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”

For Bille – with love

Bille Brown AM

Some people have kindly asked for a copy of the speech I gave on Monday this week at the memorial for Bille held at QPAC’s Playhouse.
I was frankly at a loss to know where to begin when I was asked by Wesley Enoch Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre Company to contribute to the memorial. Of course I wanted to speak about the man and the artist I’d known for so many years but what to say?
Eventually a theme emerged – ‘Bille the Actor’ – and, after reading back over our conversations over the years, I decided to reflect upon and use his own words. Many were taken from Bille’s Facebook snippets over the past 4 or so years. They reveal much about the way he thought about the work – its anxieties and joys, the pride and passion and the deep fondness he felt for home whether he was overseas or here at home in ‘the old house,’ as he called it, at Ascot.
I’m posting the speech here on Greenroom in memoriam

THIS IS THE STUFF: a memorial for Bille Brown AM – actor and playwright

Bille and I began our lives in the theatre as actors at Queensland Theatre Company. That’s when, at the end of 1971, I first saw his work beside Geoffrey Rush, another young member of the company. Bille was a most unusual ginger cat in THE WRONG SIDE OF THE MOON. We went on to work together in a half dozen or so productions for the Company, and later I directed two of his plays TUFF and EGGFROTH THE FRITHED. These, along with SPRINGLE form a trilogy of plays for young people that were commissioned from Bille by QTC. Continue reading “For Bille – with love”

‘This Is the Stuff’ – a Memorial for Bille Brown AM

Bille_Brown-3In case you haven’t already heard via news and the social media, QPAC is hosting a memorial service for Bille tomorrow afternoon (Monday 4th February) from 4pm. Tickets were available for the event but had gone within 12 hours or so.

This caused some distress for the many who admired and loved one of Queensland’s finest theatre artists. QPAC responded to some gentle suggestions from various quarters that a live-streamed event would do the trick, sharing what will be an hour-long tribute from family, friends, and colleagues around Australia and to the rest of the world.

If you would like to get more information, go to QPAC’s page and read how to link in.

I am honoured to have been invited by Queensland Theatre Company, the place Bille and I met all those years ago, to speak and to perform some of Bille’s writing during the event.

Hope you can join us.



Review: Eve – Metro Arts Independents

I knew very little about Eve Langley before I saw this production. Eve was an enigmatic, deeply troubled Australian poet, seen as mad in her time. She’s often compared to Virginia Woolf. Eve’s poems frequently reflected a struggle between the domestic life that was expected of her and the call to divine artistry that she was no doubt destined for. She was funny, eccentric, and desperate to be acknowledged as a serious artist. At times she took on other names, including ‘Oscar Wilde’, as a way of surviving through the disappointment she had in herself.

Margi Brown Ash brings the life of Eve Langley to the Metro Arts stage. It’s a free adaptation – part memoir, part fiction, part poetry, and quite a significant tribute to a very remarkable woman. Margi devised the work with Leah Mercer (who also directed) and Daniel Evans. The script is beautiful and stylistic, and moves much like poetry itself. This is less of a story and more of an exploration of a life. However, it’s a theatrical journey that’s not for the faint of heart. The stylistic liberties mean that the piece is in danger of being inaccessible for some. Nevertheless, for those who love literature, who know of Eve Langley, or who enjoy brilliant independent theatre, this production is an absolute gem.

The highlight of the entire evening is to see Margi Brown Ash return to the stage. This is almost a one-woman show, with Margi only occasionally interrupted by fellow performer Stace Callaghan, and assisted on stage by a silent husband character, played by Moshio. But this is absolutely Margi’s show. She is comic, tragic, heart-warming, terrifying and beautiful.

Ms Brown Ash’s collaboration with director Leah Mercer has obviously been a fruitful one. It is an absolute pleasure to see a highly trained and experienced actor on stage. Margi’s voice is a marvel. She crafts moments of beautiful intimacy in a near-whisper, and blows the audience away with a guttural screaming. No word is ever lost or confused. Actors, go and see this as an example of what the human theatrical voice should be.

Margi’s assisted by the occasional narration from Stace Callaghan, who plays off Margi beautifully, especially in the closing moments of the play. Moshio’s silent husband is perhaps under-used, but his true gift is the live violin soundtrack he provides. Its solo voice manages to convey full textures and colours that aid Margi’s ‘Eve.’

Frequent visitors to indie theatre will know that the budget often falls short of a truly comprehensive design. Not so here. Eve‘s set is a beautifully constructed hut set in the middle of the Australian bush. Finely crafted candelabras made from branches crown the space and further close it in. It’s a triumph from the team at Backwoods Original, helped along by design consultant Bev Jensen. Equally skilled are the costumes by Kate White and the lighting by Genevieve Trace. The music, composed by Travis Ash, is absolutely fantastic. The sound of a 20’s jazz band, distorted and twisted, gives life and energy to the piece, and serves as another beautiful reflection of Eve Langley’s inner-mind. To see all of these elements working together so well is the result of a seamless production team.

Eve is not for everyone, but if you frequent independent theatre then it should absolutely be on your to-see list. I went with a group of people, and one friend left in tears, substantially moved. Another left with some indifference, marvelling at the performance and skill, but not feeling terribly affected. I was somewhere in between. While occasionally inaccessible, Eve is never pretentious. This is totally thanks to Ms Brown Ash’s charming and compelling performance. Go see Eve if you love literature, theatre, or Australian history.

UPDATE: Received from the producer. ‘There was … a change to the team after the marketing materials were released, and so Bev Jensen wasn’t merely the design consultant, but actually created the costume design, not Kate White’

Invisible Baggage: Summer of the Seventeenth Doll – Queensland Theatre Company at Playhouse QPAC

I’ve struggled coming to terms with the production of Ray Lawler‘s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll currently playing at QTC – a co-presentation with Belvoir Street in Sydney and directed by Neil Armfield. I saw it last Saturday at a matinee performance where Blazey Best performed the role of Olive. As I understand it, she is stepping in for Alison Whyte in the second half of the Queensland season. She was joined by the lanky Steve Le Marquand (Roo), Helen Thomson (Olive), Travis McMahon (Barney), the incomparable Robyn Nevin (Emma), James Hoare (Johnnie Dowd), and Eloise Winestock (Bubba).

As it’s affectionately know in the diminutive The … Doll is, in so many ways, a figurehead for the official start of modern Australian drama in the 1950s. It carries a lot of invisible baggage along with it, including the term ‘iconic play.’ There is also, perhaps, a certain smugness in the way we cuddle this one to our collective theatrical chest; it’s ‘our play,’ one we know and love and are proud of – notwithstanding the couple of generations of students who tend, on the whole, to loathe it or, at least, not to see what all the fuss is about. Perhaps you need to be of a certain age!  Certainly, it requires a mature palate for full appreciation. What I saw last week was a reinvention by stealth of the play I thought I knew. Neil Armfield’s fresh production made for an unsettling experience, and it tipped me out onto Southbank afterwards feeling wretched and uplifted at one and the same time.

The … Doll has been called, among other things, a tragedy of the incoherent, something I find is only ever realised fully on stage. I have played both Olive and Pearl, written about and taught it, seen the movie and several other productions, and feel I know it like the back of my hand. I think that’s part of my problem. This production unsettled me throughout and delivered a swift kick to the guts in its last moments. Armfield’s is an austere, astringent production that focusses on the tragedy at the heart of the work. It swirls everything before it, and what should be a trip down memory lane, a cuddly evening in the theatre with an old friend and a lot of laughs is anything but, and it’s remarkable because of it.

In those last moments, the mighty climax which comes in what feels like a false ending to the play, and in those seconds when I felt the pricking in my eyes and contraction in my throat, I was utterly confused. I could not understand how it had sneaked up on me. Of course I knew what was going to happen from the get-go – as you do with other great tragedies – things are not going to end well. There’s the horrible inevitability of the fate that crushes the protagonists under the weight of their incomprehension. What was it that grabbed me so hard? Was it because I had warmed to this Roo and Olive and Pearl and Barney, felt for them? Not particularly; the performances were oddly out of kilter for me – miscast even, in a couple of instances. Upon reflection I think it was Armfield’s theatrical reconfiguring of the expected domestic tragicomedy that did it.

I’ve been wondering whether he and designer Ralph Myers saw the potential of extending the ‘dear old corner’ of Belvoir street on tour so that it extended mightily upwards and outwards, sandstone coloured, complete with swooping staircase that no boarding house in Carlton or anywhere for that matter, now or then has ever boasted? I think maybe so – he writes about the problem of transferring the Belvoir staging to the Playhouse in the programme note.  If it was deliberate, it’s a stroke of design genius or, at least, one of those genius coincidences that pays off in the execution. The set reminded me of nothing so much as the walls of a Greek palace, its dimensions towering over the humanity crawling around below. I know others have puzzled over the ‘inappropriateness’ of this aspect of the production and, of course, it is if you are looking for cosy Carlton naturalism. In this production the grandeur is part of the machinery of theatricality that puts its focus elsewhere.

The performances also took me by surprise. The … Doll is a piece of realism, complete with the kind of vernacular that, in the mouths of contemporary actors now seems quaint and out of time like Pearl’s New Year’s Eve savouries. It requires a naturalistic playing style, right? However, I kept being wrong-footed by delivery – my expectations and my own invisible baggage – being overturned beat by beat. It was unsettling – I couldn’t relax into the warmth and the ease of the play I knew. Instead, the characters were far more archetypical than I would have thought possible.

The actors seemed at times to be struggling with the naturalistic inclinations of the work, or were they simply finding the shape of the giant shadows cast by their roles?  If the playing feels a little strained,  if they look uncomfortable it only adds to the overwhelming sense – at least for this audience member – of being at arm’s length, of hearing and seeing things afresh. Wrong-footing the all-knowing audience so well and by stealth requires a sure touch. A bit of a triumph, Mr Armfield – thank you!

PS I’ve not called this a review. It’s more an incomplete reflection, if anything. What I do know is that this production confirmed my belief that good plays – old ones or those that suffer under the ‘classic’ or ‘icon’ banner, are well served by bold, assertive, informed productions. It’s where they belong.