Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Piano Diaries

I’m a sucker for an immigration story, and Joanna Weinberg’s latest offering, The Piano Diaries, starts with one, so I was engaged from the get go with both her story, and her intoxicating voice.

I know I commented on a recent post that I might not be a particular fan of cabaret, but this was marvellous. While The Piano Diaries doesn’t have a plot in the conventional sense, Weinberg’s autobiographical stories are wonderfully full of the froth and bubble of life, flowing from the joys of a child’s fascination with her parents’ happiness to the darkness of witnessing racial vilification. These stories, fragments of a life story, provide a backdrop for the seemingly-effortless grace with which Joanna engages her audience.

London-born Weinberg grew up in South Africa (yet another reason for my interest; stories of South Africa fascinate me) and much of the material for this show is inspired by her childhood and youth in South Africa, with much of the remainder relating to her migration experience in coming to Australia. The Winds of Fear explores this, with its humble reference to the South African migrant as the “privileged of the refugees”. The unique perspective of South African Australians on this topic is refreshing, and Weinberg’s stories really speak to the immense value of a diverse society.

Weinberg took joy in complimenting Tuggeranong, even likening its Town Centre to Florence, repeatedly! No compliment was received with anything less than a hearty laugh by Tuggeranongians, who apparently take much less delight in the simple beauties of a well laid-out urban entity. It is Weinberg’s simple delight in the varied experiences of her life that make this show so charming, though. It is wonderful to just hear stories gleaned from life experience that then translate so beautifully into song, and the articulation between story-telling and song is what makes this show really special.

If nothing else, I’m finally sold on cabaret.


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A friend’s intention to go see the National Theatre Live screening of Frankenstein this afternoon prompted me to tag along, and am I ever glad I didn’t miss this masterpiece! I’ve been a fan of this story since reading Mary Shelley‘s novel while at uni (this was extra-curricular and yes, I’m that big a nerd!). I have also been impressed by a film adaptation, namely Kenneth Branagh‘s 1994 one, which really brought the novel to life, but I cannot say that either of these seemed more pertinent to my own experience of the world than this play.

Nick Dear‘s script is a fascinating piece of material. A long portion of the beginning of the play proceeds with very few words, and as a playwright I know how difficult it is to craft a play without words. It is, in this instance, essential that this portion of the play not be crowded with words, not only for the sake of the story, but also to draw the focus to Frankenstein’s creation, rather than Frankenstein. It establishes a connection with this character that grounds the rest of the story, and really does take it to a different place from where Mary Shelley positioned her reader.

And it is this positioning that really establishes Nick Dear’s play as a twenty-first century product. The play insists that the audient be confronted by the ethics of creation and the assumption of scientific logic as the supreme voice of reason. And yet, it does this in the absence of a divine. Humankind, refreshingly, is not repositioned as god (as seems to be the fashion), but instead as a more humble, responsible denizen of the world, such as would not have been considered in the early 19th century. Several critical moments of realisation for Victor Frankenstein, played superbly by Benedict Cumberbatch in the version I saw, underpin this reading, and it is the sign of a talented playwright that the character can be so fully formed, and yet still embody such lofty notions without a little compromise.

But all that is very philosophical for a Sunday afternoon. The real joy is seeing these themes explored with such unassuming grace. The set seems to remodel itself with ease (which of course indicates that there is nothing at all easy about it), and the music likewise supports these amazing performers to create magic. The NT Live recording of course doesn’t quite emulate what must be an amazing effect created by what must be thousands of incandescent globes above the stage and auditorium.

What’s really impressive, though, is that a stage production is able to be translated to screen as well as this. Apart from a few moments when the editing left me feeling that a cut had been rushed, and what even the most pedestrian of actors (which these performers certainly are not) would have treated as a pause or silence was instead cut abruptly to the next bit of action, the translation of a stage production into, essentially, a film that can be screened anywhere around the world, is remarkable. I am astounded by the way it has worked, and although I had some hesitation about jumping on the NT Live bandwagon, if this is an indication of what they’re doing, I’m a convert.


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Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Seems to me one of the most common accusations levelled at some films is that they’re predictable. And of course they are. Most films are made to be sold, and sold within a particular genre. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen deftly avoids such categorisation, and is one of the best character-driven films I’ve ever seen.

Of course the problem faced by film makers who choose material like this is how to sell it. Having seen clips for it, I mostly dismissed it, and only made the effort to see it when I had just seen a whole bunch of films and wanted another. It was not my first choice, but of all the films I’ve seen this week (and I’ve seen a lot more than usual this week), this was the best.

The story is centred on a couple of public servants who find themselves at the centre of an exercise in international relations. Emily Blunt plays a consummate professional who has mastered the art of eternal optimism. And Ewan McGregor plays an infinitely more staid and predictable realist. These two find themselves pursuing the whimsical dream of a Yemeni Sheikh, played engagingly by Amr Waked, to introduce the sport of Salmon fishing to his dry homeland.

The story charts an unpredictable course through the ups and downs of the project, but along the way the central characters, even the Sheikh to some extent, become intensely human as they navigate life. It sounds corny, I suppose, but this really is an intensely human story, with all the pathos you could wish for, and none of the schmaltz. How screenwright Simon Beaufort and novelist Paul Torday managed this, I don’t know, but I take my hat off to them. I wish I could be relied upon to write like that.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen has become one of my favourite films, just like that.


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The thriller has not been a genre that has appealed to me greatly, but over the last few years a few of them have  started to change that. Wolf Creek was one of the first, and The Ghost Writer was probably the most recent to impress me. Swerve can now be added to that list.

Starting with an exchange of drugs and money that doesn’t go entirely to plan, mild-mannered Colin (David Lyons) gets mixed up in a web of deceit, corruption and tangled motivations that don’t just keep you on the edge of your seat, but also keep your mind on its toes trying to remember who knows what, who owes what to whom, and where stuff is. In fact, this web of complications is almost too tangled, but I think the film survives thanks largely to two brilliant central characters expertly portrayed by Emma Booth and David Lyons, neither of whom I’ve ever encountered before.

Several action scenes involving car chases and accidents exemplify the elegant simplicity in this film’s cinematography, and that’s no mean feat. Perhaps its thanks to cinematographer David Foreman‘s background in television, but the action is brilliantly pared back to ensure that the focus remains on the characters and their objectives, contrary to what a lot of film makers tend to do. This is absolutely essential for a thriller, otherwise all you get is stunts and acrobatics, which I find far less satisfying than the thrill of seeing characters I care about in danger. As a result, the film as a whole stands up against its complicated plot and the occasional continuity error.

The sense of fear is palpable, and the film maintains an ethereal atmosphere without losing its grounding. This one is worth watching over and over again.


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The Ballad of Backbone Joe

This, believe it or not, was my first experience of cabaret. Well, at least my first experience of cabaret with the name ‘cabaret’ plastered all over the place. I’ve experienced cabaret before, it seems; I just wasn’t quite sure it was cabaret. This cabaret performance, however, was deemed to be cabaret by the people who run the Cabaret Festival in the capital city of the Festival State. Being quite unaware of what technically constitutes cabaret, I think these are the people to trust. And the experiment was worthwhile.

The Suitcase Royale, creators of The Ballad of Backbone Joe, are a tidy little Rag’n’Bone trio from Melbourne who’ve played at a range of festivals and events around Australia, the UK, US, Ireland and Germany. For a taste of their sound, have a listen to this. Their music is right up my street, and given the nature of cabaret, that’s the best feature. I could have forgone the story of Backbone Joe, who I never really came to care about (or possibly even understand), and I would have enjoyed listening to a little more of the music these guys created with such incredible vim! I would have enjoyed just as much some more of their humour, which was impeccably timed.

But seriously, I don’t see myself becoming a big fan of cabaret. Anyone who’s read more than one post on this blog knows that for me the holy grail of theatre lies somewhere between plot and character, so cabaret is always going to leave me a little cold. Nonetheless, the convivial nature of the form redeems it. In musical theatre, I often feel that when character and plot are too thin, a production just seems disingenuous; I don’t care about the story, I don’t care about the characters, and I have no reason to care about the performers unless I know them personally. Cabaret doesn’t suffer the same problem, because the performer connects with the audience regardless of the depth of connection I feel with the plot or character.

I’ll be watching out for more of The Suitcase Royale; mainly for their great music, but also because if this is cabaret, I like cabaret.


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Le Chef

I love when comedies turn into dramas without me even noticing. I felt the slightest pang of disappointment a few minutes into Le Chef, at the fact that it was looking like a romp, and I was thinking the characters wouldn’t develop a great deal. I was wrong. Before I knew it I was completely engaged with these two chefs, who seemed at first to be one-dimensional. And although the laughs just kept on coming, the two central characters raised the experience well above a romp into the realm of pure drama.

Le Chef begins with its central character, accomplished chef Jacky Bonnot (Michael Youn), moving from one job to the next because he can’t tolerate his customer’s choices. His partner, expecting their first child, finally impresses upon him the importance of having stability for the sake of the child, and he takes a job as a painter. His talents, though, are soon recognised by Alexandre Lagarde (Jean Renot), one of the finest celebrity chefs in France, and he leaves another job to take an unpaid internship.

Le Chef is not the best French film I’ve ever seen, but that’s a tough challenge. It lacks some energy at times, but overall, it is hilarious and fully engaging. I wish more films could strike that wonderful balance between what is funny and true characterisation.

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Posted by on Friday, 15 June 2012 in Film, French Film


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The trouble with satire is that it can so easily come across as melodrama. Satire is incredibly dependent on nuances in timing and expression, and unfortunately, Queanbeyan Players’ production of Iolanthe falls all too often on the melodramatic side of the divide.

Iolanthe, oddly enough, is not really about Iolanthe, but about her son, Strephon, and his love, Phyllis. A fairy, banished 24 years ago for marrying a mortal, Iolanthe is restored to the fairy community, and introduces to them her son, who it turns out is half fairy and half mortal (the lower half being the mortal bit). He is planning to marry Phyllis, a ward under the guardianship of the Lord Chancellor, who expects her to marry a member of the House of Lords…

The rest of this post is published on Australian Stage.


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Brecht: Bilbao and Beyond

In a very short season at The Street Theatre is Brecht: Bilbao and Beyond. Not a play, but a series of songs, fables, poems and excerpts of plays, all written by the impeccable German wordsmith, Bertholt Brecht, and performed by two veterans of the stage whose presence is gentle, inviting and absolutely engaging.

Tracing elements of Brecht’s life and work from birth to death (and then back a little), we are treated to just a few gems of his amazingly generous humour and capriciousness…

The rest of this post is published on Australian Stage.


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