No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

Tag: Terence Crawford

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: Speaking In Tongues

Andrew Bovell is probably Adelaide’s most well-known and respected playwright.  His most recent play, When The Rain Stops Falling opened at the 2008 Adelaide Festival of Arts, before touring Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, finishing in Alice Springs.  Other productions played in cities including New York and London, and perhaps most astoundingly, it will be getting a new Australian production with Black Swan State Theatre Company in 2011 – a second main-stage production of a new Australian work in just four years.

Speaking in Tongues is receiving somewhat of a revival this year in Australia with the 15th anniversary of its original production at Griffin Theatre Company in Sydney, and now playing at the State Theatre Company of South Australia.  With these productions helmed by the younger generation of directors with Sam Strong and Geordie Brookman, respectively, I think this truly marks the transition of the play into an Australian classic, taken into the arms of a new generation.

Bovell is known for his tricky use of language, his stylized and theatrical overlapping and intertwining of dialogue, repletion over scenes which sit lineally in a play, and scenes which overlap within it.  He deliberately withholds from his audience, secrets coming forth with the unwinding of the play and the densely packed dialogue.   But for this theatricality and coincidence, Bovell still manages to create characters that seem to naturally express themselves in their Australian idiom.

The play is best known for its adaptation in to the fantastic Lantana, directed by Ray Lawrence, which takes the disparate and overlapping themes and stories of the play and shifts them into a linear narrative.  When comparing the film to the stage, it’s a beautiful representation of how powerful the characters and stories are when left to do their thing in a more traditional setting.  When comparing the stage to the film, it is a beautiful demonstration of how Bovell’s manipulation of language can enhance the stories of suburban Australia.

Lantana Movie Poster

But from these stories of suburbia, perhaps bizarrely, for Speaking In Tongues you need to almost disengage slightly from the dialogue.  From the back row of the stalls of the Dunstan Playhouse where I watched Brookman’s production, while watching scenes where the characters speak over and with each other, when straining too hard to figure out exactly which half of which couple was speaking which line, the overall feelings and intent of the characters is lost.  It was through stepping back slightly from the lines themselves, you can appreciate the characters through the actors’ presentation, rather than the true lines.

Perhaps it was this slight stepping back, perhaps it is my age and so my lack of stories of heartache and relationships, but I came away from the production having enjoyed seeing and listening to a great play (Australian or otherwise), but never feeling like I truly connected with the characters.  A sense of remove between the play and myself never left.

With a cast of four playing some nine characters, here some actors are more successful than others at differentiating between roles.  Leeanna Walsman is the standout in Jane and Sarah, creating the both most contrasting characters between acts, but also the most compelling.  From the slightly fuddy “plain Jane”, trying desperately to please everyone, as words and thoughts start to slightly trip on their way out of her mouth to the strong Sarah, confused about her choices in life, but not afraid to stand up and speak out for herself, Walsman simultaneously exudes the vulnerability of her characters, and the strength of herself as a performer.

Lizzy Falkland and Leeanna Walsman. Photo by Shane Reid

"Do you think your wife would ever do something like this?" (Lizzy Falkland and Leeanna Walsman. Photo by Shane Reid.)

The other three actors have the disadvantage of less contrast between their characters in each of the parts in the script, but, by the same token, don’t bring out as strong a difference as perhaps could be found.

Chris Pitman’s Leon and Nick speak with the same speed, pattern, and vocal inflections, with Nick transferring the vocals further up the nasal cavity, creating an all-together rather whiney man.   Pitman also occasionally has the tendency to ham things up: when Leon finds out he is talking to the man whose wife he slept with, the pain in his chest has him almost staggering to the corner of the stage.

Lizzy Falkland and Terence Crawford both give solid performances, but fail to be compelling.  Falkland’s Sonja and Valerie are both cold and removed from the other people in their lives, looking down at everyone with a clinical detachment, and an air of judgment in the same manner.  Similarly, there is nothing discernable between Crawford’s Peter, Neil, and John; his performances in all roles are fine (although at times an avoidance of eye contact becomes irritable), but simply fail to stand up to the neatly drawn differences Walsman has found.

The cast work well together as a unit, and there is never confusion as to who is playing what character: costumes are changed, names are used liberally in Bovell’s script.  It simply feels there was more to explore in the multiple roles than most of the cast have currently found.

The strength of this production lies in its second act.  Just on a text level, it is more satisfying, as the stories start to have resolutions and the strands pulled together.  But in Brookman’s production, it is also the second act where the design elements – set by Victoria Lamb, lighting by Geoff Cobham, and sound by DJ TR!P – are exposed to their best advantage.  Brookman’s productions always have an interesting eye to them, and this is in no small part to the design teams he surrounds himself with.  Cobham and Lamb are two of the strongest designers working in Adelaide, and working together here they have crafted setting of extraordinary beauty.

Lamb’s set seems to sit somewhere between old slate tiling, edges smashed away and chipped, seemingly exposing the granite layering as it moves towards the audience, and morphing into an old wooden jetty, smoothing away with age and sea salt as the flooring literally stretches up the stage, curving away as it starts to fade in to the back of the proscenium.   There is one moment, almost separate from the rest of the show, where during a set change the set is backlit in purple exposing the silhouette and the true craft of the design.

Terence Crawford and Chris Pitman. Photo by Shane Reid.

"She's not going to phone." (Terence Crawford and Chris Pitman. Photo by Shane Reid.)

As is to be expected of just about everyone involved – Bovell, Brookman, and Cobham – lighting is suitably moody.  Cobham lights with great dexterity as he lights the set and characters right down to hand-held bike lights, illuminating just faces in the otherwise dark.   While stunning to look at, Lamb’s set is stagnant and simple in its transformation between scenes, and the production largely relies on Cobham’s dynamic lighting to illuminate shifts in location.  An occasional shaft of light, pointing away from the stage, above the actors, and into the audience, can be distracting, but overall Cobham’s lighting brings a new layer of mystery to Bovell’s work.

After a noticeably quiet first act, where DJ TR!P’s composition is mainly incidental and playing between scenes rather than over them, in the second act the power of sound design is exploited.  When given this space to play with the actors and the script, rather than around them, DJ TR!P’s sound dramatically enhances the strength of Brookman’s production.  And here, where electronic music melds with instrumentals, where a deep thud can resonate throughout the audience, and where the breathing of characters eclipses the theatre – here, DJ TR!P can demonstrate the true power of silence.

As a stage play, Speaking In Tongues draws its strength from intersections of lives.  As a production, here it truly shines when the theatrically of Bovell’s script allows for the theatricality in the exploitation and integration of set, sound, and lights.

In Bovell’s script, the layers of incidental stories of one act are peeled away into the stories of act two, as lives intersect in ways that are seemingly of no great meaning.  But these stories have meaning, because they are the stories of another person – in this we explore outward layering stories of our world, one person’s anecdote is another person’s life.

Lizzy Falkland and Leeanna Walsman. Photo by Shane Reid.

"I have to go now." (Lizzy Falkland and Leeanna Walsman. Photo by Shane Reid.)

But, for all this, here I never lost the sense of remove from the characters or production.  Speaking In Tongues is undoubtedly an important and interesting piece of writing; Brookman’s production has many strengths and I enjoyed the production, and especially the performance of Walsman.  I wonder if between the theatricality of the script and the theatricality of the production, connections with characters were lost.  I found myself distanced; perhaps somewhere between the dense script, the doubling of characters and the beautiful design there was room to pull myself back just a bit too much and so the total strength of any element wasn’t fully explored.

The State Theatre Company of South Australia presents Speaking In Tongues by Andrew Bovell.  Directed by Geordie Brookman, design by Victoria Lamb, lighting design by Geoff Cobham, composition and sound design by DJ TR!P, chororaphy by Andienne and Andrew Gill, Southern Cross Tango.  With Terence Crawford, Lizzy Falkland, Chris Pitman, and Leeanna Walsman.  At the Dunstan Playhouse until July 24.  More information and tickets.

Review: Blackbird

Misaligned expectations?  Perhaps.  After True West blew me away last year, so I was telling everyone with ears they must go and see it at the Fringe, and then running back to see it myself, Blackbird was always on my list of shows I was most excited to see this year.  It was disappointing.  I believe this team is better than this production shows, and therein lies the rub: this production doesn’t show it.

Looking at other reviews now, I don’t even understand what Peter Burdon from The Advertiser is saying in his review: miscast, yet must-see?  A very bizarre read.

In other news, I saw Ruby Bruise again, brought more people to share her with, and loved it even more.   Can’t get it out of my head.  If you want to treat yourself, go and see it.

Both of these play until Saturday.

This review originally appeared on www.australianstage.com.au

David Harrower’s Blackbird is a script intended to be inflammatory, confusing, filled with heightened and varying emotions on behalf of the characters and audience members. Fifteen years after forty-year-old Ray abandons twelve-year-old Una in a boarding house, she returns into his life to find out: was it a malicious act of pedophilia, or was it more, was there a real connection?

Playing around within this, within the questions of can a grown man truly have feelings for a girl, regardless of questions about legality and morality, the play is intended to make the audience question themselves, to question their reaction to being told this was a true relationship.

It is a curious thing, being able to hear these beats in the script as written, but not being able to see them as performed in this production directed by David Mealor. As Terrence Crawfordplays Ray as the nervous, shuffling, pedophilic character with constantly halting language from the outset, the production does not have an opportunity to travel anywhere.

In UnaKsenja Logos takes more opportunities to show variance in character: in moments a tough exterior briefly gives way to show a traumatized young woman, but a true connection between Una and Ray is never felt. In Crawford’sinterpretation, Ray has nowhere to grow and change over the course of the production, and so emotion of the piece is essentially flat. This is not helped by Mealor’s direction that has monologues, moments of extreme emotion in the text, delivered to the audience.

The simple lunchroom designed by Mary Moore, bound in realism from the ugly institutional colours and cheap furniture down to the gratifying stick and squelch made of shoes in contact with spilled sugary drinks on the floor, is bordered by an external space of strewn garbage bags and rubbish.

For the first half of the play, it appears the fourth wall exists between the boundary of the stage proper and this border, until Logos steps out of the main space for her monologue. After this wall is broken, it is never mended, as the characters move freely between the lunchroom and the garbage, creating a confused stage.

Sound design by Andrew Howard and composition by Quentin Grant is overwrought, as the entry and exit of synthesized notes are jolting, detracting from the story and highlighting a theatricality which in this play perhaps shouldn’t be seen. Choices in sound are also confusing: twice the characters reference the clock striking midnight, as a clock strikes three times.

Ultimately, it is not that Blackbird is a particularly bad production; it’s just that it is particularly monotonous. To buy into the conceit that Harrower tries to set up the play needs to show the audience the raw connection of characters. Unfortunately, this ineffectual production misses the mark.

Flying Penguin Productions present Blackbird by David Harrower.  Directed by David Mealor,  set and costume design by Mary Moore, lighting design by Mark Pennington, sound design by Andrew Howard, composition by Quentin Grant.  With Terence Crawford, Ksenja Logos and Scarlett Groom-Ransom

Almost a review: romeo&juliet

It may be thought we held him carelessly,
Being our kinsman, if we revel much.
Therefore we’ll have some half a dozen friends,
And there an end. But what say you to Thursday?

– Act III, Scene IV

I think when you’re in high school, the texts and films you are exposed to in English and Drama tend to be either the best thing or the worst thing in the world. You’re a teenager: there isn’t a middle ground. It can be very dependent on the teacher,  but sometimes great teachers can assign terrible texts, while terrible teachers can expose you to playwrights, and knowledge about those playwrights, which still shape the way you look at theatre when you’re 21. Sometimes, they’re terrible simply because you have to read or watch them fifty million times, and you get asked inane questions on what the author was trying to deeply symbolise. My answers that maybe they just liked it, or “because it was funny” didn’t always go down a treat.

What good is Shakespearian tragedy without violence? Great movement choreography by Larissa McGowan. Michaela Cantwell as Romeo, Thomas Conroy as Mercutio and Mark Saturno as Tybalt. Photo by Shane Reid

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