No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

Tag: Ailsa Paterson

Review: Hedda Gabler

Kate Cheel and Alison Bell, photo by Shane Reid.

Kate Cheel and Alison Bell, photo by Shane Reid.

The house lights drop. The music rises, thumping through the auditorium. Half-light on stage. Hedda Gabler (Alison Bell) stands in the doorway. Stressed. Out of place. She moves the couch. It’s in the wrong place. Sits. Rubs her eyes. Stressed. Blackout.

Considered one of the greatest female roles of the repertoire, Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler comes roaring into the 21st Century in this contemporary adaptation by Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Geordie Brookman. The dialogue is contemporary, formalities and the maid have been dispensed with, the characters wield iPhones, yet this faithful adaptation leaves the structure and major beats of Ibsen’s text intact.

While the characters keep their Norwegian names and the location is never explicitly stated, the spirit of Murray-Smith’s text is that of Australia, perhaps almost chiefly for Hedda’s relationship with guns. Murray-Smith’s Hedda is an anomaly in this society for owning guns at all, not simply for being a woman who owns them. Here, inherited and never registered, “you should have turned then in”, says Brack (Terence Crawford), a reference to Australia’s 1996 gun reforms. Indeed, because of this, it’s almost impossible to see this work having the same relevancy in contemporary America.

Perhaps one of the dangers in adapting Hedda Gabler to a contemporary context is the way that women’s place in society has changed in 120 years. Ibsen’s women, his Hedda and his Nora in particular, were revolutionary in their portraits of middle-class women unhappy with their lives, questioning society, and, ultimately, taking control of their own destinies – in radically different fashions. It would be all too easy for a contemporary Hedda to not ring true: while women are still under many pressures and societal expectations, today’s women are, on the whole, more activated both inside and outside the home. Yet, Murray-Smith’s adaptation brings with it startling relevancy, none more so in the ever-prevailing expectation and tension on women to become mothers: here, this conversation feels shocking but in no way false.

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Review: Ode To Nonsense

Slingsby's Ode To Nonsense, photo by Andy Rasheed

Nicholas Lester and cast. Photo by Andy Rasheed.

Previous to seeing and reviewing the show, I spent a significant amount of time with the company in rehearsal. You can read my documentation of that in parts one, two, and three. This experience undoubtedly coloured the way I saw the work, so take from this what you will.

Edward Lear (1812 – 1888) was one of the first writers to create work specifically for the entertainment of children. His nonsense drawings and writings have lived on, endearing themselves to many new generations of children, while his paintings and illustrations of wildlife and landscapes command ongoing respect from a whole different audience. Ode to Nonsense is an ode to the life of Lear, from Adelaide theatre company Slingby, in conjunction with the State Opera of South Australia.

A significant departure for the company, this work moves from the intimate work Slingsby are known for – both in terms of performers and audience – into a production with a cast of eighteen and an audience of 1000.

Walking into the old Her Majesty’s Theatre under a garland of green flags and fairy lights, director Andy Packer and designer Geoff Cobham have created a world that speaks from the same world of their previous works. With much of the usual suspects in the creative team, including Quincy Grant as the composer, visually and aurally the work seems to capture the spirit of Slingsby that has brought the company such acclaim. In Ode to Nonsense though, there is something that doesn’t quite gel, and we are left with a work that is curiously flat.

Lear (Nicholas Lester) has returned to his adopted home of San Remo with his perennial servant Giorgio (Adam Goldburn) to see his love Gussie (Johanna Allen) – not that he could ever admit to that. While Jane Goldney’s libretto has found moments of great heart in these scenes, and moments of joyous frivolity in the embracing of Lear’s nonsense, the gap between these moments is never truly bridged, and so audience members are never truly immersed in either world: Ode to Nonsense never reaches beyond the proscenium.

It’s a work that perhaps is captured in nearly-theres. In exploring the world of Lear and his friends, Goldney’s work alternately suffers from under-exposition, requiring a solid knowledge of Lear’s life and work, then over-exposition with too much stake in explanation placed in a single song. Taken in isolation, Goldney’s scenes under Packer’s careful touch of direction paint insightful snapshots of old friendships, of never embraced romance, of the triumph of embracing worlds and words that cannot be truly grasped or explained. Built up into a narrative, though, neither Goldney nor Packer have solved how to stop the strands unraveling.

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Review: Three Sisters

Peter O'Brien and Ksenja Logos. Photo: Matt Nettheim

This review originally appeared on ArtsHub.com

Today, a team of archeologists are exploring an old house; they dust off glassware, take photos to document the past. In turn-of-the-century Russia, one year on from the death of their father, at the birthday of Irina (Kate Cheel), she and her sisters Olga (Carmel Johnson), Marsha (Ksenja Logos) lament their small town lives. Over several years in nearly three and a half hours, we watch the lives of the three sisters, their brother Andrey (Patrick Graham), and the people who move in and out of their house, as they continually ask the questions: what does it mean to live there? What legacy will they leave?

Adam Cook’s traditional reading of Three Sisters for the State Theatre Company is fine, but it does little to show the relevance or importance of the text to a modern Adelaide audience; which is interesting considering the position Adelaide – and art in Adelaide – is often finding itself in relationship to Sydney and Melbourne.

Cook’s set, co-designed with Gavan Swift, places the Prozorovs’ dilapidated house at the bottom of an archeological excavation. While the dilapidation of peeling green paint exposing red stone walls is beautiful, and in itself an interesting frame for the unhappy lives of all who pass through, in the end, this only serves to detract from the text. Framing the work in a context that highlights the museum qualities of the piece does precisely that: it highlights the staid approach, the old Russian ideals, and the clipped language of much of the script.

While visually stunning, within the context of this classical reading the set is logically confusing – draped with red dirt of arid deserts, rather than the black soil of cold Russia – and thematically distracting. I expected something to happen or to be said in the ‘modern’ world of the dig, but the archeologists remain silent through their scenes, which are little more than taking to the stage at the top of each act, helping to change sets. These characters further are infused with a fuzzy logic: while at the start of the play they are oblivious to their Russian counterparts, by the end of act four they seem to be standing and filming their existence.

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