Saturday, 22 December 2012

A second week in London theatre

Jacobean playwrights played well together. They were forever dividing up the playwriting labours. Shakespeare sometimes wrote with others, but for Thomas Middleton it was a happy habit. His best play, The Changeling (1622), was written with William Crowley, who probably wrote the beginning, the end, and the subplot. But it's Middleton's play.

This production of The Changeling at the Young Vic is instructive. It was a big success in the theatre's small space and here has similar success in the main space, its season already extended. It's good to see Rowley's subplot, so often cut, treated equally. In fact, considerable effort has gone into equalising the two layers of the story. All are bedlam. And there's a lot of wedding dessert that finds its way into bed, in a very Jacobean way. When the food fights begin, all are equal.

But the production instructs in a different away. This kind of production, with its febrile sense of play and its refusal to be bound to a fast concept, despite its contemporary dress, is quite common in Australia. I found it familiar. But here it's unusual. English productions of plays of this period tend to be straight-jacketed to a particular time and place. The Donmar Warehouse Julius Caesar, set in a contemporary women's prison, and now playing, is a good example. It could never break from that simple idea. It was interesting to read reviews of Benedict Andrews' production of Chekhov's Three Sisters in this same theatre just a few months ago. I've had a few conversations with colleagues over the last few days who saw it and thought it a good and relatively tame and quite friendly version of the play from Benedict, especially compared to his version for Sydney Theatre Company in 2001, which I saw and mostly admired. But the Young Vic version sent some of the English critics into apoplexy.

Why is it that?

Friday, 14 December 2012

A week in London Theatre

I’m in London for a few weeks and thought I’d share a few observations about what’s on in town.

I caught the all-male Twelfth Night, a transfer from the Globe now playing in the West End. It was performed in 'original conditions' - the production was created for the anniversary of the first recorded performance of the play in the Middle Temple Hall, and so it suited the comfort of the Apollo Theatre more than it might have. It stars Stephen Fry as Malvolio and the incomparable Mark Rylance, the oft-proclaimed greatest British actor of his generation, as Olivia. It plays in rep with Rylance's Richard III.

I've never 'got' Twelfth Night. I've never found it very funny or interesting. There was a period when it was fashionable to give 'brown' productions, glossing the play with a Chekhovian melancholy. It's never worked much for me, I'm afraid, though I am prone to gentle drifts into ennui and, like Orsino, am often best when least in company.

Every production I've ever done of Shakespeare has been informed in some way by my longtime research into Elizabethan and Jacobean performing practices. Hamlet, Julius Caesar and As You Like It at La Boite have all eaten at that table. The space suits: the Roundhouse and Globe are related. So the production had real interest.

This is one of the most lucid and assured productions of Shakespeare I've seen. It's not an ambitious production, in that it does not test any unusual conception, but it does strive for, and achieve, a quite uncommon and unrushed maturity. 

Monday, 29 October 2012

The Politics of Representation

It's been a fascinating few weeks for the representation of race on stage.

The American playwright Bruce Norris withdrew his very fine play Clybourne Park from Berlin's Deutsches Theater, one of the the top line German-speaking theatres, when he discovered that the theatre intended to cast a white actress in a black role and 'experiment with make-up'. What made matters even worse is that the play, winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and London's Olivier Award for Best Play, deals centrally with race relations. It's not often that we hear of 'blacking up' in the theatre anymore, although the practice is still current in the world's opera houses. Most singers who sing the title role in Verdi's Otello are white and employ make-up. That will happen next year here in Brisbane, for example, when the Lithuanian tenor Kristian Benedikt plays the Moor for Opera Queensland. He will, presumably, 'black up' a little and no one will remark on it.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

On Philip Ridley and Tender Napalm

The plays of Philip Ridley: the Marquis de Sade meets Liberace. That's not me, that's an American critic whose name escapes me, but it's not a bad description.

I begin rehearsals tomorrow for Ridley's Tender Napalm, for La Boite Theatre Company and Brisbane Festival.

To think of Ridley is to think of violence and beauty. His first play, The Pitchfork Disney (1991), produced at London's Bush Theatre, included images of cockroach eating, finger breaking, snake frying and penis scraping. It's a brilliant work, and heralded what later became known as 'In-Yer-Face Theatre', a whole genre of mostly British '90s playwriting that includes work by Antony Neilson, Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, Jez Butterworth, Martin McDonagh and many others. World-beating theatre.         

I have never found violence in Ridley's plays to be pointless. Ridley himself has pointed out that travelling Indian magicians would rip the heads off live birds while, at the same time, they pulled an ace from their sleeve. The shock prepares the audience for the perception of magic. In Ridley's world, violence is often used, as well as in a purely narrative sense, to electrify sensibilities and create space for other sensations. 

Ridley is an eclectic artist. He had his own theatre group when he was six, completed his first novel by seven, and had his first solo art exhibition at 14. He began a degree in Fine Art at St Martin's School of Art at 17. He began making experimental films there, and has continued doing so. He knew and worked with the 'Brit Pack' of young artists such as Damien Hirst who were beginning to attract notice. Hirst, of course, became famous for a series of artworks in which dead animals (including a shark, a sheep and a cow) are preserved—sometimes having been dissected—in formaldehyde. Ridley's sensibilities were similar, but he chose the theatre as his principal platform.

He also collects stamps.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Holding the Man - A Personal Reflection

Last week, a film crew landed in my living room. I was to be interviewed for a documentary called John and Tim, being made by Waterbyrd Filmz, about the lives of John Caleo and Timothy Conigrave. Conigrave wrote Holding the Man, a candid and magical memoir of his 15-year relationship with Caleo.

I was being interviewed because I directed the theatrical adaptation of the book. In 2005, as Artistic Director of Sydney's Griffin Theatre Company, I commissioned Tommy Murphy to adapt the memoir. By November 2006 we had it onstage at the Stables Theatre. We remounted it six times, including at the Sydney Opera House, Belvoir and Melbourne Theatre Company, and most recently in 2010 in London's West End. There have been productions in San Francisco and Auckland, with others coming up. For such a particular Australian story, it's a remarkable trajectory.

Conigrave was born in 1959 and went to Xavier College in Melbourne, an elite Jesuit school (also attended by Bill Shorten and Sir Les Patterson). Tim, who wanted to be an actor, fell in love with John, the captain of the football team. They declared themselves boyfriends in 1976. Tim went to NIDA while John became a chiropractor. Despite unrelenting obstacles, they remained together until John's death on Australia Day, 1992.

Holding the Man is one of the great love stories, and is unsurpassed as an account of the devastation caused by HIV/AIDS in Sydney during the '80s and '90s. If any book can be guaranteed to make you cry, it's this one. It does so, I think, for a range of complex reasons, not the least of which is that it describes a rare love with irresistible candour.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Towards Diversity: La Boite Unlocked

Last night, La Boite Theatre Company hosted a fascinating forum called Towards Diversity. It linked two areas of current interest in the Australian theatre: gender equity and cultural diversity. Both, of course, speak to one of the leading questions of the forum: What are the forces that prevent our theatres from adequately reflecting the society in which they operate? 

These two topics arise at this time because of special circumstances. On 24 April, the Australia Council released a report on Women in Theatre. It highlighted a very real problem of gender equity within Australian theatre. It's been a much spoken about topic since the announcement of Neil Armfield’s final season at the then Company B in September 2009, at which the sight of a stage full of bright young men, and just one woman, got people talking. The second topic springs from the upcoming appointment of a two year, fulltime Theatre Diversity Associate, to be shared between La Boite, Queensland Theatre Company, Metro Arts and BEMAC, Queensland’s lead agency dedicated to identifying, developing, presenting and promoting artists from diverse multicultural backgrounds. This appointment was one of the top 10 recommendations of the 2011 Australian Theatre Forum to the Australia Council, and is funded by the Australia Council and Arts Queensland. The aim is to increase our collective engagement with Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) artists and audiences.

I was joined by Jo Pratt, the Director/Executive Producer of BEMAC, and Kate Foy, an actor, former academic and former Chair of QTC. It was terrific to be able to share thoughts about these areas of concern. Kate has uploaded her contribution to her blog, Greenroom. It's well worth a read. My contribution can be found here.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Theatre and the Culture of Participation

We don’t just sit and watch TV anymore. There’s hardly a TV program that doesn’t ask us to comment or get involved – whether it’s SMS voting on talent shows, or by giving twitter commentary on morning television, or the ABC’s Q & A, which centres the audience – there, we are constantly reminded, we ask the questions and tweet a witty commentary from home. We are our own producers.

We don’t just read the news as it’s given to us anymore. If you read a news story online, you can very often comment about it and provide one of 25 or 68 or hundreds of comments that will sometimes give you a much better picture of what’s really going on than the story itself. And we have a huge range of news sources available to us. We are our own editors.

We don’t just read facts from scholar-authored and vetted encyclopedias anymore. At the very heart of Wikipedia is a democratisation of the definition of knowledge. We – any of us, from anywhere – help determine how knowledge is defined and understood. We are the writers of the most used encyclopedia the world has ever known. We are our own authors.

This new public expectation has huge repercussions for all organisations and institutions – whether they are political, media, educational, artistic, or whatever. Polls, for better or worse, mostly worse, drive politicians. Media institutions are forced into radical transformation. People can no longer be kept silently at the gate.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Olivier and the Paradox

I stumbled across a recording of Laurence Oliver as King Lear on YouTube recently and was shocked by it.

I have some memories of when Olivier recorded this King Lear. It was in 1983, and made especially for television. He was 75 or 76. His final Shakespeare role on film. It was well known that he had suffered decades of serious illness, including prostrate cancer. In 1975, he had nearly died of dermatomyositis, a degenerative muscle disorder, but struggled on for another decade or so, during which time he filmed this performance. It was clearly out of the question to perform the role on stage - his final performance on stage in a full role had been in 1974. Olivier was to die five years after this Lear.

I had admired Olivier when I was a teenager. I was a bit of a Shakespeare nut. In high school, I directed a 90 minute version of Hamlet in which I made the costumes, choreographed the fights, compiled the music and played the central role. Scenes not involving Hamlet were casually dispensed with, but naturally all the soliloquies remained intact. Later, at 19, I directed my first 'full' production, Macbeth. I admit here that I have in my illegal possession a fragment of Olivier's costume from his famous 1955 RSC Macbeth with Vivien Leigh.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

I've been thinking more, lately, of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who passed away on 18 May, just shy of his 87th birthday. He was a giant among classical baritones and simply the best singer of lieder, especially Schubert, ever. The statistics are hard to nail, but he may be the most recorded artist in classical music history - around twice as many recordings as Placido Domingo, to give you an idea. He is the sound of many private moments in my life, a source of solace and of inspiration.

During some periods of his career he was criticised for being 'mannered'. But this was because he sang like an actor. Sometimes he would inflect individual syllables in the most surprising, but revelatory, way. He could change both the shape of the syllable and the texture of the musical note so that there was a unity of meaning mostly unknown until then. This was not the lieder singing of a Richard Tauber, and some didn't like it. This was singing full of sharp insight and endless dramatic nuance. He could make a mediocre lyric carry cosmic resonance. His was a rich and complex baritone, but he still sang as if he were speaking. His communication was direct. The French critic Roland Barthes wrote a famous essay called “The Grain of the Voice” (1972) in which he deplored “the perfection of his cultured expressiveness”. I adored the nature of this expressiveness. This was singing that made you think. 

Monday, 11 June 2012

Women in Theatre

On 24 April, the Women in Theatre report was released. It is a report commissioned in July 2011 by the Australia Council for the Arts ‘to bring the research on the issue of women in creative leadership in Australia up to the present day, and provide a basis for the sector to discuss these issues and to reach agreement on some strategies to address the situation.’

This fresh wave of interest in this most complex matter was stimulated by the announcement of Neil Armfield’s final season at the then Company B in September 2009. The sight of a stage full of bright young men, and just one woman, got people thinking and talking.

One response was to have the annual Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture, usually delivered by one person, given over to a panel discussion, Where are the Women? Is there a lack of women in key creative roles in theatre? On Sunday 6 December, the panellists lined up: Rachel Healy, Alison Croggon, Shannon Murphy, Marion Potts and Gil Appleton, moderated by Monica Attard.

Even that sparked controversy. The Philip Parsons Young Playwrights Award is usually made directly after the lecture. Its prize is a Company B commission, worth $10,000. One of that year’s shortlist, Caleb Lewis, withdrew his entry. While speaking of his concerns about gender equity, he claimed that this lecture and award afternoon was the wrong context for a forum on this topic. In an open letter to Company B he wrote: 'I feel that recent events have now overshadowed the award, politicising the announcement of a winner to such a degree that I no longer have faith in the panel’s ability to award the prize without bias.'

The Award was given jointly to Tahli Corin and Caleb Lewis. The decision was reached by the selection panel prior to Caleb’s decision to withdraw his entry. He had been out of reach, on Palm Island, since announcing his withdrawal. He later declined the award.

And so it began. Again.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Tribute to Jill Shearer (1936-2012)

Jill Shearer, who passed away on 6 May, was an important Australian playwright, living in Brisbane. 

Jill's plays were produced all over the world, and on Broadway (Shimada, 1992, directed by Simon Phillips and starring Ben Gazzara, Estelle Parsons, Ellen Burstyn and Mako). She was, I think, the first Australian woman to have a play on Broadway.  

She had a long relationship with La Boite Theatre Company - over the years the company has produced, I think, four or five of her plays. La Boite hosted a fond memorial tribute to Jill last Sunday. 

There was no one like Jill Shearer. I didn’t know her well, but I do know how important she was to the community of artists in Brisbane, and well beyond. She was a genuine inspiration.

I first met her when I was working for Queensland Theatre Company in the early 1990s. The company had just produced Shimada, and we were then developing her new play The Family. She was already something of a legend by then, of course. I was a young director at the time, and learned much from wrestling with Jill’s fierce mind and absolute sense of integrity. Jill had guts.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Theatre as Threat

George Hunka reminds us that in some parts of the world theatre provides a genuine political threat. Two nights ago, Israeli armed forces raided the home of Nabil Al Raee, the artistic director of The Freedom Theatre in Jenin, arresting him and terrifying his three year old daughter Mina. The Freedom Theatre is a theatre and cultural centre in the Jenin Refugee Camp, 60km from Ramallah and home to 10,000 people (40% of whom are under 15), that "offers space in which children and youth can act, create and express themselves freely, imagining new realities and challenging existing social and cultural barriers." Its productions have toured internationally, giving these young people a voice. Drama is often used as therapy for trauma, as this short video shows.

I'm told by those who have visited the theatre that this is a place in which Palestinian, international and even Israeli artists and activists come together despite (or maybe because of) differences in nationhood, religion, gender, class, and even race in order to make a difference in lives.

The company has been raided many times. A year ago, its charismatic founding Artistic Director, Juliano Mer-Khamis, was shot in the head five times with his baby son in his lap by a masked gunman outside the theatre. The identity of the assassin remains a mystery.