Reflections: end of year catch-ups

ReflectionsImage: Josh Johnson

Dear Greenroom readers,

It’s been a while … at least it feels that way … a while since a post here on Greenroom, and I’ve been feeling the guilt at not reviewing at least three, new, local shows which, due to the generosity of the producers, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in the past few months. Greenroom is a labour of love for me; I have no editor whacking the timeline stick, and sometimes the labour can get on top of one. The end of year pace and the pressure that creates have been a bit overwhelming to tell the truth. Sound familiar?

I’ve been involved in a few productions, performances and general end-of-year activities that have left little time for anything other than collapsing in a heap in what’s seemed like all too brief snatches of downtime. One fallout from the energy drain has been something new to me: a complete disinterest in writing. I’m going to call it ‘burnout’ for want of a better term, and I know it’s only temporary. At least I trust it will return in the New Year. So, my apologies at the outset to the individuals, companies and groups to whom I am indebted.

Whilst reviews after the fact are less useful to marketing units in production companies, I do know that some appreciate a reflection. Indeed, these memory pieces can be interesting in their own right. What is it that stays with one a week, month, year after seeing a play? I know I have vivid snatches of memory of plays seen over 40 years ago. How these productions made me feel then continues to affect me now.

One of the reasons I started Greenroom back in 2009 was to try to capture an individual slice of the experience of theatre-going. During doctoral research during the 1990s I was shocked to find so little had been captured of Australian theatre over the years. I made a promise that I would try to do my bit to redress the balance if I could. With the internet being a monster archive, it may well be that these posts are also letters to the future. Indeed, if you are reading this (if the technology holds up) many years from when I am writing at the end of 2013. I hope you find it interesting.  But, I digress.

It is with this in mind and having wrapped all the Christmas presents and finished my shopping, having run around malls and sites trying to find the perfect gift for my outdoorsy nephew, finally settling on one of the top 10 EDC knives. Now I finally have had time to reflect on: MOTHERLAND by Katherine Lyall-Watson; PREHISTORIC by Marcel Dorney, and CONNECT FOUR – a new musical theatre piece with music and lyrics by Alanya Bridge

With thanks for your interest in reading Greenroom during 2013 and a special hug to Sita Borhani for helping to keep Greenroom engaged. All the best to you and yours for a joy-filled Christmas and a safe and relaxing summer.

Onwards!

Kate (Editor)

MOTHERLAND by Katherine Lyall-Watson, directed by Caroline Dunphy at Metro Arts.

If you like labels, then MOTHERLAND is a memory play. Its characters remember their past and embody their stories whilst individual plots intersect and affect one another. Katherine Lyall-Watson‘s play is a beautifully-crafted piece and was recognised as a Patrick White Playwright’s Award finalist.

I was reminded when the play had finished of how much audiences love a good yarn. We need to invest something in a play for it to work and I don’t just mean the price of admission or the hour or two sitting in the dark with comparative strangers. It’s all about wondering what will happen to its characters and caring sufficiently for them which is the key investment.

There are many to care for in this play and that could have been a trap. There’s the real Nina Berberova (1901-1993) Russian poet and revolutionary; Nell Tritton (1899-1946) the Brisbane girl turned expatriate and often out of her depth but never determination; the fictional ( but based on a real woman) Alonya, the modern Russian researcher who wants a new start for her son Sasha in Australia. She meets the fictional Chris, a shady Queensland business man on a trip to Moscow in 1991 during a military coup. He helps Alonya and Sasha by bringing them back to Brisbane but, despite his good intentions, manages to get caught up in the fallout from the Fitzgerald Inquiry. And there’s the real Alexander Kerensky (1881-1970) the deluded, former Prime Minister of Russia – Kerensky who marries Nell and who also ends up, for a while at least, in suburban Brisbane. It’s quite a list and a rich, almost improbable mix of stories!

A production of this play needs a clarity of focus as well as a delicate touch to capture the play’s heart and to avoid cluttering up the individual stories and the play’s action. The play does glide between space and time – Revolutionary Russia, Paris, a couple of world wars through to the 1990s. My recollection, however, is not of an epic at work where dramatic events overshadow the personal, but of quite the opposite. History becomes the background for the personal and the intimate; the actions of the protagonists, the richness of their characters and their stories are, let’s face it, far more interesting. Ms Lyall-Watson’s apparently improbable mix of characters proves to be an intriguing blend.

As for the production, Caroline Dunphy‘s directorial touch is marvellously deft. She searches out the text’s rhythms, intentions and tone, shaping and staging them sensitively into a very fine production. I look forward to seeing more of her work as a director.

The cast are fine actors all – uniformly excellent. There is an easy fluidity of action in MOTHERLAND – the sense of an ensemble whose members are at the top of their game and working in sync. I’ve written this a few times this year and it makes me think that one aspect of the really good work we’re seeing in Brisbane right now has to do not just with the individual artistry of the members of the cast but also with the way excellent ensemble work is emerging as a real marker of local work and, of course, of the kinds of plays being written – another post maybe?

Here Barbara Lowing (Nina)Kerith Atkinson (Nell), Peter Cossar (Chris, Kerensky), Danny Murphy (Sasha, Khodasevich) and Rebecca Riggs (Alonya) create a suite of characters or give us an insight into the lives of individual characters across the years, and they do it with such beautiful ease. Ms Lowing can morph from the old Nina into the young in the swirl of a scarf or the turn of a step; she is magic to watch on stage. And while we’re talking of good acting, one of my pet hates is seeing adults playing children. Danny Murphy’s Sasha fits him like a glove. Mr Murphy finds the child-like quality of the boy without ever sacrificing the child’s or the actor’s integrity by resorting to childish (always fake) behaviour.

This lovely – I’m going to call it ‘anti-epic’ – production is enormously accomplished and the intimate tone at its heart fitted so beautifully into the little black-box of the Sue Benner Theatre at Metro Arts. Annie Robertsons spare design literally framed the action lit by David Walters‘ masterly touch.

PREHISTORIC written and directed by Marcel Dorney at Metro Arts; co-presented with Elbow Room (Melbourne)

There’s something very sweet about seeing a new performance space open up for business and it was a buzz to see a show in the recently refurbished cellar/basement theatre at Metro Arts. As it turned out PREHISTORIC in the tight confines of the basement was also a fine, grungy, in-yer-face fit with the work which took us back to to 1979, a year I recall pretty well although I was a very new mother at the time and absolutely unaware of punk music; I don’t think the word ‘grunge’ had yet entered the lexicon though I’m pretty sure ‘in-yer-face’ had. However, there was no doubt the Bjelke-Petersen government, police corruption, and the violence of the Special (Goon) Squad were thrust in the faces of many here in Queensland during those awful times.

I loved PREHISTORIC. It was loud and brash, brutally satirical and very timely. I’d worked in the past with Marcel Dorney; he wrote RETURN, a play that USQ’s Performance Centre commissioned for the third year acting students in 2003. I directed a cast that included Kathryn Marquet who appears in PREHISTORIC. It felt for me a bit like old times.  Anyway …

Marcel’s work is always intense and fiercely intelligent, and he writes with a brilliant ear for dialogue but, at least back when I last worked with him, that particular play’s ideas were hard to unpack. In PREHISTORIC though, the writing is finely tuned, the focus crystal clear. Its tone swings from acerbic through witty to gentle and tender, but it’s the way he has finessed and blended idea and poetry in text and on stage that really affected me.

Another excellent ensemble Anthony Standish, Anna Straker, Steve Toulmin, and Ms Marquet take us back to Brisbane 1979 and a suite of characters who get caught up in the ugly politics of the era. I imagine their stories based on real incidents will come as a revelation to many.

During the play the characters are rarely more than an arm’s length or two away from the audience; they talk directly to us, switching back from direct address narrative to dramatic action. It’s a fluid, embodied narrative style that works so well in the episodic structure that forms PREHISTORIC. My favourite scene … our four friends – possibly a tad high – escape away from the awful world of police brutality outside and into the cinema. We see them watch what turns out to be the movie of Watership Down. Their tough exteriors – survival gear – drop away and, vulnerability exposed, they watch the destruction of the rabbits with wide-eyed wonder. It’s funny sure but I found it also deeply, deeply affecting.

The characters decide to form a punk band (original composition and arrangements Steve Toulmin and Marcel Dorney) as a way to protest. They sing (didn’t understand/couldn’t hear a word but we had the lyrics in a zine) for us – we’re an audience now in 1979. As time goes by, the band becomes associated with organised protest – they’re anti-government and ripe for a visit from the squad. What then unfolds is a terrifying sequence of events that, as the lights went down, begged the question, ‘Surely this couldn’t happen again? Not here.’

CONNECT FOUR – a new musical by Alanya Bridge directed by Emily Gilhome

“Connect Four is an intimate new musical experience exploring the simultaneous humour and tragedy of contemporary human interactions. Based in four acts and featuring eight local performers. Connect Four illustrates the lives of 16 Australians dealing with love and loss.’ (Programme note CONNECT FOUR)

New, intimate musicals … they are always exciting for those who love musical theatre. So much of what is produced on musical theatre stages in this country – at least what most theatre goers would be aware of – is the time-honoured, classical book or blockbuster. There’s nothing like a new musical, a new ‘voice’ in the theatre to get the pulse racing. I’ve seen a few ‘chamber musicals’ here in Brisbane over the last few years and their intimacy and focus on the song and the singer (include the composer here of course) are what excites this theatre-goer – that, and the fact that organisations like the Judith Wright Centre for Contemporary Arts and Metro Arts are so supportive of local artists.

There’s no doubt this is a city that loves its musicals and it has some fine, local talent at work. CONNECT FOUR adds to the roll-call. Composer Alanya Bridge accompanied the songs with Lachlan Symonds on bass. CONNECT FOUR’s cast are known to many in the musical theatre community and there are some terrific voices and a clever mix of experienced performers and newcomers: Erika Naddei, Lara Boyle, Matt Crowley, Nick Hollamby, Wade Colbran-Thomas, Judy Hainsworth, Ethan Samuel Jones, and Julie McCoy.

CONNECT FOUR is a chamber musical and at this stage, certainly, closer to a song-cycle. What it lacks in a clear, strong plot it makes up musically. Ms Bridge’s first showing of this new work will, I have no doubt, be refined in subsequent showings. I lost the plot (literally) with so many characters and in the static way the interlocking stories were staged – admittedly on the very small stage at Metro Arts. There were several songs that were musically very similar, and the play, as well as a focus on the book, could well do with a pruning of the long song list and a rethink about its current four act structure.

I look forward to its next outing.

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