Category: Theatre

Let It Be: A Celebration of the Music of The Beatles

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Let It Be: A Celebration of the Music of The Beatles

Presented by Stewart & Tricia Macpherson for Annerin Productions
Musical Direction by Allan Slutsky
The Civic, Auckland | March 26-April 5

Like anyone with any sense of what’s good for them, I love The Beatles. Preparing myself for the worst, I approached Let It Be with a healthy dose of scepticism. So how does a mere facsimile of the real thing hold up?

Surprisingly well, actually.

At its core, Let It Be is a testament to the songwriting and musical talent of The Beatles themselves. For the entire two-hour running time there is not one bad song. The Beatles have left behind an oeuvre so extensive and so high in quality the show could’ve gone on for the whole night with little complaint. It took a about half a dozen songs to wear down my own apprehensions, but by the time Yesterday came on I was hooked. There’s also no denying the one-two punch of hearing Blackbird and Strawberry Fields Forever back-to-back, or the heartrending performance of While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

While it might be The Beatles performed by a tribute band, this is certainly as good as it gets. The calibre of the musicians, Neil Candelora, Tyson Kelly, JT Curtis, Chris McBurney and Daniel A. Weiss, is nothing if not exceptional. If anything the polished sheen of the show is sometimes to its detriment, offering too crisp of a soundtrack that defeats the purpose of watching a live show. After all, we can always return to the albums themselves if we want to hear the song as we remember them. But, if the worst thing you can say about a show is that it’s too slick, then it can’t be that bad. And, for all its practiced perfection, it is never sterile.

With the assistance of wigs and makeup, there’s a passing resemblance to some of the original band members, though sometimes to the point of looking more like wax museum replicas than real life human beings. Attempts to capture personality are moderately successful though somewhat cheesy, but it’s what you’d expect from a tribute show where the essence of an artist is boiled down to a few catchphrases and an accent. Luckily the most important part of the band, the musicianship and vocals, is captured pitch perfectly. Almost eerily so.

Evaluated in theatrical terms, the show is not without some flashy lights, costume changes and fancy video projection, but it’s a stretch to call it theatre or a musical. There are efforts made to transport us back to the early days of The Beatles with old-school videos playing on appropriately outdated fake television sets, chronologically following the growth of the band itself. It’s a nice history lesson, though not particularly extensive, capturing kitsch more than conveying an era. Also, for better or for worse, it certainly makes no attempts to give us an insight into who the band members were as people, so those after a narrative backdrop for the music should look elsewhere. But it accomplishes what it sets out to achieve. It’s a crowd-pleasing tribute show that will charm old and new fans alike. And when the band you are paying tribute to is The Beatles, and you manage to do their music justice, audiences have very little to complain about.

Let It Be avoids the pitfalls of insincerity and soullessness that is sometimes unfairly attributed to tribute shows, often seen as little more than an easy cash cow. The only people who should steer clear of the show are those who don’t have much interest in The Beatles in the first place, but for those of us who do, the show sells itself. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay Let It Be, and certainly a measure of its success, is that I’ve found myself returning to The Beatles with a newfound enthusiasm.

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What I’ve Been Up To

As of this year I’ve been appointed Auckland Theatre Editor over at the The Lumière Reader which means I’ve mostly been busy reviewing shows the past couple of months.

If you’re keen to check out my reviews…
http://lumiere.net.nz/index.php/author/nathan-joe/

Upcoming shows I’m looking forward to include: The return of last year’s musical success Daffodils, Three Beckett Shorts (Breath, That Time and Krapp’s Last Time) and ATC’s production of A Doll’s House. 


Also trying to use Twitter this year, so follow me for irregular updates:
https://twitter.com/YellowPerilProd

Thoughts on The Crucible

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Watched a filmed production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible on Sunday night. No doubt the production lost some of its theatrical magic with the transition onto the screen, but I can’t thank Digital Theatre enough for bringing this production to cinemas worldwide. Here are some of my quick thoughts on the stunning production:


Yael Farber’s production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is a primal force that tears at the seams of this classic play, usually remembered for its place on the dusty shelves of the American theatre canon than for its vivid storytelling.

The plot is simple: a group of young girls are caught dabbling in the dark arts. To save themselves they lie about having been possessed by the devil and proceed to accuse various others in the village of being witches. John Proctor, a well-meaning man becomes entangled in their lies when his wife is accused of being a witch. But, instead of merely being a play about the Salem witch trials we get the journey of a good man whose sense of self is tested and tortured.

Attempting to praise the uniformly excellent cast within this short non-review is an act of futility. Paragraphs upon paragraphs would be  required to do them justice. Richard Armitage is the definitive John Proctor, a walking bruised soul. But the rest of the cast are more than willing to match his level of performance. It is doubtful I will ever see a more conflicted Revered Samuel Parris, a more terrifying Abigail Williams, or a more stoic and frail Elizabeth Proctor. Even the various girls complicit in Abigail’s crimes are absolute perfection.

One suspects the keyword for the production Farber had in mind was VISCERAL; the atmosphere of the play easily surpasses the intensity of any conventional Hollywood thriller. The small town of Salem is a place of repressed emotions and waking nightmares, but it never feels that foreign, never feels like something out of a fairytale. We cannot forget that this is history, or that it is relevant today (and always).

Arthur Miller’s The Crucible is a demanding play at over 3 hours. But this is a definitive modern interpretation that never slogs. More theatre of cruelty than socio-poltical agitprop, Farber summons the claws of Artaud and grabs you by the throat, threatening to never let go.

Highlighted Sections II

(The following is a ‘found poem’ using the highlighted bits from a secondhand copy of Howard Barker’s Arguments for a Theatre.)

Literally and metaphorically
There is now no darkness
In the world.

The open society is
White and bright. It
Abhors the shadows. It
Violates the penumbra of privacy
In the name of access. It
Trespasses in the most secret chambers
Of grief and makes advertisements
Of pain.

Absolute light. Light
As a system. Light
As a regime.

The urge to participate in
‘light-throwing’ is something
To which few artists are immune, Indeed
It is a time-honoured instinct
Among dramatists with a pedigree
Reaching far beyond the great
Illuminators, Brecht and Shaw.

Let us talk to tragedy, for
It is the greatest of all art forms
And the most beautiful, And
For these reasons alone almost abolished
By the Illumination System, hating beauty
As it must and afraid of the dark
As an aged bachelor shudders at
The shadow on his door.

Populist democracy can tolerate
Very little of the active self, For
Self is no respecter of rights, and
Tragedy is the supreme moment of self
And the worst enemy of rights, it
Tramples rights, it is
After all is said and done, the
Illegal for of things.

Tragedy is not humanist
And intends no good to man.

Phaedra x3

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“I tried to suppress my mad feelings. That didn’t work. You can’t suppress Aphrodite.”
—Euripides (trans. Anne Carson), Hippolytus

“The first sight of him ripped my wounds open. No longer a fever in my veins, Venus had fastened on me like a trigger.”
—Racine, Phèdre

“Can’t switch this off. Can’t crush it. Can’t. Wake up with it, burning me. Think I’ll crack open I want him so much.”
—Sarah Kane, Phaedra’s Love

There are few figures in Greek mythology as tragic as Phaedra. And, if we accept Greek mythology as the benchmark of tragedy (rivalled only by the works of Shakespeare), then we must accept Phaedra as one of the most tragic figures in all of literature.

Though married to Theseus, Phaedra is in love with his son Hippolytus, her stepson. She cannot bear it. It literally makes her sick, killing her slowly. Her nurse, Oenone, tries to save Phaedra by telling Hippolytus of her symptom and the cause. Hippolytus is disgusted and threatens to tell his father. Phaedra, ashamed, kills herself, but not before leaving a note accusing Hippolytus of her crime. Theseus ends up cursing his son with the aid of Poseidon. Eventually he learns of the truth.

There are many iterations of this story in theatre. I have read three. There is the original Hippolytus by Euripides, which closely follows the above synopsis. The cause of Phaedra’s love is directly attributed to the goddess Aphrodite in this version, punishing Hippolytus for spurning love and women. Love is a tool of the gods, something humans cannot overcome. There’s a fatalism and inevitability in the premise.

The second version I am familiar with is Racine’s Phèdre. In this version the gods, while blamed, are never directly attributed to the cause of Phaedra’s sickness. So, while acknowledging the Greek setting and the relevance of the Gods at the time, Racine is more concerned with the psychological ramifications of the story. In his version, Hippolytus is no longer represented as a sort of asexual figure. This is used to add an element of jealousy to Phaedra’s love for him. Overall it’s a pretty faithful retelling of the story with subtle additions that ground it in a more modern perspective.

The last version I’ve read is Sarah Kane’s tragicomic bastardisation Phaedra’s Love. Her main contribution to the story is an intense nihilism mixed with sex and profanity. With no regard for the original setting, she makes the language contemporary. It works though. It’s a fucked up play. In this version Hippolytus doesn’t rebuff Phaedra’s affections, but he doesn’t quite return them either. He just uses her for (oral) sex and rejects her. The rest of the play follows somewhat closely to the original, though filtered through grand guignol.

It’s interesting to note that the naming of the later plays is indicative of an understanding (on the playwright’s part) that the heart of the story is Phaedra rather than Hippolytus. She is the driving force behind the narrative, both her love and shame.

I love this whole fashion of taking classic stories are remodelling them to suit your own needs and intentions. And I don’t just mean in a dramaturgical sense. I don’t mean changing Macbeth to a corporate setting and cutting a couple of scenes and you’ve got a new play. That’s not a new play. That’s looking at an old play from a fresh perspective.

I’m talking about building upon the ideas of our predecessors. That to me is the crux of all writing. Firstly, we must accept no thought or idea can be truly original. Secondly, we must accept nothing is sacred. Thirdly, we must to what we can to be, above all else, honest. Forget about originality. What matters is sincerity.

Bastardise. Steal. Adapt. Translate.. Recreate. Deconstruct. Rebuild. Abridge. Expand. Mutate. Invert. These are just a few our tools as writers. We’d be foolish not to use them.

Let’s Talk About Brecht…

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Other than William Shakespeare, is there any playwright who has shaped modern theatre more than Brecht?

I had the great pleasure of seeing the Auckland Theatre Company’s production of Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan last Friday night. It wasn’t a flawless production (it’s certainly not a flawless play). The first scene of the play fumbled awkwardly to keep the audience’s attention. But the second half, after intermission, was a truly evocative piece of social critique, and went down like a warm glass of milk. The story of a hooker with a heart of gold who struggles to stay good under the stress of economic pressure, but can’t find stability without creating a male alter-ego, is not something from an understated drama. In fact, it’s incredibly didactic, bludgeoning you with its “ideas” and “themes” and “messages”. But it works because that’s Brecht’s intention. He asks us difficult questions but is smart (honest?) enough to know he doesn’t have any answers. Despite the fact The Good Soul of Szechuan isn’t much more than a parable, it manages to be heartfelt and humanistic, much to the credit of Robyn Malcom’s performance in the central role.

For all the “distancing effects” and ideas of “epic theatre” Brecht and his practitioners apply, there is an undeniable empathy in his works. They might be political works that attempt to make us think. But the personal is political, as it is often said. We cannot separate the two. And if we dare to turn theatre into pure spectacle and mere entertainment we do a great disservice to the medium.

If you had told me I would one day consider Brecht to be one of my favourite writers just a couple of years ago I’d have laughed and rolled my eyes at you, sarcastically retorting, “Yeah, right, mate,” in an intensely dismissive and glib fashion.

But Brecht will never be out of fashion. His messages are as pertinent as ever.

I’d like to wrap up this little tribute with a quote from the man himself. I feel Brecht’s fingers pointed directly at me as I read these words. No doubt they will only mean more to me as I grow older, echoing in my mind:

“The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.”

Theatre of Colour

“In my twenties I thought that I would write hundreds of plays. I had so many stories to tell. In my thirties I began to suspect that maybe I wouldn’t get to tell them all and by my forties I knew that that was true. I simply wouldn’t get to write them all.

And I feel a sense of grief about those stories I won’t tell. I mourn them. As it is I write and have produced a play about every five years. Two a decade. Some writers are more prolific but I’m not. Though there are films in between those plays so it’s not like I’m not working. But theatre is my first love and so I know the number of plays left is finite. I can probably count them on one hand.

And so I have resolved to make each one count.”

For the opening of the 2014 National Play Festival in Australia, Andrew Bovell delivered a powerful keynote speech, pleading for playwrights to write the stories they NEED to tell.

I’m often concerned that what I right lacks accessibility or that there is no desire to produce it, so I attempt to write what I think others will want to see. I find myself afraid of what I really want to write. This fear prevents me from expressing myself with any clarity. This has to stop. I don’t want to end up having written maybe two or three plays I barely like because I never pushed myself towards truth.

Bovell also talked about the whiteness of theatre, which is something prevalent not just in Australia. I see it in the theatre scene in New Zealand too. And, of course, a predominately European country is going to shaped heavily by the western canon of great theatre.

At this moment in our history I find myself hungry for content…. For plays that are saying something. I want meat on the bone. I want to think. I want to be upset. I want to be shocked and shaken. I sense a rise of conservatism in this country. A narrowing of opportunity. A widening of the gap between rich and poor. Between black and white. A meanness of spirit has crept in to the social discourse. I want to challenge it. I want to get in its way. And I don’t know if we can do that with Chekhov anymore.

Now, I for one, love Chekhov. Love Brecht. Love Shakespeare. But when Bovell said, “Australia is not a white nation. Australia is not an Anglo-Celtic nation. Australia is not a Christian nation. We are much more than that,” I couldn’t help but nod my head in agreement. Agreement in a universal sense, rather than at Australia specifically. Where is the colour in our theatre?

The Auckland theatre scene, for example, is predominately white, despite the fact that 23.1% of the population identified themselves as Asian in the 2013 census. This year I have only seen one “Asian” play, Lantern put on by PAT, and a compilation of scenes from various plays, to form ASIAN INVASION, performed by Ensemble Impact. It’s a noticeable absence that leaves one wondering WHY? Does it not perpetuate the false idea of Asians as being purely academic types? Is there really not much room for ethnic or coloured theatre?

I refuse to believe that.

And that’s why I write. Not because I’m necessarily any good. Not because I know what I’m doing. Not because I’m saying anything that unique. But because of a lack of visibility. Because it is too easy to say it’s not our job to tell those overlooked and unknown stories. Because if I don’t do it then why should anyone else?

So, I will strive. I’ll do what I can to write stories that shed some light on aspects of our culture others would rather ignore. The stories I want to see that haven’t been written. That’s my promise to myself. Let’s just see if I can keep it.

In Praise of Non-Traditional Venues

Shakespeare's Problems at Lucha Lounge

“If the stage cannot be richer than the text then let it be poorer.” –  Jerzy Grotowski

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Shakespeare’s Problems directed by Patrick Graham. It contained three abridged problem plays (named as such because they are not easily categorised as comedy or tragedy) from Shakespeare’s canon: Measure for Measure, Timon of Athens and All’s Well That Ends Well.

It was staged at the Lucha Lounge, which can be described as a tiny indie music bar, using the floor as the stage. Not your usual venue for theatre, let alone Shakespeare’s plays. The main bar and backdoor area was crammed full of about two dozen people. It was an incredibly intimate experience if you were comfortable enough to immerse yourself into the narrative. Ay, there’s the rub: comfort. A couple of people ended up spilling over the edge from where they could see the actors or were forced to sit or stand in awkward positions. Being so close yet unable to ease into the show can cause a sort of unintentional distancing effect.

But I have nothing but praise for any theatre company putting something of quality on for what I imagine to be a shoe-string budget. The performances are passionate and filled with clarity, and the excerpts from each play standalone effectively, despite a lot of context being trimmed out. I even found myself ruminating over the possibilities of potential plays for different types of non-traditional venues too, and the ways to optimise such venues.

In Shakespeare’s Problems, the scene that achieved a unique closeness and intimacy was the dialogue between Parolles and Helena from All’s Well That Ends Well regarding virginity. This was doubly due to the fact I had one of the best seats in the house for that particular moment, as the actors sat in a tiny corner out the back of the bar. This goes to show that a key element in non-traditional venues should be: blocking and comfortable seating. These are obvious and crucial elements in theatre normally, but in this scenario they are almost as important as the performance itself in creating an air of intimacy.

The-Intricate-Art1

Another notable example of non-traditional venue use in New Zealand theatre is Eli Kent’s The Intricate Art of Actually Caring, originally staged in the confines of his bedroom. The basis of the story revolves around a road trip between two twentysomething mates. Simple enough stuff, but the ingenuity of turning one’s bedroom into this private world where we, the audience of no more than a dozen or so people, are gifted with the privilege to enter, is such a beautiful and moving conceit. The room becomes the vehicle of not only the road trip, but the vehicle to express themselves privately too. I never had the opportunity to see this show, but I have read the script and its reputation as great fringe theatre precedes itself.

vanya audience

The most famous international example of a non-traditional venue is Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya directed by Andre Gregory. The basic idea was to gather a small group of actors together and rehearse Uncle Vanya for no one but themselves in a run-down, abandoned theatre (without a proper stage). Eventually they decided to invite a few close friends and family to see it. Then they started inviting strangers from the street. And, finally, they invited filmmaker Louis Malle to capture it forever on film (Vanya on 42nd Street). These days it is considered the definitive production of Uncle Vanya (if such thing can exist) by many people, superior to those stiff, dry, almost academic BBC iterations. One could say the show had more in common with a sweet kiss than some broadway spectacle. Should that not be the goal of great theatre?