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Much Ado About Nothing

Canberra’s sunsets are a little short for Shakespeare, but the timing was pretty damn near perfect for Shakespeare by the Lakes’ debut tonight.

A bright and committed team of enthusiasts have brought back Canberra’s outdoor performances of Shakespeare, and they should be commended for the way in which they galvanised the community and pulled together such a great performance.

The costumes are reminiscent of Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film, and Izaac Beach’s Claudio is, astonishingly, even more cloying than Robert Sean Leonard’s from that same film. Lexi Sekuless is the standout, I feel: one of the most beautifully balanced Beatrices I’ve ever encountered, and she’s matched brilliantly by Duncan Driver’s Benedick.

I especially appreciate the way in which the space is used. In front of Tuggeranong Town Park’s rather sad little stage, the performers engage the audience with direct address, entering the performance space through the audience and even extending in amongst the picnic rugs at times. It’s an authentic and relatable way to treat the bard we so often revere but rarely embrace.

I did have some sympathy for the poor sound technicians: the wind picked up in the afternoon and the performers’ mics told us all about it. It was at times difficult to hear the voices, especially when, to minimise the problem, the operators turned the mics off and back on as required, frequently suffering a lag in reconnection.

It is a big decision in this context whether to amplify or not. The use of microphones, even when there’s no need to compensate for wind, kills a lot of expression, and it is difficult to recover. But in an outdoor space like this, amplification is sadly necessary. It doesn’t help that the ACT Government, despite investing substantially in outdoor performance venues, couldn’t even be bothered applying the technology perfected by the Greeks 2,500 years ago. A simple amphitheatre would eliminate the need for soul-crushing PA systems, but we’re stuck with flat auditoria like a people who have no access to the wisdom of ancient civilisations! /rant

Despite this difficulty, a talented cast certainly made the most of the the deftly-trimmed script, and gave an appreciative audience a show worthy of the investment made by the show’s sponsors. I hope to be enjoying Shakespeare by the Lakes for many years to come.

 

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 14 February 2018 in Canberra Theatre, Shakespeare by the Lakes, Theatre

 

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Call Me By Your Name

I don’t like slow. I’m pretty sure I don’t like slow. But this film is slow. And I liked it.

It’s a summer in the early 1980s, and for some inexplicable reason a hunky Yank named Oliver turns up at an academic’s house in northern Italy and stays for the summer. As you do. For some reason the family speaks English with an American twang, and Oliver seems to understand Italian far better than he speaks it. The son in his mid teens, Elio, vacates his bedroom for Oliver, sleeping instead in an adjoining bedroom, which, apparently, is unsuitable for Yanks, given their delicate temperaments. And this exposition takes at least half an hour. Did I mention the film is slow?

I mean, any slower and I’d have popped out for a three course meal in the middle and probably not have missed any significant plot points. And yet, I stayed engaged. This surprises me. Usually I want the film to move, but I really didn’t mind the slow and steady building of character layers, the quiet, lounging nature of their days or the inconsistent progression of the central characters’ relationship.

Oliver and Elio connect, then disconnect. They approach an equilibrium, then are thrown off. Elio acts out, as teenagers are wont to do; Oliver doesn’t come home, as hunky Yanks are wont to do. Slowly (I did say it’s slow, right?), the unbalanced nature of this character development endears these two uncharming characters to me. I feel Elio’s angst as he recognises his attraction to Oliver, and I accept Oliver’s resistance to his own attraction.

This is, perhaps, one of the most endearing and relatable aspects of the characters: their internalised homophobia is something I recognise in myself. At no point in this film (and there was plenty of time to include it), does any other character make a homophobic comment. The only place homophobia appears is within the gay characters themselves. Elio’s parents push the couple together; other members of the community never pass any comments on their sexuality; and yet, the central characters resist their urges not only because of the age gap but because of their perceptions of right and wrong. It’s a deeply endearing process that breaks my heart.

SPOILER ALERT: Now, if you keep reading this post, you will encounter comments relating to the ending. If you’ve not seen it, stop, watch, and then carry on. The only reason this film is worth writing about is because of a magical moment of cinematic genius at the end, so I’m writing about it.

The long road to Oliver and Elio finally acting on their urges jars splendidly with the immediate nature of sex and dating in this century. That slow development is entirely foreign to younger generations, and to have it depicted in this manner is a valuable cultural record if nothing more.

But it is more. And as much as I rail against the slowness, as much as I just want something to happen, the languishing nature of the plot here leads to one beautiful moment of cinematic bliss. It begins when Oliver leaves to return to America: I felt the pain of that separation like it was my own. And it wasn’t just lovers: saying goodbye like that has been part of my life since I was 11 when a slew of deaths and departures began for my family. The gut-wrenching numbness depicted here could have been mine. And the moment when Oliver tells Elio that he’s getting married, the finality of that moment; the internalised homophobia inherent in the act; and most of all, Elio’s silent, howling alone-ness echoed in my heart like they were my own.

There, at that moment, is the genius of this film. The slow slow build, the euphoric collision of love and lust, and the sudden wrench of separation culminating in absolute despair resonate with my experience. And I sat in awe at how this film took me there so subtly, so deftly, so firmly.

Would that I had the talent of James Ivory Luca Guadagnino to recognise the value of slow.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 24 January 2018 in Cinéfracture, Film, French Film, Frenesy Film Company, Italian Film

 

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Michael and Phillip are Getting Married in the Morning

Much of the publicity for Michael and Phillip are Getting Married in the Morning points to the December 2017 changes to the Marriage Act, which occurred between the writing of the play and its staging. Obviously the script was updated to reflect the changes, so I don’t think there really was a need to point them out. The publicity also bills it as a celebration of love, and although it does live up to this, there did seem to be some disagreement between the writer (who seems to have written a comedy) and the director (who seems to have directed a melodrama).

I don’t know how much it has diverted from the original plot, but the play centres on two men who are getting married in the near future (the title did leave me a little confused about the time line). Like all good romantic comedies, this central objective faces three major catastrophes: the interference of Michael’s best friend, the scheming of a pregnant bride-to-be who wants to marry Phillip instead and the re-appearance of Michael’s estranged and remorseful father.

The plot works. It chugs along nicely from one problem to another, emulating the best farces. The characters are relatable, even some of the minor ones, and they deliver pathos along with their humour. However, the direction has left the script without the energy it needed to get lift off. The delivery was slow, the comic timing almost always lagged and the business of moving from one setting to another brought any energy that was built thudding back down onto the stage floor.

Bayne Bradshaw and Ryan Stewart, playing Michael and Phillip respectively, portrayed their characters well, and though they were rarely on stage together, they had a great chemistry that made me wish they’d played opposite each other for more of the play. Anna Reardon was likewise admirable as Michael’s friend Tally, and fought valiantly to attempt to resurrect the play’s energy, but it was to no avail. Even the talent I could see in Bethany Griffiths, whose role as the bride is one of the most amusing elements in the script, wasn’t enough to build the energy  needed to get the audience laughing.

Michael and Phillip are Getting Married in the Morning should be a romp. The script is, despite a few unnecessary scenes, essentially ready to have us all rolling in the aisles, but this production had me checking my watch and tapping to see if it had stopped. Tighter direction and better comic timing would have saved it.

 
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Posted by on Thursday, 18 January 2018 in Melbourne Theatre, Theatre

 

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The Greatest Showman

Rarely does a film come along that I can praise without reservation or qualification, but this is one. So much so that it’s barely worth writing about.

What do you say about a film that hits the mark on character, balances it with plot and inspires us to be our best selves?

Nothing. Just watch the damn film. Annually at the very least. Forever.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 3 January 2018 in American Film, Film, Twentieth Century Fox

 

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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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