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sydney festival - online exclusive

lives lost and found

keith gallasch: more of the 2013 sydney festival

Front: Gareth Davies & Geraldine Hakewill; Back Paula Arundell, John Leary, Megan Holloway, Jimi Bani, Harriet Dyer & Meyne Wyatt, Peter Pan, Belvoir Front: Gareth Davies & Geraldine Hakewill; Back Paula Arundell, John Leary, Megan Holloway, Jimi Bani, Harriet Dyer & Meyne Wyatt, Peter Pan, Belvoir
photo Brett Boardman

peter pan

Belvoir takes children’s play as a creative template for this fun-filled, endlessly inventive Peter Pan in an adaptation by Tommy Murphy based on the 1904 pantomime rather than later, denser versions and their musings on childhood. It’s a brisk 90-minute production deftly directed by Ralph Myers and designed by Robert Cousins. As you’d expect of Belvoir there’s a strong sense of domesticity (will the cast for Neil Armfield’s Ring Cycle for Opera Australia be fitted out in t-shirts and thongs in a school hall setting?) creatively exploited to the max while still hovering somewhere between Edwardian England and now.

In an adroit move, the production never has to leave the children’s bedroom since their play has the capacity to transform everyday clothing, furniture, objects and rituals into an imaginative wonderland. A painted cardboard box worn like a helmet becomes the snapping jaws of a crocodile, the fairy Tinkerbell manifests as flickering table and bed lamps, and an uncooperative shadow is playfully childlike (the flying however is less inventively realised and gotten out of the way promptly). All that’s needed to create mermaids and seals are scuba-diving flippers; a cupboard stacked with other furniture becomes a ship or an island; an umbrella handle is Hook’s hook. The imagination has taken over by engaging with and manipulating the things of the world, rather than leaving them behind, say, for an animator’s spectacular fantasia.

Meyne Wyatt, Peter Pan, Belvoir Meyne Wyatt, Peter Pan, Belvoir
photo Brett Boardman
Meyne Wyatt as Peter Pan (a role traditionally allocated to adult actresses) vividly conveys the ultra-confidence of the young alpha-male but also the pain of the eternal youth and the wounding—desertion—it embodies. On the edge of adolescence and bitter, unable to forgive the mother who apparently abandoned him, Wyatt’s Pan is certainly not a child, nor will he ever become an adult, refusing to grow up and enter the world of relationships and parenting. The other boys, clearly children still, simply miss their mothers (no lost girls, it seems, in Edwardian England).

Peter and Wendy are the only characters who are solely themselves; in this bedroom-cum-Neverland, everything is transformable, making the ambiguities of traditional role doublings even more meaningful, representing the kinds of distortion, condensation and slippage that occur in dreams, as delineated by Freud in the same era as Barrie’s making of Peter Pan.

Charlie Garber doubles well as a very funny, nervous Hook and a weak-willed but sensitive Mr Darling so that there’s some emotional bleed between the characters.

In a dextrous ensemble that includes Gareth Davies, Megan Holloway and John Leary, Harriet Dyer is hilarious as both twins as well as playing four or five other characters. Jimi Bana reveals a fine comic sensibility after playing many serious roles on television, such as Eddie Mabo in Mabo. Paula Arundell gently captures Mrs Darling’s sense of anxiety about the outside world but also her wisdom. Geraldine Hakewell’s Wendy is genteel relative to Peter, whose first appearance in a window overlooking the streets of Redfern outside the Belvoir theatre suggests a street kid.

The ending, where Wendy, now a mother, allows her barely pre-adolescent daughter (an eager if spikey one who will not spring clean for Peter and the boys and appears unlikely to play mother), feels increasingly uncomfortable as the decades past. What precisely did Wendy’s adventure with Peter do for her? Intimate the possibility of romance while unleashing her imagination at the moment when it was likely to be crushed by the weight of domesticity and marriage? Or did it offer a lesson in how to deal with a man who will never grow up; perhaps all men, and that these boy-men have to be lived with and loved? For Barrie, Wendy’s victory is that she actually grows up, while Peter cannot. Peter Pan remains very much of its own period, offering a certain timelessness in the exultation of play as felt in this Belvoir production, admirably of the kind children might actually make.

school dance

Amber McMahon, Matthew Whittet, Luke Smiles, Jonathon Oxlade, School Dance Amber McMahon, Matthew Whittet, Luke Smiles, Jonathon Oxlade, School Dance
photo Lisa Tomasetti
The lost boys in Matthew Whittet’s School Dance for this Windmill/Sydney Theatre Company production are a trio of mid-adolescents, collectively out of kilter with a pressurised social world and each facing their own crisis. None of them is a Peter Pan, but they are, to varying degrees, wounded: one of them feeling invisible, one brutalised by his father, the other making the right moves, but never connecting. Together they fear the school bully, a muscular brute who emerges like a demon from the toilet as if from a hell hole in a mediaeval mystery play. They need a Wendy, especially when Matthew’s condition (Whittet uses the male actors’ names) becomes actually invisible and finds himself in a fantasy world of eternally invisible, fellow adolescents—ghostly, animated figures drifting through a forest projected on the school hall stage, and one very real girl who has surrendered to her belief in her own invisibility.

These boys don’t need a Wendy-mother, but someone who will rescue Matthew. She takes the form of a schoolyard enabler who subsequently transforms into a unicorn and draws Matthew’s mates into the quest—Luke (Luke Smiles) as an action character, Jonathan (Jonathan Oxlade) as a giant Telebubbie. In the process, Matthew rescues the lost girl and discovers romance: in the end the couple happily dance together with all of Matthew’s twitchy moves.

Whittet has deftly collaged a multitude of fairytale, game and quest motifs and tropes in order to create a hyper-charged, comic narrative about the drawbacks of adolescence and the need to face up to them alone and together. Set in an immaculately realised school hall (designer Jonathan Oxlade) with toilets either side representing ‘interior’ spaces of male and female fear and anxiety while the understage provides a rack of BMXs on which the boys momentarily escape the intimidating school dance. Amber McMahon, embodying ‘the female,’ convincingly switches roles from schoolgirls to unicorn to invisible girl (and other roles) with incredible pace adding to the sense of the potential for transformation. Other tight cueing comes in the form of beeped-out swearing, some wild dancing and Whittet having to double as the ‘invisible’ girl in the hall toilet before she actually disappears. The small ensemble of players delivers a virtuosic performance which engaged the almost totally adult audience with whom I saw School Dance—the pop culture that Whittet grew up with in the 80s is densely referenced and easily recognised. It would be interesting to see what an audience of 14-16 year-olds would make of it (many of the cultural icons persist, though a Nora Ephron reference might not connect). My only misgiving was a not-so-funny voiceover (MacMahon again, this time as an interfering narrator) which is given a laboured postmodern treatment.

While Peter Pan’s lost boys have been discarded by their mothers, the School Dance trio is largely lost to fumbling adolescent inadequacies (albeit socially punished ones), but it’s intriguing that, like Pan, they look to the feminine for rescue. But Whittet, a century on, allows for lost girls, and for the lost to be found. And it’s play that is key to rescue, although a scene in which the invisible Whittet and McMahon characters huddle under a large storybook mushroom reminds us that adolescent anxieties can be regressive. Perhaps regression is, at times, restorative if you’re looking to find yourself.

it’s dark outside

Tim Watts, It's Dark Outside, Perth Theatre Company Tim Watts, It's Dark Outside, Perth Theatre Company
photo Richard Jefferson
In contrast to the losses and gains of childhood and adolescence in Peter Pan and School Dance, It’s Dark Outside ventures lightly into the grim world of memory loss occasioned by dementia in old age, suggesting that while rationality suffers, the imagination might play a sustaining role—again embodied in playfulness.

From the makers of the much praised The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer, It’s Dark Outside is another work rich in invention with its mix of performer, puppets of varying scale (operated by Tim Watts and Chris Isaacs largely in Bunraku style), large animated projections, shadow play and some fine cotton wool puppetry conveying clouds of thought. A slow old man is on the loose (though we’re not told from what), pursued by a spooky shadow man with a large butterfly net through a forest of red-eyed trees and across cowboy movie plains. In the cold of night a tiny tent appears, dancing like a friendly puppy one moment, a fine high stepping horse the next, the old man riding it past buttes and cacti.

His plight is sensitively handled. The expression “a head full of cotton wool” suggests fuzzy headedness but here, floating out of the old man’s head, it represents thoughts and memories that are being lost, drifting away or caught in his pursuer’s net. Some memories are momentarily retained, the clouds taking shape as a lively, fond puppy until the old man fumbles, knocking off its head—like a memory that’s fragile and vulnerable.

Expertly blending stillness and small movements, including those of a flexible mask, Arielle Gray superbly realises the old man, giving him quiet dignity and determination even as his escape into fantasy threatens to dissolve. The makers of It’s Dark Outside offer a gently if intense account of the subjective experience of Sundown Syndrome—when dementia sufferers wander away from home at twilight. Although this account can only be a fantasy version of something likely to be much more anxious—a physical search for what’s been lost—it nonetheless encourages empathy in its audience and exalts the power of the imagination, an issue addressed in enlightened treatments of dementia using music and art.

As Astrid Frances reported in her review (RT110) the sustained approach to the cloud-thought imagery finally feels over-determined; the drama of pursuit gives way to a more contemplative, if lovingly realised, exploration of the workings of the imagination, depriving the work of drive and muting the initial sense of suspense. But there’s much to enjoy in It’s Dark Outside (director Melissa Cantwell), the skill of its puppeteering in particular and Gray’s subtle performance as the old man realise a substantial sense of interiority, making a simple fable emotionally complex.


Masi, The Conch Theatre Masi, The Conch Theatre
photo Jamie Williams
A work about loss from a New Zealand Pacific theatre company, The Conch Theatre’s MASI [NZ, UK, Fiji] is a melancholy reverie about deceased parents in which the mixed cultural heritage of the couple (a Fijian high chief and a Cambridge educated schoolmistress in 1950s New Zealand) is celebrated with projected archival images, beautiful traditional music and Masi weaving. The approach is however unremittingly sombre, right from the start with its piano and cello musings, and impressionistic—we learn very little about the parents. Consequently, for all the poetry of its projections, movement, deployment of materials and the power of the imagery of weaving (a superb example forming the 13-metre arch of the proscenium) Masi felt intensely private.

the moment I saw you I knew I could love you

The moment I saw you I knew I could love you,  Curious UK The moment I saw you I knew I could love you, Curious UK
photo Hugo Glendinning
This time it’s the audience that’s lost. Seated in three inflatable lifeboats, we’re addressed by three performers of the UK’s Curious who sometimes sit with us, adrift in a “churning ocean…a metaphor for the turbulent range of human emotions” (program note). There’s very little churning; rather, we float through moods generated by lectures about the physiology of fear and our blood cells that turn lyrical (“love the shape of your organs”), advice on how to prepare yourself for trauma, a tale of man who brought himself a new pair of Adidas because he didn’t want to look foolish after suiciding, and a woman’s recollection of gagging at a wedding when having to make a speech she didn’t want to deliver. Woven through crises of odd and involuntary behaviour are films of an older man and a woman, dancing first by themselves on a beachfront walkway and then together. In the last passage of the performance they appear onstage and the audience too is invited to dance—like the couple in the film, each with an apple held brow to brow. While enjoying The Moment… from moment to moment, the sense of whimsical free association made for a rather abstract experience, a floating world of evocation but also of loose connections. I admired the performances, especially Claudia Barton’s intense monologues, but never felt that I was “in the belly of the whale” (program).

the rape of lucrece

Camille O'Sullivan, Rape of Lucrece Camille O'Sullivan, Rape of Lucrece
photo Keith Pattison
I admired Camille O’Sullivan’s delivery of Shakespeare’s verse in The Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Rape of Lucrece, but was appalled by the banality of the songs and the performer’s overacting in those moments when she had to step outside the invaluable constraints of the poetry. The dramaturgy of the design was also poor—great piles of manuscript with which the performer engaged only once (she tossed them around of course), the blunt symbolism of the deployment of a lone female shoe and a male boot, and a series of modernist paintings as background that merely changed hue and texture according to the lighting which otherwise functionally carved corridors of light across the floor. Initially looking like a chunkily suited modern nun, Sullivan later reveals, underneath, the gown in which she will be raped. The sound was likewise problematic. The verse sounded fine from the head-miked Camille, but as soon as she sang the volume was intolerably ramped up for bland anthemic songs. The editing of the poem for the stage was reasonably well done, but where was Lucrece’s verbal defence of herself in the face of Tarquin’s onslaught? As for the rape, instead of making the most of the poetry, Sullivan writhed on the floor, howling, melodramatically undercutting the power of her performance. The loss? Ours, Lucrece’s and Shakespeare’s.

sacre—the rite of spring

Raimund Hoghe, Lorenzo de Brabandere, The Rite of Spring Raimund Hoghe, Lorenzo de Brabandere, The Rite of Spring
In the largest Carriageworks theatre, Raimund Hoghe and Lorenzo De Brabandere move about the vast space at walking pace in neat geometric patterns, accelerating, slowing, intersecting, passing, coming face to face, separating. De Brabandere races across the floor, Hogue emphatically drags an ungainly leg. At the same time two musicians perform Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring on grand pianos far upstage, evoking the furious richness of movement that was Nijinky’s choreography in 1913 for the Ballet Russes. But in this neat ritual there is no dancerliness; the focus instead is unrevealingly on two very different bodies. Sacre seems to have dated badly since offering a strong conceptual challenge to contemporary dance in the early 2000s, part of an anti-dance trend that emerged in the mid 1990s .

ligeti morphed

One of Ensemble Offspring’s greatest strengths is the way they encourage us to not lose touch with the great music of the second half of the 20th century. The best thing about their Ligeti Morphed was the relatively un-morphed acoustic works, Ligeti’s Piano Etude#2 “Cordes Vides” (scored for marimba, vibraphone and two violins by Bree Van Reyk) and Continuum (two marimba version) played by Van Reyk and Claire Edwardes. The lyrical etude rolls out in gentle if ever escalating tides that pause or retreat, with waves of strings and percussion crisscrossing. Continuum, as played by Reyk and Edwardes, is supple and athletic, exploiting the full tonal range of the instruments and at its fastest and highest, on both marimbas at once, magically evoking electronics. The electro-acoustic works, with Oren Ambarchi on electronic guitar and Martin Ng on turnables are enigmatic, partly because it’s not visually clear what sounds are coming from Ng, especially, and Ambarchi. I close my eyes. As in the etude, if much more dramatically, there are waves of sound in After Atmospheres (after Ligeti’s most famous work, Atmospheres, 1961), a collaborative creation between Ensemble Offspring, Ng and Ambarchi. In one of the most striking passages, high whining violins soar with near feedback electronics against trembling cymbals until vanquished by thunderous drumming. This engaging work includes a rip-roaring Le Grande Macabre style section, side by side with Atmospheres-type sustained ambience. As a totality however, appreciation will doubtless come with listening to After Atmospheres, and the other electro-acoustic works in the program, on the projected studio recording CD.


Murder, Erth Murder, Erth
photo Susannah Wembley
Erth’s Murder had an abundance of talent and promise but, after connecting strongly with its inspiration, the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ album Murder Ballads in a grimly comic realisation of “Stagger Lee,” it drifted away into its own complicated narrative (in which a song as powerful as “Red Right Hand” is reduced to background noise) albeit with flashes of inspiration and a strong central performance from Graeme Rhodes. This is another production about loss, this time a loss of rationality and an inexorable descent into murder.

Rhodes commences with a dull and surely disposable lecture on the history of murder from ancient times to the present, perhaps trying to get it into some kind of rational perspective, but before long he’s revealed to be a fantasist (images from his psyche filling a large backdrop) increasingly enmeshed in the psychosexual attractions of murder (including via computer games) and eventually forming a murderous partnership with a woman via an online chatroom. Rather than being a free agent exploring murder and its meanings, by the end he is manipulated by puppeteers as if in the grip of desires beyond his control. Signs of this are evident early, although difficult to track subsequently, when the narrator tells us that his mother was murdered when he was six and, therefore, the God who allowed this must be a murderer. A child puppet then appears to represents the narrator. This trajectory is not altogether clear but what is finally evident is that this man’s desire is not simply murder for the sake of it, but for revenge. The target’s visage, a spider-legged head, multiplies across the screen, amplifying our protagonist’s obsessiveness. However, the means of telling—life-size puppets and miniatures, a multitude of projections—make for a congested multimedia experience, especially when the script is already complicated. More overkill than murder. In its embrace of murder actual and virtual from from ancient tragedy to computer gaming and serial murderers and even euthanasia, Murder sustains a high level of bigger-than-life grossness with killings, cocksucking, torture (with a drill) and suffocation by cunnilingus. It rates as less an investigation of our murderous impulses than a celebration of their variety and appalling ingenuity—a funny and appalling reminder, as if we needed one, of the loss of rationality, empathy and civility that confronts us in the daily news. At best, with its fine puppeteering, like a horror film it makes evil laughable.

2013 Sydney Festival: Belvoir, Peter Pan, by JM Barrie, adaptation Tommy Murphy, director Ralph Myers, performers [see review], design Robert Cousins, costumes Alice Babidge, lighting Damien Cooper, composer Stefan Gregory, Belvoir St Theatre, from Jan 9; Sydney Theatre Co presents Windmill Theatre’s School Dance, writer Matthew Whittet, director Rosemary Myers, performers [see review] with Jack Wetere, designer Jonathan Oxlade, soundtrack Luke Smiles, lighting Richard Vabre, choreographer Gabrielle Nankivell, animation Chris Moore, STC wharf 1, from Jan 11; Perth Theatre Company, It’s Dark Outside, creators Tim Watts, Arielle Gray, Chris Isaacs, music Rachael Dease, Carriageworks, Jan 11-15; Curious UK, The moment I saw you I knew I could love you, Helen Paris, Leslie Hill, Claudia Barton, Carriageworks, Jan 11-13; The Conch Theatre (NZ, Fiji, UK), Masi, director Nina Nawalowalo, co-director Tom McCory, illusion designer Paul Kieve, composer Gareth Farr, Seymour Centre, Jan 20-25; Royal Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece, writer William Shakespeare, adaptation Eliza Freestone (director), Feargal Murray (composer), Camille O’Sullivan (performer, composer), design Lily Arnold, lighting Vince Herbert, Seymour Centre, Jan 22-25; Ensemble Offspring, Ligeti Morphed, violins Veronique Serret, Anna McMichael, percussion Claire Edwardes, Bree van Reyk, turntables Martin Ng, Electronic guitar Oren Ambarchi, Carriageworks, Jan 11-13; Sacre—The Rite of Spring, concept Raimund Hoghe, choreography & dance Raimund Hoghe , Lorenzo De Brabandere, pianos Guy Vandromme, Alain Franco, Carriageworks, Jan 5-8; Erth, murder, concept, direction Scott Wright, writer Raimondo Cortese, performers Graeme Rhodes, Rod Primrose, Michelle Robin Anderson, Gavin Clarke, Katina Olsen, design Steve Howarth and Erth Studio, sound, lighting design Phil Downing, choreography Kate Champion, puppetry director Rod Primrose, Seymour Centre, Sydney, Jan 5-19

RealTime issue #113 Feb-March 2013 pg. web

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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