Posts Tagged ‘The Courier Mail


Peter Grimes


Peter Grimes

Brisbane Festival, Opera Queensland, Philip Bacon AM


QPAC Concert Hall

September 20 – 22 2018


Reviewed by Matthew Hickey



THE centrepiece of the Brisbane Festival Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes fell apart on Thursday night when the star couldn’t sing due to illness.

When the internationally renowned Australian heldentenor, Stuart Skelton, was wobbly in the high register during the first act, everyone thought it was just the histrionics of the part. But after the interval, Brisbane Festival artistic director David Berthold emerged to tell the audience the bad news that some in the concert hall at QPAC had already guessed, that Skelton, 50, was ill and would be unable to continue singing.


Phil Brown, the Courier Mail


Art criticism is fundamental to a healthy arts scene.


Informed and considered criticism applies a torch to artists’ feet. Dialogue between critic, artist and audience is central to the development of great art. When done well, there is nothing like arts criticism. Sadly, the Courier Mail’s criticism of the premiere of the semi-staged production of Peter Grimes, which forms the centrepiece of this year’s Brisbane Festival, was nothing like arts criticism done well.


Peter Grimes is an opera by British composer, Benjamin Britten. Here, it is sung (as originally composed) in English. The story is set in a Suffolk fishing village. It centres upon Peter Grimes, a troubled local fisherman, of whom insular locals are suspicious. His young apprentice has recently died, “in accidental circumstances”, during a misadventure at sea.


Contrary to the Courier Mail’s hyperbolic clickbait headline, last night’s production did not “fall apart”. It’s lamentable that Phil Brown’s piece ignored entirely the many positive things that deserved to be acknowledged in print. Before addressing those, one must speak about the obvious.



The star, internationally-acclaimed Australian heldentenor Stuart Skelton, was unwell. As much became concerningly obvious when the achingly glorious moment, which usually arrives in the first duet between Peter Grimes and Ellen Orford – when they sing “your voice, out of the dark” in a leaping ninth – frankly, didn’t.


For those close enough to the stage to see him well, it was obvious that Skelton was working hard, very hard, to produce his sound. But, despite the odd crack here and there, in a narrow part of the voice where Skelton seemed to be struggling to get his vocal folds to come together, in the first act the audience received a thrilling demonstration of why this man is the best Peter Grimes on the planet right now. His singing was exciting and powerful and his hulking physicality brought equal parts menace and pathos to the role.


After the first interval, it fell to David Berthold, Brisbane Festival’s Artistic Director, to gingerly take to centre stage (where his awful task was prolonged by darkness until someone found the light switch) to tell the audience what many had already guessed: Skelton was ill; he would be unable to sing the rest of the performance; the understudy (to whom I will return) would sing the performance from the side of the stage; and Skelton had “generously” agreed to act out the role.


Berthold’s use of the word “generous” seemed initially an odd choice. But, by the end of the performance, it made complete sense. It was an act of generosity for Skelton to walk through the role. Grimes is a dramatically challenging character. Complex, brooding, dysfunctional, tortured, despised, shunned and, ultimately, cast out by a community disappointed in him. One couldn’t help but feel, observing his personal anguish during the bows at the end of the performance, that Skelton had begun to personalise Grimes’ pain, by transmogrifying the Borough’s hate into (what his mind might have convinced him was) the audiences’.


But there was no hate from the audience. Only admiration. Those who were there were treated to a tantalising (and satisfying) glimpse of the voice that has made the Australian heldentenor a star on mainstage opera houses abroad.


It fell to Skelton’s understudy Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts, a Welsh tenor, to sing the role of Grimes from a music stand at the side of the stage while, from time to time, leaping back onto the stage proper to sing the role of Reverend Adams, in which he had been cast. His singing was clear and powerful. He is a very fine singer and, as may be seen from his leaping into the fray without any real time to think about it, a courageous one.


Other notable international guests included British soprano Sally Matthews, who sang the role of the schoolmistress, Ellen Orford, with great control and line, and British baritone, Mark Stone (who, interestingly, read mathematics at Cambridge University) sang the role of Balstrode. I can’t remember being more excited by a baritone’s performance since hearing Simon Keenlyside sing at the Opera House, in the mid-90s. Even without Skelton, the price of admission is worth it to hear those singers alone.


But they were not alone. Through the musical and dramatic skill of the rest of the featured cast, the Suffolk fishing village came to life on the Concert Hall stage.



Andrew Collis was steadfast as the dour Swallow, with his drunken dancing a particular highlight. The nieces were played to trashy, fish-netted, stiletto-heeled perfection by Katie Stenzel and Natalie Christie Peluso. Jacqueline Dark’s portrayal of the laudanum-baked Mrs Sedley was beautifully nuanced. Michael Honeyman’s cheeky turn as Ned Keene, the pill-pushing apothecary, in particular when leading a pub-full of tense drunks in the ditty “old Joe has gone fishing”, was great fun. Brad Daley again showed why he remains among the best-known tenors in this country. His voice remains bright and strong, and from the moment he “started shouting” as the dishevelled bible-basher Bob Boles, he made the character his own. Jud Arthur (whose biography records an unsurprising history as a rugby player) provided wonderful physical menace as the performer of “dirty jobs”, Hobson the carter.



A particularly poignant moment in this production is the quartet in the first scene of act two, between Ellen Orford (Martin), Auntie, played stoically by Hayley Sugars, and the nieces (Stenzel and Christie Peluso). They sing despondently of the role women play in supporting men. “And should we be ashamed because we comfort men from ugliness?” they sing. In the era of #metoo, that quartet resonates like never before.


The Opera Q Chorus, supplemented by talented students from the Queensland Conservatorium, again revealed astonishing vocal polish and discipline, and dramatic commitment. That so much is accomplished by this ensemble, year in, year out, when they are retained on an ad hoc, casual basis, is testament to their collective talents. We are lucky to have them. They sang their hearts out. The power of the moment at the end of Act 2, when they stormed the front of the stage, with flame torches aloft, a terror-inducing, frothing-mouthed mob, baying for Peter Grimes’ blood, was especially confronting.


Finally, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of the baby-faced Scottish conductor, Rory Macdonald, has rarely sounded better. Their performances of the famous four sea interludes, in particular, were evocative and atmospheric.


While it was disappointing he couldn’t sing the second and third acts, to suggest the production “fell apart” is to do a grave and thoroughly unjustified disservice to the rest of the performance.


It was, simply put, a remarkable evening in the Concert Hall.





this is it

This Is It

Team MESS (Australia) 

Powerhouse Rooftop Terrace

World Theatre Festival 16 – 26 February 2012 

This is a fun, largely improvised performance from a Sydney-based group (Dara Gill, Sime Knezevic, Frank Mainoo, Natalie Randall & Malcolm Whittaker), which brings tongue-in-cheek indie film and a fresh take on improvisation to the theatre.

It’s a brilliant concept and it’s certainly a slicker show now than it was in 2010 (watch an older version below). It relies on the audience to drive the show, in role as journalists at a press conference for a make-believe movie, for which we see only the trailers. Sounds scary, doesn’t it? Improvisation is widely considered the scariest form of theatre, for actors and audience alike. For those familiar with any level of actor training, the show is like one big, long, extended improvisation. For those without experience in drama games, think 20 Questions and allow a lot of flexibility on the answer-yes-or-no-only rule.

The show itself defies every theatrical convention but that of the suspension of disbelief. We are welcomed as members of the press and the actors are introduced, as any world famous movie star would be, to rapturous applause and blinding camera flashes from (imaginary) paparazzi. With a series of self-indulgent, picture perfect poses, the three nearly-Hollywood-groomed actors (no one was quite styled and polished enough), Malcolm Whittaker, Natalie Kate Randall and Frank B. Mainoo, smile and wave and turn and smile and wave until we feel like flicking to another channel…

I really enjoyed elements of this show, easily appreciating the clever premise and almost believing every word. The environment inside the space was superbly set – once seated, there was no mistaking we were in a press conference – what we needed were a few extra clues early on.

“You are invited to the premiere press conference for the new movie, This Is It. You’re the press…”

Okay, I concede; there’s a pretty big clue there, in the festival booklet. I also knew to expect the self-assured presence of Nathanael Cooper, Arts Editor of The Courier Mail, as host of the event. A knowing wink and inside knowledge of the usual proceedings served Cooper well.

Now, I’m not a lazy audience member. I freely admit that I am, in fact, a bit of a forum bunny but I wanted to hear from the actors, not ask the questions of them. I wanted somebody else to do that work, to have to think that much. Clearly, during the Sunday afternoon performance, a number of audience members felt the same way, keeping hands down and mouths shut. Tough crowd! I could certainly empathise with the performers but without that next level of specific skills, supreme confidence and a watertight connection between them; we were always going to have some awkward pauses. Some would say, kindly, that those moments heighten the tension and add to the drama, or the comedy as it happens, of the situation.

The level of interaction demanded by this show is not for everyone. And when you demand audience participation, you must prepare them for it. Explain how a press conference works before taking questions from the floor. Don’t assume your audience is stupid but don’t assume we know what you need from us either. Or that we’re prepared to play.

Issue audience members with lanyards, pre-printed with the name of the media outlet we are to represent, give clear instructions and help us slip into our roles by sharing with us, the rules of the game. Yes, I’d found that little hint in the festival booklet but when I found myself at the door, looking at a poster for a new film and a staff member concerned only with tearing tickets, without noticing our puzzled faces, I was thrown. Perhaps this was the director’s intent. But I wanted to feel a little more comfortable when I walked into the room. This is Role Play 101. A drama teacher might set up their classroom environment thus: “Welcome to the premiere press conference for the new movie, This Is It. After viewing the trailers for this film, you’ll have the opportunity to ask the stars of the film your questions. State your name and your publication (printed on your ID) before asking your question.” One extended trailer rather than five teasers would have sufficed.

Convincing characterisation within improvisation takes practice and a whole new level of confidence. I expected the actors, after two years on this show, to bail each other out more consistently. Instead, they each had a certain number of prepared lines and came back several times to the same points, bunging on the ego trips, which worked for Randall, though for the gentlemen not so much. They may have simply needed more material and permission to delve deeper into each theme or to spend longer on one or two rather than interrupt another in pursuit of a laugh. Or to have developed that special generousity that is not unique to impro actors, but to very good actors, who know when and how to share the spotlight. In true celebrity style, no one ever really reveals anything about anything; we are no more enlightened about the plot, characters or outcome of the film than when we started out! This, of course, is the idea and the joke works well.

There’s no denying Dara Gill and Team MESS are onto something. There’s a hunger for this sort of challenging, conspiratorial, interactive theatre. We eat up the parody, the sarcasm and the chance to pick our celebrities to pieces. The company has a fairly large following. They have their fans. They’re onto a good thing. Now I want to see them take it up a notch. They’ve found a niche. They just need to work harder to fill it.

This Is It. Team Mess.