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Versions of Us

First show back in Canberra, and I’m impressed. In a performance that would be right at home as part of the Edinburgh Fringe (oh, how I miss Fringe!), Canberra Youth Theatre present a series of stories that evoke a sense of what it means to be one’s self in the way we relate to others.

The stories all centre on adolescents exploring the way they understand and present themselves. It’s an important theme in adolescence, but it is something we grapple with all through life, so the production has a broader appeal than I think was necessarily intended from reading the program. It is apparent from the quality of the end result that all contributors have put a lot into this production.

The one thing I’m less than impressed with is the use of snippets. This is a frequent result from group-devised theatre, as it allows a relatively purist way of including a large number of participants and a wide range of ideas without bending them. But I always find works that provide snippets of stories involving many characters less satisfying than plays with a contiguous plot arc and deeper characters.

In this instance, it is a relatively small gripe. The lighting and sound design does bring a range of experiences of the one theme together, and the play flows well from one plot to the next. It helps that these young people are natural performers experiencing the benefit of working with CYT’s excellent tutors. And it helps, too, that its theme and the plots chosen bear out a commitment to honesty.

The program says that the creators sought to avoid “the fake teen angst stereotype”, and they certainly achieved this. At every juncture, I found myself invested in the characters’ lives, and empathising with the angst they were expressing. The balance achieved to establish an angst that doesn’t feel forced is a worthy accomplishment, and the writer, director and performers should be proud of it.

Honestly, I’d have been grateful just to have an hour feeling like I’m back in Edinburgh’s dank, dark theatrical spaces; Canberra Youth Theatre delivered this and more.

 
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Posted by on Saturday, 14 October 2017 in Canberra Theatre, Canberra Youth Theatre, Theatre

 

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Greece: an essay tour

I’m stepping away from my usual diet of plays and films for this post, as it just so happens I’m in Greece, and I’m the kind of nerd who must see a few special theatres when I find myself here.

As I write, I’m hearing the voice and remembering the style of one of my very favourite university lecturers, Emeritus Professor Michael Greenhalgh. I met him in my postgraduate years and he introduced me to something I never thought I’d bother with: Ancient Greek Art and Architecture. Though it’s been almost 15 years, I can hear him clearly and every stone or vase I look at here has me seeing him point excitedly and explain why it matters.

I shall try not to bore you, my dear reader, with the minutiae, but give you a bit of an overview of why I’m so excited to be here, and why I’m writing about my travel adventures on my theatre blog. The thing is, back in 2003, wanting a more personally engaging topic for the essay Professor Greenhalgh had tasked us with, I approached him and suggested I study the way theatres developed as an architectural form. He agreed, and the result became for me one of the most memorable pieces of academic work I ever undertook.

So when I found that the cheapest way to get home from Europe now is to depart from Athens, I set out my itinerary to take me to three of the most significant archaeological sites in the development of the world’s first architectural form devoted to an art form.

This post will be updated as I visit the three sites, with the story of my visit.

For the enthusiastic amongst you, you may also like to read the essay that inspired my itinerary, here. It’s not my best writing (I suspect my flair took some time to develop), but I still think it an interesting read, if you like that kind of thing.

 

Thorikos

Thorikos is the oldest surviving theatre in the world. Many theatres have been theatres for longer, but not in their original form, leaving Thorikos with the honour of being the oldest that still shows the rectilinear form developed in the Archaic period, before they started getting all fancy and round. Older sites saw further development into the classical and Hellenistic periods, and don’t retain this elongated shape.

I set out from Daskalio to find the ancient theatre of Thorikos, which I knew to be a relatively undeveloped site. Google Maps took me directly there, and the theatron jumped out at me as I drove my wee rental up the rough drive to find there wasn’t even so much as a defined parking area. I could easily have driven the wee beasty up onto the orchestra itself had I not known the significance of the place and recognised its unusual form.

Indeed, though there is one interpretive board on site, even it doesn’t mention how significant this site is. Knowing it, my heart skipped a beat. I battled palpitations as I stepped, carefully, from the orchestra (of which nothing remains but the space), into the 2,500 year old theatron and sat myself down on a stone bench.

I looked out over the port of Lavrios, and imagined a performance here. I walked the length of the cavea at its pinnacle, and again from the orchestra, then took a place at the centre and, not recalling anything more appropriate, I recited the prologue of Henry V for the stones.

I stood in the footprint of the Temple of Dionysius, of which all that remains are six or seven stones, and I thanked the gods for theatre.

Cavea in the hillside and the acropolis beyond.

Auditorium seating

Looking over cavea and orchestra to Lavrio

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The built end of the cavea

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Epidauros

Arriving at Epidauros was a little more involved than arriving at Thorikos. For a start, Epidauros is one of the most famous historic sites in Greece, and it attracts hundreds of visitors a day, unlike Thorikos, which may possibly attract a visitor or two a week.

I simply looked into the opening time, and arrived ten minutes early, hoping to avoid a crowd. Arriving at 07:50, I found myself the third entrant (but the first Australian) of the day, and judging by the way things went, it was just as well.

I paid my 12€ and followed the Americans up the path. Just like at Thorikos, my heart skipped a beat when I glanced up and recognised the familiar cavea right in front of me.

For those unfamiliar with Epidauros, the theatre now here is important because it was built in the classical period, and was not significantly updated or rebuilt by the Romans. It is also one of the best preserved theatres of antiquity, providing us with probably the best indication of the way theatres were constructed in the classical period.

A group of puppies had followed the Americans and me up to the theatre and they gambolled as we explored.

As at Thorikos, I delivered Henry V’s prologue, though this time the theatron was not quite empty. The Americans seemed to appreciate my monologue more than the puppies, though. They had tried testing the theatre’s acoustics, but didn’t seem to recognise that they needed to project. Guidebooks seem to give tourists they impression that the cavea and the stone does all the work, but it’s obvious to any actor that you need to work with the space. I launched into my usual teacher voice, but found I needed to curtail my volume to reduce the echo. Truly amazing to hear your voice fill the space, and to hear it working two and a half thousand years after it was built. I do wonder what the presence of 12,000 audients might do to the acoustics, though.

I also managed to take a few shots of the place before the sun began to cast a shadow, and decided I would remain at the theatre until it was bathed in sunlight.

After looking through the museum (which is less than impressive due to the most significant artefacts being on display in Athens) and also the Askeplion, I returned to the theatre to sit in the shade and wait for the sun to cover the site. As soon as I sat in the auditorium, a group of young Germans passed, and a few minutes later they assembled on the orchestra, and sang three songs beautifully. The assembled tourists demanded an encore, and they gracefully obliged. I was halfway up the theatron, and my camera’s dodgy microphone actually caught the sound beautifully.

I returned to the theatre late in the day, as the sun was about to set  unfortunately they close the site before sunset, so a real sunset photo is not possible for a mere commoner like me. And at any rate, I had a date with a moussaka I didn’t want to miss.

As I sat, I watched as several individuals got up and tested the acoustics. I enjoyed opera, people mindlessly yelling stupid things to their friends, a Frenchman who needed a lot of coaxing from an American he’d never met before he would stand and sing a little ditty, and a bit of hip hop, but the last was my favourite. Many of these tourists-come-performers took a little time to get comfortable but none so much as the last one of the day.

About twenty minutes before closing, I was left alone in the theatre. I enjoyed the silence, and started thinking about moussaka, as you do. As I made my way down towards the orchestra, a chap returned, who I had seen sitting alone and enjoying the performances just like me. He made a few tentative sounds by clicking his tongue, or clapping. As I passed the orchestra and moved towards the exit, I got the feeling he was waiting to have the theatre to himself. So of course, I let him think I’d left. I stood in a low position on the other side of the proskenion, where I was out of sight, and I took a few more snaps of the theatre.

As I did, he began to sing. He was nervous, even with the theatre empty, and he didn’t project especially well, but he warmed up. His wasn’t a voice you’d boast about, but he could hold a tune about as well as I could. And he gradually built in volume and had the theatron ringing.

I would hope that, in our own way, each of us would get a theatre ringing like that. That each of us would find a spot where we’re just pushing the boundaries of what’s comfortable. How many more smiles would we see if everyone just felt they could stand up and sing, however our voice sounds?

The approach to the theatre

One of the pups

Front row seats

Theatron, orchestra and proskenion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next stop… the Theatre of Dionysius in Athens!

 

Athens

Okay, so by the time I arrive at the Theatre of Dionysius us in Athens, I’m feeling a little old-rock fatigue. Yes, even I get tired of seeing more and more ruins of ancient monuments. So I’m glad I allowed myself plenty of time here.

My first glimpse of the Theatre of Dionysius was from the Acropolis itself, looking down into the cavea and orchestra, and what remains of the Roman period skene, with the magnificently modern Acropolis Museum beyond. It’s a beautiful scene, but not heart-stopping like the previous two.

I think just knowing the alterations that have occurred to this site over the ancient period dampens my enthusiasm somewhat, as does the fact that the second and third teirs of the auditorium have been pillaged at some point. The theatre really doesn’t give a good account of itself, though this may be in part me now comparing it to other sites. It could also have something to do with the hubbub from the tourists here.

The Roman skene, thankfully, doesn’t just honour the emperor (Nero at the time), but also (and even predominantly) features Dionysius himself. The reliefs from the stage left end are beautifully preserved and evoke pathos across the years even without their colours.

And of course, just a few hundred metres away is the Roman Odeon of Herodes Atticus, which demonstrates that next stage of development in the architectural form, with much of its Roman stage intact. Unfortunately, the weather was not my friend and the performance I was hoping to see here was cancelled.

Theatre of Dionysius, from the Acropolis

The fancy seats added in the Hellenistic period

Reliefs from the Roman era stage

Throne of the Dionysian Priest

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And so ends my pilgrimage. It’s been quite an adventure, and I would recommend it to other theatre nerds!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 20 September 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Royal Vauxhall

A little more theatrical than cabaret, but a little more cabaret than theatre, Royal Vauxhall straddles the divide exceptionally well, and presented beautifully in the pub it was named after.

Telling the story of the night in 1988 when Princess Diana went to a gay bar in drag with Freddie Mercury and Kenny Everett (no, I’d never heard of him either), Royal Vauxhall is named after the pub where it happened. Though the troupe


is touring the show, I was lucky enough to be in London while it was being performed at the very same Royal Vauxhall Tavern, which was rather a special moment.

Desmond O’Connor’s book is spot on for this kind of environment. Though it might be a little less interactive than most cabarets, it nonetheless allows for a real engagement with the audience that we rarely see in musical theatre. The music is loud and engaging, and there aren’t too many sappy moments to leave a pub audience bored.
And the material is just as well suited. The piece is truly hilarious and was well appreciated by the audience.

Sarah-Louise Young plays Diana, and she is charming and engaging throughout. Reuben R Kaye’s Freddie Mercury keeps the audience and the action on track, and is clearly a master of cabaret. And Stuart Saint is invariably relatable as Kenny Everett.

The show is set to tour the UK, but if they make it to Australia, I imagine there will be a receptive audience for them there too (wink, wink; nudge, nudge).

 
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Posted by on Thursday, 7 September 2017 in British Theatre, Theatre

 

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Outlaws to In-Laws

Having recently produced a show that attempted to draw a bow through LGBTIQ history, I am familiar with the difficulty of having to eschew particular bits of history to get a story across. Outlaws to In-Laws navigates this dilemma quite well, I think.

Spanning seven decades, Outlaws to In-Laws tells seven unrelated stories about gay men living their lives. The premise is simple: the changes in the way we live can’t really be broached by a single plot arc, so let’s have several plots!

And the result is remarkable. Each play digs deeply into the heart of sex or romance or both, providing a glimpse of the impact of the political sphere on the personal across seven decades of queer history.

For me, two stories really stood out, and the first was Mister Tuesday. Delivering a plate of cucumber sandwiches to his lover, who only comes on Tuesdays, a man attempts to deepen the relationship, and failing, turns to blackmail. Set in the 1960s, the ploy has a particular impact, and the performances of both Jack Bence and Elliot Balchin are compelling.

The second stand out was Reward, set in the 1970s. A young man perseveres in attempting to strike up a conversation with another at a bus stop, and a romance develops. Jack Bence is hilarious in this piece, and holds his composure remarkably. Michael Duke, likewise, is engaging and believeable, and the two do a brilliant job with Jonathan Kemp’s brilliantly composed script.

This is a timely production that neatly captures the heart of this moment in our history, this moment where we really care about our history because it seems to have brought us somewhere. As such, Outlaws to In-Laws is a quintessentially theatrical production that truly matters.

 
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Posted by on Tuesday, 5 September 2017 in British Theatre, King's Head Theatre, Theatre

 

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God’s Own Country

It might be being promoted as a “British Brokeback”, but apart from an agrarian context and some primal and near-violent sex scenes, God’s Own Country shares little in common with the groundbreaking American epic.

Brokeback Mountain was created at a time when the west was only beginning to understand gender diversity, and it portrayed a romance that was hindered by both law and societal expectations. God’s Own Country, on the other hand, is set in an England that is both legally affirming of homosexual partnerships and increasingly open to them culturally. The films, therefore, sit beautifully together as a study of thematic progression.

Set near Bradford, in England’s north, the story follows a young man whose father is increasingly unable to manage the farm. An Eastern European farmhand is hired to assist with lambing, and he proves to pretty damn good with his hands in more ways than one.

Now, from an Australian perspective, I do have to point out that there seems to be one rather gaping plot gap: thoughout the film, a large town is visible in the background of many farm scenes, yet for some reason, the lads are sent to spend several days camping in an abandoned hayshed presumably to be nearer the livestock needing attention. How on earth this farm can be large enough to require a sleepout is beyond me (the town is visible from both the hayshed and the homestead), but it is essential to the plot, as this is where the romance begins, so I did have to consciously suspend my disbelief at this incongruity.

Disbelief suspended, I was deeply moved by the brilliant performances of Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu. Gutteral, earthy and completely unlikely as a couple, the pair evoke great pathos, and unlike Brokeback Mountain, which suffers from the two-thirds-through “when will this end?”  illness, God’s Own Country is compelling throughout.

 
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Posted by on Monday, 4 September 2017 in BFI, British Film, Film

 

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Rob Cawsey: Just Cruising

Desperately running out of time to take in everything the Edinburgh Festival Fringe has to offer, I stumbled late into Banshee’s to see Rob Cawsey. Apparently he’s a comedian.

A comedian he may be, but what I saw was a brilliant comic actor presenting slapstick comedy with a cohesive and engaging plot that elicited both laughter and a touch of empathy.

It’s a rare combination.

The story is his own: a big night out trying, increasingly desperately, to pick up. And throughout, there is this splendid balance between humour and despair. It is a great story presented brilliantly. Right up there with the best I’ve seen this Fringe.

 
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Posted by on Friday, 25 August 2017 in British Theatre, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Theatre

 

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Shitfaced Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet

I‘m not entirely certain that the glorification of intoxication is a public good, but I don’t think it can be argued that it’s not good for a laugh.

The premise for this piece is beautiful in its simplicity: perform one of Shakespeare’s works with a lead actor completely sloshed. To maintain the premise, a couple of audients are provided with instruments for calling for another drink for the actor, and an audient in the splash zone is put on bucket duty.

Though it may not please the purists, my immediate sensation was that this manner of presentation is possibly even truer to the style of performance in Elizabethan London than the present-day Globe. It’s bawdy and the audience are involved and don’t mind calling out.

But that’s probably where the argument for this as an authentic Shakespearean experience ends. It’s a laugh, and as far as great performances go, there’s little more than some quality improvisation to praise.

The play is shortened to one hour, which is an improvement, but does necessitate a certain amount of assumed knowledge of Shakespeare’s work.

In all, this is a great idea that’s good for one laugh, but I’m not likely to bother a second time.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 23 August 2017 in British Theatre, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Theatre

 

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