Tag: Richard Bligh

Review: THE MCNEIL PROJECT

A rare look on the “inside” of Australian life

By Deborah Langley

A cold winter’s evening was nothing to stop the almost full house of punters packing in to see the latest Wattle We Do Next production: The McNeil Project, a duo of plays written by ex-prisoner Jim McNeil.

With thick Aussie accents and hard-to-understand Aussie colloquies the first play starts with energy, passion and enthusiasm. In The Chocolate Frog, two hardened inmates Shirko (Luke McKenzie) and Tosser (Cain Thompson) put their new cellmate Kevin (Will Ewing) on trial, providing a witty commentary on the dynamics between morality and mateship within Australia’s penal system.

McKenzie is a stand-out in this brilliant cast with fast-paced dialogue and a raw masculinity which is truly frightening at times, reminding me of a young Eric Banner and a more attractive Chopper Reed. Although it did take me almost half of the show to get a grasp on the language and the accents (I don’t speak fluent ocker), as the play builds momentum the language softens and some really interesting subjects are brought to light including the difference between inmate life and the real world over communication, understanding and rehabilitation.

As McNeil himself explains: “The ‘outsiders’ looking in felt that ex-prisoners must display certain attitudes of repentance and resolve; while we ‘crims’ were busy trying to convince them that ex-prisoners don’t feel much repentance and are resolved only to extract a fair go from the mob outside.” An interesting standpoint – just a shame I had to read it in the program after the play to really grasp the complexities of the project.

The second play, The Old Familiar Juice, explores sexuality, ownership and hierarchy as three inmates (played by McKenzie, Cain and Richard Bligh) sneakily concoct a boozy brew that acts as a catalyst to unlock dormant primal urges. McKenzie again takes the lead with what I imagine is the “McNeil” character, while Cain shows his diversity performing with innocence and naivety.

I imagine that when this was first performed in the 1970s, the idea of exposing homosexual relationships within the jail system was shocking and even dangerous, but today homosexual rape presented as something justifiable (even within the confines of prison walls) isn’t a concept that sits well with me, that I understand, or even care to engage with.

Directed brilliantly by Malcolm Robertson, McNeil’s writing definitely has an interesting place in Australian theatrical history but like all playwrights who speak of a specific era and context, its continuing relevance still needs to be questioned at some point.

Venue: fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne

Season: Until 29 Juy 2012 | 8pm Tue – Sat | 5pm Sun

Tickets: $44 Full | $36 Conc | $30 Preview

Bookings: 03 9662 9966 or fortyfivedownstairs.com

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Review: UNCLE VANYA by Hotwire Productions

An engrossing interpretation of a modern masterpiece

By Anastasia Russell-Head

Chekhov’s works, like Shakespeare’s, serve to unite humanity and human foibles across time and continents.

More than a century after Uncle Vanya was first penned, and on the opposite side of the globe, we’re still dealing with the same stuff – complaining about our lives, falling in love with the wrong people, allowing ourselves to be irritated and manipulated by our relatives, and falling victim to paralyzing inaction.

Director and adaptor Laurence Strangio brings the characters in this play slightly out of history, and makes their plight poignantly relevant to today by, as he writes in the program notes, not feeling “bound by historical accuracy”.

Although ostensibly the characters remain in nineteenth-century Russia, the language and idioms are not forcibly “historical”, but fall naturally onto twenty-first-century ears – drawing the similarities through time rather than highlighting the differences between then and now.

A superb ensemble cast portray the quirky characters with relish, from the hyperbolic gravitas of Peter Finlay’s Professor, to Bruce Woolley’s dry and proudly eccentric Dr Astrov. Although not always the most convincing member of the cast, Sarah Ranken brings a quiet strength and pathos to the character of Sonya, especially in her moving speech at the end of the play. Notable mention must also be made of Richard Bligh and Louise O’Dwyer.

The sumptuous set makes use of the full width of iconic theatre space fortyfivedownstairs, drawing the audience into the action, and feeling almost like we’re inside an isolated night-time country house alongside the characters. All it needed was an open fireplace to complete the illusion! A couple of sight line issues and passages in which characters deliver lines to the back wall are very minor flaws.

Although not by any means a short play (allow three hours, including interval) this production kept my attention throughout, made me laugh, nearly made me cry, and certainly made me think about what it is to be human and to construct a life. In the words of Uncle Vanya, “to start a new life… where to begin?

MAY 16 – JUNE 3 

Fortyfivedownstairs

45 Flinders Lane

Tuesday – Saturday 8pm

Saturday matinee 4pm

Sundays 6pm

Tickets: $38 / $25 / $15 school groups

Bookings:  03 9662 9966 / fortyfivedownstairs.com

Review: CAFE SCHEHERAZADE

Unexpectedly moving…

By Anastasia Russell-Head

Cafe Scheherazade is a tale of survival, of hope, of culture, place and time. Based on Arnold Zable’s novel of the same name, this play tells the story of proprietors Masha and Avram Zeleznikow and three regulars at their café in 1990s St Kilda. They all emigrated to Australia as Jewish refugees after World War II and come together five decades later to tell their stories to a young journalist, Martin.

Drawing both laughs and tears from the audience (for me the image of a young exiled Jewish boy in Shanghai discovering an old man practicing Tai Chi in the misty dawn was unexpectedly moving), the importance of telling and knowing history is revealed and debated as the protagonists slowly reveal their moving personal stories.

Performances from the cast were uniformly strong, with Richard Bligh and Marta Kaczmarek especially standing out. The staging at fortyfivedownstairs evoked the modest post-war styling of the café, with its vinyl seating and laminate tables. Unfortunately sometimes the clarity of speech was lost in the “boomy” space, but otherwise Adrienne Chisholm’s deceptively simple design was very successful, with the audience surrounding the action on three sides.

Music is used to great effect in this production, with Ernie Gruner and Justin Marshall providing a superb Klezmer-based live soundtrack.

The story of displaced people escaping persecution and building a new home in a foreign country is particularly relevant in Australia today, and the stories told in this play take on a new poignancy in light of recent political debate. Engaging, affecting, and thought-provoking. Highly recommended.

Café Scheherazade

A play based on the novel by Arnold Zable

Written by Therese Radic

Directed by Bagryana Popov

Fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane

Until 11 September

Tuesday – Saturday 8pm

Sunday 5pm

Matinees 2pm Wed 24 & 31 Aug

4pm Sat 27 Aug & 3 Sep

$45 / $40 / $37.50

Bookings: 03 9662 9966 or www.fortyfivedownstairs.com