Thursday, November 23, 2017

Saturday night at Improvention 2017

Over an extended weekend (Nov 17-21) The Street Theatre hosted Impro ACT’s Improvention 2017, five days of workshops and performances.

There are plenty of improvised theatre traditions in the world and ‘impro’ is more than an acting exercise.

A brief visit on Saturday night was driven by a curiosity about the work of visiting director Charlotte Gittins.

Gittins is part of a company in the UK that does Jane Austen improvisations and here’s a sample.

Saturday night was only a small part of a five day programme of workshops and performances. The first half channelled Homer, myths and legends and the rhetoric of dozens of fantasy novels and films accompanied by percussionist Gary France who gave such energy and atmosphere to the far more serious reading of the Iliad a few months ago. It is hard to sustain the epic. I sometimes think we have lost the knack. But there were strong moments and heroes and villains and a great use of a mysteriously lit upstage platform behind a scrim.

The second half had Gittins on a mike acting as a narrator for an Austenish tale of balls, unrequited love and servants who know their place (but have a much more interesting life below stairs than suspected.) She shaped the performers’ work with good humoured and challenging suggestions for what the next scene should be.

Part of the interest was in watching the performers attempt to follow a style and sustain it and keep it convincing. And that applied to the epic as well as the Austen.

Part drama workshop, part theatre sports and part of a much bigger tradition than the one that depends on writing the words down.

And even when the words are written down we still don’t know exactly how Shakespeare did ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’.

Monday, November 20, 2017


Eryn Jean Norvill as Masha. Alison Bell as Olga. Miranda Daughtry as Irina
in the Sydney Theatre Company production of Three Sisters. Photo: Brett Boardman


Three Sisters by Anton Chekov.

Translated and adapted by Andrew Upton. Directed by Kip Williams. Assistant director. Jada Alberts.  Designer Alice Babidge. Lighting designer. Nick Schlieper. Composer and sound designer.  The Sweats. Sound designer. Nate Edmondson. Voice and text coach. Charmian Gradwell. Sydney Theatre Company. The Drama Theatre. Sydney Opera House . November 10 – December 16 2017. Bookings: or (02) 92501777.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

To see Kip Williams’s wonderfully staged production of Chekov’s Three Sisters in Andrew Upton’s fiery and theatrically explosive adaptation and translation is to imagine the special relationship between playwright, Anton Chekov and the Moscow Arts Theatre’s Konstantin Stanislavski.  From the opening birthday preparation with coloured balloons, inflated by Olga at the gas cylinder, to the revelry of the New Year’s Eve celebrations and Masha’s obsessive dance and the image of the teacher, circling the troubled Irina on a bicycle around an open stage, Williams skilfully choreographs a changing stagescape of dreams and desires, of fateful fortunes, shattered hopes and entrapped longings. This Sydney Theatre Production of Chekov’s tragi-comedy must loom large as one of the funniest, saddest, most disturbing and most profound productions that I have seen. Every moment is carefully and sensitively portrayed as a lesson in Life.
Miranda Daughtry, Anthony Brandon Wong and Alison Bell
STC's Three Sisters. Photo; Brett Boardman
Chekov’s characters assume iconic status. We have seen many of them in other plays by the country doctor with a keen eye for the human condition. Williams has cast his production with appreciation of the circumstances that place each character in the same situation and yet makes each uniquely different in character. Masha (Eryn Jean Norvill), Irina (Miranda Daughtry) and Olga (Alison Bell) live with their brother Andrei (Brandon McClelland), a councillor, and his domineering wife, Natasha (Nikki Shiels) in the parental home. Their world is predictable, determined by tradition and expectation. It is a world that suffocates, stifles, and conforms. Each character is torn apart by desire, thwarted by circumstance and tormented by Life’s unerring confinement. Olga struggles to preserve the memory of her father, now deceased a year, and uphold his legacy. Masha, trapped in a her marriage to the teacher Kulygin (Chris Ryan), longs for the unrestrained, passionate love of her colonel, Vershinin (Mark Leonard Winter ), a married man with two daughters. Irina longs to escape the barren existence of her life and work as a post office clerk and escape to her home, to Moscow. She rejects the admission of love by Tusenbach (Harry Greenwood), only to be bereft of hope and resigned to live out her days without love.

Chris Ryan, Mark Leonard Winter and Eryn Jean Norvell
in STC's Three Sisters. Photo Brett Boardman
Stanislavski’s search for truth and Chekov’s affectionate portrayal of the flawed inhabitants of his town and time lie at the very core of this production. Williams and Upton have not constructed an authentic portrait of Tsarist Russia. And yet, we can imagine ourselves to be witnessing Chekov’s characters in their time as easily as we can suppose the characters to be living out the attitudes and emotion of our age. Director and writer have identified the burning motivation of Chekov’s characters. A stellar cast is flung with all the desires, fears and frustrations of readily recognizable characters, headlong into the twenty first century against the backdrop of Chekov’s story of people trapped within the troubled years of pre-revolutionary Russia. Anachronism does not defy truth. It illuminates the universal humanity of all peoples and all ages and speaks with force and truth to the audiences of our time. If you search for the realism of Chekov’s age, you may be disappointed. Do not be concerned by Olga and Masha, dressed in jeans or the expletives erupting from Masha’s mouth in torrents of frustration.  If you look for the true nature of humanity, a universal truth will be revealed in a production that is honest, powerful and revealing.
Harry Greenwood and Mark Leonard Winter
in STC's Three Sisters. Photo: Brett Boardman
I am struck by the Sydney Theatre Company production, not because I am exposed to Chekov’s world, although that is implicit within the action and words of the characters, but because I see all humanity revealed through the lives and longings of the three sisters, the jealousies and rages of the frustrated, the failings of the vulnerable and the weak, the injustices of class, the violence within the heart and minds of the human condition and the transient passage of all people’s fleeting mortality. Such is the mirror held up to Nature in Williams’s production of Three Sisters.  We laugh. We cry. We dream. We die. It is this lesson in Life that makes this production of Three Sisters compelling and must see theatre.


Presented by Legs Dance Studio
The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, 18th November 2017.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Around this time of the year local dance studios present their annual showcases displaying the work their students have prepared throughout the year. Canberra is fortunate to have a number of very good dance schools, and among the best of these is Legs Dance Studio which never fails to impress with its annual showcase.

This year, Legs presented their showcase in the Playhouse theatre, because “Mamma Mia” is ensconced in the Canberra Theatre but although the theatre may have been smaller, the production was no less extravagant than previous years,  with literally hundreds of young dancers, from toddlers to seniors, participating  enthusiastically in a succession of lavishly costumed production numbers as bluebirds, mice, butterflies, bees, gnomes , pumpkins, gingerbread men, and of course, any number of princesses.

Legs dancers perform "What The World Needs Now" 
The opening number for
"Cinderella and other Fractured Fairytales"

The theme this year was “Cinderella and other Fractured Fairy tales”.  “Cinderella” took up most of the first half, which commenced with a stunning opening sequence with the dancers costumed in glittering show-girl costumes.  With a funny, tongue-in-cheek, voice-over narration to keep the audience on top of the story details, Legs 2016 Dancer of the Year, Jessica Potter, was practically perfect as Cinderella. Matilda Ellicott, Emma Gaynor and Heidi Birkby had the audience in stitches being as nasty as possible as the wicked stepmother and her two daughters, and John Truscott was a very handsome Prince Rupert. Ethan Darrow however, almost stole the show with his expressive face and dancing as the Kings enthusiastic adviser.

Snippets of “Alice in Wonderland”, “Rapunzel”, “Little Red Riding Hood” and  “Beauty and the Beast”, and even “The Adams Family” and  “Mamma Mia” were included in the second part of the show, along with well-drilled, award-winning routines which displayed  the mastery of the students in ballet, tap, acrobatics, jazz, hip hop, and cheerleading. The dad’s got in on the act with their Super Heroes routine, and The Dream Team was featured in a number called “Belly of the Whale”. 

The fast-moving presentation, with its excellent costuming, inventive choreography and fastidious production values, was a miracle of stage management. The 50 separate items involving hundreds of dancers, and myriads of costumes and props, followed each other in quick succession, seemingly without a hitch. The result was a memorable, entertaining presentation which highlighted superbly the quality of the school and its teaching staff. 

Legs Dancers perform "What The World Need Now"
"Cinderella and other Fractured Fairytales"

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Platform Paper No 53

The Jobbing Actor: Rules of engagement by Lex Marinos.  Platform Paper No 53, Currency House, November 2017.

Commentary by Frank McKone

“I comforted myself with the knowledge that I certainly wasn’t the first actor to be pelted with rotten tomatoes, just the most recent.  I was just a link in the chain that stretched back to the dawn of civilisation....Indeed, acting is arguably the world’s second oldest profession.”

With a light touch, Lex Marinos achieves his aim “to write about the vast majority of actors” – not “the ones that audiences pay to see” – “the ones that struggle to stay employed.  The ones for whom acting is, variously, a hobby, a job, a career, a vocation.”

Among many Platform Papers presenting arguments, Marinos tells a story in which he seems to be, like Tom in The Glass Menagerie, standing a little in the wings, almost in a shadow off-stage, explaining to us what happened to him and how his experiences took him down many unexpected paths, not always to success, sometimes dangerously slippery.  Luckily for him, but not so for many others, his careering has continued for many decades. 

“It’s what I do, and have done for half a century.  I’ve been blessed.  It’s enabled me to help raise a family, live in relative comfort, see exotic places, meet amazing people, work with wonderful artists, find friends and lovers.  It’s the life I’d hoped for, and it’s been my way of trying to understand the world.”

To read the paper is to stand alongside, doing and seeing all these things.  What made for me the greatest impact was that despite his fame and popularity from his beginning in TV comedy to his striking role as Manolis in The Slap, he stayed true to his choice of his image of himself, saying “T.S. Eliot nailed it in The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock:

No!  I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous –
Almost, at times, the Fool.

There is humour in his humility, sincerity in his common sense, fascination in his history, and practicality in his advice.  I can do no more than highly recommend to you this jobbing actor who wants “my feet to be on the ground while my head is in the clouds” and his favourite quote from Katherine Hepburn who, he claims, once said:

Acting is the most minor of gifts and not a very high-class way to earn a living.  After all, Shirley Temple could do it at the age of four.

Go at once to 

Lex Marinos

Songlines at National Museum of Australia

Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters. Senior Custodians of Martu country and Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) and Ngaanyatjarra lands of Australia’s Central and Western Deserts, at National Museum of Australia. National Museum of Australia until February 25, 2018

ABC Radio National presenter Paul Barclay and special guests discuss why songlines are epic stories belonging to the tradition of grand human narratives.  Recorded at NMA Thursday November 16, 2017 for broadcast in January 2018.

Panel members:
Margo Neale, Indigenous Senior Curator, Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters
Scott Rankin, theatre director, writer and creative director of social change company Big hART
Alison Page, Indigenous scholar and designer
Curtis Taylor, filmmaker, screen artist and young Martu leader

Commentary by Frank McKone
November 16

In conventional Anglo terms, Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters is an ‘exhibition’.  Yes it is, but in a very special way: a traditional Australian Aboriginal way.  Rather than looking at, we are participating in our culture, which is our experience of living in this land.  All of this land, with all of our people.

Since migrating from England in the 1950s, I have lived in Eastern Australia, where I became a bushwalker, learning to navigate off-track across country using map and compass.  I have travelled through and walked in much of the country west from Alice Springs and Uluru to the coast of Western Australia, with minimum awareness of the traditional understanding of the land. 

When I visited the Pilbara town of Roebourne many years ago, between the huge off-shore gas shipping port of Karratha, and Port Hedland, the massive iron ore export facility farther north, I did not know this is where the Songline which tracks the Seven Sisters begins.  I saw then a town owned by people who barred up every door and window, fearful apparently of theft and, I supposed, violence – presumably by those other people, the Aboriginal people who I hardly noticed from my four-wheel-drive.

But there were those seeking change through museum education even then in that place.  The police had moved into a new modern building, while the old police station retained the cells and the history.  Most horrifying to me were the photographs from earlier in the 20th Century of long lines of Aboriginal men, chained at the ankles and chained together at the neck. 

Unsurprisingly, Roebourne and many other communities across the country are still struggling with the cultural destruction those photos represent, but as Pastor Marshall Smith said "There's good people around, there's lots of good people. Even those that are in chaos, they are good people....They are caught in something they cannot get out of, and they need other people to help them to see that."

Reporter Nicolas Perpitch observed in August this year “...there is a push to teach young people about their culture through dance programs, painting centres, and cultural tourism, to promote a sense of belonging and identity that has been lost to many.” [ ]

Going through the exhibition is more like exploring an art installation, even better like being an audience member in participatory theatre.  Individual elders in full-size videos personally welcome you into each part of the journey from Roebourne to Docker River – but only when I heard Margo Neale and Alison Page explain the process (which will be broadcast on Radio National in January) did I fully understand that aunties and elders, with young leaders like Curtis Taylor, from the West Coast to the Red Centre took up that challenge of teaching their young people by initiating the presentation of the Australia wide story of the Seven Sisters at the National Museum of Australia to take their teaching to all young people -–and even to old people like me who still need the lesson.

Former Director of the National Museum of Australia, Dawn Casey,
with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
Photo: Mike Bowers
 The National Museum, from its inception by its original Indigenous Director, Dawn Casey, was planned to be a proactive collection of Australian cultural artefacts, with an invitation to communities and individuals to offer stories and materials for exhibits.

For me it was a great experience, for example, to interview Seaman Dan from the Torres Strait Islands at the Paipa Exhibition (available on my blog at ) for The Canberra Times, July 19, 2002.  And it was a salutory lesson to hear direct from the pearlshell diver’s mouth of “off Darnley, more than 30 fathoms down, where an unknown number of young men have been caught in the reef, in their bulbous divers’ suits, while their supply boats, pushed by tides and winds, shifted beyond the reach of safety lines and air hoses”.

Then Casey, the NMA Director, employed an Islander, Leilani Bin-Juda, to curate the exhibit – in itself a highly original management move (and controversial as political power in the shape of PM John Howard placed ‘black-armband’ historians on the NMA Board and Dawn Casey’s contract was not renewed after a powerfully successful first four years).  Her legacy, like her culture, has survived despite everything ranged against it, and we see the Songlines exhibition not only initiated but entirely planned, and the process of preparing materials from artworks to movies carried out and managed in a cooperative venture by Senior Custodians of Martu country and Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) and Ngaanyatjarra lands of Australia’s Central and Western Deserts.

Minyima Punu Kungkarangkalpa 2013, figures (from left) by Yaritji Young, Mary Katatjuku, Carlene Thompson, Tjunkaya Tapaya (obscured), Niningka Lewis, Ilawanti Ungkutjuru Ken and (unshown) Nyurpaya Kaika Burton, Tjanpi Desert Weavers.
Photo: Jessica Maurer.  Image courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney.
© the artists.  Licensed by Viscopy, 2017

The role of the Museum has been to assist the elders in the creation of their project.  I see this way as a model for self-determination, not only for this magnificent work in social education, but for governance across Australia in all our communities.  Government should be about assisting people to create culture from the land up, rather than predetermining what top-down central power decides should happen.  In a democracy, and even more so in a multicultural society, the principle demonstrated by the Martu and Anangu people in the creation of Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters is essential to the growth and health of the whole Australian society.

The sun rises, resembling the Aboriginal flag, over the landscape
near Roebourne in the Western Australia Pilbara
Photo: Nicolas Perpitch


Written by Jonathan Biggins
Directed by Cate Clelland
Canberra REP at Theatre 3 to 2 December

Reviewed by Len Power 17 November 2017

‘He’s a xenophobic fascist but, apart from that, he’s OK’, explains one of the characters in ‘Australia Day’.  Jonathan Biggins’ ability to home in on the cringe-worthy aspects of Aussie characters and society is strongly displayed in his very funny first play, ‘Australia Day’.

First performed in 2012, Biggins based his play on his experiences as an Australia Day Ambassador in country Australia, and particularly on his encounters with organising committees.

Set in the fictitious country town of Coriole on the northern coast of New South Wales, we observe the local organising committee making plans in the Scout Hall for their next Australia Day.  Then, on Australia Day, the committee members have to deal with the things they didn’t plan for - a thunderstorm, food poisoning and broken toilets – as well as a host of other problems.

Cate Clelland has gathered a set of actors who have the right look for the colourful characters they portray and they handle the comic aspects of the script very well, too.

Pat Gallagher plays the mayor of Coriole who is working towards a seat in federal politics.  He gives a convincing performance as this political animal who just manages to stay one step ahead of disaster.  As Robert, the less politically astute committee member who just wants to do the right thing, Thomas McCoy plays his frustrated character very well.

Sarah Hull does a fine job as Helen, the local Greens member who is annoyingly idealistic until she shows her true colours and Neil McLeod gives a very amusing performance as the elderly, intolerant Wally, who is struggling with political correctness.

Jonathan Lee is very funny as Chester, an Australian-born Vietnamese school teacher who is more ocker than anyone else and Micki Beckett is infuriating but adorable as the Country Women’s Association member who can’t see why anything has to change.

Cate Clelland’s nicely designed production moves at a good pace, capturing the funny aspects of the play very well.  A couple of serious moments in the play seemed a bit contrived and less effective, but it’s the comedy we’re looking for here and the show certainly delivers on that.

For anyone who’s ever served on committees, ‘Australia Day’ will remind you why you never want to do that again.  Go along and see yourself in these all too real characters.

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7’s new ‘On Stage’ program on Mondays from 3.30pm and on ‘Artcetera’ from 9.00am on Saturdays.

L'Amour et la Mort

L’Amour et la Mort – Plays by Judith Peterson, Helen Way and Rachel Hogan with original songs by the BetaBlockers.  Allycat Productions at Le Tres Bon, Bungendore, November 3 and 10, and Smiths Alternative, Canberra, November 17, 2017.

Direction by Rachel Hogan; Tech support – Bevan Noble

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 17

Act of Will by Helen Way
    Improvisation by Helen Way as Will Shakespeare, with Rachel Hogan as Post and audience members (two on this occasion: one as an anti-clockwise pole – or rather, post – dancer, and the other as a stand-in Post duelling in metaphors with Will Shakespeare, making the physical Post irrelevant).

A Modern Day Tragedy by Judith Peterson
    A woman, Juliette, is married to a man, Romeo, who stays out late drinking with his mates and expects her to have his dinner ready for him when he comes home drunk.  She meets a woman friend in a bar who offers a potion which, in small amounts, can make her seem temporarily dead.  This will test whether Romeo really does love her.  Juliette takes what seems to be too much. 

When Romeo finds her dead, he calls her a silly cow, and plans to lead his own life how he likes.  Except that he has never fixed the loose carpet, trips over and stabs himself with his pen-knife.  He almost dies several times, once on top of the dead Juliette, and finally flat out on the floor. 

Juliette wakes up after all, finds him dead, decides she’s had enough of him and leaves to lead her own life.  Romeo then wakes up after all, and leaves to lead his own life.
The Angle of Sympathy by Rachel Hogan
    In which short funeral director Gaylord (Peter Fock) trains new recruit, tall Mr Long (Michael Ubrihien) in the 20 degree angle of sympathy required in posture when commiserating with family members of the dead; and Mr Long mathematically solves the problem of hoisting the cardboard training coffin on their differentially high shoulders, at the 20 degree angle of sympathy, to avoid the metaphorically dead teddy from being jolted out of the coffin during a fast funeral procession.

Bad Egg by Judith Peterson
    Two female magpies (Barbi Jones and Helen Way) discuss the fine details of maintaining good relations with the humans, sensitively swooping within decent limits; while the male bad egg of the family (Daniel Tonon) is totally out to scare the wits out of everyone in the neighbourhood.  After he nearly kills himself attacking a garbage truck, but still glorying in his achievement, one female now sees him as her hero, to the confusion of her sensible friend.

Into the Sun by Judith Peterson
    A man (Peter Fock) whose wife died a year ago, has always followed the expectations of others.  He is afraid to positively respond, despite his real feelings, when his woman neighbour (Judith Peterson) and previously friend of his wife, tries to initiate a conversation about how they feel about each other.  After a lengthy embarrassing attempt, she insists she will be independent and take a boat trip on her own.  He at last shows initiative by offering to go by train.  She immediately accepts without hesitation for a happy ending.

Teddy as L'Amour and Skeleton as la Mort
keep an eye on L'Amour et la Mort
at Smiths Alternative

My straight descriptions of the plays, interspersed with rather quietly sung philosophical songs in the folk tradition by the BetaBlockers, give you little idea of how entertaining, funny and unpretentious these quirky vignettes turned out to be.  The relaxed, friendly and essentially intimate atmosphere of Smiths Alternative, the one-time left-wing bookshop now bar and jazz venue, was the perfect place for these gently satirical digs at the little exigencies of life. 

It might not be grand theatre, but there’s certainly a place for this kind of small-scale highly independent theatre that Allycats provides – it’s one lobe of the heart of the city which, it used to be said, was without a soul. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

INFAMOUS - A Cabaret Circus Spectacular

Spiegel Big Top - Majura Park, Canberra, until 17th December 2017.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Since they were introduced into this country by former Canberran, David Bates, spiegeltents have become associated with a particular style of risqué European-style intimate cabaret featuring sensational physical theatre performers.

Taking this concept to a whole new level, “Infamous” is presented in a spectacular, purpose-built tent, in which great care has been taken to provide an exotic ambiance.  The under-cover foyer is equipped with bar facilities, tables and chairs, to allow patrons to gather with their friends to soak up the atmosphere before moving into the performance arena.

Inside, neon outlined arches replace the familiar spiegeltent mirrors. In front of the rows of raked seating, small tables, decorated with warmly glowing candles, surround the ringside, creating a seductive and welcoming atmosphere. Wait-staff bustle around servicing the tables and tempting patrons with colourful concoctions served in fluorescent cocktail glasses. There’s even trays of sweet treats on offer to accompany the popcorn.

Some of the cast of "Infamous" 

“Infamous” is the brainchild of Joseph Ashton, one of the famous Ashton Circus family which has been presenting circuses around Australia for the last 160 years.  In 1998 Joe left the family business, with which he had toured most of his life, to set up his own circus with his wife, Michelle, and two sons, Jordan and Merrick, all of them world-class circus performers.

Joe Ashton has a particular affection for large apparatus circus acts like the flying trapeze and ominously named Wheel of Death. He’s a master of both. Inspired by the success of the spiegeltents in showcasing the skills of virtuoso physical performers with acts requiring only a small space, Joe decided to develop his own large format cabaret cirque, and “Infamous – a cabaret cirque sensation” is the result.

The name says it all. The show opens in a blaze of excitement with the sensational, Wheel of Death, proving as thrilling as its name suggests. It’s a huge apparatus with large circular treadmills on each end. As the wheel spins, Joe’s sons, Jordan and Merrick, nonchalantly juggle clubs, skip with ropes and perform handstands within the treadmills. It’s amazing stuff, but before the audience can catch its collective breath, Joe Ashton himself, jumps onto the outside of one of the treadmills and balances precariously while Jordan and Merrick keep the wheel spinning.  With no safety nets, it looks frighteningly dangerous.

Ashton senior then blindfolds himself, and while the wheel continues to spin, he jumps and skips high above the ground. For a final tour de force, a young woman climbs on to his shoulders and again the Wheel of Death spins them high over the heads of the cheering audience.

From that exciting opening act the pace never falters.  Each act was impeccably presented, beautifully costumed, and of the highest standard. Each was more jaw-dropping than the last.  A pretty singer and her glamorous dance team performed snappy routines as the apparatus for each of the acts was quickly set up or whisked away.

Clever clown, Jessie Grant, delights with his clever routines whether bouncing around in a red balloon, or, dressed elegantly in white tails, careering around the tent chasing an errant spotlight.  A sexy black cat prowls among the audience throughout the show.

Among many memorable, fast-moving acts, juggler, Max Balls, fascinates as he gracefully manipulates glass balls. He returns later with his contortionist partner, Kimtortion, to astonish with heir amazing rag doll act.  Two aerialists make their entrance wearing huge feather wings, only to discard them to perform a graceful duo act in spectacularly brief costumes.

Bekki Ashton and Michelle Jarman in "Infamous" 

However, it is the Ashton brothers, Jordan and Merrik, who perform the most daring and spectacular feats. Both are ridiculously handsome, with impossibly trim, taut and terrific physiques, the legacy of a lifetime of training in circus skills. Both are excellent all round acrobats, and, besides the Wheel of Death, work together in a graceful two-man balancing routine which shows off their incredible strength and grace. Merrik thrills with his slack- wire act nonchalantly juggling rings while climbing a precariously balanced ladder.

Apart from his impressive acrobatic skills, Jordan demonstrates why he’s considered the best flyer in Australia, when he joins the other members of his family, who carry on their world famous tradition as The Flying Ashtons, to perform a series of heart-stopping flying trapeze manoeuvres high above the heads of the audience, to bring the show to an end.

Jordan and Merrik Ashton in "Infamous". 

With “Infamous” Joseph Ashton has brought the art of circus into the 21st century. Although a little more risqué than the Ashtons circuses of old, the “Adults Only” label is mostly to do with strict liquor laws. For those who appreciate circus of the highest quality, don’t miss “Infamous” …and bring Granma .. She’ll love it.

This review also appears in Australian Arts Review. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Three Sisters

Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov, newly adapted by Andrew Upton.  Sydney Theatre Company at Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre, November 6 – December 16, 2017.

Director – Kip Williams; Designer – Alice Babidge; Lighting Designer – Nick Schlieper; Composer – The Sweats; Sound Designer – Nate Edmondson; Assistant Director – Jada Alberts; Voice and Text Coach – Charmian Gradwell.

The Prozorov family, living in a regional army-base city:

Alison Bell plays Olga (elder sister, high school teacher, 28, umarried in Act 1)

Eryn Jean Norvill plays Maria (called Masha, middle sister, 23 in Act 1, married at 18 to high school teacher Fyodor Kulygin).  Chris Ryan  plays Kulygin

Miranda Daughtry plays Irina (younger sister, unmarried in Act 1, aged 20)

Brandon McClelland and Nikki Shiels play Andrei their brother, about 25 in Act 1, now owner of their large house since both parents have died, and his fiancée Natalie Ivanovna, afterwards his wife, known as Natasha

Peter Carroll and Melita Jurisic play Phillip (called Ferapont by Chekhov: an old District Council employee) and Anfisa (the long-time Prozorov family nurse)

The Army Officers are battery commander Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vershinin (Mark Leonard Winter); Lieutenant Baron NicholasTusenbach, called Nick (Harry Greenwood); Subaltern Vasily Solyony (Rahel Romahn); Second Lieutenant Fedotik (Charles Wu); Second Lieutenant Rodé (Callan Colley)

Army Doctor Ivan Chebutikin is played by Anthony Brandon Wong

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 13

The magnificent performances, especially by the sisters – Alison Bell, Eryn Jean Norvill and Miranda Daughtry – as well as the company all round, were excellent to see, despite an adaptation based on an idea which really does not work very well for this particular Chekhov play, despite recent STC successes with Uncle Vanya and The Present

The program includes a phone conversation with Andrew Upton “from the UK to discuss the art of adaptation, his love of Chekhov and how Bob Dylan comes into the picture.”  I deliberately do not read such material before watching the show, but by interval I found myself wondering about what time and place I was supposed be in – because all sort of things just didn’t fit together.

Was this Russia?  All the names were the expected old Russian surnames with the familial nicknames like Masha for Maria, and the usual problem of working out exactly who is related, and how, when patronyms and surnames fly about, like Natalie (Natasha) Ivanovna, Aleks Vershinin (whose lover calls him Vershinin), Baron Tusenbach who’s called Nick and Ivan Romanovich Chebutikin, who’s mostly called just Doctor but occasionally Ivan.  The complexities of these intimate and more formal nomenclatures have long been a feature of Russian plays and novels, making translation difficult.  If an adaptation is to work easily in English, the play will need to become a parallel in storyline and character but free of this complexity. 

But this Three Sisters still sounded Russian despite it seeming to be set somewhere else in the late 1960s or early 1970s.  Maybe there is a ‘battery’ commander in Wagga Wagga, but in the context of Andy’s household, he’d just be called Alex and his surname probably never mentioned.  Nick might have the nickname, the Baron, but only if he put on airs, rather than actually being one.  The women might well be Olga, Mash, Rene and Tash.  They might all prefer to still be living in Sydney (or even Melbourne), but Chekhov’s sisters surely came from Moscow. 

Though the times were a-changin’ when Bob Dylan was a folk singer,  there was nothing like the ennui, that kind of late-19th Century Russian sense of going nowhere for the lower-level upper class.  It was the time of action when we all called ourselves middle-class; and it only took the squattocracy like Malcolm Fraser a short few years to put Whitlam in his place at the foot of the Governor-General’s throne, while keeping some of the best bits of progressive policy, particularly on education (at least for little while). 

Even if by the crash of 1987 we might have become cynical like Chebutikin, saying “It makes no difference!  It makes no difference!”, the details of Chekhov’s play are so specific to his culture and time that we would be much better off watching his Three Sisters set in Russia in 1900, and making our own comparisons for ourselves.  Our local Canberra company, Free Rain, did this very successfully in August 2008 (reviewed briefly in The Canberra Times and available at ).

Then the lackadaisical attitude of Chebutikin towards the impending duel in which the Baron is killed, makes sense.  It could have really happened in Chekhov’s day, and symbolised his despair for the future.  It couldn’t have happened in Wagga Wagga in, say, 1972.  But the comparison we could see for ourselves in 1988 brought Chekhov’s point home.  And even then, our Government shoved us through the Great Financial Crisis with concrete action (like building school halls). 

We feel that despair again now, with an ineffective government getting nowhere, but this production of this adaptation fails to engage us in our world circumstances as it did for the Russians in theirs, when “the piece proved popular and soon it became established in the company's repertoire” at the Moscow Art Theatre in the period leading up to World War I.  Bob Dylan is just not in today’s picture.

Maybe I’m too cynical about where our theatre is going, but I saw Three Sisters after a weekend of three other Sydney productions – Bell Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Belvoir’s Atlantis by Lally Katz, and Mary Rachel Brown’s Silent Night at the Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst Theatre Company).  (Reviewed here and at November 10, 11 and 12 respectively.)  STC’s Three Sisters was disappointing in comparison.

But the standard of acting and stage design at Sydney Theatre Company is impressive to say the least.  And there’s always the chance you’ll find yourself disagreeing with me about the play adaptation.  If you know the play from previous straight translations (all of which make some adjustments for more modern English-language audiences), it helps.  (I’m quite happy with David Magarshack, Unwin 1969)



Adelaide Festival 2018. 

Joint Artistic Directors Neil Armfield AO and Rachel Healey. The Adelaide Festival Centre. March 2 – 18 2018. 

For programme information and bookings go to or email or phone BASS on 131246

Previewed by Peter Wilkins

The Lost and Found Orchestra

“There’s no doubt – Adelaide in March is the place to be” It certainly is, and especially with joint Artistic Directors of the Adelaide Festival, Neil Armfield AO and Rachel Healey at the helm for their second year. This comes as no great surprise given the resounding success of their first festival last year. Audiences are still raving about Barrie Kosky’s amazing production of Handel’s Saul, direct from Glyndebourne to the Festival Theatre stage and Armfield’s own highly acclaimed production of Andrew Bovell’s adaptation of Kate Grenville’s Secret River under the night sky at Anstey’s Quarry. This year, Armfield’s Glyndebourne production of Hamlet will be the hottest ticket in town and the short season is already virtually sold out.
Brett Dean's Hamlet from Glyndebourne Festival Opera
 Hamlet is only one of the stunning array of  events on offer  at the 2018 Adelaide Festival. Visitors to Adelaide will have a mind-blowing choice of forty eight theatre, music, opera, dance, film and visual arts events. This is in addition to the popular free Writer’s Week and the magnificent world music event WOMADelaide

From the 2nd. to the 18th. March 2018, Adelaide audiences will have the opportunity to revel in four world premieres, 14 Australian premieres and 13 events exclusive to Adelaide, arguably the site of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious arts festival.

“In 2018 we have programmed works of mighty scale and whispering intimacy”, Healey and Armfiield say, “all of them fired by an ambition to enthrall, challenge, awe and inspire." This is no ambit claim. The dynamic duo bring years of experience, talent and vision to the task, having worked together to establish Belvoir as one of the most innovative, adventurous and creative theatre companies in the country. The success alone of last year’s sell-out festival augurs well for another triumphant  arts festival under their stewardship.

Premier Jay Weatherill proudly claims the Adelaide Festival to be the nation’s leading arts festival. It is certainly the oldest, having been launched in 1960 in honour of its founding father, the late Professor John Bishop. “Tens of thousands of people will converge on Adelaide”, the Premier says, “to soak up the art, culture, conversations and ideas that the Adelaide Festival presents, alongside WOMADelaide and Adelaide Writer’s Week.”
 The Festival State has long been renowned for its family events and the opening of this year’s festival is no exception. The Lost and Found Orchestra will kick off this year’s festival with a resounding bang. Over two nights, festival-goers will be able to flock to Elder Park on the bank of the River Torrens to enjoy free entertainment and a musical extravaganza conceived by Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas of STOMP fame, and an international sensation after its 1992 Adelaide Festival appearance. Instruments adapted from traffic cones, water coolers, saws and kitchen sinks will accompany troupes of comedians, aerialists and young and old musicians.

Heading other festival highlights will be Brett Dean’s version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, direct from Glyndebourne Festival Opera. Like this year’s phenomenal production of Handel’s Saul, Hamlet will be accompanied by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and the State Opera of South Australia chorus. Seats to the Adelaide Festival Theatre production are already selling like hotcakes.

Those who remember the remarkable production of The Roman Tragedies from Amsterdam’s Toneelgroep, will rush to buy tickets for this year’s thrilling and powerful production of Kings of War, drawing on Shakespeare’s Henry V, Henry Vl Parts 1 and 2 and 3 and Richard lll.
Noone will want to miss Ex Machina’s The Far Side of the Moon, a virtuoso one man performance by Yves Jacques under the direction of brilliant theatre maker, Robert Lepage.
Grace Jones
Musical highlights include the return to Adelaide after 36 years of Grace Jones in a not to be missed one night concert. Hailed as successor to the legendary Billie Holiday, jazz vocalist, Cecile McLorin Salvant has Grammy Awards to her credit, and is sure to wow Adelaide audiences in her single performance. Another one nighter is the amazing Kate Miller-Heidke who will join the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra for the Adelaide premiere of her biggest hits. Lovers of opera will not want to miss Swedish mezzo soprano, Anne Sophie von Otter. In contrast to these solo performers Rundfunkchor Berlin will make their first and only choral appearance in Adelaide. Imagine Brahm’s soulful songs being sung as the choir moves among the audience, singing of Death while providing comfort to the living.
Xenos with Akram Kahn

Dance has long been a feature of Adelaide’s artistic oeuvre. Audiences who witnessed the magic of Akram Khan’s dance work at the recent OzAsia Festival in Adelaide will be eager to see his solo farewell performance. Xenos is inspired by the Prometheus myth and will mark the end of Kahn’s 30 year career as arguably the world’s greatest male dancer. This is a rare treat for Adelaide audiences, and one that is not to be missed.

The theatre highlights of next year’s festival alone are reason enough to book a flight to Australia’s picturesque city of gardens and churches in the mad month of March. Armfield’s former company Belvoir will bring artistic director Simon Stone’s thrilling adaptation of Seneca’s tragedy Thyestes to Adelaide. Audiences familiar with Stone’s work will expect a provocative and mind bending interpretation of the bloodthirsty classic. They will not be disappointed. Stone brings Seneca’s first century classic hurtling into the 21st century. “It’s perhaps the most disturbing, funny, beautiful and unforgettable 90 minutes of Australian theatre an audience is ever likely to experience.” the media release claims.  One would expect nothing less from director, Simon Stone.
Simon Stone's Thyestes

Since its beginnings, the Adelaide Festival has pioneered extraordinary performances by leading international companies. In 2018, Belgian Youth Theatre Company, BRONKS, will present Us/Them  in memory of the horrific 2004 siege by Chechan terrorists of the public school in Beslan. Directed by Carly Wijs, the play tells the story from the perspective of a girl and a boy who were inside at the time. Originally staged at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe, the play will be exclusively performed at the Adelaide Festival after a sell-out season at London’s National Theatre.
ShiberHur Theatre presents AZZA
 Adelaide’s ground breaking Brink Productions whom audiences may remember as the producer of Chris Drummond’s startling production of Andrew Bovell’s When The Rain Stops Falling, has certainly earned its stripes to feature in a major arts festival. Alice Oswald’s poetic masterpiece, Memorial personalizes the deaths of 215 soldiers immortalized in Homer’s Iliad. This gigantic collaboration with Oswald will feature the legendary Helen Morse, a live score by Golden Globe nominated composer Jocelyn Pook and a massive cast of  local volunteers. This timely production will celebrate the Centenary of the 1918 Armistice.

Music theatre production AZZA will be the first Australian visit by the celebrated ShiberHur Theatre Company under the direction of Palestinian director Amir Nizar Zuabi. Azza is the Arabic word for the three days of mourning that follow a death, The production invites audiences to follow one family whose communal grief, shared history and ancient rituals “open a window into the soul of a community”

TAHA will be performed as a companion piece to AZZA under the direction of Amer Hlehel. TAHA tells the story of the great Palestinian poet, Taha Muhammad Ali a monologue infused by the hypnotic and sensuous language of Taha’s verse, a tale of hope, terror displacement, grief and joy will unfold.

Arthur Sauer’s compelling soundtrack will recall the fierce sacrifice and suffering of the Great War as performed by Dutch live animation company Hotel Modern. THE GREAT WAR is adapted from lost letters of a French soldier to his mother, the miniature worlds created on the stage and projected onto large screens.

The State Theatre Company of South Australia presents In The Club, Patricia Cornelius’s about the darkest elements of football culture. Cornelius has drawn on real life testimony of female AFL fans to create visceral theatre, a combination of documentary and Greek Tragedy. Artistic director, Geordie Brookman directs a cast of actors for whom the work has been specifically written.
I have barely scraped the surface of the 2018 Adelaide Festival. Visual Art exhibitions, free family events, free Writers’ Week sessions on the Torrens Parade Ground lawns and the glorious sounds emanating from WOMADelaide between the Botanic Gardens and the Adelaide Zoo offer yet another amazing cultural banquet to suit every taste.

In their Welcome to the Adelaide Festival programme booklet, Armfield and Healey say, “We search for work that is unforgettable, beautiful, rich in meaning and with a theatrical daring and scale that claims its place on a festival stage. Our world might feel caught between seemingly irreconcilable contradictions – forces that threaten to tear it apart – but the desire for meaning and reconciliation, for justice and for love, beauty and joy is stronger than ever. This is the light that great art creates.”

Illuminating, daring and uplifting, the 2018 Adelaide Festival will have something for everyone, but more than that it will shine a light upon our world and our place in it and give us hope for a better and brighter future. Adelaide in March is certainly the place to be and the 2018 Adelaide Festival the event to visit. It promises to be a not to be missed experience whose short time is sure to last a lifetime.