Frank Barnes

The last review of the year and yet we have so many more shows around the corner. The Sydney Festival is always a chance to see a wide variety of shows, with an ever-increasing number of circus/cabaret shows.

This year was especially busy, taking in 28 shows in London and Dublin. It’s been interesting to see some of those shows here and make comparisons. One of those is Brian Friel’s Faith Healer, which I saw at the Donmar Warehouse theatre in London and raved about as being one of the best productions I had seen. It starred Stephen Dillane, Gina McKee and Ron Cook, who all delivered superb performances on a set that was a masterful use of the Donmar’s small space.

The Wharf Revue: Back to Bite You

Written and created by:
Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Phillip Scott
Sydney Theatre Company
Wharf 1

For 16 years we have walked out of The Wharf Revue and shouted, ‘The best yet!” but not this year: this year, we said, “Wow, that was the best writing ever.” And was it ever — the team of Biggins, Forsythe and Scott have surpassed their previous work at a time when politics seems one big joke.

And so they open in the Roman senate, with senators such as Antonius Abbottus, Corrius Bernardis, Pompous Brandis and Julianna of the Vacillating Virgins. From here, we meet Biggins as General Dick Tingle and Drew Forsythe in especially accurate, scathing form as Eric Abetz and Pauline Hanson; you realise how extraordinary his mimicry ability is with his Hanson played against Katrina Retallick’s Jacqui Lambie.

I love Retallick but revue is not her forte. Fortunately, she only has Julie Bishop and Lambie to portray and for the remainder of the show is a worthwhile member of the company.

As usual, Phil Scott’s musical direction is spectacular and he is no mean mimic himself. In the past, his John Howard has been a standout and here he is Arthur Sinodinos as a wonderful Hattie Jacques in the Brexit sendup, Carry On Up The Exit. And then Forsythe returns for a scorching turn as Bill Shorten, all bumbling and goggle-eyed.

The finale is the most brilliant and scary sketch I have seen: Jonathan Biggins on screen as Donald Trump, all orange and all hair. As I mentioned earlier the difficulty of satire in today’s political climate. Well, all he did was use Trump’s own words, and it was scarily funny. The writing was brilliant and showed why The Wharf Revue is now an institution that we need to declare a national treasure.

I want to mention Marat/Sade at New Theatre. This is one of my favourite plays and is very difficult to stage as it is a play within a play, staged in a difficult setting. The full title says it all: The Persecution and Assassination of Jean Paul Marat, as Performed by the Inmates at the Asylum in Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. By setting the show in a refugee offshore camp, director Barry French showed the modern relevance of the show although I don’t believe this was necessary as the show stands up for itself with its attacks on the establishment and the aftermath of the revolution. I was also disappointed by a modernisation of the music. But the script is so strong and the production and staging, in a cage in the centre of the theatre, was inspiring. The New is finishing a good year with Nick Enright’s Summer Rain.

I saw the London National Theatre’s The Threepenny Opera recently on film and enjoyed it once more almost as much as I did on stage. I highly recommend that you see the live filmed shows, which are shown around the state. There are only a few screenings but here in the north we get them at the Manning Entertainment Centre. It is wonderful to see theatre that we would never have a chance to see otherwise, captured so well.

Faith Healer

Brian Friel's Faith Healer

Written by Brian Friel
Directed by Judy Davis
Belvoir Upstairs

Brian Friel is considered one of the great Irish writers, no mean feat in a country renowned for great writers. You realise this even more when wandering around Dublin and coming across tributes to the writer at regular intervals.

Friel’s plays are strong in their use of language, which is often the case with the Irish. Actor Stephen Rea, with whom he often collaborated, reports, “‘It’s all about language’, he said to me. The play, I asked? The theatre?’ ‘The whole thing’, he said.” And this play exemplifies just that.

This very different play, written in 1979, follows no linear path and contains four monologues. The first is by Frank Hardy (Colin Friels), who tells us of his experiences as a travelling healer with his partner — or is it wife — Grace (Alison Whyte), and manager, Teddy (Pip Miller).

He describes his experiences in different halls as they take their show around the country. Sometimes they have nights when very few people attend, and sometimes nights when miracles seem to happen. We hear of particular times when the unexpected happens: one of these is his healing of a cripple on a very drunken night. We also hear of Ballyberg, the town that features in Friel’s plays and where there is always good weather.

Grace delivers the second monologue, and as well as starting to wonder about the truth as to whether she is wife or partner we also start to hear the stories of the events told by Frank in a different light; Frank’s veracity is now well in doubt.

Teddy is not only a very loyal manager, he is probably in love with Grace while being totally besotted with Frank. In the third monologue he proceeds to give yet a different perspective to those of Frank and Grace, and reveals what eventually happened to them both. In an earlier life Teddy was a song and dance man, and his story is told through that prism.

Finally, Frank returns, with the battered banner from his “shows” hanging overhead. Nothing further is explained but the truths raised by each of the trio fall further into question. To me, there were two main stories: that of their stillborn child and the pub at Ballyberg where he performed his healing (or did he?).

The show overwhelmed me. It is not easy watching because of the style but is easy because of the language, which is engrossing. When I saw it in London I spent hours going over it in my head. What were the truths and who told them?

In the Donmar production, Gina McKee’s Grace was played with her being neurotic but very still. In the Belvoir production, Alison Whyte displays her neurotic tics in a very physical fashion.

Pip Miller, in Sydney, seemed to demonstrate his history as a song and dance man more easily than did Ron Cook. Stephen Dillane and Colin Friels gave very similar readings of Frank. The deceptively simple set design, costumes, lighting and sound add to this extraordinary production from Judy Davis. I thought it was better than the Donmar’s. Then again, if I saw that production again, I might say the opposite. This is theatre at its best and I hope it is the return of the Belvoir to what it once was.

Finally, I saw the latest production from the unbeatable Sydney Dance Company — Untamed. I have followed this company since it was taken over by Graeme Murphy and Janet Vernon and watched it go from strength to strength and can say that the current company has the best dancers yet. They are brilliant, led by current artistic director, Rafael Bonachela. They are the best exponents of contemporary dance you will see. Wonderful.

Frank Barnes is happily retired and is looking forward to next year's theatrical highlights