The Arrangement

Ken Unsworth’s Studio, Alexandria, July 16

Patrick Harding-Irmer, Anca Frankenhaeuser and Susannah Lawergren. Photo: Eamonn McLoughlin

Patrick Harding-Irmer, Anca Frankenhaeuser and Susannah Lawergren. Photo: Eamonn McLoughlin

Right up front I need to say that Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer – who together with Susan Barling and Ross Philip make up Australian Dance Artists – are close personal friends.

As a result, I haven’t featured or reviewed any of the wondrous work that they have done in Sydney over the past two decades. Now that I have my own blog, the time has come to rectify that, while declaring my connection.

Last week, in collaboration with eminent sculptor Ken Unsworth, composer Jonathan Cooper and The Song Company, Australian Dance Artists (ADA) gave seven performances of a production called The Arrangement, which a small invited audience (around 50 each show) was privileged to see.

The seeds for ADA were sown in 1993, when independent choreographer Norman Hall worked with four dancers from four different generations (Elizabeth Dalman, Harding-Irmer, Barling and Gideon Obarzanek) on a production called 4 Generations. (A history of the company can be found on their website www.australiandanceartists.com).

The four performers that make up ADA are senior artists (veterans, in dance terms) who have had long, prestigious careers in contemporary dance. Among other credits, Philip danced with Sydney Dance Company from 1977 to 1992, while Barling was a member of SDC from 1978 to 1991. Frankenhaeuser and Harding-Irmer performed for 15 and 17 years respectively with London Contemporary Dance Theatre during the 1970s and 80s.

Their experience brings an emotional depth to their dancing that speaks reams.

Since 2000, ADA has collaborated with Unsworth (now 84). Their productions – which are part-performance and part-installation, frequently with live music – are something of a mindf**k. Stunning visual images from the wonderfully whacky world according to Unsworth, which often have you feeling like you have fallen down a rabbit’s hole, combine with profound connections between the four dancers whose choreography is a response to both Unsworth’s imagery and the music.

Together, Unsworth and ADA have presented work at a range of different venues including the Art Gallery of NSW, Cockatoo Island and Unsworth’s studio in Alexandria, where he has created a stage and a small auditorium with three rows of church pews.

The Arrangement, which, like all their work was totally financed by Unsworth, features a newly commissioned score by Cooper for piano, cello, flute and clarinet. A song cycle with settings of texts by A.E. Housman, Federico Garcia Lorca, W. H. Auden, Barnabe Googe and Rainer Maria Rilke for six singers, the score also includes musical interludes.

With Roland Peelman, director of The Song Company, as musical director, the music is beautiful and well suited to dance.

For The Arrangement, staged at Unsworth’s studio, Unsworth dug a pit beneath the stage especially and moved a pillar to extend the stage width-wise.

The production begins with projections (AV design by Tim Hope) of the dancers’ faces. Unsworth then glides across the stage behind a black shape suggesting the back of a piano. With his long, silvery white hair gleaming in the lights, he turns his head from side to side like one of those galleries of clowns at the fairground where you attempt to throw a ball into their open mouth. Then, sounding a large tuning fork like a magician conjuring the show with a wand, the music begins.

The non-narrative production is full of arresting images and vignettes around themes of ascension and descent, levitation, love, consolation, the passing of time and the inevitability of death – at least that’s what I took from it. Unsworth has never been one to spell anything out.

Early in the production, a singer (soprano, Susannah Lawergren) rises angel-like from the illuminated pit beneath the stage through a trap door, disappearing through a hole in the ceiling, chanting “again, and again, and again”. Later she descends in a space-age looking bubble (pictured) and at the end of the production descends back into the pit.

The vocalists all have a fair amount to do while singing. Alto Hannah Fraser flies through the air on a swing. (Mathew Lynn’s portrait of Unsworth in this year’s Archibald Prize features the sculptor on a swing, referencing Fragonard’s famous Rococo painting The Swing). The six-strong vocal ensemble climbs a frame along the back wall of the stage and pass wine from glass to glass. An archangel-type figure in long golden gown with stick arms and legs (baritone, Mark Donnelly) is suspended over the stage from an overhead track.

Visually, as in all the collaborations between Unsworth and ADA, the tumult of images never ceases to surprise and delight, enhanced by Pamela McGraw’s costumes and Eddi Goodfellow’s lighting. Barling reclines in a quivering bed of flowers, Philip interacts with a leg and arm from a mannequin, Harding-Irmer hangs listlessly in a hammock while Frankenhaeuser clambours over him in cajoling fashion. A large doll crosses the stage on a wooden rocking horse as a baby’s cries fill the space and, in a beautiful moment using video, Frankenhaeuser appears to levitate.

The choreography is by the four dancers, with Hall as choreographic collaborator. One of the most powerful moments is a duet between Frankenhaeuser and Harding-Irmer. He stands on an illuminated ball, back to the audience. From behind him, Frankenhaeuser’s hands, arms and feet float and flutter in a dance of their own. Appearing at his side, her body seems charged with an agitated, buzzing energy, which she then plucks and flicks from her, channeling it into his body until his hands and arms start to shake as hers had done.

The duets between Harding-Irmer and Frankenhaeuser seem to speak of nurturing and symbiosis. Those between Philip and Barling suggest something spikier, edgier, more tempestuous and perhaps combative.

Without the budget of a big commercial production where hydraulics and computerisation make for fluid scene changes, some of the scenic elements judder, clank and bang but that is part of the charm of a production, hand-made with so much love, unfolding there for us, so close to us.

The collaborations between Unsworth and ADA are unique, idiosyncratic and special. There is an element of the weird and wonderful as well as the impishly playful, yet the work is underpinned at every turn by a sense of humanity and layered emotion. It is a shame these productions aren’t being picked up and given another life. I’m surprised festivals aren’t tuning in. As it is, Unsworth and ADA have already started talking about the next one.

* The singers from The Song Company also included Clive Birch, Richard Black and Anna Fraser, while Ollie Miller played cello, Lamorna Nightingale played flute and Jason Noble played clarinet.

Every Second

Eternity Playhouse, July 1

Simon Corfield, Julia Ohannessian, Glenn Hezeldine, Georgina Symes. Photo: Louis Dillon-Savage

Simon Corfield, Julia Ohannessian, Glenn Hezeldine, Georgina Symes. Photo: Louis Dillon-Savage

“How could there not be a baby? With all that love?”

So says Bill in Every Second, a new Australian play by Vanessa Bates about two couples struggling to conceive.

Bill (Glenn Hazeldine) and Jen (Georgina Symes) decide to try IVF and stay strong through the ordeal. Their younger friends Meg (Julia Ohannessian) and Tim (Simon Corfield) are finding their quest for a baby more stressful.

Meg opts for natural therapies but is becoming very anxious. Tim is heartily sick of vile-tasting herbal remedies and sex becoming a chore. (There are several candid representations of sex and fertility testing, just so you know.)

Bates’s writing is pared back, heightened and very funny at times. She creates believable characters but needs to explore their situation in greater emotional depth if we are to be moved by their plight. Desperately wanting a child and not being able to have one is emotionally devastating for many people and Bates goes some way to capturing that. But it would be interesting if she were to analyse why they want a child so desperately. Is it just the hormonal urge or something else?

Certain things in the script (a hit-and-run accident, a plea to a dead friend, an extramarital fling) feel unresolved and rather cursorily dealt with, while a sperm ballet (a nod, presumably, to the sperm scene in Woody Allen’s film Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex) sits oddly and isn’t that funny.

That said, Shannon Murphy directs a terrific, nifty, inventive production for Darlinghurst Theatre Company, with strong performances from all four actors. Andy McDonell’s abstract set – a spiral ramp around a womb-like core – works extremely well.

One in 33 Australian babies are conceived via IVF so Bates has tuned into a common experience. For the drama to resonant more broadly, she could usefully expand her story and deepen its emotional layers.

Every Second plays at the Eternity Playhouse in Darlinghurst until July 27. Bookings: www.darlinghursttheatre.com

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on July 13

Mario

Hayes Theatre Co, July 9

Blake Bowden and Phil Scott. Photo: supplied

Blake Bowden and Phil Scott. Photo: supplied

The new cabaret show Mario, conceived and performed by Phil Scott and Blake Bowden, takes a fairly straightforward biographical approach to the life of Mario Lanza, lacing the narrative with much of the music he was famous for singing.

With his glorious romantic tenor voice, the Brooklyn-born American-Italian was a 1950s superstar. He could have sung at the Met but chose to stay at MGM, where he had become a silver screen heartthrob, in order to play his hero in The Great Carouso.

Lanza’s career blazed brightly – but fizzled out just as quickly. He over-indulged in food and drink, and threw his weight around on set, getting himself sacked from MGM’s The Student Prince. He died aged 38, probably from a pulmonary embolism – though there were rumours the mafia had bumped him off.

Written by Scott and directed by Chris Parker, the show takes a linear, chronological approach. Given the 70-minute time constraint, it fairly hurtles through Lanza’s life: his discovery, rocketing career, marriage, the war and his demise.

Some things like his many affairs are dealt with in a phrase or two, while cheeky jump cuts help pack it all in. A brief war scene is followed by the comment, “Well, now that the war’s over” (or words to that effect). And on we go.

Scott’s script is well-written but is a fairly superficial skimming over Lanza’s life with just enough information to link the musical numbers.

Although Bowden doesn’t have quite the same dark, passionate, Italianate sound as Lanza, he does have a lovely tenor voice and sings the material beautifully, moving effortlessly between numbers including Granada, Your tiny hand is frozen from La Boheme, Nessun Dorma, We’ll Meet Again, The Loveliest Night of the Year, and the drinking song from The Student Prince.

Lanza’s growing girth, so frequently referred to, is left to our imagination – (Bowden is a lithe, trim figure) – and a padded jacket or some such costuming might not go astray.

Scott accompanies him brilliantly on piano, with his usual panache. He also plays a cavalcade of characters including a singing teacher, Louis B. Mayer, a personal trainer and a mafia hit man, lending the piece an extra theatricality.

If you know about Lanza, there’s nothing terribly surprising here in terms of the story or the way it is told. But for many in the opening night audience it was clearly a wonderful nostalgia trip. For those who don’t know about Lanza, it’s an entertaining introduction to a legendary performer who died all too young, that may well send them in search of more information.

Mario plays at the Hayes Theatre Co tonight and tomorrow at 6.30pm. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au

Love and Death and an American Guitar

Hayes Theatre Co, July 6

Toby Francis. Photo: supplied

Toby Francis. Photo: supplied

Even if you don’t know the name Jim Steinman, you will almost certainly know many of his songs. He wrote Meatloaf’s epic Bat out of Hell, for starters, along with Total Eclipse of the Heart, Holding Out for a Hero, You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth and It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.

In his new cabaret show, Love and Death and an American Guitar, Toby Francis picks up an electric guitar and in the guise of Steinman gives voice to his songs, ambitions and frustrations. Chief among the latter are his bitter resentment at Meatloaf getting all the glory (and the money) and his angst at never getting his musical Neverland off the ground.

Francis, who wrote the show, has employed a clever structure in which he has Steinman talk through his ideas for Neverland – a dystopian take on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, set in New York, which he is struggling to finish – as if pitching the show to potential producers.

Steinman did, in fact, begin his career in musical theatre, where his credits include writing the lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind and music for Dance of the Vampires. In 1997, he held a workshop of Neverland, three songs from which were picked up by Meatloaf: Bat out of Hell, Heaven Can Wait, and The Formation of the Pack, which was re-titled All Revved Up With No Place to Go.

Francis begins his show with Steinman’s spoken rock song Love and Death and an American Guitar (later recorded as Wasted Youth) and from there launches into Bat Out of Hell.

With occasional support from guest singer Noni McCallum, he rips through many of Steinman’s hits, his rock tenor voice well suited to the material. The dialogue gives us a fascinating taste of Steinman’s career and the musical that Neverland might have been, as well as a keen sense of his disillusionment.

Directed by Neil Gooding with moody projections evoking the world of Neverland by production designer Lauren Peters, the show begs to be performed with a fierce, rocking live band but musical director Andrew Worboys does a good job on piano and synthesizer.

The three-performance season as part of the Hayes Theatre Co Cabaret Season ended on Sunday with Francis going down on bended knee to propose to Peters at the curtain call. What an encore!

The show deserves to make a return – and doubtless will.

Snow White – Winter Family Musical

State Theatre, July 4

Magda Szubanski and ensemble. Photo: Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios

Magda Szubanski and ensemble. Photo: Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios

The Christmas pantomime is a popular British tradition. After success in the US, Bonnie Lythgoe hopes to introduce an annual panto here. If her first production, Snow White – Winter Family Musical, is anything to go by, she could be onto a winner.

Snow White takes the time-honoured panto formula and gives it a contemporary shake, adding pop songs by the likes of One Direction and Michael Jackson, and lacing the script with just enough local references and topical jokes for both adults and children.

The costumes and old-school painted backdrops hark back to classic panto, giving the show a nostalgic charm, and look great.

On opening night, the performers quickly involved the audience who entered into the spirit of it with gusto, booing the Wicked Queen, shouting to warn Snow White not to eat the apple, and shrieking during the famous ghost gag.

Lythgoe, who produces and directs, has cast the show cleverly with celebrities and actors who understand the performance style. Magda Szubanski, in particular, is fabulous as the wicked Queen Grismalda, interacting with the audience with quick-smart ease.

Josh Adamson, Peter Everett and Jimmy Rees. Photo: Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios

Josh Adamson, Peter Everett and Jimmy Rees. Photo: Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios

Jimmy Rees (aka Jimmy Giggle from the ABC TV show Giggle & Hoot) also nails it as the hapless jester Muddles, who is hopelessly devoted to Snow White. Both of them pitch their performances perfectly, mining every ounce of comedy without overdoing it.

Newcomer Erin Clare (who was discovered during a national search for an unknown performer to play the role) shines as Snow White, embodying just the kind of fairytale heroine that little children imagine. Peter Everett is endearing as Chambers, loyal courtier and friend to Snow White, Andrew Cutcliffe is suitably dashing as Prince Handsome, and Josh Adamson has the right swagger as Herman the Huntsman. Sir Cliff Richard and Kyle Sandilands lend strong support as the Queen’s (pre-recorded) two-faced mirror.

The seven dwarves are played by children in cartoony heads, straight out of a picture book or animated film, which works surprisingly well.

Erin Clare with the seven dwarves. Photo: Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios

Erin Clare with the seven dwarves. Photo: Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios

Running just over two hours including interval, Snow White does feel a little long at times, particularly the extended ghost gag. The odd nip and tuck wouldn’t hurt. However, the three little girls in front of us, who ranged in age from around three to six, clearly had a wonderful time and hardly a restless moment.

In Lythgoe’s care, Snow White is good old-fashioned entertainment and great fun for all the family. “Oh no it isn’t! Oh YES it is!”

Snow White – Winter Family Musical plays at Sydney’s State Theatre until July 13. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on July 6

The Chimney Sweep

City Recital Hall, July 5

Stuart Haycock and Amelia Farrugia. Photo: Keith Saunders

Stuart Haycock and Amelia Farrugia. Photo: Keith Saunders

The surtitles before the start of The Chimney Sweep announce the restoration of Salieri’s reputation – and Pinchgut Opera certainly does him proud with this delightful production.

Most people these days would only know Antonio Salieri’s name from the 1984 Academy Award-winning film in which he was depicted as a mediocre composer who poisoned his fierce rival Mozart out of jealousy.

In truth, Salieri was more famous in his day than Mozart and almost certainly did not murder him. But where Mozart is now one of the most performed composers in the world, Salieri’s music is rarely heard.

Thanks to Pinchgut – which dedicates itself to the presentation of rarely seen operas from the 17th and 18th centuries – Sydneysiders have the chance to see the Australian premiere of Salieri’s comic work The Chimney Sweep (Der Rauchfangkehrer). A huge hit when it was first staged in 1781, it all but disappeared after the mid-1800s.

The Chimney Sweep is a rollicking comedy centring on Volpino, a musically gifted chimney sweep who is in love with Lisel, a cook in the household of wealthy widow Mrs Hawk and her stepdaughter Miss Hawk.

Learning that Mr Bear and Mr Wolf have won the lottery and hope to marry the Hawks, Volpino and Liesel cook up a plan to better themselves financially.

Pretending to be an Italian count disguised as a sweep, Volpino uses his musical skills to worm his way into the affections of the Hawks who he then auctions off to Wolf and Bear. From there it spins off into all kinds of comic complications – but as you’d expect it all ends happily.

Right from the start of the overture you can hear the fun in Salieri’s music, emphasised by a quick little leap of joy by Erin Helyard, who conducts the marvellous Orchestra of the Antipodes. The music doesn’t compare to Mozart’s operas (though it is often reminiscent of Mozart) but much of it is lovely and thoroughly enjoyable.

Written as a singspiel in which the musical numbers alternate with dialogue, Pinchgut performs it in English. Director Mark Gaal has translated the dialogue, while Andrew Johnston has translated the lyrics. Both have done a great job. Occasional phrases like “My god, they go ballistic” had the audience chuckling but the translations aren’t so tricksy that they compromise the original 18th century setting.

Gaal has staged a simple but effective production with gorgeous costumes and set by Emma Kingsbury. Performed against a gold wooden backdrop with a huge gargoyle-faced fireplace, and just a few props, Gaal uses signs (flamboyantly displayed by Gary Clementson as the servant Hansel) to announce each new location.

The performers all handle the dialogue and dramatic challenges extremely well, playing the comedy to the hilt, while the ladies really shine vocally. Amelia Farrugia is outstanding as Mrs Hawk and young soprano Janet Todd is also very impressive as Miss Hawk. Together they steal the show.

Stuart Haycock has a fairly light tenor voice but brings plenty of charisma to the role of Volpino. There is strong support from David Woloszko as Mr Bear, Christopher Saunders as Mr Wolf, Alexandra Oomens as Lisel and David Hidden as the master chimney sweep Tomaso, as well as Clementson, Nicholas Hiatt, Troy Honeysett and Sabyrna Te’o as the servants. The Sydney Children’s Choir makes up the cast as Tomaso’s young apprentices.

Overall, The Chimney Sweep is lots of fun and yet another feather in Pinchgut’s already well-covered cap.

The Chimney Sweep has its final performance tonight. Bookings: www.cityrecitalhall.com or 02 8256 2222

Hedda Gabler

Belvoir St Theatre, July 2

Oscar Redding and Ash Flanders. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Oscar Redding and Ash Flanders. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

At the end of Belvoir’s new production of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler you come out thinking why? Why to many things in the production, but most particularly why cast a man in the title role?

Written in 1890, Hedda Gabler is one of the great dramatic female roles. There are few enough of them to begin with. What’s more, she is a strong woman feeling so trapped by a repressive, male-dominated society and unfulfilled marriage that she eventually finds herself in a situation where she believes the only escape is suicide.

A production needs to offer a fresh, compelling insight to justify casting a man in the role – and we don’t get that here.

Naturally, there has been a huge amount of interest and coverage around the decision by director Adena Jacobs to cast Ash Flanders as Hedda. Flanders is a co-founder of Melbourne’s queer indie theatre group Sisters Grimm, which has gone from cult following to a mainstream presence.

I saw Flanders play a glamorous, alcoholic housewife in Little Mercy, Sisters Grimm’s send-up of the “evil child” movies. He did it brilliantly. His performance was poised, very funny and believable within the camp, spoofy world they set up.

However, take him out of that world where he has so much flair and he doesn’t look quite so convincing – not on the basis of the choices made in this production anyway.

In interviews, Jacobs has said that casting Flanders “frames the crisis of Hedda Gabler as one of identity, and the problems of difference, rather than solely one woman’s drama.”

Flanders has said he’s “playing Hedda as written, as a person first, then as a woman and below that is the male actor. Adena has been saying you will forget that you are watching a man but at the same time there are moments that we can bring that to the forefront and it becomes something different altogether, hopefully something that is post-gender. Because I think Hedda is almost beyond gender, she is almost a mythical creature.”

With his own hair and a little make-up Flanders (who spends much of the production in a swimsuit) looks somewhat androgynous but you never forget that he is a man. There are a couple of moments when he briefly dons a long wig only to quickly toss it aside again. There are titters in the audience at the mention of a possible pregnancy.

At one point he stands naked. It’s a somewhat confusing image given the flat male chest but female genitalia (‘tuck job’ presumably) leading you to question exactly who he/she is supposed to be. Jacobs presumably presents this image of Hedda as both man and woman to underline the universal nature nature of her situation – as one of difference rather than solely a woman’s dilemma, as she articulated – but that sense of universality didn’t resonate for me in the production.

Clearly there’s no point in Flanders playing a woman so convincingly that we think he is one. You might as well cast a woman. But his performance doesn’t transcend the novelty of the casting or lend any fresh insight to the play.

His Hedda moves and speaks at one pace. She is forever observing or talking with a quiet, cold detachment, while posing languidly. Instead of the mass of paradoxes and emotional complexity usually associated with her, his Hedda feels flat and one-dimensional. Even when she plays with the pistol or guns down people in a violent video game, it’s done without any display of emotion. We never see any vulnerability, she just comes across as icily manipulative. Hedda may be bored, but she shouldn’t be boring and she comes perilously close to that here. It’s hard to see quite why all the men around her are in her thrall.

What’s more, there is precious little chemistry or tension between Flanders and any of the other actors – all of whom seem to be wrestling with characters that feel underwritten in Jacobs’ adaptation.

Marcus Graham is the most compelling as Judge Brack, played here as a suave, louche playboy, while Tim Walter’s Tesman is a bland, ineffectual, anxious figure. Oscar Redding fires things up briefly as Lovborg, and Anna Houston as Thea Elvstead and Lynette Curran as Aunt Julie bring some warmth to the production. But none of the cast seems really comfortable and you don’t feel anything for any of them.

Ash Flanders, Lynette Curran and Branden Christine. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Ash Flanders, Lynette Curran and Branden Christine. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Jacobs’s decision to set the production in a contemporary world is a bit hit and miss.

Entering the theatre there is a strong sense of déjà vu. The set (by Dayna Morrissey) features the interior of a spanking new, soulless house at the back of the stage. Seen through sliding glass doors, it’s reminiscent of Ralph Myers’s set for Benedict Andrews’s The Seagull (along with any number of other glass boxes seen on Sydney stages in recent years). In front of the house is a small swimming pool. A large, flash, vintage car sits to one side of the stage, which inevitably brings Belvoir’s 2012 Death of a Salesman to mind.

There are sound issues whenever the actors are inside the house or in the car, with their amplified voices sounding muffled. In the car, it’s actually hard to understand some of what is said.

The production starts slowly in silence. A television inside the house shows a film featuring a wedding. (Hedda and Tesman are, of course, just back from their honeymoon). Hedda gazes from the window blankly then lies by the side of the pool with headphones on. The maid (Branden Christine) smokes a cigarette behind the car. Tesman arrives home sweating after a run. Not a word is spoken. It sets up the boredom of Hedda’s life – but from there you expect things to start to flare and they don’t.

Jacobs’s adaptation, which runs 90 minutes without interval, uses a lively contemporary idiom while sticking pretty faithfully to Ibsen’s plot (though the script has been ruthlessly pruned). By updating it, however, there are various paradoxes. In a world with television and smart phones wouldn’t Lovborg write his precious book on a computer rather than by hand?

So many things like this become distractions, from Hedda’s bare bottom beneath a short fur jacket to the maid taking a dip in the pool. Would Hedda really have let her maid do that without asking? And how come when Hedda locks Thea in the car, she’s desperate to get out but apparently sleeps through a vital conversation not long after being shut in?

The fact that you sit there asking yourself such questions when you should be immersed in the drama is indicative of how little the production engages. It’s a disappointing experience that seemed to promise so much, for whatever the success, or otherwise, of the gender politics at play, the production falls flat as a piece of drama.

Hedda Gabler is at Belvoir St Theatre until August 3