Thursday, December 17, 2009


By Gai Anderson
Rhythmn plus poetry equals RAP…

Take a group of young Hobart Rap musicians, mix them together with two fine composer/mentors over a year of development, to compose, orchestrate and score tmusic for a 12 piece TSO orchestra, and what you get is POWER HIP HOP -
A stunning life-filled, live performance that packed out the Peacock Theatre last Friday and Saturday nights.

Totally transfixing right from the start, these exciting new voices cut across genre, race, class, tradition and stereotype to perform up stage-front of the tuxedoed and be-pearled TSO, all in their best Rapper baggy jeans and T-shirts.

The music was beautiful, powerful, rythmic, never faltering, and as I sat there tapping my feet and listening in awe at the eloquence, focus and energy of these young performers, I wondered if I had ever really listened to the lyrics of Rap music before - Is it always so personal, political and heart felt?

And if the words were a treat, the orchestration, which ranged from subtle to scintillating , took the music to a whole other realm. Layer apon layer of strings, brass, wind and percussion combined to build on the simple rhythmns of the Rap to become filmic in intensity, and never distracting or detracting from the wired young stars so focussed up front.

The themes and styles of performance were as varied and fascinating as each individual, coming from a great diversity of racial and social backgrounds and traditions.
The Sudanese/Ethiopian/Kenyan performances were visually stunning and celebratory in feel whilst strongly based in the rhythmns of their dance moves. From the words of Guyot Guyot and Makueis Makue -“We dance our tradition till we see a dust storm. “ - to Lawrence Ginos and Steve Letikos’ -“ You and I stand up together “, their lyrics clearly expressed the need for freedom, tradition and respect.

In contrast, there was a definite angst-driven edge to the minor keyed songs of the Caucasians in the group, which were darker and defiant. But the subtlety of rhyme and placement of words within the bed of the music was often breathtaking and always inspired. From Lonergans “You rock the boat then the boat rocks back. “- to Burgess’ “ I despise those who discourage critical thought.” and Bladels’ “How can you ignore the globe going extinct?” - their messages were strong and clear and performances brooding and exciting.

Overall it’s a shame there weren’t more young women onstage but Yai Mario-Ring and Nyaandeng Guot, as the all dancing and singing assistants as part of Guyot and Makues’ Young Survivors, were spectacular exceptions.

POWER HIP HOP is the long nurtured and well-honed baby of Jami Bladel and Kickstart Arts. It is the fifth part of a six- year series of arts projects working with young people in southern Tasmania, which so far has including theatre, film and multi media. Kickstart Arts are a ground breaking Hobart-based Performing Arts Company who specialize in Community Cultural Development. They create transformative and empowering arts projects with integrity, which are socially inclusive and nurturing, celebrating difference whilst creating connections and opportunities for all participants.
Kickstart Arts as well as mentor/composers Don Bate and Simon Reid should be loudly clapped and cheered for spring boarding these new young talents into the world of professional music with a project such as this, but also for giving audiences such a great and inspiring night of entertainment. With only 3 performances I felt really privileged to see this show, so give us some more, soon, please!

Gai Anderson is a Cygnet based writer and performer.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Burning Daylight

Presented by Salamanca Arts Centre and Mobile State
Hobart, November 26–27 2009

by Stephenie Cahalan

It says much about the quality of a story that is so firmly of a place, that it can be told anywhere and lose none of its impact. Burning Daylight — a story of prejudice, cultural mistrust and love’s subsequent suffering — resonated strongly in Hobart, despite being so drastically distant from Broome in every way.

This production tells a truly sad story of the wrongs done to people decades ago, and the depth of sadness that has pervaded subsequent generations. Set in Broome on one of those long booze-sodden nights, Burning Daylight mixes contemporary dance rooted in Aboriginal traditions, Japanese Butoh, film, rap and karaoke pop/love songs. Live guitar, haunting harmonica juxtaposed with caricatured karaoke, classic key-word rap and a really great bass to pull it all together made for a very cool musical experience.

Dalisa Pigram is pivotal to the production, as co-conceiver, choreographer, and performer. Pigram is fortunate to have Patrick Dodson as her grandfather to consult on the diplomacy of telling old stories without upsetting the protocols of the elders of the region. And Dodson, must feel pretty lucky to have this skilled, articulate performer as his granddaughter, linking generations of storytellers and audiences via the modern means available and necessary to reach Australians, Indigenous and otherwise.

Like the recent release of the biography of Ronnie Summers, (the Cape Barren Island elder and musician) and the enormous success of Samson and Delilah, Burning Daylight is another powerful means of educating all Australians about the way life is and was for people that have got the very short end of the historical stick, be they be the original Australians or newer members of the community, such as the Japanese and Malay characters we meet. Stories have been the essence of cultural exchange, social cohesion and daily education for Indigenous folk before and since white occupation, so it is no surprise — but no less of a thrill — to see storytellers such as these in action. With a director like Rachel Swain, whose pre-Olympics production of Mimi stirred the spirits lurking in its Centennial Park ‘venue’ in Sydney, and the stage prowess of Trevor Jamieson, Burning Daylight was bound to leave an imprint. Hobart musician Matther Fargher, who recently contributed to the Tasmanian play in development Origins, is once again displaying his talent for mixing cultural ingredients and I have yet to see anything by set-designer Joey Riogrok Van Der Werven that I haven’t loved.

So in this nation, troubled by a parlous inequality between Indigenous and other Australians, Burning Daylight has given me a tiny clue of what I can do. I can make sure I hear and see the stories that are now so accessible — in bookstores, on radio, in theatres everywhere. I am not so naïve to think that plays and music are going to alleviate the consequences of entrenched despair that too many people are living, but surely with education comes understanding, and with that comes action. And with the creativity and intelligence of artists such as these, the solutions will unfold with the trickle-down effect of success and empowerment.

There is no happy ending in Burning Daylight, but the vibrancy of the performers and their impact makes it a tale of power and survival. The audience is left with hope that is not written into the script, but purely in the telling of the story.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Burning Daylight

by Kylie Elizabeth Eastley
Burning Daylight is the latest work from Marrugeku, a contemporary intercultural performance company based in Broome, and is inspired by descriptions of Broome's bar life in the late 1800's.
Burning Daylight reflects the tension and chaos of multicultural life in Broome where inter-racial relationships were illegal, the town was brimming with exotic influences from the Far East and the traditional owners of the land were homeless.

Conceivers of Burning Daylight, Rachel Swain and Dalisa Pigram have developed an honest and engaging work that provides glimpses into the humorous and tragic life of cultures affected by government policy, segregation and the search for wealth in the form of pearls.

In an incongruous meeting of rock musical, rap and cheesy spaghetti western the combination of original live music, film and culturally-fused dance creates a mysterious place foreign to most of us. Clever stage production, direction, costuming and props draw the audience into a world that connects with all our senses. Anyone who has lived or travelled to Northern Australia will feel the warm air and smell the frangipani in this production that evokes such feeling from a Tasmanian audience that couldn't be further away culturally and geographically from the inspiration for this work.

I loved this show for many reasons, but mostly because it was Australian culture presented with great honesty and humour. There were many highlights with outstanding performances by all the cast, especially the charismatic Trevor Jamieson and Dalisa Pigram.
But there must be mention of the original and live soundtrack. Music is a fantastic vehicle for story-telling and along with the dynamic dancing, combined to make Burning Daylight a very successful production. The integrity and depth of the music gave the production greater resonance in its depiction of a confused, chaotic and juxtaposed community struggling between the new and the old school.

We need more Australian stories and I look forward to experiencing future works from this company. Complex and flawed as they are, it is so refreshing to see our own stories in live performances. Hobart's Princess Wharf No. 1 succeeded as a venue for this production, allowing the set to extend and enhanced the arid environment of North West Australia.

Burning Daylight was presented by Salamanca Arts Centre and performed three shows in Hobart, the final leg of a national tour. For more information go to

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Messiah

Tasmanian Theatre Company
Backspace Theatre, Hobart

By Kylie Elizabeth Eastley

The Messiah is a great parody of every megalomaniac in the theatre world who has ever wanted to re-enact Ben Hur on their local stage, with a props list including a Hessian toga, a ball of twine and a bottle of Clag glue.

Desmond Olivier Dingle, played by Iain Lang, proudly bursts forth as the artistic director of the National Theatre of Tranmere (NTT) to share his personal spiritual journey. In his 70’s-inspired beige suit, and rouge covered cheeks, (I suspect they do their own makeup) Lang beautifully portrays this character, invoking our cringes, dislike and even a little bit of pity at times.

Lang plays the straight man and is joined by Guy Hooper as Raymond Box, the inept but enthusiast second string of the NTT. Together they ambitiously recreate the Christmas story with the two actors playing the entire cast including Mary, Joseph, God, Herod…you get the picture.

To raise the calibre of the production Dingle employs Mrs Le Mottee, played by Noreen Le Mottee, to sing highlights from The Messiah by Handel. Her random interjections along with the chaos of Dingle and Box as they flip between enacting the play and disagreeing on acting ability create a hilarious ride for the audience.

Hooper is fantastic as he mispronounces words and physically does just about everything you can do on a small stage including a version of the military tattoo. There were many highlights, but the depiction of Michelangelo’s fresco Creation of Adam by the two actor’s sticks in my mind, as does the mime sequence by Hooper in the second half of the show. Perhaps there could have been some tightening up in the second half during the shepherd scene as this did drag and didn’t seem to be vital for the narrative.

Credit should be given to designer, John Bowling who provided clever tinker toy props that added to the sense of amateur. I particularly like the excerpt from The Secret Diaries of Desmond Olivier Dingle included in the program.

The Messiah is great fun, not just for the audience but for the players. This production must have been a relief to undertake in light of the turbulent year for the Tasmanian Theatre Company. Audiences should get to this show and immerse themselves in the world of Dingle and Box as it is something extraordinary.

The Messiah continues its season every Thursday & Saturday 8.15pm till the end of November with a family matinee on Saturday 21st at 2.15pm.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Messiah

Tasmanian Theatre Company
Backspace Theatre
Every Thur - Sat during November
8.15pm (Special Family Matinee on Sat 21 at 2.15pm)

by Stephenie Cahalan

Not since Floating and the great Hugh Hughes experience (Ten Days on the Island 2009) have I left a theatre with aching cheeks from smiling so much. Full of clowning, miming and ridiculous slapstick humour, The Messiah had the audience hooting with laughter.

Iain Lang and Guy Hooper are the National Theatre of Tranmere’s ensemble of Desmond Dingle and Raymond Box. Joined by (NTT fixture) grand dame Mrs Le Mottee, played by the perfectly cast Noreen Le Mottee, the three put on a Christmas spectacle like no other. Where else can you seen two actors playing the roles of Mary, Joseph, God, Archangel Gabriel, the three wise men, Herod, shepherds, souk-salesmen and more.

Rough-hewn sets and rough-hewn costumes in the rough-hewn Backspace Theatre provide the necessary additions to the story, but it was Lang and Hooper’s performances that were a true delight. In the tradition of the classic comedy routine, Lang played the insufferable straight man to Hooper’s buffoon. They appeared to have fun in what were highly physical performances. Written by Patrick Barlow, The Messiah has been adapted to suit the Tasmanian context and it works well. Our audience, a good representation of ages 12 and up, was more than happy to get drawn into the fun of the production.

The Messiah is so worth seeing, even just for Hooper’s mime sequence and the touching homage to Digger, the highly-decorated 127 year-old Kelpie. It is the perfect primer for Christmas-mania that is bearing down upon us. I will invoke it during dreaded long-wait-at-the-till experiences, and use the memory of Mrs Le Mottee’s Bizet to block out the ubiquitous Christmas muzac.

While Desmond’s diva dummy-spit in the second half of the show is amusing, a little trimming to shorten the second act would not go astray as those extra ten minutes did not add substantially to the story.

If you have been thinking that you should get to the theatre and that you should patronise our local company then The Messiah is the answer. The Tasmanian Theatre Company deserves our support and this production, especially with the long season, will allow you to perfectly satisfy all those ‘shoulds’ before the end of year, leaving no excuses to miss out.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Theatre Royal
October 30, 2009

In a thrilling double bill, Tasdance served its Hobart audience another chance to dine on the shiningly expressive technical skills of its talented troupe of six dancers. Artistic Director Annie Greig invited renowned Indigenous choreographer Frances Rings and choreographer, dancer and filmmaker Anton to collaborate with these talented dancers and choreograph a suite that sheds light on our day-to-day quest for authenticity.

Feeling as if, at times I live on the brink of my own sanity in a modern world, I personally responded to Anton’s The Blur. One might say that his response to our contemporary plight was a bit too literal. The dancers moved fiercely on either side of large, flexible Perspex slabs (symbolising the myriad technologies ruling our lives), their referred body movement building to the point of sensory overload and exhaustion, then back again. Nevertheless I was entranced (as I can be by any glowing screen) by the choreography — both combative and submissive — and the dancers’ empathetic response to the reality of a globalised lifestyle. The perspex was not suspended independently but always held or bent by one or two dancers to epitomize our situation. Technology connects us, but we are also slaves to it.

Amidst the hypnotic haze there were memorable moments such as a lull in the throbbing soundtrack when you could hear the frenzied sound of the dancers catching their breath—a brutal instant of relief after a prolonged segment of what looked like electrocution. Or Trisha Dunn and Sofie Burgoyne hunkered down, deformed and distorted under their flexi-plastic fields. I particularly loved the Pyramus and Thisbe-esque movement of Floeur Alder and Malcolm McMillan as they yearned to find each other on either side of the translucent screen, never to be united. You could liken this to a game of mobile phone tag, but I’d prefer to err on the side of romanticism in this day and age.

Though the movement, music, lighting and use of plastic was scintillating, the cheap fabric of the costumes in this number did disservice to the dancers. Reminiscent of the terry-toweling jumpsuits we wore in the 80’s the women’s costumes were uncomfortably distracting on their beautiful physiques. Sarah Fiddamen’s lithe limbs, in a brown costume beside her counterparts’ of green, blue and pink, were nearly invisible in the blur. Was that the choreographer’s intention, or the only other colour available?

By the time Remembered of Us began I was emotionally exhausted and rattled by The Blur and its terrible jumpsuits, so I could not settle into Frances Rings more lyrical, expansive and distinctly feminine thematic. I wish I could have seen it first. I suspect, too, that the dancers’ bodies still held the memory of The Blur—how could they not after all that gyrating? But they were all exquisite nonetheless.

The incorporation of the dancers’ narratives at the beginning of the piece was a beautiful inclusion and left me wanting more as its lyrical intertwining of bodies reached a crescendo. The set concept was exquisite in its matriarchal glory, but unresolved as it attempted to convey too many messages. The gorgeous life-sized loom through which dancers wove themselves became a little too literal and superfluous while acting as projection screen bearing images of double helixes. The large crocheted net of red satin cord was once again a beautiful idea, but would have been more effective were it carried through in its unravelling and interplay with the dancers.

If you weren’t there, I am tempted to refer you to watch SBS’s latest series of Who Do You Think You Are? to get the gravity of what Rings wanted us to grapple with. What are the building blocks of your individuality? But sitting at home in front of your glowing screen is a far inferior experience to making your way into our quaint Hobart CBD to see contemporary dance at this level. I can’t wait for our next opportunity. They are too few and far between!

Sara Wright

Monday, November 2, 2009


Theatre Royal
30 October 2009

Regardless of our age or experience, we all have moments of anxiety and self doubt as we teeter between the defiant individualist and the need to be part of a community.

In Tasdance’s latest work, IDENTITY, Artistic Director Annie Greig invited two choreographers to explore the complexities of ‘unique personality’. Both explored individuality and unity, yet the results are very different.

The Blur, by Anton an experienced dancer, choreographer and film maker, was an edgy hard and fast response with the dancers manipulating sheets of translucent perspex to create a sense of voyeurism, manipulation and control. With filmic qualities that included an evolving and rhythmical soundscape, the dancers moved in a staggered unison – together but not identical.

Movements were jolting and spasmodic with conflict between dancers giving way to touch, support and harmony. It was a fearless performance from Sofie Burgoyne, Joel Corpuz and Trisha Dunn who worked together seamlessly.

In contrast, the storytelling voice over that introduced Remembered Of Us , by choreographer Francis Rings, welcomed the audience into the work through narrative. Francis has worked extensively throughout Australia and overseas as a choreographer and dancer and brings an earthiness to the piece that is mimicked in the stage production.

The warm lighting, by Darren Willmott and textured set and costuming, by Odette Arietta-Shadbolt, was extremely effective and worked to create a sense of place. The walls of wool and ribbon provided opportunities for dancers to interact and contrasted well against The Blurs’ stark white down lights and empty stage.

Unlike The Blur, this work was full of cliques that tapped into our own memories in a tapestry that explored inherited traits and relationships. It was solemn, nostalgic and quite beautiful. The music overpowered the performance at times but did not distract from the duet by Sarah Fiddaman and Malcolm McMillan, who presented a strong and sensual representation of ‘a grown up relationship’ and a meeting of equals.

These two works engaged with the audience in very different ways. The Blur connected through a less reflective hypnotic partnering of sound and movement. Remembered of us was more conventional contemporary dance which presented clear ideas to the audience and invited us into the narrative.

With few empty seats at the Theatre Royal, it’s clear there’s an audience for contemporary dance. I look forward to more experiences like this.

IDENTITY continues on its Tasmanian tour, heading to Devonport Entertainment and Convention Centre 5-6 November. For more details contact

Saturday, October 31, 2009


Theatre Royal
October 30, 2009
Anica Boulanger-Mashberg

Tasdance’s latest offering, Identity, pairs works by two choreographers exploring what makes us who we are. Anton’s ‘The Blur’ is a slightly edgy, abstract work playing with the disconnections and distractions of contemporary urban life, and ‘Remembered of us’ by Frances Rings is a gentle, lyrical work with a strong narrative thread about ancestry. Both are evocative and delivered with strength and commitment by four veteran and two new Tasdance performers.

In ‘The Blur’, sheets of slightly frosted Perspex create a sense of separation between dancers, and between dancers and audience. When working with the sheets, the dancers test the texture, the resistance, and the possibilities of the material, just as they push these relationships with space, with gravity, and with each other. In their movement they find breaking points, barriers, and sometimes support and protection. With ‘The Blur’ Anton challenges us, with a determined intensity, to question our own relationship with the modern world.

‘Remembered of us’, developed around the stories and histories of the dancers, asks fewer questions than ‘The Blur’ and instead offers melodic and comforting patterns of movement. The opening voice-over, about family resemblance and heritage, is both welcome and restrictive. It provides an accessible narrative context for the rest of the performance, but also dictates interpretation. The work is enriched by Odette Arietta-Shadbolt’s beautiful set (a series of woven, knitted, and wrapped wooden frames) but suffers under the weight of its slightly intrusive and self-conscious soundtrack, which occasionally suffocates the careful, symbolic, filmic phrases.

It’s not always easy (or important) to find and follow the narratives of contemporary dance, but in Identity I felt very drawn to the journey the dancers were making, as they traversed points of convergence and divergence. A highlight was Trisha Dunn’s solo in ‘Remembered of us’, as the other dancers caressed and lifted her limbs through a screen of the threads on one of the wooden frames. As she stepped away from the frame into a solo proper, the echoes of the other dancers’ hands and their impact on her movement were very vivid; a poetic metaphor for the way our history and ancestry can shape us even when it is not physically present.

The contrast between choreographic styles of the two works (with Rings’ more traditional) echoes the different understandings of ‘identity’ that each of us holds. Yet the two works also share a certain energy and intensity, reminding us that there is always some common cultural ‘identity’ underpinning our individual experience.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Elvis Costello

Sunday October 11 2009
Tasman Hall, Wrest Point Casino

by Stephenie Cahalan

I have always loved Elvis Costello for his extraordinary song writing. His lyrics mix limerick-cheek with artful word play and searing insight into the delights and despairs of life. But I really had no idea of what a gifted guitarist he is until I saw him play solo at the Wrest Point casino on Sunday night.

It is a thrill to see a musician who is truly a master of his craft perform. At times it was like Costello was a having a conversation with his guitar — one that he was happy to share with the thousand-odd eavesdroppers in the audience.

Costello offered a mix of old favorite crowd-pleasers, including ‘Everyday I write the book’ which he claimed to hate (too hard to sing!), plus a sweet taste of new stuff that, far from sending many running to the bar or toilet as can be the case with new material, kept everyone totally engaged. Costello can almost work a bit of Sondheim-like melodrama into his work at times. But you know an artist is completely in a league of his own when he has over thirty years of musical credibility and a vast list of song credits, yet chooses to cover classics like ‘Hide your love away’ by The Beetles, ‘Jackie Wilson said‘ by Van Morrison, and (oh, so beautiful) ‘She’ by Charles Aznavour. And given that I will never get to see The Beetles play, a cover by Costello is fine consolation.

Just watching Elvis work on that guitar was like seeing a kind of modern-dance-with-instrument act. Frustratingly, the music stand placed in front of him meant that those of us sitting on the right side of the auditorium could see little of the intricate finger-work without looking at the screens placed either side of the stage.

His interaction with the audience was distant at first, working up to a pub-like rapport with the crowd by the close of the show. Maybe that was helped by whatever he was swigging from that mug, which I first assumed was herbal tea (in keeping with a generation of musos who have cleaned up after years of hard partying). Jagger and Bowie weathered the hedonism and excesses of the earlier crazy decades, but Elvis Costello and his exceptional contemporaries like Joe Strummer and Paul Weller shone through the musical muck that abounded in the eighties. And if that doesn’t deserve a little glass of personality on stage, I don’t know what does.

It is a tribute to Costello’s musical calibre and showmanship that he could breath so much energy into a terminally soul-less venue like the Tasman Hall at the Casino. Is this really the best Hobart has to offer? It is a great yawning cavern of a room and I wish Costello’s tourers could have steered him to the Theatre Royal (although it is currently hosting Miss Saigon) or perhaps the concert hall. Any place with more life, both in the acoustics and the atmosphere.

The audience was thrilled with the gig, standing in ovation and winning a second encore as reward. I suspect, judging by the quietly-pleased smile on his face as he left the stage, that Costello was rather happy too. I really hope he meant it when he said he would be back.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Miss Saigon

by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg; dir. Robert Jarman
Craig Wellington Productions and the Tasmanian Theatre Unit Trust
Theatre Royal, Hobart, Thursday October 8th (opening night)
Anica Boulanger-Mashberg

There’s been an awful lot of talk lately, around the town, about a helicopter.

And fair enough, too. How could the Tasmanian Theatre Unit Trust possibly follow up on the smash hit that was their inaugural production, Les Misérables, just over a year ago? Clearly, the only answer was to find a show with even more spectacular staging requirements. And it’s hard to go past helicopter-in-relatively-small-theatre when it comes to “spectacle”.

So, Miss Saigon it is.

My advice is not to get too focussed on the helicopter. I’m not saying it isn’t impressive. It is impressive (Broadway-gimmickyness notwithstanding). But, you see, if you spend too much time thinking about the helicopter, you may ignore much more important elements: primarily, the emotional and energetic commitment – both from principles and ensemble – which are matched with musical proficiency and confidence in this young cast.

Under the firm hand of Robert Jarman (ably augmented by Aaron Powell’s musical direction, Mandy Lowrie’s choreography, and indeed the rest of the production team’s contributions), this Miss Saigon is bold, decisive, and powerful.

Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical doesn’t give us much time to settle in. From curtain up we’re thrust into the love story of American GI Chris and new Vietnamese prostitute Kim, and also into a narrative of the Vietnam war: a story which assumes its audience already has a strong cultural back-story and understanding. Jarman and his company never lose this pace throughout, as event after event tumble out in song, and every single moment is deliberate. There’s no room for feebleness here: even the love story seems fuelled by a youthful, hot fury and political frustration.

Both cast and orchestra are equal to the challenge of this sweeping work, although they were sometimes let down by the insistent amplification which tended to impair diction. Amplification seems a necessary evil, to achieve balance with such a strong instrumental contribution. And yet this theatre is so intimate, and most of these performers so competent and capable of projection -- evidenced by the occasional moments when the technology failed them!

The show is notoriously awkward to cast, with its Asian setting. Largely, Jarman’s casting ignores racial demarcation (the only realistic option within Hobart’s limited bank of performers). This is just one of those things we have to agree to suspend disbelief about. But it’s such an important component of this narrative that I found myself constantly philosophising on the restrictions physicality poses on casting. Sometimes it was downright confusing, such as distinguishing whether characters were American or Vietnamese. But that’s an unwinnable battle this time.

Tess Hansen (Kim) works hard at the centre of the cast, and is supported strongly by Scott Farrow’s smooth performance as Chris, as well as by the other principles and a consistently tight and robust ensemble. Andrew Hickman warmed into his role as a rather Thénardier-ish Engineer; and Craig Wood is strong (sometimes a little too strong) as Thuy, the husband Kim’s father had intended for her. All the principles could do with a little refining, such as in their emotional transitions, but this is bound to come with the season. If the opening night audience is anything to go by, reception will be wildly appreciative. Don’t leave it til the last minute if you’re planning to go; I don’t imagine Miss Saigon will have any trouble selling out.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Streetcar Named Desire

... for those of us who wished we took the ride.
from Steph

I was recently in Sydney where several people I spoke to were gleefully clutching rare and precious tickets to see Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire by the Sydney Theatre Company. Those not going were trying to, and those who had been were feeling like very fortunate theatre-goers indeed. Partly because they had seen the luminous talent of Cate Blanchett on the stage and partly because a bit of Tennessee is always a treat.

For those of us who were not there, James Waites has written a really interesting account of his experience with a journey into the mood and approach to staging a Williams play. It’s a wonderful insight into the concept of ‘camp’. This is just one view of the Streetcar experience. I wonder are there any others, just for the sake of a little discussion?
Go to

Helena and the Journey of the Hello

Terrapin Puppet Theatre (toured by Tasmania Performs)

Kettering Hall

October 30, 2009

Anica Boulanger-Mashberg

Tasmania Performs is currently bringing Helena and the Journey of the Hello to regional communities around Tasmania, giving them the opportunity to see a slightly refined version of the Helena which was performed for Hobart audiences a year ago at the Peacock Theatre. Helena is a family show, but is an intricate, layered, and dark “adult” fairytale which weaves traditional puppetry, digital technology, music, and comedy around a firm central core of text-based narrative.

At the heart of this work is Finegan Kruckemeyer’s gorgeously poetic script, which tells us the stories of why Helena eventually gives away her voice; why her mother Madeleine left the family to disappear forever into a mobile phone; why her father Alvarez sings with animals in the forest and then decides to sail away from her in a boat; and how a small word like hello joins people to each other all across the world. Some of these “why”s aren’t satisfactorily answered – which wouldn’t be a problem except that the play’s three forest-animal-narrators regularly tell us that in order to understand one “why”, we must know the story behind another “why”. In the end, the questions begin to meld into one big “why”.

Frank Newman’s direction is energetic and heartfelt, making the most of the capriciously playful, mournful, philosophical, and sinister turns in the script. His cast are similarly dynamic, and have a tight working relationship which focuses the often far-fetched scope of the narrative. Mel King offers particular warmth and zing and softens the potentially irritating Madeleine; Ryk Goddard engages the audience with a twinkle-eyed confidence; and Sam McMahon adds an especially contented, puckish tone.

I have two reservations about the production. One is that the work feels too “adult” for its target audience. I am all for not patronising children, but at times Helena goes to the other extreme. Kruckemeyer’s superb writing is sometimes just too complex: long phrases and rich symbolism which are wonderfully stimulating (sometimes challengingly so) for an adult audience, but too abstract for many younger viewers.

The other is that the “technology” doesn’t feel integral. The digital puppetry using touch-phones is occasionally intriguing, but the possibilities are not exploited because the straight storytelling seems much more important here. Helena is so text-based (in terms of both form and content) that the phones felt like a decorative distraction. This is puzzling given that they were integral to the inception and development of the work. Unlike Mikelangelo and Fred Showell’s musical contribution, the presence of the digital elements seemed largely superfluous.

I wish the temptations of technology had been able to meet the standard set by moments of traditional and elegant stagecraft such as when Helena’s bed becomes an orchard, then a doorway, then a bed again (only rotated ninety degrees). These moments, for me, are puppetry and physical theatre at their most lovely and magical, and I remain unconvinced that the phenomenal advances in technology are ready to supersede – or even match – them on the stage.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Dealer's Choice

Albedo Productions (toured by Critical Stages); Theatre Royal, Hobart, September 22-23

When I last played poker, there were one-cent pieces around to bet with. That’s how long ago it was. Even then, I barely knew what I was doing (I think I was eleven).

Patrick Marber’s Dealer’s Choice is a play entirely built on a bedrock of poker: the game, the habit, the parallels with life, the adrenaline, the strategies, the jargon. It’s also about the compulsion of poker; these six men play the game to fill absences of other passion in their lives.

Did I mention that I know nothing about poker? But on balance, it didn’t matter. Sure, there were minutes at a time when I hadn’t a clue what any of the dialogue meant: five card high-low, the wheel’s in, call, call, I’m out, you can’t have had trip four, call... (forgive me if you’re a poker player; that’s how I heard it!). But – and Marber and director Craig Ilott understand this implicitly – any ignorance of this dialogue’s surface meaning only serves to focus attention on the fine dynamics between actors, and the nuances of mood and characterisation.

I adore The West Wing: I don’t understand the first thing about the American political system, but the characters, the pace and rhythm of dialogue, the humour, and ultimately the moments of deep, genuine dramatic intensity are the real treats. I felt the same way about Dealer’s Choice.

Dealer’s Choice is a little slow to begin, although a strong atmosphere is there even as the audience enter; a chef goes quietly about his business in the split stage (kitchen/dining room), and a perfectly compiled soundtrack situates us immediately in the London restaurant where the play is set.

The first half is so self-conscious about establishing characters that many become caricatures instead: both obvious and stilted. The humour to begin with is, similarly, a little predictable, and a little too reminiscent of a dated British sitcom. Some of the motivations and developments of narrative are also forced, as the group of guys who work in the restaurant prepare for their regular poker game that evening.

It is in the second half that Marber’s writing shines, and gives this production the opportunity to do the same. We’re still in the restaurant, but downstairs where the game is. It’s hard work for an audience to get in to this world. Lights are dim, the round poker table is exclusive and the staging obscures actors’ faces -- and then there is that impenetrably jargonistic table-talk. But these obstacles are neither careless nor preclusive; the strength of both writing and ensemble performance connect with an audience despite the physical and practical barriers they must cross.

I’ve got no interest in gambling, but the play briefly made me want to be a part of that world: the adrenaline, the almost-seediness, the insularity, the intimacy of it. For a play to stimulate that level of unwilling desire in an audience member is credit to the writing, the direction, and the performances.

The casting is strong; the script is dependent on a tight ensemble of contrasting and complementary performances, and this production delivers. The characters balance each other for both the humour and the dramatic tension of the work. Christopher Stollery as Ash (an interloper into the restaurant game, and a professional player with his own debts to recoup from games elsewhere) and Sam North as Carl (the restaurant owner’s prodigal son) both excel.

Critical Stages, a non-profit touring body, should be commended for giving this production a wider audience than its original 2004 Sydney season. But it is a pity that it had such a short, mid-week run here in Hobart – perhaps an intrinsic challenge of mounting a wide tour without high commercial funding...

Anica Boulanger-Mashberg

Dealer’s Choice

Albedo Productions, with touring assistance by Critical Stages
Theatre Royal Hobart
Tuesday, 23 September

Stephenie Cahalan

I learned a new language last night. I’m not fluent but, like my Italian, I reckon I could get by. It is the language of poker. I also gained an insight into the insidiousness of an addiction. How it can forge a tight bond amongst fellow addicts that creates camaraderie and honour, but at the same time foster a viciousness that pits friends and family against each other.

Dealer’s Choice, written by Patrick Marber, is set in a gloomy restaurant in central London where small-time gambling and glamour have nothing in common. Presented by Albedo Productions and brought to Hobart with the assistance of Critical Stages, it tells of six men whose multifaceted relationships are both underpinned and undermined by an addiction to gambling. Each prefers to think of themselves as a little better than the others: Steven because he owns a moderately successful restaurant and knows a bit about life; Frankie for his charm and prowess at the table; Mugsy because he is eternally optimistic despite his universally-recognised status as a loser; Sweeney because he has a reason to not gamble; Ash for his aloof professional confidence, and Carl for the simple arrogance that youth affords.

Dealer’s Choice
is funny, sad and unsettling. I often felt a sense of dread at the impending disaster, lifted by little moments of redemption just before the mood got all too heavy. It has tightly-strung moments juxtaposed with ridiculousness that made me laugh with relief. Full of colour and clichés, the rolling poker-talk dominated the dialogue. Although I am not a card-player, I gained a little understanding of how the game acts like a secret club where you have to know the special lingo and rules in order to belong. The regular family of players created the bizarre dynamic of being both orchestrators of each man’s downfall, yet part of the scaffolding that helps him back up again. The lounge music soundtrack wafted through the world of delusion in which each man dreamed of the glorious heights he might reach with his winnings, while the reality of debt and the everyday life is kept at bay.

Every actor amply filled the skins of their characters and the artful script flowed beautifully throughout the play. In Dealer’s Choice each man’s gamble is really with himself, his relationships and his aspirations. The stakes are high indeed, and regardless of how each of the characters fare, I think the production is a winner. Tonight is the show's last night in Hobart and is worth the trip out into the weather to catch.

Director: Craig Ilott
Cast: David Webb, David Terry, John Leary, Ashley Lyons, Sam North, Christopher Stollery.

Monday, September 21, 2009

In Light Relief

Carnegie Gallery, Hobart
21 August-27 September 2009
Kylie Elizabeth Eastley

An exhibition opening is often not the best time to experience art. Crowds and noise can detract from the work and present problems for those not comfortable with small talk. But the darkened room and subtle lighting at the Carnegie Gallery at the opening of In Light Relief provided an opportunity to see a dramatic collection of works from four of Hobart’s creative minds. It also provided the stage for seeing Sonia Heap’s designs at their best, as a small army of female models mingled and lounged amongst the crowd in her exquisite gowns.

Heap joins jeweller Sandra Wrightson and designers and jewellers Fiona Tabart and Jon Williamson to present a cohesive collection of desirable and evocative works. Dramatic, intense and sensual, the red walls and spot lighting accentuate the individual sculptures and jewellery.

Sonia Heap is a part-time designer who produces exquisite clothing using screen-printed silks and high quality materials that layer and lap across the female form to create erotic contemporary dresses. Gothicism collides with Jane Eyre, as Heap takes the viewer or voyeur into a fantasy world of nymphs and sirens. Cutesy meets macabre in a collection of designs that enhance and hug the models.

Like page 3 girls from a Juztapoz magazine, Heap’s designs are dark, textured and slightly menacing. Influenced by sights, sounds, poems and music, her clothing exudes attitude and flips the relationship between artwork and viewer, creating a sense of unease, discomfort and titillation. While best experienced at the opening, video footage does provide some insight to the drama these pieces create.

In some of her best work, Fiona Tabart (better known for her slumped acrylic jewellery) produces a series of small sculptures exploring home, love and the deeper elements of life. Taking a leaf from Greg Leong’s book, her works are highly decorative and beautiful, but upon closer inspection show a depth and darkness that mimics the reality of life: the sting in the tail. Flocked cages cast shadows on the walls and look luscious and exotic, while smaller free standing sculptures continue the themes of capture with layered etched acrylic and stone. Her work appears to draw inspiration from traditional Asian textiles and wall hangings, while exploring the patterns in nature.

Jon Williamson’s steam punk jewellery and sculptures are well known by many Tasmanians, but the work in this exhibition sees him traverse a world of shadows, light and suspension. An expert in assemblages, Williamson has created mesmerizing spherical puzzles: precise and intricate. Interlocking pieces join together to form decorative orbs and the inclusion of LED lights creates shadows and patterns to fall across walls and ceilings.

Sandy Wrightson’s collection of jewellery sits well with her companions’ pieces. Mirroring natural forms with the white sand-blasted silver, this work also creates shadows and space. The necklaces twist and fall effortlessly creating an elegance and languidness.

This exhibition demonstrates that design and decoration matters. It can be subtle and intricate, complicated and outrageous. It reminds me of the saying ‘the devil is in the detail’. With all these works it is the detail that helps to create the negative space that builds interest and speaks of a darker place. And this makes this work absorbing and very seductive.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


4MBS Classic
Theatre Royal
Friday, September 18

Stephenie Cahalan

The constant dilemma of fiction being mistaken for history (such as the heated discourse prompted by Kate Grenville’s The Secret River ), rears its head in the play of Amadeus by Peter Shaffer. This production by 4MBS Classic from Brisbane presents the story of the Italian composer Antonio Salieri as we meet him at the end of his life, ‘confessing’ to killing the young composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Casual reading of the internet led me to numerous articles at pains to assure the reader that Mozart was NOT poisoned, but most likely died of rheumatic fever. Yet, if Shaffer had stuck to the dry facts, then the clever and engaging Amadeus may not have made it to the stage.

Amadeus is part mystery, part music history. It tells the age-old story of young talent trying to break through the wall of convention and vested interest to help culture evolve. The criticism leveled at Mozart by Emperor Joseph II for using ‘too many notes’ is one of the very things that makes his music so profoundly thrilling. So many notes, and so expertly arranged, but it was not the done thing at the time, and not to be encouraged: as Shaffer’s character complains, ‘There are only so many notes one can hear in the course of an evening!’

Andrew McFarlane, as Salieri, carried the story with flair through his soliloquies, memories and conversations with the audience, a fair portion of which were delivered in Italian. McFarlane portrayed well the change in temperament from a largely good, but simple man to a bitter Machiavelli, plotting to ruin Mozart due to his envy of the young composer’s extraordinary musical gift.

Tama Matheson’s neat set design, with banners of sheet music suspended, easily located us in Viennese drawing rooms, theatres and the aged Salieri’s bedroom. Actors rearranged props to change scenes, but managed to avoid the impression they were moonlighting as stage techs between their lines.

It seemed at times as if things were in a bit of a rush, with not enough time for the actors to pause at significant moments and lines, yet the humour was not lost in the pace. The production was badly let down by the fact that the music, a critical part of the play, was downright sloppy with end notes cut off and clunky finishes. Given that 4MBS is a Classical Radio station, it is hard to excuse this embarrassing glitch.

In Amadeus, Salieri despaired at his own self-professed mediocrity and that he was ‘born a pair of ears and nothing more’. Yet, where would a performer be without countless pairs of ears to listen and love the talents of those who can move us with their music. Hear hear for the ears of this world! May they continue to be many.

Director: Tama Matheson
Cast: Andrew McFarlane, Dash Kruck, Kerith Atkinson, Nick Backstrom, Steven Tandy, Norman Doyle, Bruce Baddiley, Natasha Yantsch, Niki-J Witt.


Theatre Royal, Hobart
September 18, 2009
Anica Boulanger-Mashberg

Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play offers a strange challenge: to tell a story of one art form through another. It is not a musical, it is a play; but music is at its core. Amadeus is an imaginatively speculative history of madness, creativity, jealousy, and sabotage. But beneath all these, it is also a narrative of music. Amadeus comes from the perspective of Antonio Salieri, a composer and contemporary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Shaffer’s Salieri (played in this production by Andrew McFarlane) is incurably jealous of Mozart’s youthful genius, and speaks directly to the audience during his own final hour, recounting and justifying his attempts to discredit and eventually annihilate Amadeus (Dash Kruck).

An interpretation of the play must somehow marry Mozart’s music with Shaffer’s text. There are moments in 4MBS’s production which manage this beautifully. A symbolic storm is born out of the swelling Kyrie Eleison, and Salieri suffers a Stendhal-syndrome-like response. This moment is a good example. But most of the time, I found myself yearning for more music. Snippets of pre-recorded Mozart are frequently dangled enticingly behind the dialogue, but then irritatingly and abruptly snatched away. Whether or not you are familiar with Mozart’s works, it becomes increasingly difficult to engage with the desperate passion behind Salieri’s jealousy, when this jealousy is built on an intimate recognition of Mozart’s creative brilliance. But without much Mozart in the soundscape, it is too easy to forget his extraordinary talent, and we are also left wanting for glimpses of Salieri’s own experience of the music.

The relationship between the composers is one of insincere patronage, as Salieri’s devious advice eventually drives the naive Mozart to destruction. The play is a study of one man’s power to exploit another’s paranoias. An audience must feel moved by Salieri’s malicious actions, and struggle to forgive him. McFarlane’s Salieri is human, bitter, and believable (with the exception of excessive directorial melodrama in several monologues). But Kruck’s Mozart is so puerile, so conceited, so crass, so frivolous that if he had squeakily tittered just once more, I’d have been ready to jump up and save Salieri the trouble. The interpretation is clearly a considered creative decision, and Kruck’s energy and commitment are remarkable. Certainly, it presents a bravely imaginative insight into the flawed humanity behind the canonised glory of Mozart’s creativity. However, it is hard work caring about this unlikeable character, which in turn strains Salieri’s protracted justification of his behaviour.

The supporting cast are unassuming and sound, but have little to do beyond providing a backdrop for Salieri’s self-flagellation and Mozart’s persistent near-hysteria. Director Tama Matheson’s unfussy set and lighting design are at their best when the hanging panels of a Mozart score are beautifully shadowed by Mozart’s own hands as he conducts his work.

In the final scene, the Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem makes its predictable but welcome appearance. The movement, played in full, accompanies the silent action of the final moments, and Mozart’s music is at last treated with some fervour. As the narrative journey concludes, the production does manage to move us. There is both humour and pathos here, and if the characters have not always been completely engaging, at least the energy and commitment of the company are rewarded.

I must confess, I find Shaffer almost unforgivably contemptible for closing a script with the line: “mediocrity is everywhere: I absolve you”... What production could ever stand up to such philosophical meta-censure?

Sunday, August 30, 2009


My first plane trip out of Tasmania at the age of 18 was also my first encounter with Sydney and Circus Oz. At that time they didn’t have much of a profile, especially in Tasmania. But amongst the exotic experiences I had on that trip, Circus Oz became one that is inscribed on my memory forever.

Twenty years later on a wintry night in Hobart’s Theatre Royal I am watching the company’s latest show Circus Oz Barely Contained. Sitting beside me is my 10 year old daughter, Lily, already a regular Circus Oz patron. Something that has endured since the company began 30 years ago is the troupe’s ability to engage and entertain audiences of all ages.

While the show is entertaining and relatively fast paced, I find myself waiting for the oohhhh moment. And it finally comes in the form of two trapeze artists climbing and negotiating around each other while balancing on four stacked chairs, with the first positioned on four glass bottles. Intimate, seductive and beautifully lit, this scene demonstrates the magic of Circus Oz. It is not about the biggest and best tricks, but the sweet moments that create the sense of wonderment. Moments created through a simple idea, clever choreography and accomplished musicians.

Stand-out performances included the Strong Woman Mel Fyfe who teamed up with short-statured person Emma J Hawkins to perform a range of tap dancing and acrobatic routines. This partnership provided the light and shade, humour and black comedy that make Circus Oz more than just entertaining. The endurance, strength and skill from all the performers was at times breathtaking.

While the flimsy storyline about a wedding serves as the hook for many routines, it often interrupts the continuity and energy between the audience and performers. It also reminds us that a great show is built on a good script and clear direction. Something this show could have benefited from.

While the obvious delight from younger audience members reminded me of my first Circus Oz experience, I found myself wanting more. After 30 years of performing, the challenge is to not only entice new audiences but satisfy the stalwarts. To do this, they need to be developing fresh innovative work with strong scripts and direction, to keep us coming back for that dose of wit, brilliance and chaos.
Circus Oz Barely Contained performed in Hobart Wednesday 26-29th September as part of a National Tour.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Savage River

For their second subscription show in 2009, the Tasmanian Theatre Company renew their acquaintance with Griffin Theatre Company (who last collaborated with TTC on the compelling production of Don’t Say the Words in 2008), and together with MTC, the companies present Peter Evans’ production of Steve Rodgers’ Savage River.

While the script could be shorter, Savage River has a strength and a sense of place and time at its heart that will surely see it become a familiar work in the Australian contemporary repetoire: it seems to capture a cultural moment a bit like Michael Gow’s Away did in the 1980s. The script is still raw, and at times could do with some refining. For example, the humour which provides welcome relief from the intensity of the central narrative is sometimes overstated – one go at a punchline should be enough. But the characters and their relationships are more than engaging enough to sustain the work, and the dialogue has a heightened sense of rythm to its urban mundanity which is absorbing (if occasionally self-conscious).

Peter Evans’ production is accentuated by a tense and pervasive score and soundscape, and also a set capable of locating the world of the play. These elements layer the work with a richness to support the text and performance, and recall the outstanding production values of last year’s Don’t Say the Words. Evans should be commended for harnessing the skills of Kelly Ryall (sound design) and Jed Kurzel (composer). The soundscape becomes the space – a constant shifting sound like sands, or echoes, or whispers, or handfulls of shells, infuses the experience of the show and leaves you feeling like you are still in that world. These sounds echo the mounds of black sand and shale which lie below the performance and in front of the shack which sets the scene.

Savage River is a claustrophobic narrative of place, with Jude (Peta Sergeant) arriving to unsettle the equillibrium of Kingsley (Ian Bliss) and his son Tiger (Travis Cardona) who live in Kingsley’s self-enforced isolation in their shack by the river. The triangle is a negotiation of sexual attraction, blackmail, lies, and loneliness, and all against the backdrop of this windblown, remote riverside. While the first half of the show is clever about its narrative progression, managing to keep us always on the right side of expectation, the second half becomes a little predictable, seeming to take the ‘easy’ option when it comes to plot choices, and not entirely living up to the promise of the first half.

As Tiger, Cardona is charmingly innocent (though not naieve or saccharine – just fresh and undefensive about the world, his world) and his earnest and honest characterisation is a delight. He might be anywhere between ten and eighteen – the script refuses to say – but he is settled all the time.

Sergeant is frustrating as Jude, though it is not always her fault. The character is required to spend the entire first half in a distinctly unattractive and rather unlikeable semi-intoxicated state, and it is hard to recover. While there are some very grounded and moving moments between Jude and Tiger in the second half, primarily Sergeant does too much, and makes Jude a character we struggle to relax with.

Filling out the trio, Bliss is somewhat uneven, mostly nailing the strong and rough yet introspective Kingsley, but sometimes not fully finding an ‘authenticity’ in the characterisation.

Some of these issues of characterisation might not be quite so distracting in a larger space – this venue just isn’t quite large enough to accommodate the style and scope of Evans’ interpretation. The characters are too close to the audience in the Backspace, and the restriction created by the physical space is not quite the right sense of constraint for the emotional limitations the characters are experiencing. A little more ‘distance’ (or an alteration to the ‘size’ of the performances) might have been welcome.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


Cross (Mudlark Theatre)
Thursday August 6th, Peacock Theatre, Hobart
Also touring 7 regional locations with Tasmania Performs
Anica Boulanger-Mashberg

The perils of reviewing are numerous. Infinite, even. A reviewer can misinterpret. Mis-describe. Misjudge. Misrepresent. Miss the point. Or, any number of other sins. But one that concerns me particularly in this instance is the fact that sometimes the most wonderful thing that can happen to you as an audience member is to be completely taken by surprise. I mean completely. And a reviewer can obliterate the chances of this happening. Already, by mentioning this issue, I am influencing audience expectations – just as Cross’s publicity information does by calling it a ‘new Australian story with some unexpected twists’. Well, already you’re expecting the twists, because they told you to. You just don’t know what they are yet. And you won’t find out from me, either. You should go and see the show. And if it’s already passed your town by the time you read this, then you’d better hope someone invites Mudlark to tour this show again sometime, because I’m sorry you missed it; it really is worth seeing.

I won’t make any more fuss about what took me by surprise in this show – the ‘twist’ was only one element of a satisfying show, and I don’t want that element to overshadow anything else. But let me just say that the integrity of the production as a whole was such that I spontaneously felt a powerful, emotional, and even physiological response to a particular and unexpected turning point in the narrative, and I immediately wished I could go back and experience it again (which, of course, is, by definition, impossible). That the show stimulated such a response is a credit not only to the writing, the direction, and the performance of Cross, but also to each of the technical elements (design, soundscape) which contribute to the development of the narrative, allowing this one moment to be so strong.

Cross is the latest production by Mudlark Theatre, a young, Launceston-based company, and it exemplifies their commitment to producing contemporary Australian theatre and making it available to regional audiences. The new script by Stephanie Briarwood is affecting, entertaining, rich, and despite being a little raw (it could still benefit from some tightening and editing), it forms a solid basis upon which Carrie McLean builds a very engaging night in the theatre. Cross is the story of a sisterly road trip: Regina, on a funded project to photograph roadside memorials, is accompanied by her younger sister Erica – a puppeteer with an unsquashable vigor and a determination to force Regina to confront her past. It is also a story of grief, and of how we learn to live with loss.

Mudlark’s production augments Briarwood’s text with an efficient, versatile, and equally rich technical ‘performance’ (although the puppetry element is under-utilised). The lighting is complex and suggestive but never intrusive, the soundscape evocative and effective, and the car unassuming and yet dominant at the same time. The car – neatly packed with props and objects which always seem to pop out of the right place at the right moment -- fluctuates between literal and symbolic representation. One moment it is a vehicle on a highway; the next it becomes a memory of the sisters’ childhood; and the next it transforms into a cabaret theatre. This reflects the show’s ability to blend the poetic and the literal.

Both technical and textual elements support two strong performances from Jane Johnson and Emma Hardy. The sisters have a familial history that is almost tangible and, although sometimes the script encourages uncomfortably self-conscious attempts to construct and illustrate this history, for the most part the sibling relationship is easy and convincing. Johnson is particularly watchable as Regina, and her final monologue is filled with a gentle, uncomplicated compassion which elicits the same in her audience. Hardy, a more recent theatre graduate, is a little more uneven (and perhaps some of her monologues needed more refined directorial attention), but the two have an appealing energy together on stage, and it is a pleasure to join Reg and Erica on their journey.

This is a production of consummate theatricality – not a perfect show, but one which takes risks, exploits the opportunities offered by the medium, and rewards audiences for their time in the theatre. A wonderful antidote to the horrific and frightening trends towards reality television and non-narrative entertainment. I look forward to more of Mudlark’s offerings in the future.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Thursday's Child and thoughts on theatre

Theatre Royal, Thursday July 30 2009
Charles Cousins, Belinda Hoare, James Lugton, Brendon McDonall, Janice McGavin, Kate Worsley
Company: Monkey Baa, Director: Sandra Eldridge

I recently saw a production of Thursday’s Child, a stage adaption of the immensely popular novel by Sonya Hartnett by the company Monkey Baa. Directed by Sandra Eldridge, the play is set between the two world wars, rolling into the Great Depression. It tells the story of a poor but honest family as they weather their seemingly endless run of calamity. The characters include a son who lives below the ground, digging, seen rarely and rejected by all but his loving family.

It is difficult for me to write negatively about a performance because I really don’t feel fair ‘canning’ a show. It would be too easy for me in the audience to undermine the enormous amount of energy and work invested by committed actors and company. But to not make a call on a show may raise the ire of other theatre-goers. Is it a betrayal of fellow audience-members, or am I doing the production a disservice by not offering critical feedback?

Possibly my misgivings about Thursday’s Child came from the adaption of the novel. Not that it was unfaithful, as is often a criticism, as without having read the book I cannot make that judgement. More, that it seemed to contain too much. The story is complex and intricate in its explanation of the characters’ personalities, such as Da’s general detachment, and Devon’s animosity to the villain, Mr Cable. So much time is spent in relaying the detail that it left little space for dramatic development or finesse in the delivery of the narrative.

The cast really did work together well given the weight of the content they had to convey and if at times lines were delivered without a great deal of meaning, it may have just been due to the need to get it all knocked over in the time they had. For the performance was too long and, with some tender editing, the actors could have been more attentive to their characters. Brendon McDonall and Kate Worsley managed to execute some speedy costume and role changes, while Janice McGavin as Harper did a good job of progressing through the years from age six to twelve without so much as an extra bobby pin to get her through until she graduated to her pair of high heels.

Both the book and theatre adaption of Thursday’s Child are aimed at young adults. I fear the production would have tested their patience, running at nearly an hour and a half without an interval. This is not to question a young person’s ability to concentrate that long, but rather the production’s capacity to grip their attention for the duration. It is so good to see literature adapted to theatre for young adults, but it is a big responsibility for the company. As a friend noted to me after the show, the theatre that teenagers watch now may win them or lose them for life.

Yet, given the exposure to highly sophisticated mediums that your average child now enjoys, it is important that theatre not pretend to be something it is not. Therefore, I think it is so important for young people to experience performance that is intelligent and engaging, utterly three dimensional and delivered in scenes and acts, rather than an assault of second-long jump cuts.

I really did enjoy Thursday’s Child. I think it is a production that needs more and bolder work on the script and the staging. But the soundtrack was a beautiful collection of music and sounds that took us into the bush and on an emotional journey.

I will always take my hat off to theatre companies, simply because they are doing it. They are putting stories onto the stage, they are giving work to actors, lighting and set designers and they are giving audiences a reason to venture out of their homes and away from the sedation of the television. This Pollyanna in the audience was happy to spend the evening with Thursday’s Child and hopes to get the chance to see it again, in a new improved version. Don’t give up Monkey Baa, you are on your way.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Thursday's Child

Anica Asks Herself a Few Broad Questions, and Ponders the Answers, with reference to Thursday’s Child, Theatre Royal, Hobart, 30th July

Thursday’s Child is an adaptation of Sonya Hartnett’s novel of the same name, presented by the Sydney-based company Monkey Baa, who are renowned for their theatre programs for young people. It is the story of Harper Flute and her strange, almost non-human younger brother Tin, who digs tunnels under the Flute family’s lives and home. Harper and her siblings are growing up on their parents’ struggling farm during the great depression, and Harper frequently steps out of the action to narrate from her adult perspective, guiding us through the summers of her childhood.

Who is it for?

This is always a valid question to ask of a production. But in this case, the show has been advertised as a production for young audiences, specifically 12 years +. But it is running a public tour, not a schools tour, and therefore must be intended to satisfy “adult” audiences too.

Thursday’s Child walks a restless, wobbly line between the two, never quite fitting on one side or the other. Parts of it are too confronting for a child of upper-primary age. And yet for an adult audience, it is too obvious, too didactic, too “telling” in style. The performances (and indeed the adapted script) lack nuance and layering – emotions are black and white, and shifts between them are sudden and unsupported. I felt frequently patronised, and I think young audiences would too. An audience member at age twelve is old enough to not need special concessions to their understanding of theatrical conventions. They don’t need constant reminders that this is A Performance. But I think this production offers those constant reminders – the characterisations are simplistic and ungrounded, and the interactions lack genuine connection.

There is a mismatch here between the content and the delivery – while the novel (and therefore this adaptation) may be directed at young adults, the performance style seems to be more directed towards a lower to middle primary school age group. This discrepancy is frustrating and infuses the whole production.

How should audiences approach adaptations?

There’s a reason that a book is a book and is not a poem, or a song, or a painting, or a dance piece. Or a play.

More often than not, film and stage adaptations fail to satisfy an audience. If you’ve read the book, you’re generally disinclined to think the stage version did it justice, no matter how strong a production it was. It will rarely live up to the images you’d already created in your own mind. And if you haven’t read the book, then you often find yourself lost – it is so easy for adaptations to inadvertently excise vital (or at least reasonably significant) details, relationships, moments... the dangers are endless.

In fact, though, Thursday’s Child stands up remarkably well. As someone who hadn’t read the book (and chose not to beforehand), the narrative still flowed quite satisfyingly for me. And I don’t now feel the need to read the book, to follow up on anything.

But the problems of adaptation remain. For a start, the dialogue and the narration in this production is sometimes awkward and unconvincing: I suspect this is because parts of it are directly lifted from the novel. And what works on the page doesn’t always work on the stage. The two require different kinds of poetry. Similarly, the six-year time frame is difficult to pull off in the theatre, and this production didn’t quite have me suspending disbelief. The “children” of the family weren’t any different at (for example) 12 than they’d been at 7. I think I would have preferred not to know the details; I would have been satisfied to understand that time was passing, without knowing exactly how much. Why couldn’t the narrative have taken place over an endless, elastic, dream-like summer: a summer of the kind Harper remembers from her youth?

What’s wrong with humming the set?

A director once advised me “you don’t want to go away from the theatre humming the set design”. A clever phrase (he may have borrowed it from somewhere). Translation: the technical elements of a show should never subsume the show itself. It was good advice – in an ideal world, a show works seamlessly as a whole, and nothing trumps anything else. But if one element does just happen to shine, then why shouldn’t it be a “technical” element just as much as an “artistic” element (and let’s not even get started on the problems of delineation there...)?

In Thursday’s Child it was Jeremy Silver’s superb sound design which I came away humming. I don’t mean humming the music itself – Silver’s lovely compositions. I mean humming the sound design, feeling it resonate and stay with me in the cold winter night as I left the theatre. The intangible menace, the sounds of Tin digging, the calm bush-scape, and the incidental wisps of music or effects: all were so extremely capable of finely nuancing the mood. A delight. However, it is a little concerning to find the sound design more memorable than the performances... I think I understand that old advice a little better now...