Thursday, 6 August 2009

Influential Women

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, (Stagecraft)
Gryphon Theatre, August 5 – 15

I’ve never liked those inspirational teacher stories. Sure, we’ve all had one, but do they have to be so nauseating? Trudy White as the eponymous character in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie doesn’t break the mould so much as shatter it and proves that influential educators are not always a good thing.

Miss Jean Brodie holidays in Italy so that she can revel in “goodness, truth and beauty”. She delights in art, language and architecture and wears flamboyant dresses that look like geology maps. She tells her ‘gels’ sad stories about her beau who fell in Flanders’ fields, and teaches them about Einstein, the benefits to the skin of cleansing cream, the love life of Charlotte Brontë, and God’s near Eastern counterpart, Allah.

Trudy White artfully captures her devious and manipulative character with a mischievous glance, a voluptuous shrug, or a twitch of her finger. Her machinations are intriguing as she plays her lovers against one another. Full of confidence, she commands the attentions of the philandering art teacher, Mr Lloyd (the ever-dependable Tom Rainbird, who handles the intimate moments with credible sensitivity) and the effete music teacher, Mr Lowther (Stephen Fearnley - in a kilt and a fine harried performance).

The seductive schemes are less alluring as she worms her way into her pupils’ affections. She calls them the “crème de la crème” and they are desperate to impress her in whatever way possible. When she is surrounded by the adoring and rapt students she is clearly elevated above them as a group, standing toe-to-toe only when she singles one out, with devastating consequences.

The girls, Sandy (Aisha Pachoud), Jenny (Gabrielle Stewart), Mary (Corinna Bennett) and Monica (Katrina Yelavich) are foils to her rapier wit, and she encourages them to develop their distinctive nature, which they all do very well. While they are typical teenagers, bullying and gossiping in the corridors, they each examine the nuances of their unique personality.

In her belief that humanities are the foundation of real life, she is thwarted by her nemesis, Miss Mackay, whose motto is “safety first” and prefers the children to be playing hockey and taking secretarial courses rather than visiting art galleries and moping about composing romances. She warns Miss Brodie that “We are not a progressive school and do not encourage progressive attitudes.”

With her admiration for Stanley Baldwin and prim suits, Miss Mackay is beautifully portrayed by Deanne Graham who invests her with both lightness and depth rather than creating a harridan caricature as could easily be done. A little more projection would help, especially when she is speaking upstage, but on the whole her flinty demeanour with a hint of humour is ideal.

The contrast between these women is excellent as one exudes passion and vitality too strong to be contained within the walls of Marcia Blaine School for Girls, and the other attempts to steer the pupils with a firm and guiding hand. The struggle for the hearts and minds of the youngsters is compelling and when Miss Brodie asserts, “Give me a girl of an impressionable age and she is mine for life”, there is a frisson of foreboding as we question where does guardianship end and interference begin?

The story is told through a series of flashbacks as Sister Helena (Ingrid Sage) relates to Mr Perry (Graeme Carruthers) how much the teacher has influenced her. Miss Brodie is a puppeteer but when the strings are cut she looses control and visibly diminishes. She views her profession as a calling (“I am a teacher, first, last and always”), and refuses to be crucified by Miss Mackay and “the ignorant gossip of petty provincials”, but her self-sabotage leaves the audience with conflicting emotions.

Alan Burden’s insightful sound design incorporates arias from La Traviata, which swoop and soar above the scene changes. Director Leigh Cain ensures that these are delightful vignettes in themselves – besides being slick, they do not interrupt the action. On opening night a few lines were fluffed which stalled the pace towards the end, but the script stuffed full of witticisms is generally well-delivered.

The inspired set which combines naturalistic desks, blackboards and lockers with abstract spaces and designs indicates the confines of the educational system. Although Miss Brodie encourages the girls to “let your imaginations soar” there is nowhere for them to escape in the stifling morality of the school.

In the 1930s, she lectures, “This is the twentieth century – there are many outlets for women of intelligence.” Fortunately, this production proves there are theatrical roles for them too and it is great to see these powerful women commanding the stage – long may their prime continue!

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Serial Theatre

Christie in Love (Rattling Tounges Theatre)
Southern Cross Restaurant & Bar
22 - 31 July

There is a great new theatre space in town – Rattling Tongues are presenting lunch-time theatre in the Southern Cross bar. If you arrive at One Sharp you have time to get a cup of tea or coffee and a bowl of soup and watch a play – food for the soul and for the mind. The plays are about 45 minutes long which means there is no excuse not to head down there in your lunch hour – I can’t imagine a better break from work.

It begins with Howard Breton’s Christie in Love directed by Adam Macaulay and based on the 1950’s murderer who was hanged for his crimes against women. The use of the set is constantly surprising and effective. A wire pen filled with scrunched up newspaper is like a central boxing ring in which the action takes place.

Paul Harrop is the policeman digging for bodies known to be buried in Christie’s garden. To alleviate the tedium and the tension he makes piercing eye contact with the audience and tells lewd limericks whose misogynistic content hints at the attitude prevalent throughout. When his supervisor, Jed Brophy, barks, “keep your mind on the bones”, the double entendre heightens the objectivism of the women.

One of them comes to ‘life’ as a rag doll dummy, skilfully manipulated by Harrop. His gestures, mannerisms and inflections as he personifies ‘Ruth’ lure the audience into watching the dummy’s featureless cloth head for the slightest nuance of expression, as we superimpose our own thoughts and motives onto others.

Christie himself (Nick Blake) makes his first appearance behind a skull-like mask as he wrestles with a length of hose pipe down his trousers. His grunting, jerking movements foreshadow the orgiastic hanging scene. Christie had respiratory problems and used an inhaler to help him breathe. He also killed his victims by getting them to inhale carbon monoxide through an apparatus of his own devising. There are myriad layers within this play, which the digging through old newspapers helps exhume.

As Christie removes the mask and straightens his tie and cuffs, he reveals a normal looking man beneath. In fact I googled Christie and the resemblance is actually quite striking. In a chilling Yorkshire accent barely above a whisper he confesses to the policemen that it would be easier if murderers had horns so we could better recognise them.

He explodes, “no one plays the fool with me” and we are grateful he is trapped in his enclosure. When he explains that he wears plimsolls so that “I creep up” and threatens to climb over the fence, there is a palpable sense of fear and menace. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one sitting uncomfortably in the black-out (and this was in the middle of the day!)

He blames the women for emasculating and provoking him with “their skirts rustling, heels tapping and between their legs a bacon slicer.” There is a knowing intake of breath from the audience as they can’t help but imagine the fate of Sophie Elliott. Sounds of children’s mocking laughter float through the theatre and his imagination as he recalls how his mother cut his hair, “removed my length” and made him impotent. His need to dominate his victims resulted in necrophilia.

Harrop splutters, “That’s not love” but his own notions of moonlight and the sea are not exactly realistic either. He can no longer go home to his wife because, although he has had three baths, she can smell the dead women on him. Everyone in this story is culpable to some extent. The women were failed, in 1953 as much as now. Their horrific murders made for tabloid titivation – the rustling discarded papers confirm they are yesterday’s news.

The adroit direction, tight scriptwriting and powerful performances make this a fantastic production. The audience is taken through a range of emotions from laughter through shock and embarrassment to fear, which is hard to engineer in a pub at lunch-time. Rattling Tongues claim they want to “introduce new audiences to live theatre, in new places – in a sense, taking it to where those audiences live.” This is a fantastic objective, and one I look forward to seeing develop.

Monday, 3 August 2009

I ran into Twitter

Judging by recent self-congratulatory reports as the media falls over itself trying to prove how hip it is, we are now meant to all hail Twitter. This ‘social networking’ site (more often used for trumpeting what you had for breakfast or which C-list celebrity you just spotted) has apparently proved invaluable because, after accredited journalists were banned from Iran, someone filmed Neda Agha-Soltan dying on the streets of Tehran and the images have gone viral.

Naturally it is very sad when someone dies a violent death. Repressive regimes are generally considered wrong in Western society, unless they have oil and are on our side. Now we can all jump up and down and decry the Iranian government because they are slaughtering innocents. We know this because pictures were smuggled out on a cell phone and people are ‘tweeting’ about it – don’t even get me started on the banality of that language.

There is no considered commentary from a reliable source – on either side. We may never be able to know the full story, but now we know even less than usual. The people who are trained in how to present these facts and occurrences are banned from reporting on them. The crack-down on the media provoked much outrage from those who believe in the freedom of the press, but I’m sure there are more than a few unscrupulous moguls rubbing their hands in glee at this unlooked-for cost-cutting measure.

Why pay for educated journalists and photographers with experience and credibility when you can get any Wayne, Trevor or Shirley with barely a rudimentary grasp of grammar to ‘capture live events’ for free? All they ask for in return is their five minutes of fame (it used to be 15 but attention spans are shorter these days) – it’s easier than eating live cockroaches on Fear Factor to get people to notice them.

Of course they will have to have an unlimited text programme because if they try to phone it through they will run out of pre-paid air-time before they can say, ‘It was like totally awesome and I was like, oh my god, just so freaking out – I’ve like, never seen anything like it before in my whole entire life.’ Of course you haven’t – you’re 15.

So, in the quest to bring you the news, who are you going to trust – a despotic megalomaniac, or a teenager with a cell phone? And, to be brutally honest here, is there any difference?