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: Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness – La Boite & Sydney Theatre Company @ The Roundhouse

Images by Al Caeiro

Do you long for subversive comedy and theatre with a capital T? Regret the loss of sensation from our stages? Do you love the freakery of the side-show? If you are not troubled by the sight of  pustular eruptions and blood-letting – indeed, if you find that kind of stuff hilarious – then, ladies and gentlemen, step right this way. Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness by Anthony Neilson for La Boite and Sydney Theatre Company could be just the transgressive tonic needed for jaded theatre palates.

If you are a tad squeamish, never did understand all the fuss over Monty Python or, if you like a nice neat slab of realism all wrapped up at night’s end, then stay away; this one is not for you. If, however, you throw caution to the wind and your curiosity eventually leads you to a seat ringside, be warned. You are going to be whirled away by theatre in full outrageous, imaginative flight in the equivalent of a wild fairground ride. There is no stopping and no retreat once the carnivale capers begin and you are invited via the seductive tones of the mysterious, caped and moustachioed Edward Gant (Paul Bishop) to witness his tales of wonder.

Our host and master of the small troupe introduces his Players: Madame Poulet (Emily Tomlins) ‘Little’ Nicky Ludd (Lindsay Farris) and Sgt Jack Dearlove (Bryan Probets). This lineup of Victorian era fringe-dwellers are to be our tale-tellers for the evening. By the way, buy a programme; their backstories are worth the price alone.

The stories the Players enact are the stuff of melodrama: fantastic, grotesque confections like the tale-tellers themselves – but they are marvellously, awe-fully funny too. There are also hints of ripping yarns, nursery tales and Kipling but I’m not going to spoil a minute of the fun ahead of you by spilling the pearls on this neo-Victorian romp. Trust me though – Tennyson it isn’t.

The play reminded me of a couple of books I had as a child. They were full of oddities and cruelty and I’m not exactly sure how I ended up with them – some aunt or uncle with a dark sense of humour, perhaps. Coles Funny Picture Books contained morality tales and creepy poetry where naughty children are whipped (for heaven’s sake) by machines, and family pets die to save the kids – and, and they were ILLUSTRATED! You just never forget some things! These weird and wonderful books were the stuff of the high Victorian age, and had emerged from the fevered brain of Edward William Cole who set up and ran a huge Book Arcade in marvellous Melbourne in the 1880s. Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness has the same kind of very English (and perverse) 19th century sensibility – laced with dirty bits. Despite all the excesses and the cruelty, at the heart of this fable is romance – a lovely pearl just waiting to be set free. You’ll understand when you see the show.

The production, which is directed by Sarah Goodes in her debut for both companies, is spectacular in the real sense of the word. Costume designs by Romance Was Born are just plain dazzling and the best we’ve seen in town for a long time. However (picky time here) I wish the crew had been a bit more motley and moth-eaten, given they’re a travelling troupe of whimsy tale-peddlers. They look like something from the glitzy Venice Carnivale rather than a down at heel bunch somewhere in Victorian England. Renée Mulder‘s clever set design – a fantastic contraption with a nod to steam-punk – and the lighting design by Damien Cooper mesh beautifully together. It looks terrific.

The four-member acting ensemble are uniformly excellent. I’ve always felt Emily Tomlins had an inner clown just waiting to be let out. This play gives her free rein to play across the comic range from gentle, tragic heroine through outrageous freak to a toy bear abandoned in the nursery. She’s a joy to watch. Bryan Proberts is made for this kind of crazy, physical comedy; he doesn’t miss a beat here, bringing a sureness of touch and an aura of melancholy that reminded me of the great Buster Keaton. Who knew he could also play the trumpet? Newcomer (to Brisbane, anyway) Lindsay Farris has a gift of a role as Ludd – the former boy-actor turned radical. He gets to play some wildly funny characters with gusto. And it is Paul Bishop’s ringmaster figure who prowls the performance space spinning these yarns of lost love and loneliness together. His top-hatted, cloaked Gant is a gentle, sad, pot-bellied magician in stripes and, it turns out, the biggest romantic of all. They’re all in top form.

The cast of characters inhabited by Messrs Probets and Farris and Ms Tomlins is vast. I won’t spoil the delight you will undoubtedly have on introduction, but I will just say that my favourite (probably Neilson’s scariest creation for actors anyway) is the Phantom of the Dry. Once met, never forgotten.

Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness plays its Brisbane Season at The Roundhouse until 12 June. Details on sessions and booking from the company website.

 

Gone but not forgotten: my best of 2007 theatre

Wharf Sydney Theatre Company
Image by Dramagirl via Flickr

AMPAG Calendar Cover Hamlet.

Theatre’s been my life and passion for as long as I can recall. Even as a child I remember getting the **tingles** in my fingers as the house lights went to half, and the overture swelled or the curtains parted. The curtains may have gone from most theatres, but not much else has changed … you can add sweaty palms, and sometimes churning stomach to the list above when I became a professional.

I’ve had quite a few tingles this past year as audience and professional … tingle junkie me. Time to jot them down. Continue reading Gone but not forgotten: my best of 2007 theatre