The Blind Giant is Dancing

Belvoir St Theatre,  February 17

BlindGiant1

Dan Spielman and Geoff Morrell. Photo: Brett Boardman

Stephen Sewell’s blistering 1983 play The Blind Giant is Dancing is very much of its time but it still feels timely in this ferociously good Belvoir production.

The epic drama is set in the world of NSW State Labor party politics in the early 1980s at a time when Australia’s strong manufacturing base was being dismantled in favour of a free market, with devastating consequences for the working class. Seething with political intrigue, Sewell looks at how power corrupts and at how individuals both shape and are shaped by the world around them.

At the centre of the play is Allen Fitzgerald (Dan Spielman), a social economist and Marxist from a working class Catholic family who begins as an idealist. Unhappily married to Louise (Yael Stone), a Jewish feminist socialist, he is seduced by financial journalist Rose Draper (Zahra Newman) and becomes so caught up in a political power struggle that he sells his soul and his family down the river.

Director Eamon Flack and designer Dale Ferguson bring the play to furious life on a stark set at the centre of which is a large screen, which can either resemble the metal bars of a cage allowing us to see scenes behind it or light up with dazzling brightness, flashing up place names and images to locate the numerous different scenes. It’s a clever solution for a play with umpteen short scenes, while Ferguson’s keenly observed 80s costuming evokes the period.

Steve Toulmin’s sound, which includes bursts of 80s pop songs, and Verity Hampson’s lighting enhance and punctuate the fast-paced staging.

BlindGiantZahra

Zahra Newman and Dan Spielman. Photo: Brett Boardman

Unfolding over three acts with two short intervals, Act I requires great concentration as Sewell establishes the main players including: Allen’s arch foe Michael Wells (Geoff Morrell), a corrupt Social Democratic Party secretary; Mr Carew (Michael Denkha) an American advisor to Wells; Bob Lang (Ben Wood) an obnoxious, misogynistic banker; and Ramon Gris (Ivan Donato) a Chilean socialist exile working with Allen, among others.

Flack directs at a cracking pace and it is hard initially to get your head around it all with so much coming at you. But as soon as Act II begins, everything becomes clear and from there the play hurtles along like a runaway train as scenes become shorter and snappier, keeping you riveted.

A family barbecue in Port Kembla where we meet Allen’s father (Russell Kiefel) and brother (Andrew Henry), who are both steelworkers, and his housewife mother (Genevieve Lemon), brings a human face to the politicking. It also gives us an insight into Allen’s tortured personality.

Spielman gives a performance of extraordinary intensity, his body language reflecting the passion that drives him and is tearing him apart. As he slides deeper into the morass, his physicality and vocals become ever more aggressive, his humour ever more sardonic. It’s a huge, demanding role and Spielman is utterly convincing every step of the way.

Stone gives an equally passionate performance as Allen’s activist wife who refuses to play the role of housebound homemaker. Kiefel is superb as both wily capitalist Sir Leslie Harris, who is prepared to take Wells on in the battle over the steel industry, and as Allen’s father Doug who rules the family with a rod of iron. In another compelling performance, Morrell’s Wells has a recognisable touch of the mongrel about him.

BlindGiantYael

Genevieve Lemon and Yael Stone. Photo: Brett Boardman

Lemon brings a gentle humour to Allen’s mother and her efforts to keep the peace within her family are quietly touching, while Newman imbues the seductive Rose with a fascinating sense of enigma. However, the acting is incredibly strong across the board.

Blind Giant is driven by a visceral rage, which Flack’s production captures superbly. At times it feels as if Sewell is delivering an impassioned lecture but overall it’s compelling stuff with an astonishingly good performance by Spielman at the heart of a wonderfully fierce production.

The Blind Giant is Dancing plays at Belvoir St Theatre until March 20. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

Advertisements

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.

Travelling North

Wharf 1, Sydney, January 18

Bryan Brown and Alison Whyte. Photo: Brett Boardman

Bryan Brown and Alison Whyte. Photo: Brett Boardman

It’s a big year for David Williamson with eight of his plays to be staged in Sydney. It’s a shame then that the first of them – Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Travelling North – is a disappointment.

Written in 1979, Travelling North is a gentle, elegiac comedy about an autumnal romance between Frances (Alison Whyte, replacing the injured Greta Scacchi) and the grouchy, older Frank (Bryan Brown).

To the chagrin of Frances’s unhappily married daughters (Harriet Dyer and Sara West), she and Frank decide to head north together – but when Frank’s health fails there is trouble in paradise.

Directed by Andrew Upton, the production is hampered by David Fleischer’s stark, unattractive set. Performed on a large, slatted wooden platform backed by dark walls, with virtually no props, there is no sense of place, which the play needs. Instead, it is left to Nick Schlieper’s lighting to convey the shifts between chilly Melbourne and tropical Queensland.

It also seems odd that though the play stretches over a year or more, Whyte wears the same dress throughout while other actors have costume changes.

Brown brings little emotional depth or nuance to the role of Frank. He is at his most believable when angrily demanding information from his doctor (Russell Kiefel) but mostly looks slightly awkward as if uncomfortable on stage and captures little of Frank’s irascible charm.

Whyte is an elegant, dignified, warm-hearted Frances. Despite her late addition to the cast, hers is the most convincing performance, though Andrew Tighe gives the production an engaging shot in the arm with a very funny, sweet performance as the interfering but well-meaning neighbour in short shorts, socks and sandals.

It seemed to me that the problem is not in the writing. Williamson writes believable dialogue laced with a wry, gentle humour and canvases pertinent issues: older love, the generation divide and the way grown-up children so often demand that their parents remain at their beck and call – something we see a lot these days as more and more grandparents find themselves co-opted as child carers. We should care about the characters a whole lot more than we do here.

Instead, it feels as if none of the different elements of the production have really gelled. The emotional heart of the play is missing in this rather one-dimensional production, which doesn’t do Williamson justice.

Travelling North runs at Wharf I until March 22. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 2