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Rita Kalnejais, Sophie Lee in Mr Kolpert Rita Kalnejais, Sophie Lee in Mr Kolpert
The appeal of a nice night at home, one’s own, never seemed more attractive than when witnessing the brutality in someone else’s—the loungeroom bourgeois bloodbath of STC’s Mr Kolpert and the warehouse underclass savagery of UTPs’ The Longest Night. As nice nights in the theatre, they were, however, excellent. Something to take away and worry at in the comfort’s own home.

Sydney Theatre Company: Mr Kolpert

A wide, shallow, low-ceilinged room, all pinewood veneer, drab carpet, one wall-phone, one framed photo of the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge (that occasionally distracts the characters), a door to a bathroom, a door to the apartment building hallway, access to a kitchen, a clutch of toys in a corner, a large trunk at the centre of the room. We’re in Benedict Andrews’ land—cinemascopic, spare, distorting, abrasive, intensely physical, sonic (a dj at work to one side). Set and toys are reminders of the other German play he directed for STC,Fireface, but the wide dark slit and pit of that play with its multitude of huge dolls is here a starkly lit room utterly devoid of furniture.

In Fireface, emotionally repressed parents are finally murdered by their psychotic children. The parents are the target of a long tradition of anti-bourgeois German film and theatre. The children belong to a line of fictional and very real psychotics and terrorists. In Mr Kolpert, by David Gieselmann, we are faced (the actors largely play at us if not to us) with 2 couples, one invited by the other to dinner. But quite unlike their stage predecessors, these adults (late 20s, early 30s) are not repressed, certainly not in the usual sense. The veneer of good manners quickly cracks, the restraints of civilised behaviour are barely sighted as insults and physical abuse and confessions (usually the stuff of revelatory final acts in most plays) escalate into very bloody murder. In fact the hosts already have a previous victim somewhere in the house—in the trunk? Other than some insistent vomiting there is little sign of shock let alone remorse. The tears at the play’s abrupt end suggest release rather than remorse. The wife peeing on her husband’s body another kind of release. And all this without an interval or a moment of reflection, as pieces of pizza fly into the auditorium and the savaged delivery boy falls offstage before the front row of the audience to be stomped to death by one of the wives.

In this wickedly preposterous comedy of bad manners the playing, appropriately, has only 2 levels, a droll lack of affect and savage outburst. It makes for a suspenseful night out, and a messy one. Bourgeois behaviour at the very first seems as emptily formal as the room it inhabits, but it is dangerously eruptive. It soon looks unrepressed in its frankness and its volatility, these adults are not far removed from the psychotic children of Fireface. In that play, the parents’ refusal to deal with their offsprings’ problems is clearly a social failure, the evil of the children though is less clearly a social outcome, especially in the son. Mr Kolpert, on the other hand has no metaphysics. It’s a vicious social satire of a barren middle-class life with little style and no substance, an ideal recipe for fascistic behaviour (the murder of the boss, Mr Kolpert, for murder’s sake, and the subsequent ganging up on one of the husbands) replete with indifference to the suffering of others. What is frighteningly contemporary is the smugness and aggressiveness with which bad behaviour and mindless evil are enacted and indifferently justified (if at all). Sadly, this is a play of the moment.

Once again Andrews succeeds in creating a unique and consistently realised nightmarish world. His performers, Felix Williamson, Sophie Lee, Simon Burke and a striking newcomer Rita Kalnejais (with the best role in the play—the meekest and the most murderous), maintain a consistency of tone (a rarefied social voice), physical bravery (fight director Kyle Rowling), and a refusal to plump for conventional psychological nuancing. Fiona Crombie’s set design is chillingly stark in its unyielding totality (framed by a tube of show lighting accenting the sometime cabaret-ish dimension of the production) and Mark Pennington’s abrupt change of colour washes make for disorienting A-effects cum sudden mood swings. Peret Von Strumer aka Mako provides a sound score that often quietly, sometimes explosively, unnerves.

Andrews’ productions for the Wharf 2 Blueprints program and his The Three Sisters at the Opera House have offered Sydney theatre audiences a true rarity-an unfolding vision and an uncompromising, developing theatrical framework for it, dismissed as ‘style’ in some quarters. Better his explorations of the banality (and complex strangeness) of violence and social manipulation than the banality of the well-mannered perpetual motion machine of most straight theatre.

Sydney Theatre Company, Blueprints, Mr Kolpert, writer David Gieselmann, director Benedict Andrews; Wharf 2, Sydney, opened Feb 5

Urban Theatre Projects: The Longest Night

A disused warehouse in a dark, semi-industrial street in Granville, western Sydney, is home to the production of The Longest Night and home to the central character, Bernie (Bernadette Regan). No suspension of disbelief or virtuosic set design required here. Nothing in this neat but depleted house works—the TV, the CD player, the microwave, and the toilet’s in a state of repair. Nor does Bernie’s life work—she has limited access to her child, taken away on his birthday by a government official early in the night before our eyes. The pathos is intense, real time realism as mother and child reveal their casual intimacy. By living on her own, away from temptation, Bernie has the opportunity for redemption. However, in a familiar but very real scenario, she might lose her child to the law, and her integrity, when a group of friends take over her home and the long night, bringing with them unresolved tensions, drugs and cruelly learnt misanthropy. Bernie gets through this long night, but barely, and is once again alone, her former friends restlessly exiting, young adults locked into a perpetual adolescence of escape, thwarted energy and anger. They have flashes of humour, resolve, creativity—sustained bursts of mock filmmaking, role-playing, rapping and skilled hiphopping-and moments of generosity, painful sensitivity and apology. But in the trap of homelessness and unemployment these virtues are uncertain, possibly not good for survival in a culture of toughness (so sparely and graphically portrayed in the director Alicia Talbot’s The Cement Garage with some of the same characters).

If the narrative of The Longest Night is predictable (the relationships that won’t work, the job fantasies that can’t, the competition for loyalty, the disruptiveness of sex, the group breaking up), its modus operandi is not, story counting for less than the power of the moment. Partly improvised, the production often focuses on a particular action, a gesture or utterance and runs with it, sometimes with astonishing momentum. The outcome is a show that moves in waves, blocks of energy, passages of calm or twitchy restlessness, giving the work a nervy realism that it might not have achieved by plain scripting. The 2 big surges of energy, release and destructiveness that are central to the night (and Bernie’s fear of being condemned to the loss of her child) are like fantasies, such is their totality for the characters-lighting, sound and theatricality take us all onto another plane. Bernie eerily walks up a wall, the hip hop is virtuosic, the danger is palpable. The first time this happens, it’s messy and distressing, but often fun and inventive, despite Bernie’s resistance and subsequent hostility. The second time it’s a nightmare of anger, destructiveness and self laceration-one of the characters, Carlos (Charles Russell), taping his head and eyes tight with masking tape, pouring boiling water over himself, crawling towards us, an inadvertent performance artist. The Longest Night is at its strongest, as was The Cement Garage, in the suggestiveness of its imagery (reinforced here by composer Rose Turtle’s often quiet anxiety-inducing sound score and Sam James’ lighting). The dialogue is variable, though to give it it’s due there is some sharp humour and there are moments of power and quiet insight, for example between the 2 women as Bernie begins to believe in Lucia’s (Lucia Mastrantone) sisterly fantasies.

The performances are strong, especially when anchored in the momentum of the production or a particular image. Bernie’s quiet hostility towards her former friends and her swings between resistance and weakening find focus in her desperate need for support as her court appearance looms. She won’t get it. Carlos, the lover (or is he?) and the dealer, is a pragmatist with an aura of control and confidence belying something deeper-seen when he hurts himself—or innocent, when entranced by a model helicopter. Morgan (Morgan Lewis), the would-be filmmaker is all energy and camaraderie (expressed in the heightened synchronicity of rapping and dancing with his mate Shannon [Shannon Williams]) until a dodgy looking relationship gets in the way and he nervously edges out of a friendship. Lucia is a junkie in the making, ever on edge, kidding herself and friends with fantasies of work and committed friendship. Lucia Mastrantone’s edgy performance is chilling. Shannon Williams, already a noted rapper, proves himself a stage natural, creating a calm but threatening presence, but for all that one bewildered by the turn of events and the loss of a friend. Director Talbot choreographs the collective performances in the big scenes of wild release (and the subsequent burnout) dexterously, grabbing and splitting our attention, making the rampage all the more disturbing.

The Longest Night originated in sustained workshops in suburban Adelaide and western Sydney and in consultation with the very people it’s about. In its commitment to a semi-improvised format and in the absence of a writer (but not a dramaturg) it’s not surprising that even though well-shaped it’s a rough work, lending it a certain rawness, a valuable sense of unpredictability moment by moment. It means that given it’s a character-based play, with a plot and, for the most part, a solid fourth wall, that it’s not going satisfy the demands of motivation and outcome for every viewer. Me, I let that go, and went with those waves of energy, invention and image that suggested more than the words often could.

Urban Theatre Projects, The Longest Night, 2002 Adelaide Festival commission, director Alicia Talbot, space, video & lighting design Sam James, sound design Rose Turtle, dramaturg Caitlin Newton-Broad; Granville, Sydney, March 22-April 7

From Wollongong to Hollywood
Company Physical Theatre: Landed

A long shiny, skeletal, metal tube, a couple of metres in diameter, dominates the stage. In the course of the performance it will roll forward and back, reveal classroom blackboards, hoist performers high or deliver them to the stage. The actors manipulate it with ease, creating new spaces, dynamics and tensions. Above, a parallel screen angles out at 45 degrees over the tube, capturing colour, projections and sinister objects placed on an overhead projector. There are no trapezes or like devices for Company Physical Theatre to cavort about on-director-designer Carlos Gomez has built a tight framework for his performers and he exploits it thoroughly, using its simple possibilities elegantly and recurrently to return us to various narrative strands. Consequently physical skills are embedded in the set and the narrative with the performers deftly lifting and tossing each other about and generating some curious (and comical) shapes. It makes for a taut theatrical production with plenty of focus on the personalities of the various characters engendered by a strong cast playing multiple roles-Ed Boyle, Stephen Klinder, Kym Vercoe and Larissa Chen.

Another integrating aspect of the production is the live sound score played by composer Marianthe Loucataris on a reconstructed piano, an upright where she has direct access to the strings, to strike and bow them, amongst other things. Loucataris’ through-score is finely tuned, responsive to the rhythms of the performance and suggestive of cultural otherness and the odd experiences had by newcomers to Australia.

The shape of Landed entails a series of symmetrical shifts between English language lessons for new arrivals, dramas of trying to fit in, struggles to stay connected with where you’ve come from (you still might have a child there waiting to join you in Australia), and painful memory flashes. In the middle of a testing language lesson a student relives being tortured in his home country. Another endures the vivid memory-cum-nightmare of a Kafka-ish visa application interrogation by Australian officials in which projected images of hypodermics suggest real torture. A woman endures the company of her husband’s insensitive and untintelligible friend—what begins naturalistically soon turns surreal as the woman stands on her guests, mounts the table, pours drink over herself, such is her sense of bewilderment and abasement-they, of course, never notice. It’s a fine performance from Larissa Chen. Other moments are simple recollections: someone notes that a neighbour who tried to kill them in the home country also lives here now.

This is deftly performed and directed theatre. Occasionally it runs too close to old theatre-in-education formulae but it’s rich idiosyncrasies and pervasive physicality rise above those. The dialogue and brief monologues are often well-observed, although the drab language lessons are much less convincing. Doubtless there are still pretty bad experiences to be had in such classes, but there are many good teachers including, I hope, the staff of the Warrawong Intensive English Centre for whom the show was produced. With its powerful musical score, its clever integration of design and physical performance and its sensitive elaboration of the complexities of what it means to arrive in Australia and to learn to be here and to speak here, Landed is engaging theatre. Gomez’ direction is some of his best to date.

Landed, devised by Company Physical Theatre, director & designer Carlos Gomez, musical director Marianthe Loucataris, lighting Sydney Bouhaniche, researcher/co-writer Vanessa Badham; A PP Cranney Production for the Warrawong Intensive English Centre; Merringong Theatre Co, Illawara Arts Centre, March 20-23

Starlet Twins, Heidrun Löhr
Starlet Twins, Heidrun Löhr

PACT Youth Theatre: The Starlet Twins

Artistic Director Caitlin Newton-Broad’s final production for PACT is a reminder of the strong sense of design, stage craft, acting commitment and choreographic direction she brought to the company. The Starlet Twins is exemplary in all these respects with strong, sustained performances from a large cast of young actors not a few of whom at first glance seem unlikely contenders but quickly convince.

With a theatrical style that’s always bigger than life and quite rhetorical, it’s not surprising that Newton-Broad decided to venture into music with this production, not quite a musical but through-scored by Michelle Outram at the piano and with a handful of songs. However, in an odd way, its opera seria rather than the musical that The Starlet Twins reminded me of—a set of scenes with minimal narrative drive, in each of which a condition, an emotional state or moral dilemma is explored musically with elaborations and variations-here imbued with a great deal of physicality beautifully executed with the help of Chris Ryan and Regina Heilmann. Musicals before the 50s could be like this, before songs and dance numbers became part of the narrative machinery of a show. The reason for this is probably to be found in Lally Katz’ epic script and Newton-Broad’s commitment to it. Twenty-three year-old Katz’ biggest investment is in the elaborate evocation of a fabled pre-50s Hollywood-like city, replete with gangsters, Gothic horror and star ambition, anchored in the tale of twins separated at birth, doomed to meet again when one might unwittingly take the life of the other. Sadly, the focus on the moment at the expense of momentum means that while the realisation of scenes and performances could frequently be admired, the show stopped too often in its tracks, and not with showstoppers. A more economical version of the script, one which allowed the director and performers to do more of the work with less words might have helped. And as for the songs, however good they were the cast weren’t up to them. Occasionally Outram’s writing was just that touch too demanding, some with jazz nuancing; more often the singers simply couldn’t sing.

Packed with characters and curiosities (like the collection of the living heads of starlets in one twin’s basement), country hicks and crooked film producers, The Starlet Twins revels in kitsch, creating a fantastic, self-contained world, both satirising and adoring its fatal fantasy object, Hollywood, not the actual but the imaginary of its own dreaming re-written by a young playwright and doubtless many more to come. It’s a strange trap. That the playwright is originally from the USA explains some of it, but the fascination with kitsch, like the nightmare of economic rationalism, seems to endure, widespread and unabated. And last, possibly pointlessly, many a play starts its narrative too early and ends it too soon: I would have liked to have seen the twins together, the next chapter in their lives; the play, after all, makes so little of the nature of twindom.

All complaints aside (my problems not yours), The Starlet Twins was brave, frequently bracing, liberally dosed with high drama, expressionist touches and poetic fervour, confidently busy and sometimes richly comic. Having served youth so well, it’d be good to see Newton-Broad working with experienced performers. A fine writer herself, perhaps she’ll script something for herself to direct?

PACT Youth Theatre,The Starlet Twins , writer Lally Katz, director Caitlin Newton-Broad, designer Lisa Mimmocchi, sound artist Michelle Outram, lighting Simon Wise, dramaturg Francesca Smith; PACT Jan 24 - Feb 3

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. web

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

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