The secret history: STC’s The Hanging

People disappear all the time.  Ask any policeman.  Better yet, ask a journalist…  Many of the lost will be found, eventually, dead or alive. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually.
 – Diana Gabaldon, Cross Stitch

Since it first appeared in Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel, the story of Picnic at Hanging Rock has been seared into our cultural conscience. Following Malthouse’s production earlier in the year – an adaptation of Lindsay’s novel, rather than of Peter Weir’s film – Sarah Goodes brings us Angela Betzien’s The Hanging, a contemporary take on the missing child story that has haunted us since the earliest days of white settlement. You can see it in the paintings of Frederick McCubbin, the claustrophobic vision of the untamed bush all around us, the impossibly high horizons and tiniest glimmers of sky too far away; you can see it in Picnic at Hanging Rock, Top of the Lake, and The Kettering Incident; in Hilary Bell’s Wolf Lullaby and The Splinter, in Jasper Jones, When The Rain Stops Falling; in the disappearances of the Beaumont children, Azaria Chamberlain and, more recently, Madeleine McCann. And while these events are in no way connected, they each capture our imaginations, and fuel our insecurities about possession, sexuality, colonialism, and our (lack of) control over nature.
Betzien’s play follows her recent plays Mortido and The Dark Room in the crime genre, and Children of the Black Skirt in her exploration of the Australian Gothic trope, and manages to combine the two genres within the frame of a crime thriller which owes several obvious debts to Picnic at Hanging Rock, as well as The Virgin Suicides, Heavenly Creatures, The Secret History, and The Catcher in the Rye. These nods do not detract from the story, nor the revelations and their ramifications, but act as a series of refracting mirrors, to bounce ideas and references off each other to create a new work that ripples with secrets, latent sexuality and its potency, as well as capitalising on the eeriness and terror of the Australian bush that has haunted our national psyche for centuries.


A dream Dream: Theatre for A New Audience’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is perhaps Shakespeare’s most perennially evergreen play, in that its magic, beauty, strangeness and wonder never fades, but grows richer and deeper and more strange with every consecutive production. While it was the first Shakespeare play I studied at school, it is still the one play of Shakespeare’s that I love wholeheartedly and completely, and this production not only proves why, but is perhaps the most mercurial, effervescent, and beguiling Dream I have seen.
This production, first staged at New York’s Theatre for A New Audience in 2014, is directed by Julie Taymor, perhaps most well known for The Lion King musical as much as for the circumstances surrounding her Spider-Man musical, Turn Off The Dark. Known for her wild inventiveness, kaleidoscopic approach to style and design, and her reluctance to conform to expectations, this Dream lives up to its name and positively flies. Towards the end of the production’s season, Taymor and her collaborators were given money through Ealing Studios to film the production and create a cinematic Dream which brought its stage incarnation to even more beguiling life. Enlisting the help of Rodrigo Prieto (who previously shot Taymor’s film Frida), Taymor filmed four performances from four angles each, then spent the intervening days filming pick-up shots – close-ups, cutaways, shots you wouldn’t necessarily be able to achieve with an audience during a performance. Working with some eighty hours of footage, Taymor and editor Barbara Tulliver spent several months creating this cinematic Dream, drawing us further into the world of fairies, dark magic, shadows, and desire.


Copping Flack: Belvoir’s Twelfth Night

Shakespeare’s festive comedies – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night – are bound within a series of strict societal rules, rules which govern behaviours, moods, actions and reactions, as well as language and plot. They also perform a very specific function, namely allowing the society’s capacity for anarchy or misrule to find a full expression in an environment where mischief-making can be corrected, apologised for, and in some cases, released. Punning on the notion of ‘will’ – the idea of desire and love (and/or lust), as much as autonomy, as well as being a euphemism for penis – Shakespeare somehow manages to create a play which, like Rosalind at the end of As You Like It, asks us to cherish what pleases us and forgive the rest.
Eamon Flack’s As You Like It, seen at Belvoir in 2011, took Shakespeare’s play and infused it with a wit, warmth, and fullness of life and expression that barely seemed to be contained within the two walls of the Belvoir stage, and later spilled over into the street outside. In creating that production, Flack and his collaborators “gave [themselves] the same task Shakespeare gave himself and his company” – that is, to (re)create the kind of experience that Shakespeare might have written to be performed on Shrove Tuesday at Richmond Palace in 1599, in the presence of Queen Elizabeth I. In that instance, As You Like It became “a show about a bunch of city people visiting a pastoral realm of bucolic contemplation, performed for a bunch of city people visiting a pastoral realm of bucolic contemplation,” that is to say the theatre. I mention all this in prologue to ground Flack’s latest production of Shakespeare’s last great festive comedy – Twelfth Night, or What you will – also perhaps Shakespeare’s darkest, within a kind of self-critical feedback mirror.
In his director’s notes for Twelfth Night, Flack writes about the holy days and feast days when controlled anarchy (such as pageants and rough-theatre) was permitted. He also says that for Twelfth Night, he and his collaborators set themselves the task of “performing the play almost entirely as written[,] partly as a boast and partly as a warning, because some of the play is now archaic nonsense… [We] have taken the play on its own terms and plunged headlong into its strange poetry because the archaic oddity of the play is what makes it glorious.” Except that it’s not. Not really. Not much at all.


Fallen from the sky: Ensemble’s A History of Falling Things

This piece was originally written for artsHub.

A romantic-comedy about two keraunothnetophobes, James Graham’s A History of Falling Things is a gentle, humorous and ultimately moving play about overcoming your fears and venturing outside of your comfort zone (literally, in this case).
Robin and Jacqui are both keraunothnetophobes – that is, they both suffer the fear of things falling from the sky. When they both meet online in a chatroom for others like themselves, they find each other reaching out across the space between them, through their screens, and ultimately facing their fears.


Sport for Jove's Away

Michael Gow’s Away is something of a mainstay on the high school syllabus, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a student who hasn’t studied it (or at the very least, heard of it), sometime in the past fifteen years or so. Set in the late 1960s, it is a coming-of-age story on both a personal level as well as a cultural and societal level; the Vietnam War is in full-force, conscription is very much a reality, Indigenous Australians were constitutionally recognised, and the women’s rights movement was swiftly gaining momentum. Produced by Sport for Jove in the play’s thirtieth-anniversary year, Gow’s Away here feels old, starts to show its age and, despite some nuanced moments, ultimately fails to live up to its status as a classic.
Essentially a series of vignettes – although there is a narrative progression which runs throughout – Gow’s play follows three families over their Christmas holidays, and details in soft-focus their fears, loves, losses, dreams, and the hurdles they must overcome. Performed in the Seymour Centre’s vast York Theatre, something of Gow’s intimacy is lost even if the humanity at the heart of the story remains.


Nowra or never: Don’t Look Away’s Inner Voices

First produced in 1977 at the Nimrod (now Belvoir) Downstairs theatre, Louis Nowra’s Inner Voices was written in the middle of the ‘New Wave’ period of Australian playwriting. Loosely defined as the late-1960s to the early-1980s, the ‘New Wave’ had similar flourishes in all other sectors of the performing arts and society, including film, literature, and music, and sought to bring a distinctly Australian sensibility to their work, as well as an experimentalism borrowed from European theatre, in a bid to distinguish themselves from the inherent Britishness that had been previously maintained. By the late 1970s, “the visionary enthusiasm and common sense of purpose that had characterised the New Wave were wearing off,” as John McCallum writes in Belonging. Out of the growing sense of disillusionment with the lack of unifying cohesiveness amongst their output, came Stephen Sewell and Louis Nowra, whose work was more political, less noticeably Australian, and “more cinematic in dramaturgy.” It is from this context, that Inner Voices springs, and Nowra’s interests and influences are as eclectic as his exploitation of genre and style. 
While we may now be open to the definition of what constitutes an Australian play, in the early 1980s it was still a point of contention that a play set overseas was not inherently Australian. Looking at Nowra’s Inner Voices today – forty years after it first appeared, in something of a mainstage revival – we can see that it is very much an Australian play, irrespective of the fact it is set in eighteenth century Russia. “The first of Nowra’s plays to attract wide attention,” Inner Voices is the story of a young prince, Ivan, who has been locked away in a prison for years, knowing only his name. Following the death of his mother Catherine the Great, Ivan is installed as a puppet-tsar by opportunistic advisers who want power for themselves. But as Ivan’s taste for power and savagery grows, so too do the troubles enveloping his kingdom, until Ivan achieves a savage retribution and comes into his own world.


The karate kid: Belvoir & Stuck Pigs Squealing’s Back at the Dojo

The world according to Lally Katz is one populated with fortune tellers, Hungarian neighbours, golems, forgotten vaudeville troupes, the Apocalypse Bear, and the Hope Dolphin. It’s a world of magic, where things are not quite what they seem, where everything is a story in one way or another, and characters often find themselves returning to Earth sooner or later. After the success of Neighbourhood Watch and Stories I Want To Tell You In Person, and having read a number of her previous plays, the promise of a new play by Lally Katz was tantalising, and came with more than a few expectations. But even though the story is drawn from her own family mythology and features a character based on her father as a young man, it doesn’t quite feel like the play it should be, the play it wants to be, and as a result feels a little bit hollow, though not without heart.
Back at the Dojo – a co-production with Belvoir and Melbourne company Stuck Pigs Squealing, Katz’s former co-conspirators – is inspired by the story of her parents’ meeting. Drifting through 1960s America, Danny stumbles across a karate dojo in New Jersey and, like the other members of the dojo, finds his way again with the help of the strict but not unbending sensei, and a young woman called Lois. Set against this, in something of a stark contrast, is the other end of the story, that of Dan and Lois (now older and in contemporary suburban Australia), and their granddaughter who has decided to become Patti Smith. It’s a seemingly gloriously Katzian collage, drawn from real life, chance meetings, and the talents of her collaborators, but something is missing in both the script in a very basic narrative way, and in the production.


Shakespeare Make U LOL: The Listies & STC’s The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Skidmark

This is a revised version of a piece written for artsHub.

When I was twelve, my parents took me to see The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), and even though I didn’t get all the jokes and references, I fell in love with the craziness, the silliness, and the sheer fun that the show revelled in and celebrated. To this day, I still maintain that your first serious exposure to Shakespeare (sometimes as a child) is how you see him and his work throughout life. Over the past number of years, there have been various productions which have come close to embracing the same sort of silliness and irreverence which the Reduced Shakespeare Company ushered in, and it is always a delight to revel in each production’s new take on the Bard.
While the rest of the world tries to out-do each other in the Most Reverent Homage To Shakespeare’s Legacy award to celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th death-day, The Listies – along with their friends at Sydney Theatre Company – have mounted a production entitled Hamlet: Prince of Skidmark no less, which somehow manages to embrace Shakespeare’s play (and all its variants) and the kind of mindset often found in children aged five to ten, and pulls it off with enough fart jokes and theatrical magic (as well as a healthy dose of chaos) to make you feel like a kid again.


STC's All My Sons

Written when he was thirty, as a last attempt at playwriting after a string of plays failed to garner attention from producers or directors, All My Sons is the first of Arthur Millers’ four big plays (the others being Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View from the Bridge, which were all written consecutively). In it, we can see the seeds of what he would continue to explore in increasing depth and nuance throughout his career. And although you could perhaps pass All My Sons off as an ‘Ibsenesque’ play, it is in fact just as devastatingly meaty and dread-full as all his others, and grapples with issues of morality and ethics, consequences, responsibility, denial, guilt, and profiteering. And it seems just as relevant now as it did almost seventy years ago.
Directed by Kip Williams for Sydney Theatre Company, and staged within the cavernous Roslyn Packer Theatre, All My Sons is the story of the Keller family as they wait for their son Larry, currently Missing In Action after WWII, to come home. But as relationships form, old unhealed wounds and barely-suppressed secrets are torn open, and the lie under the floorboards of the Kellers’ stability and wealth is laid bare for all to see.


The price we pay: STCSA’s Things I Know To Be True

Alone on a Berlin train station, dumped by a boy she thought she loved, nineteen-year-old Rosie Price makes a list. A list of all the things she knows to be true. It surprises her how short the list is. And she knows that she has to go home, sooner rather than later. And this is where our story starts. With a phone call in the middle of the night – every parent’s nightmare – and also every child’s: who’s calling, who needs my help? With a body seemingly suspended in the inky black space of the theatre. With a bleary sleep-croaked ‘Hello?’
Over the course of the play, we meet the Price family (the name is significant, I think) – father Bob, mother Fran, and the (now adult) children Pip, Mark, Ben, and Rosie – who live on a property in Hallett Cove. As we get to know the family and their relationships with each other, so too their backyard grows – from the fence, to the paddocks and trees, the flower beds, rose bushes, and the ubiquitous shed – and something ordinary is created in front of our eyes in sometimes beautiful and extraordinary ways. Directed by Geordie Brookman and Scott Graham, Things I Know To Be True is the latest play from acclaimed playwright Andrew Bovell, and marks the first international co-production by State Theatre Company of South Australia, in this case with UK-based movement company Frantic Assembly. It’s a story about a family, about loving and letting go; about growing and discovering yourself, finding out who you are; about grieving and saying goodbye; about the very particular and universal rhythms of family, and how one family grows over the course of a year.