Posts Tagged ‘Michael Gow


Once In Royal David’s City

Once In Royal David’s City

Queensland Theatre & Black Swan State Theatre Company

QPAC Playhouse

April 22 – May 14 2017

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward




Great art is as multifaceted as life: sometimes perplexing, sometimes heartwarming, and sometimes heartbreaking. Sometimes, it is all of these things at once.

Sam Strong, Artistic Director, Queensland Theatre


Sam Strong’s directorial debut for Queensland Theatre is powerful, affecting, and lingering, leaving us with the essence of Michael Gow’s most recent work long after we leave the theatre, wondering, just as Professor Julius Sumner Miller did, “why is it so?” This great play hasn’t been touched since its Belvoir Street premiere (2014)…

Once In Royal David’s City is cleverly Brecht at its contemporary best. This seems an odd thing to say, because Brecht done properly is contemporary, challenging us to recognise the message in the story, and question what we see on stage, and go away and affect social change in our current contemporary context.

Art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.

Berthold Brecht


In case you don’t know anything about Brechtian theatre though, the protagonist, a slightly disillusioned middle-aged director of theatre, Will Drummond (Jason Klarwein in his most compelling performance to date), will explain everything. You’ll also find Michael Beh’s notes in the program. It’s a style created by German director, Bertolt Brecht, so often misconstrued, and messed up in the process, making whatever tale is being told lifeless and meaningless on stage, when its purpose is to be anything but. BUT Strong’s stark and sincere production puts political theatre back on the agenda and reveals the machinations behind the boldest sort of theatrical storytelling. It’s very Brecht.



Beautifully and simply lit by Matt Scott (the exposed lights rigged in plain sight are a work of art in themselves), an expansive stark white set by Stephen Curtis uses every inch of the stage, its depth a particular point of interest since the initial hospital scenes are staged there, as if to allow a slightly more comfortable distance between the audience and the awkward events and unbearable emotions of staying, while a loved one is lying there, quietly, patiently dying…

We will all lose – or will have already lost – a parent, and it’s something we don’t necessarily talk about. It’s one of those things we go through and we know others go through, and we send love and light and hugs and emojis in a comment thread on Facebook, and yet it remains a very personal, often very lonely experience. Once In Royal David’s City reminds us that no matter how compassionate we think we are, we can never know quite what another person feels or thinks at this time. At any time… Will is, understandably, in complete denial at first, witness to the excuses his father makes when he can no longer recognise or correctly form the words he needs, and when his mother makes excuses for him (he’s had a cold for so long!), and when she falls ill shortly after his father’s death (she’s always so tired! And her aching back!), and is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (spoiler alert!), which leads to her rapid demise during the Christmas holiday. Will is determined to make a difference in the world, and eventually, he resigns himself to teaching. His faltering confidence, after failing an actor in his company during a doomed production of The Importance of Being Earnest, a delightfully funny scene and a masterclass in posture and articulation, leads him home for a Christmas unlike any other.



There is such beautiful attention to detail, in the nuanced performances and also, in the way Strong has pieced together the bits of story, the bits of these untidy lives and neat-as-a-pin seamless transitions, using curtains to separate the spaces on stage.

It’s a uniformly excellent cast, a terrific combination of some of our established and emerging talent; a meeting of minds and hearts and skill sets from across the companies. Joining Klarwein on stage are Penny Everingham (a beautifully transparent Jeannie), Steve Turner (Bill/Wally/Ensemble), Toni Scanlan (Gail/Ensemble), Adam Sollis (Boy/Ensemble), Kaye Stevenson (Molly/Ensemble), Adam Booth (Andrei/Doctor) and Emma Jackson (Jess/Ensemble). Each has an opportunity to shine, bringing beautifully developed fully alive characters to the story. Sollis is memorable as the boy, in a moment imbued with hope, human kindness and acceptance, and Jackson gives a very funny, very accurate depiction of a reality television star turned manufactured superstar in the Christmas Eve Carols By Candlelight lineup. Will’s disparaging remarks about the programming and the talent involved (or the lack thereof), delivered from the comfort of a green beanbag on the floor as he flicks from one channel to the next as he gradually gleans some understanding of the cancer his mum has developed, elicit sniggers, and groans of recognition and sympathy because GOW IS SO RIGHT ABOUT THAT. And so many other things. 


The magical thing is this: it’s almost so familiar that it’s actually incredibly un-theatrical. And at the same time, it’s the most masterfully constructed and manipulated meta-theatrical work we’ve seen in several years. A must-see, Once In Royal David’s City is warm and funny, and real and alarming, and richly rewarding. It closes, appropriately, on Mother’s Day.





heartBeast Boutique Theatre

Trinity Hall, Fortitude Valley

February 12 – March 7 2015


Reviewed by Meredith Walker


Typically, away_meg_sunlightclassic plays can be challenging to stage. Audience members are likely to know at least something about the story, if not have intimate familiarity. Hence, you need to find ways for viewers to reconsider its meaning. Michael Gow’s 1986 work Away certainly falls into this category; Gow is one of those few playwrights whose work is repeatedly favoured by theatre companies staging Australian drama, for despite its late 1960s setting, its thematic examination of key aspects of the Australian psyche including mateship and the underdog, make it somewhat universal.


The story is one of sun, sand and sacrifice as it follows the struggles of three families against a backdrop of a traditional Christmas holidays beach break holiday to a non-specific destination ‘up the coast’.


But all is not as it seems behind the veneers of their varied lives, with seasonal smiles masking many personal tragedies. Immigrants Harry (Brian Bolton) and Vic (Sherri Smith) are faced with their adolescent son Tom’s illness. Meanwhile, teenage Meg’s friendship with the socially unsuitable Tom is of concern to her henpecked father Jim (David Paterson) and overbearing mother (overplayed by Jacqueline Kerr). And a grief-stricken Coral (Adrienne Costello) recalls the days when husband Roy (Warwick Comber) would compare her to Hollywood starlet Kim Novak. But over their time away, the families are reconciled to face the future anew.


Away is well known for time appropriate language, settings and relationships. And in the case of heartBeast’s production, this is realised not just through maintenance of its cultural references (products like the housewife’s drug of choice, Bex power and personalities like the iconic Australian actor Chips Rafferty), but through a wardrobe of costume choices that effectively recapture this hippie period of utopian optimism. Unfortunately, this realism is juxtaposed with some laborious comic relief scenes and the interpretive dance, frenzied representation of a tempest of a storm whipped up by havoc-wreaking fairies.


AWAY Fairies Behind Curtains


It is no coincidence that the storm is pivotal to the action of the play, as in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.


Away has clear and plentiful intertextual links with Shakespearean drama. The play begins with the final scene of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the play performed at the end of the school year and concludes with the start of King Lear, as further evidence of its focus of the eternal nature of journeys. There is also use of character disguise and the inclusion of The Stranger on the Shore, an allegorical, beautifully-realised play within a play during which Tom shows Coral a way to overcome her grief for her son, lost to the Vietnam war.


As Coral’s husband, school Principal Roy, Comber has a natural stage presence that not only anchors the action, but also highlights the deficiencies of others of lesser experience. But it is Tim’s immigrant parents, played by Harry and Smith, who provide the standout performances, not only maintaining authentic English accents throughout, but conveying content satisfaction in their philosophy of neither looking forward nor back. The problem is the doubling of characters amongst the actors in order bring an ambitious work such as this to life. As Tom, heartBeast newcomer Patrick Bell is engaging in his teenager flirtation with Meg (Johancee Theron), full, as it is, of coy interactions and sideways glances. Yet, as newlywed Rick, with whom the grieving Carol forms an attachment, he appears completely miscast and unimportant to the action.


It is easy to understand why heartBeast has chosen Away as its first work of 2015. Since it was first performed on stage in 1986, the play has engaged audiences with its coming of age story, as both individuals and a nation. And its themes are as relevant as ever with its comments on reconciliation and loss. These alone are enough to drive the narrative. To tone down the naturalism and emphasise the play’s over-the-top, dated comic scenes, serves only to labour the point of an already lengthy show.


Michael Gow is one of this country’s most significant playwrights. His often colloquial dialogue and vivid character constructions allow audience members to emphasise with and relate to characters.


Indeed, its themes of generation gap differences and class distinctions show similarity with other works of our country’s cannon, such as Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year and maybe it is this alone, that makes Away a worthwhile venture, for as its Twelfth Night epigraph asks, ‘what country, friends, is this?


Patrick Bell is Puck in heartBeast's AWAY compressed



Talking Away with heartBeast’s Michael Beh


We caught up with Michael Beh, heartBeast’s AD and Director of a new production of Michael Gow’s AWAY



AWAY opens next Friday February 13th.

Book online.




heartBeast’s goal is “to explore and manifest theatricality to make a difference.” What’s the difference you want to make and why is it important that you do so?

When I began studying theatre I was inspired by my drama teachers at university, and the work of great directors such as the Arianne Mnouchkine, Evgheny Vahtangov, Georgio Strehler and Joan Littlewood.   They all used theatrical storytelling to communicate message to the audience – to create a heightened theatrical experience that is both entertaining and educative, that transports and is magical – and in so doing communicates to its audience about the human condition and how we can all be better people. I have always believed that that is the goal of good theatre. That is my dream for heartBeast and the work we do. It is all about growing as a person to make a better world. If heartBeast can inspire our audiences to take just a step in that direction, than I will be happy.


How did you come to set up heartBeast?

I had done some work as part of Metro Arts Free Range Festival with a group of local emerging artists. Some of them were ex-students of mine. Others were professional actors with various levels of experience who were interested in creating an ensemble of independent theatre makers. They were also interested in mentoring younger actors. Everyone wanted to keep working together and so we did. That was in early 2010 and we then created Beautiful Frankenstein as our first project.


What have you enjoyed most about previous work with heartBeast? 

At heartBeast, we have the freedom to take risks. Because we work in a theatrically heightened way, heartBeast productions can be uber theatrical in their use of physicality, voice, costume, and makeup.   I love the use of lavish and vintage costuming. I have become intrigued by how costume tells story and helps the actor in their characterisation. I also enjoy how we can equally revert to a deep intense realism with a simple scenography.


At the core of this stylistic choice are all the creatives and the people who support us. heartBeast has become like a family. We always have someone new joining us, sharing their experience and knowledge and in this way we make discoveries about others and ourselves as artists. This keeps us moving in the creation of the heartBeast aesthetic and the style of work that we do.


You’ve produced and/or directed more than 50 productions. What led you to the theatre and what keeps you in it? 

I have worked at professional, independent, university and secondary school levels in making theatre. I was inspired to make theatre that makes a difference by my own teachers. As a director, my favourite place is in the rehearsal room, working with artists to make discoveries. I especially love the capacity for possibility that courageous actors have.


I am also entranced by the liminal space that is the wings – that transition place from real world to theatrical world – our truth place. This sounds like a paradox but it isn’t. I have learned so much about what it means to be a good person through the exploration of story, philosophy and relationship in the theatre. It is the place where I feel most alive.


Your upcoming production is the Michael Gow play, Away. What made you choose to stage this work? How will another production of Away make a difference?

It has been a number of years since Away was staged in Brisbane. It is a classic Australian work that pulsates with a heightened reality infused with mythic poeticism. I love good story telling. I love Shakespeare. I love exploring the essence of being Australian, of place, identity and meaning. Away is a journey play about redemption, about dealing with tragedy, about loss and love and living. Away has all of that in it.  


When I reread it I was overwhelmed by all of this and by how relevant Away is to today’s audiences. Instead of Vietnam we have Afghanistan and Iraq, with parents grieving for sons lost in battle. Instead of equal rights for women, we have the issue of equal rights for gay people, refugees and other disenfranchised groups. We still have husband’s and wives struggling with how to communicate, listen and understand each other. And sadly, we still have parents losing their children to the ravages of cancer.


Through all of this, Away engages contemporary audiences in our humanity. Perhaps it will encourage people to be a little bit kinder, a little bit more understanding, a little bit more reflective about who they love, why the love and how they love.


What do you think is the difference in young people’s lives once they bring Drama into it? When new artists come to heartBeast, what is their approach and what are their skills? Is there anything you would like to see more of?

I believe that young people who seriously engage in Drama are opting for a journey of self-discovery. It is not easy work. You have to want it badly. It is not a place for ego and the trappings of celebrity. I think if that is why you want to explore drama, then you are wanting it for the wrong reasons. This is the expectation that I have of any new artist who comes to heartBeast. I expect them to stay the distance, to be reliable, and honest and contribute to the ensemble – they are immediately a part of the heartBeast family. They are encouraged to dive in deep straight away. As we work together we discover more and more of their skills. In the past we have asked different members of the company to do skills sharing workshops with each other. Thereby we keep developing our own theatrical language and way of being, doing and making.


Talk us through your audition process.

Our audition process is very simple: two contrasting monologues that we will explore through redirection and improvisation. We have done group workshops when casting a number of people. We always talk a lot, chat about the company, what the artist is looking for, to see if we are a good match.


What form does your creative process take? Can you talk us through that? (Can you talk about what the differing roles entail, as you take on production or direction or design? Which is your greatest passion?)

This is a huge question. Focusing on directing – I am inspired by the fusion of heightened realism and theatricality, especially as created by the Russian Theatre Director, Evgheny Vakhtangov and his style of Fantastic Realism. I am very interested in actor’s manifesting plakative, physical work that is driven by a strong interior life. By fusing the link between the two, we strive to create an organic, heightened performance.


In order to do this as an ensemble we engage in a number of rehearsal tactics – from book work and table reading, to games, exercises, workshops, the detailed exploration of voicing and physical action choices. Different productions require different methodologies. I encourage the actors to play. We do not set anything until we are very close to performance. I do ban the use of the word ‘blocking’ but we engage in ‘sculpting’ moments, transitions, actions and reactions.


This exploration of a fantastic style bleeds into the design of the show. I am particularly interested in costuming that is aesthetically wonderful, supporting the manifestation of character, enabling the actor and working with a simple scenographic set design. I like to create a space that allows the actor to make strong physical choices and is not cluttered by a filmic realism that demands furniture and all the physical manifestations of reality.  


Johancee Theron is Meg in heartBeasts AWAY


What will we take away from any heartBeast production?


Joy. Creativity. Story. A great night of theatre. A shared experience, generously given by a wonderful ensemble of local artists.


What would you like to see more of, in the Australian theatrical landscape?

I would like to see more of our own stories being told. There are so many stories of our parents, grandparents, great grandparents that are not being told – about who they were, there struggles, their triumphs, how they engaged with the land and with each other that we need to remember and manifest. In this vein, heartBeast is currently researching the stories of the history of Fortitude Valley in preparation for a dynamic new work for 2016.


Theatre making also needs to be made more affordable for small to independent companies. In this way, the savings can be passed on to audiences. heartBeast always tries to maintain low ticket prices. This is one of the reasons that we do not work in expensive theatres. Our home is Trinity Hall, a beautiful heritage venue in the heart of Brisbane. It is close to public transport and enables a wide variety of audiences to attend. It used to be a rehearsal space for QTC and TN Theatre, so it resounds with theatrical ghosts. It is a wonderful place that transports us and our audiences into a total world of drama.



One Night In Emerald City

One more sleep until I spend One Night in Emerald City, on stage, with some pretty impressive Aussie talent.

Yes. I know. I should be sleeping. But I’m a bit excited…well, excited and scared.

I will be sharing the stage with Robyn Nevin, Paula Duncan, David Field, Ita Buttrose, Bob Ansett, Mikey Robins, Lucy Bell, Ian Roberts, Felix Williamson, Jim Berardo and Daniel MacPherson. Our comperes will be Shane Bourne and local Zinc FM breakfast show host, Sammy Power.

Apparently, according to my sources, who have all been at The J in Noosa already this evening, to support the premiere of the locally produced short film Cyber Sin, everybody is in fine spirits! I was sorry not to have been able to make this special event too, but our QAVA students keep turning up to classes!

Look, I would like to tell you that I have my lines down. I would like to tell you that, just like Ken Baumann (and so many others, though his is the most recent impressive interview with an actor), I read the script a couple of times and just HAD IT. In fact, I would like to tell you that I know exactly what I’m wearing, what I’m doing, whether my hair will be straightened or styled in water waves (thank you Suite Three)…but no. I got nothin’. We have come to the eleventh hour and I’m freaking out like my four year old. That’s right. Not a typo. Not just any four year old, my four year old; who graduated from daycare yesterday (are we celebrating or are we celebrating mediocrity?!) She refused to perform the well-rehearsed little concert they’d put together for the proud parents. She’d been singing Home Among the Gum Trees for several weeks. She was so ready! But she was happy with her decision. She was a beautiful audience member, in her red sari for Diwali (Nanny and Bugsy-Pa have just returned from India and her head is full of stories and her arms bright and shiny with bangles). She was so proud of her friends and she mingled with them afterwards, congratulating them, as four year olds do, over pink “champagne” and sausages in bread.

Perhaps stage fright is partly genetic. I think I hid behind my mother’s (her Nanny’s) skirts until I was four. Or in Grade Four, I don’t remember which; I’ve blocked it out. Perhaps Poppy is simply a child who knows her own mind (and heart). It has taken me years to work out that there are times I love being on stage and there are other times when I love teaching and directing. Above all, I have loved having a choice in the matter.

Clearly, I had to respect her decision (it was worded so eloquently), “Mama, I want to watch my friends today. We are the audience today.” No amount of coercion from teachers, friends or friends’ (stage) mothers could convince her to change her mind. So we enjoyed watching her friends perform.

We also had a little conversation later, about sometimes just having to do the show…


Mama: You know, sometimes, you don’t have a choice and the show must go on and that means you must go on.

Poppy: I know, Mama. Like your shows.

Mama: That’s right, like my shows; the audience turns up so we do our show.

Poppy: Okay, Mama; I will do the show the next time the audience turns up.


I hope, when the audience turns up tomorrow night I will feel ready to do the show, rather than sitting and enjoying watching it! I really would like to see it! I love a good playreading! One of the best pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen was a staged reading directed by Michael Gow, of David Williamson’s Let the Sun Shine.

After a read with the cast in the morning and a read on stage with them in the afternoon, I’m hoping I’ll feel as confident as I did walking into the audition! We shall soon see!


If you’re there, enjoy and make sure you say hi at our little soiree after the show!



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