Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Theatre: The Talk (★★★½)

The Last Great Hunt
Written and directed by Gita Bezard
Performed by Cassidy Dunn, Megan Hunter and Christina Odam

Until April 21 at the Subiaco Arts Centre
The Talk is a departure for Perth’s globetrotting indie theatre collective, The Last Great Hunt.
It’s their first production without any of their six members on stage, yet the performance of the young cast they’ve recruited is shot through with their house style.
The result is the energising and sometimes thrilling humour of surprise as snatches of conversation suddenly turn into song-and-dance routines. The show is very often very funny, but it’s infused with the great sadness of someone all alone in a crowd.
The Talk sometimes ticks off more than it can chew, but the pertinence of the story, the tightness of the production and the energy and talent of the cast makes it well worth paying attention to.

Read the complete review in The West Australian

Monday, March 5, 2018

Theatre: The Second Woman ★★★★½

By Nat Randall and Anna Breckon

Performed by Nat Randall and others

PICA 3-4 March 

The last show in the Perth Festival’s theatre programme will be its most – and best ­– remembered. With The Second Woman, the performance artist Nat Randall and her collaborator, the director Anna Breckon, have conceived and executed an addictive experience that extends the boundaries and dramatic opportunities of one-on-one theatre.
Despite appearances to the contrary, that’s what this show is. Randall’s “leading men”– there are a hundred of them – appear one at a time in an identically scripted, unrehearsed, scene. She and the men perform it in a cube set out of which I suspect they can see only dimly, if at all. Inside that box, aware of nothing but each other, they are one on one.

The scene they act out is inspired by John Cassavetes’s 1977 play-within-a-film Opening Night, with Randall re-imagining Gina Rowland’s dipsomaniac actress character, Myrtle Gordon (and the character, Virginia, she plays), and the men, the “Marty’s”, grown from the character Cassavetes’s character plays.

So Randall plays Rowland playing Myrtle playing Virginia. Complex? You bet.

Outside the box, however, are us. We can see the actors, and we know what will – or should – happen, in precise detail, because we’ve seen it before – in many cases dozens of times.

Randall plays the scene 100 times in 24 hours, stopping only for a short “interval” every 90 minutes or so. We can come and go when we please.  

It might sound like a gimmick, but it serves a purpose.

The Randall/Gina/Myrtle/Virginia we saw early in the marathon was different toward the end. Tired, a little frayed around the edges, a little less accommodating of the man than before. A little more humorous. She’s lived one long day more, it hurts, and it shows.

And what, exactly, is the man to her? Well, it depends.

Sometimes he is her husband, sometimes she is his mistress, and sometimes he is her gigolo. He’s older than her, or younger, or about the same. She prompts him to repeat, “And I love you”, and he says, “And you love me.”

At the end of each scene (spoiler alerts really don’t matter here), she offers the man some money. Is it a payment? Or a refund?  He takes it. Or doesn’t.

As he leaves he tells her he loves her. Or has never loved her. Who is she? Who is he?

These questions abound, as do the ways the men deal with them. The audience becomes hypersensitive to the tiniest nuances, or missteps accidental or deliberate (it doesn’t take too kindly to the latter). This minutia, and the cinematic effect of the scene, is magnified by the roving and fixed cameras around the cube that capture every moment, often in excruciating close-up, on a screen to its side.

It’s part of a real technical achievement by Randall and Breckon, the video director EO Gill, the composer Nina Buchanan, lighting designer Amber Silk and the set designers Future Method Studios.

As word of mouth flashed around the festival, and people arrived and just didn’t leave, the queues lengthened. I hear it got up to two hours to get in.

What they waited for was mesmerizing, superbly executed and groundbreaking. 

And worth every second of it.    

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Music: ACO Underground ★★½

Australian Chamber Orchestra members Richard Tognetti, Satu Vänskä, Julian Thompson and Nicole Divall, with Brian Ritchie and Jim Moginie   
Astor Theatre 23 February

I’m loath to weigh down a review of an ACO concert with the seating arrangements, but they set the tone for a very perplexing evening.
For some reason I can’t begin to fathom, there were five rows of tables and chairs set almost obscene distances apart in front of the Astor Theatre stage. There didn’t appear to be any reason for them – no food or drink service, or any other discernable “VIP” advantage at all – and all it did was force the bulk of the audience back and more at the mercy of the Astor’s sometimes-dubious acoustics.
That was an issue, because the core of the programme was songs – often by Richard Tognetti, but also by Nick Drake and Nine Inch Nails – performed by the ACO violinist and deputy leader Satu Vänskä. Her voice has the same Mitteleuropean quality as, say, Nico, but it simply didn’t cut through the muddy sound mix with clarity and strength.
The music, too, had its disappointments. The ACO had enlisted The Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchile and Oils guitarist Jim Moginie for some rock heft, but they were parked to one side and hardly appeared above the battlements.
The string quartet playing, by Tognetti, Satu Vänskä, Julian Thompson (cello) and Nicole Divall (viola) was exemplary, as we expect from the ACO, but it was in the service of a diversion from their modus operandi that was fitful, unexciting, and not a little indulgent.
Still, hey, the ACO have stored away plenty of brownie points in the larders of music lovers here, there and everywhere, and they’re entitled to spend a few of them every now and then.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Jazz: Jessie Gordon is Ruining Your Night (★★★½)

Jessie Gordon with Lani Melrose
Mark Turner (Sax/guitar), Jon Matthews (guitar), Karl Florisson (Bass), Michael Perkins (drums)

Jessie Gordon should be crowned the Queen of Fringe. The jazz singer rips out great swathes of shows (six this year alone) for the festival, some of which are reruns of old favourites, some newly-minted the occasion.

The newcomers this year are Live Electric Loops, with the chanteuse using loop technology to beef up a solo show, and this one, Jesse Gordon is Ruining Your Night, a showcase of songs from way back to the present day with stories to tell about her life and career.

She’s enlisted her regular quartet, Mark Turner (Sax/guitar), Jon Matthews (guitar), Karl Florisson (Bass) and Michael Perkins (drums), brought along her loop pedal and something particularly slinky to wear, and the result is decidedly easy to take.

It all starts with the voice, of course. Gordon has a limpid, tripping style which lets her make the most of some tricksy phrasing in the opener, I Can’t Give You Anything but Love and It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie; and she can scat, and she can belt.

Her band is completely in sync with her and the material, and there’s enough solo heft from Matthews’s guitar and Turner’s sax to keep our interest up through standards like All the Way, Fascinatin’ Rhythm and Lullaby of Birdland.

But, in keeping with her theme, Gordon often takes us out of jazz into different styles and different musical eras. She terrified me when she said she was gong to do a Leonard Cohen number, but we (or at least I) dodged a bullet when she jazzed up his Dance Me to the End of Love, she dismissed the ban and pushed the loop pedal to the metal for Sun Little’s Lay Down.

The highlight of the evening, though, was her own Leave no Trace, a gorgeous harmony ballad (with her guest, Lani Melrose and the band in great vocal form). I’d love to hear more of her stuff.

There were a couple of mis-steps. A story about an ogling punter and his deadshit “mates” after her New Year’s Eve show at Ellington’s needed a bit of tightening to have the impact it warranted, and the closer, “Padam, Padam” is too typical a Piaf to warrant its spot in the set.

And then, in the encore, Jessie Gordon ruined my night. I hadn’t dodged a bullet after all. I have no idea why so many artists insists on doing Hallelujah, or why audiences go all gooey every time they hear it (it is, after all, the hard-heartest, most dispassionate of songs). 
I just wish they’d stop it.

(Jessie Norman Will Ruin Your Evening won the Music and Musicals Award at the 2018 Fringe World)

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Theatre: Farewell to Paper

Written and performed by Evgeny Grishkovets
Translated by Kyle Wilson 
Heath Ledger Theatre
16-18 February

The Russian writer and actor Evgeny Grishkovets is an amiable, disarmingly low-key performer, in style less like an actor than a stand-up comedian spinning out an extended thesis through his routine.
Paper, and the way it makes and changes what we did and do, is the central object of his affections, and his sadness.
He remembers, with a kind of sentimental ache, all that paper was, all its forms, its uses and accouterments. Thousand-year-old birch bark with writing burnt into it; the quill pen, blotting paper, the telegram, the envelope opener and paperweight, the typewriter and those long thin international aerogrammes, “Par Avion”; books.
All past, or passing, like the steam engine or the Royal Mail train, or the Mohicans.
And he points out that their successors don’t perform the same functions. An email or an SMS is not a telegram. Telegrams are important; you don’t send them when you’re drunk at two in the morning. Handwriting requires care and forethought; there’s no going back.
So, as we say goodbye to paper, we say goodbye to much else as well, to a whole ecology of thought, relationships and communication.
Sadly, communication is also the inescapable difficulty with this show. Grishkovets speaks Russian, and we do not. His performance style doesn’t lend itself to surtitles as more tightly structured ones do.
So it is translated (expertly, by the distinguished academic and diplomat Kyle Wilson), sentence by sentence, and what would have been an entertaining and instructive hour or so becomes, frankly, a fairly hard slog of nearly twice the length.
Grishkovets was very amused and understanding as he pointed out the watch checking and dozing in the audience (there was plenty of both). It’s not his fault it was happening – but it really wasn’t theirs either.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Puppetry: Hand Stories ★★★★

Designed and Created by Yeung Fai
Performed by Yeung Fai and Yoann Pencolé
Dolphin Theatre 14 – 17 February

The Chinese master glove puppeteer Yeung Fai has set out to achieve many things in Hand Stories, and he’s succeeded handsomely in all of them.
The work is a history of his family over three generations of puppeteers (there are more – Fai and his elder brother are the fifth generation of practitioners) and, by extension, of modern China.
That history is rich, and threaded with silken beauty, but the danger of sudden, capricious oppression is ever-present, and has brought tragedy and exile to Fai and his family in its wake.
Hand Stories is also about education and training, and Fai exposes his techniques, often in scenes with his “apprentice”, Yoann Pencolé.
And, of course, there’s the puppetry itself, from sheer beauty to boisterous brawling, comedy, pathos, the human condition worn on a master’s hand.
As the scenes play out, we pass down the line from father to son to son’s sons, signified by the lighting, passing and extinguishing of lamps.
It’s a fragile link, and one always with the potential to be broken; twice, in the Cultural Revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and again during the Tiananmen Square protests in 198, the state (represented by a golden-scaled, rapacious dragon) tore the family apart. Fai’s father died in a “re-education camp” during the first, his brother only barely escaped to the US in the wake of the other.
Fai himself now lives in Paris, and his work cannot be seen in his own country.
Of course, for all the personal history and political commentary, an audience still wants the skills of the puppeteer and the peculiar sensation of witnessing the imitation of life in tiny figures. And Fai is, perhaps uniquely, able to deliver.
The first tableaux (one of his grandfather’s devising) is the courtship of a reluctant beauty by a portly suitor. The woman is flawless – every pitch of head, every attitude of hand, perfection. The suitor, too, is perfect in his movement, his ardour and frustration growing as she rebuffs his advances. The comedy is wonderful, drawing the first of many howls of laughter from the audience.
Just as interesting is the emotional transfer from puppeteer to puppet. Fai doesn’t operate passively in the gloom behind the puppets; he leans in, he participates in their emotions.
And he does so constantly throughout, through an exhilarating martial arts battle between two pint-size warriors (who needs Shaolin monks when you’ve got these little blokes), the rampages of the dragons and, in an inspired routine, the battle of a traveller and a tiger, played away from the audience so we could see the “backstage” workings of a puppet show.
Throughout there were examples of Fai’s unique mastery; he hurls costumes in the air and they fall into place over the puppet, he throws and spins plates in his puppet’s hands. It’s marvelous to watch.
The show loses does lose momentum once, in a sequence about his brother’s tribulations in the US featuring a puppet guardian angel who communicates in Queen songs. Fai isn’t on such solid ground here, and the sequence is a little forced and uncomfortable.
Hand Stories is back on track soon enough, as with delicious incense and soft lamplight, Fai passes his secrets on to his apprentice, and the deep mysteries of the generations overcome another crisis and go on.
I hope there are many more generations of these great artists to come.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Music: Folias Antiguas & Criolas: From the Ancient World to the New World (★★★★★)

Jordi Savall with Hesperion XXI and Tembembe Ensamble Continuo
Perth Concert Hall
17 Feb 2018

It is impossible to imagine a more exciting or exquisitely performed concert than that given by Jordi Savall and the merged virtuosi of Hesperion XXI and Tembembe Ensamble Continuo for the Perth Festival.
The programme of tunes, songs and dances from the Spanish-speaking world runs deeper that mere music. It’s a potent reminder that European culture does not reside exclusively north of the Pyrenees, and that the great arc of Spanish culture on both sides of the Atlantic is, at its best and most elevated, uniquely sensual, beautiful and enduring.
Savall’s choices for this concert are remarkable for their antiquity; in the main this is music composed before Bach and Vivaldi – some of it over a century before they were born.
It’s a revelation, in these inspired hands, how influential it’s been across contemporary music and how fresh it sounds to modern ears (it takes no effort to imagine Linda Ronstadt joining the marvellous Ada Coronel and Zeren Zeferino in the ancient, but immediately recognisable, songs that peppered the concert).
The dancer Donaji Esparza was just as marvellous as the singers, her bearing impeccable, her feet, in the zapateado, a flashing percussion.
Savall and his seven instrumentalists were a revelation; their virtuosity and imagination – many of the pieces feature improvisations by the musicians – outstanding, their joy in the music, the great energy they brought to it and the attention they paid each other, infectious.
Savall leads, but does not conduct, and his command of his instruments – a Venetian bass viol of 1553 and a priceless treble viol of 1500 – and his bow was a thing of wonder.
But leadership is shared among the players; sometimes the corps of guitarists, marshalled by the brilliant Xavier Diaz-Latorre, with Enrique Barona and Leopoldo Novoa, propelled the music. Sometimes it was the Spanish Baroque harp (no twee little twinkling here) of Andrew Lawrence-King or the percussion of David Mayoral and Xavi Puertas’s violone, an early form of double bass, in the driver’s seat.
Around us swirl a dazzling array of instruments – Novoa’s marimbol, a proto-marimba plucked by the musician, the intense Ulises Martínez’s violin, even Barona’s quijada de cabello, a horse’s jawbone.
It was thrilling to listen to, and wonderful to watch, this music from four or five centuries ago, freshly minted and as vibrant and compelling as when it was first heard. 
During a magnificent performance of Antonio Martín y Coll’s Diferencias Sobre las Folías that could make you want to weep one minute and dance the next, I suddenly thought of the futility of Donald Trump.
Because no crummy wall he conspires to build will be deep enough to hold back those tears, or high enough to trip these dancers.