Of Mice and Men

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, July 16

Andrew Henry and Anthony Gooley. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Andrew Henry and Anthony Gooley. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Iain Sinclair has directed a production of John Steinbeck’s Of Men and Men for Sport for Jove that feels heartbreakingly truthful.

Steinbeck himself adapted the play from his classic 1937 novella set during the Depression. Two itinerant ranch workers George Milton (Anthony Gooley) and Lennie Small (Andrew Henry) have been roaming California looking for work. To keep them going, George inspires Lennie with the dream that one day they will buy their own property (from some elderly folk he knows) where they will keep a few animals including Lennie’s longed-for fluffy rabbits.

The trouble is that Lennie is a bit soft in the head. A gentle-minded giant who doesn’t know his own strength, he keeps petting small animals to death. Arriving at a farm, George tells Lennie to say nothing, keep his head down and do what he says in the hope that they will be left alone and all will be well. And Lennie so wants to do the right thing but when situations conspire against him, he just can’t help himself.

Sinclair has directed a beautiful, understated production that unfolds at an unhurried pace, while still building the feeling of inexorable tragedy. It is a clear, empathic reading that strikes at the heart, while the play feels as timely as ever given the vast numbers of displaced, disenfranchised, struggling people the world over.

Michael Hankin’s set design – a wooden slatted wall, four long wooden poles and a dirt floor with wood chips, along with basic wooden beds, tables and crates – feels just right, while Sian James-Holland’s lighting creates changing moods and captures the passing of time.

Sinclair has cast it perfectly – right down to the poor old dog, which is taken out and shot because it is stinking up the place. It’s a tense moment as we wait, seemingly for ages, to hear the shot – foreshadowing things to come.

Laurence Coy, Anthony Gooley and Andrew Henry. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Laurence Coy, Anthony Gooley and Andrew Henry. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Henry gives an unforgettable performance as Lennie. He is a tall man and naturally slim but he stacked on around 20 kilos for the role. It certainly gives him a sense of bulkiness, emphasised by the way he stands very squarely and solidly when still, feet planted apart, and lumbers around the stage in his dirty overalls.

He also captures Lennie’s naivety beautifully with a slightly bemused expression. When something delights him, he gives this childish little jump of joy accompanied by a beatific smile. At times, it’s almost unbearably touching, knowing what’s coming.

Gooley balances him perfectly as the loyal, steady George who battles constant frustration but stands by Lennie through thick and thin. The two of them really do convey the feeling of a long-standing relationship and of great love.

They are surrounded by an impressive ensemble: Christopher Stollery as Slim, a decent man with natural authority, Laurence Coy as Candy, an old-timer who has lost one hand and who allows himself to dream of a better future with George and Lennie, John McNeil as the bullish Carlson, Tom Stokes as the young, inexperienced Whit, Andre de Vanny as the boss’s aggressive son Curley, Anna Houston as Curley’s unhappy wife, Terry Serio as the Boss (who also plays some guitar blues), and Charles Allen as the segregated black worker Crooks.

Running around two hours and forty minutes including interval, the production keeps you gripped throughout. As it moves to its shattering conclusion you can feel people holding their breath. On the night I saw it there was a long silence at the end – a mark, I think, of how deeply affected people were.

Of Mice and Men plays at the Seymour Centre until August 1. Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com or 02 9351 7944

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The Merchant of Venice

York Theatre, Seymour Centre, May 23

John Turnbull as Shylock.

John Turnbull as Shylock.

The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s problematic plays. It’s technically a comedy but it contains some decidedly dark elements, particularly its uncomfortable anti-Semitism.

Richard Cottrell’s production for Sport for Jove doesn’t bring a strong director’s “take” to bear on the play and isn’t revelatory in the way that the best Sport for Jove productions have been.

Its strength is the great clarity of the storytelling, with a keen focus on the text. Energetically and warmly performed, it’s a solid, enjoyable production with the comedy to the fore.

Anna Gardiner’s art deco set with a translucent screen wall and doors at the back and a parquet floor (by Lucilla Smith) locates it during the 1920s or 1930s: an era close enough to our own to feel contemporary but pre-dating World War II and the horrors of the holocaust. (A final image of Shylock’s daughter Jessica, left alone on stage as dark looks are thrown at her, is a nod to what is to come).

The production opens with a burst of We’re in the Money from the musical 42nd Street, which is set in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Beyond that, however, the choice of era seems mainly an aesthetic one, and even that becomes rather lost as the production unfolds.

The costuming doesn’t locate things specifically in the 1930s, the music moves from jazz age to classical, and overall there’s not a strong sense of time or place.

Writing in the program, Cottrell argues that though race is a factor, “the play is about money rather than money lending”.

“Antonio and Shylock represent the getting and spending of money. The relationship between them is not about a Jew and Gentile but about two men who hate each other,” he says.

Portia, meanwhile, is exceptionally wealthy – the main reason Bassanio, who is broke and needs to make a good marriage, was initially attracted to her.

Lizzie Schebesta as Portia.

Lizzie Schebesta as Portia.

It’s true that in the play money makes the world go around, but it doesn’t register here as a touchstone or a key, overarching theme.

Instead, the production foregrounds the comedy and fun, tripping along lightly for much of the evening and generating plenty of laughter on opening night. Occasionally it is almost taken too far. Aaron Tsindos gives such a broadly comic, boomingly voiced portrayal of the Prince of Morocco that it feels dangerously close to racial caricature in a play where race is an unavoidable issue. That said, the audience lapped it up and roared with laughter.

But there’s no getting away from the prejudice at the centre of the play. We hear how Shylock has been called a dog and spat on; we understand why he wants revenge through his pound of flesh yet we shudder at what he is prepared to do, and at his ruthless refusal of mercy.

At the same time, when the judge rules against Shylock and he is ordered to renounce his Judaism it’s a deeply uncomfortable moment, with Gratiano’s boorish jubilation an ugly sight.

As Shakespeare shows, and as we well know, prejudice brings out the worst in people – both those doling it out and those on the receiving end. It’s something we are wrestling with here and now in Australia.

John Turnbull is terrific as Shylock, portraying him as a smart, dignified businessman who has been insulted once too often.

It’s not an unsympathetic portrayal – we see clearly why he behaves as he does – but nor is it an overly sympathetic one. The sight of him sharpening his knife on his shoe, while Antonio removes his shirt, is chilling. His steadfast refusal to grant mercy when the money he is owed and more is offered to him is done with a coldness as steely as his knife. And when he realises his daughter Jessica has left him, he seems only concerned about the money and jewels she has taken with her.

Turnbull keeps all this in balance in a powerful performance.

Lizzie Schebesta invests Portia with a playful intelligence, James Lugton plays Antonio with a mournful sincerity and Chris Stalley makes a dashing Bassanio.

There are strong performances from the rest of the cast, which includes Damien Strouthos as an exuberant Gratiano, Erica Lovell as Portia’s maid Nerissa, Jonathan Elsom as the comical, blind Old Gobbo and Lucy Heffernan as Jessica, along with Darcy Brown, Lucy Heffernan, Jason Kos, Michael Cullen and Pip Dracakis.

There are a few odd touches in the production, such as why does Jessica start out with auburn hair then suddenly appear in a blonde wig? Is she trying to disguise her Jewish heritage and look more like a Gentile or is it part of the spending spree Jessica and Lorenzo go on? I wasn’t sure.

All in all, it may not be the most memorable production of the play but it’s enjoyable, entertaining and well-staged, allowing the play to speak clearly.

The Merchant of Venice plays at the Seymour Centre until May 30. Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com or 02 9351 7940

The Crucible

Bella Vista Farm, Baulkham Hills, December 13

Julian Garner (centre) as John Proctor. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Julian Garner (centre) as John Proctor. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

The historic barn at Bella Vista Farm makes an atmospheric, rustic setting for Sport for Jove’s powerful production of Arthur Miller’s classic play.

Set in the repressive, Puritan community of Salem, Massachusetts during the 1692 witch-hunt, the play was Miller’s horrified response to Senator McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade in 1950s America.

A number of young women have been spotted dancing naked in the woods. In order to protect themselves from certain punishment, they point the finger at others, suggesting witchcraft at work. As accusations lead to more and more hangings, other motives come into play including jealousy and revenge.

Damien Ryan keeps the play in the 17th century but under his clear, beautifully measured direction the themes of fear-mongering, hysteria, sexual repression and a community turning on itself strike strong chords in today’s world.

Ryan and designer Anna Gardiner create a pressure-cooker environment with the audience close to the action, seated on three sides around a dimly lit central wooden stage lined with hundreds of candles in jam jars (lighting by Sian James-Holland). A hanging platform is cleverly used as a bed, dining table and courtroom seating. Gardiner’s dark costuming is also very effective.

Julian Garner leads a solid ensemble cast of 20 as flawed hero John Proctor, conveying an intelligent, decent man who frequently flares with fiery impatience, while also struggling with the guilt that wracks him having had a fling with Abigail while his wife Elizabeth was sick.

Georgia Adamson is compelling and touching as the deeply honest Elizabeth, imbuing her with more warmth than she is frequently portrayed. Lizzie Schebesta plays Abigail, the ringleader of the girls, as a wilful, calculating flirt, lapping up the sudden attention and power.

There are also standout performances from Matilda Ridgway as Mary Warren, who now works for the Proctors in the wake of Abigail’s dismissal and, while becoming quite a little Madam, finds herself caught between strong opposing forces, Philip Dodd as the pompous, hard-line Judge Danforth and Anthony Gooley as the more reasonable, well-meaning Reverend Hale.

The decision to lead the audience out of the barn for the final scenes dissipates the tension somewhat, but overall Ryan helms a beautifully wrought, thought-provoking and harrowing production.

Bella Vista Farm, Baulkham Hills until December 30, Everglades Gardens, Leura, January 11 – 25. Information and bookings: www.sportforjove.com.au

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on December 21

2013: The Year That Was

December 31, 2013

The last day of 2013 seems a good time to look back over what happened on the boards during the last 12 months. Here are some personal arts highlights from Sydney theatre predominantly: productions and people that will live on in my memory long past tonight’s Sydney Harbour midnight firework display heralding a new year.

MUSICAL THEATRE

Tony Sheldon, Katrina Retallick and Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Tony Sheldon, Katrina Retallick and Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

It was a pretty patchy year in musicals. My two out-and-out highlights were The Production Company’s Gypsy in Melbourne and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in Sydney.

Gypsy

Caroline O’Connor was phenomenal as Rose, giving us everything we’d hoped for and so much more: a stellar, unforgettable performance that was both monstrous and heartbreaking. For me, it was the musical theatre performance of the year.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Matt Hetherington was impressive as Herbie in Gypsy but really came into his own with a superb performance as the vulgar Freddy Benson in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Co-starring with Tony Sheldon – who made a welcome homecoming from the US as the suave Lawrence Jameson, a part tailor-made for him – Scoundrels was a delightful, perfectly cast, stylish, laugh-out-loud production. Amy Lehpamer shone as Christine Colgate and Katrina Retallick was riotously funny in a scene-stealing performance as Jolene Oakes (after another scene-stealing turn in The Addams Family earlier in the year). Scoundrels was a real feather in the cap for up-and-coming producer George Youakim. The show deserved to sell out but despite reviews your mother might write, it struggled at the box office. Instead Sydney audiences opted for the familiar, even when reviews were much less favourable.

Squabbalogic

Confirming its growing value to the Sydney musical theatre scene, indie musical theatre company Squabbalogic led by Jay James-Moody enlivened things immeasurably with terrific productions of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Carrie with Hilary Cole making an impressive debut as Carrie.

Jesus Christ Superstar

The British arena production starring Tim Minchin, Mel C and Ben Forster really rocked with Tim Minchin in commanding form as Judas – giving a superstar performance, in fact.

ELSEWHERE IN MUSICALS….

The Lion King proved just as stunning visually a second time around but the first act felt flat with the dialogue scenes slowing the action, not helped by some underpowered performances. However, Nick Afoa made a promising debut as Simba.

Premiering in Melbourne, King Kong was an ambitious production and the puppetry used to create Kong himself was breathtaking. In fact, Kong the creature was awesome, the musical’s book less so. Esther Hannaford was lovely as Ann Darrow.

Lucy Maunder was the standout in Grease, owning the role of Rizzo. Her moving rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” was the emotional and musical highlight of the production.

Michael Falzon as Leo Szilard. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photograph

Michael Falzon as Leo Szilard. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photograph

Michael Falzon was in superb voice as physicist Leo Szilard in new musical Atomic, giving a beautifully wrought performance. In fact, the entire ensemble was terrific. Written by Australian Danny Ginges and American Gregory Bonsignore (book and lyrics) and Australian Philip Foxman (music and lyrics), the structure of the musical could do with some honing but the show has great potential.

I also enjoyed Jaz Flowers and Bobby Fox in the 21st anniversary production of Hot Shoe Shuffle. And what a treat to be able to see Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel in concert at the Sydney Opera House within 10 days of each other.

THEATRE

It was an impressive year in Sydney theatre both in the mainstream and independent sectors with a large number of excellent productions and performances. Never has the discussion among the Sydney Theatre Critics in the lead-up to the Sydney Theatre Awards (to be presented on January 20 at Paddington RSL) been so protracted, agonised and, at times, heated.

Among my own personal highlights were:

Waiting for Godot, Sydney Theatre Company. Directed by Andrew Upton after an injured Tamas Ascher was unable to fly to Australia, this was a mesmerising production full of tenderness, humanity, pathos and humour to match the bleakness. Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast and Luke Mullins were all exceptional. Wow to the power of four.

Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast,  Richard Roxburgh and Luke Mullins in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast, Richard Roxburgh and Luke Mullins in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The Secret River, Sydney Theatre Company. Eloquently staged by director Neil Armfield, Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel used both English and the Dharug language to tell the story movingly from both sides.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Sydney Theatre Company. Another fabulous STC production starring Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin, directed by Simon Phillips on a brilliant set by Gabriela Tylesova that played with optical illusion.

Angels in America, Belvoir. Staging Parts One and Two, this marvellous production directed by Eamon Flack confirmed that Tony Kushner’s play is a truly sensational piece of writing that sweeps you up in its epic vision. The fine cast included Luke Mullins, Amber McMahon, Marcus Graham and Mitchell Butel – all superb. (Mullins also gave a fine performance in Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired Downstairs at Belvoir. What a year he’s had).

The Floating World, Griffin Theatre. A devastatingly powerful production of John Romeril’s classic Australian play directed by Sam Strong. Peter Kowitz’s performance left you utterly gutted. Valerie Bader was also excellent.

The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Workhorse Theatre Company. The independent scene was unusually strong in Sydney in 2013 and this was one of the real stunners. Directed by Adam Cook in the intimate space at the TAP Gallery, the tough play kept you on the edge of your seat. Troy Harrison and Zoe Trilsbach gave riveting, grittily truthful performances. If you missed it, the production has a return season at the new Eternity Playhouse in September.

Cyrano de Bergerac, Sport for Jove. Sport for Jove’s outdoor Shakespeare productions are now a highlight on the Sydney theatre calendar. Damien Ryan’s production of Edmond Rostand’s sweeping, romantic comedy Cyrano de Bergerac was gloriously uplifting with an inspiring, verbal tornado of a performance by Yalin Ozucelik as Cyrano.

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Jerusalem, New Theatre. A wonderful production of Jez Butterworth’s brilliant play directed by Helen Tonkin that has justly snared a large number of nominations at the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Penelope, Siren Theatre Company. Kate Gaul directed a tough, challenging, indie production of Enda Walsh’s play, set in the bottom of a drained swimming pool, which riffs on the ancient myth. Another clever use of the small TAP Gallery, here playing in traverse.

Sisters Grimm. It was great to see the acclaimed, “queer, DIY” Melbourne company in Sydney with two of their trashy, gender-bending, outrageously funny productions: Little Mercy presented by STC and Summertime in the Garden of Eden as part of Griffin Independent. A hoot, both of them. (How drop dead beautiful was Agent Cleave in Summertime in drag and beard?). Can’t wait to see their production of Calpurnia Descending at STC in October.

All My Sons, Eternity Playhouse. The beautiful new Eternity Playhouse, a gorgeous 200-seat venue now home to the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, opened its doors with a fine, traditional production of All My Sons directed by Iain Sinclair with great performances all round, among them Toni Scanlan and Andrew Henry.

OTHER OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCES….

Besides those mentioned above I loved Sharon Millerchip in Bombshells at the Ensemble, Lee Jones in Frankenstein also at the Ensemble, Cate Blanchett in The Maids for STC, Paul Blackwell in Vere for STC, Ewen Leslie in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and in Hamlet at Belvoir (where he took over from Toby Schmitz whose performance I also liked very much), John Bell as Falstaff in Bell Shakespeare’s Henry 4 and Damien Ryan as Iago in Sport for Jove’s Othello.

OPERA AND BALLET

The Ring Cycle, Opera Australia. I was lucky enough to see The Ring Cycle in Melbourne. It was my first Ring and I was utterly thrilled by it. Numerous visual images will stay with me forever as will performances by Terje Stensvold, Stefan Vinke, Susan Bullock, Warwick Fyfe and Jud Arthur among others. As is his forte, director Neil Armfield brought the relationships to the fore and found enormous emotion and humanity. Conductor Pietari Inkinen, who took over at short notice, harnessed the musical forces superbly. A very special experience.

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

Giasone, Pinchgut Opera. At the other end of the spectrum, small-scale, indie company Pinchgut delivered a sparkling production of Francesco Cavalli’s baroque opera with countertenor David Hansen dazzling in the title role.

Cinderella, Australian Ballet. Alexei Ratmansky’s beautiful, witty Cinderella was a joy with some meltingly lovely pas de deux for Cinderella and her Prince, divinely performed by Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello. Jerome Kaplan designed the gorgeous costumes and some clever surrealist staging effects.

VISITING PRODUCTIONS AND ARTISTS

How lucky we were to see Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy, the National Theatre’s brilliantly bonkers production of One Man, Two Guvnors, Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter, the Paris Opera Ballet’s exquisite Giselle, Semele Walk at the Sydney Festival, which gave Handel’s oratorio a wacky twist in a catwalk production with costumes by Vivienne Westwood, and firebrand soprano Simone Kermes singing with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.

There was much, much more. Barry Humphries‘ Weimar cabaret concert for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, for example. In the end, too much good stuff to mention it all.

And now, bring on 2014….