Saturday, 18 July 2009

Hug a Brewer!

Today is International Brewer’s Day! Is that cool or what? I will be performing in Twelfth Night at Khandallah so will unfortunately not be able to get along to the Malthouse to celebrate – but would just like to say a big hearty ‘cheers’!

The theme seems to revolve around hugging brewmasters in recognition of the fact that they have “given so many of us the pleasure of their artistry and enriched our lives with their beer since civilization began.” Apparently (Neil Miller’s blog is my beer-drinking Bible, as you can see) this day was chosen because it is the feast day of Good King Wenceslas. He did more than troop around in the snow bidding folk to stand by him and bring pine logs hither; he was also the patron saint of beer. A damn fine thing of which to be patron saint, say I!

Raise your foaming tankards high and salute the mercurial majesty that is beer. Hug those brewers – even the shy and retiring types. Actually, I don’t know any shy and retiring brewers. But who am I to talk; I shall be acting, and we theatre folk are not exactly known for our shy retirement either, but we do generally love beer – it’s a wonderful combination!

Indeed, Twelfth Night is known for being a feast of merriment with much singing, drinking and carousing. So I'll no doubt be doing some of that.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Toilet trash

Sit on It, (Young and Hungry Festival of New Theatre 2009)
Bats, July 10 - 25

Writer Georgina Titheridge must have spent an alarming amount of time in toilets at bars and nightclubs to capture the excellent dialogue of Sit on It. Over the course of about an hour, the clientele of the club drop by the toilets to hide from others, make ‘private’ phone calls, primp, preen, argue, fight, vomit and have sex –in rapid succession. Oh, and a couple even go to the toilet – we are told about it in graphic detail. I’m just appalled by the number of people who don’t wash their hands – so that’s how swine flu is spreading! I’m not exactly OCD but I’m off to buy some hand sanitizer.

We are presented with a number of types. The sparkly girls come complete with glittering handbags and salon hair – Jenny (Eve Marina) wants to do some ‘nasty dancing all over boys and stuff’ while Jen (Prue Clarke) just wants to be nasty. The long-sleeved t-shirt and jeans girls are ‘obviously lesbians’ – Millie (Anna Pearson) aks her friend Bill (Ashleigh James) why they are there and I would have to echo that question. It’s Ladies Night, so they can get free drinks, but it won’t exactly be salubrious, as the plywood toilets (set design by Joel Cocks) indicate.

Mike (Daniel Watterson) who keeps straying ‘accidentally’ into the women’s toilets is a good character and maintains his level of insecure bluster throughout – so perplexed by his sexuality that he propositions anyone and everyone. Dan (Jonathan O’Kane) also seems confused, becoming awkwardly drawn to Mike moments after turning down Wendy (Gabrielle Beran) who was quick to whip off her top in a cubicle, because it was more romantic than shagging by the sinks.

True to stereotype, most of the characters arrive in pairs, including an underage kid Bell (Gussie Larkin) hiding from her big sister Carla (ZoĆ« Towers), and the two slapstick clowns Tammy (Jackie Shaw) and Vanessa (Phoebe Smith). The Moaning Myrtle wallflower, Francis (Ana Clark) in a highly unlikely dress, tries too hard to be appealing because she hasn’t any friends of her own. The ladies loos can be a very lonely place, as Millie discovers when she attempts to get someone to stop and have a conversation.

Director Lyndee-Jane Rutherford uses the device of having the actors talk to themselves in the mirror, so they can face us as they speak to each other. This could involve the audience but the characters are all revolting so we’re simply not engaged (pardon the corny pun – it’s contagious). The only decent person in this club is Monica (Debs Rea) who is a total skank – Amy Winehouse style – with the beehive to match. She doesn’t blink when her implants pop out and blithely takes her knickers off (I can only assume because she worries they are giving her VPL), but she generously offers a complete stranger the use of her cell phone because she’s got lots of credit.

Parts of the action are incisive as the girls get increasingly dishevelled and unappealing – why do we think we’re sexy when we’re drunk? Others, however, betray a lack of insight, such as the cat fight. Those girls were spoiling for a fight, pumped with aggression and would have punched and kicked when they were down – to portray them as pathetic handbag wavers may get a cheap laugh, but there are already plenty of those and this is ultimately disappointing.

Incidents are played out for maximum comedy effect which conversely spoils the impact. Although the dialogue is perceptive, the stereotypical characterisation and over-the-top acting style leave the performers with nowhere to go. The screaming fever-pitch climax is intensely irritating, and although there are some good comedy sketches, there is not enough depth or development to really class as a play.

This has been done before and better (Willy Russell’s Stags and Hens is currently enjoying a renaissance) and Titheridge herself has trod very similar ground in the fantastic Babycakes with more style. If you’re that age and you know the actors, it’s probably a scream, but if the acting is toned down and the directing more subtle, it could reach a much wider audience.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Final dress; first performance; Twelfth Night

Final dress rehearsal went well and I’m happy with that. I know there are lots of superstitions among theatre folk, but I’ve never really followed them. I will say Macbeth quite blithely and I don’t come over all histrionic should someone whistle in the dressing room (although singing from musicals bothers me a bit, but that’s got more to do with good taste than superstition).

Some people maintain that a bad dress rehearsal means a good opening night and vice versa but this is pure hokum. You know whether you are ready for a performance – whether you have put in the work; practiced the words and movement; built the character; listened to the direction; considered the attitudes of those around you and prepared as best you can. No amount of mumbo jumbo is going to change that. It’s like taking a mascot into an exam – no amount of cuddly toys, sharpened pencils or lucky undies are going to make a blind bit of difference if you haven’t learned your stuff.

Of course there are variables – some things might happen before an audience that have never happened in rehearsal, but that’s the beauty of live theatre. People say (usually irritatingly smugly) ‘life’s not a rehearsal’ but in some ways it is. You learn from your mistakes and you move on. You experiment, try different approaches and find what works best. That’s life, and what’s that if not a rehearsal?

I overheard a fellow actor explaining their part in the play – they got half way through the plot and then said, ‘But I won’t spoil the surprise for you.’ It occurred to me that some people will be surprised by the ending. Not everyone knows the story. And I wondered what that would be like. How different it must be to see Hamlet, Macbeth, or, indeed Twelfth Night without knowing what happens. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the ending of Romeo and Juliet or Casablanca.

I do know how annoyed I was when a friend, asking about The Sixth Sense said SPOILER ALERT ‘Is that the one where he’s dead all along?’ There seemed little point in watching it once I knew the twist, and so I never have. And so I won’t ruin the surprise, you’ll just have to come and see it. END OF SPOILER ALERT

Some people prefer to read a play, particularly Shakespeare, before they go and see it so that they know what’s going on. They find the language difficult and would rather have it wash over them, without having to concentrate on the intricacies of language as well as plot. I can understand this, especially with some of the history plays. But I think Twelfth Night lends itself far better to the stage than the page.

I recently heard someone say that reading a play without seeing it performed is like studying the ingredients without baking the cake. I like that analogy. And tonight I can safely say that for better or worse, we will be breaking some eggs.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

A Pearl of a Play

Oyster, (Young and Hungry Festival of New Theatre 2009)
Bats, July 10-25

Struggle is an integral part of character, apparently. The grit in the oyster becomes a pearl, and there is plenty of matter for these characters to rub against and develop. Each is searching for individuality, while desperately trying to fit in. The set (designed by Sarah Burrell) of little skyscraper boxes grouped in various clusters of representative isolation heightens the sense of trying to stand out from the crowd.

Dolores (Lauren Gibson) is a serious student with a beautiful voice who is saving for her OE, while getting bullied at school by a triumvirate of mean girls. These three try to be cool by swearing and talking about sex. Dolores confides in her friend Velma (Karin McCracken), an animal activist (although she does eat oysters because that’s different) who seems comfortable in her own skin.

Velma’s boyfriend, Marek (Sam Hallahan) is a Polish anthropology student who is interested in prophets and why they have stopped hearing voices. He claims that spirituality has been replaced by consumerism and champions his intense socialist principles, all the while scrounging money off Velma.

She works, or rather, volunteers for Gaia (Cara Louise Waretini) whose extremely dull eco-warrior persona spouts diatribes of facts and slogans in the sort of student debates that everyone else fell asleep through. Her brother, Napoleon (Will Colin) is a Trekkie, claiming ‘People become Trekkies for all sorts of reasons’ and ‘It’s cool to be different’, but he’s not and tribal affiliation is no substitute for personality.

Meanwhile, Chevy (Tom Horder) finds religion and hands out ten brochures a day – his dialogue is delivered at a good pace and his gentle demeanour is appealing. Each character is seeking individual salvation, and when we see them all some years on, they have found it to varying degrees. Relationships end, expectations lead to disillusion, family commitments curtail personal freedoms, and Marek has a break-down in MacDonald’s. Only Dolores seems at ease, ‘I’ll be standing on the barricades singing whatever happens.’

Some of the actors are hard to understand and could emphasise their speeches more by not trailing off at the end of their sentences. Lauren Gibson is a stand-out and her clear and distinctive voice proves that the New Zealand accent doesn’t have to be a nasally mumble of unintelligibility. Jessica Aaltonen also impresses as she makes the switch from vindictive head bully to vulnerable loneliness with convincing ability and depth of character.

The closing apocalyptic rant as all the characters sit around has some good lines but no cohesion – one monologue follows another and it risks sounding like a high school debate. Vivienne Plumb is poet and short story writer, as well as a playwright, and much of it is more suited to the page than the stage. For example, Gaia and Napoleon share particularly unrealistic dialogue and the description of the visit to Phnom Penh is more like a short story than a piece of drama.

The understated direction (Rachel More) helps connect all these characters in their ever expanding network. Elegant touches – the angel reaching out a hand; the reading of letters by the writers themselves – suggest buoyancy in the maelstrom that is adolescence. With a little polishing, this piece could truly be a gem.