Review: Cosi – La Boite Theatre Company at the Roundhouse Theatre

Images: Dylan Evans Photography (Main Image L-R: Trevor Stuart, Jessica Marais, Amy Ingram, Anthony Standish, Benjamin Schostakowski, Jennifer Flowers, James Stewart)

Cosi by Louis Nowra is a much-loved and, by now, a classic in the canon of modern Australian plays. According to David Berthold, it’s also the playwright’s personal favourite. It’s certainly admired by La Boite Theatre Company who have produced it three times over the years. The latest has just opened at the Roundhouse under the direction of Mr Berthold and it’s a production that finds the rhythm of the play’s compassionate heart.

Filled with marvellous characters, and set in an asylum during the Vietnam War, Cosi follows the adventures of young Lewis (Ben Schostakowski) a uni student, who gets a job helping the inmates “put on a show.” He’s all for a bit of Brecht but Roy (played with glorious gusto by Trevor Stuart) is adamant that the music of the spheres must be heard in their shabby little theatre, and so it’s Mozart’s opera Cosi Fan Tutte that gets the nod. It’s as nutty an idea as is possible to imagine, and perfect given the play’s setting. No one can sing, one can hardly speak – all are damaged and apparently incapable of any kind of cooperative activity. Young Lewis (‘Jerry’ to Roy’s ‘Martin’) is clearly out of his depth.

Aaron Davison and Benjamin Schostakowski - Photo by Dylan Evans
Aaron Davison and Benjamin Schostakowski

‘Putting on a show’ plays are ready-made for comedy. Typically we are treated to agonising (hysterical) auditions; shambolic (hysterical) rehearsals and, finally, awful (hysterically awful) performances. There are often great one-liners and in-jokes for the theatre crowd so there’s a lot to laugh at. By the way, the little theatre that designer Hugh O’Connor creates in the big room at the Roundhouse is just delightful. Cosi is no different in this regard, but there’s a whole lot more going on.

One of the great strengths of Nowra’s play is its ability not only to make us laugh but also to make us feel the hurt of those we’re laughing at. Cosi also makes plain the importance of so much we take for granted. As we watch the hapless troupe and their director grope and stumble around it’s clear that they are, perhaps for the first time ever, rediscovering what it means to be useful. No longer isolated they come together squabbling, arguing points of view finding a kind of collective wisdom and joy on the fly. Continue reading Review: Cosi – La Boite Theatre Company at the Roundhouse Theatre

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)

Continue reading Reflections: end of year catch-ups

Review: Trollop – Queensland Theatre Company at Bille Brown Studio

Some time ago, I pulled this quote from a longer article by John Lahr – The Illumination Business: why drama critics must look at and look after the theatre. I came across it again as I was reviewing another piece I’m working on. It continues to resonate for me, but the quote itself couldn’t have come at a better time as I sat down to record my response to Maxine Mellor’s play Trollop, the winner of the Premier’s Drama Award 2012-13 and receiving its premiere, world performance at Queensland Theatre Company.

Reviewing assumes that the plot is the play; criticism, on the other hand, knows that the plot is only part of a conversation that the playwright is having about a complex series of historical and psychological issues. The job of the critic is to join that conversation, to explore the play and link it to the world. The job of the reviewer is to link the play to the box office.

Mr Lahr is clearly not  keen to be described as a ‘reviewer.’ I don’t particularly care one way or the other; a critic by any other name will smell as pungent. Anyway, I did rather like the bit that notes the critic’s job in joining in the conversation. I’ve always been more interested in conversations with playwrights than budget bottom lines and I agree that plots are not the play, which is just as well. Continue reading Review: Trollop – Queensland Theatre Company at Bille Brown Studio

Review: End of the Rainbow – Queensland Theatre Company and QPAC at the Playhouse

Image (supplied QTC): Christen O’Leary

At the time Judy Garland was destroying herself behind closed doors and on stage at Talk of the Town nightclub during her last concert season I also happened to be in London.

It was the winter of 1968-69 and I remembered seeing snow then for the first time. I didn’t, however, see any of Ms Garland’s shows during that 5 week season not only because I couldn’t afford it, but also because I wasn’t interested. Judy Garland was somewhat passé, known less for her artistry and more for the sad scandals that continued to plague her life – a bit of an embarrassment, really and old, after all.

I remembered hearing about her death in 1969 and, although finding it sad, was not surprised. At the time of her death aged 47 – what I had thought of as old – she was already iconic but the legend that was ‘Garland’ – the tragic, self-destructive artist – continued to grow after death. It was via the legend that I got to know about Judy Garland and heard her songs and saw her movies and watched black and white documentaries of her performing solo and with daughters Liza and Lorna and then Liza talking about ‘Mumma.’

Then, along comes Peter Quilter‘s semi biographical play with music End of the Rainbow in a co-production by Queensland Theatre Company and QPAC. First produced in Sydney in 2005 and subsequently world-wide, this big, new production directed by David Bell focusses on the last seven months of Judy Garland’s private life – that time we ‘shared’ London – she in a suite at the Ritz Hotel, me in a basement bedsit in Shepherd’s Bush. Continue reading Review: End of the Rainbow – Queensland Theatre Company and QPAC at the Playhouse

Review: The NeverEnding Story – Harvest Rain Theatre Company at Cremorne Theatre QPAC

Tim O’Connor writes wonderfully lucid Director’s Notes, and a good thing too, because I have always found The Neverending Story utterly confusing. My memories of the 1984 film are of a leather-bound book, a rock-eating mountain and a flying dog (sorry, luck dragon). There may also have been a mulleted David Bowie singing in a maze … or was that Labyrinth? It’s fair to say I’m not a die-hard fan.

So as my little girl and I sat in the foyer on opening night, flicking through the programme of Tim O’Connor’s re-envisioning of Michael Ende’s fantasy novel, The Neverending Story (1979), I read her the story blurb slowly (nothing wrong with being prepared I thought) and, as we walked into the wonderfully intimate Cremorne Theatre, I was confident she would know what was going on. After all, she’s infinitely smarter than I was at six, and loves a good yarn.

Well, by half way through it became clear that the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree; she didn’t have a clue. This is not the type of show where you can break your concentration to unwrap your lollipop. I’m still answering questions two days later – having to explain both the plot and the higher order concepts at work.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a lovely, lovely idea that a child’s imagination can save an entire world from being eaten up by despair. It’s just that, in the telling of it, you meet so many fantastical characters (whose names you can’t pronounce) and your quest takes so many strange twists and turns as you traverse the vast Fantasia, that it can be easy to get a little bit lost. Especially if you’re six. Or thirty.

That’s not to say she didn’t have a marvellous time. It was, after all, a feast for the eyes and the ears. Continue reading Review: The NeverEnding Story – Harvest Rain Theatre Company at Cremorne Theatre QPAC

Review: The Removalists – Queensland Theatre Company at Bille Brown Studio

It’s been a while since I’d last seen one of David Williamson‘s best plays, The Removalists – 36 years, in fact, in an opening night performance of a production by QTC at the old La Boite Theatre in Hale Street. I took the opportunity this week to see a matinee performance once again at Queensland Theatre Company. I was surrounded by kids, and seniors like me; weekday matinees tend to be like that.

The current production, directed by Michelle Miall for the Studio program, was a bit of a nostalgia trip in many ways, and I wondered how the high school students around me would react to a period piece – for such it is. The first production of the play in Melbourne in 1971 featured David Williamson as the removalist, and his wife to be, Kristin. This production marks the play’s 40th anniversary. Still hard to believe …

Back in the early 1970s Australian drama was going through its heady nationalist phase. The Ocker figure made his appearance over and over, the women’s liberation movement was getting an exploratory nod (here and there) on stages, and more than a fair sprinkling of vulgarity and violence was the norm. Lots of beer cans were popped on stage and the male vernacular ruled. They were exciting theatrical times and it was all exhilarating stuff, although female characters tended to be short-changed in what was an overwhelmingly masculinist world on stage. More often than not, these productions shocked the socks off seniors at matinee performances back then. These plays hadn’t made the schools’ syllabus list – these too were awaiting liberation.

Williamson’s text is tight, entertaining realism in the service of a good yarn; this much hasn’t changed at all. The twin protagonists – Sgt Dan Simmonds played by Chris Betts and Kenny Carter by Steven Rooke – are terrific, layered characters which remain a challenge and, I imagine, a delight to play for any actor. They are two of the great roles in modern Australian drama. Both Betts and Rooke are well matched here and in good form as they spar verbally and physically.

As I watched, I was reminded of something that was obvious in a lot of Australian plays from the 1970s: Williamson wrote awful roles for women. Until later on, when complex, central characters like Frances (Travelling North) or Barbara (The Perfectionist) appeared in his works, this lack of meaty roles for women in his plays was a bone of contention amongst female actors. In this production of The Removalists (one of those plays) two fine actors Emmaline Carroll (Fiona Carter) and Natasha Yantsch (her sister, Kate) are constrained by roles which are as slight as the male roles are rich; they are almost entirely satellites and supports to the males. Peter Cook as Rob, the Removalist, and Anthony Standish who plays Simmonds’ foil, the new cop on the job, Const Neville Ross round out the cast.

Michelle Miall’s production keeps the pace up – 1 hr 44 mins with no interval – and she lets more of the comedy show. Chris Betts’ Simmonds is less the sinister, terrifying thug than comic, lecherous braggart circling Kate in hopes of some overtime fun. Steven Rooke is excellent as Kenny; it’s some of his best work, and he’s always good. Anthony Standish is terrific too as Ross; he’s the embodiment of a boofhead – all nervous, try-hard precision. In a weird way, even after you know he’s committed an appalling crime, you just can’t help feeling sorry for the guy. Kenny’s the same. He’s unlikeable but sufficiently complex to grab our interest and our sympathy. ‘I’m unpredictable. It’s part of me charm,’ he notes cannily of himself. Williamson may well have written the role of Rob knowing he was going to play it himself in that original production. It was a smart move either way; it’s an unforgettable little pearler of a role. Once heard, you never forget that defining mantra from the guy who knows he’s the real man in charge, ‘I’ve got $10 000 worth of machinery ticking over out there in the drive.’ Peter Cook fills this smartypants Everyman role with relish – and a smirk.

In the post-show Q&A session the kids asked about the props: ‘Were they real?’ they asked. There’s a television audience for you! It turns out that the labels and packaging, uniforms and set dressing were all of period in which the play is set. Lit by Jason Glenwright,  Simone Romaniuk‘s wonderfully-awful-70s (you can still get that wallpaper?) set design works well for police station (Act 1) and Kenny and Fiona’s living room (Act 2.) I’m a sucker for those soundscape atmospheric mixes of music and popular culture from a period. Here, Sound Designer Tony Brumpton gathers snatches of television and news broadcasts from the early 1970s and gets the sound of the times spot on as well. By the bye, hasn’t the style of VO announcers changed?

Whilst the student audience asked about the police corruption portrayed in the play, no one talked about how the actors had worked on the violence which made The Removalists such a shocking piece when it was first produced on Australian stages; there’s that television audience again. Whilst I recall squirming during the onstage violence – choreographed by Scott Witt – I found even more revolting the perverted mateship that plays out over a beer and a cigarette. Kenny drags himself back from the kitchen where Ross has beaten and kicked him to a bloody mess, and, in the scene that follows, Williamson sets up one of the most violent and disturbing endings in Australian drama. Beer can in hand Kenny dies from a massive cerebral haemorrhage and, in what the stage directions describe as ‘a frenzied ritual of exorcism,’ both police officers beat each other senseless over his body. It’s truly brilliant, ghastly stuff.

When it first appeared to great acclaim, the black comedy and the horror of The Removalists was undeniably shocking. Whilst it may not have the visceral impact of the original productions in their own time, there is no doubting its dramatic power.

The Removalists by David Williamson Directed by Michelle Miall for Queensland Theatre Company plays at the Bille Brown Studio, 78 Merivale Street, S Brisbane until 6 August. Check the Company website for details.