Tag Archives: Sydney Theatre Company

The Other Way

Mostly my theatre outings are relegated to the blog that appears in the right-hand column here. But as very few of my readers will have a chance to see The Other Way, here it is in the main body.

The Other Way, written and directed by Stefo Nantsou, is the third annual collaboration between the Sydney Theatre Company and Bankstown Youth Development Service (BYDS). The ABC’s inferior replacement for Ramona Koval’s Book Show (no disparagement of the excellent Michael Cathcart intended – the Powers That Be seem to have declared non-fiction books to be off limits, a stupidifying limitation) ran an interview yesterday with three people involved in the show, which you can hear here.

The show’s cast includes five professional actors, 23 school students and seven other performers from the community, some of whom wrote pieces On Western Sydney (Westside Publications 2012), an anthology of writing from and about Western Sydney edited by Michael Mohammed Ahmad & Felicity Castagna and produced under the auspices of BYDS. I mention the anthology because, although it wouldn’t be fair to say the show was based on it, there is a shared agenda of putting Western Sydney stories and story-makers into the public eye.

The action takes place in a single day, beginning with an old man summoning his family to prayer and ending with family prayer at night. In between, we see people commuting by train and going about their work days. Three main stories unfold, each involving children lost and found. In the most lighthearted, a woman loses her two small children in a shopping centre and they turn out to have been hiding for the fun of it. A second involves children being removed from a junky mother by Community Services and given into the care of a decent, loving couple. The third, which involves the family from the opening moment and nosy teenagers acting as chorus, has a young woman returning to the family after being missing for a long time. Alice Ansara has some big emotional moments of rock bottom despair as the junky mother, but it’s the story of the young woman returning to her family that is at the heart of the show. The responses of her siblings, her parents and her grandfather are richly complex (not glibly joyful, by any means). Only at the end do we discover why she left, and it’s a powerful statement about the difficulties faced by a generation caught between cultures and the vicious effects of anti-Muslim prejudice.

Binding it all together is brilliant hip-hop artist Matuse. He’s part of the family that prays; the returning daughter tells him her story; his songs provide the time frame and an exuberant conclusion; and his encounters with a little thief are a running joke whose punchline evokes not a laugh but breath of hope.

This isn’t professional/industrial theatre, where success is judged by the length of the run and size of box office takings. It’s community, where the division between audience and performers is porous, where there’s an intimate sense that people are telling their own stories and those of their neighbours. There’s a wonderful scene where a group of boys are teasing/harassing a group of girls, who are giving back as good as they get. In the middle of the chiacking and posturing one of the girls looks one of the boys full in the face and says, ‘Hello!’ and the group falls silent. The whole thing falls apart, moves onto a different planet. Sure, it was scripted and stylised, but it felt right then and there.

Just before the show started, a section, not of the audience but of the cast. I didn't get my hands on a program so can't say names, but from the left:

Just before the show started, a section, not of the audience but of the cast. I didn’t get my hands on a program so can’t say names, but from the left: a young man who did spectacular leaps to impress a young woman; two players of multiple minor characters; the junkie mother / train ticket collector; younger sister of the returning young woman / girl who was impressed by the boy’s athleticism; neglected son of the junkie;  Community Services worker / mother of the praying family / drummer; mother and two children from the lost-in-the-mall story.

The Other Way is on again tonight and tomorrow night and tomorrow morning (that is, Wednesday 17 and Thursday 18 July) at the Bankstown Arts Centre where tickets cost $5 or $3 (book at 02 9793 8324), and then Friday evening and Saturday afternoon at the Wharf 2 Theatre at Walsh Bay where there’s no charge, but bookings are essential (02 9250 1777 or online) and maybe impossible.

Deep Suburbia

At a Sydney Writers’ Festival a couple of years ago Jennifer Maiden was reading at a Sydney-themed poetry session. She told us that she hadn’t been able to think of anything she’d written about Sydney. But when someone mentioned a couple of titles, she understood: ‘Oh, Western Sydney! I’ve got plenty about Western Sydney!’

20111105-111958.jpgThe show in the rehearsal room of the new Bankstown Arts Centre last night was all about Western Sydney, when five actors from the (not-Western) Sydney Theatre Company presented Deep Suburbia. In a nutshell this was a theatrical presentation of work from an anthology of the same name published earlier this year by the Bankstown Youth Development Service (mostly known as BYDS – I had to look up its full name).

The anthology is the third in the Westside Jr series, edited like its predecessors by Michael Mohammed Ahmad. It consists almost entirely of writing produced by school students during an artists in residence program that gave guidance and mentorship to the young writers over a number of weeks. Click on the image to the left for an e-book version – it’s a good read in its own right. The back cover isn’t wrong when it says that  its ‘writers and photographers channel the unique and often misrepresented  voice of Sydney’s infamous Western Suburbs’. Jennifer Maiden thinks of herself as a voice from Western Sydney. People who enthuse about Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap seem to read it as giving voice to a previously mute equivalent in Melbourne. This anthology and its predecessors demonstrate that given half a chance there’s a multitude of voices in the West ready to make themselves heard. I’ve been dipping into it for months, and always found something to enjoy, from sharp, short poems like this by Peta Murphy:

The mood turns from sympathy to scorn
when her end means the delay
of the 3:14 to Granville.

to longer tales of family life, or classroom romance/politics.

Last night was something of a revelation. The performers – Stefo Nantsou (who also directed), Arka Das, Elena Carapetis, Lindy Sardelic amd Miranda Tapsell – read the pieces with intelligence, humour and moments of great poignancy. They played around with form, so that the evening had a shape – among other things, the show finished with Filip Stempien’s enigmatically named ‘New Zealand Boys Drum’, a string of glimpses of the varied life of Bankstown, and we realise that a number of these glimpses have been acted out for us in the interstices of earlier readings. Most interestingly for me, the performances demonstrated something about the nature of young people’s writing. There were a couple of pieces, for instance – a rant about how annoying girls are (by someone who chose, perhaps wisely, to remain anonymous), a step-by-step account of a day spent obsessed with a boyfriend’s perceived bad mood (also anonymous), Kameron Omar’s recount of his mother’s time in hospital with an aneurysm – that one might be tempted to read as artless scribblings on the page, interesting mainly as sociological data. In performance, the depth of their creativity became blazingly evident: ‘Girls These Days’ sounds like Henry Higgins as Pizza Boy; ‘I Write to Remember’ does a brilliant job of mocking the thing it enacts; the beautifully understated ‘Aneurysm’ is permeated with quiet terror.

The show was only on for two nights. It was free, and food was provided. I’m sorry you didn’t make it. I’m very glad I did.

Stephen Sondheim Finishing the Hat

Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981), with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes (Virgin Publishing 2010)

This was a birthday present from the Art Student. We’ve both been Sondheim fans since seeing the fabulous Sydney Theatre Company production of his collaboration with James Lapine, Into the Woods, in 1993. It’s not that I’ve been dying to pore over his lyrics, as I once did (and still occasionally do) over Bob Dylan’s, but the book’s subtitle promises much more than a set of songs drained of their music. And so it transpired: lyrics of songs you’ve never heard or recall only vaguely don’t make riveting reading, but a master craftsman’s unsparing reflections on his work, and that of his colleagues, collaborators, mentors and rivals is another story.

The comments of the subtitle turn out to be illuminating notes on the writing of particular songs and brief accounts the development of thirteen musicals – from Saturday Night in 1954 (not actually produced until 1999) to Merrily We Roll Along in 1981 (to be reshaped into a success for a James Lapine production in 1985). There are three principles: Content Dictates Form, Less Is More, and God Is in the Details, all in the service of Clarity. The heresies, grudges, whines etc, range from classic showbiz anecdotes (Hermione Gingold’s audition for A Little Night Music is my favourite, closely followed by Ingmar Bergman’s praise of her performance) to mini-essays on a score of eminent writers for musical theatre. There’s a list of the cardinal sins of lyric writing, a spirited advocacy of full rhyme, and any number of fascinating insights into the elation, heartbreak and drudgery of working on Broadway.

Approaching 80 when he wrote the book, Sondheim doesn’t mince words. You don’t have to agree with his evaluation of Noel Coward as the master of condescending blather or Lorenz Hart as gifted but lazy to relish his straight talk. Mostly, his frankness remains respectful: he may ‘cringe at the bloodless quaintness of the ballads’ of Gilbert and Sullivan and be baffled when he hears an audience laugh at one of their songs, but he acknowledges their importance in the history of musical theatre, and allows that his failure to enjoy them may reflect a lack in himself. On the subject of ignorant, lazy or arrogant reviewers and critics, though, he gives no quarter. In particular, he writes scathingly about the first production of Burt Shevelove’s The Frogs by academic George Brustein, who is portrayed as arrogant, self-serving, disingenuous and incompetent. (Brustein, incidentally, didn’t do himself any favours by writing an unconvincing alternative account of that production, though he did at least score a point by saying that while revenge may be a dish best served cold, Sondheim, who waited more than 30 years to tell his story, seems to prefer it frozen.)

This, along with the companion volume due out later this year, Look, I Made a Hat, is probably as close to an autobiography as Sondheim will give us. Although there’s almost nothing of his non-professional life, something of a pictorial biography emerges from the charming personal photos scattered among the images of manuscript pages, playbills, rehearsals and productions – beginning with him, aged about 5, serious at the piano in a school rehearsal, and ending with him grey-bearded and beaming at a theatre entrance.

The book ends on a cliffhanger. The Broadway premiere of Merrily We Roll Along was a flop, closing after 16 performances. Sondheim writes:

It was a show I adored and a deep disappointment in its first outing, and it marked an important period in my professional life.

But then I met James Lapine.

INTERMISSION

LoSoRhyMo 9: On walking out of a play

The Art Student, my companion in discourtesy in walking out of the Wharf Theatre on Wednesday night, said this would be a good subject for a sonnet:

Sonnet 9: This is just to say
We walked out of your play last night
from front row seats. We’d hung in there
for five whole scenes. The script was tight,
each actor sound, the set though spare
was spot on, and the vocal coach
had nailed the accents – no reproach
on that score. All these things were fine
but almost from the opening line
I couldn’t, couldn’t feel a thing.
I’d pay to watch two monkeys fart
if done with two boards and a heart.
Last night had timing, lines that sing
and sting. It’s heart that wasn’t there.
Sometimes a pause is just dead air.