Pygmalion – A Review

The lights come up and a sparse stage is revealed. No props. No set. No people.  A rectangular opening at the back of the stage appears, rain is falling heavily and a woman stands in it, soaking and shoeless. She has come to find Professor Henry Higgins to ask him to give her speech lessons. To help her “become a lady” so that she can “make her own life”. Thus is the opening to The Sydney Theatre Company’s current revamping of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.”

Based on Ovid’s” The Story of Pygmalion and the Statue” from Metamorphosis, Pygmalion explores the relationship between Professor Higgins (Marco Chiappi) and his flower-girl and cockney accented Eliza Doolittle (Andrea Demetriades), as he attempts to transform her into a “duchess” so as to win a bet made between himself and Colonel Pickering (played by Kim Gyngell). He is outdone by Eliza who grows into a woman who can think and argue for herself.

Peter Evans’ interpretation brings the themes of identity, nature vs nurture, social convention and the battle of the sexes into the modern era with a very contemporary visual interpretation (aided by the designs of Robert Cousins and Mel Page) that helps to highlight how these ideas have changed or, for lack of a better word, metamorphosised over time. With most of us fraternising in an online world and struggling with insecurtities the world of celebrity and the magazine image can bring, this issue of identity and the social standing it brings, is still a relevant one.

For me, the theme of identity was the one I connected with most. It was wonderful seeing Eliza blossom and to be able to stand up to Higgins at the end of the play and tell him what she thinks. That is something that I feel has certainly equalled out over the years. This battle between the sexes. At the same time, whilst women have moved forward in leaps and bounds, I do feel there is still this underlying belief that we are second rate to men and that chauvinism is certainly highlighted by Higgins.

This plays out most clearly in the final scene between Higgins and Eliza in Act 5. Demetriades is subtle as Eliza and Chiappi captures much of Higgin’s arrogance in his swift, snobbish line delivery. I’m not sure that the tension between Eliza and Higgin’s is fully realised and the ending is very ambiguous. However, David Wood’s is hillarious as Eliza’s father, really highlighting the social difference between the characters in the latter half of the play. I loved Wendy Hughes as Higgins’s mother and Deborah Kennedy as Mrs Pearce. They are further examples of the strength of feminism and the subtlety with which we can have power over men.

This is a play that is 100 years old this year and proves that theatre can transcend time and still be as relevant today as it ever was.

Image Credit: Gérôme, Pygmalion et Galatée, 1890 / leo.jeje / CC BY 2.0

Terminus – A Review

The theatre is filled with a white haze. The stage is framed by what looks a broken mirror, some of the shards still attached. The house lights dim. There is a building of sound that becomes a roar, the lights on the stage flash quickly and brightly, catching you by surprise after being immensed in the darkness. After the shock of the bright lights, three actors appear, each standing on their own podium, dressed in the everday, lit only faintly by white light crossing horizontally across their faces. The lights fade on “B” and “C” and “A” begins to speak…

And so begins the STC’s Touring Production from The Abbey Theatre in Ireland, Terminus. It is an intense 1 hour and 45 minutes. No interval, no movement of any kind, no interaction between the three actors, just three monologues that eventually intertwine.

At first, the story is engaging as the writing skill of O’Rowe reveals itself with his clever manipulation of the monologue form into that of verse. I think to myself, “this writing is modern day Shakespeare”. The rhythm and rhyme, ebb and flow of the dialogue suggests movement and supports that of the character’s stories.

Soon, listening to the character’s stories becomes a test of your skillful ability to imagine in your own head the events that the character recounts. Tune out (which I did a few times admittedly) and you miss a part of the story. All three stories and their respective characters, are bleak and not at all what you would expect.  Terminus means “the end or extremity of anything” and the stories are certainly that. The way they reveal themselves makes listening to them worthwhile. The revelation is simple and subtle and fits perfectly within the rhythm and length of the play. You are hanging on until the last minute.

The acting is incredibly skilled and strongly supports the uniquely written dialogue. Olwen Fouere as “A” is engaging with her clear and aptly intonated delivery. “B” played by Catherine Walker was incredibly intense which I suppose was complimentary to her character but I found it a little too so. However it worked well in showing a jarring contrast between Walker’s “B” and Declan Conlon’s portrayal of “C” who was softly spoken by comparison. I was straining to hear him at times. It was not at all how you would expect an essentially crazy mad man to sound. All three actors, standing alone speaking to the audience show the isolation they all feel even after their stories intertwine.

Whilst I can look at each of the elements of Terminus individually and appreciate and praise their merit, I didn’t overly enjoy this play. It really was exhausting listening and imagining the events in my head nor did I feel anything in particular as I was leaving the theatre. If I had to feel anything it was mainly exhaustion and a feeling of “oh isn’t the world bleak?” The lack of interaction disappointed me and the monologues were incredibly long and as such couldn’t maintain my attention.

A very well written work with highly skilled actors doing justice to the material but it didn’t quite reach the heights of my expectation.

Image Credits: Dublino, mariocutroneo, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Zebra – A Review

A man walks into a bar…

We’ve all heard jokes that start like this. This is also how the play Zebra by Ross Mueller begins. An absolutely incredible, intricately detailed set (by David McKay) greets the audience. Imagine your typical New York bar. Down some steps off 46th Street complete with TV’s, snow falling outside, oil heaters, a fluourescent pub sign in the window, peanut shells on a drink stained wooden floor, a juke box, a mirror behind the bottles of liquor, fairy lights, photos and signed football memorabilia all over the walls. The set overwhelms you. For me, it brought back memories of my trip to the US last January and the fondess I now have for all things American. I enjoyed looking from one side of the set to the other admiring the detail.

Unfortunately, this is about the only great thing about Zebra. The Sydney Theatre Company’s latest offering is set on a morning in January 2009. Bryan Brown’s Jimmy walks into the bar heading straight for the toilet with a cut on his head. Next, bar owner “Jill” enters with U-Haul boxes, starting up the juke-box. It blares Irish band The Pogues music loudly out of the bar. She leaves again only for Larry (Colin Friels) to walk in, thinking he’s hit the jackpot with an unoccupied bar. Helping himself to some whiskey, “Jill” re-enters the bar and the action begins. The audience soon learns Larry is waiting to meet his soon-to-be son-in-law. However, what he doesn’t realise is that it is in fact Jimmy.

The unfortunate thing about Mueller’s script is that nothing particularly interesting happens. It’s not interesting because the character’s aren’t really interesting. Frankly, they’re stereotyped. Bryan Brown isn’t really stretching himself too much in the acting stakes because he’s playing a typical Aussie. He sounds so Australian that it clashes obviously with Friel’s inconsistent New York twang. Perhaps that was Mueller’s point. That there is that obvious lack of understanding (especially in terms of humour) and difference between American’s and Australian’s. Nadine Garner’s ,”Jill” is defensive and trying to cope with owning a bar that was left to her by her late husband during the GFC. Her character seems to act purely as a link between the two male characters flitting between the two to fill scenes and break tension and redirect the narrative.

The Global Financial Crisis is an interwoven theme throughout the play. Larry is a millionaire unaffected by the crisis writing out cheques left, right and centre, whilst Jimmy has lost everything and “Jill” is mopping up the mess after her husband commits suicide. Perhaps because Australians were relatively unaffected by it, the reality of the situation has little effect. The relationship between Jimmy and Larry is not likeable, tense and disconnected. There are a few strong moments, particularly when Larry and Jimmy work out who each other is, however I found myself drifting off in sections of the dialogue because it seemed like pointless rambling.

The metaphor of the Zebra referred to several times throughout the play makes sense but comes across weakly and just doesn’t seem to work. When Larry and Jimmy fight it seems as though they are emulating the zebra and you can see how they are acting like zebras (the father of a female zebra chases away any “suitors” trying to abduct her) but it just seems tokenist, like a let’s-have-a-metaphor-for-metaphor’s sake and a weak choice of metaphor at that.

The first of my subscription plays that I have felt was much weaker than some of the others, this is one zebra that can be abducted.

In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play – A Review

Amidst all the end of term marking, I managed to get myself along to the first of my six theatre subscription plays I’ll be seeing this year with the Sydney Theatre Company. I thought I might add a review of the play, In The Next Room or The Vibrator Play to my growing list of posts.

In The Next Room is not what you’d expect. Outwardly, it looks like a period drama. Gorgeous 19th Century Victorian gowns and the large multi-roomed set by Tracy Grant Lord capture the wealth and beauty of middle class America during this period. Everyone is “oh so polite,” engaging in well mannered conversation and your typical niceties.

In the Next Room follows Catherine Givings and her husband Dr. Givings. Dr. Givings is in the business of treating hysteria with a new and revolutionary method of treatment: electric vibratory massage. In other words, a vibrator. In the meantime, Catherine is struggling to wean her child and is forced to hire a wet nurse to help keep her baby healthy. She is lonely, disempowered and longing to connect with her husband. 

Catherine becomes friends with one of the doctor’s regular clients Sabrina Daldry and becomes intrigued by the method in which she is being treated. Her curiosity leads her to discover how the tool works and discover a whole new way of thinking opening up to her. She faces her guilt at not being able to provide for her child, her loneliness and her longing to be deeply loved and connected to her husband.

The confined and refined nature of treatment in the 1800’s makes the situation of the “treatment sessions” and their true function rather humorous. Sarah Ruhl, the playwright, was intrigued by this, wanting to return to the days when showing any skin caused us to draw breath aghast. The sessions highlight the sexual confinement that women and men experienced during this time with treatment occuring “under the sheet”. That relationships were clinical, disempowering for women as they were powered by men and any romantic connection and/or sexuality was not explored. Rarely were men and women made aware of what these feelings could mean, let alone listen to them and act in a way that was wild and freeing. It was absolutely taboo to engage in anything sexual pre-maritally. Catherine distresses at one point in the play over the fact that Dr. Givings closes his eyes when they are intimate and would never dare see her undress. Ruhl, draws on the idea that it is the silence between the characters, what is not said, that makes them fascinating. There were countless more women in the theatre than men, with the majority of laughter and nodding heads coming from them because it is the things we don’t say or want to say that matter but our guilt or fear holds us back.

Jacqueline McKenzie is engaging and really draws out an energetic yet anxious Catherine. Her frantic-ness, anxiety, guilt and frustration seems to escalate right up until the final moments of the play when she and her husband are together in the street making snow angels.

I particularly liked Helen Thomson as Sabrina Daldry. Her naivety and innocence at what she is experiencing is funny whilst the connection she builds with the nurse, Annie (Mandy McElhinney) is beautiful and tender. It exemplifies what relationships should truly be about yet highlights the social restraints at the time which prevented this. The way both women, Catherine and Sabrina transform after the sessions is incredible. You see a power and a confidence come over them that was not there before.

David Roberts portrays Dr Givings as being enthusiastic about his work and oblivious to his wife. He accurately conveys his growing frustrations and jealousy as Catherine flirts with Leo Irving (Josh McConville) yet he tries to maintain a controlled and dignified 19th Century approach to marriage. Josh McConville as Leo adds another humourous touch to the play whilst Sara Zwangobani adds a demure tone to the play as wet nurse Elizabeth grieving at the loss of her own son yet providing milk for Laeticia, Catherine’s daughter.

Women and relationships have come so far since this time and with it we can see that many of the frustrations experienced in their time still exist today even with many of the social taboos no longer in existence. It is because of this that In the Next Room is both funny and thought provoking.

Image Credits:

Florence Dombey in Captain Cuttle’s Parlour – William Maw Egley, 1888, by rosewithoutathorn1984, used under Creative Commons.