THEATRE

Frank Barnes

Theatre is a wonderful, eclectic beast that has given me great joy and sometimes exasperation most of my life.

I have been involved in all aspects of this beast including writing, directing, all areas backstage, even making costumes, building sets and operating sound and lights as well as acting (badly) and directing.

All of this has given me a much broader way of looking at life and politics. I have sat in some of the oldest theatre spaces in the world as well as seeing the replica Globe Theatre in London just after it opened. I have been and seen street theatre, improvisation in spaces strange and wonderful, which leads me to my recent experiences.

Or not: as I cannot write about Hir at Belvoir because the performance I had booked for was cancelled as one of the actors was ill. Actors will perform under the most extraordinary circumstances (the show must go on!) but sometimes the illnes is just too bad and adrenalin will not carry them through.

I will get to see Hir and am really looking forward to it as it looks great fun. Hir (pronounced here as in non-gender specific) is about a family of four where circumstances have turned the role of the family around. The mother plays the patriarch. One of their two sons returns from the war with PTSD to discover not only his parents' roles reversed but also his sister is now his brother.

This production decided to cast the transgender character with a transgender actor. This should not be a big issue except it is. I don’t believe gay/lesbian/straight/transgender roles need to be played by actors of the same sexuality. It may or may not help, but with casting a show there is way more to it than just that role. There needs to be a balance with the cast and chemistry between the characters. It is called “acting” after all, but it is good to see a transgender actor playing the part here.

When you are a regular theatregoer, like I am, you see thousands of plays. Many you see over and over as they become classics and then you see new plays each year. When I started out in Sydney after learning my trade in regional amateur dramatic societies, I was naturally drawn to New Theatre, which was then in St Peters Lane, Darlinghurst, near the Cross. I had been part of the demonstration outside of Teachers Federation in Sussex Street where they had put on an illegal performance of the banned play America Hurrah.

I knew this was to be my home for the next two decades (until I became a Federation Officer) as it put on political plays and was the only theatre in NSW doing new Australian plays. Things have now changed for the better as mainstream theatres are always looking for, and presenting, new Australian plays. Which leads me to Melba.

Melba

Book and lyrics by Nicholas Christo
Music by Johannes Luebbers
Directed by Wayne Harrison
Hayes Theatre

The entry of the Hayes Theatre has changed the musical comedy scene in Sydney for the better. A number of their productions have had further lives in bigger venues in Sydney and interstate.

As well as their productions of top-class musicals, they also have a program called New Musicals Australia.

Any new play takes years to progress from the original idea and concept to the actual production. As you can imagine, a musical, with all the different components, takes much longer. Most new plays in Australia get on the stage way too early, they need lots of dramaturgy in order to get them in shape.

This play is in good shape already, but does need a bit of trimming. The musical aspects work really well, which is a big call as the writers have given a difficult task to any production team by writing a musical with two women playing Nellie Melba. One plays the singer, who performs all her famous arias, and the other plays the young Nellie Armstrong just about to leave Australia at the beginning of her career. This could be a casting nightmare because the young Nellie has to have the range of a musical voice but also the voice of a soprano. This production has solved that problem with superb choices. Emma Matthews is our leading soprano and this production is worth seeing just for the sheer joy of watching and hearing her sing the great arias. But obviously that would not be enough.

So what we get is the story of how she started out. I must admit to knowing little or nothing about this part of her story. What I did know was when people “did a Melba” — to keep doing farewell performances after their time might be up (John Farnham?) — and of course the dessert, Peach Melba. But I knew nothing of the strong woman she was. To reach the top in any profession is a battle and requires absolute dedication and strength, but she also had to fight a husband who beat her and expected her to be the wife and mother to their son back on the farm.

She wanted to sing, and sing she did. She goes to Paris and engages a famous teacher Madame Marchesi. From there we see her go on to become the famous singer playing in the great houses of the world, while balancing a battle with her husband over their son George. She becomes romantically involved with Prince Philippe of France, who would have to give up his throne if he were to marry her, which lead to scandal and final decisions that affect both of them. Meanwhile, there are divorce proceedings with husband Charlie, who steals their son and moves to Texas.

This is a great production with a superb production team — director Wayne Harrison returning from overseas, musical director Michael Tyack, designer Mark Thompson, lighting by Trudy Dalgleish and the all-important sound design by Caitlin Porter.

The Hayes is a very small space (120 seats) and to effectively mike the entire cast and musicians, and balance opera, speech and modern music so perfectly is a great achievement.

The cast, Emma Matthews, Annie Aitken, Samuel Skuthorp, Caitlin Berry, Michael Beckley, Andrew Cutcliffe, Blake Erickson, Genevieve Lemon and Adam Rennie, are nearly faultless. The only production fault was a design decision to use a puppet to represent Melba's son at different ages. It is a decision I understood, but some audience members were not as kind as myself.

Then there is National Theatre Live's production of the classic Edward Albee play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I recommend any of their productions as they are great. It was an honour to see this extraordinary production with Imelda Staunton in top form as Martha, Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones) as George, Imogen Poots as Honey and Luke Treadaway as Nick.

I first saw it in 1964 when it was considered controversial for its language and the extreme Right set out to have it banned. The protesters would go to performances and storm out (in mock disgust) early in the show so they were not damaged by the filth. I was teaching in Cooma and we travelled to Canberra to see it in a packed out performance, and sure enough a few minutes in, the walkout occurred. It made us more determined to love it. At the screening last week, you wonder at the objections and why the protesters did not look at what the play was about.

Theatre companies are announcing subscription seasons for 2018. The Melbourne Theatre Company is opening with The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-Time.

London’s National Theatre production is being imported and I can recommend it highly. When in London 12 months ago, I saw 31 plays and only two twice. This was one of them and the other was The Book of Mormon, which has been playing in Melbourne all this year and opens at Sydney Lyric Theatre on 28 February. I am hoping "Curious Incident" travels further than Melbourne. I will be very surprised if it doesn’t.

Frank Barnes is a happily retired theatre goer who loved the staged reading of Mame at The Hayes Theatre. They put these shows on after only one days rehearsing. Mame is one of those great old musicals written when almost all the songs were good