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...

A Bright and Crimson Flower

The Round Earth Company, dir. Richard Davey

The Theatre Royal, Friday 24 July, 2009.

(Also touring extensively in Tas, Vic, NSW, and Qld until September)

I’m not an Australian by birth. I didn’t grow up with the ANZAC spirit in my veins. So my connection to the war story at the heart of this production might be a little different to that of many other Australians. But then, it isn’t a story of nationalism, or even of political stance for or against war. It is a story of humanity (or inhumanity), and stamina, and of the importance of song in the lives of a group of POWs in Changi during the Second World War.

Richard Davey’s script (which he also directs) is based on his research into the lives of many Australian soldiers held captive during WW2. While the play is firmly rooted in historical fact, it does not stumble over that too-often fatal line between truth and drama. The characters are drawn with care and performed with sensitivity although some occasionally, in the service of comic relief, border on the silly.

From the opening moment when the soldiers enter the space individually and then begin to sing together, there is a tangible sense of ensemble which moves beyond those ubiquitous Australian war-story tropes of camaraderie and mateship. This is a cast who trust each other, have worked tightly together in rehearsal, and have been well-directed as an ensemble and not a collection of solo actors. (Indeed, several of the cast were involved in the play’s first production, seventeen years ago in Hobart, so one would expect a certain degree of comfort.)

I can’t recall seeing an all male cast deliver such consistently strong dramatic performances – and they can all sing too! Particularly engaging performances come from Matt Wilson, Tim Priest, and Don Bridges – although the latter has a tendency to overplay the comedy. The play is emotionally and physically challenging: some of the extended scenes depicting the physical labour on the Burma rail project are harrowing just to watch, let alone perform (or indeed, undergo the original experience). And the cast are mostly equal to the challenge. There are weak moments – and not always from the younger members of the cast, as might be expected. For example, in some particularly complex physical scenes, dialogue was completely lost under sound effects and a lack of awareness of the dynamics of the stage in the Theatre Royal. Perhaps some of these difficulties will be ironed out with a few more runs of the show. (The same may be true of some technical distractions – the Japanese soldier’s voice-overs are too loud, abrasive, and irritating to bear, despite this being part of the purpose of their presence; and a series of archival images projected against the scrim are almost invisible and completely wasted.)

Aside from a strong cast, the other “character” in this narrative is the choir. Music is omnipresent in the show, whether in the soundtrack, onstage with the boys, or with the choir who, in this performance, occupied a large section of the stalls. This is somewhat disconcerting, particularly if you find yourself seated right beside them. Which is a pity, because the choir’s contribution is moving and necessary. It gives the audience a sense of the importance of song and performance to these men: their concerts in the camps really might have been what got them through the horrors of POW life. The Hobart chorus was the Tasmanian Song Company, and the touring production will be supported by community choirs at each of its locations – an example of The Round Earth Company’s ability to connect to and embrace its audiences.

Although there is much to commend this production, the second half lost momentum (and not simply in the sense that the men themselves were waiting and waiting for the war to end). The original ran nearly five hours, and although several hours have been removed, I think the script could still benefit from some editing. I would particularly like to see a red pen wielded vigorously around the closing scene, where the truisms and caricatures resisted in the rest of the production broke through with a vengeance. I’m afraid the line “not saints and heroes ... just men who stuck it out” went right off the scale in my cliche-ometer, and it seemed a pity to end such a strong show in this way.