Departures

Ken Unsworth Studio, Alexandria, October 4

Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Ross Philip and Susan Barling. Photo: Regis Lansac

Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Ross Philip and Susan Barling. Photo: Regis Lansac

Since 2000, eminent sculptor and artist Ken Unsworth has collaborated with Australian Dance Artists (ADA) on a series of productions, which have now become a highly anticipated annual event for the lucky invited audience.

Part-performance and part-installation, frequently with live music, their work is unlike anything else we are seeing on Sydney’s dance scene.

ADA is made up of four senior/veteran dance artists who have had long, prestigious careers in contemporary dance: Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer who performed with London Contemporary Dance Theatre, and Susan Barling and Ross Philip, who performed with Sydney Dance Company. Norman Hall, who was ADA’s Founding Director, continues to work with them as a choreographic collaborator.

Susan Barling and Ross Philip. Photo: Regis Lansac

Susan Barling and Ross Philip. Photo: Regis Lansac

Their latest production, Departures, is currently weaving its inspired, crazy magic at Unsworth’s studio in Alexandria where he has built a stage and a small auditorium with three rows of church pews for around 50 people.

Unsworth, who basically finances the productions personally, has commissioned a new score from Jonathan Cooper for Departures, and it’s a beauty. It is performed live by members of the Australian Piano Quartet, Rebecca Chan, Glenn Christensen, James Wannan and Thomas Rann, augmented by Benjamin Kopp on piano, Genevieve Lang on harp and Katherine Lukey on violin.

As always, the production is full of extraordinary, surreal imagery with the choreography created in response to the music and the strange and wonderful sculptural creations that Unsworth has built.

The production begins with a huge ball, mirrored by a smaller one, swinging back and forth in hypnotic fashion, while a glowing orb rises and sets like the sun.

Susan Barling, Ross Philip, Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer. Photo: Regis Lansac

Susan Barling, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Anca Frankenhaeuser and Ross Philip with Ken Unsworth. Photo: Regis Lansac

Appearing in a top hat with candles, shirt, pants and jauntily mis-matched, colourful socks, Unsworth begins painting figures on paper panels only to be manhandled and summarily dismissed as the dancers make their dramatic appearance.

From there, the production unfolds through a series of powerful images that explore themes of art, love, life and death.

Unsworth has built several large sculptural pieces: a steep slope which Frankenhaeuser traverses with exquisite, elegant poise while interacting with the heads that appear, almost Beckett-like, through trapdoors; a large, square metal frame with hidden secrets behind doors in various compartments; and a spinning double helix spiral staircase which disappears into the roof, which the dancers ascend and descend simultaneously.

There are also two walls – one which has an anguished Barling appearing and disappearing on a spinning shelf, and another with a door to which singer Clive Birch is strapped while singing upright and then upside down.

Patrick Harding-Irmer, Anca Frankenhaeuser. Photo: Regis Lansac

Patrick Harding-Irmer, Anca Frankenhaeuser Ross Philip and Susan Barling. Photo: Regis Lansac

As well as commissioning the score, Unsworth has written the lyrics to a song, Never Ever, performed by Birch and young soprano Rioghnach Wegrecka who walks across the back of the stage from one brightly coloured chair to another.

There’s also a very beautiful, moving duet by Frankenhaeuser and Harding-Irmer, which subverts and distorts the movement to match the music, as well as numerous other striking images including Harding-Irmer in suit jacket and high heel shoes. As always, the movement is underpinned by a depth of emotion from the mature but still toned and eloquent dancers.

Duet between Patrick Harding-Irmer and Anca Frankenhaeuser. Photo: Regis Lansac

Duet between Patrick Harding-Irmer and Anca Frankenhaeuser. Photo: Regis Lansac

With lighting by Roderick van Gelder, costumes by Pamela McGraw and soundscapes by Nate Edmondson, Departures is another feather (candle) in the cap for a unique and inspiring company. Their work really should be more widely seen.

Ken Unsworth makes an appearance in one of his extraordinary sculptures. Photo: Regis Lansac

Ken Unsworth makes an appearance in one of his extraordinary sculptures. Photo: Regis Lansac

Clive Birch and Rioghnach Wegrecka. Photo: Regis Lansac

Singers Clive Birch and Rioghnach Wegrecka. Photo: Regis Lansac

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The Tempest

Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, August 21

Brian Lipson, Eloise Winestock and Damien Strouthos. Photo: Prudence Upton

Brian Lipson, Eloise Winestock and Damien Strouthos. Photo: Prudence Upton

The symbolism may have been unconscious as John Bell insists, but he couldn’t have chosen a more apt play than The Tempest as his final production for Bell Shakespeare, the company he founded 25 years ago.

Thought to be Shakespeare’s last full-length play, Prospero’s final renunciation of his “rough magic” has been seen as the Bard’s farewell to the stage. This enchanting production is a perfect farewell for Bell too.

Bell doesn’t overlay any political interpretation but directs the romantic tale of forgiveness and reconciliation with an eloquent simplicity and a deft lightness, helming a production in which all the elements cohere in delightful fashion.

The opening storm conjured by Prospero to bring his former foes to the magical isle, where he has been living for the past 12 years with his daughter Miranda, is dramatically staged with wind machines, billowing drapes, operatic music and strobe lighting as the actors cling to a thick rope to represent the lurching ship.

As the winds abate, Julie Lynch’s minimal set (a disc-like platform backed by silvery-grey drapes) together with her costumes create the perfect setting for Bell’s lyrical vision, enhanced by Damien Cooper’s lighting, Alan John’s music and Nate Edmondson’s sound.

Brian Lipson’s Prospero is discovered sitting cross-legged on the stage meditating as we enter the theatre. His portrayal is less an avenging, autocratic sorcerer and more a world-weary, slightly absent-minded, emotional man with a wry manner, a fierce love for his daughter and a great deal of humanity.

Eloise Winestock plays Miranda with a touch of untamed animal about her, as well as wide-eyed delight when she sees other people for the first time, while Felix Gentle is a sweet-natured Ferdinand.

Matthew Backer and Brian Lipson. Photo: Prudence Upton

Matthew Backer and Brian Lipson. Photo: Prudence Upton

Matthew Backer’s spellbinding portrayal of Ariel makes the spirit’s desperate longing for freedom palpable. His tippy-toe physicality gives him an otherworldly quality and the way his movement echoes the mortals when he leads them with his magic is a lovely touch. In fact, movement director Scott Witt has done a superb job throughout. Backer’s clear-voiced singing also helps evoke the magic in the air.

Damien Strouthos’s Caliban is less brutish than often portrayed, making his famous speech about the noises of the isle all the more believable. Arky Michael and Hazem Shammas are genuinely funny as the comic servants Trinculo and Stephano, while also doubling effectively as Antonio and Sebastian. Robert Alexander as the kindly, dignified Gonzalo and Maeliosa Stafford as King Alonso complete the fine cast.

“Let you indulgence set me free,” says Prospero to the audience in the epilogue.

The words resonated beyond the play on opening night as the audience stood and turned to face John Bell sitting in the audience, offering him applause not just for the production but for his great achievements at Bell Shakespeare.

The Tempest plays at the Sydney Opera House Playhouse until September 18. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 30

Caress/Ache

Griffin Theatre Company, SBW Stables Theatre, March 4

Ian Stenlake. Photo: Brett Boardman

Ian Stenlake. Photo: Brett Boardman

Caress/Ache, a new play by Australian playwright Suzie Miller, was inspired initially by the 2005 execution of young Australian drug trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van in Singapore. Under Singaporean law, his mother was not allowed to hug him before his death.

The shocking inhumanity of such a ruling set Miller thinking about the importance and power of touch. The result is Caress/Ache, a play, which went through a long period of studio development at London’s National Theatre. In her program notes, Miller also acknowledges the dramaturgy of a number of highly regarded theatre professionals. And yet, after so much work, the play – which now has its premiere at Griffin Theatre Company – still lacks the emotional depth to rise above its all-too-obvious exploration of a chosen subject and truly resonate.

Miller interweaves a number of stories. There’s Mark (Ian Stenlake), a paediatric doctor who feels like a god when he is saving children’s lives. Even the sex with his wife Libby (Helen Christinson) is better after a successful operation. However, when he loses a young patient on the operating table, he can no longer bear to touch his wife or be touched.

Mark later turns to a phone sex line, speaking to Cate (Sabryna Te’o), a single mother who is working there to support her child, asking her to touch her face and arm and describe the sensation. Cate is new to the job, taught how to handle things (as it were) by her cheery, experienced colleague Belinda (Zoe Carides), who lends the fairly heavy piece a little levity.

Then there’s the furious Saskia who confronts her poet boyfriend Cameron (Gary Clementson), after discovering he has slept with her boss. We also meet Arezu (Te’o), a young Iranian woman whose parents fled to Australia to give her a better life, naming their daughter after the word for “hope”. But Arezu is frustrated that they won’t talk about Iran. When her uncle gives her a book of Farsi poetry, she starts to wear the hijab and decides to return to her homeland to discover who she really is.

Her story is less linked to the all-pervasive theme of touch, but at the airport she meets Saskia who is flying to London. In a brief encounter, Arezu ends up giving the unhappy Saskia a hug – a moment that feels utterly contrived. There’s another tenuous connection between Cate, Cameron and Saskia via an autistic child, which comes out of nowhere and really does feel as if Miller is straining things unnecessarily.

Finally, there’s Alice (Carides) who goes to Singapore to be with her son Peter (Clementson) who is about to be hanged there for drug trafficking only to find she isn’t allowed to touch or hold him. Mark is the Australian doctor/coroner who will be at Peter’s execution and complete the paperwork afterwards.

This particular story strand leads to the powerful closing scenes and the play’s undeniably moving final image. However, it was impossible to watch this without thinking of what is happening in Indonesia. On the very day of the play’s opening, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were transferred from Bali’s Kerobokan Prison to the island of Nusakambangan to await their execution for drug trafficking.

For some, the extraordinary timing heightened the emotion and lent the play an added power, with a number of audience members in tears at the end of the play. Others – myself included – found it extremely uncomfortable. Clearly, Miller could have had no idea when she was writing the play of how closely it would be reflecting newspaper headlines. Had the preceding scenes been dramatically stronger, it might not have mattered. As it was, I found those particular scenes uncomfortably close to emotional manipulation, giving the play a resonance it hadn’t earned.

Directed by Anthony Skuse, the Griffin production is staged on a stark white set designed by Sophie Fletcher, which begins as a hospital operating theatre and then allows for quick, simple changes for different locations.

As the start of the play, a quote is projected onto the theatre walls: “Human skin and tissues contain millions of sensory receptors. Without them, there would be no capacity for people to sense the touch of another.”

Various statements and statistics relating to touch are flashed up periodically throughout the play. In the end, they just get in the way, reinforcing the feeling of a lecture. And therein lies the problem with the play. It always seems to be illustrating its chosen topic, rather than organically exploring it. The characters exist only to fit the theme. They don’t feel real, lacking a convincing emotional life beyond what they represent here in relation to touch.

Gary Clementson and Helen Christinson as Saskia and Cameron. Photo: Brett Boardman

Gary Clementson and Helen Christinson as Saskia and Cameron. Photo: Brett Boardman

The dialogue between Saskia and Cameron feels particularly clichéd, causing some sniggers on opening night as he mutters about feeling disgusted with himself, while she can’t believe he could do this to her. (“Tell me it didn’t happen, Please just tell me you didn’t do this.”) The way she goes on and on, furiously demanding more and more graphic details about his infidelities makes her come across as a victim, wallowing in his betrayal, while he hangs his head in shame but perpetuates his lies.

The opening scene in which Mark rhapsodises about his feelings when he is operating uses a heightened, poetic language. He rolls along the top of the metal bench as in a piece of choreographed physical theatre, while music swells. But this style of performance is just as suddenly dropped, apart perhaps from a bath scene featuring Saskia and Cameron.

And why, when Mark’s marriage has obviously been a loving one, would he not at least try to explain to Libby why he now shrinks from her? Instead he silently turns his back. As for Nate Edmondson’s music, sung by the cast, it feels overblown and sits oddly stylistically.

Skuse has the actors play things at full bore. The five performers turn in strong performances, but the play resists their attempts to give it a convincing emotional life. Instead Caress/Ache speaks to us “about” a theme. What’s more, it doesn’t have anything particularly new to say in relation to it.

The fact that a mother can’t hold her son before he is executed is a truly terrible thought. You can see why it would capture Miller’s imagination. She has clearly done a huge amount of research into the subject of touch and all that it involves but she hasn’t found a way to synthesise this into a genuine drama.

Caress/Ache runs at the SBW Stables until April 11. Bookings: griffintheatre.com.au or 02 9361 3817

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show

Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, January 13 at 12 noon

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. Photo: supplied

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. Photo: supplied

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show is a gorgeous little stage production for children aged one to seven that captivates with its clear storytelling, its fresh, bright design and its simple but inventive staging.

Based on four pictures books by Eric Carle, including his iconic bestseller The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the show has been three years in the making.

Australian Jonathan Worsley, who is the creator and co-producer, approached Carle “several years ago, several times”, visiting the American author and illustrator at his Massachusetts studio with a series of sketches to convince him that he would put a faithful version of Carle’s books on stage.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar is the popular hook for audiences but it is too short to stage without expanding it so Worsley instead suggested using three of Carle’s other books as well: The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse, Mister Seahorse and The Very Lonely Firefly. Having won Carle’s approval, Worsley approached New York’s Puppet Kitchen to bring the sketches to three-dimensional life.

The Puppet Kitchen has done a sensational job in creating 75 puppets, using similar materials and techniques to Carle so that they really do look like his distinctive, hand-painted collage illustrations, and move well on stage.

On top of that, children can see the puppeteers and how the puppets are manipulated, which adds to the joyous sense of creativity that the show engenders.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show had its world premiere at the Riverside Theatres in Parramatta as part of the Sydney Festival and from here tours to Melbourne, Brisbane, Penrith, Queanbeyan and Newcastle.

Director Naomi Edwards builds the show beautifully, creating an arc that leads organically to the highly anticipated caterpillar. James Browne has designed a white set that looks as if it is made up of several giant, blank books on which the various stories can be “written”. It’s the perfect backdrop for the stories to burst into colourful life via the puppets and their manipulators, with the help of a few simple projections, a couple of props and one or two little pieces of scenery.

Costume designer Andrea Espinoza has the four puppeteers (Gavin Clarke, Dannielle Jackson, Justine Warner and Drew Wilson) in white dungarees and tee shirts to throw the focus on the puppets, while The Artist wears an outfit to match the book. The puppets, meanwhile, are a pure delight, with lovely work from movement director Samantha Chester in choreographing their manipulation. The music by Nate Edmondson and Stephen Baker, and Nicholas Rayment’s lighting are also pitch-perfect.

A scene from The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse in The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. Photo: supplied

A scene from The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse in The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. Photo: supplied

Each of the four stories makes clever use of simple repetition. The show begins with The Artist who ”paints” several colourful animals including a blue horse, a yellow cow, an orange elephant and a poker-dotted donkey. A white canvas on a white easel is quickly spun around and the painting appears as if by magic.

“How did they do that?” asked the little boy next to me, mouth open. After watching intently as The Artist did a similar thing several times, he shouted: “that’s how they did it” and proceeded to explain excitedly to his mother. Bless.

We then go underwater for Mister Seahorse in which a rainbow-coloured, sparkly seahorse takes care of his wife’s eggs, until they hatch, meeting other male fish along the way who do the same – a sweet tale about role and responsibility.

Mister Seahorse. Photo: supplied

Mister Seahorse. Photo: supplied

From there we head into the dark of the night for the story of The Very Lonely Firefly who mistakes various lights for fellow fireflies until he finally finds his tribe (a tale of belonging). This leads naturally to the appearance of the moon and the story of the caterpillar, who eats and eats and eats before making a cocoon from which he emerges as a beautiful butterfly.

Children in the audience were clearly waiting for the caterpillar but it’s testament to the show that it kept their attention in the lead-up to his appearance.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar puppet. Photo: supplied

The Very Hungry Caterpillar puppet. Photo: supplied

It was an inspired idea to adapt the book, given its massive popularity around the world, and Worsley’s production does it justice. The show will doubtless tour here, there and everywhere for many years to come.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show plays in Parramatta until January 18 then tours to Melbourne’s Chapel off Chapel, March 23 – April 2; Brisbane’s Round House Theatre, July 13 – 19; The Q Theatre, Penrith, September 24 – 26; Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, September 30 – October 4; Newcastle’s Civic Theatre, October 9 – 10.

Full details: www.hungrycaterpillarshow.com

All My Sons

Eternity Playhouse, November 5

Meredith Penman, Marshall Napier and Andrew Henry. Photo: Brett Boardman

Meredith Penman, Marshall Napier and Andrew Henry. Photo: Brett Boardman

Darlinghurst Theatre Company has christened the new Eternity Playhouse with Arthur Miller’s first commercially successful play, the gut-wrenching All My Sons from 1947 – and both the venue and the production have come up trumps.

The sensitive conversion of the newly restored Baptist Tabernacle, a 126-year old, heritage-listed building in Burton Street, Darlinghurst features a spacious timber foyer and a beautifully appointed 200-seat theatre with excellent sight lines and acoustics. It all feels fresh and welcoming, while original features such as the ornate ceiling and stained glass windows add to the venue’s charm.

Miller’s tightly plotted play resonates powerfully in the intimate space. Set in the aftermath of World War II, Joe Keller (Marshall Napier) and his wife Kate (Toni Scanlan) are living a life of suffocating denial.

Convicted for knowingly supplying faulty aircraft engine parts from his factory, which caused the death of 21 pilots during the war, Joe was subsequently exonerated leaving his business partner Steve to take the rap. Kate, meanwhile, clings to hope that her son Larry, a fighter pilot, is still alive despite having been missing for three years.

A sense of tragedy hangs over the play from the beginning, as Joe and Kate’s other son Chris (Andrew Henry) invites Larry’s former sweetheart Anne (Meredith Penman) to stay, hoping to marry her. Anne, who grew up next door, is Steve’s daughter.

When Anne’s brother George (Anthony Gooley) arrives, having just visited their father in jail, dark secrets are revealed leaving no possibility of a happy outcome for any of them.

Unlike many of the auteur, re-imagined productions of classics that we have seen in Sydney of late, Iain Sinclair directs a traditional production set in the period and using American accents, but it is fluent, well paced and beautifully performed, unfolding with the inexorable undertow of Greek tragedy.

Scanlan breaks your heart as the desperate, deluded, at times feverish Kate who dares not admit the possibility that her son is dead, while Napier convincingly conveys the gruff bonhomie covering a dark, gnawing secret.

Henry excels as the open-hearted Chris who longs to step out of Larry’s blighted shadow and live his own life, while Gooley ramps up the energy with a bristling anger as George.

On opening night, Penman brought a sparkling warmth to the role of Anne, but due to a major television opportunity has since been replaced by Anna Houston.

In the supporting roles, Sinclair (who plays a doctor as well as directing), Mary Rachel Brown, Briallen Clarke and Robin Goldworthy all acquit themselves admirably.

Luke Ede’s set works well enough and is subtly lit by Nicholas Rayment. Occasionally Nate Edmondson’s music feels a little too overtly manipulative emotionally as in a film score, particularly in the climactic scenes when it is distracting and unnecessary, but that’s a minor quibble.

Performed with an intense honesty, Miller’s timeless story about the link between commerce and war, and self-interest in the name of the family, still rings devastatingly true in this stirring production.

All My Sons runs at the Eternity Playhouse until December 1

 An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 10

Fireface: review

Darcie Irwin-Simpson and Darcy Brown. Photo: Phyllis Wong

Darcie Irwin-Simpson and Darcy Brown. Photo: Phyllis Wong

Stories Like These and atyp Under The Wharf

ATYP Studio 1, August 4

Adolescence can be a confusing, angst-ridden time – particularly if your parents are everything you don’t want to become as an adult. But how much does ineffectual (as opposed to abusive) parenting shape a troubled teenager?

In his 1997 play Fireface (first seen in Sydney when the Sydney Theatre Company presented it in 2001) German writer Marius Von Mayenburg presents us with a middle-class family where communication has broken down.

The parents aren’t talking. The father (James Lugton) would rather read newspaper reports about murdered prostitutes than communicate with his wife (Lucy Miller), while she flaunts herself around the home in various states of undress.

Their alienated children, meanwhile, are exhibiting worrying behavioural traits. The burnt blackbird that the mother discovers wrapped in newspaper behind the garage is surely a warning sign but the father is in denial, dismissing it as nothing serious.

In this emotionally arid world, provocative teenager Olga (Darcie Irwin-Simpson) starts using her burgeoning sexuality as a form of power, solace and a means of escape, first seducing her equally alienated younger brother Kurt (Darcy Brown) and then Paul (Ryan Bennett) who catches her eye because of his motorbike.

Jealous at Paul’s arrival, Kurt’s fascination with flames escalates and he really starts playing with fire. There’s no doubt it will end badly – with no prizes for guessing how.

Von Mayenburg structures his taut 100-minute play using 94 short, snappy scenes.

Directing the play for Stories Like These and atyp Under The Wharf, Luke Rogers punctuates the myriad scenes with sharp blackouts and a surge of sound not unlike the explosive crackle of fire (sound design by Nate Edmondson). At times the momentum falters with so many scene breaks but on the whole Rogers manages to keep the tension building.

Simply staged around a table and chairs (set and costume design by Lucilla Smith), Rogers puts the focus firmly on the performances.

The cast of five are all convincing, with Brown in particular capturing Kurt’s weird, psychotic nature, his face looking increasingly blank and his eyes ever more dead as the play unfolds, while Lugton and Miller give just the right weight to the black comedy, as the parents sidestep responsibility and console themselves with the thought that it won’t be long before their troublesome offspring leave home.

Though we may know where it’s going, Fireface is a dark, disturbing play. Rogers could perhaps ramp up the sense of menace a little more but his production is certainly unsettling and sends you home pondering what you’ve just seen.

Fireface is at the ATYP Studio 1, The Wharf, until August 17