The Secret River (again)

This was my second visit to the Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River. The first was two years ago in a quarry outside Adelaide, with a sheer sandstone cliff as backdrop. (See my review of it here.) That majestical setting is impossible to beat, but the wide open spaces of the Olivier amphitheatre at the National Theatre in London come a relatively close second.

NT programme

I would like to (but probably shouldn’t) claim responsibility for the production’s rather brief transfer to the NT, via Edinburgh. I’ve been campaigning for it pretty ceaselessly on social media ever since that astonishing evening in 2017. It has always baffled me how little interest we Brits take in our colonisation of the country we named Australia back in 1788, but judging from the standing ovation the play received from last night’s largely British (by the sound of them) audience, the production – and its rave reviews – has set some kind of ball rolling.

Unlike Kate Grenville’s book Andrew Bovell’s adaptation begins in New South Wales at the point where William Thornhill, a Thames boatman transported for stealing, receives his Absolute Pardon and transports himself and his family to what appears to be an ‘unoccupied’ 100-acre patch of land on the bank of the Hawkesbury River. The Aboriginal people, who are only shadows in Kate Grenville’s book, play major roles in the play, speaking their native – and untranslated – Dharug.

The show packs every bit as powerful a punch on second viewing. Memorable moments stand out, then as before, such as the use of flour to indicate gun smoke, and the mingling of Dharug chanting with a London drinking song, the first eventually overpowering the second. In place of a sandstone cliff backdrop there is a curtain, on which the frightened and frantic William Thornhill draws a fence at the end of the play to protect himself, marking off the days as he does so.

What I took away from both productions was the even-handed way in which a family of well-meaning whites, displaced from their own country against their will, are shown desperately trying to survive in a strange country among people whose language and way of life they don’t understand. And how successfully the difficult Olivier space was transformed, through lighting, birdsong and musical effects, into the landscape of that hot, dry country so few people in England know anything about.

The cast, with some exceptions, is the same as before, with the notable exception of Ningali Lawford Wolf, who died suddenly and tragically during the play’s run in Edinburgh. Her place was taken by Aboriginal actress Pauline Whyman, flown in from Melbourne and reading from a script. How heartbreaking for an Aboriginal woman to die so far away from her home and family, and how devastating for the rest of the cast. It is the face of Ms Lawford Wolf, who played the narrator, who appears on the programme and on posters all around London. A fitting legacy.

Despite this, the performances are solid throughout. So from this humble audience member, a grateful thanks to all of the actors, and especially to the supremely talented Neil Armfield – who in a pre-performance talk spoke endearingly of how he always expects things to work out badly – and the likewise Andrew Bovell, who apparently tried his best not to become involved in this adaptation but was eventually ‘seduced’ by Cate Blanchett. So thanks to her too.

© Patsy Trench

August 2019

Shakespeare 400: And now for something completely different

An Australian aboriginal version of King Lear? In the commercial theatre? It doesn’t get a lot more different than The Shadow King.

Shadow King, Tom E Lewis (perthfestival.com.au)

Tom E Lewis (perthfestival.com.au)

The language isn’t Shakespeare’s but rather a clever mix of contemporary English and aboriginal; so what we get is the familiar punctuated by the weird and wonderfully ‘other’ rhythms of the indigenous.

Lear (Tom E Lewis) is a clown and his Fool (Kamahi Djordan King) is a camp narrator prone to cross-dressing. Goneril and Regan are modern lasses wearing shorts. Edmund – the performance of the evening from Jimi Bani – is a charismatic, virile life force in leather. Gloucester is a woman. Lear’s ‘retinue’ is a ragtaggle bunch of musicians placed on the side of the stage and comprising, among the guitars and percussion, a didgeridoo (natch) and a singer with the most astonishingly resonant voice you will currently hear on a London stage.

The set is a steeply-raked platform with equally steep stairs leading to the abodes of Goneril and Regan and more besides. (Not easy to perform on I would imagine.) A projected backdrop takes us right into the red outback and the precipice from which Gloucester doesn’t jump and into the bush houses of Lear’s daughters. Downstage the characters play with fine red sand, probably imported.

Shadow King Fool and Edgar (theage.com.au)

Kamahi Djordan King as the Fool and Damion Hunter as Edgar/Poor Tom (theage.com.au)

Running at just over an hour and a half without an interval this is not an in-depth version of the much-loved and often-hated original, but what we lose in character development – Lear’s ‘conversion’ at the hands of Edgar/Poor Tom does not have the resonance of the original for instance – we gain, many times over, in atmosphere and visual impact. The creators (Michael Kantor and Tom E Lewis) and dramaturg (Marion Potts) stick loosely to the somewhat simplified plot – there is no Cornwall or Kent for instance – but in the end it is the land that is the star, which for a play that begins with the dividing of a kingdom is utterly appropriate.

As far as I could tell the cast is 100% aboriginal. If you are interested in something completely different, get along to the Barbican this week.

The Shadow King is a Malthouse Theatre production and runs at the Barbican Centre until 2 July. www.barbican.org.uk 

Our Country’s Good

In 1789, barely a year after the First Fleet of convicts and marines arrived in New South Wales, the governor, Arthur Phillip – who was a remarkable and unusual man – made the remarkable and unusual suggestion that the convicts stage a play. The chosen piece was ‘The Recruiting Officer’ by George Farquhar, and the chosen playmaster was a junior officer called Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark.

National Theatre programme

National Theatre programme

Out of this unusual and remarkable story the playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker crafted a funny and moving play called Our Country’s Good, adapted from Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker and first produced at the Royal Court Theatre back in 1988. Now the National Theatre is giving the play a welcome revival, but maybe it was the vastness of the Olivier stage that dissipated much of the intimacy of the relationships at the heart of the play, or the slow pace of the action (it was a second preview), but somehow the joyful, redemptive play that I remember from all those years ago was not as moving or as funny as I was expecting.

The director has made the unusual decision to cast Afro-Caribbean actors in the roles of Governor Phillip and the witty and elegant Watkin Tench. I am all for colour-blind casting but since this is partly a story of the colonisation of a black country by a white one, in this instance it is just confusing. The aboriginal community is represented by one actor (one more than in the BBC TV series ‘Banished’), who observes, and dances, and eventually speaks his thoughts (in cultured English, another jarring note).

Governor Phillip (wikipedia)

Governor Phillip (wikipedia)

But all power to the actors, and in particular to Jason Hughes (Midsommer Murders) who manages to turn the uptight, slightly humourless Ralph Clark into a warm and interesting human being; and to Lee Ross, who takes on the role of the ‘thespian’ Sideway and makes him both hilarious and totally believable. The music is an unusual (and remarkable) mix of gospel, slave-song and guitar, with just the right mix of didgeridoo – previously recorded in Australia I believe.

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(wikipedia)

(wikipedia)

In preparation for seeing the play I have been re-reading Keneally’s book. He calls it a novel, but more surprisingly he states that ‘All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental’. However virtually all his characters, from the governor and his bad-tempered deputy Major Robbie Ross to the convicts Robert Sideway and Mary Brennan – who Clark casts in his play and with whom he later had a child – were not only real people but are represented by Keneally pretty accurately.

In his Author’s Note Keneally acknowledges ‘… that in making this fiction he found rich material in such works as ‘The Journal and Letters of Lt Ralph Clark … and David Collins’s An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales’. Out of idle curiosity I glanced through both of these to find that while Clark kept intimate diaries of some of his early years in the colony the relevant period in 1789 is missing. And all Collins has to say about it was: ‘The anniversary of his Majesty’s birth-day … was observed with every distinction in our power; … the detachment of marines fired three vollies, which were followed by twenty-one guns from each of the ships of war in the cove … and in the evening some of the convicts were permitted to perform Farquhar’s comedy of the Recruiting Officer, in a hut fitted up for the occasion. They professed no higher aim than “humbly to excite a smile,” and their efforts to please were not unattended with applause.’[1]

So all power to Thomas Keneally and to Timberlake Wertenbaker for drawing to our attention such a remarkable (and unusual) event in the earliest days of the colony. And to the National Theatre for transporting us temporarily to that remarkable and much-ignored (in this country) continent.

Finally – a note to the programme compilers: Norfolk Island is not off the coast of Tasmania.

[1] An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales, Chapter VII. http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/ozlit/pdf/colacc1.pdf

The One Day of the Year

The One Day of the Year (defribillatortheatre.com)

The One Day of the Year (finboroughtheatre.co.uk)

There’s only one thing wrong with the Finborough Theatre’s current production of Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year: the theatre it’s in is too small.

I don’t mean the production doesn’t fit the space, or that the theatre is uncomfortable, rather that this classic Australian play needs a far bigger audience. In fact I believe this very production should be on the stage of the National Theatre.

Fiona Press and Mark Little (defbrillatortheatre.com)

Fiona Press and Mark Little (defbrillatortheatre.com)

The One Day of the Year is possibly Australia’s best play, or certainly its best-known. So I was quite shocked to see it hasn’t been produced in London since 1961, at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Is this yet another sign of the UK’s indifference to all things Australian?

The themes of the story are still current: Anzac Day in Australia is a big event. This year, being the 100th anniversary, was even bigger. I was in Australia at the time and the coverage was so intense that come the Day itself, rather like young Hughie in One Day, I felt I had had enough. Of course there are no Anzac diggers any more and very few  surviving veterans of WW2, but the event itself still sparks controversy: there are still people who believe, from the critics of the Tower of London poppies to the anti-Anzacs in Oz, that any commemoration of war is a glorification.

This is the central theme of Alan Seymour’s play. Alf is a WW2 veteran whose life since the war has been disappointing. Anzac Day is the lighlight of his year and gives him the excuse to attend the dawn parade before getting blind drunk on the streets of Sydney with his mates. Son Hughie, who is at university, is appalled, not just at his father’s drunkenness but at the public ‘celebration’ of what was one of the biggest disasters of WW1.

The Finborough production is riveting: the performances – Mark Little as Alf, James William Wright as Hughie, Paul Haley as Gallipolli veteran Wacka, Adele Querol as Joe’s posh girlfriend Jan and, in particular, Fiona Press as Alf’s wife and backbone of the family, Dot, are superb. It’s hard to imagine a better production all round.

Australia’s Arthur Miller

Alan Seymour (guardian.com)

Alan Seymour (guardian.com)

Alan Seymour, who died in March of this year, is known really only for this one play, his first. He takes no sides in his own argument, which is what makes his play so powerful. It reminded me many times as I was watching it last night of Arthur Miller – in particular his Death of a Salesman (disappointed father, stoic, loving, long-suffering wife) and All My Sons (flawed father, disillusioned sons, generational conflict). Like Miller, The One Day caused controversy at its Australian opening for daring to criticise elements of his own country. Like Miller, Seymour tells his story through flesh-and-blood characters, all of them flawed in one way or another, each of them demanding our sympathy.

I met Alan when he was working at the BBC here in London. He was tremendously helpful and encouraging when I was trying to become a TV scriptwriter. After he moved back to Australia I visited him whenever I was there at his beautiful Darlinghurst flat in Sydney. He was one of the kindest and most generous people I have ever known, and one of the most self-deprecating. He once described his play as an ‘albatross’, but I think he’d have been very proud and delighted at this latest revival of it.

He would have been even prouder to see it on stage at the National Theatre, where it should be.

Ibsen updated

The Wild Duck updated to contemporary times? With Aussie accents? Believable? Yes.

I don’t know the original though I realise Sydney’s Belvoir Street production, playing for ten days here at the Barbican in London, is stripped down to its basics. It’s a melodramatic piece, being Ibsen, and it contains a death – not, thankfully, of the duck – and in its modern context it makes perfect sense.

Wild Duck

Set in a glass box, partly presumably to keep the (live) duck from wandering into the audience, and partly to accentuate the claustrophobia of families with secrets, the play is set in an unspecified country and place – there is talk of ‘the city’ being a five hour train ride away – but the names are the original Norwegian, all of which add a sense of heightened and unsettling reality. The performances, particularly from Brendan Cowell as the likeable but distraught father, are excellent, the finale is intensely moving. My only quibble is the lengthy scene changes, particularly at the beginning (in order presumably to enable the actors to negotiate the blackouts), and the head mikes. If they have to amplify the voices do they have to make it so obvious?

Brendan Cowell (smh.com.au)

Brendan Cowell (smh.com.au)

Otherwise, a stunning piece of work. More please.

PS The duck is a star. It opens the play alone on stage and waddles towards the audience to give us a beady eye, before fluttering its wings. Such self possession. It got a round of applause, and quite rightly.

Happy New

Yes, Happy New is the title. It’s an Aussie play, in fact you could say a very Aussie play: raw, big, bold, emotional, in-yer-face and really quite weird. Written by Brendan Cowell, actor, writer and director, who seems to be quite a name in Australia but is new to me, and acted to the hilt by a trio of British actors whose accents were – in the case of the two men at least – so authentic-sounding I couldn’t believe they weren’t the real thing.

Two brothers, Danny and Lyall, are cooped up in a flat somewhere (Sydney maybe, or as the blurb says, the ‘outback’) just as they were cooped up in a chicken hutch by their mother many years ago, for some reason. On being rescued from their hen pen they became briefly the focus of a media circus fronted by television presenter Pru, who set them up in their flat, became the lover of the older brother and their only contact with the outside world. Unable to go anywhere the brothers now spend their time trying out different face masks and moisturisers, planning new year’s resolutions and concocting ‘punch’ from, among other things, anti-freeze, Marmite (Marmite? in Australia?), a pair of Pru’s knickers and the younger brother’s leather jacket, and when the pressure is really on, reverting to chicken-like behaviour.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this play. I found the heightened, hyper-expressive language both striking and irritating, and the character of Pru didn’t make a huge amount of sense to me. (And her final coup de theatre was frankly daft.) That said it is bold, and brave, and worth seeing for cracking performances from William Troughton (son of David perhaps?) as Danny and in particular Joel Samuels as Lyle – a star in the making I’d say, and another graduate of LAMDA.

Above all it’s good to see an Aussie play in the West End. I’ve seen quite a few oddball plays at small venues in Sydney in recent years – mostly at the Stables and Belvoir Street – and wondered why it is none of them seem to pop up over here. More Aussie plays please!

Happy New is on at Studio 2 at the Trafalgar Studios, Whitehall. Tickets bookable at www.atgtickets.com.

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Also, coming soon at the Theatre 503:

 

  http://realcircumstance.com/osot