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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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Short+Sweet Canberra 2015 Week 1

After missing a year, it has been a great feeling being involved in Short+Sweet again this year. The competition, as always, is eclectic.
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Photo 4-08-2015 4 15 53 pmI think one of the highlights this week has been The Adventures of Captain Midnight, in which Captain Midnight, a widower, describes his experience of moving to a retirement village and finding himself the centre of all the ladies’ attention. Don Smith as Captain Midnight strikes a very dignified presence with an air of David Attenborough examining the sex lives of the elderly.
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I’ve also been enjoying The Truth About Mum and Dad, yet another great piece by Greg Gould with some snappy one-liners and very relatable adult siblings who enjoy making a scene while learning that their parents may not be quite as prudish as they thought.
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Harriet Elvin’s Untitled was in good company with these offerings, too. What seems to be an art critic being harangued by a less appreciative gallery visitor turns out to be something far more amusing.
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I had the privilege of directing two very talented and committed performers in Robert Armstrong’s zippy little piece, The Interview from Hell. Alison Bigg and Oliver Durbidge took the production very seriously, and made the whole process very enjoyable. I also think the result was spectacular, but I’m biased!
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But the image that will stay with me after this year’s festival will certainly be that of Alison McGregor’s ‘Sparkles’, whose homage to love and chicken was simply gut-wrenching, especially the third time you see it! This one certainly deserved to take home People’s Choice!
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If this is the Top 20, there’s no way of predicting what will be in the Wildcards!
 

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Short+Sweet Brisbane 2012

Hearing that my play The Commuter had been chosen for the Wildcards in the Brisbane Short+Sweet Festival, I made some changes to a work trip and tacked on a weekend in Brisbane. So you can imagine my disappointment when I sat down in the theatre with the program, and couldn’t find my play listed!

I learned later that the cast had pulled the plug at the last minute, and there was nothing the organisers could do. So as disappointing as it was, all that was left for it was to enjoy the wild card entries that had made it. Not a particularly difficult task.

I was impressed with the calibre of these ten minute performances, most of which I’d have thought would have been worthy of the top 20.

Copstitutes told the story of twins who had inherited their mother’s brothel only for their first client to drop dead, turning them into instant private detectives. The performances were impeccable, and the energy admirable, right up until that two-thirds-through point when the action seemed to get lost. It seemed to me that maybe someone had fluffed a line and the cast list their mojo.

But for me the pick of the Wildcards was Tagalong Theatre Company’s It Came From the Couch, in which the cast’s incredible energy and focus told of impeccable direction from Dee Dee Shi and a tightly wound script from Chris Kestrel.

The one that took the position mine lost was particularly good, too. In On The Shelf an enthusiastic carrot and disillusioned celeriac meet a young cauliflower who has just arrived on the supermarket shelf and eagerly anticipates a nice cheese sauce. This one boasted a great script and some very generous performances from Brea Robertson, Bek Groves and Chris Charteris.

It was interesting to be around the theatre before the Gala Final too. The number of people who arrived and greeted each other like old friends really demonstrated one of the best aspects of Short+Sweet; the way it develops a community around it and brings the whole experience to life.

So despite my disappointment, it was a great show, and I’m glad I got to see it. I’m more keen than ever to see how The Commuter goes in Canberra this week, and today I’ve got a first draft of another script ready to submit for Short+Sweet 2013.

Short+Sweet Canberra opens on Wednesday 22 August at the Canberra Theatre Centre, and The Commuter is in the first week of the Top 20.

 
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Posted by on Sunday, 19 August 2012 in Brisbane Theatre, Festivals, Short+Sweet, Theatre

 

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The Imaginary Invalid

What a shame not to have made it to opening night for this fun little gem! The Wednesday night audience I joined was rather small and far too subdued for such a funny play so energetically brought to life by Centrepiece Theatre, but it was a lot of fun anyway.

I think this may be the third production of Moliere‘s work that I’ve seen from Centrepiece. The Miser, staged in 2005, remains one of my fondest memories of a night of comic theatre, and I think there was another in between. It has been some years, though, and too long to wait for another instalment.

This largely-forgotten and very old play rests on the even older plotline of marriages arranged by parents that don’t meet the expectations of the betrothed, but its genius plot twist is that the central character, Argan, is the imaginary invalid of the title, a wealthy hypochondriac trying to marry his daughter to a doctor in order to save money on medical bills. It was Moliere’s last play, and though he was playing the lead role in its premiere, he collapsed during the fourth performance and died shortly afterwards. Some say this is irony, but it seems Moliere’s malady was apparently not adequately imaginary!

The cast deserves a medal for their magnificent performances. Erin Pugh would upstage the entire cast, were her over-the-top mannerisms not generous to a fault. Her ability to be so very expressive (and excessive) while still drawing attention to other performers is remarkable, and I am not trying to dismiss the high calibre of performance delivered by all members of the cast, but this production definitely belongs to Pugh!

I am not intimately acquainted with the script or story of The Imaginary Invalid, but it struck me that, in comparison to the performances of the rest of the cast, Tony Turner’s Argon was rather subdued. Perhaps this is part of the text or a directorial choice, but it seemed to me a rather significant gulf. Not an entirely inappropriate one, though; just slightly unbalanced and maybe a little awkward.

The cast worked tirelessly to raise the energy levels, but it was a tough ask with such a small audience in such a large auditorium, and the performances fell short of their potential not through a lack of quality material in the script or technical difficulties or a lack of talent, but simply because the energy levels of the performers really need, in a production like this, to be matched by the energy levels of the audience. It really brings to the fore the difficulty of finding an appropriate venue in the capital. For this production, The Q was just too large. The Courtyard at Canberra Theatre Centre would probably have been better, but that’s awfully picky. It would be better yet if Canberrans would simply turn off The Voice (that steaming pile of… nevermind), get off their lazy arses, and go see some performers with both talent and an eye for a good material. But we all know that’s not going to happen, which is why I think we need more smaller venues. We have nothing really to match Sydney’s Belvoir or Stables theatres, and that’s a shame, as these theatres have just the right sort of atmosphere for our ‘crowds’.

But I digress. This production is all about a little bit of silliness, and it is admirably carried by a spectacular cast whose generosity in engaging the audience is faultless.

 
 

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