Frank Barnes

I have seen so many plays since my last column that I will mention them all but concentrate on the two that are still running. Both are Sydney Theatre Company productions. You can always rely on an STC production to be stylish and well-cast. Both are well worth seeing but probably will attract very different audiences and that is what a major theatre company needs to do.


Written by April de Angelis
Directed by Pamela Rabe
Sydney Theatre Company
Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

The title is explained at the very end of the play and is symbolic of the theme presented in this very enjoyable Melbourne Theatre Company joint production. It is the story of Hilary (Jane Turner), who is turning 50 and experiencing doubts about her place in life.

She was part of the generation that fought Thatcher and is starting to wonder what all of that meant as life moves on.

She and her husband Mark (David Tredinnick) have settled into a sort of easy non-communication; they read Great Expectations in bed and have different ideas of how to treat their sullen teenage daughter Tilly (Brenna Harding in her first stage performance).

Hilary resorts to alcohol and keeping company with her best friend Frances (Marina Prior) who fights off ageing by wearing lycra and rehearsing for a non-existent burlesque performance.

When Hilary comes home to find Tilly not at school and a young man, Josh (Laurence Boxhall), in his jocks, a series of incidents commences leading to meetings with Josh’s family, his stitched-up mother Bea (Caroline Brazier) and “actor” father Roland (John Lloyd Fillingham).

Add to this mix Tilly’s best (and pregnant) friend Lyndsay (Tariro Mavondo) and later another boy “friend” of Tilly’s, Cam (Dylan Watson) and you have an enjoyable comedy of manners. It made me think of a good David Williamson.

The audience loved the show but I was not as sure. I found it a bit light-on, like Williamson’s work.

Everything about the production was excellent: the design and costuming were spot-on and all performances were terrific.

The highlight is watching Jane Turner at work. Not only did she perfectly capture Hilary but she also adds physicality to her character, even finding the furniture getting in her way —as was the rest of her life — as it revolved between scenes. Only a few times did Kath Day-Knight emerge but who cares? It was in character and she is one funny lady.

This is not a very challenging play but highly enjoyable and is always great to see a stylish STC/MTC production. It is certainly not a Samuel Beckett play.

Just a few words about the other plays I have seen: riverrun, the voice of the river in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, adapted, directed and performed by Olwen Fouere, will be hard to beat as the best show of the year; Suddenly Last Summer, Tennessee William’s grotesque story of his mother’s infatuation with her son, was a great production with amazing use of direct film and superb performances by Robyn Nevin and Eryn Jean Norvill; Man of La Mancha was another excellent production from Squabbalogic, and while it is showing its age this production was fresh and fun and moving.


Hugo Weaving as Hamm in Endgame

Written by Samuel Beckett
Directed by Andrew Upton
Sydney Theatre Company
Roslyn Packer Theatre

Theatregoers generally either love Samuel Beckett or hate him although some fall, like I do, in between. Last year, the STC presented a superb production of Waiting for Godot which Andrew Upton had to finish directing when the original Hungarian director, Tamas Ascher, had to withdraw at the last moment. It will soon be playing in London at the Barbican Theatre.

There were some naysayers who said that Upton still had to prove his chops as a director. I am not one of them.

Any Beckett production needs great directors and actors so they can untangle the play to make sense of it for the audience. They also need to find the humour, which is there but often remains hidden.

They also have to follow the instructions of the Beckett estate as he only died in 1998. A famous Neil Armfield production of Godot famously ran into trouble at Belvoir when it added a music score.

This production avoids that with a clever set and lighting design by Nick Schlieper (who usually only does lighting). The design cleverly turns the cavernous theatre stage into a narrow, cage-like room reaching to the sky, and is all grey and dank.

The play opens with Clov, all bent over, chirpily starting the day by opening the curtains and having to climb up a very long ladder. Tom Budge sets a wonderful clownish opening to the show that continues for the next 110 minutes.

Clov next pulls the curtain-like covering off Hamm (Hugo Weaving) who, after playing with his giant handkerchief, begins communicating with Clov in what seems to be a daily ritual of power and command.

It is never clear to me what their relationship is. While it seems to be a power relationship the two are probably brothers as at one stage we meet their parents, Nagg (Bruce Spence) and Nell (Sarah Peirse), who live in garbage bins and seem to only emerge when Hamm wishes them to. Hamm cannot move or see so obviously Clov is in the real power position — but is he a victim of his own power?

Along with the full house I sat mesmerised by this production, marvelling at Weaving’s mastery as he uses only his voice and arms, the powerful clowning performance of Tom Budge who has not acted on stage for 10 years, and the rarely-seen Bruce Spence and the extraordinary Sarah Peirse whose appearance is way too brief. I believe that the parents were not in the original script.

Somehow there is always lots of humour to be found in these bleak scenarios of Beckett’s worlds.

This is a very classy production and if you want an introduction to Beckett this is a good one to begin with: his plays can get way more bizarre.

The production is engrossing. Let’s hope that Upton, who is leaving for the US with his family, comes back occasionally to team up with Weaving again.

The Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival gave us Blue Wizard at Belvoir Downstairs, a pleasant bit of nonsense, and Cock at Old Fitz Theatre, a funny study of sexuality that deserves a main stage production; finally Upstairs at Belvoir had Electra/Orestes, that was a great idea and wonderfully staged but was everything that is wrong with Belvoir currently. We have seen enough of old plays rewritten and poorly acted.

Frank Barnes is excited to have already booked to see The Mark Morris Dance Group and Matilda the Musical later in the year.