Review: No Man’s Land – Queensland Theatre Company & Sydney Theatre Company at Bille Brown Studio

The last time I was at the Bille Brown Studio some weeks back it was in an unholy mess – the lads and lasses from The Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Company had seen to that during the course of I Feel Awful. I wrote afterwards of feeling sorry for the stage management team who had to clean up after every performance.

Last night I walked back into an altogether different space. Designer Robert Kemp has transformed the BB’s minimalist black into the cosy living room of an upper middle class London home – the kind you see in movies where the whisky comes in cut glass tumblers and the soda splashes out of siphons. This is old-fashioned (if shabby) gentility on display. There is a huge back wall of bookshelves (complete with a secret entrance), a very well-stocked drinks cabinet. Rugs adorn the polished wood floor, and lamps of all kinds are on the shelves. There’s a comfy club chair to lounge in and, to complete the picture, a couple of China dogs – those most-assuredly English mantelpiece adornments. Get the picture? It’s all for No Man’s Land, Harold Pinter’s marvellous play about the decay of the British Empire – or is it? One is never quite sure with Pinter. However, I took my cue from the character Spooner (Peter Carroll) who leaps with delight as a metaphor escapes from the lips of Hirst (John Gaden) during the course of their extraordinary encounter in Hirst’s living room. With Pinter, you take all the clues you can get. Metaphors aside, the odd couple have met up on Hampstead Heath, and Spooner, a snowy-haired, greasy-suited pixie of a con-man – clearly fallen on harder times – has inveigled his way into the staid Hirst’s home for a drink and a chat. What happens after that is the substance of the play.

The Pinter trademarks are all there in No Man’s Land: characters confined to a single room, mysterious arrivals, and the sense of  menace in the air – even the towering shelves look as though they could collapse inwards and bury the protagonists. And then there’s the linguistic relish of dialogue which winds itself around Pinter’s favourite themes – memory, power and sexuality. However, in this production, the Pinter-esque pauses, beats and often lugubrious silences which pepper his plays – seem hardly noticeable. Either they’re not indicated in this particular script, or Michael Gow has decided to ignore them in the playing. Good decision.

The direction sets a cracking pace – 95 minutes without an interval – and it produces a delightfully quick-witted interpretation of a play which is also composed of plenty of darkness and no small amount of sombre inflection if that’s the way you want to go. What happens in this production is an emphasis of the light and the quick over the dark and the heavy, and it works wonderfully well. It is a refreshing contemporary take on a modern classic.

Michael Gow has wanted to direct this play for a long time and he’s cast it superbly. I can’t think of a better pairing than these two fine actors in the central roles of Pinter’s demanding play. They carve up the text and serve it with relish. Dangle a metaphor before Peter Carroll or a linguistic double-entendre before John Gaden and stand back. Their performances are nothing less than a combined master class in comic timing, stage craft, and the mastery of Pinter’s periphrastic turns of phrase and juicy linguistic circumlocution – yes, it’s like that at times, only really, really funny.

These two nimble-footed veterans are joined by the two lurking lads about the place who appear to be butler-manservant and carer-keeper. The performance space wasn’t the only thing transformed in this production. There is an almost-unrecognisable Andrew Buchanan as Briggs; he’s boof-headed and buffed and, my God, those arms, that chest! His sidekick Foster, the dangerously-silky, Chav-like enigma is played by a manscaped, elegantly oily Steven Rooke. Messrs Buchanan and Rooke, two of Brisbane’s best younger actors, are terrific matches for their elder colleagues; theirs are wonderfully original and sure characterisations.

This is the first time No Man’s Land has been performed professionally in Australia. Queensland Theatre Company’s co-production with Sydney Theatre Company is a ripper of a show. Don’t miss it.

No Man’s Land by Harold Pinter
Bille Brown Studio, Brisbane 19 Sept-22 Oct
Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House 1 Nov-7 Dec (Check STC website for session times and details)  

Director: Michael Gow; Designer: Robert Kemp; Lighting Designer: Nick Schlieper; Sound Designer: Tony Brumpton

Review: Water Falling Down – Queensland Theatre Company

The time has come to declare the ubiquitous ’75-110 minute full-length play-without-an-interval’ as the norm on local stages. The hefty play from not all that long ago – the ones with an interval and sometimes even two – seem to have gone. The really old ones – the classics – are more likely to make their appearance in a ‘movie-length’, reworked adaptation like La Boite’s Julius Caesar or Belvoir Street’s recent The Wild Duck. Soon interval drinks will seem quaintly old-fashioned, something which front-of-house bar managers may, or may not appreciate. Of course, it makes for an earlier night than used to be the case, opens up getting home by public transport, and there’s more time for after-show get togethers. Such was the case last night at Queensland Theatre Company’s world-premiere production of Mark Swivel’s Water Falling Down (running time 90 minutes). QPAC’s Cremorne Theatre did the honours, and it was just about the perfect size and space for what is a very intimate take on love, loss and rocky father-son relationships.

Last night also marked Andrea Moor’s professional debut as a director with the state theatre company. Ms Moor is an accomplished actor and teacher of acting and, for the past couple of years, has been honing her directorial skills as an emerging artist with QTC as well as with independent productions in Brisbane. Greenroom had the pleasure of doing an interview with Andrea in 2010. Water Falling Down is Sydney-based playwright Mark Swivel’s fifth work presented first at the National Play Festival in 2010. The play’s subject matter reminded me, albeit briefly, of the bittersweet comedy of the television series of Mother and Son. It plays out in the same territory but in a more sober key – an ageing parent and adult child negotiating a relationship that changes by turn as child becomes parent and parent child. Water Falling Down features Ron Haddrick and Andrew Buchanan in two plum roles as the father and son on a literal and metaphoric journey together. The play’s events are sparked by the increasing frailty and aphasia of the father and by the son’s desire for love and understanding. The setting is a trip to Europe designed to bring the pair together and to revive memories before the progress of the father’s condition removes words and communication forever.

A side note – I must confess to being somewhat in awe of Ron Haddrick. He was one of the actors whose names were very familiar to me when I was growing up as a child of radio drama and black and white television back in the 60s. His voice and acting were always thrilling, and Mr Haddrick’s reputation in the Australian theatre industry remains second to none. He is greatly admired and loved by colleagues and was also a terrific cricketer – he represented SA in the Sheffield Shield competition in the 1950s. Last night I very much enjoyed seeing Mr Haddrick, one of our best senior artists working side by side with one of our best younger ones, Andrew Buchanan. Messrs Haddrick and Buchanan were beautifully cast in their respective roles and they brought their considerable individual and collective acting skills to bear on the work.

Andrea Moor’s directorial vision has wrapped Water Falling Down in a production which provides the dynamic missing in Mark Swivel’s play. The text is essentially a collage of scenes which seem very often repetitious and which don’t take the opportunity to examine further the relationship between father and son. As a result the action feels static, and dramatic tension dissipates in a series of stops and starts. This could also be part of the reason why the play feels longer than its 90 minutes of playing time.

Water Falling Down has a tender heart and it contains many beautifully written and nuanced scenes. I was greatly moved by one towards the end of the play when the father finally opens up to the son in a fleeting moment of lucidity – the words flow as he speaks of his limitations, lifelong fears and especially of the comfort of an understanding wife.  The richness of the writing here was matched by the finesse of the playing by both Haddrick and Buchanan. At the end however, there’s a feeling that the individual trees are more interesting than the whole wood which is Water Falling Down. It just doesn’t pull together.

Andrea Moor has picked an excellent production team for her debut for Queensland Theatre Company – some are collaborators from previous productions. Production values are always high with QTC and this production is no exception. Design for Water Falling Down by Ross Wallace and lit by Jason Glenwright is minimalist-elegant and visually very stylish. Mr Wallace’s video and still images are projected on to a giant bank of sliding screens and help situate the play’s locations. Along with Phil Hagstrom’s music, these contribute to the play’s atmosphere. A revolve enables ‘travelling’ and scene changes without hands-on assistance. Scene changes felt a little long, but perhaps this is something which the season will rectify as backstage changes speed up in what I understand is pretty much a black-out state.

For many in the audience the subject matter of the play will resonate strongly. Mr Swivel himself wrote the play out of the personal experience of his own father’s failing health and Andrea Moor writes in her director’s note of the relationship that was forged as she nursed her own mother in the last year of her life. The subject matter of the play is rich and affecting but, if I had a wish, it would be that the writer looks again at the resolution in the play’s final moments. For my taste, at least, this moment is overly-sentimentalised and reductive. Endings of all kinds are hard.

 

Water Falling Down plays at QPAC’s Cremorne Theatre, Brisbane until 7 May

A correction brought to my attention by Ross Wallace, the designer of Water Falling Down – video and still images were created by Mr Wallace as the Designer and not by Declan McMonagle who is, as the program notes, attributed as ‘Assistant Video Editor.’ Greenroom apologies for this confusion and has made the appropriate correction above.