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Julius Caesar

julius caesarWhen I was a backpacker in London in 1995 I donated £10 for a brick for the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. It took me 19 years, and even after arriving in London I still found circumstances conspiring against me, but I have finally been to a show in the magnificent reconstruction.

I can’t comment too intelligently on the show. Partly because I had no familiarity with Julius Caesar before today, but mostly because of the amazing novelty of being a groundling in Shakespeare’s Globe. I think I would have to see quite a few shows before I could concentrate on the show and not the venue, and even then the number of tourists who are there for the novelty would still be a distraction.

For the unaware, Shakespeare’s Globe is a relatively accurate reconstruction of the Globe Theatre that stood on the South Bank of the Thames when Shakespeare’s work was at its peak. It stands very close to the position of the original, and was constructed using sixteenth century building techniques as much as possible (though it does have the odd modern feature for practicality’s sake like steel drainpipes, safety equipment and a few halogen lights). Like Shakespeare’s Globe it has three balcony levels, where patrons pay according to the view of the stage, and a pit directly in front of the stage where common folk like me can stand and get amongst it all as ‘groundlings’ for a mere £5. It is an outdoor venue, with roofing over the stage and the upper balconies, but none over the pit. And yes, it did rain, which was perfect.

I really would not have enjoyed my day quite as much had I paid for a seat; there are just too many advantages in being a groundling. One of the techniques used to draw the audience’s attention in this context where the house lights don’t turn off on cue and there are no lights for the stage or any curtain to speak of, is for the action to burst into the pit amongst the groundlings, which is exactly how Julius Caesar opens. The performers just burst in pushing a way through the crowd and get everyone focused on the action. This worked extremely well, and really created an atmosphere appropriate to Ancient Rome, which you would be completely outside of if you were sitting.

The main inconvenience in being a groundling is the sky above. It belongs to London, and therefore leaks. Most of the time the leaks are small, but I happened to come on a day when the heavens ope’d and spewed forth their watery bounty. I had secured a spot next to the stage, where I had some respite. I had also forked out for a garbage bag with a hood, which are sold at the door, and offer enough protection to allow you to enjoy the performance, which of course carries on regardless (although the heavens did seem to open and close at the right times to change the meaning of quite a few lines, much to everyone’s enjoyment (including the wet ones)).

2014-07-25 London 090aI hope you’re starting to get an idea of why I wasn’t paying as much attention as I normally do to what is going on on stage.

The performance was impeccable, I think. I may have been overwhelmed by the novelty of the theatre, but I certainly enjoyed the murder of Caesar, and Marc Antony’s speech was remarkable. Likewise, the friendship of Brutus and Cassius was palpable in this wooden O (sorry, couldn’t resist).

I only regret waiting so long to come see something here. I will be back again and again until I don’t notice the novelty of the space and the tourists annoy me because I’m no longer one of them.

 

 
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Posted by on Friday, 25 July 2014 in British Theatre, Shakespeare's Globe, Theatre

 

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Dracula

draculaDracula is one of those brilliant stories that just never gets old. Its universal themes seem to always thrive in the present, presenting new insight into humanity. And different wonderful people just keep imagining brilliant new ways to bring this story to life. The one I saw tonight is the work of Action to the Word, and they certainly made an impression.

Perhaps it was just Zoe Koperski’s steampunk design that made this such a memorable production. Or maybe it was the in-your-face indie rock the whole cast blasted out into the auditorium. Either way, it was an aggressive and courageous take on Bram Stoker’s gothic horror novel, and I loved it.

Despite a few prop hiccups (and did I possibly detect a line drop?), the performers were genuinely brilliant. Jonno Davies‘ Count Dracula struck just the right balance between inciting a come hither and a piss off, while Henry Bauckham’s Jonathan Harker was at once noble and vulnerable. But it was the women who genuinely shone. Olivia Bromley, Rachel Bright and Claire Petzal played Mina Murray, Lucy Westenra and Jack (here Johanna) Seward respectively and all three deserved the ovation one enthusiastic member of the audience in front of me tried to give them for their remarkable performances.

However highly polished and professional these performers were, there was one thing they couldn’t compensate for, and that was a lack of focus on character and plot. In the effort to create a great spectacle (and a great spectacle it was), Alexandra Spencer-Jones’ adaptation didn’t allow enough depth for the characters to be fully engaged, and at the end no matter how much I enjoyed the spectacle, I certainly didn’t feel I’d encountered a story.

And as a rendition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula? Well, you would do well to have another read before you go to ensure you have the plot clear. I was stretching my memory once or twice trying to remember how the plot went, and I’m a fan.

Nonetheless, this really is a great show, even if just for the sake of enjoying the cast’s amazing music and the brilliant steampunk design, and it deserves a great deal of attention in Edinburgh.

 
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Posted by on Thursday, 24 July 2014 in British Theatre, Pleasance Theatre, Theatre

 

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Let the Right One In

Let The Right One In reviewThere is so much to love about Let the Right One In that I really don’t know where to start. Jaunty dialogue that belies its heavier themes; deep, rich characterisation that lets you into its world without making it too easy; and a challenging plot unafraid to embrace the darkness of the human spirit combine to make a show that is as engaging and heart-warming as it is confronting and horrifying.

Thinking about it, the plot could have emerged from the cheesiest of Hollywood blockbusters. But it is in fact Swedish in origin, and characteristically so, given its classy combination of high- and low-brow imagery.

The story is centred on Oskar and Eli, played respectively by Martin Quinn and Rebecca Benson. The pair form an uneasy friendship that develops into something much more. As Oskar faces the tormenting of his school bullies, Eli faces an uncertain future as a vampire who hides in the forest with her carer who undertakes the odd murder from time to time to provide her with sustenance.

It’s at this point that I would have flicked the page if I was reading this synopsis looking for a show to see. Luckily, I refrained from reading too much and just booked the bargain ticket I’d seen advertised on Facey. As I’ve found in the past, the less I knew about the play, the better the result.

There is an understated intensity to this play. It sits lightly on the stage but the heaviness of its themes rear their heads constantly through the music that filmically punctuates the action, and in the occasional gory scene (some of which I think would even make Shakespeare blush).

The set is almost as much a star as the great performers. Okay, so I have a thing for birch trees, and the set has them, so I like the set. But no, I mean I love the set! There is such a lightness in the way the trunks dominate the space, and the indoor scenes, indicated with nothing more than a piece of furniture, are enhanced by the air the trees imply. I’d probably have liked it almost as much if they had used something else, but birch were definitely the right choice.

I really couldn’t have picked a better play had I tried, and I’m so glad I got the chance to see this. Brilliance.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 23 July 2014 in British Theatre, National Theatre of Scotland, Theatre

 

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Boyhood

BoyhoodI feel very generous. I’ve just donated three hours of my life to one of the most vain films I’ve ever encountered.

It sounds good in theory: make a film about adolescence and use the same actor throughout, but film it over twelve years so that the physical changes are naturalistic. In reality, it just doesn’t cut it. And not just because it’s too long.

When Richard Linklater appeared on the screen at the beginning and said hello to the cinema chain we had just entered and told us the name of the film we had just bought tickets for, I thought it was just a little marketing stunt. It wasn’t until halfway through I realised that this film is not a story but an exercise for its creator.

The problem is there’s no point to the film. It’s a fiction, but it’s so confused about what it’s about that it’s not really about anything. There are a series of events, some fortunate and some less so. The adolescent journey is depicted naturalistically from the boy’s transition from childhood into adolescence to his transition from adolescence into adulthood, but there is little to tie this story together as a coherent story. It just goes from one episode to another, often skipping over major events in the plot.

Judging by the title, the film should be about the boy. For the most part it follows the awareness of the boy, but occasionally it diverts from that rule. It spends more energy, I think, on his parents, and the theme of parenting, but then it loses this plot thread by the end because it goes back to the boy from the title.

The thing is, as much as I was bored most of the time I spent watching, the characters are still engaging. I’d prefer it if I could just dismiss it as a boring film, but it’s not boring; I wanted to know what happens, because the characters, particularly Ethan Hawke as the father and Patricia Arquette as the mother, are absolutely fascinating. The boy, played by Ellar Coltrane, was likewise completely enthralling.

It’s just that nothing much happens, and it takes three hours for this nothing much to happen to these fantastic characters.

I think this one got bitten by the novelty bug, and instead of a story it became a mere exercise in film making.

 
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Posted by on Sunday, 20 July 2014 in American Film, Film, IFC Productions

 

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Potted Sherlock

potted sherlockSince Shakespeare’s Compleat Works were abridged by the Reduced Shakespeare Company, similar treatment has been given to a range of original sources, with mixed results. Dan Clarkson and Jeff Turner have apparently been pottering about with Harry Potter in this antipode while I’ve been in the other one, and have now turned their attention to one of my favourite series, Sherlock Holmes.

When it comes to the still-novel-ish notion of condensing a bunch of great works into an hour’s romp, character is not king. If you wanted to engage with Conan-Doyle’s characters at all, you’d be sorely disappointed as this is really all about Dan and Jeff (and the girl who doesn’t seem to be credited anywhere). Similarly if you wanted to see any of the stories, you’d leave just as ignorant (they speak of them but don’t really get around to showing them). But for a little romp, it’ll do just nicely. These three brilliant performers maintain a giddy energy, keeping the laughs rolling both within the script and without it.

I think the concept’s days are numbered. Really, nothing quite measures up to the genius of the Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged), and ultimately these are forumlaic productions. How many times can we really take a series or theme and abridge them into a farce before it becomes de rigeur? Well, I guess Hollywood, Broadway and the West End have been doing little more than that for the last couple of decades, but it hardly makes for interesting theatre after it’s been done a few times.

Nonetheless, for the time being, this is a great formula and the raconteurs can probably squeeze a few more good ones out before the Webberesque machine drains it of life and starts selling tickets for over £100. See these guys before they transfer!

 

 
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Posted by on Friday, 18 July 2014 in British Theatre, Pleasance Theatre, Theatre

 

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Jimmy and Cook at AWL

2014-07-14 AWL 010Having left the safe confines of Canberra’s tightly-knit theatre community, London posed certain challenges. Not least of which is where to make connections in the world’s theatre capital. Performing in The Inner Life of Sophie Taylor was a great start, but I was also lucky to have found very early in my time here Actors and Writers London.

AWL holds moved readings of full length plays every fortnight, and provides an environment for actors and writers to meet and share their work. They’re also a friendly and welcoming community, who made me feel very welcome right from the beginning.

At the end of each season, they hold a competition for ten minute plays, and given how much I have enjoyed being part of the Short+Sweet festivals in Australia, I of course put in a piece.

Out of quite a number of plays, Jimmy and Cook was selected to be among the eight read in the Summer competition, which was a great boost to my confidence. They organised a cast and a director, and we all showed up before the meeting on Monday and ran through it a few times. I’m not sure I was a great accent coach for Ben Owora‘s Aboriginal Australian English, but I was pretty impressed with the final result after such a quick rehearsal.

Amongst the other finalists there was one play that really stood out to me, which was Liam O’Grady‘s Tea With Aunty Suzy. Bravely stepping out from the comic mould that plagues writers of ten minute plays, O’Grady wrote a great script focused on a younger person’s visit to her aunt with dementia. The play evoked some deep emotions, possibly largely to do with my own experiences with my grandmother in her later years, and was a courageous and impressive piece in this context.

Most of all, it was great to find myself in the middle of such a great group. The atmosphere reminded me most of our Crash Test Drama nights in Canberra, and I felt just at much as home as I do there.

If you would like to read the script for Jimmy and Cook, it’s available on my Scripts page.

2014-07-14 AWL 005

 
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Posted by on Monday, 14 July 2014 in Theatre

 

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Matilda

matildaWhen I left my job at the ACT Chamber of Commerce in March, my colleagues kindly presented me with some cash with which I was to take my daughter to a West End show when we arrived in London. Although I fully intended to do this anyway, it was hardly going to be possible to see every show worth seeing here. The decision, I’m almost ashamed to admit, came down to celebrity. Once I’d seen Tim Minchin‘s name, there was no doubt about whether I would see this show.

I booked for a date early in June shortly after arriving in London, but then found myself cast in The Inner Life of Sophie Taylor, and the performance dates clashed. Reorganising myself around the production company’s overly draconian ticketing rules, I tried again for early July, and promptly forgot about the booking until a little message popped up on my phone a couple of days beforehand. It really is nice to encounter surprises you plant for yourself!

My girl wasn’t all that keen in the lead up. She is, after all, almost a teenager, and therefore doesn’t like things planned for her. I attempted to appeal to her baser instincts by locating a purveyor of chips and gravy (a rare find in London, and never of notable quality), but even then, as we queued for the cheap seats in the nose-bleed section, I endured the Scorn of the Adolescent. Right up until the show started, of course. For a girl who is accustomed much more to fringe and pro-am theatre, it was an engaging spectacle, and the show held her attention throughout (though she denies it).

As one would expect from a show that sells premium tickets in the £100+ range, it was technically brilliant. The continual transformation of the set was enthralling, the performers were almost as hilarious and engaging as Tim Minchin usually is, and though I’d never encountered this particular Roald Dahl tale in literary form, it conveyed all the magic of his other works. Best of all, it was absolutely hilarious! Though the theme is serious, and delivers a strong message about personal efficacy and justice, it is nonetheless an absolute romp.

Matilda does suffer from some of the more common ills of musicals. The characters could use more development, and spectacle sometimes overtakes the story. Nonetheless, I could certainly relate the image of the headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, to my frustrations with my daughter’s current school, and their staff’s attitude to students. It opened up some conversation afterwards about the poor behaviour of her teachers, which was of course valuable, as I was able to remind her that teachers aren’t always right and utilise Matilda’s admonition that sometimes you’ve got to be a bit naughty.

We two, before going in.

We two, before going in.

I would love to have been able to engage with the character of Matilda more fully, though. As much as I felt her journey, I wanted to see more humanity, and I have to hold myself back from excusing this shortcoming simply because the actor, Cara Jenkins, is barely 10 years old. Her performance is impeccable in technical terms, and of course that alone is an achievement at such an age, but as much as she had me on her side, I didn’t quite engage with her as a character as much as I engaged with her as an actor. And that’s a real problem. That there is the crux of the matter; to suspend disbelief we must forget that there is an actor involved at all; otherwise it’s a mere spectacle, and not a story.

But maybe I saw her on a bad night. Jenkins is otherwise the living embodiment of Matilda’s line “you mustn’t let a little thing like ‘little’ stop you”, and gets ten points just for that. She is cheering on my side and though the performance may not have moved me at the gut level as it might have, she absolutely engaged me as an educator disgusted by the modern obsession with denying students their humanity. The story’s railing against the mock latin motto by which the British and Australian Ministers for Education pursue their evil plans, bambinatum est maggitum, or ‘children are maggots’ is entirely necessary. It really was a spectacular evening overall, and unlike most musicals, it tells a necessary story.

My Musical Theatre playlist just got bigger, and by the time I return to Oz, I expect I will have the best numbers memorised.

My daughter’s post is over on our walkabout blog.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 2 July 2014 in British Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Theatre, West End

 

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