Friday, November 26, 2010

Music: Leonard Cohen

ME Bank Stadium, Perth
24 November, 2010

Let's sing another song, boys
Leonard Cohen has pulled off the greatest conjuring trick in music; at the age of 76, he's become an international stadium act with a legion of fans world-wide.
I'm unashamedly one of them - have been since 1971, but it was still a shock to sit in a $200 seat 100m from a vast stage with an enormous crowd around me, waiting for an artist I’d spent long hours listening to, convinced that I was part of a tiny cult that, surely, would never extend beyond me, my sad friends, and unknown like-minded misfits light years from any mainstream.
On reflection, maybe he made us all his misfits; maybe it was only when we stepped into that avalanche of his that we felt so singular and so comforted.
It’s impossible to exaggerate the effect of those early Leonard Cohen albums ("early" is, of course, like many things about Cohen, a misnomer, because he released them at the back end of his 30s). From Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967) to New Skins for the Old Ceremony (1974), he launched an extraordinary barrage of poetic ballads with their intimations of Brel and Garcia Lorca that literally swept us away.
You just turned your back on the crowd: Leonard Cohen plays Perth
It’s those early songs that are closest to his core, rather than his later, much admired and endlessly covered hits like Hallelujah, First We Take Manhattan and Tower of Song, for all their quality. There can be only a handful of songwriters who wouldn't be happy to have his output from 1977's Death of a Ladies' Man on as their repertoire.
He was generous with material from that great period: a run of Suzanne, Avalanche and Sisters of Mercy early in the second part of the three-hour-plus concert set the mood for a spellbinding run to its three encores.
The rest of the set was sprinkled with his early masterpieces: Bird on the Wire, Who by Fire, Chelsea Hotel #2, So Long Marianne. Best of all, there were the exquisite Famous Blue Raincoat and The Partisan, with its mighty confluence of the horrors of Auden and the defiant optimism of Theodorakis.
And yet there were 10 more canonical songs from those albums that would have been highlights had they made the cut, among them The Story of Isaac, Last Year’s Man, Love Calls You by Your Name, Joan of Arc, Take This Longing and the Kafka-esque Singer Must Die.
Death of a Man's Lady
Apart from their qualities as poetry and music, it’s the intellectual and historical sense of Old Europe these songs give to Cohen’s work that sets it apart. The only other artist in rock who’s attempted anything like it is John Cale in his fabulous run of mid-70s albums, from Paris 1919 on (and it's unsurprising that Cale’s “original” cover of Hallelujah remains easily its most convincing). 
Inevitably, much of this gets lost in the middle of a stadium spectacular, but when a lyric like “You'll see a woman hanging upside down/
Her features covered by her fallen gown” (in The Future) suddenly brings to mind an image of Clara Petacci on the gibbet in Milan, something very out of the ordinary is going on.
The technical quality of the show was impeccable. A perfect sound allowed the work of fine performers to shine, like the sublime Catalan bandurria player Javier Mas and the wind instrumentalist Dino Soldo, whose work on sax and wind synths was reminiscent of Michael Brecker’s fabulous stand with Paul Simon here in ’93. The Webb Sisters lacked the cut and thrust of some of Cohen’s famous back-up singers, but they worked through their stuff prettily and made a good fist of their star turn, the gorgeous choral standard-to-be, If It Be Your Will.
Cohen himself was gracious and sprightly and, because neither he nor his golden voice was ever young and hot, his extreme maturity as a performer is natural and charming. He wears his clothes, his hat and his skin well, and sometimes, especially on one or two of his “funkier” songs, he reminded me of an all-grown-up Brian Ferry, complete with that little walking-on-the-spot shimmy of his. And that’s something I never thought I’d get to say!
Cohen's recent, unfortunate financial setback has sent him back on the road, and he is clearly grateful that an audience is still there for him when he needs it - though he could hardly have anticipated the scale of his late popularity. That gratitude is an emotion that I, and many others, happily return to him in spades.

The great Ray Purvis was there as well; here's his take in The West Australian

Monday, November 22, 2010

Theatre: The Deep Blue Sea

By Terence Rattigan
Onward Production
Directed by Michael McCall
Featuring Alison Van Reeken, Tom O’Sullivan, Michael Loney, Greg McNeill, Will O’Mahony, James Helm, Julia Moody and Amanda Woodhams
Playhouse Theatre
November 19 - 28, 2010

Not waving, drowning
The early 50s in England have left us a pervading memory of grimness; the certainty and glamour of its old social order shattered by 40 years of violence, and Carnaby Street and the Beatles still an age away.
In the theatre of this grey, transitional world, an established group of playwrights and an emerging cadre of vivid young actors both sought to keep and find their audience.
It would be a few years yet before the latter found the writers they were looking for; it would be decades before the artistic reputations (and box office bankability) of the former recovered from the shock of the new world that was coming.
Foremost among these established writers was the prolific, systematic Terence Rattigan, while among the new breed of actor was the powerhouse Welshman Richard Burton. It’s a happy coincidence that these two very different figures are the genesis of this fine production of Rattigan’s 1952 drama The Deep Blue Sea by Sally Burton’s Onward Production company.
The play opens where many end: worried by the odour of gas coming from a room in a frayed old boarding house, the landlady, Mrs Elton (Julia Moody), and a tenant, Philip Welch (Will O’Mahony), burst in to find Hester Page (Alison van Reeken) unconscious in front of the heater.
An empty pill bottle lies on the table. A note sits on the mantelpiece. Her husband, Freddie (Tom O’Sullivan), is away, golfing with his RAF pal Jackie (James Helm).
Another tenant, Dr Miller, is summoned, and he revives Hester. Welch’s young wife Ann (Amanda Woodhams) arrives, and they try to work out whom to call.
Then Mrs Elton drops her bombshell: they should contact her real husband, the eminent magistrate Sir William Collyer (Michael Loney). Sir William arrives, Freddie returns, and Hester’s protestation that what had occurred was just an accident falls apart when he finds the note.
It’s a good, standard set-up to the story, and it takes maybe half an hour of not especially gripping action to get there.
Alison van Reekin 
And then the play takes off, courtesy of Michael McCall’s sure-footed direction and van Reekin’s astounding performance. Her Hester burns through the remaining acts of her downfall and redemption, and she nails both the fragile insouciance masking her rising hysteria, and the sheer, physical passion that has thrown down the life she led, and her life itself. There’s a moment when Freddie leaves her embrace for the last time and she stands perfectly still, clutching the ghost of him, that is acting of transfixing quality. 
She’s supported admirably by Michael Loney, whose stock-in-trade impishness adds real charm to the deserted husband, and Greg McNeill, who handles the tricky character of the shady but acute Dr Miller with aplomb.
Even more difficult is the role of Freddie, who has to be attractive enough to besot an accomplished, mature woman and creepy enough not to deserve her. O’Sullivan is more than handsome enough to deliver the first and makes a good fist of the second. The rest of the cast – and it’s great to see eight actors in a local, professional production – have good moments that they deliver well. The show is accurately designed (Lawrie Cullen Tait) and lit (Andrew Portwine), and Hester is beautifully dressed by Steve Nolan. Stage managers don’t often make it to reviews, but this show is a minefield of potentially deadly entrances, exits and props, and Sue Fenty disarms them all with her customary skill.
Sally Burton has already earned our thanks for giving Perth a well-resourced independent production house, and The Deep Blue Sea will win her more. I wonder if she has in mind producing more shows related in some way to her husband’s career and the theatre (and cinema) in which he thrived? If this is the case, it will be a fascinating and unique development of more than just local interest.

An edited version of this review appeared in The West Australian of 22.11.10 read here 

From the Red Carpet: Perth Equity Guild Awards 2010

Wardle Room, Perth Concert Hall
Monday 29 November, 2010

Young, Gifted and Black Tie
FTT is honoured to have been asked to announce the winner of my favourite category, Best Actor (Female), at this year's Equity Guild Awards. Just the thought that for one, electric moment, Adriane Daff, Vivienne Garrett, Arielle Grey, Jo Morris, Melanie Munt and Samantha Murray will be oblivious to their dashing spouses, partners and escorts and, instead, be glued to my every word (probably six of them, starting with "And the winner is...") is almost too thrilling to contemplate. Only six more sleeps...
My friend and mentor (oh, okay, boss) at The West, Stephen Bevis, has already weighed in on the future of the awards here and I want to add only two words to his erudite spray on the matter. Black tie.
I've worn black tie off stage only once in my life, and that was to another well-known and glitzy award ceremony, in Hollywood (see pic). I've got to say I've never felt better (or, I suspect, looked better) in a set of clothes. After weighing up the pros and cons of hire or purchase, I bought the thing, confident that on our return to Perth it would soon be threadbare from overuse. 
Another bloke in black tie presenting the winner of 
the best actor (female) award at another ceremony 
in Hollywood. He looked pretty good, too. 
Imagine my horror when the awards' Caitlin Beresford-Ord told me that not only was it not a black tie event, but they often had trouble convincing male actors to even wear a necktie. 
For shame!
I say that for two reasons. First is that this event, done right, is not just a back-slapping exercise. As Steve said in his article, it should be a (much needed) way to promote the industry and its practitioners – and the theatre community, of all people, should understand you have to wear the costume to play the part. If we want the Perth Theatre Trust to open their precious new venue to this event next year, and we want sponsors like the impressive list Caitlin sent me* to continue to support it there, let's show them we want that support and deserve it.
The second reason was put to me forcibly by my No. 1 handbag, who said that she, and many of her female friends in the business, would love to throw on a big frock for the awards but struggle because the blokes all dress down so determinedly. I've seen enough rooms full of fabulously turned out women and crappily-dressed men to last a lifetime, and this needn't be one of them. I'm sure Samantha, Melanie, Jo, Arielle, Vivienne and Adriane will be dressed like the winners they all are, and the least I can do is throw on a monkey suit in return. Why don't you join me.

Postscript: The gongs have been run and won, and Mr Bevis gives you the lowdown on the winners and grinners here! 

*These events don't happen by themselves, and ticket income never meets the costs. Put your hands together for the Perth Theatre Trust, The City of Perth, The Equity Foundation, MEAA, RGM Artist Group, Frog Management, Onward Production, Memory Lane, Media at Work, Class Act Theatre, Michael McCall, Staging Connections, The West Australian, Post Newspapers and Creating Events for buying a round.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Music and Conversation: Dave Faulkner with Lucky Oceans

Sonic Sessions
Fremantle Arts Centre
November 14, 2010

Dave Faulkner needs guitars
Listening in on Dave Faulkner’s conversation with Lucky Oceans Sunday night at the Fremantle Arts Centre, I was struck by the rare and privileged place he had reached in the 35-odd years he’s plied his trade from dive bars to concert halls around the world.
He’s one of the very few Australian rock artists – Paul Kelly, Nick Cave, Don Walker and Neil Finn (I’m cheating here) are the others that come to mind – who have pulled off the quinella of killer back catalogue and new material that keeps the punters coming back for more. 
Part of the reason is Faulkner’s ability to mine the hard bedrock of pop music that he understands innately. As he confessed to us, he’s a Beatles kid – an early Beatles kid at that – and it’s that sensibility which has carried him on his long, fruitful journey. Punk for him, as I suspect it was for most of its best artists, was more than anything a vehicle that let him recapture and legitimise the short, sharp rapture we got from our 45s and crystal sets in those achingly glorious days of It Won’t Be Long and Hold Me Tight.
Fortunately for us, Faulkner is a candid and well-organised musical storyteller, and his narratives of the genesis of his material, including his self-professed technical limitations (methinks he doth protest too much) and delight in rock and roll’s highways and byways were unfailingly revealing and insightful. One story, of how Miss Freelove 69 evolved from his love of the early rock musicals, Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar was mesmerising. You felt like jumping up and shouting “like wow – wipeout!”
For the record, Faulkner and Oceans performed
Death Defying
, Come Any Time, the heartfelt The Stars Look Down from the Hoodoo’s new album, Purity of Essence, 1000 Miles Away, What’s My Scene?, My Girl and snippets of maybe a half-dozen others. By and large they’re not big pedal steel-type songs, and Dave’s stories didn’t need much prodding from either interviewer or audience, so Lucky generally kept his side of things spare and self-effacing. As always, though, when he did slip in a couple of hot licks, his playing is the easiest of tastes to acquire.
The Sonic Sessions are a terrific innovation by FAC, and (forgive me for this) they're lucky to have Oceans to lead us through them. And to have their beautiful, convivial courtyard to hold them in. As a cool summer night out, they take a lot of beating.

Theatre: House of Fun

Fish in a Vortex Productions
Created and directed by Nate Doherty
Featuring Fran Middleton, Mischa Ipp, Whitney Richards and Chris Isaacs
Blue Room Theatre
November 3 – 20, 2010

Welcome to the Lion's Den
Northbridge’s Blue Room Theatre has been mining a rich vein of domestic comedy/dramas lately with The Pride and Jack + Jill, and the motherlode continues with House of Fun, Nate Doherty’s sharp and entertaining story of shared living in Perth.
Three girls, the statuesque, promiscuous Angela (Mischa Ipp), the ambitious Facebook-addicted Gemma (Fran Middleton) and the sweet, naïve Winnie (Whitney Richards) share a house – although not everything in its fridge – with a volatile mixture of camaraderie and bitchiness.
Winnie has a new friend, the charismatic Quentin (Chris Isaacs), who makes a sudden arrival at the house and into their lives. Quentin is trouble, and the hassles he brings and causes drive the story forward.
The early scenes, with the girls staking their various claims on cheese and counter space, are nicely observed, tightly paced and often hilarious. The Blue Room “stage” is only the floor at one end of a room, but the performers’ execution of complex exits and entrances in this limited space is snappy and precise, adding greatly to the momentum of the piece’s dialogue and action.
Whitney Richards (pic: Poppy Penny)
Ipp, Middleton and Richards deliver totally convincing performances; as well as nailing their characters beautifully, their ensemble work is as tight as a water ballet and an entertainment in itself. It’s perhaps unfair to single any of them out, but Whitney Richards is just great as Winnie; she buries herself in sweetness and compels you to care for her character. When she finally realises that Quentin is not the man for her, and worse than that, you want him out of her life just as much as she does.
Isaacs’ performance is also strong, but in the end it’s the housemates you want to hang with, not the intruder.
The strength of the script is its observations on life for 20-somethings in cities like Perth; it’s drawn from stories collected as the project developed (a nascent version had an airing in The Blue Room’s Early Stages program) and they have the unmistakeable ring of truth about them. Far less convincing was the plot line of Quentin’s nefarious activities, and the production sags noticeably while it is being worked through. While it’s obviously necessary to have some dirty work happen to bring Quentin’s relationship with the girls to a head, I’m sure Doherty will find a better vehicle for it if House of Fun gets the further exposure I think it deserves.

An edited version of this review appeared in The West Australian on 17.11.10 read here             

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Theatre: In a New York Minute

Devised and performed by Spontaneous Insanity

Directed by Glenn Hall
Musical director Tristen Parr
Featuring Libby Hammer, Shane Adamczak, Courtney Sage Hart, Louisa Fitzhardinge, Emmet Nichols, Nichola Renton-Weir, Ric Cairns, Rhoda Lopez, Glenn Hall and The Triple Threat; Tristen Parr, Christopher de Groot and Callum Moncrieff 
Subiaco Arts Centre Studio
4 – 6 November 2010

The Rough with the Smooth
Improvisation – “unscripted theatre” as it now likes to calls itself – is the zany cousin of the big, serious theatre family. Great company, lots of fun, but a bit, well, hit and miss. Not someone you’d consult about matters of consequence, and definitely best in small doses.
So Glenn Hall and his Spontaneous Insanity company took on an ambitious challenge mounting a full-length, two-act piece where the story elements are provided at random from the audience at the start, and with a stated aim of using improvisation to explore relationships rather than merely fish for laughs.
The night I went, the plotline ideas from the audience were: watching lightning from the roof, the 1920s, a hand-made pinball machine, and John Lennon (“Ye gods!” I muttered under my breath), and away Hall and his eight performers went.
It was a bumpy ride at times, and there were enough wrong turns to make Hall’s interventions – he acts as a sort of human GPS device, bringing the performers back into line when things are going awry ­– almost a running gag. For all that, an entertaining story emerged from it all, and most of the audience’s elements were well incorporated (though Lennon, it must be said, pretty much defeated them).
In the absence of a script to pontificate about, I broke a reviewer’s rule and bailed up some of the performers after the show. Nichola Renton-Weir (who has something of Tina Fey about her and was terrific as a frat party wallflower turned cold-blooded killer) admitted that her strongest emotion during the show was panic, and I’m sure she was right; we felt it in the audience as well.
To successfully overcome it, and somehow manage to tie together the storylines that are floating around you, you need strong cultural literacy. Courtney Sage Hart, who was a solid foil in a brother-sister gangster act to the undoubted star of the show, the expressive and spontaneous Louisa Fitzhardinge, said he was constantly mining his knowledge of noir cinema and detective fiction to get him through.
What you need most, to use a sporting analogy, is the ability to find the ball; to see where you are in the story and where you’re going to go with it. In that respect, the best of the night’s performers – Renton-Weir, Fitzhardinge, the talented, droll Shane Adamczak and, while she’s maybe not a natural actor, the charismatic jazz diva Libby Hammer – show the instincts of a Michael Barlow. Others in the company, for all their undoubted talent, were more like Nic Naitanui.
But that’s improvisation – if you aren’t ready to take the rough with the smooth, don’t buy the ticket. I’m sure Hall and Spontaneous Insanity will be back for more and, judging by this sell-out season, it’s a risk plenty of theatregoers are happy to take.

An edited version of this review appeared in The West Australian on 9.11.10 read here  

Saturday, November 6, 2010

PIAF: First Impressions

11 February – 7 March
YouTube here

There's no Cate Blanchett to brand Shelagh Magadza's fourth and final Perth International Arts Festival. 
Maybe it was the lack of a megawatt attraction, or the interminable and excruciating cow-towing to political and corporate patrons that plague these events (I know, I know, without their generous support...), but the big PIAF launch at the Concert Hall this week was a subdued affair. 
Tellingly, the first time the little dulcet exhalation from the audience that signifies the instinctive approval of Stirling Highway for a visiting act was when we were told Annie Proulx was coming for the Writer's Festival. Before that shipping news we'd had the entire theatre, dance and music program revealed, with curiosity rather than excitement the ambient vibe in the hall.
Later, at the party on the terrace, a tyro arts stringer's inexperience in the nuances of festival programming was betrayed when he muttered that this PIAF seemed to be more about ticking the boxes than generating kinetic energy. That was me. My friend and mentor (oh, alright, boss) at the West, Steve Bevis, with the slightly smug look of someone who gets sent the program a couple of weeks in advance, assured me that it was full of gems that I would discover as I grew wiser and more worldly his take here. Fair enough.
So here's a first take on the festival, with the shows I'll definitely be trying to get to.
I'm really looking forward to the trio of plays about Australia in the first half of the 20th Century, a period so dominated by its three cataclysmic events that much about us and how we grew as a people is obscured. In (sort of) chronological order, My Bicycle Loves You, Boundary Street and Waltzing the Wilarra are all given their world premiere seasons; each sounds entertaining and enlightening and none merely nostalgic more. If I was going to make anything my festival project, it would be to see all three of these plays. I'm also on assignment at Donka: A Letter to Chekhov, and intrigued to see how the words of this most subtle of playwrights are translated into Finzi Pasca's physical theatre YouTube here.
No, it's not Celebrity Squares - it's PIAF hot ticket The Manganiyar Seduction
In the main house music program, The Manganiyar Seduction has got hottest-ticket-in-town written all over it YouTube here, and the sublime Academy of Ancient Music is bringing a big Haydyn and the Brandenburgs in a knockout double. 
Of the outdoor spectacles, Les Girafes looks the one we'll be hauling the family to more.
At Beck's the Perth branch of the McGarrigle/Wainwright fan club (president for life D. Zampatti) will be out in force for Martha's two shows. They're partly, we are told, a tribute to her mum, and if she attempts Kate's glorious (Talk to Me of) Mendocino YouTube here, that'll be el Presidenté you see blubbering in the corner. I've got a feeling retro darling Imelda May will figure in the hottest-ticket-in-town stakes YouTube here, as might the Unthank sisters YouTube here and Syrian party animal Omar Souleyman YouTube here. Partying down with Joanna Newsom is bound to be a treat, although maybe an odd one recent setlist here, and any time you get to spend with the great Archie Roach is a privilege, especially with Shane Howard and Neil Murray in the house. I'm also in the house for The Be(A)st of Taylor Mac, one of two shows the New York dragster is bringing to the festival interview here . The full Beck's Music Box program is here. 
Sherry Hopkins's last film festival here looks as attractive as it always is and, as always, it will be swamped by film lovers and groovy picnickers. 
The highlight of the Writers Festival here for me will be the chance to listen to Tariq Ali; men of great sense are an increasingly rare commodity in our complicated and various world. 
Which leads to the issue I have with this festival; the lack of a sense of that complicated and various world. In this "international" program, there's not a single live performance from either Africa or South America (installation artist Tomas Saraceno is Argentinean but lives and works in Germany) and only one each from Asia and the Middle East. For a city located where we are and made by people drawn from everywhere, that's a bewildering and troubling shortcoming.