Friday, 28 April 2017

Friday Five (Seven Actually): Recent Theatre Excursions

I have seen a fair bit of theatre recently but have not had time to write full reviews, so here are some edited highlights:

Pip Utton as Winston Churchill
  1. Churchill & Maggie by Pip Utton, produced by Imagination Workshop and Street Contemporary Drama at Street 2 - Pip Utton performs solo shows on consecutive nights, portraying political giants Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. He weaves anecdotes, musings and facts into his 70-minute monologue on Churchill, a colossus of his time: "History will be kind to me for I intend to write it." During his embodiment of That Woman he invites questions from the audience, while achieving the voice, mannerisms and dismissive tone so successfully it made my skin crawl. His enthusiasm is boundless and his knowledge equally indefatigable.  
  2. Wait Until Dark by Frederick Knott, produced by Canberra Repertory Society at Theatre 3 - Jordan Best directs this classic thriller with attention to detail on a meticulous set (designed by Michael Sparks) as a blind woman (Jenna Roberts as Susie) comes under threat from unscrupulous criminals looking for drugs they believe are stashed in her apartment. The tension was lacking from previous productions I've seen perhaps because I knew the story so well, perhaps because Roberts never displayed any vulnerability or uncertainty, or perhaps because the villains were neither as charming or as threatening as they might have been.
  3. Cold Light adapted by Alana Valentine based on the novel Cold Light by Frank Moorhouse produced by Street Contemporary Drama at The Street - Trying to personalise politics in the most bureaucratic town in Australia is tricky. Sonia Todd plays Edith Campbell Barry, a (fictional - although many people are deceived) woman who tries to make her mark in international relations. It packs a great deal of history into a lengthy piece with multiple threads and tangents. The ensemble cast perform multiple roles with varying degrees of aplomb, but almost mimicing the projection of Canberra's street design, there is a feeling that we are being driven around in circles and getting lost in cul-de-sacs.

  4. The Age of Bones

  5. The Age of Bones produced by Satu Bulan, Teater Satu, Performing Lines and Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centres at Gorman Arts Centre - A mixture of Indonesian shadow puppetry, music, digital projections and contemporary satire tells the story of Ikan, an Indonesian boy who goes fishing one day and fails to return. He is imprisoned 'down under' in an oceanic world where he is befriended, pursued and judged by fantastical creatures (bubble-headed deep sea divers, a shark and an octopus). We are clearly meant to draw parallels with the plight of Indonesian boys incarcerated in adult jails throughout Australia for their involvement in human trafficking. While this is an original and commendable approach, certain technical aspects (such as the English surtitles failing to coincide with the spoken words) hamper the production, while the attempt to appeal to all ages (childlike repetitive motions alongside hard-hitting issues of abuse) means the production overall fails to connect with any particular audience.
  6. Chicago produced by Canberra Philharmonic Society at Erindale Theatre - Interesting staging and directorial choices (by Jim McMullen) highlight different aspects of the play to usual - including the fact that the characters really are all horrifically unpleasant. Vanessa de Jager and Kelly Roberts as Roxie and Velma are both excellent in isolation but their dancing duets remain individual; Shell Tully has a great voice but no depth as Mama Morton; Will Huang presents a lawyer who seems merely slightly smarmy rather than truly repulsive; and Miss Mary Sunshine (Ben WIlson) is utterly peripheral. Most of the songs are still good (although Class was especially disappointing) but other facets, such as the sloppy follow spots, are mediocre. Curious staging makes us question whether we are in a gaol at all, as the protagonists pop out to the lawyer's office in their underwear. The fact that there are far too many people unnecessarily on stage literally jumping through hoops spoils what should be tight choreography, and the hanging scene is hugely underwhelming. The menace and terror of being locked up and possibly awaiting the death sentence is entirely absent: it's more like a circus in which everyone gets to run around and show off how good they look in a corset. 
  7. Trelawny of the Wells by Arthur Wing Pinero produced by Canberra Repertory Society at Theatre 3 - Tony Turner directs a spirited cast in this touching and amusing late-nineteenth-century drama. The revolving set (designed by Ian Croker) allows for all the scenes to be played in the balance of affectation and naturalism which was becoming popular at the time and which is crucial to the play's ethos. Deliberately bombastic performances from the flamboyant characters such as Sir William Gower (Jerry Hearn), Mrs Mossop (Elaine Noon) and  Avonia Bunn (Jess Waterhouse) provide a delightful counterpoint to the more subtle sentimentality of Rose Trelawny (Alessandra Kron) and Tom Wrench (Robert de Fries). Slapstick extremes are tempered with emotional speeches, and the entire effect is a beautiful piece about acting and performance. 
  8. Richard III by William Shakespeare, produced by Bell Shakespeare at the Playhouse (Canberra Theatre Centre) - Bell Shakespeare have taken the history out of the history play and turned it into a tragedy, in which the lead performer (Kate Mulvany as RIII) hams it up deliciously as Tricky Dicky, and the rest of the cast frolic about in a drawing room, like one of those frightful parties where you don't really like the host. As the actors do not leave the stage, there is no difference between intimate and group scenes, leading to a lack of tension and confusion as to the identity of many of the characters. The political is no longer important; it's all about the personal. This is the modern world, where I fear we have lost more than we have gained.
Kate Mulvany as Richard III

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Fishing for Compliments

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher
(Bantam Press)
Pp. 251

This book was published shortly before Carrie Fisher died, which gives much of it added poignancy. It is mainly about her experience filming Star Wars; her youth and her inability to deal with unanticipated fame; her affair with Harrison Ford; her reaction to the conventions; and her irritation at being expected to still look the same now as she did then. The book is not particularly well-written, but it is honest and candid – the inclusion of her diaries and poetry written during the filming of Star Wars is a brave move – and ultimately very readable.

No one was prepared for the reception that Star Wars would receive. Her life was changed forever by the film refused to remain on screen. She was defined by one character with whom she has a love/hate relationship. “I had never been Princess Leia before and now I would be her forever. I would never not be Princess Leia. I had no idea how profoundly true that was and how long forever was.”

She writes with attempted nonchalance and sangfroid and is candid about her own drug addiction. Her style is deliberately self-effacing and jocular in tone, and although she presents her thoughts as raw and elemental, she has clearly polished the words into something she imagines is witty. There are a few insights into the behind-the-scenes goings-on during filming (such as the fact that due to her grimacing each time she fired the laser gun, she had to take shooting lessons from the man who prepared Robert De Niro for his role in Taxi Driver), but film geeks will probably know all of these already.

Her renowned advocacy for gender equality is evident and she had crippling anxiety about her looks, relating that she got the part in Star Wars on the proviso that she would lose ten pounds. But she also confesses she enjoyed the one-sided nature of the film, and to loving the male attention that came from being “the only girl in an all-boy fantasy.”

The main thing to emerge from this book, however, is her affair with Harrison Ford. She mockingly refers to their relationship as ‘Carrison’ and, although it comprises over half of the book, she pretends to dismiss it; forty years afterwards, she still tries to downplay it, which conversely gives it excessive importance. Obviously, this is one-sided account, but Harrison Ford doesn’t present very favourably. He seems like a predator from the first time he takes her home drunk from a cast and crew party. She was young and na├»ve, and he was careless of her sensitivities and her desperate neediness. She fixated on him like a smitten teenager.

He doesn’t talk to her, make her happy or feel good about herself, and he exacerbates her insecurities and anxiety. It seems that he is cold towards her, but perhaps that is just his nature? She records in her diary, “I act like someone in a bomb shelter trying to raise everyone’s spirits.” While it is brave to include the diaries and gauche poems, they are excruciatingly painful to read. Every teenage girl has written self-indulgent nonsense like this, but not always about Harrison Ford. One could argue that she knew the situation – he was married – but she tries to manipulate the reader into feeling sympathy for her.

She concludes with her feelings towards the fans at Star Wars conventions, and it is clear that she is not comfortable with the entire charade. It’s fair to say that Carrie Fisher’s relationship with Princess Leia and Star Wars in general, is both complex and unresolved, which is distressing as it will now forever remain that way.