The Literati

SBW Stables Theatre, June 1

The Literati

Gareth Davies as Tristan Tosser and Miranda Tapsell as Juliet. Photo: Daniel Boud

In his latest Molière adaptation, Justin Fleming has one of the characters bemoan the proliferation of over-rated writers:

“They seem to pop up everywhere, as if we somehow breed them;                                          With so many people writing, it’s a wonder there’s anyone to read them.                            And there are people who cannot write, re-writing authors who could,                                    And giving us appalling version of works that used to be good.”

The swipe at the number of new adaptations of classic plays seen on Sydney stages in recent years (including his, of course) was met with a huge roar of laughter on opening night.

The criticism of “appalling versions” can’t be levelled at Fleming who has cornered a market adapting Molière’s satirical comedies for Australian audiences, writing them in rollicking verse laced with colourful, contemporary slang.

After staging his laugh-out-loud versions of The School for Wives in 2012 and Tartuffe in 2014, Bell Shakespeare has joined forces with Griffin Theatre Company to present the third in a winning trifecta.

The Literati is adapted from Molière’s 1672 play Les Femmes Savantes (The Learned Ladies): a piss-take on literary and intellectual pretention. Fleming has anglicised names, removed a couple of characters – an aunt and uncle whose functions in the drama are given to other characters – and turned the scholar Vadius into a woman, all of which works a treat.

In a nutshell, young lovers Juliet (Miranda Tapsell) and Clinton (Jamie Oxenbould) want to marry. Juliet’s sensible but hen-pecked father Christopher (Oxenbould again) approves of the match. But her mother Philomena (Caroline Brazier) and sister Amanda (Kate Mulvany), both dreadful cultural snobs who host a Tuesday book club, are determined she marry the aptly named Tristan Tosser (Gareth Davies) who they idolise.

In fact, Tosser is a third-rate poet described as “one sausage sanger short of a barbie” who would “bore the arse off a Mallee bull”. Though he’s a complete charlatan with an eye to their fortune, he’s a more foolish, passive villain than the devious Tartuffe and doesn’t feel as much of a real danger. As a result, the play is fairly predictable.

The Literati

Kate Mulvany as Amanda and Caroline Brazier as Philomena. Photo: Daniel Boud

Nonetheless, it’s a gloriously funny production, directed by Lee Lewis (who also directed The School for Wives), in which the virtuosity of Fleming’s verse writing is matched by brilliant comic performances all round.

Fleming mixes up his rhyme schemes so that as well as frisky rhyming couplets there are a couple of other verse patterns. The changes of gear keep things fresh and varied.

Designer Sophie Fletcher works wonders within the tiny space to evoke a chic, bourgeois Parisian home with designer furniture. An eclectic mix of art on the walls speaks of someone buying work deemed collectable rather than a reflection of personal taste and passion. At the centre of the stage is a raised revolve, which Lewis uses very cleverly to keep the action moving without overdoing it.

Dramatic Baroque-flavoured music, co-composed by Max Lambert and Roger Lock, punctuates the drama with humour while quick-smart doubling from the cast of five adds another level of fun, with all the actors except Davies playing two characters. Brazier is a commanding presence, moving with skilful ease between the domineering, pashmina-draped Philomena and the wise scholar Vadius in black jacket. While Vadius maintains her elegant poise, Philomena becomes increasingly dishevelled as the play unfolds.

Mulvany is hysterically funny as the uptight, fierce, wilfully deluded Amanda who once rejected Clinton but now won’t accept that he could have transferred his affections to Juliet. The way she edges sideways onto the raised revolve in her tight skirt and high heels is a hoot in itself. And where Brazier’s hair slowly becomes messier and more unkempt, Mulvany’s entire body is upended at one point by the comical goings-on. She also plays an officious attorney in tightly belted raincoat.

The Literati

Jamie Oxenbould as Christopher. Photo: Daniel Boud

With just a baseball cap to differentiate them, Oxenbould flips convincingly between Clinton and Christopher, bringing the house down in one hilarious scene in which he plays them both.

Tapsell glows as the guileless Juliet and the bolshie maid Martina, sacked by Philomena for her bogan-phraseology (“the woman’s a walking earache”) and crimes against language. In an interview, Tapsell told me that she uses her native Darwin accent for Martina (which she worked very hard to lose while at NIDA).

As Tosser – or Tossère as he would have it – Davies, in artfully draped scarf and jewellery, poses and speaks with a quiet, affected languor.

Running 160 minutes including interval, The Literati makes its point about intellectual pomposity versus true wisdom, while its discussion about marriage and women’s role in society still strikes a strong chord, but mostly it’s heaps of silly fun. Recommended.

The Literati runs at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross until July 16. Bookings: www.griffin.com.au or 02 9361 3817

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 5

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The Lysicrates Prize

Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music and Royal Botanic Garden, January 30

In front of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney after Premier Mike Baird announced the winner of the first Lysicrates Prize.From left:  Lee Lewis, Artistic Director Griffin Theatre Company, Finance Minister Dominic Perrottet, Environment Minister Rob Stokes, Patricia Azarias, Kim Ellis, Executive Director, Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands, John Azarias. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

In front of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates at the Royal Botanic Garden. From left: Lee Lewis, Artistic Director Griffin Theatre Company, Finance Minister Dominic Perrottet, Environment Minister Rob Stokes, Patricia Azarias, Kim Ellis, Executive Director, Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands, NSW Premier Mike Baird, and John Azarias. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

The inaugural Lysicrates Prize for new Australian playwriting was to have taken place in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden on the Band Lawn near the replica of the original Choragic Monument of Lysicrates that gives the competition its name.

It would have been a lovely spot for such an event. However, torrential rain earlier in the week left the grass too wet for the seating stand, so the play readings took place in Verbrugghen Hall. Guests then walked down to the lawn for the announcement of the prizewinner by NSW Premier Mike Baird.

The Lysicrates Prize calls for Australian playwrights to submit the first act of a new play. The three short-listed submissions are given a rehearsed play-reading in front of an invited audience. What sets this Prize apart from any other Australian playwriting award is that the audience decides the winner – as happened in Ancient Greece. The prize is a $12,500 commission from Griffin Theatre Company, with the runners-up receiving $1000 each.

The three finalists for the inaugural 2015 Lysicrates Prize were Steve Rodgers, Lally Katz and Justin Fleming, with Rodgers awarded the prize for his play Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam.

It all began early in 2014 when John and Patricia Azarias, the founders of the Prize, took a walk through the Botanic Garden.

John Azarias loves Hellenic culture and had seen the original monument in Athens. On that particular day, as he and his wife approached the sandstone replica (commissioned in 1870 by Sir James Martin), they were struck by how eroded it was becoming. He decided then and there to raise the funds for its restoration in readiness for the Botanic Garden’s bicentenary in 2016.

The original monument was built by a rich sponsor (or choregoi) called Lysicrates to celebrate the winning play at the Dionysia Festival in Athens in 334 BC, as was the tradition during the 4th and 5th centuries BC. The monument has a frieze featuring Dionysus, the god of theatre. In a nice little link, the name ‘Sydney’ is an English version of the French ‘St Denis’, which in turn is a Gallic version of ‘St Dionysius’ – as John explained in his welcoming speech.

Patricia suggested that they also establish a theatre competition associated with the monument as a way to celebrate its restoration. They approached Lee Lewis at Griffin Theatre Company, which is dedicated to the performance of Australian plays, who agreed to run the competition. With some assistance from the NSW Government, along with additional funds raised by John, and the support of the Royal Botanic Garden, they were off.

For the first Lysicrates Prize, an audience made up of Griffin supporters and subscribers, politicians and theatre industry folk gathered at the Conservatorium to watch readings (rehearsed over three days) of the three short-listed plays.

Entering the auditorium, audience members were each given a gold coin with which to cast our vote in large pottery urns.

Rodgers’ Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam is adapted from Peter Goldsworthy’s novella and is a haunting story of suffocating love, grief and loss, and a family so close that the parents made an extreme decision when their young daughter is diagnosed with leukemia; a decision their son will struggle to understand.

Darren Yap – who approached Rodgers in the first place about a stage adaptation – directed the extract, which was performed by Jennifer Hagan, Anthony Harkin, Natalie O’Donnell, Rodgers himself and Govinda Röser-Finch.

The emotional scenario and complex moral dilemma posed clearly struck a chord with the audience.

Prize winner Steve Rodgers. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

Prize winner Steve Rodgers. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

Rodgers said of his win: “Jesus Wants me For a Sunbeam isn’t a play yet. It’s just a bunch of scenes and ideas adapted from Peter Goldsworthy’s novel. But because of The Lysicrates Prize, we now get the chance to develop it into a truly important new Australian play. I’m over the moon.

“Philanthropy of this kind in Australia isn’t common, so obviously I’m more than thrilled. This play is about family and explores a kind of love that in one moment you’re completely in sympathy with, and the next, you’re reeling away from in horror. The Lysicrates Prize gives us the chance, to hopefully unleash all that familial complexity on an audience.”

The evening began with Lally Katz’s Fortune, directed by Kate Gaul and performed by Briallen Clarke, Anni Finsterer, Sean Hawkins and Russell Kiefel.

The black comedy is set in a seedy hotel in the US where the woman who owns it has asked a psychic with a crystal ball to tell her about a man who spent time in one of the rooms. The Romany fortune-teller is pregnant and she and her cowboy boyfriend desperately need money to start a new life on his father’s land. Meanwhile, two men who have just lost their Wall Street jobs in the GFC are waiting to book into the hotel: one of them has been around the block, the other is a young Australian who had only just joined the company. It’s an intriguing set-up, the characters are all fascinating and I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

The night wound up with Justin Fleming’s The Savvy Women, another of his rollicking, contemporary Australian adaptations of Molière, following his success with Tartuffe and The School for Wives.

Directed by Gale Edwards, and performed by Andrea Demetriades, Morgan Powell, Fiona Press and Christopher Stollery, it began with two sisters vying for one man, their parents arguing over which daughter should prevail, and the mother’s sacking of the maid for her massacre of the English language. Fleming’s clever, witty rhymes drew much laughter, especially the maid’s bogan utterings.

Having the audience choose is a different way of commissioning a play these days. The proof will be in the production. But you’d have to say it was an impressive, well-chosen short list. All three extracts were entertaining and showed significant potential; hopefully we will get to see productions of them all in the fullness of time.

Masquerade

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, January 9

Louis Fontaine, Helen Dallimore and Nathan O'Keefe. Photo: Brett Boardman

Louis Fontaine, Helen Dallimore and Nathan O’Keefe. Photo: Brett Boardman

Laid low with cancer as a child, Kate Mulvany fell in love with Kit Williams’ classic picture book Masquerade while in hospital. She has now adapted it for the stage, interweaving the moving story of a very sick child and his mother.

Co-produced by Griffin Theatre Company and the State Theatre Company of South Australia, and playing as part of the Sydney Festival, Masquerade is a delightful family show that captures the style, tone and quirky magic of the quixotic book.

Masquerade tells a strange, fantastical, riddle-filled story. The Moon is full of longing for the Sun and so sends the bumbling Jack Hare to deliver him a message of love along with a golden, bejeweled, hare-shaped amulet. Given the laws of nature, Jack has just 12 hours to complete his mission between sunrise and sunset.

Along the way he meets all kinds of crazy characters from Tara Treetops and The Man Who Plays the Music That Makes the World Go Round to Sir Isaac Newton. But when he reaches the Sun Jack finds he has lost the amulet and forgotten the precise wording of the message.

Published in 1979, the book became a phenomenon not just for its story but for the wonderfully detailed paintings (also by Williams) that illustrated it. In each picture was hidden a hare. On top of that, the book contained clues to a real golden amulet that Williams had hidden somewhere in England (which was discovered in 1982).

Williams is now something of a recluse but Mulvany managed to make contact with him through his wife Eleyn (a jeweler) and visited them at their home in Gloucestershire. Touched by the story of her own connection to the book, Williams gave Mulvany permission to adapt it for the stage on two conditions: that she include her own story and that the production be a family play for anyone aged nine to 90.

Mulvany’s adaptation begins in a hospital where a single mother called Tessa (Helen Dallimore) starts reading the book to her son Joe (Jack Andrew at the opening performance, a role he shares with Louis Fontaine) to help cheer him after chemotherapy. As she reads, the story unfolds around Joe’s curtained hospital bed.

Mulvany adds a second act in which Tessa and Joe enter the world of the story and try to help Jack Hare (Nathan O’Keefe) find the amulet.

Directed by Lee Lewis and Sam Strong, the production features a vibrant, clever design by Anna Cordingley that references the look of the book while creating an aesthetic of its own.

Pip Brandon, Nathan O'Keefe and Kate Cheel. Photo: Brett Boardman

Pip Brandon, Nathan O’Keefe and Kate Cheel. Photo: Brett Boardman

A band of letters frames the stage (as it does the drawings in the book) and is used to spell out the answers to the riddles. Joe’s hospital bed sits centrestage on a revolve, with images projected onto the curtains when they are drawn. The bed is replaced by another structure for the second act.

Cordingley’s wonderful costumes are colourful and inventive, though the text cries out for a more dazzlingly gold suit for the Sun (Mikelangelo) than the rather subtly shiny one he wears.

Geoff Cobham’s lighting also brings colour and magic to the stage, though some performers occasionally got caught in half-light on opening night. The silvery light for the Moon (Kate Cheel) could be a little more luminously otherworldly, but there are lots of nice lighting effects.

The production also features original music and songs composed by Pip Branson and Mikelangelo and performed live by Balkan cabaret band Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen, which work a treat.

Running two hours including interval, the first act unfolds a little slowly and could be tightened. Some people who didn’t know the book were also slightly bemused by some of the characters.

In Act Two, however, the play finds its rhythm. Mulvany has included lots of fun word play with jokes for adults and children. Jack’s lusting for carrots, in particular, caused much laughter from the young children near me.

The emotional dimension of the play also really kicks in after interval (though it has been building towards the end of the first act). Mulvany hasn’t shied away from darker themes of mortality, pain and grief (as well as the power of love) ­­– though the way she uses the explanation of death from The Man Who Plays the Music That Makes the World Go Round is movingly and gently applied.

Louis Fontaine, Kate Cheel and Helen Dallimore. Photo: Brett Boardman

Nathan O’Keefe, Louis Fontaine, Kate Cheel and Helen Dallimore. Photo: Brett Boardman

There are terrific performances across the board. O’Keefe is outstanding as Jack Hare, bringing oodles of endearing charm and sweet, goofy comedy to the pivotal role.

Dallimore and Andrew work beautifully together as the deeply worried but loving, stalwart Tessa and the terminally ill Joe, both giving authentic, moving performances that never tip into sentimentality.

Cheel is lovely as the ethereal Moon and ebullient Tara Treetops, while Zindzi Okenyo – who juggles the roles of a Fat Nurse, a dancing Fat Pig, the mean Penny Pockets, the yoga-practicing Dawn and a friendly fish – does a great job of creating very different, clearly delineated, quirky characters.

The musicians also take on roles with Mikelangelo as The Sun and The Practical Man, Branson as The Man Who Plays the Music That Makes the World Go Round and Sir Isaac Newton, and Guy Freer, Sam Martin and Phil Moriarty as a tone-deaf Barber’s Quartet reduced to a trio.

The production will doubtless be finessed as it develops but already Masquerade is a gently charming, moving show made with a lot of love.

Masquerade plays at the Sydney Opera House until January 17. Bookings: www.sydneyfestival.org.au/masquerade or 1300 856 876 or 02 9250 7777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January 11

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography

SBW Stables Theatre, May 7

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs. Photo: Brett Boardman

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs. Photo: Brett Boardman

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography is a provocative title so it should be said right up front that this new play by Melbourne writer Declan Greene is emotionally hardcore rather than pornographic.

There is some nudity, but it accompanies a fleeting glimpse of tenderness rather than anything raunchy, and some strong language. Essentially, however, the play is a dark, raw exposé of two desperately lonely people.

Greene has written a very ‘now’ play set in the Internet world where people around the world are connected like never before, while genuine human interaction seems more difficult than ever; a world where everything from groceries to porn are just a few clicks away.

It features two fairly unprepossessing, unfulfilled, middle-aged people. He (Steve Rodgers) works in IT and is unhappily married. She (Andrea Gibbs) is a nurse with two children and a crushing debt. Both are lonely and full of self-loathing. To fill the void he consumes Internet porn, she shops. They connect via an online dating site then meet at a bar.

Written with an incisive economy, most of the spiky dialogue is addressed directly to the audience as the characters confess their fears, dreams and dark secrets. Only now and again do they actually talk to each other. In a way this holds us a little at bay – which is partly the point – but gradually the actors draw us in.

Co-produced by Griffin and Perth Theatre Companies, Lee Lewis directs a stark production on a minimal set by Marg Horwell (pale mauve shagpile carpet on the floor and walls, and large white blinds), colourfully lit by Matthew Marshall, which captures the anonymity of cyberspace and the aridity of their lives, with a nod to the world of porn.

Lewis’s direction is as taut as the writing but she also leavens the bleakness with a surprising amount of humour.

Rodgers and Gibbs give unflinchingly brave performances as they mine their characters’ addictions, vulnerability and longing with devastating authenticity, bringing warmth where it might easily not exist.

Running a tight one hour, Eight Gigabytes is troubling, insightful and terribly sad.

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography runs until June 4. Bookings: www.griffintheatre.com.au or 02 9361 3817. It then plays at The Street Theatre, Canberra, June 17 – 21, and Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA, July 1 – 12.

The Bull, the Moon and the Coronet of Stars: review

Griffin Theatre Company, Hothouse Theatre and Merrigong Theatre Company, Stables Theatre, May 8

In her new play The Bull, the Moon and the Coronet of Stars, Australian playwright Van Badham takes a contemporary love story and gives it a mythic dimension by entwining it with the Greek legend of Ariadne and Theseus.

It’s worth knowing the basics of Ariadne’s tale. (Briefly, she helps Theseus defeat the Minotaur, they elope, he deserts her and she marries the god Dionysus.)

Here, Marion (Silvia Colloca) is an artist-in-residence at a museum where she falls for the married publications officer Michael (Matt Zeremes). After a night of passion in the museum he dumps her. Heartbroken, she flees and, while teaching art classes to a group of raunchy septuagenarians, meets Mark (also Zeremes), a sommelier with an eye for the ladies.

Matt Zeremes and Silvia Colloca  Photo: Brett Boardman

Matt Zeremes and Silvia Colloca Photo: Brett Boardman

On one level it’s a small, intimate play: a two-hander running 80 minutes. But Badham’s lush, poetic language and mythical references tap into the epic, overwhelming emotions we feel when in the grip of love or heartbreak.

Simply staged on Anna Tregloan’s set, which uses rectangular wooden frames in various formations for different scenes, the focus is very much on the words.

The text slips between third person narration, interior thoughts and dreams, and dialogue, which occasionally overlaps. Written with an innate musicality, it needs to be precisely performed – as it is by Colloca and Zeremes, who give lovely performances under Lee Lewis’s direction.

It’s a passionate play but for some reason it doesn’t really connect emotionally. It’s perhaps the size of the venue. As the two actors tune into the mythical aspect their performances sometimes seem too large for the tiny venue so rather than being drawn into their emotional world, it feels like the play is coming at us.

Also, because there’s more dramatised narrative than dialogue, we are told rather than shown things so that at times it feels almost like a short story rather than a fully-fledged drama and the characters don’t emerge in quite the emotional depth that they might.

But it’s still an ambitious, potent piece of writing that is sexy and funny with a beautiful, romantic ending.

Stables Theatre until June 8, Hothouse Theatre, Albury-Wodonga, June 13 – 22.

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on May 12