The Blind Giant is Dancing

Belvoir St Theatre,  February 17

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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.

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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.

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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

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As You Like It

Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House, February 25

Emily Askell, Gareth Davies, John Bell, Alan Dukes, Zahra Newman. Photo: Rush

Emily Askell, Abi Tucker, Gareth Davies, John Bell, Alan Dukes, Zahra Newman. Photo: Rush

2015 marks Bell Shakespeare’s 25th anniversary so it’s a shame that their first production of the year is a disappointment.

Set in the Forest of Arden, As You Like It is a delightful comedy that pokes gleeful fun at romantic love and supposedly idyllic rustic life. It is full of humour – but hardly any of it lands in this production directed by Peter Evans.

The laughs on opening night came mainly from various bits of stage business rather than the comedy in the play itself. Few of the touching or serious moments hit home either.

Michael Hankin’s set features paper flowers on hanging ropes backed by a canvas drape, along with a costume basket and a large ladder, which looks as if it has been left behind by the technical crew (a reference presumably to “all the world’s a stage”).

The staging doesn’t quite capture the romantic nature of the forest where people are changed and relationships healed, and Evans doesn’t manage to create any real sense of a world within it, or outside it. The production instead seems to be a mish-mash with no cohesive visual or performance style, and little unifying vision.

Kelly Ryall’s songs don’t feel as though they emerge organically from the production and Kate Aubrey-Dunn’s costumes, inspired by the 1930s, 50s and 60s, often sit oddly. Orlando appears on stage looking like an insurance salesman in neatly pressed trousers, shirt and brogues, while complaining about his brother keeping him “rustically at home” and having to eat “with his hinds”. Celia sports an elegant coat with fur trim and diamante buttons when she’s supposed to be disguised as a poor country maid. Worse, Rosalind’s disguise as the boy Ganymede consists of tight pants and fitted waistcoat, which actually emphasise her feminine curves.

Rosalind is one of Shakespeare’s great female characters: strong, clever, witty and resourceful. Banished from her uncle’s court, she comes up with a plan to flee to the forest disguised as the young man Ganymede with her cousin Celia pretending to be Ganymede’s sister. She then hatches a scheme to have Orlando (who has fallen for her, and who has also had to flee to the forest) use Ganymede as a way to practice wooing Rosalind.

Zahra Newman in Ganymede disguise. Photo: Rush

Zahra Newman in Ganymede disguise. Photo: Rush

Evans’ direction, however, robs the role of nuance and playfulness. Zahra Newman gives us no discernible difference between her Rosalind and Ganymede. All the gender-bending layers and much of the fun are therefore lost in the scenes between Orlando and Ganymede, when Orlando finds himself attracted to the youth.

In Shakespeare’s day, with the all-male casts, the exploration of sexual ambiguity would have been further compounded by having a boy play a girl disguised as a boy. We get none of that here.

Aside from that, Newman handles the language well and after a slightly tentative start is a lively presence.

Charlie Garber looks awkward as Orlando, giving a performance full of the jittery, emotionally detached, comic mannerisms we have seen from him so often before and misses Orlando’s honourable, romantic, dashing and tender sides. Scenes such as Orlando comforting his exhausted, elderly manservant Adam as he goes off to find him food aren’t moving, as they usually are. And there is little chemistry between Garber and Newman.

Evans has chosen not to portray the rustics as country bumpkins. But the decision to have them speak pretty much like the courtiers, without any kind of rural accent, diminishes the divide between the two worlds, and again much of the comedy is lost despite the cast’s best efforts.

As the melancholy Jaques, John Bell delivers a fresh and poignant “Seven Ages of Man” speech while, in one of the standout performances, Kelly Paterniti’s effervescent Celia has welcome heart and depth. Tony Taylor brings a droll charm to the role of Adam and Dorje Swallow impresses as Oliver.

Evans has clearly tried to avoid the tried-and-true tropes of this popular and regularly staged play but in putting them to one side, much of what makes it so delightfully entertaining has been lost.

As You Like It runs at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until March 28 then tours to the Canberra Theatre Centre, April 7 – 18 and Arts Centre Melbourne, April 23 – May 10

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 1

 

The Government Inspector

Belvoir St Theatre, March 30

Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill, Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Gareth Davies. Photo: Pia Johnson

Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill, Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Gareth Davies, Mitchell Butel. Photo: Pia Johnson

As many would know, Belvoir’s 2014 season was to have included a radically reworked production of The Philadelphia Story “created by Simon Stone, based on the play by Philip Barry”.

However, after the subscription brochure was released, it transpired that Barry’s wife was a silent co-writer. The play was therefore not out of copyright and her estate refused to grant the rights.

To fill the gap Stone decided to use the same cast in a production of Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 political satire The Government Inspector. Well, sort of.

Gogol’s farce is set in rural Russia where corrupt bureaucrats mistake a lowly civil servant for a government inspector. They bribe him rotten until, having taken full advantage of them, he does a bunk just before the real inspector arrives.

Stone and his co-writer Emily Barclay have created a piece, devised with the actors, that riffs on Gogol’s themes while being set in a theatre.

The show begins with a morose Robert Menzies, in priest’s garb, stalking on stage to explain that not only will we not be seeing The Philadelphia Story but we won’t be seeing The Government Inspector either, so if anyone wants to leave, now’s the time.

On Ralph Myers’s revolving set – which has a performance space with a gold curtain on one side, and a backstage area on the other – Stone then whisks us back to three weeks before opening.

The actors – Menzies, Fayssal Bazzi, Mitchell Butel, Gareth Davies, Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill and Greg Stone – are discovered digesting the news that The Philadelphia Story has been cancelled. Next they learn that Stone has quit as director. Then Davies dies, choking on an activated almond.

Someone suggests staging The Government Inspector and a Google search locates Seyfat Babayev, an Uzbekistani director who recently mounted an avant-garde production. An invitation is sent and he agrees to come. To say more would spoil things.

Using their own names, the actors play heightened, wickedly comical versions of themselves. Butel is a flouncing, self-obsessed luvvie ready to decamp to Playschool if necessary, Norvill an air-headed soap star, Menzies, a grouch who will only enunciate clearly when paid, Stone, needy and ambitious, and Bazzi, a quiet, somewhat vague observer. Davies also plays a hapless actor called Frank who arrives to audition for an improvisation project, while Newman is a Hispanic cleaner with a love of musicals (and what a lovely singing voice she has).

Zahra Newman, Fayssal Bazzi, Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Eryn Jean Norvill. Photo: Pia Johnson

Zahra Newman, Fayssal Bazzi, Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Eryn Jean Norvill. Photo: Pia Johnson

They all work together as a tight ensemble. To play the panic and escalating chaos in the play requires absolute precision otherwise it descends into a total mess. They do it brilliantly with perfectly pitched performances, making sure we hear what we need to amid the hubbub.

The production becomes a rollicking, clever take on Gogol, skewering human vanity, pretension, ego and ambition, while poking delicious fun at Australian auteur directors (like Stone himself) influenced by European theatre, as well as musicals and theatre in general.

People in the business and committed theatre-goers will probably get most out of it but it’s so hilariously funny you’d have to be as curmudgeonly as Menzies is here not to enjoy it.

The Government Inspector is at Belvoir St Theatre until May 18. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

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