Wednesday 14 September 2016

Review: Adhocracy 2016

Vitalstatistix, Waterside Workers Hall, 2–4 September 2016. Curated by Emma Webb, Jason Sweeney and Paul Gazzola.

Raft of the Medusa. Photo: the author.

It’s with a strange mixture of pleasure and pain that I find myself writing, once again, about Adhocracy, the national artist hothouse presented annually by Vitalstatistix at the Waterside Workers Hall in Port Adelaide. Pleasure because this festival-in-all-but-name remains a highlight of South Australia’s performing arts calendar, bringing together multidisciplinary artists from across the country to develop new works in the presence of fascinated audiences; pain because it’s impossible to forget the precariousness of it all, Vitals, along with Slingsby and Brink, having born the brunt of the Coalition’s funding cuts to the small-to-medium sector in this state (the company waits on tenterhooks while its application to Mitch Fifield’s Catalyst, the successor to George Brandis’ short-lived NPEA, is considered).

Adhocracy seems emblematic in this regard: scrappy and investigational, infused with feminist, queer, and environmental politics, it is an aesthetic light year from Brandis’ beige, unthreatening prescription for the arts: canonical, formally conservative, bound to received ideas around artistic merit. The loss of Vitals itself would leave a distinctively large hole in the state’s performance ecology: no company outside of the State Theatre Company of SA maintains such a busy and varied annual program—developments, presentations of touring work, performances, residencies, events, long-term projects, and exhibitions. While there’s no telling what the future holds, a paring back of that program seems the more likely outcome—a testament to the hard work and resilience of creative producer Emma Webb and her small staff.

This year’s Adhocracy, the sixth since its day-long format was abandoned in 2011, was held for the first time in September, having followed the sun from its traditional Queen’s Birthday long weekend berth. No doubt the move was a question of logistics rather than audience comfort—despite the welcome sunshine, the evenings were familiarly bitter—but the novelty of a sunny Port for much of the event was strangely thrilling. Perhaps Adhocracy’s rescheduling was thrown into relief by something else too—the fact that this year’s event felt to me, more so than in previous years, like a consolidation rather than an advancement; not exactly a greatest hits compilation, but something like one of those late-career albums by a veteran artist content, for once, to restate rather than innovate, to finesse an established groove instead of push at its edges.

There was, for example, Aeon, this year’s two-week residency project, which strongly echoed last year’s large-scale participatory sound work Crawl Me Blood. Both works provided audience members with personal audio devices while they navigated the area around Hart’s Mill Flour Shed, finally ending up in the Mill itself where what had been an individualised experience turned into a collective one. Whereas Crawl Me Blood used Jean Rhys’ 1966 postcolonial novel Wide Sargasso Sea as its launching off point, Aeon (led by artists Lz Dunn, Lawrence English, Lara Thoms, and Shian Law) drew on the principles of bird flocking, in particular the three behavior types that have been identified by computer modeling since the 1980s: separation, alignment, and cohesion.

Separated into groups of about ten or so, each assigned a different starting location—mine was the Wells Street laneway beside the Waterside Workers Hall—audience members were given a small portable speaker and a business card-sized piece of paper on which was written a relevant factoid or, in my case, epigram: Everything is natural. Nothing is normal.

Thus equipped, we were left to drift as we may, informed only by the instruction that, as with birds, we were to think of ourselves as leaders as well as followers. While our speakers piped out birdsong, snatches of human voices, and drones of varying volumes, my group fanned out organically towards the river, eventually melding with the other groups where the presence of several provocateurs became more obvious, some attempting to seduce us into running or flapping our arms or, more challengingly, remove items of clothing.

Our collective destination, it becomes clear, is the cavernous Mill, where we exchange our speakers for blankets at the entrance and find a space in the semi-darkness among a floor strewn with bodies. The low lighting fades away, and a drone begins. I fight down rising panic—there’s something about the combination of near-pitch darkness and the vast, empty space that evokes the kind of existential anxiety that makes anechoic chambers so famously unendurable—as the drone builds to a chest-rattling crescendo, then dies away.

As with the rest of this work-in-development, it’s a moment that, while experienced individually, carves out a communal space at the same time. In the darkness, unlike outside the Mill when we were answerable to our smaller, more clearly defined groups, our sense of responsibly to the rest of the human beings around us—of being a part of something larger than ourselves without having our agency stripped away—diminishes, leaving us feeling adrift and cut off but not alone; a richly metaphorical provocation in the neoliberal era.

The author, during Aeon. Photo: Jennifer Greer Holmes.
Also responsive to place was Pony Express’ Raft of the Medusa, another participatory work featuring an intersection of natural and anthropogenic worlds. Intended by its creative team of Ian Sinclair and Loren Kronemyer to finally be performed on a life raft, the blackly humorous work is a commentary on rising sea levels, the titular watercraft—inspired by Théodore Géricault’s infamous depiction of the wreck of the French naval frigate Méduse—pitted against a dilapidated yacht in a “mid-apocalyptic” contest. Not much of this, admittedly, was in evidence during the artist talk I attended on the Saturday evening, but its on-water potential is beyond doubt: the kayak we lugged from the Workers Hall shop front to portside proved eminently seaworthy, Sinclair delivering his artist talk through a loudhailer while an alarmingly multiplying group of seagulls swooped at the hot chips covering his body, and Kronemyer successfully rowed in a loop around the Port River. According to Sinclair, Port Adelaide is second only to Bangladesh in terms of its vulnerability to climate change-induced sea level rise. True or not, Raft of the Medusa was a welcome complement to Vitals’ ongoing Climate Century project—a five-year series of commissioned artworks, projects, and events speculating on how we might commemorate this dangerous historical moment—making us complicit in its response to potentially catastrophic environmental change without sacrificing the playfulness that Pony Express have come to be known for (see, for example, reports of their recent Next Wave work, Ecosexual Bathhouse).

It’s difficult in a single piece of reasonable length to do justice to Adhocracy’s richness—eight works in various stages of development led by a total of 33 artists—but I do want to briefly mention three more projects (unfortunately, due to time constraints, I wasn’t able to engage with Angela Goh’s Uncanny Valley, Girl or the equally intriguing Lady Example by Alice Dixon, Caroline Meaden and William McBride). The Lost Art of Listening, a collaboration between two South Australian artists, Zephyr Quartet’s Hilary Kleinig and “conversationalist” Emma Beech, is shaping up to be a fascinating meditation on an essay by pianist and memoirist Anna Goldsworthy on whether classical music has lost its relevance as technologised distractions multiply, and our relationship to music becomes increasingly passive.

In an intimate, leveling exchange of a kind typical of Adhocracy, Kleinig engaged us with a series of questions that functioned as an exchange between audience and performer, rather than a one-sided presentation of her discoveries so far. We were invited to share our recollections of times music had made us cry, and to attach our answers written on tags to small trees steeped, so we were told, in the tears of those who had come before us. (My recollection? Hearing Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs for the first time, in a state of total unpreparedness, while splayed on the couch one slow-burning Sunday afternoon. The wrong piece of music can move you to tears if you happen to hear it at the right time—while grieving, or in the middle of a breakup say—but some require no special circumstances to open up a world of feeling.) It looks as though the final work will build on Kleinig’s previous explorations of incorporating electronic elements into democratised sound works, including mobile phones operated by the audience.

Two final works rounded out my experience of this year’s Adhocracy: The Tension of Opposites, by newly-formed multidisciplinary collective Capture the Flag (Hew Parham, Meg Wilson, Nick Bennett, Paulo Castro, and Sascha Budimski), and Dirty Pieces, a highly embryonic attempt by dancer/choreographer Rebecca Jensen and Adhocracy regular Malcolm Whittaker to unpack the difficulties associated with understanding contemporary dance. I saw two showings of The Tension of Opposites, though not much changed. It’s an unusually developed work for Adhocracy, the two performers, Parham and Bennett, using an established text—Austrian writer Peter Handke’s Self-Accusation—to explore notions of dictatorship and conflict within Wilson’s highly detailed apartment room set. The audience were divided from the performers by a wall, some panels cut out, others covered with obscuring gauze. By removing the two rows of seating that had been in place during the first showing, the audience were able in the second to move from panel to panel, in a sense editing their own film by “framing” different parts of the action from moment to moment. Such filmic gestures, as well as a distinctly political-European sensibility, are typical of Castro’s body of work, with which The Tension of Opposites feels strongly of a piece.

As for Dirty Pieces, a work that recalls the quip, attributed to Elvis Costello and others, that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, it’s difficult to know what to say. “This work is about…” Whittaker repeated over and over again, before exhausting his own struggle for interpretation, for meaning-making, and handing the microphone over to various members of the audience. “This work is about everything,” one of them said. “This work is about nothing,” responded another.

Wednesday 24 August 2016

Review: 'The 39 Steps'

Dunstan Playhouse, 19 August–11 September 2016. Adapted by Patrick Barlow from the movie by Alfred Hitchcock and the novel by John Buchan. Performed by Charles Mayer, Tim Overton, Nathan Page, and Anna Steen. Directed by Jon Halpin.

Melbourne Theatre Company’s Double Indemnity, a new play by Tom Holloway based on James M. Cain’s 1943 novella and directed by Sam Strong, has just closed at the Arts Centre’s Playhouse. Unlike Simon Phillips’ staging of Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest last year for the same company, the play was widely regarded as a failure, if not a disaster, which must have come as a shock to MTC’s programming committee who had presumably gotten used to banking on adaptations of old noir thrillers after the critical and commercial success of North By Northwest.

But it was an earlier production that really set the mold: Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of another Hitchcock classic, The 39 Steps, which MTC presented in 2008 in a remount of Maria Aitken’s original London production. (South Australian audiences were given a taste of this sort of thing with Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter in 2013, and again the following year—albeit on a more modestly resourced scale—with’s Notoriously Yours, in which Van Badham riffed off Hitchcock’s Notorious to fashion a lively script about the surveillance state). Barlow’s adaptation, as this new production by the State Theatre Company of SA attests, is a play with many lives, as improbably adept as its hero, the handsome but vacuous Richard Hannay, at overleaping fences and stopping bullets.

Perhaps where Holloway and Strong erred in their version of Double Indemnity was in cleaving more to Cain’s book than the 1944 film, which had the benefit of a screenplay by noir maestro Raymond Chandler. The 39 Steps, in contrast, adheres closely to Hitchcock’s film (only the most famous of three screen adaptations of John Buchans 1915 novel), replicating much of its dialogue and retaining almost all of The Master of Suspense’s innovations including the prototypical femme fatale Annabella Schmidt, absent from Cain’s all-male book.

Barlow’s most significant original contribution is a simple framing device that sees Hannay give suitably hardboiled monologues at either end of the show, a conceit that both recalls another noir classic, The Third Man, and helps to bridge the gap between performers and audience by knowingly placing us in his shoes: bored observers of life, drained by the daily horrors of the news, and longing for, as he puts it, ‘something mindless and trivial’. (Barlow also adds an explicitly Nazified bad guy, a tin-pot fascist in the mold of Oswald Mosley, in a move the playwright now regards as a chilling portent of the far-right’s new self-styled übermenschen, which—though it’s surprisingly easy to imagine Nigel Farage in a smoking jacket and monocle dragging on a cigarette holder—seems a longish bow to draw.)

Frivolous The 39 Steps may be, but the demands it places on its cast of four are considerable. In reproducing a film that involves dozens of characters, locations, and much technical wizardry—not to mention any number of planes, trains, and automobiles—they are required to juggle half a dozen arts at once (there is some literal juggling too, albeit sans balls) like the old vaudevillians they resemble when madly swapping hats and places in a splendidly frantic recreation of the film’s train chase sequence. Biplanes and marching bands are summoned via the rough magic of shadow puppetry, and cars are fashioned as though by improvisation from packing crates and a rostrum, all couched in the high energy of farce and the winking joy of meta-theatrical knowingness that brings us along for the ride by firmly engaging our imaginations. Barlow is a specialist at this sort of thing, having previously tailored the nativity, the French and Russian Revolutions, and even The Ring Cycle for casts as small as two, and there is, as director John Halpin notes in the program, a special pleasure in watching actors attempt the seemingly impossible, and failing and triumphing ‘in equal and hilarious measures’. (Halpin is no stranger to Barlow, having previously directed The Messiah for HotHouse Theatre and Queensland Theatre Company.)

Halpin’s cast, spearheaded by co-star of ABC TV’s popular Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries Nathan Page as Richard Hannay, is uniformly excellent. Page, in a characterisation that, unlike Robert Donat’s original, is more doltish than debonair, charms and repulses in equal measure, bouffant hairdo framing a strong-jawed, though open, even babyish face, that is permanently, and funnily, set in pokerfaced straight man mode. Anna Steen, though given lamentably little to do, impresses as the characteristically enigmatic femme fatale Annabella Schmidt, and later as Hannay’s cynical love interest Pamela Edwards. Charles Mayer and Tim Overton—the latter now, in this critic’s mind, firmly established as one of Adelaide’s finest young comic actors—skillfully inhabit a dizzying variety of roles, including an almost grotesque pair of Scottish hoteliers. I think it’s fair to say that the precision necessary to carry all of the gags full-term was not yet in evidence on opening night, and there are some dead patches that a simple injection of pace will probably remedy, but I’d be surprised if Tuesday night’s chuckles hadn’t become belly laughs by this time next week.

Ailsa Paterson’s set and costume designs revel in delightful period detail—I particularly liked the red velvet drapes, shell footlights, and polished boards highlighted during the London Palladium sequences—but the three wooden scaffolds, their platforms often obscured by an inelegant black screen, occasionally produce a claustrophobic effect that feels inappropriate. The production works best when the scaffolds are whisked away to allow the flying-in of various bits of scenery—mainly doors and windows—and the actors the space to work wonders out of nearly nothing. Geoff Cobham’s lighting ingeniously reproduces some of film noir’s most iconic effects—lots of hard light, silhouettes, and venetian blind slashes—as well as making good use of cinematic side lighting. Composer Stuart Day’s score works less well, kitschy where it ought to be moody, and beset on opening night by what seemed to me to be uneven levels and slipshod cueing.

Still, if it’s something mindless and trivial you want—and, let’s face it, who doesn’t at this perilous and precarious moment in history?—The 39 Steps delivers like a film noir patsy with the handle of a knife sticking out of their back.              

Friday 17 June 2016

Adelaide Cabaret Festival review: 'The Juliet Letters'

Dunstan Playhouse, 17–18 June 2016. Compositions by Elvis Costello and The Brodsky Quartet. Music performed by The Zephyr Quartet. Piano and musical direction by Carol Young. Performed by Michaela Burger, Cameron Goodall, Jude Henshall and Jamie Jewell. Directed by David Mealor.

Elvis Costello and The Brodsky Quartets’ Juliet Letters, recorded live and released in 1993, stands tall in pop music’s much-derided pantheon of classical crossovers. Inspired by the apparently true story of a Veronese professor whose job it was to return letters addressed to Shakespeare’s Juliet, the album’s twenty songs—many of them only a minute or two long—constitute a sort of love letter to the letter, to the kind of yearning, expressive correspondence nobody writes anymore (at least not by hand, and not free from emoticons).

Costello’s lyrics—every bit as long-winded and acid as his work in the pop arena—infuse each song with its own micro-narrative, some slippery and elusive, or simply too generalised to produce a clear image of the sender, others summoning substantial visions of nervous husbands filing for divorce, female soldiers writing home from the front, or advertising executives filling the world with their sensationalist copy.

Musically, the album is difficult to pin down. Costello, famous for his encyclopedic knowledge of all forms of music, draws on a range of eclectic influences. There are, particularly in ‘This Offer is Unrepeatable’, flashes of Brecht-Weill-style satire; ‘I Almost Had a Weakness’ and ‘Jacksons, Monk and Rowe’ (improbably released as a single!) evoke the Beatles at their most luscious by way of Philip Glass; other elements recall, variously, the lieder tradition of Schubert and Wolf, and even the ethereal beauty of French composer Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.

In this mini-opera-like production, The Zephyr Quartet replaces The Brodsky Quartet of the original album, with Costello’s vocals shared between well-known Adelaide performers Michaela Burger, Cameron Goodall, Jude Henshall, and Jamie Jewell. Musical director Carol Young augments the quartet with piano and, during ‘This Offer is Unrepeatable’, accordion. The decision to introduce piano to the score, which has been subtly rearranged by Young, is a curious one on the part of director David Mealor, often banishing the Quartet—one of the country’s most accomplished—to long stretches of silence. Even when playing, they seem too far to the rear in the mix, and rarely allowed to attack or stretch out in the same way the Brodsky Quartet does on the record.  

The vocal performances, on the other hand, are uniformly strong, especially that of Michaela Burger who draws the first applause of the night, thus breaking a substantial layer of ice, for her soaring, torch song-like rendition of ‘Taking My Life in Your Hands’. It’s an improvement on the original, Costello’s abrasive over-singing happily forgotten. Other songs, such as ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ and ‘The First to Leave’, profit from their rearrangements as duets, while a lyrically updated ‘Damnation’s Cellar’—the legs of Kim Kardashian replacing those of Princess Diana—features a stunning four-voice canon.

Mealor keeps on stage movement to a gestural minimum, red letters written, sealed, and delivered—and sometimes burned, or turned into paper planes—as the performers weave between designer Kathryn Sproul’s intriguing assembly of chairs from different time periods. Chris Petridis lighting and AV design sees the title of each song projected in individual typeface onto a huge black scrim that also allows for some evocative stage pictures, such as when, during the closing number, ‘The Birds Will Still Be Singing’, the performers are lit solely by candles. Petridis’ inventive, sinuous lighting design is a reminder that the near-ubiquitous Geoff Cobham is no longer in a school of his own in this town.

The Juliet Letters has the unmistakable feel of a work-in-progress, neither concert-like enough to succeed as a purely musical event, nor theatrical enough to amount to a thorough reimagining of the original album. Like that album, it is a hybrid that resists classification but contains many pleasures, not the least of which is Costello’s first-rate songcraft—worthy of reappraisal, and skillfully showcased by this production’s four fine performers.   

Adelaide Cabaret Festival review: 'Songs for the Fallen'

Dunstan Playhouse, 15–16 June 2016. Written by Sheridan Harbridge. Directed by Shane Anthony. Performed by Sheridan Harbridge, Ben Gerrard, Garth Holcombe, and Steven Kreamer.

Photo: Louis Dillon Savage

 ‘Well-behaved women,’ wrote American academic Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, ‘seldom make history’. Attributed variously to Marilyn Monroe, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Anne Boleyn, the aphorism makes it into the mouth (besides much else) of Marie Duplessis (Sheridan Harbridge), infamous 19th century courtesan, in this ‘strange little independent theatre show with pop music’. Also written by Harbridge, Songs for the Fallen shares much in common with Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette, which jettisoned the formula of the traditional historical biopic in favour of a brash, fast and loose style that employed a contemporary idiom and soundtrack of 1980s pop and post-punk.

Similarities between the subjects, though separated by more than half a century, abound: proto celebrities by the time they were twenty, both were profligate and promiscuous, running up enormous debts while indulging every whim for clothes, parties, and men (and women, it was rumoured, in Antoinette’s case). At her most spendthrift, Duplessis was lavishing 100,000 francs a year of her various paramours’ generous incomes on the kind of lifestyle that would become de rigueur for her 20th century equivalents—actors and rock stars and, latterly, reality TV idols. She was just 23 when she died, her waiflike body wracked with tuberculosis in what, it doesn’t take much imagination to note, looks in hindsight like a prefiguring of the fabled 27 Club of our own times.  

Duplessis’s life and death are the stuff of myth, to be sure, kindled by their seemingly limitless fascination for artists of all stripes. The Pygmalion-like story of an abused street girl propelling herself up the social ladder by means of beauty, charm, and wit, shedding her common accent and adding the faux noble ‘Du’ to her name along the way, drew chroniclers like moths to a flame. The first was Alexandre Dumas fils, penniless, illegitimate son of a famous writer and one of Duplessis’ last lovers, who rendered her—just five months after her death—as La Dame aux Camellias (Verdi saw the play, and based La Traviata on it). In one of Songs for the Fallen’s more amusing moments, Duplessis asks Dumas if he will write about her after she has gone; unable to meet her gaze, and anxiously toeing the floor of her apartment, he produces a long ‘um’, followed by a barely audible ‘no’.

Such is the tone of much of Songs for the Fallen—irreverent, knowing, flip. When, at the beginning of the show, Duplessis’ loyal maid asks if she needs anything, the courtesan replies, ‘champagne and a microphone. We’re going to have a fucking party!’ It’s her birthday, and also the day of the Paris Carnival—the Carnival falls on her birthday, she coos, not the other way about—and she has only 18 more days to live. The English translation of the title of one of the first songs, Harbridge tells us in one of the many moments she steps out of character to address us directly, shamelessly abandoning her French accent because ‘it hurts’, is ‘Why Do We Love It When Sluts Go Wild?’

If the show’s Fringe origins look a little exposed on the spacious Dunstan Playhouse stage, the energy of Harbridge, ably supported by Ben Gerrard and Garth Holcombe in a shifting array of minor roles, produces a shrinking effect, as do her forays into the audience—dragging hapless members into an onstage orgy or assailing them with feather-filled pillows—and Michael Hankin’s intimate set, a wide circular bed against a painted backdrop of heavy curtains. Steven Kreamer performs Basil Hogios’ score live, employing keyboard, glockenspiel, and the R&B-style beats that underpin many of the songs.

Harbridge’s voice is terrific, and she has created a script that, though more or less chronological and faithful to the known details of Duplessis’ biography, is dynamic and compelling, rife with sexual and scatological humour, and sharing something of the subversive silliness of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Blackadder. Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, another iteration of the Deplessis story, is the subject of much ridicule—a twisted tribute, perhaps, given many obvious similarities—and humorously anachronistic references abound, from Beyoncé to AIDS and spam email.

Harbridge wonders, frequently, at the moral of it all. ‘The greatest thing you’ll ever learn…’ she begins over and over, aping Moulin Rouge!’s Christian. One of her conclusions is ‘don’t masturbate to Radiohead’.

Thursday 16 June 2016

Adelaide Cabaret Festival review: 'The Wharf Revue: Celebrating 15 Years'

Her Majesty’s Theatre, 15–18 June 2016. Written and devised by Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe, and Phillip Scott. Performed by Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe, Phillip Scott, and Amanda Bishop. Musical direction by Phillip Scott.

Photo: Brett Boardman

My first taste of the venerable Wharf Revue was via their 2011 show, Debt Defying Acts. The Rudd-Gillard-Rudd merry-go-round was in its second rotation; the highlight of the evening was a prophetic sketch called ‘Rudd Never Dies’, which transformed the verbose Queenslander into Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom. To think the prime ministership has changed hands three times since then!

Rudd Never Dies is one of many past glories revisited in this summa of the Revue’s nonpartisan political satire, a commemoration of 21 shows and 15 years of continuous service to the Australian public that began, according to legend, on the back of a coaster at the end of Sydney’s Wharf 1. This is an altogether different beast to Debt Defying Acts: slicker and somewhat blunted, on account of the age of most of the material, while David Bergman’s high-powered sound and video designs add a new layer of polish.

‘Howard’s Bunker’, from 2007’s Beware of the Dogma, is the show’s inauspicious opener, whiplashing the audience back to the far-distant demise of the Howard government through that overfamiliar parodic device, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film about Hitler’s last days, Downfall. Only the stomach-turning references to the sex life of John (Phillip Scott) and Janette (Amanda Bishop) are able to raise a titter over the sound of a dud coming to a soft landing.

Other older sketches still detonate on impact, for example Drew Forsythe’s Alan/James Joyce mash-up from 2012’s Red Wharf, the Irish-born Qantas CEO’s self-serving corporate speak rendered in the labyrinthine prose of the modernist author of Ulysses. It’s a wonderful idea, sheeted home by Forsythe’s fruity delivery and freight train-like momentum. Almost as good is The Latham Diaries, a tailcoated Jonathan Biggins performing, in the arch manner of a modern chamber opera, excerpts from the former Labor leader’s infamous political memoir. As elsewhere, Scott, a gifted pianist, provides dexterous accompaniment.    

The new sketches, on the whole, don’t work as well, too many tricks missed and unfunny ad hominem jabs landing below the belt (the fat gags, especially, come relentlessly, and Clive Palmer isn’t the only target). In the case of a set piece that depicts the Palmer United Party as a farcical series of phone calls between its only members, Palmer (Biggins) and Dio Wang (Scott), a good joke is squandered by Scott’s tasteless impersonation of Wang. Forsythe’s ‘Chrissie Pyne Rap’—‘I’m a fixer!’—ought to produce a perfect storm of absurdity in its bringing together of Pyne’s noted effeteness and the posturing masculinity of hip-hop but it fails to come alive, undone in part by the unintelligibility of its lyrics.   

Interspersed among these sketches are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos by Jacqui Lambie, Annabel Crabb, Emma Alberici, and Leigh Sales, each exquisitely captured by Bishop in short video segments. Bishop’s Lambie—all taut skin, heroic bluster, and infinitely expandable vowels—cries out for the tribute of full sketch treatment. Popular culture is mined in ‘Greek Lightning’, which brilliantly retools the musical Grease as a Eurovision-style takedown of the politics of austerity, and in a search for the mythic ABC Charter rendered in the form of a Goons Show sketch. 

While the latter showcases the ensemble’s splendid comic and vocal ranges, it does highlight the need for Biggins, Forsythe and Scott to drastically update their cultural reference points—although slyly acknowledged, there is an unmistakable creakiness present in this 15-year commemoration; even some boomers, I imagine, will be left scratching their heads at a sketch that riffs on Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood.

The extended set piece ‘Les Liberables’ exposes another problem: how to satirise Malcolm Turnbull who, as yet, has shown himself to be beyond even the Revue’s formidable powers of imitation (Abbott is not so lucky—Biggins’ reptilian, cowboy-gaited caricature is marvelous). It remains to be seen whether Turnbull’s prime ministership will endure long enough for Forsythe to work up something with a little more bite.             

Tuesday 14 June 2016

Adelaide Cabaret Festival review: 'Dancing on the Volcano' and 'The Weill File'

Dancing on the Volcano: performed by Robyn Archer, piano Michael Morley, accordion George Butrumlis, Space Theatre, 11–12 June; The Weill File: MC Robyn Archer, piano and musical direction John Thorn, accordion George Butrumlis, performed by Robyn Archer, Barb Jungr, Eddie Perfect, Hew Parham, Ali McGregor, Dunstan Playhouse, 13 June.

Two scenes of extraordinary artistic and cultural foment were as good as extinguished when the Nazis came to power. There was Vienna, home to Klimt, Karl Kraus, Mahler and others, its cafés later fanning the essays and spoken wit of an unrivaled intelligentsia—mostly Jews—that included such lights as Arthur Schnitzler and Peter Altenberg.

And then there was Berlin, awash in the 1920s with American money that gave buoyancy to an unprecedented hedonism and, following the Weimar Government’s relaxing of censorship rules, a new cultural form, conservative at first but soon acridly satirical and preoccupied with sex, politics, and street life: Kabarett. ‘Berlin,’ wrote Stefan Zweig in horror, ‘transformed itself into the Babel of the world’. No wonder one of the Nazi’s first orders of business was to silence its nightclubs; in light of the horrific events in Orlando on Sunday, just one of the era’s innumerable parallels with our own dark times.

Dancing on the Volcano, performed by Robyn Archer with musical accompaniment by Michael Morley and George Butrumlis, is a potted history of Weimar cabaret, focusing on its key partnership of composer Kurt Weill and lyricist Bertolt Brecht, with supplementary excursions into the work of many others: Hanns Eisler, Frederich Hollaender, Wilhelm Grosz, Kurt Tucholsky, Frank Wedekind and Henrich Heiner.

Archer opens with ‘Benares Song’ from The Little Mahagonny, Brecht and Weill’s 1927 small scale concert work for voices and orchestra (it was later incorporated into the full opera, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, banned by the Nazis in 1933). ‘There is no money in this town,’ Archer croons, eyebrows knowingly raised as the audience titters uncomfortably.

Surprisingly, the ‘Alabama Song’ from the same opera—a signature of Weimar cabaret on account of covers by David Bowie, The Doors, and Ute Lemper—isn’t performed. The most well known song here is ‘Mack the Knife’, the murder ballad-cum-popular standard originally from The Threepenny Opera. Archer sings it with relish, eyes widened, teeth bared, r’s rolled. Though unafraid to foreground her Australian accent elsewhere, here her voice is clipped, businesslike, nerve-jangling in its furious detachment.    

We’re in the same theatre where, forty years ago, Archer played the role of Anna I in the Australian premiere of Brecht and Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins, and it shows: you would say she could do this stuff in her sleep if she didn’t seem so alive in every moment, whether channeling the oily salesman of Weill’s ‘Petroleum Song’ (‘all the rest can go to hell/Shell! Shell! Shell!’) or, accompanying herself on ukulele, the young murderer Jakob Apfelberg. Archer remains our foremost interpreter of this music, the seeming effortlessness with which she performs it a con enabled by a lifetime of devotion to understanding its ethos and socio-political context.

But Archer knows, simply, how to sell a song too, proving the point by dipping into the repertoire of Berlin émigré Wilhelm Grosz (Hugh Williams once, having fled from the Nazis, he washed up in England and then America). ‘Harbour Lights’ and ‘Red Sails in the Sunset’ are given brief but fulsome treatment by Archer who, though wryly acknowledging their ‘beautiful schlock’, can’t help but, along with the rest of us, marvel at Grosz’s ear for a transcendent melody.

After the burning of the Reichstag in 1933, Brecht and Weill’s remarkable partnership came to an end as they too found themselves in exile, Weill in America where he began writing for Broadway, Brecht flitting all over Western Europe and Scandinavia. Archer tells us, in one of her many insightful asides, that pretty much anyone who was anyone in the Kabarett scene had left by this time (and to think the outbreak of war was still six years away!). Kurt Tucholsky was one of the few artists who refused to join the exodus, unable to believe, as many others did, that Hitler’s dictatorship would soon collapse. He killed himself in 1935.      

‘Look back on us with indulgence’, Archer quotes Tucholsky as the show ends, the stage plummeting into darkness. And so we have.

Kurt Weill returns as the sole subject of The Weill File, a revue under the direction of Zac Tyler and musical direction of pianist John Thorn. A small orchestra—drums, violin, and double bass—is completed by George Butrumlis on accordion, and Michael Morley, who accompanies MC Robyn Archer during her musical numbers.

Unsurprisingly, it’s Archer who opens the show, a spirited reprisal of Dancing on the Volcano’s ‘Mack the Knife’ (this time with the first verse sung in German for extra flavour) setting a high bar. Eddie Perfect follows with a less than perfect ‘Lost in the Stars’. The song’s poignancy, deepened by the knowledge that the musical of the same name from which it comes was Weill’s final work for the stage before his death the following year, is somewhat neutered by Perfect’s harsh, ill-controlled delivery.

An inevitable mixed bag, the show’s best performances are provided by its female artists, especially Barb Jungr whose ‘Alabama Song’—finally!—is a delightful mess. Even better, though, is her bitter, histrionic ‘Surabaya Johnny’ (‘no one’s meaner than you/my God and I still love you so’). The format is rewardingly disrupted by the appearance of comedy duo Die Rotten Punkte, the supposedly Berlin-based art rockers turning out a grungy ‘Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife’ with Otto Rot (Daniel Tobias) on guitar.

Although Archer convincingly argues that, contrary to popular perception, Weill, unlike Brecht, was not fired by political concerns (the ‘Petroleum Song’ again), The Weill File nevertheless makes the case for the composer as tunesmith par excellence rather than dissident artist. Never able to, as he once told his wife, the singer Lotte Lenya, ‘set the communist party manifesto to music’, what we are left with instead is an enduring legacy of songs and shows that altered the face of popular entertainment for all time. Anybody can be a didact; it takes real skill to write a tune you can hum for days after hearing it just once.                                  

Wednesday 20 April 2016

Review: 'Machu Picchu'

Sydney Theatre Company and the State Theatre Company of South Australia, Dunstan Playhouse, 13 April–1 May 2016. Written by Sue Smith. Directed by Geordie Brookman.

Photo: Brett Boardman

‘In the middle of our life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood,’ begins Dante’s The Divine Comedy. The sentiment, although attributed to the author’s 35-year-old narrator, has an inclusive ring; we all, Dante seems to be saying, stumble into the selva oscura – the dark wood – sooner or later.

For playwright Sue Smith, the entrance to the wood was marked by a cancer diagnosis – non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the same cancer my oldest brother was lucky to survive as a child – in 2014. Smith’s play Kryptonite, a co-production by Sydney Theatre Company and the State Theatre Company of South Australia, was about to start rehearsals; the news that she was seriously ill must have arrived like a thunderclap, the first sign of a deluge that washes away all the old certainties.

In her new play, Machu Picchu, Smith transmutes her experience of cancer into a creakingly familiar scenario: a sudden, unexpected event – in this case a car crash – turns the lives of middle-aged, middleclass engineers Paul (Darren Gilshenan) and Gabby (Lisa McCune) upside down. The play opens with those lines by Dante, muttered by Paul moments before a stray kangaroo propels him into the depths of his own selva oscura with a ‘C6 incomplete spinal cord injury’.

Permanently disabled, and haunted by drug-induced visions while recovering in hospital, Paul’s pain and immobility kindle an existential crisis that was probably going to happen anyway. Incan engineering marvel Machu Picchu, with its remarkable cut stone infrastructure that ensured the famous ‘lost city’s’ endurance as a historical site, becomes the locus of Paul’s dashed dreams: he and Gabby had always meant to go, but now it is too late. Life, as they say, intervenes.

Smith knows how to write complex but humane dramas that, like a clear voice emerging from a loudhailer, project the narrowly particular onto the vertiginously universal. Kryptonite was, for me, a fine example of this kind of play, director Geordie Brookman’s epic theatre flourishes vividly exposing the vim and sweep of Smith’s deeply thought and felt inquiry into Sino-Australian relations since the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Machu Picchu reunites Brookman with Smith, but the results are altogether more mixed. It’s said that the stones of Machu Picchu fit together without mortar so tightly that a knife blade still can’t penetrate the cracks between them – would that the same could be said of Smith’s play. Where Kryptonite was unerringly taut and outward-looking, Machu Picchu feels jerry-rigged and insular.

Watching it, I was reminded of critic Murray Bramwell’s observation about the middleclass plays of Yasmina Reza: that they are about less than they seem. Paul’s tragedy, however entertainingly leavened by Smith’s witty dialogue, rarely connects to the world beyond his and Gabby’s cocoon of bourgeois privilege. That Smith relentlessly satirises the indulgence and narcissism that are the fruits of this privilege – as in a scene set in a meditation retreat run by a stuttering guru (Renato Musolino) – only draws attention to the play’s circumscribed vision. Unlike in Chekhov’s tragicomic meditations on middleclass frustration, Smith’s characters only ever seem to be speaking for themselves.

This would matter less if Machu Picchu held together as well as Kryptonite, but unfortunately it doesn’t. More than one reviewer of the Sydney premiere season suggested that the play was a couple of drafts away from being stage-ready. I hear that changes have been made between then and its present run in Adelaide, but there remains much to be ironed out.

Neither the play’s flashbacks nor Paul’s hallucinations – indifferently staged in this production – provide much in the way of psychological insight, and the script abounds with improbabilities: not only does the guru pop up again, this time as a new-agey psychologist, at the hospital where Paul is convalescing, but so too does his daughter, Lucy (Annabel Matheson), who happens to be a nurse there.

It might fairly be asked, too, why Paul and Gabby have remained friends for so long with a couple as obnoxious as Kim (Elena Carapetis) and Marty (Luke Joslin), and with whom they seem to share little chemistry. A more significant question is that of who’s story Machu Picchu is; it feels, variously, like both Paul’s and Gabby’s, and the uncertainty twists out of focus the play’s themes: perseverance in the face of personal tragedy, and making the most of lives we know to be fragile and finite.   

Gilshenan and McCune, familiar from innumerable television roles, are well cast as Paul and Gabby, McCune successfully playing against type, Gilshenan impressing in his fearless uptake of Smith’s unsparing portrayal of disability’s physical and mental hardships. The smaller roles, anemically drawn, give the rest of the cast little to do except fill in the interstices of Paul and Gabby’s deteriorating relationship with broadly humorous brushstrokes. It’s tempting to wonder whether the two-hander form Smith applied with such success to Kryptonite might not have been fruitfully reemployed here, perhaps in combination with a set less grimly naturalistic than Jonathan Oxlade’s uninspired wall of hospital-green flats.

Machu Picchu strives to invite us to imagine our own sudden descent into Dante’s ‘deep place’, untouched by the sun. But Brookman’s direction, compassionate as it is, can’t make the leap for Smith – or for us.