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: 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.

 

Review: Julius Caesar – La Boite Theatre

Thomas Larkin (Mark Antony) Photo: Al Caeiro

Julius Caesar, currently playing at Brisbane’s Roundhouse Theatre is the second offering of La Boite’s 2011 season. It’s a welcome back surprise to the in-the-round format for this production too; how I’ve missed it. Speaking of good surprises in the theatre, I love going to La Boite; you never quite know what to expect. From the configuration of audience to performance space, to the exploration of the ‘full grammar of performance – movement, music, and the visual arts as much as the spoken word’ (La Boite program note Julius Caesar) you’re never going to experience a dull night in the theatre. Artistic Director David Berthold is taking his company into some pretty exciting places. But to this production …

I must say I have felt really sorry for the backstage crew of a lot of new Australian productions I’ve seen in the past couple of years. I’m trying to find a phrase that sums up the kind of messy mayhem attacking our stages in plays like Anatomy Titus (QTC 2009); STC’s recent Oresteia; Belvoir’s Measure for Measure, and now Julius Caesar which is directed by David Berthold and designed by Greg Clarke.  I think ‘splatter play’ is going to have to do because that’s what happens an awful lot of the time in these shows. Actors and audiences are subjected to lots and lots and lots of fake blood, gore and other goo – baby powder, chocolate pudding (acting for you-know-what) as well as canned fruit salad – the old stand-by for vomit. These are liberally sprinkled, spattered and squirted – everywhere. Add booze and food (as food) to the mix and you have a Stage Manger’s nightmare. By the way, they are all classics or draw upon classical texts for their inspiration. Continue reading Review: Julius Caesar – La Boite Theatre