Plays in first half of 2008

So far in 2008 I have seen 8 plays:

Blackbird (David Harrower): Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf Theatre
The subject matter of this play is fairly confronting – a man receives an unexpected visit from a woman he had a sexual relationship with many years ago, when he was 40 and she was 12 – and apparently the first production, in Edinburgh, was very popular. But for some reason – I don’t know whether it was the cast, the direction or the play itself – I just wasn’t engaged by it. I think part of the point (aside from dealing with such a taboo subject) was to look at the layers of lies and deception gradually being stripped off, but in the end I didn’t really care what the final truths were.

As You Like It (William Shakespeare): Bell Shakespeare Company at the Playhouse (Sydney Opera House)
As You Like It has never really worked for me on the page, and I’d never actually seen a professional production before, so I was looking forward to seeing what Bell Shakespeare would do with it. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. I finally realised that Rosalind can be an engaging character, rather than a pain in the neck, and Celia came across as having a bit more backbone than I had thought. The production didn’t really change my opinion that Orlando is a bit of a thicko, but it seemed to me as if they’d just gone “OK, he’s a dork, let’s just accept that and move on”. So rather than try and make him anything more than he is, they concentrated on making him fundamentally likeable – and succeeded. Most of the rest of the cast were good fun as well, though Jacques seemed rather inconsistent between scenes (in that his personality was whatever they wanted for that particular scene, regardless of what he had been like before) but maybe that smoothed out later in the run: we saw it fairly early on. All in all, the production was a fun romp, and though I still wouldn’t put As You Like It on the same level as Twelfth Night or Much Ado, I now have more time for it than I did previously.

The Vertical Hour (David Hare): Sydney Theatre Company at the Drama Theatre (Sydney Opera House)
The problem with this was that the two main characters were self-righteous and basically unpleasant, and the number three character was nice enough but totally wet. It could have been an interesting debate about the Iraq war, and there were some good bits, but her voice was like fingernails down a blackboard, and he was a nasty manipulative piece of work, and this really made it difficult to get any empathy with either of their positions.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (William Shakespeare): Dash Arts at the Sydney Theatre
This production was by Indian and Sri Lankan actors, using a range of different languages – English, Tamil, Malayalam, Sinhalese, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Sanskrit – without surtitles. So it helped to be moderately familiar with the text, or one might have been quite lost as to what was happening – languages would change between characters, and even within speeches. The performances and costumes were good, but what really struck me most was the athleticism of the production. The acrobatic work – apparently all done without safety harnesses – was just breathtaking.

Rock ‘n’ Roll (Tom Stoppard): Sydney Theatre Company at the Sydney Theatre
Michael thought this play was baby boomer self indulgence. I quite enjoyed it, though it would have been better if Matthew Newton (Jan) had had more charisma (or any). But I thought William Zappa (Max) was fine, and Genevieve Picot (Eleanor and then Esme) was very good. I thought the moment where (as Eleanor, suffering from breast cancer) rips off her wig and tears open the front of her dress was very powerful – far more confronting than any single moment in, for example, Blackbird. I might have got more out of the play if I had been more familiar with Czech history: the play starts in the late 60s and finishes in about 1990, and I knew absolutely nothing about what was happening in Prague through this period (nor did I have any idea that Plastic People of the Universe – a group whose name I was vaguely familiar with – were Czech). But the play did inspire me to look it up afterwards. Which has to be considered a Good Thing.

The Serpent’s Teeth (Daniel Keene): Sydney Theatre Company at the Drama Theatre (Sydney Opera House)
This was actually two one-act plays, dealing with different aspects of war. The first one, Citizens, was set at the dividing wall of an unnamed country beset by war. It was a series of vignettes of citizens walking past the wall, getting on with their day-to-day lives in the face of hardships – an old man and his grandson taking a tree to the next village, and bringing a different one back, a married, pregnant couple walking to a new home, a woman carrying her dog to find a vet. It had some very compelling moments – the bit where the husband and wife are arguing, and spill part of their last bottle of water made the whole audience gasp – but there was somehow something a bit distancing about it. In spite of being about “the human spirit”, it was intellectually interesting, but for the most part not emotionally gripping.

The second one, Soldiers, was set in an Australian airbase (or something), where the families of five dead soldiers are awaiting the return of the bodies – a mix of wives, siblings, parents, children, etc. This one really was emotionally compelling. At some stage, most of the characters had a “poem” – sort of Ancient-Greek style theatre – which I found a bit stylised and not really successful. But the interactions between family members, and between members of different families, were very powerful.

As with just about every other STC Actors Company production, the standouts were Amber McMahon, Hayley McElhinney, Pamela Rabe and John Gaden, with Peter Carroll also putting in excellent performances in each half.

The Great (Tony McNamara): Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf Theatre
This play about Catherine the Great was not very historically accurate, and had many intentional anachronisms (not to mention a truly remarkable number of horse references in the first act) but it was hugely fun. Robin McLeavy, who played young Catherine in the first act and her daughter Natalie in the second, was very funny, and Liz Alexander (the older, second-act Catherine) filled the stage with personality. Toby Schmitz as the second-act Orlo was wittily amusing but also emotionally resonant at times.Toby Schmitz was funny as Peter in the first half (though he seemed to have watched Hugh Laurie in Blackadder III way too many times) and okay as the son, Didi, in the second act. I thought the play was at its best when delivering clever dialogue and court intrigues, and at its weakest in the more emotional scenes (excepting some of the older Orlo’s). In particular, I found the love-of-Catherine’s life plotline not very successful. Overall, though, it was a fun play, if not particularly deep and meaningful.

Hamlet (William Shakespeare): Bell Shakespeare Company at the Drama Theatre (Sydney Opera House)
This production has had very good reviews, but it didn’t really work for me. Brendan Cowell’s Hamlet was very “big” (for want of a better word): he wasn’t actually chewing the scenery, but he was certainly very out there. I would like to see something a bit more intimate and introspective. And I didn’t think the scenes with the ghost were very successful: they were using a sort of split-stage effect (which the Cheek-By-Jowel Othello also used) with the ghost on one side of the stage, and everyone else on the other side, but rather than looking at the ghost, they were looking straight ahead, as if the ghost were in the audience. On the other hand, I enjoyed Colin Moody’s Claudius, and Heather Mitchell’s Gertrude was okay, up until her rather overdone death scene (it’s a bit of a worry when the audience actually laughs). Ophelia was pleasant, but not very strong, and R and G were basically a comedy act. The fencing in the duel scene wasn’t very impressive.