy & Like Stars in My Hands, Jan 20.1998

Thieving Boy & Like Stars in My Hands by Tim Conigrave
Adapted by Tony Ayres.
Beckett Theatre, Malthouse, until January 31, 1998
Reviewed by kate Herbert around 19 Jan 1998

To be at the opening during Midsumma Festival of Tim Conigrave's two plays was to see the works twice removed.

They are removed from their first production in '97 and from their writer, not only by adaptation from their early drafts but by his death in 94 before their completion and production.

David Bell's direction has created a funky ad-break theatre with rapid scenes and hacksaw dialogue. The buzz in the foyer was that Thieving Boy had improved with remounting and some recasting while Stars was less magnetic. This reviewer seems to be the only critic who was seeing them for the first time.

In Like Stars in My Hands, it is the intensity of the experience of a man facing mortality which, in spite of the poorly structured text, makes moving theatre. Simon, played with dignity, tenderness and empathy by Adam Broinowski, is in the final stages of AIDS but still clutches at life. His partner, Marcello (Stephen Pease) suffers the anguish of the caregiver who will remain behind to gather the pieces of his life alone.

The emotional and visual components of Stars, in addition to Broinowski's performance, make it theatrically satisfying. In conjuction with Leon Salom's design, lighting and slides by Matt Scott and Gerard O'Connor create the other-worldliness of Simon's near-death visions and nightmares. The challenge of attending to a philosophical discussion of death intensifies the experience tenfold.

Thieving Boy is a more complete, coherent script with clearly drawn characters. It also deals with death but this time of a father. Conigrave observes family dynamics under a microscope. Angry young man, Moxy, (Torquil Neilson) is out of gaol for a day to see his father and his ex-lover Tom (Stephen Pease).

Conigrave captures the complexity and confusion of relationships in his swift, witty dialogue and irrational arguments littered with blame, frustration, lost opportunities and unspoken love. Reportedly, his novel, Holding the Man, which was completed for publication by Nick Enright, is a must-read.

Neilson is compelling as the tattered Moxy. As his fraught mother Penelope Stewart beautifully depicts the unpredictability of a grief. Petra Yared is a delightfully gauche pubescent foil to the addled adults.

Despite their flaws as texts, these are plays for our time. They reach out of the wheelchair and grip our emotional selves. Isn't that why we are in the theatre? To be touched?

Thursday, 15 January 1998

Musicals In Melbourne, Jan 15, 1998

Musicals In Melbourne: Article
Article published in Herald Sun, Melbourne.
by Kate Herbert 14 Jan, 1998

Musicals are big business which means big bucks Australian producers have fewer bucks and are inclined to take fewer risks than those in the US and UK.

We have smaller audiences, shorter seasons, fewer major composers and songwriters. We do wonderful productions of US and UK shows but we produce painfully few original, commercially successful Australian musicals. Why?

Our tradition of musicals is really just beginning, suggests Darryl Emerson, writer of The Pathfinder. The American musical tradition, he says, began with Jerome Kern's Showboat in 1927 or with Victor Herbert (no relation) in 1890. Any wonder we are a bit behind.

People like familiarity in their music. The concert version and sound recording generally precede the stage production and overseas shows are well established and highly publicised by the time they arrive in our theatres. Any new Australian musical has much less lead-time, fewer famous songs and air play. The Boy From Oz, about Peter Allen, is an exception, comprising Allen's well-known songs.

It is not that we have a dearth of musicals on stage or a lack of interest in them. One opens per month during '98. But our audiences make conservative choices and spend selectively. There is also some cultural cringe about shows with local content by relatively unknown local composers. Audiences stayed away in droves from the ill-fated The History of Australia: The Musical in 1988.

So we keep producing revivals of old or recently successful UK or US productions. Phantom re-opened in December after Crazy for You. Into the Woods opens today and Showboat in April.

Any new musical needs seeding money..The Foundation for the Australian Musical attempted to provide much needed development funds but folded from insufficient support. A show may be developed within a company infra-structure, with state and/or federal government subsidy or be mounted at very low cost by the writer/producer. Essentially it requires a producer.

A musical has a three to five year gestation period and a much larger creative team than theatre. Prior to production will come a CD, a concert, a development workshop and test performances

Several Australian works are in varying stages of production. In May we will see Craig Christie's Crusade-The Concert, produced by Sandy Merlino and Chris Paterson with a fine creative team led by director and MD of Miss Saigon and Les Mis, Gary Young and Guy Simpson.

The Plumber's Opera by composer/song writer, Ross Nobel, featuring Glynn Nicholas, cleverly 'opened in the provinces.' i.e. Perth on January14, before trying its mettle in the big smoke: Sydney and Melbourne.

It is a charming romp which satirises operetta and opera prima donnas. Nobel, who has extensive experience as a composer/song-writer but none as a playwright, wrote book, lyrics and music - no mean feat.. A cast of four versatile singer/actors makes it commercially viable and cheap. By 'cheap' I mean no helicopter or tumbling chandeliers.

Nobel jokingly boasts about his '100% strike rate'. His first and only show has come to fruition after taken three years and with two production companies: Glynn Nicholas' GBS Productions seeded the project with a weekend workshop, and in October 97, performances to an invited audience at the Comedy Theatre.

Darryl Emerson's Pathfinder was a national success in 86 His new musical, Martin and Gina, about a 50's romance in the Snowy Mountains, had a development concert with the defunct Victorian State Opera and a reading at Playbox in 97.directed by Bruce Myles.

But getting to the next stage of production – i.e. finding the production funds – is proving more problematic. Emerson is forming a company and has recorded a CD for its own sake and to make money for the production planned for three years hence. The producing process is long and arduous allowing no time or energy for further creative work on any new product.

If we keep re-hashing old stuff by composers and songwriters from other countries, we will never have our own musical industry. We need culture to reflect our lives and to enhance our self-esteem and our international reputation. Perhaps we have now come of age and our musicals can begin to flourish.