Frank Barnes

Theatre is an expensive art form. It is therefore expensive to be a theatregoer but it pays off in spades when you get to see good and occasionally great theatre. From the first time I saw a show I have marvelled at the skills of the actors and other creatives in creating a different reality right before my eyes. Then they come back and do it all over again the next night.

I have attended theatre regularly for more than 55 years and as well as sitting in the audience have acted and done most backstage work as well as writing and directing, which means I sometimes see shows differently from other audience members. But most times I just let the show roll over me and become my life for those couple of hours. If a show is good I will not be distracted and if it is great I will be overwhelmed.

I had the joy of seeing Glenda Jackson in A Doll’s House at the old Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown (there was extra joy in that a storm had hailstones falling onto the stage and Ms Jackson sidestepping them without missing a beat — yes, it was an old theatre). I also saw Judi Dench in The Winter’s Tale and Donald Sinden in Twelfth Night on a Royal Shakespeare Company trip to Australia.

Because of my living circumstances I now want to restrict my theatregoing experiences to be always good or great and have stopped going to experimental or amateur theatre as I would if still living in Sydney. This means I sometimes miss some wonderful and exciting experiences.

The amateur and smaller theatre companies are the backbone of the theatre scenes in any city, and in some country towns the acting company is an interesting and important social group. But lately governments of all colours have cut funding, and so I subscribe to The Sydney Theatre Company, Belvoir and The Sydney Dance Company, which generally deliver top-class shows with the occasional bomb.

All of this is a lead-up to what I have seen since last writing.

“Very good” was the Sydney Theatre Company production, Golem (from London-based company, 1927), which used a mix of actors, animation and music to tell the story, and Counter Move by the Sydney Dance Company, which is going from strength to strength under Rafavel Bonachela’s artistic leadership. Counter Move contained two performances: a recreation of the clever introspective, Cacti, by Alexander Ekman, and Lux Tenebris, a much darker but brilliantly performed piece choreographed by Bonachela that showcased the great skills of his company.

“Really good” was a new Australian play, Machu Picchu, written by Sue Smith. In the West End or Broadway plays are not presented until they have had a large number of rewrites and out-of-town tryouts but here in Australia we don’t have the money or the population for this and so new plays are basically put on cold. Of course they have been workshopped and rewritten but the limited rehearsal period is where the most revision occurs.

This funny play about a family came off well in the steady hands of director Geordie Brookman and the two leads, Lisa McCune and Darren Gilshenan.

I cannot say the same for another new Australian play about family, The Great Fire at the Belvoir. Despite terrific acting, good direction and a relatively good set (except for the final scene) I seriously disliked this overwritten piece from Kit Brookman. There was a play there but it was full of overlong speeches. As happens in theatre, some of the audience loved it while others left at the interval.

And now for the great.

King Charles III

Robert Powell (left) as Charles with Ben Righton and Jennifer Bryden as William and Kate in King Charles III
Photo: Richard Hubert-Smith

Written by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Rupert
Almeida Theatre Company (London)
Sydney Theatre Company
Sydney Theatre

The British have started filming many of their great productions for consumption in other places. There was initially some concern that this would lead to a reduction in West End audiences. What it has done is produce a bigger thirst for good theatre, and audiences are increasing.

The move has been great for people in Australia’s capital cities where there are now regular screenings of shows from the Royal Shakespeare and London National theatres’ successful plays.

These create great opportunities to see the superb actors/actresses in beautiful productions — but they are still on film and it is not the same as being there in a living, breathing theatre with a living, breathing audience with living, breathing cast.

One of the best things about festivals is that they usually contain at least one chance of seeing special plays from overseas, and it is always a performance that is successful and finely honed.

When Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett took over the artistic helm of the Sydney Theatre Company they used their contacts to import some great shows. This year we had Golem, which was special, and King Charles III, which was magnificent.

The play opens on a superb big set with a background that looks like many a set for a Shakespearean play. Large candles surround the stage, which is simply a rectangular podium. The company enters holding candles and singing a Gregorian-type chant. From this spectacular beginning we enter England at the death of Queen Elizabeth and the taking of the throne, immediately, by Charles.

Everyone thinks he will be a pushover, not least the prime minister, who looks something like Jeremy Corbyn. Almost immediately a constitutional problem emerges as Charles refuses to sign a new bill that limits the freedom of the press.

The play then springboards into a battle for a solution that involves all the royal players: Camilla, William and Kate, and Harry, who has met a commoner and plans to forego his place in the line of succession.

Over almost three wonderful hours we see the family and the politicians negotiate and manoeuvre each other for power. The irony of the Labour PM and the Tory opposition leader’s positions is just one of the many delights.

The play is written in iambic pentameter with nonstop clever rhymes. This naturally gives it a feel of Shakespeare along with the five-Act structure of the play and the many references to his plays; Harry does a great Henry V while Kate channels Lady Macbeth. Harry’s scenes with the commoner, Jess, are not played in verse (think gravediggers?).

The resolution of the crisis is clever and scary.

While every one of the performances are top-notch it is Robert Powell as Charles who holds the play together. It is a great role and he grabs it and plays it full-throttle. I am a full-on republican and this work made me even more so, if that were at all possible.

The play was a big success in England and I would have loved to have been in the foyer there after each performance to listen to the discussions. It was terrific even here.

I am hoping the new artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company continues to bring us plays from afar. I suspect there is a good chance as he has just finished as director of the Chichester Theatre.

Frank Barnes is retired and at the end of next month is planning a visit to the West End where he plans to indulge for almost a month