Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Beguiled

Review © Jane Freebury

Like so much, it all depends on point of view. Is it the male of the species or is it the female who is beguiled, mind and body a welter of desire? This simmering drama of sexual repression set during the American Civil War begins with a delicate balancing act when a wounded Union soldier is found in the woods and taken into a seminary for Southerner women to recover. To begin with, the interactions are a delicate balancing act.

There is much to make of the location in Virginia, knowingly chosen we can be sure. Near a wood where mosses hang from lofty trees, stands a mansion fronted by a row of massive columns. There’s plenty for the semiologists to work with here. At the same time, it’s easy to discern within, the kernel of a contemporary fairy tale warning young men to stay away from the evil witches in the forest who will consume them then cast them out. Be careful what you wish for.

Behind the high gates and overgrown garden, a small group of women and girls, two teachers and five students, have remained during the long years of war with only each other for company. Now there is a desirable, willing male in the form of Colin Farrell in their midst. The man himself, in a waking dream of possibilities that float around him in pale gowns as they minister to his needs, might think he’s never had such luck.

As they watch over him, drifting in and out of consciousness, a perfect specimen apart from his wounded leg, desire awakes in them too in the subdued lighting of candle-lit interiors, the way it was at the time.

Things get rolling when the headmistress, Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) bathes him while he is unconscious, or may be foxing. Soon he receives visits from a flustered but aroused Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and a very saucy Alicia (Elle Fanning) drops by to plant a kiss while he sleeps. Corporal John McBurney opts for a strategy of divide and conquer.

For some reason, key scenes – like the moment McBurney propositions Edwina –  develop in a rush that wrong-foots the drama and truncates delicately unfolding tensions. The direction of some crucial scenes sees the drama lose some of its power. If Coppola was working with suggestions that she be less indulgent while developing atmosphere, something she was so good at in The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, then she shouldn’t have taken a blind bit of notice here. When the director was camping up the gothic with Kidman asking for the anatomy text before she got to work, the sudden appearance of the book would have been more fun.

I’m probably not the only one to have seen a Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) in  Kidman’s Martha Farnsworth.

Clearly accustomed to ruling the roost where women are concerned, McBurney has just to turn his big brown eyes in the direction of any of the women, and he could have his way with them. The other four are too young and thankfully not part of these games. Writer-director Coppola has veered away from the moment of pre-pubescent sexuality of her film’s 1971 predecessor with Clint Eastwood. The children watch on, pliant and observing until they become players themselves, in ultimately disconcertingly effective ways.

It was common human decency that got the rooster into the hen house in the first place, quickly followed by charity that decided he could stay until recovered, but it is desire, and with it comes competition, that quickly takes over as he becomes step-by-step a prisoner. That’s not to say he isn’t happy to remaining in his conveniently safe haven and wait out the end of the war, but the pale gowns the women and girls wear signify an innocence that masks darker feelings beneath.

Over recent months we have watched My Cousin Rachel—did she or didn’t she?—followed by an indomitable Lady Macbeth and now The Beguiled. It’s interesting times we live in.

3.5 Stars

Also published at Jane's blog

Friday, July 21, 2017


Kristian Jenkins & Lexie Sekuless in "CONSTELLATIONS" 

Writer: Nick Payne

Director: Caroline Stacey - Designer:  Imogen Keen - Sound: Kyle Sheedy
Lighting:  Owen Horton - Movement Coach: Emma Strapps

The Street Theatre 15 – 29th July, 2017.

Performance on 19th July reviewed by Bill Stephens OAM

Nick Payne’s intriguing two-hander, first saw the light of day in London in 2011. Since then it has been performed on the West End and on Broadway, but this production at The Street Theatre is its first outing for Canberra audiences.

“Do you know it’s impossible to lick the tips of your elbow” is the opening line, introducing a short scene, which is repeated over and over, almost identically, but each time interpreted differently by the two actors, and each time imparting slightly different information. One is reminded of acting school exercises where actors explore the different ways they can interpret a line.

But this play is much cleverer than an exercise, and as other short scenes follow, each treated in the same way, a storyline begins to emerge and the audience is slowly seduced by a succession of possibilities, as the relationship between the two characters begins to deepen. Along the way it’s revealed that Marianne (Lexie Sekuless) is a quantum physicist, and Roland (Kristian Jenkins) is an urban beekeeper. Both pieces of information prove to be red herrings, because as the play progresses, the occupations of the characters becomes irrelevant, as they explore various ways to interpret reactions to pick-up lines, sleep-overs, infidelity and terminal disease.

The conceit of the play is that it purports to explore the idea of multiple universes, all of equal weight and infinite possibilities. For those audience members intrigued by the M-theory, how the playwright addresses that idea is doubtlessly of interest.  But anyone frightened off by that proposition, can rest assured that the brilliance of the play, the performances and the production, can equally be enjoyed by those possessing not even the slightest knowledge or interest in the M-theory.

Lexie Sekuless and Kristian Jenkins in "CONSTELLATIONS" 

Both Lexie Sekuless and Kristian Jenkins turn in exceptional performances in complex roles which are nevertheless gifts to the actors. Both have trained in the U.K. and this training serves them well as the roles demand impressive acting skills and great concentration. Sekuless has the wider range, and her cameos fascinate through her attention to detail and emotional gradations. At times one wondered whether a quantum physicist would be so skittish and flirtatious, but having never knowingly met a quantum physicist, perhaps they are.  Jenkins takes fewer risks, but has excellent presence and his various characterisations all have the ring of truth.

Deprived of furniture or props and wearing the same costumes throughout, their ability to create multiple, often moving, characters is impressive. Deftly flicking between time frames and situations, in rapid short, sharp scenes punctuated by quick blackouts and dramatic thunderclaps they are continually fascinating. Their performance of one memorable scene in Auslan, remains in the mind as a particular highlight.

Caroline Stacey has given this fairly modest two-hander an epic-scale production. Her direction is resourceful and clear, and she takes full advantage of Imogene Keen’s vast multi-level abstract setting to insure visual interest throughout. The stunning lighting design by Owen Horton, and a wonderfully atmospheric soundscape by Kyle Sheedy, both contribute enormously to the success of this fascinating 80 minutes of theatrical Viagra.  

                                          Photos by Novel Photographic

This review first published in AUSTRALIAN ARTS REVIEW.


Constellations by Nick Payne.  The Street, Canberra, July 15-29 2017.

Director – Caroline Stacey; Designer – Imogen Keen; Lighting Design – Owen Horton; Sound Design – Kyle Sheedy

Performed by Kristian Jenkins (Roland) and Lexi Sekuless (Marianne)

Photos by HCreations Novel Photographic

Reviewed by Frank McKone
July 20

Kristian Jenkins and Lexi Sekuless
in Constellations by Nick Payne

Constellations brought to my mind the injunction laid upon me in childhood by my father:  Thank your lucky stars!  This was usually after I had survived some, at least to me, major trauma.  All these decades later, Nick Payne, almost young enough to be my grandson, has produced a much more sophisticated way of saying what my father told me. 

Though Marianne is a physicist, keen on explaining to Roland, a bee-keeper, about the difference between Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (all about the big things in the universe) and Neils Bohr’s theory of Quantum Mechanics (about all the tiny things), the key to the play is the survival – or not – of the inevitable trauma we all face living as we do in a universe operating by the Principle of Uncertainty.

This makes the universal very personal.  Whatever we would like to think, we do not have ‘control’.  As Marianne says, people used to have ‘faith’ – which she would love to have now that her frontal-lobe brain tumour is slowly disintegrating her power of speech – but today she can only say ‘fuck God’.

But Uncertainty means this Roland/Marianne story may not be the only one.  It may not have begun meeting ‘by chance’ at a barbecue and be ended with barbiturate (she can only get as far as saying ‘barb....’ by that point).  Perhaps their first feelings which seemed to form them into twin stars within a constellation of family and workmates, and the decisions they each made, may never have had to face that particular disruption.  They might have lived happily ever after.

But Payne cannot let us get away with fooling ourselves, since at every point these two decide what to do, both they and others in their constellation may have made other decisions.  And so, as we watch momentary snippets of their possible lives, we find ourselves creating in our imaginations perhaps half a dozen parallel but slightly different trajectories of this couple’s life, representing the conclusions of String Theory and the idea of there actually being Multiple Universes.

For the actors, Payne sets a magnificent challenge.  At each change, often after only a minute or two, Kristian and Lexi have to know where they are in each possible life, and immediately establish what they know in the audience’s perception, until the next change.  Though the personalities of the two remain more or less consistent (otherwise we would be completely lost), their responses emotionally to each situation can be wildly different.  The snippets we see are not only taken from different ‘lives’ but (because as Marianne explains, time can be bent – or may be only a concept in our minds) the order of events is mixed.  How on earth director Carolyn and the actors ever managed to work it all out, I find hard to imagine.  Perhaps, in the spirit of uncertainty, all they had to do was decide for themselves without worrying too much about what the author may have had in mind.

Whatever, it worked very well.  For Kristian as the more phlegmatic bee-keeper Roland, the task was perhaps a little easier, since most scenes depended on the more extreme differences in mood and behaviour of the Mariannes to which his Rolands had to respond.  Lexi was quite extraordinary in her creation of all the Mariannes, based upon a central contrast between her personality as an uncertain girl and her intellectual capacity as a professional academic. 

The result is an interesting play – almost a new form of theatre.  There are elements of what was known in mid-last century as Absurdism – the snippets from different universes don’t follow ‘normal’ expectations.  But those plays (from Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, via Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and through even to today’s Shaun Micallef’s MAD AS HELL all blame society for breaking down.  Payne says it’s not our fault.

Constellations also has an ‘alienation’ effect rather like Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt.  Just before the end, as Marianne is preparing for voluntary euthanasia, we feel the sadness of her situation perhaps more than thinking about the logic of her decision; but in the final scene, we see the couple back at the original barbecue about to begin a new happy life together.  Though we know we should have some doubts after what we have seen in various iterations of this couple in parallel universes, we can’t help feeling engaged and positive about their future this time around.

As in Brecht’s plays we are left thinking, but (once again compared with Absurdism) we are not left blaming human politics.  We can’t blame the Universe for being what it is, even if it is unexpectedly full of Multiverses.  Payne allows us to feel the negatives and the positives, while we think about reality.

Quite remarkable, when you think about it!  Let’s thank our lucky stars.

Kristian Jenkins and Lexi Sekuless
in Constellations by Nick Payne

Kristian Jenkins and Lexi Sekuless
in Constellations by Nick Payne

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


Alexander Boynes - Helen Musa
Photo: Anni Doyle Wawrzynczak

 Gorman Arts Centre, 17 July 2017

by Michelle Potter

Alexander Boynes’ career has already been hugely varied. He is currently program manager at the Canberra Contemporary Art Space and his personal arts practice includes painting, photography, print media, light-based work, and video installation. In addition, with his sister Laura Boynes, a dancer, and cellist and composer Tristen Parr, he works with the Perth-based multi-disciplinary collective PRAXIS as the group explores connections between dance, visual art and sound. Not only that he is closely involved with artist Mandy Martin (Boynes’ mother) in a project with indigenous communities in Arnhem Land to preserve their cultures and ecology. So it was no surprise that the discussion at CCC’s second winter conversation ranged across many different topics.

What I found most interesting in what was a robust discussion was Boynes’ personal approach to art making, especially collaborative work. He suggested that there were two essential elements to successful, collaborative art making — playfulness and honesty with a need for absolute trust between those involved. Never be afraid of failure he said.

He also made the point that the arts should not provide answers but raise questions for the audience to consider and ponder upon. At the core of art is how it makes the audience feel, how it speaks to their emotions. Boynes’ passion for the local arts scene also came through strongly, and he acknowledged the influence on his work of Robert Foster.

As for his current projects, he is most excited about an environmental series he is working on with Mandy Martin. They are examining, amongst other issues, the collapse of industry in Geelong. And having recently returned from Geelong where I was recording an oral history interview with illustrator Robert Ingpen, I can understand why.

Perhaps my favourite remark of all though was Boynes’ statement that art needs to say something. It needs content as well as being aesthetically pleasing.

Sunday, July 16, 2017


Written by Nick Payne
Directed by Caroline Stacey
The Street Theatre to 29 July

Reviewed by Len Power 15 July 2017

With the new production of ‘Constellations’, The Street Theatre has a play that entertains while it intrigues the audience as well.

Written by Nick Payne, ‘Constellations’ was first performed in London in 2012 and had a limited run on Broadway in 2015.  Without giving too much away, the play is a study of a relationship between two people, Roland and Marianne, from beginning to end.  He’s a beekeeper and she’s a physicist, which should give you a clue to the play’s unusual and fascinating structure.  You’ll work out quickly what’s going on and then it’s enjoyable watching a play that adds another dimension to what would otherwise have been a straightforward story.

Caroline Stacey has directed a tight, well-staged production that looks deceptively simple.  She has obtained strong, confident performances from her cast of two.  Lexi Sekuless is terrific as Marianne – happy, quirky, funny and emotionally honest.  What you see is what you get with Marianne.  Kristian Jenkins plays Roland as a man who has a lot going on under the surface – reserved, more sensitive than we first realize but not a great communicator.  It’s a very well thought out and effective performance.  Both performers demonstrate fine comic timing, giving the show some very funny moments.

Lexi Sekuless and Kristian Jenkins

 The other elements of this production add considerably to its success.  The abstract production design by Imogen Keen is attractive and colourful and uses the full size of The Street’s stage very effectively.  The excellent lighting design by Owen Horton not only enhances the set but helps to keep us focussed on where we are in the story.  Sound design by Kyle Sheedy is dramatic and atmospheric.

This is an absorbing and entertaining play which dares to be different and The Street Theatre has given it an excellent production.  I really enjoyed it.

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7’s ‘Artcetera’ program (9.00am Saturdays) and on other selected Artsound programs.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

A Quiet Passion

Review © Jane Freebury

In her day, the American poet Emily Dickinson was a kind of free thinker and early feminist, but she hardly crossed her front porch into the world. Later in life she hardly left her room. She lived through her words. The writer and recluse has been kept alive by posterity, and is now thrust into public view in this film by Terence Davies. 

The filmmaker says that A Quiet Passion is his creative take on the eccentric literary figure, but the film sticks pretty closely to the known facts, and though Davies’ modesty may ward off the fulminating critics, there was little to work with anyway. Dickinson never married, she had a habit of wearing only white—an interesting juxtaposition—and remained in the family home in Massachusetts till her death. 

During her lifetime fewer than a dozen of her poems were published and her younger sister arranged for the publication of the vast bulk of her work after she died.

Some of the poetry is heard in voiceover, and suggests valuable insights, but there is too little about her writing. Davies could have at least put more of those poems to work. After all, it seems to have been where she fully expressed herself and how she reached out to the world.

Otherwise, the ambience of mid-19th century piety and seclusion in the Dickinson household is very compelling. The austere and painterly look, the work of cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, creates a cloistered private world in which little alters as the years pass. 

However, a slow 360 ° panning shot around the parlour that takes in family members and objects registers subtle change. And at another point, the passage of time is deftly realised at a session with a photographer taking family portraits. This is where the family merges into their older selves, and when Emma Bell, the young Emily, leaves the frame and Cynthia Nixon takes over.

Though her lines can’t have been helpful, Nixon is great in a challenging role. The jarring dialogue and awkward interactions are a major part of the film’s distraction. When I suppose we are meant to lighten up, we are treated to the tiresome, formulaic wit of Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), a friend who has an inexplicable knack for entertaining Emily and her devoted sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle). 

It’s not unduly long. Most films seem to unspool at around two hours these days, and some of the best ever are still going strong well after that, with dialogue in a language other than English to boot.

There are lengthy deathbed scenes, and towards the end of Emily’s life the camera rubbernecks into her freshly dug grave. A strange shot that may coincide with the poet’s gloomy outlook. A home overlooking a cemetery would have had some impact, one imagines.

Aside from its impressive and uncompromising authenticity, A Quiet Passion is difficult and sometimes gruelling.  Veteran auteur Davies, the director of the wonderful Distant Voices, Still Lives, says he is an acquired taste, but may be asking too much of filmgoers here.

3 Stars

Also published at Jane's blog