Monday, April 13, 2015

BELVOIR'S ELEKTRA / ORESTES


Last week we went to Belvoir for their Elektra / Orestes.

I am interested in the story and for whatever reasons the Strauss opera is near the top, if not topping, my most seen operas list (excluding Ring Cycles). The tickets were offered as a promo discount via Sydney Theatre Company - hmmm, not selling I thought.  I'd read some critics which while generally sounding a bit underwhelmed had tweaked my interest in what was a jointly written (Jada Alberts and Anne-Luoise Sarks, also the director) update in a contemporary setting in the midst of our current national debate about domestic violence. So, with the show just over an hour long, Linda Cropper as Klytemnestra, and liking the Belvoir vibe, off we went.

By the way, amongst Linda Cropper's long career list is Melba (Yvonne Kenny providing vocals).

With expectations on hold, and only one glass of wine, I went in for interest's sake and came out a mess.

Ralph Myers set was a stark cold white wall with Elektra in red neon in a top corner and a door into what was glimpsed as a kitchen. One table in front; chairs. The writing I liked. Punchy, angry, colloquial.


Katherine Tonkin's Elektra was nicely dishevelled but not completely deranged. She played, as written, unloved. Unloved. Cropper's Mother was cold, detached and unloving. She rationalised her husband's murder, to herself at least. Ursula Mills had a difficult task with Khrysothemis I thought. Her dialogue seemed awkward, though she was playing a double game as we were about to find out. Moreover, she was in a ridiculously silly costume dress which I just couldn't get past. Aegisthus, Ben Winspear, also struggled with costume (dressing gown, eye mask and slippers) looking like he'd walked in from some sitcom comedy.

They persisted in using their formal Greek Names, which worked as an introduction to character but I kept wishing they would let them slip into the vernacular, with Elektra becoming (say) Elle, and Chrissy, etc. Anyway.

Anyway, Orestes arrives, and things change quickly. Hunter Page-Lockhard has enormous presence. Strong and upright he is. And young. His character is a young man still a boy. He's scared, scared of himself I think. And unloved. His confrontation with his mother, studded with repeated declamations of "I come in the name of my father" was about his abandonment. I was tearing up, a lot.


Action was both out front, and unseen in the kitchen behind the wall. At midpoint, the set revolves. We are in the kitchen and see the first half, replayed, from the other side. From Orestes side. Spoiler alert: that Aegisthus and Chrissy were in the midst of a sleazy relationship was interesting but way beyond the scope of this short piece. A minor blip for me and I suppose while it did add to the general dysfunction I felt it really detracted from the main drama.


The great confrontation was between mother and son. It was pitifully sad. I cried, quietly, even K didn't know and I think I was the only one. This revolved less around revenge, and more about being unloved. Unloved. Spoiler alert: as he cradled the head of the mother he's just murdered, weeping, his cuddly toy his only support, I was as moved as I can remember being for a long time. An hour felt like a week.


Throughout all this, Linda Cropper gave an absolutely brilliant performance up to and especially in death.




(pics from Belvoir website)

Monday, March 23, 2015

IN MY MIND'S EAR


On Friday we went to our first SSO subscription concert for the year. It was our first because we'd missed the first. I can't remember why we missed it but suspect we ran out of something like time. We missed Schumann's First and Second Symphonies and Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto conducted by David Robertson who also delivered a very good Gala Opening of Bs - Bruckner, Berg and Beethoven.

Robertson might be an exception to my musings that it might just help to have been born and/or raised in a country of the music's origin to get between the notes. Robertson seems good at whatever he puts his mind and baton to. Therein lies the answer. Exceptions make the rule and make for greatness.

I've spared you another photo of the Opera House by the way.

On Friday we heard the Brahms Violin Concerto and Sibelius 5th Symphony in the hands of the husband and wife team of Dutch violist Janine Jansen and conductor Daniel Blendulf, Swedish born. Nigel Butterley's Never The Sun This Watcher opened the second half marking his 80th birthday with acclamation and acknowledgement of his presence.

As soon as I hear the opening bars of the Brahms, I always return to Vaucluse. It's as strong as the smell of cut grass. We had moved from the country and were waiting for settlement (I now understand) on our house-to-be on the North Shore. Mary, my mother's widowed sister, lived there with the younger of her sons, Robert. Mary had red hair and bags of style. The house was a Spanish Revival bungalow high on the slopes of Vaucluse with a fabulous view down over Parsley Bay and across the Harbour to Manly. It was a gentle view, soft and embracing, not the kind to drop jaws so much but something much more: never the same as the harbour light shifted and the big twisty Coral Tree at the bottom of the terraced garden splashed red on the blue.

Robert was a spastic. Spastic was the word then. He went to the Spastic Centre everyday in the Spastic Centre Bus. He was older than I, by at least ten years I'd guess, so he must have been late teens. He smiled a lot. It looked like a grimace, but I thought then and am sure now he was smiling. I'm sure he was smiling and used to think he was smiling at me. He could walk. A harbour blue budgie was always on his left shoulder, as he swayed like on high seas, the bird unflinching. Down the long hallway to the sunroom. With the view.

He couldn't talk, but grunted with an upward inflection when you guessed the word he was typing out with his foot on the big alphabet mat on the floor. If when you die you meet people again I want most to meet my cousin Robert.

Ms Jansen wore a very sea green dress and swayed a lot, leaning to her husband often. It didn't sound like Brahms to me. He's too young for this I thought as the crowd went crazy for her and the critics wrote lovely things.

After the Butterley sunrise, which was really interesting, and I was thinking how down here we write so much stuff about the earth, came the most thrilling Sibelius Symphony I think I've ever heard live. The fifth.

I'm not even going to try and describe it, except to say it worked because Mr Blendulf knew what it meant and how it went and they played for him like they knew too. Of course they did. He's only 34 and while, to my mind, the Brahms escaped him but there's time for that, if I never hear that Sibelius again I am satisfied I've heard it right. No need to meet after death.




Sunday, March 22, 2015

A QUESTION OF BALANCE





It was a dark and stormy night as we headed back to the Opera House for Tennessee William's Suddenly Last Summer.  Good night for it. Another huge (Cunard) boat bulged out into the Quay as lightening cracked the sky behind the Bridge.

I'm reasonably familiar with the film version (it's in our library), a Vidal / Mankiewicz mutant of the play, and of which Williams wasn't a fan. That's understandable. Gore Vidal wrote the screenplay and Mankiewicz pushes the insanity button just a bit too far. Gratuitously from my perspective, although that is judging it from now, not then. But the asylum horrors in the film are pretty clichéd, not that the debate about some therapies and their mediaeval barbarism shouldn't be had, then or now.

Even beyond resorting to asylum extremes, the film always seemed awkward to me. Neither Taylor nor Hepburn satisfied, hindered by too much Hollywood at the expense of enough Williams.

Times have changed. Psychiatry has changed. Homosexuality is no longer a disease, in educated minds at least. Fundamentalists of all brushes remain an exception, but then I said educated. Lobotomy is out. From the here and now one is agog that it was ever in. But Electroconvulsive Therapy is still in, and while its application is more focused, its mechanism of action remains poorly understood. As was lobotomy, other than cutting out the bad stuff. Zapping neurones, delicate little fibres discharging and recharging by finely balanced ionic transfer, releasing their transmitters one to the other across micro-junctions of impossible complexity, each one a tiny part on a tangle of networks and connections that make us what we are, seems barely less crude. But it has its indictions, and can be said to work, even today. What will they say in another 50 years?

And I rabbit on about this because I've read that consciousness may well depend on the smoothness of traffic flow in this vast network of neuronal freeways, and that loss of consciousness is the interruption of flow - like a massive traffic jam in LA - and when the big pathways are disrupted, consciousness is lost. Awareness ceases. This raises the whole issue of what consciousness is, and by extension perception and awareness. And belief. Belief. And truth? Truth. What you perceived? remember? believe? want to believe? And what Suddenly Last Summer is about.

The film is also relevant because of the significant use of camera and video in this production which elevates, or lowers depending on who you read and how you feel about theatre, the experience of the audience.

Robyn Nevin (interviewed by Philip Adams, well worth a listen) credits her performance with not judging her character but delivering it as written for the audience to interpret. I saw a loving mother with umbilical cord uncut blinding herself from reality, desperately living in a world of her own perception. Hard to criticise really. Don't we all, in absolute terms? Hers was, expectedly, a masterful performance dominating the proceedings, and stage, until the balance of power changes and truth is given its voice.



It was Eryn Jean Norvill's journey as Catharine which really blew me away. From frightened uncertainty to the final great monologue, rivetting as she draws us deep into the calm still centre of her truth, the eye of this storm, this was a tremendous transformation and incredibly powerful. A work colleague could only say he just didn't want it to end.





Marl Leonard Winter's Dr Sugar was much in the Montgomery Clift style, Dr Smooth mainly a foil but whose vested interests lie elsewhere. And the final line is shockingly unresolved. Oh god, we are back at square one.

Paula Arundell (Sr Felicity) and Melita Jurisic (Miss Foxhill) were perfect casting. Susan Prior (Mrs Holly) and Brandon McClelland (George) were clunky and overbearing and gauche and so completely different (as characters) that I kept wondering if they were acting badly or brilliantly at being bad.




I've added so many production photos (from the Sydney Theatre Company's Facebook page) in an attempt to give some idea of the importance of video in the staging. Traditionalists claim it is robbing live theatre of its special art. This is the third time I've seen it used, after STC's The Maids (which post never made it, where the camera was never intrusive but then didn't especially add to the experience which for me was all about Cate, who needs no camera let me tell you) and Bevoir's The Glass Menagerie (where the camera added a dimension of delicate emotional enhancement to wonderful effect).

Kip Williams took things much further. The opening 20 minutes is all on a screen occupying the whole proscenium, although the actors make their entrance in real size in front of the 'screen' to walk through a door in it into the garden. Actually there's two screens - the one we are watching, and one at the back on the action being filmed behind the first, and the combined effect of seeing the second as a backdrop gave a wonderful 3D effect, the filmed action between two screens both receiving different versions of what is happening in real time, if that makes any sense at all.

In a major coup de theatre, the screen revolves away and the actors live in the garden continue, with the rear screen now adding the extra dimensions of power, emotion, uncertainty, etc. Finally, as the acceleration to the frenzied climax increases, the revolve returns so the screen occupies the full proscenium again climaxing, with blindingly brilliant lighting, in the mesmerising slow zoom into Catharine's soul.

Multi-screening of which I've been sceptical worked well for me.


There were times when the camera man and assistant were clearly visible on stage, de rigour to show-how these days, and I found it intrusive. Otherwise, the jarring moments came when you went from full screen to plain stage, and how little the actors seemed!

I guess it is a matter of balance, and that will change from director to director, play to play, audience to audience. It's certainly here to stay I'd warrant.



Saturday, March 21, 2015

UNDER CONSTRUCTION


                                                                       (click to enlarge)

This year's opera-on-the-harbour is Aida.

I took the snap above last week from Mrs Macquaries Road. The stage is constructed over the water (mid-field), with the set build well advanced. Seating is raked down the steep slope of the site to the water, with facilities (foreground in the photo) - walk ways, eateries, decks, toilets etc - built up surrounding and behind the seating and essentially perched high among the trees and plants, and palms, of the Botanic Gardens. It's a massive undertaking.

The set looks like a revolve. There's the well publicised Nefertiti seen above facing the water - away from the audience - with another set now being built behind her.

(Nerfertiti being assembled after being barged on across the water - from OA website)

I went last year to the Butterfly, and was very moved by it. This year certainly has big spectacle as a draw. Camels and the like. Fireworks of course and it isn't hard to predict where. Vast numbers of extras I'm sure. How successful they will be with this year's production team in getting the essential tragedy across remains to be seen. And then there's the issue of the allocation of limited arts budget - mine, not theirs.




Monday, March 16, 2015

BLACK OUT





I love this photo of an eclipse of the sun as seen from a satellite. The fuzzy edges surprised me at first because, without thinking, I thought the umbra and penumbra would be sharply defined. And for the first time I have some real perspective on the size of the shadow.

How little we are.



Wednesday, March 11, 2015

FAUST AT LAST





Sitting down (about to see Faust for the first time) next to Mr C, a Wagnerian through and through:

"Good Heavens (anticipating Act V), fancy seeing you here!"
"You mean, what am I doing at this French Muck?"
"Well ... yes, actually"
"Because it's excellent French Muck!"

Excellent and French it was. Muck no. The other big word attached to this five act marathon is: grand? Grand? Not really, no. But it could have been, with the right scale. That is to say - in a house with a decent stage and pit. But then we've had Norma here, and Trojans, even War and Peace, and out of it all comes what matters - good theatre. This was good theatre. Really good. And on said basis I've now booked for the other Grand One coming up later in the season: Don Carlos, in the exact same cheapies as we sat in last night. Moreover, it was so good I completely forgot myself and failed to embarrass self and other by taking curtain call pics.

                                                                    (ROH production photo via OA website)

The David McVicar production has been doing the rounds having started at the ROH early 2000's I think. It is attractive and engaging story telling, incredibly well detailed, with tension sustained at times where in lesser hands things could well fall into boredom, and revels in good old misogynistic chauvenism where women are either chattels or whores and redemption is in the hands of a Male God, wings and smoke writ large. It has wit, warmth, cleverness, charm and is blessed here with fine performances from the whole cast.

To be honest, I was especially interested to hear the young (just 30) American Michael Fabiano, sparked by this interview (Limelight magazine)



which shows such a committed, confident and articulate artist. And he really is something out of the (jewel) box. The voice is big, attractive, nuanced, controlled, and with so many colours, a Joseph's coat. His stage presence is strong yet delightfully unselfconscious.

Speaking of presence and voice, and bloom of youth, Nicole Car won me over last year in Onegin and delivered in spades. She is lovely to look at, despite some pretty tedious costuming, and dreadful wig, and had the measure of this French style. Her Jewel Song, with trill, oozed with virginal naivety and youthful tone but maturity indeed in technique and colouring. This was great casting - intensely felt performances, a delicateness in presentation and well matched vocal resources which held up beautifully to the not-so-bitter end.


Teddy's Mephistopheles, the other side of the Deity,


was an amazing engine, and really well produced (after miking his way through musicals year in year out) which kept on and on (it's a very big sing) and on, tirelessly, and presented in a slightly detached stand-offish in a devilish kind of way manner. Giorgio Caoduro, worth sitting close for alone, had some absolutely splendid moments. The others were excellent and I especially liked Anna Dowsley's Siébel, another very genuinely felt performance.

So to the ballet, the bane of many a Grand Opera, especially on small stages. Well, you have to say this was brilliant stuff. Well done Michael Keegan-Dolan and those who followed to rehearse and direct. The Willis perversion was exactly that - perverted. At last we had reached some real profanity and set it up for the big final salvation which, expectedly a Man thing such were the times and has anything changed, was very moving. The big trio by the way was stunning.

Mr Fabiano is off to open Glyndebourne in Poliuto (wow) and Nicole Car is heading to Deutsche Oper to sing Tatyana. Stars ascending.

(production photos from Nicole Car's website)



Friday, March 6, 2015

BACK TO THE WHARF





It's thirty years since the STC's first production at The Wharf, and quite a while since we were last there too. So, just because, and because their celebratory opening for 2015 was, said everyone, very funny, and very funny is always on the menu, we headed back to catch Andrew Bovell's very first play: the 1988 (bicetennial year) 'After Dinner'.

It's interesting to see perspective playing out - the evolution of the overdrawn gauche Australian persona, hapless and unfulfilled, yet endearingly loveable in its tragedy of seeking (mostly) to love and be loved, from Edna to Muriel and beyond. And Bovell would go on to write award winning plays and screenplays like Strictly Ballroom (wonderful film but disastrous musical still trying to find its feet) and the beautifully confronting Head On.

We enjoyed the play, now playing to sold-out houses. It's a fun bit of nasal gazing. But in truth, the night was especially special for getting back to The Wharf again to watch the evening slip away and the city come to lights on from this splendid ironbark timber wharf poking its finger into the harbour. We arrived early enough for dinner (so the play was really after dinner) and took the 1980's option - Steak Diane and chips.

The long walk down the great wooden floor ...


... looking east to the bridge


and west to the west.



By interval the full moon was up escorted by Venus I assume.


Chocolates at the exit (yes, after dinner mints), and it was the long walk back


with lights playing tricks with the water and the glass louvres.