Sydney Festival

Various Sydney venues, Sydney, Australia

06/01/2007 - 27/01/2007

Production Details

Auckland is shocking in January. No one’s around, there’s nothing on, everyone’s seen all the movies, the weather’s as humid as Sydney’s … so—might as well go to Sydney. There the Sydney Festival is advertising a “Beckett Festival” brought out by Dublin’s Gate Theatre, the Abbey’s rival. And, of course, the Black Caps are there for the Tri Series (or “Try Series” in the parlance of weary Black Caps supporters). 

Theatre ,


Review by Dean Parker 25th Jan 2007

Auckland is shocking in January. No one’s around, there’s nothing on, everyone’s seen all the movies, the weather’s as humid as Sydney’s … so—might as well go to Sydney. There the Sydney Festival is advertising a "Beckett Festival" brought out by Dublin’s Gate Theatre, the Abbey’s rival. And, of course, the Black Caps are there for the Tri Series (or "Try Series" in the parlance of weary Black Caps supporters).

I leave Thursday afternoon last week. Six nights, six shows, accommodation in a backpackers’ in Woolloomooloo where you have to bludge bed linen, and towels—? forget it, none to be seen. Heat outside in the street is 31 degrees, inside 41 (air-conditioning—? a fan, even—?). And, oh, how I sympathized with Alan Bennett who, told by some TVNZ arts doco frontman that he should come to New Zealand for the Wellington Festival showing of The History Boys, hummed and haaaed and equivocated, "I should want my own toilet." 

I’ll Go On
Parade Theatre

First show. And it is absolutely bloody wonderful, absolutely. Dublin actor Barry McGovern, who knew Beckett well enough to be told by him in a Paris bar, "If I fall down again, don’t bother to pick me up," has put together a one-man show from Beckett’s trilogy of novels, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable. The theatre was the Parade, at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts, attached to the University of NSW. It’s a rather fabulous theatre, rising two balconies high, with close rows that don’t go all the way back to the black stump. It has a great curtain against which McGovern suddenly appeared, in spotlight and character, a tramp, wandered on to a stage to speculate on just what kind of a show was in store for us all.

The spotlight is killed and the curtain rises on a set designed by Robert Balogh, an Irish artist whom I recall as being a prominent Provisional IRA supporter back in the 1990s. It consisted of a skeletal room, two walls, at an angle, with a floor projecting out. The walls changed in burnished colour, at one stage looking like the shit-smeared cells of republican prisoners on "dirty protest" in Long Kesh. The whole was lit along its extremities by neon strips which could produce the most hallucinatory effects, as though the tumble of Beckett’s incantations were causing McGovern to shimmer and shudder mirage-like. Spell-bound in the second half, I thought the Ascension might be upon us.

But to start at the beginning. Malloy, a vagrant, tells us of a bike journey to see his mother. He remembers her, then remembers falling in love with a woman whose dog he runs over and kills (she was taking it to the vet to be put down, so it all saved her a bob or two.) He finds ways to fill in his time. It’s all a joy.

At the interval woman gushed past me, calling out, "It’s so Irish, isn’t it?" O, but—to quote a line from the play—the best is yet to come; there aren’t all the many Irish prone to declaring fortunate those "born in a wet dream and dead on the linen by morning" and desiring to kill their mother before she had a chance to give birth to them.

McGovern is now, seamlessly, Malone, lying on a tomb, awaiting his death, pondering whether he’ll last to the Transfiguration, maybe even the Annunciation. Finally, half-naked, McGovern delivers a stunning, rising monologue in which the contraries "I can’t go on!" and "I will go on!" are shouted out with the equal intensity and passion, like a fearful Mass litany screamed at the congregation. It’s brilliant writing, it wrestles with how we can ever find peace, it’s delivered in a stunning performance and it would astonish audiences at any New Zealand Arts Festival that chose to pick it up.

No Chance In Hell Hotel
Darlinghurst Theatre

This was a local two-hander, not in the Festival, that I approached in a good mood, having stumbled upon a happy hour in a King’s Cross hostelry.

Two performers I’d never heard of, Drew Faireley and Kate Smith, wrote and perform in this pastiche of seedy, hard-boiled detective thriller cum true-love romance, donning a range of wigs to change into half-a-dozen characters, one of whom is an ex-nun who has discovered sexual frenzy and lost her faith but continues to wear her clobber as it excites her partner. (Well, I was won over immediately. I have a trendy open-plan office in the Trades Hall in Auckland that I share with Tenants’ Protection. Now, Tenants’ Protection seems to be largely staffed by nuns, who are all socially conscious these days and quite beyond the control of the Bishop. Anyway, I’ve draped over my opened office entrance one of those slinky beaded curtains that were the absolute de rigueur of sophistication in movies I used to see as a child and thus every so often I have the rapture of a nun sidling in through a beaded curtain… Bliss.) 

The show is all done with loads of gags and local references and ends with a pumping piece of filth as the true-love romance story climaxed in a range of sexual positions performed lovingly by our shy lovers to that dreadful song whose title I’m not sure, but I think it’s "The Rose".

Eh, Joe
Parade Theatre

No, not Jimi Hendrix, Samuel Beckett again. Charles Dance, who I saw at the bar on Thursday night looking a bit weather-beaten after all those sundowner movies of Brits in Kenya (and with a stunning black girlfriend on his arm—maybe it’s his make-up assistant—or his wife even, I hadn’t thought of that), was performing in a short TV play written by Beckett.

People sitting near me are in a panic because they’ve been told the theatre has a "lock-out policy". Apparently one of their number is running late. "There’s been a death in the family," they explain. Well, talking of death, the lights go off and in the dark the giant curtain rises silently and relentlessly, like death itself. Good place to start.

The set is a grimy bedroom. A man is there sitting on the single bed. At first the set looks aged by some filtering device, then I realize there’s a gauze screen covering the entire stage. We hear a voice-off, a recording done by Penelope Wilton, and suddenly the man’s features, as he sits in profile to us, are projected hugely on to the screen, reacting to the woman’s words. He sits mute throughout, listening in guilt to the woman as she recounts a relationship and punctuates it with a stab of, "Eh, Joe?" He blinks, his mouth tightens, and finally, inevitably, a tear falls from his eyes.

Penelope Wilton’s delivery was quite rivetting and she should have been there to get the applause.

We’ve all done appalling things in our relationships with others, and they’re things that continue to haunt us and it’d be intriguing to find out just what, in Beckett’s life, lay behind this piece. Maybe it was that prostitute who notoriously stabbed him in a Pigalle back street. What was all that about?

Belvoir St Theatre

Spend the day at Manly beach, come back to Circular Quay where a one-man Caribbean tin-drummer is playing "Dancing Queen", the alternative Aussie national anthem. On the big screen on the grass the Black Caps have won the toss, elected to bat and given the Aussies a chance by sacrificing both openers. A day like any other.

Take a bus to Surry Hills to the Belvoir St Theatre for the 5pm showing of Keating, another not in the Festival but recommended to me by Jonathon Hendry. Belvoir St Theatre seems to be the more adventurous rival to the staid Sydney Theatre Company. Last production of theirs I’d seen had George Henare in it as Kofi Annan—it was David Hare’s Stuff Happens.

Keating is an unmitigated and total joy. It’s bio-cabaret, a musical trip down the political life of Australia’s last Labour leader, Paul Keating, with a five-piece band, a tight group of actors and another range of wigs. Bodgie Bob Hawke appears, hands out cans of Fosters from an Eskie, warms up the audience with a practiced line of banter.

Then the star appears! Up in the heavens! In the sharpest of suits! It’s Paul Keating! While Hawke was a larrickin Rhodes scholar, a drinker and a punter and a Prod, Keating was a tyke who left school at 15 and ended up listening to Mahler and collecting antiques. Sure, he married an airline stewardess—but it was Alitalia, not Qantas.

Keating, deputy Labour PM, tries to topple Hawke, fails, sings, "I thought I could be Placido Domingo. I was ready for all that applause / Instead I find myself like Ernie Dingo—lost, stuck in the Great Outdoors."

A ghostly silhouette of Gough Whitlam appears and sings to our Paul, "Maintain your rage!"  Paul perseveres! He topples Hawke. He wins the next election, trouncing the Liberals’ John Hewson in a rappers’ duel that leaves poor Hewson gaping at Keating’s fabulously sustained Aussie invective.

A new Liberal leader appears, Alexander Downer, played as an enormous drag artist intent on dry humping anyone in the audience who was up for it, and singing, "I’m truly weird!" He was a sort of combined Jim McLay and John Key—deeply creepy.

Then John Howard arrives to shrieks of glee from the audience, played as a little man desperate to be someone’s mate, changing at the drop of an Akubra hat from a business shirt to a footy jersey.

The lighting and staging was superb. The lyrics crackled away, the satire was spot-on. With the sort of leftish educated middle class audience that was flocking to it in droves (season was booked out), it couldn’t fail.

In this show, Keating could do no wrong, even defeating Howard in a necessary re-write of history to give us a happy ending. And I suppose Aussies living under John Howard deserve what happiness they can snatch. It was one for the True Believers, rather than for those trying to figure out why Howard continues to get the support he does.

It was hugely, hugely, hugely entertaining and when I came out and checked into a pub, Australia were three wickets down for 21. Reality set in later.

Uncle Vanya
Sydney Theatre

I was so pissed off. I’d spent Saturday afternoon in Glebe looking to see if there were any playbooks that Jean Betts hadn’t already sent me (there was—David Edgar’s Continental Divide) and I see in the morning’s papers that I’d missed the highlight of the Festival. Lou Reed had turned up at a reading of Beckett’s prose and poetry at the Parade Theatre. "The gaunt figure and slow, drawling monotone were well suited to the five Beckett poems he read," said the Sydney Morning Herald. Oh, well. Bugger.

Uncle Vanya was presented by the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg. I’d seen a production of King Lear they’d done last year, with the Fool on the piano, banging out his barbs at Lear on the old ivories.

This seems to be a well-heeled Festival crowd, all of them done up to the nines like an ATC opening. The theatre was vast. The play is in Russian with a judicious translation running in sur-title. 

Instead of the garden, dining room and drawing room sets, there is a single set of a great wooden room with doors leading off, and above is a false ceiling of metal trellis on which were stacked bales of hay—a sort of hay-loft bearing down on the souls below. As with the King Lear I’d seen, the audience is accepted as part of the play, the house lights kept on as the cast initially and silently appears, and then the lights slowly dim as the show gets underway.

I’d read the play (so up-to-the-minute in its environmentalism—Chekhov developed it from an earlier Tolstoyan draft) and seen the excellent Laurence Olivier filmed version. This Maly production differed in that there seemed to be more focus on Yelena, the beautiful young wife bored by country life, than Sonya, the simple, gentle, homely daughter hopelessly in love with the doctor. Yelena is a lively and engaging figure, though I notice all the applause at the end goes to dutiful Sonya. Clearly the audience appreciates Sonya’s domestic virtues and feels sorry for her, though the terror of her last words, "We shall go on living, Uncle Vanya… God will have pity on us," make her simply one of us—well, those of us who aren’t peasants, of course. Peasants might have other things on their minds when it comes to getting through the day.

The production played a bit fast and loose with the text. When Astrov embraces Yelena in their final farewell, her elderly husband and most of the cast burst in to stand stock still in astonishment at the infidelity. It’s not in the text; the text embrace is discreet. Clearly the director has gone for the old Coronation Street rule of thumb, that if a married woman embraces someone not her husband, the more people who witness it, the better the scandal. Chekhov probably thought of doing it but he’d already had Voynitsky stumbling across Yelena and Astrov and probably thought once was enough. Well, the second reveal got almost as much of a laugh as the first. I’m sure Chekhov wouldn’t have minded. There are no changes to the subsequent dialogue, just a changed meaning to the husbands words, "Let bygones be bygones," I suppose it added to the politeness with which these minor bourgeoise played out their lives.

The play ran for three-and-a-half hours so I missed New Zealand’s best-ever TV series, Outrageous Fortune, on Channel 9 at 10.30 that night. I remember 30 years ago sitting through a production of my first play at Downstage and Ian Mune turning to me afterwards and saying, "At least it was short." He couldn’t abide "those bloody long plays by Chekhov and—that other bloke, what’s his name—?" "Shakespeare?" someone ventured helpfully. "No! No!" shouted Muney. "O’Neill! O’Neill!"

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Riverside Theatre

This one involved an hour-long ferry ride up the Paramatta river (so that’s why they’re called the Eels) and was a fun way to end a Festival that the Chekhov-&-Beckett-soaked Sydney Morning Herald described as "providing an overall feeling of gloomy optimism".

A Korean company, the Yohangza Theatre Company, is doing a martial arts, song-and-dance Midsummer Night’s Dream, magically set on a mountainside of waving bamboo, with brilliant make-up and insane drummers.

Oberon and Titania have their roles reversed ("consistent," the director says, "with the Korean outlook on male and female roles—men have an inclination to go off track and it’s the woman’s role to show them sense"). Bottom turns into a pig and Puck is represented by two traditional Korean goblins.

It’s a very audience-friendly show, never hesitating to invade the auditorium and drag shrieking innocents up on stage. Good one to end on, and in the morning I read in the Sydney Morning Herald that England had failed by nearly a hundred runs to catch NZ’s modest total of 210. We are now, according to the Herald, "locked in the dispiriting battle to see who will play Australia in the final."

The resident cockroach, which I had banged twice on its head in warning, has finally died and lies upside down and lifeless by the rubbish basket.

Time to go home. 


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