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13 Reasons Why

I’ve held off writing about 13 Reasons Why for some time. Why? Well, you might be pleased to know there aren’t 13 reasons.

I was impressed with it immediately. My partner and I watched several episodes each time we turned it on, and we got so caught up in the characters and their story that we knocked over the whole series in a matter of a few bleary-eyed days.

At the end, when I was ready to sing the series’ praises from the rooftops, a friend posted an article criticising it for the way it portrayed its prime protagonist. That protagonist (there are two) is dead as the series begins, having committed suicide and left thirteen cassettes for her schoolmates, who she collectively blames for her decision to take her own life. My friend’s post was quickly joined by a cacophony of condemnation for this series that had seemed to me remarkable in terms of its quality of dialogue, characterisation and cinematography. These criticisms, all of which were centred on its sociological context rather than its dramatic qualities, seemed well formed to me at the time, and left me feeling disappointed—maybe even guilty—that I enjoyed the series so much. Some felt that Hannah (the deceased character) should have demonstrated an average of journeys to suicide, rather than presenting just one experience. Others felt that her portrayal of the act of slitting her wrists, and the very explicit nature of her suicide, was a bridge too far, and that the act of killing herself should have been omitted. And some were deeply concerned with the fact that Clay (the other protagonist) accepts her laying the blame on her schoolmates.

Having thought about it for quite a few weeks, I now believe these criticisms almost entirely unfounded. I regret being swayed by them. This is truly a masterpiece of modern television, one that deserves every accolade. Indeed, I think the criticisms themselves a testament to the quality of writing, directing and performance on display (there would be no criticism if the show didn’t make an impact).

I think one of the reasons I may disagree with the show’s detractors is that I am principally concerned with the dramatic art form, whereas they seem more concerned with the sociological effects of the work. While that is a noble concern, and one I share, a critique of an artwork must remain couched in the terms of the art form. We don’t assess psychologists’ performance based on the dramatic tension in the room as they work, or their ability to convince us that they care, so why would we assess a dramatists’ work based on the psychological health of the audience? The fact is, dramaticised stories don’t deal in generalities. Hannah could never portray the full gamut of life experiences that may lead a person to take their own life. Likewise, Clay could never portray the full gamut of responses to suicide. These are two specific characters, living in a specific context, and they tell a specific story. Generalities are tolerable in literature or the visual arts, but they have no place in the dramatic arts.

In the course of telling their story, they should prompt more general discussion, but it is not the role of a dramatic work to lock down our response to suicide (or any other social concern); rather, it is our role to open it up. And on this front, 13 Reasons Why performs brilliantly. The characters present a broad range of positions and opinions. Their reactions and responses are diverse. Some of them are positive and helpful, others are less so, and some are downright dangerous. And in presenting this range in an engaging and forthright manner, 13 Reasons Why has opened conversations, allowed us to make judgements and form opinions that we might not otherwise address.

Clay, the protagonist we follow throughout the series, is a brilliant composition. He responds from the gut, sometimes with emotional intelligence, other times without, but he is genuine and relatable throughout. This is a remarkable achievement. We can be frustrated by the foolishness of his response, or by the slowness of his response, but we can’t criticise him for being an automaton or a mouthpiece for a psychologist. He’s an adolescent character that rings true with our emotions and reflects our values.

Perhaps it is because Clay is the narrative voice throughout the series that some of the series’ detractors feel that he must be an omniscient presence. As if he not only knows everything that happened, but also knows how to resolve it in the best way possible. Clay, though, is an adolescent dealing with a deeply troubling event. His narration must be read as his thoughts, and nothing more.

And because Hannah also bears the hallmarks of narrator, through her tapes, she, too, can be mistaken for an omniscient presence. This is an equally errant reading: Hannah is even more compromised in her ability to assess the actions of others. her narration, too, is just her reading of the situation.

Perhaps what annoys me most about the criticisms of this series is that too many people seem to be caught up on the notion that what the protagonists say is the whole truth. A protagonist can only ever speak their own truth. And most of the time, the truth is actually in between the lines; in the subtext. And the truth in this case is deeply complex, opening up challenges and dilemmas, and expecting the viewer to resolve them. Just like all good dramatic works do.

Ultimately, that is why I am so impressed by 13 Reasons Why. There is no apology. There is no hiding from the complexity. They don’t even hide from the blood. And as the player in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead says when he sums up the essential truth of all dramatic works:

“We’re more of the blood, love and rhetoric school. Well, we can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, or we can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and we can do you all three, concurrent or consecutive. But we can’t give you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory — they’re all blood, you see.”

 
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Posted by on Tuesday, 13 June 2017 in Netflix, Television, Uncategorized

 

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Talk

I was more than impressed by the set when I entered the Playhouse for tonight’s performance of Talk. Two levels and three separate spaces fill the stage, and I anticipate a masterpiece, judging by this work of art.

By halfway through, I’m disappointed.

Jonathan Biggins’ script deals with heady themes that are particularly pertinent in the current climate. News cycles, declining newspaper sales, irresponsible journalism and public broadcasters all come under scrutiny. And the resulting cacophony is as vague and impenetrable as the world it attempts to critique.

The complex set, while impressive, doesn’t help matters. It is broken, really, into three ‘panes’, which don’t interact with each other. Granted, the story takes place in three separate spheres that barely intersect, but the end result is a disjointed plot, and that’s something I don’t really find endearing.

Biggins’ naturalistic and humorous dialogue, even when it was delivered so well by the talented cast, doesn’t quite overcome the disjointed nature of the piece, and although I was engrossed enough to want to know what happens, I’m not sure I really cared that much about any of the characters.

Talk is a valiant attempt to critique this point in our history, and the journalistic forces that are shaping it, but it falls a long way short of a masterpiece.

 
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Posted by on Friday, 2 June 2017 in Canberra Theatre Centre, The Playhouse, Theatre

 

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The Age of Bones (Jaman Belulang)

On an island at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago, a boy complains that his mother feeds him only rice, and is sent fishing. When he doesn’t return, the distraught parents enlist the help of an ageing local fisherman with a reputation for knowing his way around the sea. So begins a compelling retelling of a story that got lost in the 24 hour news cycle.

Sandra Thibodeaux’s engaging script was developed with the help of the Indonesian families unwittingly caught up in a political game that could hardly be more remote from their world. Rather than a land girt by sea, this Australia, as experienced by this unprepared boy, is as confusing and hostile as a sea girt by ocean. Thibodeaux’s play utilises both Indonesian and Australian traditions and iconography as reference points, anchoring this confused boy’s experience for the audience.

The result is stunning. Set, costumes, video and puppetry combine smoothly to create a sense of simplicity that belies the many modes of communication being employed. The old narrator’s declining memory and eyesight provide slapstick relief from the story’s tragic ebbs and flows, and help to link us back in to the unfolding tragedy. Indeed, the play as a whole is inviting and riveting, and truly a joy to see.

You don’t have long left to get in to see it in Canberra, but if you miss it, you’ll be able to see it in Sydney next week. Don’t muck about.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 8 March 2017 in Theatre

 

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The Addams Family

addamsI laughed along heartily at The Addams Family, mainly because the cast worked so well to engage their audience. If only the musical itself was a little more innovative, this would be a brilliant show.

There was a palpable shift a little way into this opening night. It felt to me like nerves were very raw at first, but within twenty minutes or so, that was gone, and the receptive audience had warmed them up. Tim Stiles, in the role of Uncle Fester, seemed to be at centre stage when they clicked into gear, but the whole cast rallied beautifully as an ensemble and it was a beautiful thing to see this shift.

I loved the sharp attitude Lainie Hart brought to Morticia, and Gordon Nicholson delivered plenty of laughs as a trapped Gomez (I am impressed that he balanced the script’s stereotypes with some more subtle characterisation). In all, the cast and orchestra delivered a receptive audience with a truly engaging night of entertainment, despite working with a second-rate script.

I felt slightly uncomfortable about the paradox of a Spanish-American family who’d apparently migrated in the eighteenth century but still had a a Spanish accent and identified themselves as immigrants two hundred years later. Writing in 2009, I think Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice could have attempted to be more respectful, but it probably didn’t occur to anyone involved to consider the imperialism inherent in classifying anyone who isn’t an Anglo American as an immigrant. And it’s hardly a central element of the plot.

Regardless of the unfortunate stereotyping, the story and the values it espouses remain strong, and this, after all, is a light, fluffy musical comedy that trades on the reputation of a classic sitcom rather than the competence or cultural awareness of the writers for its success. It’s not an exploration of metaphysical significance or even a reimagining of a classic, but a vaguely-reasonable attempt to capitalise on nostalgia and turn a profit. It’s fun, and this cast enjoyed themselves enough to take the opening night crowd on a bit of a romp.

Perhaps these characters don’t ring completely true to the TV show I grew up with, but do we really expect them to? In the fifty years since The Addams Family ceased filming, our culture has shifted dramatically. Certain values have held fast, and this musical makes a valiant effort to be relevant… I’m just not convinced that remaking classics just for the nostalgia value is a worthwhile pursuit. Profitable, perhaps: but hardly insightful. And as much as I appreciate the odd bit of fluff, these times call for insight. And the book just doesn’t deliver however much the cast attempts to redeem it.

 
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Posted by on Friday, 3 March 2017 in Canberra Theatre, The Q, Theatre

 

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Member

memberpresspixI grew up in Sydney. I recall studying World War II in the western suburbs like it was a distant memory. I recall hearing about the Holocaust as if it was a side note to the war at school and at home as if it were an isolated and unrepeatable atrocity. I don’t recall ever contemplating whether such inhumanity could be perpetrated in the Sydney I lived in: it was simply beyond my conception.
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And yet, on so many nights when my parents tucked me safely into bed, men were beaten or murdered on the other side of the city because they were gay. The proximity of the horror is sobering. And it’s proximity that makes Member such a deeply moving piece of theatre.
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The protagonist is Corey, and we encounter him in an emergency ward, by the side of his adult son, who has been severely beaten. Encouraged by a pretty nurse to talk to his son, Corey describes a moment in his childhood that shaped his understanding of gay men, and determined his response to his son’s coming out.
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Ben Noble, who plays Corey in this one man show, delivers a brilliant, raw performance with his gut-wrenching script. He evokes a broad range of characters, many of them recognisable as archetypes and deftly held back from becoming stereotypes.
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Fairly Lucid Productions have failed, in this intstance, to live down to the standard their name describes. Indeed, the clarity with which this performance delivers its punch is amazing. I found it particularly difficult to walk out into the merriment of the bar, where everyone seemed oblivious to the horror that was just brought to life for us. I’ve long thought Sydney an ugly city with a heart of gold, but the Sydney I stumbled back into after seeing Member felt every bit as nasty as her neglected streetscapes have always looked.
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For me, the proximity of this story to my childhood home is deeply troubling. It further upsets my memory of what I perceived as a relatively tolerant and diverse society. But it also reminds us, and I think this is the intention of the title, that we are members of this society, and the responsibility for change rests with us.
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Plays like this are why theatre matters.
 
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Posted by on Saturday, 25 February 2017 in Blood Moon Theatre, Sydney Theatre, Theatre

 

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The Normal Heart

the-normal-heartAs the audience applauded outrageously, drawing the cast out for a well-earned third bow, I wondered whether it would be more appropriate, in this instance, for the cast to stand on stage as we all observed silence in honour of those who’d paid the ultimate price for their love. But of course, that would hardly work, given how deeply entrenched our social norms are.

And that, largely, is the point of Larry Kramer‘s play, very aptly titled The Normal Heart.

The ‘normality’ of the love portrayed is juxtaposed against the initial onset of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, where cultural norms prevented an expedient or even a compassionate response to research and prevention. The play portrays an increasing fear, and an increasing urgency to find a way to stop the as-yet unnamed disease, pitting allies against each other in their fight to arrest the disease’s spread.

The play broadly centres on the efforts of Ned Weeks, a character based on the writer himself, to spur both the gay community and governments to action. After failing to gain traction with the media, he manages to get a group together to establish an organisation aimed at building awareness of and fighting the growing epidemic. He is also spurred by Doctor Emma Brookner, a character based on Doctor Linda Laubenstein, a pioneering researcher into the epidemic. Weeks finds himself pushed in one direction by Brookner, and held back by his organisation, who seek to use more diplomacy than Weeks thinks appropriate.

The resulting conflict drives the play forward, and would present Weeks in a very ineffectual light, were it not for the love story that underlies his trajectory. While seeking media attention, Weeks instead elicits the attention of Felix Turner, and they develop a rather conventional (or as the title suggests, normal) affection, that grounds Weeks, and is, perhaps, the only thing that truly humanises the character. Inasmuch as The Normal Heart veers precariously close to being a mere polemic, Felix is most certainly the play’s salvation.

Will Huang honoured the role of Felix with a brilliant performance. His decline is measured, and his self-pity deeply empathic. I found myself often wishing the more polemic of scenes would zip by a little faster so Felix would come back. But then, in perhaps the most polemic scene, Michael Sparks delivers one of the most moving and convincing monologues I have ever heard, in the character of Mickey Marcus. This moment presented presents Weeks with his most articulate and encyclopædic challenge, and he is silenced. It is a truly remarkable monologue, if Weeks really is based on the author: moving and tragic, and so highly critical of its own writer that it stands out as distinctly un-American in its candour.

Indeed, the second act is awash with noteworthy speeches that cover the range of positions the characters took in response to the epidemic. Jordan Best brilliantly and emotively portrays the frustration of the medical fraternity. Christopher Zuber (as Bruce Niles) puts Weeks in his place without ever writing him off. And Jarrad West’s Weeks, increasingly frustrated and ineffective in his purpose, demonstrates the centrality of the heart, the element that shows this play to be something other than a mere documentation of a sad and sorry moment in human history.

This is a tragedy of Sophoclean proportions, and it is a story Karen Vickery should take immense pride in having directed.

So as this brilliant cast took their bows, I applauded along with the rest of the audience, and began to process the remarkable piece of theatre I’d just witnessed. The irony of being unable to honour both the performance and the story was not lost on me, and though the deep tragedy of the story had cut me to the core, I nonetheless felt it was entirely appropriate for the cast to be honoured as they were.

Still, it would be nice, just once, to forego the applause at the end of as tragedy such as this. To instead stand and honour the dead with a cast that has done them such an honour in presenting their story, would be a cathartic experience I suspect.

 

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Educating Rita

educating-ritaAs far as modernisations of classical mythology go, Educating Rita is a valiant effort. It has the pathos of Ovid’s tale, the wit of Shaw’s, and it’s nicely focused on the essential characters, so it almost works as a parable. To date, though, I’ve not seen a production that quite lives up to the ideal I suspect Willy Russell hoped for.

Maybe it was the timing. Written in 1980, Educating Rita sits at the very tail end of Britain’s kitchen sink era, where the profound was muted by reality.

Well, that’s certainly what HIT Productions have here. Though some of the books are clearly painted on the walls, we are in all other senses transported to a rather ordinary office in a rather ordinary institution, in a rather ordinary part of the British Isles, and presented with an extremely ordinary professor of literature. A rather ordinary woman walks through the door, and is gradually transformed into an extraordinary one, while the professor proceeds down a path of self-loathing that apparently leads to Australia.

While I might not be especially enamoured of Russell’s treatment of Ovid’s ancient myth, I nonetheless find it interesting, and it is made moreso in this instance by two brilliantly-talented actors. Colin Moody leaves no room to doubt Frank’s sad reality, and Francesca Bianchi is likewise entirely convincing as Rita. Their see-saw-like transitions through the play are presented with verisimilitude and they build into a brilliantly balanced crescendo.

Regardless of the flaws I see in the script, this is certainly an excellent production of it. It shows a strong commitment to character development on the part of director, Denny Lawrence.

In my wild, erratic fancy, I imagine a production of Educating Rita staged as Greek tragedy, with Frank as a rather sodden Plato, and Rita his Aristotle. The set an olive grove or agora, and among the poets they discuss, Ovid, just for the irony. But can I be bothered? Probably not. I don’t think this tale, as Russell has portrayed it, quite does justice to Ovid’s Pygmalion the way Shaw did. And so, maybe I’ll leave that idea for one of Russell’s true believers.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 26 October 2016 in Canberra Theatre, The Q, Theatre

 

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