Posts Tagged ‘Michael Futcher

07
Nov
19

Jane Eyre

 

Jane Eyre

QPAC and shake & stir

QPAC Cremorne Theatre

October 18 – November 9 2019

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

 

 

 

No one does a slow-burn gothic treatment better than shake & stir, and there was never going to be a better time of year to schedule this one than during the sassy, scary Scorpio season. Let’s face it: Rochester is as Scorpio as Scorpio gets.

 

shake & stir’s Jane Eyre, like its titular character portrayed by Nelle Lee, is fiery and full of promise, but it’s not Polly Teale’s take and it’s not my favourite. Adapted by Lee and Nick Skubij, it’s quite simply overly long, however; if you leave before Interval, you’ll miss the best half of the show, so don’t!

 

Have we even seen a Jane Eyre since QUT’s student production in 2010 at Gardens Theatre? (And is it true that Gardens Theatre is the next live theatre venue to go?).

 

The tech elements here are absolutely next level, a bleak mood from the outset, helped by smokey blue hues and the darkest shadows, cast across multiple levels of a scaffolded set, thanks to Brisbane’s most awarded and appreciated creative triumvirate, Josh McIntosh (Designer, having designed a completely different production for HR in 2008 – wish I’d seen Edward Foy’s Rochester), Jason Glenwright (Lighting Designer) and Guy Webster (Additional Music and Sound). If you can’t imagine how incredible the result of a collaboration between these guys can be, see it for yourself before Jane Eyre closes this weekend, or during the return to QPAC later this month of A Christmas Carol).

 

shake & stir’s productions are truly world class.

 

The Superjesus and Green Day’s American Idiot star, Sarah McLeod, takes artistic stakes even higher, and it’s a gamble that pays off, with a haunting, stirring soundtrack of original music commissioned for this production. In her compositions and rasping, grasping vocals, lies the deeper realisation of both Bertha, the mad wife of Rochester (McLeod), and Jane. And without feeling the need to return to Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea I get a sense that it’s this version, or essence, of Bertha we see here, beneath McLeod’s sculpted arms and ink, and fierce, frightened eyes in this challenging role. (McLeod’s Bertha is probably as Polly Teale as we can expect to get for audiences that include Year 9 – 12 students). In a future role, it will be interesting to see if there is a need to reign in McLeod’s extraordinary energy and natural presence on stage. Let’s hope not; it can be better managed than that!

 

The duality of the female characters is further examined in the treatment of little Adele, Rochester’s ward, represented here by the actor’s posturing and impossibly wide eyes, a Sia-sized ribbon in the hair, and the jaunty movements, as marionette, Adele’s invisible strings pulled by the adults, who regard her with vague interest, or none at all, rather than with Jane’s attitude of love and acceptance, until the little dolly demands more and drops the coquettish act – literally; this is a very funny fuck-you moment – as individuation finally kicks in, and she is seen to stomp – not skip or twirl – to assert her place in the household, in the world. I would like to have seen a more deliberate prelude to this, in Jane’s very early behaviour, which of course would have had little to no effect in the context of the Reed’s oppressive home; perhaps this would be too subtle after all, to foreshadow the widening distinctions between class and wealth and society and privilege and pride, or perhaps we just had to see her as someone different. 

 

 

We have to remember that Charlotte Brontë published under the male non de plume, Currer Bell, in 1847 – a time when class structure began to be challenged and the romantic notion of the gentle ‘feminine’ was supposedly being left for dead, and a stronger ‘feminist’ approach was taking hold, although not everywhere; even the women of the day were shocked and dismayed by the boldness of Brontë’s Jane Eyre. A female critic famously referred to the story as a “very naughty” one.

 

A production picture of McLeod and Lee, facing off only inches away from each other, contains all the intensity and harnessed energy expected on opening night. The adaptation is still too dense to make this version a truly captivating one, and this production lacks the necessary pace to keep us on the edge of our seats. At least it’s not set in space. There is something lacking in the bullying scenes, which are rushed and light-handed, and then we spend an overly long time in the red room, and away at Lowood School. An extended choreographic sequence here, of ritual and repetition, ticks a box but fails to enhance or advance the story; it’s such a short moment actually, and you might enjoy it as a prelude to the very interesting symbolism later of little Adele, but these are the things that are slightly clunky after seeing other, flawless moments work magnificently in shake & stir’s previous productions.

 

Nelle Lee’s Jane Eyre is quietly brash and bold, with appropriate agency, giving us a sense that actually, Nelle Lee is quietly this brash and bold.

 

Anthony Standish is the bully, John Reed, the principal, Mr Brocklhurst, the missionary, St John and the gentlest, gruffest Rochester ever, and despite the distinct lack of scintillating, simmering sexual energy between he and Lee (let me know if you sit closer and feel heat from anything other than the house fire), at least we get the gorgeous playful moments, such lovely moments for actors and audience, and those looooooong looks that should have felt more…thrilling. Perhaps each piece really is just so precisely measured for schools now, so careful not to titillate or offend. Or does it still, in the moment, on the night, come down to casting, timing and bold, impulsive choices? With Intimacy Coordination/Choreography/Direction and wellness at the centre of our actor training and the entertainment industry, and in the meantime, complaints directed to school administrations at the mere mention of a gothic element, or a stiletto strutting teen in a scene for assessment or assembly, this is a very interesting conversation. To be continued…

 

 

Helen Howard is one of our most accomplished actors and directors (and with a bit of Irish luck, COCK will start something in terms of regular directing engagements for Howard). As Aunt Reed, as well as various school teachers, each with their own stance, posture, gesture, accent, and social mask/set of facial expressions, and as Mrs Fairfax and Blanch Ingram, Howard reasserts her superior authority and versatility on stage, and her place in the hearts of Brisbane audiences. 

 

Did you remember that both Helen Howard and Michael Futcher are Matilda Award Hall of Fame(ers)? No. So. There’s your reminder and a little timely nod to Rosemary, whom we miss. so. much.

 

Director, Michael Futcher, has a sharp eye; his astute and super sensitive direction of just four performers in this magnificent contemporary starkly gothic space, contained beautifully by the Cremorne, brings some splendid literary moments to life, and heightens some of the subtleties of the original text, including a stunning image of the women, Bertha above and Jane Eyre below. But by resisting taking a red pen to this adaptation, in its inaugural season this Jane Eyre is not yet the absolutely extraordinary example of live theatre it promises to be. When this production grows up and goes beyond even its own wildest imagination, watch out!

 

What a joy it is to always be able to recommend a company for each new theatrical work offered (even when it’s not my favourite!), based upon the extraordinary body of work, and on the clever and creative team’s ongoing commitment to making live productions continue to work for as broad an audience as possible.    

 

14
May
16

Vis and Ramin

Vis and Ramin

Metro Arts & Baran

Metro Arts Sue Benner Theatre

10 – 14 May 2016

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

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To seek refuge in a safe corner from the bitterness of the world, to form the world in a different shape, the shape of your dreams…

– Nasim Khosravi, Director

The noisy chaos of the Metro Arts foyer is not due to the Anywhere Fest show about to start in the next theatre. The chatter and shouts and riotous fun of a close community brought together on a Friday night is contained in the ancient city of Marv, out front of the Sue Benner Theatre, and it’s probably as authentic as we’ll get without being in a far off marketplace or port. We’re welcomed, and issued with passports (APPROVED), a couple of hand stamped silver coins and strict instructions to read the city rules, posted on the wall, part of the foyer design created largely from cardboard.

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We’re invited to sample, for the cost of a single coin, a coconut macaroon and hot black tea (its steam smells of thyme), poured from a copper pot. Poppy is told by the keeper of the tea that she may have the second coin for herself; she’s very pleased and politely thanks the guy before nudging me with her elbow in glee. This is because after we’d pocketed our passports and coins, and headed upstairs to find the Ladies (I always forget which floor the bathrooms are on), she had said to me, “Ohhh, I wish I could keep just one coin for the memory!”. I smiled and reminded her that we can have whatever it is we wish for if we believe we are deserving of it…

Something about the fragrance of the tea, or the contented noise, or the smiles all around remind me of the lovely Eshai Teahouse at Woodford Folk Festival. Not last year’s, when it had moved to Folklorica, but years ago, when an intimate, leafy little set up first appeared on site, by the bridge and the wood-fired pizza oven on the way to The Village Green. But we are not in the familiar grounds of Woodfordia now and this is the best attempt I’ve seen yet, of matching this particular foyer to a show.

For some reason I expect to be able to smell the heady scent of red roses…

Banned in Iran since the revolution, this ancient Persian tale of forbidden love is packed with rebellion and upheaval. The famous classic has been revitalised with bilingual story telling and sophisticated multi-media for a dynamic contemporary performance experience.

Baran’s production is not so much sophisticated as rustic and its dynamic stillness is perhaps what is meant by the reference here. This is not to say that the show is anything but what it was intended to be: a retelling of the much-loved tale of Vis and Ramin, a Persian love story from 2000 years ago, which has inspired or influenced countless retellings. (C’mon, it was James Franco, remember? I was always going to link to that!).

The story is believed to belong to the Parthian period and is written in poetry by Fakhraddin Gurgani about 1000 years ago. Gurgani is a pioneer in writing love stories in poetry and his style was largely emulated by later poets such as Nezami. “Vis o Ramin” is one of the most influential ancient love stories. The story is about a love affair between two young lovers who sacrifice name, family, social obligations and everything else to be with each other. It was loved and admired by people long after it was written.

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Images of the language become almost provocative as they are projected across bodies clad in all white everything: simple, asymmetrically finished tunics worn over pants. The feet are bare. We watch the words and pictures moving playfully across the white fabric and black backdrop, and we read the English subtitles for the words spoken in Farsi, which is the bulk of it; the entire narrative component. I love hearing the language; it’s beautifully poetic and it’s almost a shame when the actors break the fourth wall to address us in English. Of course this is the device, the connection between actors and audience must be established, and we are asked what we think might happen, or if a character’s action is right or justified. It works well the first couple of times, taking us by surprise and establishing a genuine connection between storytellers and listeners. We’re invested because the storytellers care about what we think, which means we have to focus and know what’s going on. NO PRESSURE. Later, the flow of the narrative is interrupted once too often but then suddenly it’s the end and we are to decide what will happen next.

The audience is invited to join the cast on stage, and talk and share wine with them. It’s a clever debrief, a vital element when such an intense story is cut short. The company want to know what we think should happen next. They want to know how we feel about…love. And they want to be sure that their message is clear, that the story will continue to endure through the ages.

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Some beautiful motifs seek to awaken our senses, but they are brief. The production throws light, literally, onto the passion of the lovers; we see them in various gorgeous embraces. This is not only a necessary sensuous element in what is essentially a static storytelling event, but an authentic interpretation of the perception of love in ancient Persian times.

The story reveals a great deal about a period in Iranian history about which very little is known. The traditions and customs of those times do not necessarily match those of our times. The story talks about marriage of sister and brother – common amongst the ruling class at the time. This is something that is loathed for some centuries, but the story talks about a different time, different people, and different traditions from ours.

There are also the subject and the main character of the book that create a stir. The story is about an earthly love, one that is all about desire. This is very different from the notion of love that became popular in later centuries. The love that has a connection to the heavens and almighty was not known in ancient Iran. In all ancient Iranian love stories, love is very much the love based on the attraction of two people of opposite sex.

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She dares to fall in love with her husband’s brother for no other motive than love.

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I read the program notes the next day and discover that the performers are not all trained actors but members of the community who have come together to pass this story on. Was I even aware that we have such a vibrant Iranian community in Brisbane? Without feeling too stupid or beating myself up about it, I admit, no, I was not. 

I’m at a stage where I question the way we train performers and prepare for performance… No, I mean now more than ever. Having been privy lately to the traditions of Columbian theatre maker, Beatriz Camargo, and other organic, collaborative, “devised” approaches to making theatre (the term has lost all sense of wonder and immediately conjures in my mind the weird and sometimes wonderful pieces created by the students of tired, jaded, lazy Drama teachers who omit the guiding, directing and inspiring components of teaching Drama. Of course, when collaborative “devised” work is done well, the results are incredibly rewarding for all involved), I look for various ways into the performance. I want to be drawn in by the colour, the text, the movement, the sound, the shape, the story, the gaze of the actors… I want to view the performance on the same vibration as the performers bring it. I want to absorb their energy and go away into the night…changed, or at the very least, affected.

My favourite performer is Nasim Takavar (Vis), a genuine delight, graceful and so gently, quietly confident in a way we don’t often see in a female heroine. It’s refreshing to see such beautifully contained strength. (It’s no surprise that Takavar works in the early childhood sector by day).

Director, Nasim Khosravi has certainly achieved a lovely, innocent, lyrical tone to proceedings and with this style establishes Baran as a company to keep an eye on. While the emphasis seems to be on the text in this instance, I don’t doubt that Khosravi will continue to explore more challenging vocal and physical elements in performance. I would also welcome a live musical element in future performances. (Did an earlier version include the musicians on stage?).

A number of well respected Brisbane practitioners have contributed to the creative development of this production and now I believe Baran is ready to take the next step, perhaps, for example, by inviting into the room, a writer and director of Michael Futcher’s calibre. Another set of eyes on this theatrical style will likely elevate it, and give it broader appeal, if that is indeed what Khosravi and her team desires.

I heard such an interesting comment in a workshop today, with regard to a different production but nevertheless relevant to this one. A mainstage company had recently retold a beloved ancient tale using the most expensive design, and the most impressive and technically proficient choreography and the best dancers, while a less sophisticated version had achieved a longer lasting impact on the viewer because there was a genuine connection between the performers and the content – the story they shared – and thus, a genuine connection between performers and audience was established (and remembered by at least one audience member). As theatre makers we cannot afford to forget the value of finding a way to connect with the material and with the audience. As theatre lovers we recognise when a connection is made and a story is successfully told because those are the stories that stay etched on our minds and hearts long after the season is over.

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31
Mar
16

Concerto For Harmony and Presto

 

Concerto for Harmony and Presto

QPAC

QPAC Cremorne

March 29 – April 2 2016

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

This is a story of two unlikely friends. One day Presto arrives, bringing with him an astonishing array of bits and bobs that threaten Harmony’s neat and ordered existence. Harmony sees a cart full of junk. Presto sees infinite possibilities – precious things that when put together just the right way can create extraordinary music!

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This morning, THIS HAPPENED. WONDERFUL!

QPAC and debase are partnering with Autism Queensland to present a Sensory Friendly Performance of Concerto for Harmony and Presto.

QPAC acknowledges that individuals with sensory and social disabilities may require support in attending performing arts events. This performance session is specifically designed for children with ASD or other sensory, social or learning disabilities that create sensory sensitivities.

Sensory Friendly Performances involve modifying a particular performance session by adapting the audience environment and providing pre-theatre preparatory activities for the person with a sensory, social, or learning disability so they can understand and anticipate what might happen during the performance.

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I missed seeing an excerpt from deBase’s Concerto for Harmony and Presto at APAM16 and Poppy and I thought that maybe this show would be another one billed by QPAC for kids aged 3+ meaning suitable for 3 – 8 year olds, which is a common challenge for parents when contemplating which children’s theatre to take the over eights to. We were pleasantly surprised to find the fun for all ages in it.

Even before the show begins the atmosphere is warm and welcoming.

Gasping in mock horror and scolding each other as we do so, we leap over a row of seats because that’s the quickest and easiest way into our own. We love the sweet 40s & 50s tunes that play before the show and we see a friend to say hello to. It’s Lighting Designer, Jason Glenwright. Poppy is polite, as always, but unimpressed; they’ve met a number of times before and she simply says to me matter of factly, “Good, the lights will be good then”. She and I chat quietly about the lovely muted colours and rich but raw textures on stage while younger children all around us loudly demand snacks and ask, “When will it start?”

We relax into the autumnal colours, brought to life across a vertical surface of muslin and cotton and satin, enchanting colour and texture. A rustic, old-fashioned ambience is created by Glenwright’s gentle golden glow and the upbeat laid back party music of our grandparents: Sweet Georgia Brown, You Made Me Love You and If You Knew Susie… We sing along, playing imaginary spoons on our knees and soft-shoe-ing cool moves beneath the seats.

Old world shadow puppets, beautifully cut, are used to to set up the classic story of a young girl, Harmony, and her parents, who fall on hard times. The father loses his job at the factory and, reminiscent of the story of Jack (of Beanstalk fame), Harmony is sent to market with strict instructions to sell the family’s beloved gramophone, which is symbolic of their joy. As she turns and walks away, she remembers their days and nights of singing and dancing while the silhouette of her father hangs his head in his hands. A small child nearby whispers, “Mummy, he’s crying.”

When the lights came up again after the dimness it was like a sunrise and I felt engaged. The puppets were beautiful.

– Poppy Eponine

The travelling tinker, Presto (Don Voyage), and the little girl, Harmony (Liz Skitch), find that they have set up in the same place, which leads to conflict. Most offended is Harmony, who sets a rope between them. She and her Dead Puppet Society puppet, Lucy, will dance for pennies and Presto can do what he likes, as long as he stays on his side of the rope and doesn’t attract too much attention from the passers by. After all, she is there to make money to help her family, which is far more important than…whatever it is he is there to do.

What will happen to Harmony when she finds herself in a spot of trouble? Will Presto cross the line to help her? He makes it clear that she has made it clear from the beginning that he should stay in his dance space and she in hers. There are lovely subtle nods to some of our country’s biggest issues here… A moment suggests that Harmony might do away with the rope and invite him over but alas, she only moves it nearer to allow him to reach the precious gramophone, which is in desperate need of his unique skill set. (Earlier, perhaps not as subtly, Presto steps near enough to be physically present at Harmony’s tea party, but only as a non English speaking servant to pour the tea…). What follows is a hilarious and chaotic sequence of crazy, zany emergency treatments, with (Dr) Presto and (Nurse) Harmony working together, channelling classic Commedia and clowning energy and antics (Dramaturg Robert Kronk) to bring the broken gramophone back to life.

Presto’s sound effects especially are sensational and nothing is safe; every object is a noise-making instrument. (Some objects produce sounds that are more musical than others). He communicates using a language entirely of his own making, using gesture and bird whistle words. He’s very clear and we’re reminded that the challenges we experience when communicating with others is less about what they are saying and more about what we are hearing. 

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When Harmony and Presto finally tune in to what the other is saying and discover a way to work together the children in the audience clap and cheer. Harmony invites us, without a word, to be a part of the concerto by handing out colourful toy instruments and prompting us to clap along. Skitch employs every facial expression in her repertoire, Voyage struts and trumpets and the kids love it!

Presto surreptitiously loops the sound effects to create a final multi-layered piece that plays beneath the live trumpet and percussion sounds. What began as a simple kitchen collection of noisy junk becomes a richly textured musical number, the Concerto of the title. A stronger finish will make this show almost perfect.

Directors, Helen Howard and Michael Futcher, expertly manipulate the artists’ playful exploration and their heartfelt communication to transform a simple story into a sophisticated musical extravaganza, which genuinely engages and delights all ages.

17
Aug
15

Dracula

 

Dracula

QPAC and shake & stir

QPAC Cremorne

August 13 – September 5 2015

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

 

I will take no refusal…

 

 

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shake & stir’s Dracula is an ambitious gothic horror piece with spectacular production elements playing the pivotal roles.

 

 

This new version of the Bram Stoker classic, adapted for the stage by Nick Skubij and Nelle Lee, presumes we know Dracula down to its last detail but as I discovered after the show on opening night, of course there are some for whom the story is new. A difficult text to condense – an epic story across oceans, and oceans of time – we miss some early detail, such as Jonathan Harker’s first dreamy, lusty, dreadful encounter with the brides of Dracula, the “devils of the pit” (We hear about it after the fact, as the encounters continue). It’s not a biggie, but it’s typical of this adaptation, which seems to skirt around the themes of female sexuality and the genuine fear during the Victorian era of women awakening to their own sexual power, more so than any power a man might wield.

 

Harker’s narration of strange and supernatural events comes to us in the form of a pre-recorded voiceover that detracts from the overall effect of the production rather than enhances it. (The passage of time is evident in Jason Glenwright’s ingenious lighting states and Josh McIntosh’s spectacular set changes, incorporating a revolving winding stairwell and too many nooks and crannies to list!). Guy Webster’s spine tingling soundscape is otherwise perfect, complete with cracking thunder, buzzing flies, the snarling and howling of hounds outside and the chilling screams and screeches of the devil’s concubines.

 

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It’s not the lush, decadent, delicious show I’d expected (although, as I tell everybody whenever I’m off to see shake & stir, these are the beautiful people of Brisbane theatre, gorgeous on stage and off, every one). Their Dracula is a dark and sombre journey, unrelenting, with the only light and shade coming from Glenwright’s lighting design (doors opening with a shaft of light sans door?! It’s really incredible work, his best to date), and David Whitney’s high-energy performance as Renfield and later, as Van Helsing. With his appearance as Van Helsing, Whitney whips up the pace and holds his loyal band of vampire killers at his heels.

 

A great study in status and deadpan delivery, Whitney commands the stage, dominating the narrative and the space.

 

Michael Futcher’s direction is gentle and sure, allowing each member of the company to play to their strengths. His use of the imposing set is brilliant, with the versatile design allowing seamless transitions between rapidly changing scenes and successfully hiding the pale faced, platinum blonde Dracula from us multiple times, causing those around me to jump in genuine fright each time the Count appears from out of the shadows.

 

As Jack, Ross Balbuziente’s confounded game is strong and as Harker, Tim Dashwood offers a genteel, endearing performance, but by the same token doesn’t get a chance to be seduced and subsequently ravished, which seems a shame (although that racy version might require an R-rating. Don’t worry, parents and principals, it’s all very tame, implied rather than made explicit). Some of the most shocking and surprising moments come from the special effects. The flash paper and the blood effects are superb. Likewise, some of Nigel Poulton’s best work is showcased in a no holds barred True Blood style fight scene.

 

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Despite the potential to do more (ravishing) within their roles, Nelle Lee (Mina) and Ashlee Lollback (Lucy) rely on some safe choices, however, having said that, feeling less than 100% on opening night, Lollback’s vocal work is strong and her extraordinary physicality is bold and sure (and suitably shocking). Leigh Buchanan’s exquisite gowns on these girls are testament to his intuitive and dramaturgical design sense, allowing full movement and at the same time, constraint of their feminine wiles. Buchanan retains the lavish authenticity of the Victorian times in the gentlemen’s garb too, bringing only Dracula’s street style into the new millennium for the later London scenes.

 

Nick Skubij wears his leather well.

 

He’s as ancient and as alluring and intriguing as he needs to be to convince every senior student in a skirt that it would be just fine to hold her breath through the bite and opt for eternal life by his side. Oh, right. Not very PC to say so? Okay. AND YET.

 

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Even without the hedonism I’d expected, Dracula is an accomplished production, with all the hallmarks of “another bloody classic” that teachers and students will appreciate for its astute combination of dramatic elements and entertaining performances; everything in alignment with our Australian Gothic Theatre criteria. The general public will love it because with Zen Zen Zo MIA and Brisbane Festival still a few weeks away, there’s nothing else quite like it, is there? And, look, at the end of the day, who doesn’t love a good vampire story? But does it go as far as it could go to seduce, surprise and shock us? No. Why not? Why lead us to the edge of delicious lust and the struggle for power only to pull us back before we experience it? Are we (am I?) so desensitised that this neat, safe staging of sex and blood and gore, and the struggle between the supernatural and the human spirit fails to impress?

 

If theatre isn’t a form of voyeurism, continually challenging and changing our self-perception and our perspective of the world through our imagined experiences, what are we doing in it? What are we doing with it?

 

Why do we ever revisit a classic? Why do we need to see this story brought to life again? Is there a new lesson? Is it challenging the status quo? Is it simply an entertaining story?

 

shake & stir have always set such a ridiculously high standard with their mainstage productions that it comes as a complete surprise to walk away feeling slightly underwhelmed by Dracula. Once again, shake & stir have created a mainstage show that is perfectly tweaked for schools. This has been their strength for some time, but in time for their 10-year anniversary next year, I’m hoping that this exceptional and enduring company considers turning their approach on its head in order to stake a stronger claim in the national mainstage landscape. shake & stir remain one of this country’s most exciting, original, dynamic and dedicated theatre companies. I would hate to see them plateau after they’ve worked so hard to continuously raise the bar.

 

 

Production pics by Dylan Evans

 

 

 

 

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31
Jul
14

1984: A chat with David Whitney

 

David Whitney took a moment to tell us know about his role in 1984, working and touring with shake & stir, and what it takes to make awesome agents and directors.

 

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Mister, you’re playing O’Brien in the return season of shake & stir’s 1984 (a production that terrified me)! Tell us about your character, and how you came to join this acclaimed production with one of our favourite Queensland companies.

O’ Brien is a member of the Inner Party and as such part of the ruling class. Our hero Winston, played by Bryan Probets, comes to believe that O’Brien is a friend and ally in his rebellion against the state. Is Winston wise to put his trust in O’Brien? You’ll have to see the show to find out, but clearly the character I play is something of a shape shifter, at times charming, at times menacing, at times brutal.

I had previously worked with Bryan in the QTC/Bell Shakespeare production of The Alchemist, and when the role of the evil, manipulative O’Brien became available for this tour and return season, Bryan thought I’d be perfect! Not quite sure how to take that but it’s been one of the great experiences of my career so I am deeply indebted to shake & stir for welcoming me to their great company. I had seen the archival recording of the 2012 production and immediately recognised that it was something I would love to do. It has come as a bonus to get to know shake & stir – one of the best companies I have ever worked for and clearly destined for a bright future.

 

Can you tell us about working on 1984 and in The Alchemist (2009) with Bryan Probets, who recommended you for the role of O’Brien? How important is your network?

Our characters didn’t actually meet in The Alchemist so this time it is very different in that Bryan and I work very closely, almost intimately together. I had admired his work on The Alchemist and on screen but working so closely with him this time has been such a pleasure. It really is a battle of wills and minds out there between our characters and we are utterly dependent on each other to be present and alive. Our scenes need to be a knife-edge game of cat and mouse (or cat and rat) and so it is deeply satisfying to have played that game with Bryan over the last 5 months.

As far as a network is concerned, this situation is unusual. Yes Bryan recommended me, and Nick, Ross and Nelle had seen some of my work, but they still asked around, as it was important not only that I was right for the role, but also that I would be a good temperament for the tour and to fit into what is a tight company. So I guess in this situation, my network helped. But network is not something I work at. I probably should work harder at it but that’s not really me. I try to do good work and be good to work with and hope that that speaks for itself.

 

We saw you in Mrs Warren’s Profession for STC (2013). How did you prepare for this, er, slightly different role?

Coincidentally, in both cases I was replacing another actor who was unavailable for a return season, so my preparations were quite similar. Both had shorter rehearsal times and I was required to fit in with a pre existing moves and production…quite happily in both cases as I admired both productions enormously. In both cases the directors (Michael Futcher 1984, Sarah Giles MWP) were very respectful and welcoming, as were the casts. I did all the normal preparation of research, understanding the play and the character etc, but the biggest difference was that in both cases I learnt the lines before rehearsal started. Normally I find that over 4 to 5 weeks of rehearsal the lines sort of learn themselves, through discussion, repetition and association with the blocking and interaction with the other actors. With 1984 and Mrs Warren, because of the short rehearsal time, I felt it best to be on top of it from day 1, mainly so as not to hold back the other actors who had already performed these roles numerous times. It still allowed for freedom and new discoveries but it just got everyone up to speed a lot more quickly.

 

Did you ever watch Big Brother?

No. To be willingly observed 24 hours a day is baffling to me. Being locked in that house with those people is my idea of Orwell’s Room101.

 

Did you read Orwell’s 1984 at school? What was your response to the novel and what was your response to this script? How much research do you generally try to do for a show?

I read it at NIDA as research for some show we were devising about alienation and dystopia. I loved the novel then and still do. It’s relevance to contemporary society only increases with time, as surveillance becomes more prevalent and as governments continue to manipulate information to suit their own purposes.

shake & stir’s adaptation is very faithful to the book and has elements of politics and language manipulation (Newspeak) but concentrates on the human dimension…the characters of Winston and Julia and the brief  blossoming of their humanity, before it is stamped out by the state, as represented by my character. It’s that human interaction which is the stuff of drama and so makes it entertaining and involving for an audience. It also makes it very satisfying as an actor to play. I like to do lots of research. Obviously in this case reading the book, but knowing about Orwell and finding contemporary parallels politically and socially. I scour the media for references both literal and visual – anything that helps me enter into the world of the play.

 

When you are asked to audition how do you prepare for that experience? What are your favourite tips for actors?

I think it is all about the preparation – doing as much research as you can to know about the world of the play/film, the character, the director and to know the words (or the song if it’s a musical) as well as you can. The more prepared you are the more likely it will be that you can be relaxed, proactive and importantly, spontaneous in the audition room. The other great tip is to forget about it once it is done. There is nothing more you can do and it is out of your hands. Easier said than done, and not always advice I adhere to.

 

You work in TV and film too – what are the major differences for actors between work on stage and screen and what do you love about each medium?

It is all about story telling and being truthful, clear and interesting. The differences are about adjusting your performance to the appropriate size. You can be huge on film if it is truthful but there is no doubt stillness and economy are usually the way to go. But even in theatre one must adjust to different size spaces, as we have just done in over 30 venues – from 1500 seats down to 250. You keep the truth but play with the size of delivery, in volume, intensity, gesture – every way with mind, voice and body.  I love being able to be simpler on camera and finding intensity and intimacy…but I also love the technical demands of hitting the back row in a theatre and make sure the received truth is strong for every member of the audience.

 

What did you learn from your NIDA training?

It’s a long time ago! I had great teachers and I learnt a lot technically in voice and movement, and I learnt a Stanislavski based method of script / character analysis that I still use today. Most importantly I learnt form my head of acting, George Whaley, that an actor should have an opinion and should have something to say!  Sometimes that means a political or social message; sometimes it is about the human condition. The great plays / films combine both.

 

What’s the best thing you’ve learned outside of your formal training?

To laugh more – to play more and to take risks and be naughty. My favourite actors are the wicked ones. I was too careful and methodical early on. Too safe. I still prepare thoroughly but I try to be more spontaneous as well.

 

What qualities make an awesome agent?

Well my present agent, Mollison Keightley Management are awesome, as was my first agent, the legendary Bill Shanahan. In both cases, I felt as though I could talk to them openly and frankly and that they absolutely had my best interests at heart. The agent should have an insight into the sort of work that you would like to do and would be good for you. We all have different needs and a good agent, like a good director, should be alive to the best way to handle each wonderful, talented, neurotic, difficult individual. A good agent will guide you but the actor is ultimately the one who is in control – hard to remember sometimes when we feel we are completely at the mercy of casting directors and producers – which we are to some extent, but a good agent always feel like they are on your side, and is there to say ” oh well, didn’t get that job, but here’s what’s next.”

 

What makes a director good to work with? Can you tell us about working with Michael Futcher?

See above for my comments about what makes a good director – plus empathy, energy, respect, creativity, humour. The director should know the play better than anyone and have firm ideas while also being completely open to the input of others. They also need the ability to control a room, make and keep a productive schedule and make the rehearsal room as fun and serious as it needs to be. All of which Michael Futcher has in spades. Quite simply one of the best I have worked with. The rehearsal process for me for 1984 was so enjoyable, as Michael was so respectful of me and my situation as the new cast member, gave me really detailed and nuanced suggestions – but also watched what I did and allowed that to generate new ideas. He also loves language as I do, so we very particular about certain words and how to use them. I would work with him again anytime. He should be directing for main stage companies constantly…and I hope when he does I get to work with him again.

 

How do you connect with the other actors on stage? Do you hang out in between shows or for the sake of this character, and these relationships on stage; do you keep a bit of distance?

Connecting on stage is simply about being present and alive moment to moment. It’s just something one automatically does through focus and concentration, and willingly giving over to the given circumstances. Any moments of self-consciousness, I try to avoid by focusing on the other actors and how I am trying to affect them…what I am doing to them and receiving what they are giving to me.

And yes, we hang out together all the time. The coldness and distance of O’ Brien is only for the stage, as I can’t think of a better cast to socialise with. We have so much fun back stage too, despite the seriousness and dour nature of 1984.

 

How do you survive on tour?

As I said, we socialised a lot and the whole gang, cast and crew were a very happy bunch. There are always times when I need some solitude and everybody was very respectful of that…the hardest thing was saying no when the Shake and Stir guys would try to twist my arm to visit some fabulous bar or restaurant…their energy is so admirable and infectious that we were able to find the positive in just about every town. I also walk a lot, so I would always head for the beach or the river during the daytime and get some exercise and clear my head.

 

What does down time look like?

I teach acting when I am not in a performing role…and I try to read, exercise and stay connected to what is going on in the industry.  Basically I am pretty lazy so I hope down time doesn’t go on for too long as I like the discipline of a long run to keep me busy.

 

What are you working on next?

Well as soon as 1984 finishes I am travelling to the US as my daughter is starting college at NYU and I am going over with her to settle her in as well as see some shows in New York that I will be auditioning for back here. After that I don’t know. There are a couple of things floating around that hopefully will take me through to Christmas…but who knows. I’ve had a great year and something will turn up. It always does, eventually.

 

And what is shake & stir up to next? You know it will sell out, don’t you? Right. So book your tix already!

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