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: I Feel Awful – Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm at Bille Brown Studio

What a hoot this show is – a refreshingly anarchic romp that takes the piss out of theatre and itself; I think this lack of pretension in I Feel Awful is one of the things I liked most about it.

Whilst it is dedicated to the ‘late’ Michael Gow (he is no such thing – MG has never been late to anything in his life) it is one of the experiments that QTC’s last Artistic Director programmed into his final season for the Company. Black Lung were commissioned to create something and began with a creative development in late 2010. What eventually emerged as I Feel Awful has now popped up in 2011 Brisbane Festival time, and right good festival fare it is too; you can see it at 7pm or later at 9pm on some evenings during the Festival. Check the times on the Company site for the show. By the way, when not happily engaged in writing plays, Michael Gow is equally happily engaged (right now) directing the Company’s next production No Man’s Land by the late, great Harold Pinter somewhere else in the building, one assumes.

Part of the sleight of hand of the Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm (their name is the only grandiose thing about this group of wonderfully smart and funny Melbourne thesps) is to set up the premise that the former Artistic Director of the Company has requested their presence to show Brisbane how theatre is made – first cringe button pressed. To do so they have engaged a group of young Brisbane actors as their ‘interns’ (that word again) and attempt to imprint their own brand of theatre making on our best and brightest. The result is splendidly contrived mayhem and 70 minutes of high-energy, dada-esque delight. The benign features of Michael Gow oversee the general irreverence and trashing of some theatrical sacred cows including his own plays, some of which are splendidly ‘re-imagined’ in a delicious gender inversion. I couldn’t help but feel he would be delighted by what he was seeing unfold in the Bille Brown Studio.

I Feel Awful is cleverly constructed – and then torn apart – terrifically performed, and will appeal to anyone who loves the idea of theatre.

Speaking of trashing, I Feel Awful is a messy hoot as well. Here’s another production that sets about destroying and remaking just about everything in as comprehensive a way as is possible. I do feel for the stage management teams on shows like this – a special shout out to the heroic Shaun O’Rourke on this one. Nice to see him get the last word!

I’ve pondered (and written) about the trashing tendency in a lot of contemporary theatre before. I am sure there’s a dissertation or two or, at least, a learned paper on why this is so. Maybe it’s the most obvious way for some theatre-makers to demonstrate their perennial desire to overturn the status quo. On a deeper level it’s about the theatre’s ability to demonstrate the impermanence of anything – from artistic directors and their aesthetics to politics and beyond, as well as the flux and evolution of culture and the insecurity of our times.

I Feel Awful plays at QTC’s Bille Brown Studio at 78 Montague Road, South Brisbane until 10th September. You’ll need to get in fast.

Writer and Director: Thomas M Wright; Designer: Thomas M Wright; Design Consultant: Simone Romaniuk; Lighting Designer: Govin Ruben;
Stage Manager: Shaun O’Rourke; ASM: Daniel Sinclair
The Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm: Liam Barton, Gareth Davies, Aaron Orzech, Vaczadenjo Wharton-Thomas, Thomas M Wright
With: Courtney Ammenhauser, Finn Gilfedder, Will Horan, Tiarnee Kim, Mary Neary, Essie O’Shaughnessy, Charlie Schache, Nathan Sibthorpe, Stephanie Tandy



Wesley Enoch (Interview 28 )

I’m interviewing Wesley Enoch in his inner-city apartment in Brisbane – 5 minutes on foot to Queensland Theatre Company headquarters on South Bank where he is Artistic Director, and 7 minutes to the Airtrain connection at South Brisbane station – important when you do as much travel as he does. He loves walking to relax although he confesses he doesn’t do as much as he should. ‘I’ll get back to it now the warmer weather is coming in.’ Whilst Wesley doesn’t own a car, he does have some wonderful pieces of art. We’re surrounded by prints, paintings, photographs, ceramics – all Australian and many by indigenous artists – on walls and shelves. Each of them has a story and, when I first arrived, he took me through them one by one.

He’s been on the job now just over a year – he took up his appointment on 19th of July 2010, although it’s been in a full-time capacity since the beginning of this year only. I’m keen to learn more about how it’s going, to hear Wesley’s thoughts on the business of being an Artistic Director today, and what it’s like being back home after all these years.

He’s a Stradbroke Island man, educated and raised in Brisbane and a graduate of QUT with a BA in Drama Majoring in Dance. Wesley then went on to do an Honours year at QUT – and his dissertation topic? Establishing a context for the understanding of contemporary aboriginal arts.

Wesley was the first indigenous Australian appointed as Artistic Director of a major theatre company. I ask how important it was to him. He responds, ‘It really hadn’t occurred to me until Neil (Armfield) rang and congratulated me. I was more focussed on a personal ambition to engage with a wider audience.’ He shrugs, relaxed about it, ‘people had been waiting for it to happen, and it did. One of the outcomes has been that more of the discussion about establishing a national indigenous theatre company now seems to be flowing towards QTC.’ He adds, ‘I was talking to students recently and saying that when you are in your 20s you’re radical and revolutionary but in your 40s you’re more evolutionary. The radicalism of my 20s is now the evolutionism of my 40s. I’m thinking now of how we work on the aesthetics and not just the politics. The 20 year old has achieved the goals.’ Continue reading “Wesley Enoch (Interview 28 )”

Greenroom’s Second Year – a birthday message

Today marks Greenroom’s second birthday. It’s been quite a year for the fledgling theatre blog and bloggers!

In our second year of operation we reviewed and interviewed and commented and spruiked on behalf of Queensland subsidised and independent theatre, and the stories just keep coming, and so do the invitations. Thank you for them. We wish we could get to everything but that proved to be impossible. You do what you can!

Greenroom introduced the Groundling Awards – peoples’ awards for excellence in theatre in the state. The response was fantastic, so good that we are going to do it all again. Watch for news in December. The elves are already girding their tiny loins – we’ve heard a few sighs – for the adventure.

In the past year we have published 140 posts which included a ‘dark period’ when the Editor headed off on a busman’s holiday in September-October. My thanks to guest bloggers Nick Backstrom (our man in exile in Melbourne), playwright Dave Burton, the multi-talented Amelia Dowd, Zane Trow and Paul Osuch for their smart, incisive and invaluable contributions during the year.

We also capitulated to the inevitable and created a Greenroom Facebook page a few months ago. It has proved an invaluable way of reaching a wider audience and also of providing another platform for discussion and dissemination of Queensland – and wider – theatre happenings and ideas. As I write our Facebook page has 203 ‘Likes.’ The more the merrier. Click that big, blue button on the home page if you haven’t already! We’re also on Twitter – you know it!

Wider observations: there has been a development in online writing and conversation about Queensland theatre in this time. The fearless and knowledgable Xanthe Coward became the revived Briztix site’s resident reviewer, whilst other blogs like Critical Mass, supported by Arts Queensland, emerged into the blogosphere. Briztix introduced their own award for excellence joining the Matildas and Groundlings, and the wider growth of social media has seen it become almost the de facto way of getting information out especially within the indie sector. Visibility is good out there! The downside has been the loss of the excellent reviews from Katherine Lyall-Watson with the demise of A short-sighted move this by the Brisbane City Council.

And so, dear reader, we start our third year of activities. What was to be a small retirement project for me has proven to be something more. It remains a labour of love.

Thank you for your support. I wish I could share the chocolate mudcake baked especially for the occasion with you! I can share the memory of the thrill I felt when I saw my name on a ‘Reserved Media’ seat for the first time at La Boite Theatre earlier this year. What’s that about little things meaning a lot?