Bell Shakespeare’s Henry V: all class

bell shakespeare henry vBell Shakespeare played Ballarat’s Her Majesty’s last night with Henry V, and it’s one of the best adaptations I’ve seen. A play within a play, both ring true: it’s an absolute triumph for the creative team, headed by director Damien Ryan, with an ingenious set built by Malthouse Theatre.

The stage is set in a London classroom during the Blitz, 525 years to the day after the battle of Agincourt, where a teacher distracts those sheltering from an air raid with an improvised performance of Henry V. But first, there’s a quick grounding in the history leading up to the English king’s ascension with some help from the blackboard and others of Shakespeare’s tales: clever.

The set — three bookshelves, a ladder and assorted odds and sods, such as cricket bats, a mop, and crowns and dresses made of newspaper, and smart use of the play itself in book form — proves versatile and evocative, backlit with bomb flashes seen through shattered windows.

The play within a play is a superb device, as the actors portray the makeshift cast — primarily students — putting on Henry V, yet being pulled out of the play by events in their world: the mirroring, the splicing, are brilliantly handled. Ghosts and a downed German pilot, his parachute become part of the set, are just some of the echoes that enrich the drama.

Lighting is superb, and the sound is also well crafted, balancing Churchill’s ‘finest hour’ against Henry’s ‘we few’, putting the actors to work on percussion and choir, and signalling the transitions between Blitz and Shakespeare with bombs, planes and sirens.
bell shakespeare henry v
The actors do a great job of handling this meta performance, with all bar Henry (Michael Sheasby) handling multiple Shakespearean roles as well as their 1940 characters.

As Kirstyn noted afterwards, it also allowed the performance to skip scenes, with the understanding that they have been played as the crew while away their terrible night, finding comfort and distraction in the Bard.

And the ending, with only ghosts remaining … a song and that feeling of futility evoke memories of that final ‘God Bless America’ of the Deer Hunter.

In much the same way as 1984, played at the same venue earlier this year, struck a chord with the dangerous, hypocritical idiocy the Abbott government is inflicting on this country, so Henry V has provided a counterpoint to any jingoistic overtones of the 100th anniversary of World War I. None of which is to question or belittle the valour of those on the ground, but rather, the original impetus for the conflicts: the reason for the rattling sabres to be drawn, and the consequences that last long after they are cleaned and sheathed.

The play is touring until 15 November: catch it if you can.

1984: newspeak is new again

1984 tour poster for shake and stirWe saw the Shake and Stir Theatre Co.’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 at Ballarat’s Her Majesty’s theatre today, and what a superb performance it is. The Brisbane company is touring, and has there ever been a better time for it?

With Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s reprehensible use of the term illegal maritime arrivals burning in my ears — well done, minister, for ‘unpersoning’ the desperate people seeking safety in our country, and hang their right to do so — Orwell’s observations of language control, propaganda and social warfare have never struck closer to home.

A government that has declared war on its own citizens to propagate the class structure. Demonising of an external other, or traitorous domestic foe, to justify draconian measures. Reducing access to education and awareness. Attempts to enforce conformity of belief and behaviour. Bread and circuses to help keep the proletariat amused and distracted? Even some history tweaking. And of course, adapting language to carry a specific message, and ensuring media carry only that message. Ignorance is strength, indeed.

Admittedly, we’re not in Room 101 territory just yet, and S&S did not draw any analogies — for instance, their footage of Oceania’s wars was from World War II, as far as I could tell, and they stuck to Orwell’s script — but the Ministry of Truth echoes were powerful just the same. Orwell’s vision is undiminished.

S&S did a superb job of bringing a relatively complex story to the stage. Winston’s monologues are delivered on big screens — clever, in keeping with the monitoring of citizens and delivery of propaganda by Big Brother — and other characters take up some of the duty. The bank of screens formed the back drop for a sparse, evocatively lit stage, with Cold War-style concrete walls evoking the barren homes and factories, and a swinging stage delivering Winston and Julia’s love nest for sexcrime. [Do check out the Eurythmics’ ‘soundtrack that never was’ 1984: For the Love of Big Brother.]

The screens not only gave Winston his inner voice but also allowed Big Brother to broadcast to the audience, and turned the audience into Big Brother’s observers, seeing off-stage family life and dream sequences as well as tracking the characters’ on-stage movements.

The love scenes and torture scenes were well handled, provoking the barest of titters and squirms from the predominantly school-student matinee audience. And then there were the rats!

Well acted, well delivered, topical. Doubleplusgood. Most excellent.

King Kong the musical: I liked the gorilla

king kong the musicalSaw King Kong the musical playing at The Regent in Melbourne, and can’t say it did the business. Or perhaps it tried to do too much business.

The titular ginormous gorilla was awesome, worked by puppetry ninjas, with a fetching array of facial expressions. And the lighting, a triumph during the climactic air assault on Kong atop the Empire State Building. Almost drew a tear, too, except the big fella’s death scene was dragged out far past the point of caring.

There was one other scene of note, bodies falling upwards as Kong wreaked devastation on the Big Apple.

And that was one of the problematic scenes, too, bringing to mind the terror attacks of 9/11, the dubious metaphor amplified in quasi religious tones by a mysterious — in terms of, who are you and what are you doing in this story? — but well-played fortune teller.

Trying to retrofit modern allegory to the tale was as effective as combining Lady Gaga bondage dance numbers with 1930s swing. Add a suite of non-memorable songs — Ann Darrow’s lullaby the only one to really make an impression amid all the song-and-dance noise — and it all kind of left me swinging in the breeze, really.

But the gorilla was ace.


Tastier far: the lamb ribs at Ombra are amazing (the plonk’s not that cheap, but), and Father’s Office has a scrummy range of Southern-style dishes. Both highly recommended.


Wild Surmise at the Malthouse: a stellar production

wild surmise at the malthoueLove, death and astrophysics. And poetry, of course. That’s the bottom line of Wild Surmise, a two-person play now showing at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, based on the verse novel by Dorothy Porter.

It’s a wonderful show, a little over an hour long, sharp, affecting, endearing. Jane Montgomery Griffiths is Alex, sometimes narrating herself in the third person, sometimes the first, always on the ball. How effortlessly she changes accents!

And balancing her is Humphrey Bower’s Daniel, Alex’s husband, disaffected university lecturer, lover of poetry, terminally ill, watching life and his wife’s love slip away and helpless to hold on to either. At least he has his poets for some slim comfort … and that lemon tree, that garden, that morning coffee.

Alex is an astronomer with a passion for Europa and, more tragically, American counterpart Phoebe; trapped between the cold light of her lover and the dark days of her husband, she is forced to declare at one gripping point, ‘My life is fucked.’

Powered by Porter’s stunning prose, replete with astronomical and oceanic metaphors, the play runs on the passion of the two leads, who deliver such honest, proficient performances, it’s hard not to get swept up in their drama. There is humour, sorrow, such longing …

Once again, the Malthouse stage setting is to the fore, the two often separated by a glass wall successively stripped of pages of text to reveal the mirrored room beyond. There are four chairs and two coffee machines and the lighting is spot on.

Amazing, isn’t it, how such a simple set, and such a simple set-up, can be so powerful in the hands of skilled artisans.

Add in a splendid dinner served and eaten inside an hour at the Malthouse’s restaurant, and it was a very filling evening indeed.

The play opened last night and runs until December 2.

Glory Box: glorious burlesque

cast for glory box by finucane and smith

I love Meow Meow. She’s an awesome performer, fearlessly shattering the performance walls; stylish with a great voice, charismatic and opinionated, a kind of singing stand-up comedian with her ability to mix laughs and social commentary. She was guest last night at Glory Box, the latest production of Finucane and Smith, and the two-hour show was every bit as entertaining and provoking as last year’s Burlesque Hour.

Some of the pieces are repeats, all the better for another viewing: Salome’s unveiling, the balloon-bursting Queen of Hearts, the concluding Get Wet for Art that requires the front rows to shelter under brollies. There’s clever illusion — where does the naked woman hide that hanky? — and stunning trapeze and hoola hoop action; there are spraying apple pieces in keeping with the Eden/sin/Pandora theme, smooches, cross-dressing, the shattering of sexual identity preconceptions … and the thing that struck me at that other performance and again here, the simple joy of the female form, sans airbrushing, surgery and other unrealistic expectations. Writer Christos Tsiolkas contributes the script for a be-suited duet, ‘I Have a Confession’, a slap in the face of homophobia. And as before, the performers get out and about amidst the audience, packed into the basement level of the very cool fortyfivedownstairs.

Meow Meow’s ‘Down Dolly Down’ set encapsulates the political context perfectly, and her ‘Be Careful’/All the Girls with piano accompaniment is sheer class. That she pulls off such impact while, for example, rotating slowly on a lazy susan or lit by her own torch is all the more reason for applause.

Glory Box is a glorious romp indeed, with Jimi Hendrix, Portishead, Prince, Salt-N-Pepa on the playlist, and a message in the medium that is revealing in more ways than one.


Things to do in Melbourne: dinner and Macbeth

Last night, there was steak, seafood and Macbeth. It’s a winning combination, even if the play wasn’t quite as noms as the dinner.

Il Primo Posto is at Melbourne’s Southbank. It’s a welcoming space, unlike many of the corporate aquariums that line the river walk, given warmth and character by its mural wall, wooden shelves and dashing burgundy feature wall. The staff are efficient and friendly, and the food — the food is spot on in size, quality and price.

We got to the Arts Centre with the bell — not just the theatre bell calling us to our seats, but the Bell Shakespeare Company, performing my favourite work by the Bard, Macbeth.

The stage was set with turf and grass, suitably crunchy for adding to suspenseful creeping scenes, and a key feature was a reflective ceiling — it had a more dramatic effect farther back, I think, based on what I saw at intermission. Lighting was superb.

Among the highlights: Lady Macbeth, played by Kate Mulvany, and the beautifully balanced and passionate relationship with Macbeth; the sensation of spirit possession in the cleverly singular witch, Lizzie Schebesta; Macduff’s emotional speech on reception of news of his family’s death; the way in which dead Banquo exits the stage as the dinner scene is set up around him; the sex/violence dynamic between Macbeth and the witch. Great fake blood, too!

Some of the things that didn’t work quite so well for me: the truncated, even jumpy, second half, especially the absence of the scene explaining how it is that the woods can march; slow motion while actors deliver soliloquies; the confusion about whether the witch is still the witch when playing minor characters. Why keep Macduff’s family’s death scene but deny Lady Macbeth her post-dinner ramble?


One striking aspect of the play was the unexpected humour. There was an ironic, even Ocker, vein that elicited laughs in places one wouldn’t normally expect, while the one character often played for laughs — the gatekeeper — presented in part as quite dour. Lady Macbeth suffers a bout of hiccups, highly effective at beginning and end, but a tad disruptive in the midst of a heavy emotional monologue. And Macbeth himself, looking impish with a constant crouch and hunch and arms akimbo, at times more Rumpelstiltskin than tortured king, giving air to that jarring Aussie twang once in a while. The costumery was understated Australian, too, with the men’s uniforms of jeans and work shirts topped occasionally by formal blue military coats, and woollen jumpers to the fore.

This is another version that seems to put more weight on the role of the witch/es not just as oracles of fate but manipulators or even victims of it. I’m not convinced that reframing is required, given the sheer power of the tale about self-fulfilling prophecy.

It was a bold, even challenging production, and overall I enjoyed it, not just for what it did so very well — some wonderful scenes will linger for a long time indeed — but for what it dared to do. And kudos for programming Fever Ray for the departure song: a perfect beat to leave on after such a striking final moment.

Going metal at MICF: Andrew O’Neill and Steve Hughes

andrew o'neillEnglish comedian Andrew O’Neill wears green heels, jeans tight enough to show off an enviable pair of pins, black top, red lipstick and nail polish. His Melbourne International Comedy Festival show is entitled Alternative but the core theme is one of how easily he can be distracted: by the internet, by television, by shiny things. The show is filled with distractions — zany asides, mostly — and littered with pop and metal references. He has a Dr Who tattoo. He’s witty and intelligent and he has something to say and doesn’t mind coming out and saying it — about the class divide, about hipster appropriation of culture, about societal constraints on being who you want to be; in his case, he’s a lover of heavy metal, an overt transvestite, an athiest with a grudging respect for the Norse gods (just in case).

His own spruiker and roadie, he’s playing the suitably metal Pony, a small, slightly smelly club tricked out in red and black with an upstairs performance space cosy enough for the full house to appreciate his boss eye sight gag. The gig ends with a bit of a singalong in ‘Jesus was a Cockney’. Lovely dovely.


We gladly paid to see O’Neill; the tickets to Steve Hughes were complimentaries for review purposes.


steve hughes Hughes is another metal head, but where O’Neill wears heels and talks about the outdated and outlandish vision of what it means to be male, the Aussie comedian, now relocated to the UK, still thinks a man should steer clear of Starbuck’s, pull up his pants, grow a beard and not act like a faggot. Or a poofter. Yes, such people still exist, and they can fill the Melbourne Town Hall. It’s a strange world, Hughes says repeatedly, and listening to the chortles and guffaws as he harangues and postulates for 90 minutes, I can’t agree more.

What starts out as amusing anecdotes, deftly told in Aussie vernacular, descends into a diatribe of sometimes contradictory pseudo-spirituality, anti-establishment, pro-drugs anti-police conspiracy theory with all the subtlety of a bludgeon.

Clearly, Hughes’s take on the Big Issues isn’t for me. And I think, if I’ve interpreted the psychobabble rightly, Hughes will understand if I say it’s not me, it’s them.