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209: Food

16 May

Steve Rodgers’ Food is a delightful drama that incorporates singing, cooking onstage and feeding the audience in its directions. Rodgers suggests that the play be informed by a physical aesthetic and when I saw it performed this had certainly been taken to heart.

2 women in kitchen

Production photo of Food. Starring Kate Box and Emma Jackson.

Food centres on the relationship between two sisters who have been apart for a number of years and have now come together after the death of their mother. Elma stayed at home and worked in the family take away. She has been the dutiful, good daughter and she resents it deeply. Nancy was always the wayward child and she left after sleeping with her mother’s boyfriend.

Elma’s tough and hard as nails on the outside, but that’s because she was always the girl no one wanted. She describes a truth and dare session as children where Nancy was coveted and groped as part of the dare and where, when it came to Elma’s turn, all the boys made excuses to avoid kissing her until she burst into tears and had to run away humiliated.

ELMA: I don’t shower, throw things, break things, try to get drunk. What I do? … I come into the shop, the kitchen sit myself down, and make a sandwich … Bacon, fried egg, cheese, tomato, mayo, white bread, heaps of butter … And I eat.

Nancy is damaged – one of the most harrowing scenes in the play is where we learn of her being gang raped as a teenager – and now she uses her sexuality to barter for position and power.

Rodgers has captured the rivalry, tenderness and jealousy that is so often a part of a relationship between sisters beautifully.

For Nancy and Elma, it comes to a head when they have to hire a kitchen hand and end up employing Hakan – a charming Turkish man.

ELMA: There’s one thing worse than a bullshit artist […] That’s a bullshit artist can’t keep his hands to himself … You mind your manners, and don’t fuck us around. Understand? … Or I’ll cut it clean off, and sew a button on.


HAKAN: Hassikter … This Elma is one tough lady … Imagine, a button sewn on between your legs? … A very disturbing image, yes? … But I understand why Elma is thinking this way … I am a man. I feel these things, think these things. Love admiring the women all the day.

One of the things I like most about Food is that Rodgers avoids the obvious path. He doesn’t give us the ending we expect (and perhaps long for), but gives us one that is much more satisfying and honest.

Publisher: Playlab – published in Downstairs at Belvoir, alongside Medea and Old Man.
Characters: 2F, 1 M

206: Riflemind

4 May

Andrew Upton’s Riflemind is surprisingly only the second play from this prolific writer – but that’s because most of the others have been adaptations of classics or screenplays.


Riflemind was written in 2007 and produced by Sydney Theatre Company in the same year and is a grungy, often funny look at an ageing rock band getting together after 20 years to prepare for a comeback tour.

The play takes place over a week in the palatial country home of John, Riflemind’s frontman. The other band members arrive by helicopter and the tension from the start is communicated in broken stretches of dialogue where the characters interrupt, trail off and step carefully around John’s temper and ego. There’s also the decades of drugs, booze and fame that have taken a toll on the thinking and clarity of all the characters.

JOHN: And everyone was grasping and snatching and calling my name. It was like a fucking battlefield – a blizzard of flash bulbs crashing like hail into my head, sticking drugs in every hole. 

It was the only quiet time I got to myself was shooting up.

One of the most touching scenes is when Lynn, John’s wife, has gone on a bender after years of their shared sobriety and he finds her sitting in the vegetable drawer of the fridge with her pants down around her ankles. It’s awful and should be humiliating, but John’s tenderness and acceptance of his wife’s frailty make it strangely poignant.

And then there’s the maudlin fact of their comeback tour, that they may all be past it now, that it might all be too late.

SAM: Life? It’s just lots and lots of little things, Phil. People throw the odd punch, till their grave sure, if they’re lucky. Dying breath, even, maybe. But the real defeat builds up slowly. Very slowly.

There are surprise denouements at the end of the play that make sense of the tension and rivalry that’s been evident from the start but they come too late for empathy with the volatile and selfish characters that make up Riflemind. Which I think may be Upton’s point: that no matter how far we run, we can’t escape the past.

Publisher: Currency Press

Characters: 5m, 2f

205: The Shoe-Horn Sonata

4 Jun

John Misto’s award-winning play The Shoe-Horn Sonata is a moving tribute to the Australian nurses held prisoner by the Japanese in the Second World War. In 1942, 65 Australian Army nurses were among the hundreds of thousands of women and children taken prisoner in Singapore. Most of them died over the next three years, but a few survived the horrendous POW camps and this is their story.

play and woman

Misto did extensive research and vowed to tell the hidden story, the one that governments preferred to forget. Unlike the fallen soldiers from wars, there were no memorials to the nurses or the civilians who were captured and murdered during the Second World War. Misto donated his prize money to their cause and in 1999 at long last a memorial was unveiled.

The Shoe-Horn Sonata is a play for two older women. It’s a memory play and a play about friendship and broken trust. Bridie was an Army Nurse captured by the Japanese. Sheila was a young girl sent out of Singapore by her parents on a boat that was torpedoed in the harbour.

The two characters are Misto’s invention, but you can sense that many parts of the story they tell are similar to what he heard from many of the women he interviewed. In his author’s notes he writes: “Although the characters of Bridie and Sheila are fictional, every incident they describe is true and occurred between 1942 and 1995.”

To stop the play becoming maudlin with reminiscing, Misto gives his two protagonists a burning problem for the present. After rescuing each other time and again and being closer than many of us ever get to be, Bridie and Sheila have not seen each other since the end of the war. During the course of The Shoe-Horn Sonata we gradually find out why.

And the play’s title? The women formed a choir and used Bridie’s shoe-horn as a metronome.

SHEILA: We forgot the Japs – we forgot our hunger – our boils – barbed-wire – everything … Together we made this glorious sound that rose above the camp – above the jungle – above the war – rose and rose and took us with it. Fifty voices set us free.

BRIDIE: Fifty voices and a shoe-horn …

Publisher: Currency Press (1996)

Cast: 2F (and 1M voice over)

For more information on the women prisoners of war, read this article by Hank Nelson in the Journal of the Australian War Memorial.

201: Breaking the Silence

12 Apr

Stephen Poliakoff’s Breaking the Silence was inspired by his grandfather, “a figure immaculately dressed for the opera, who did for a time have his own train, chugging through Lenin’s Russia’.

teapot and book

The play is a wonderful, warm and vivid account of lives disrupted by revolution, lived in the carriage of a train while the world outside changes radically. Poliakoff based it on family history, as told to him by his father, and re-imagined things by setting the whole play in the one train carriage. You can read his account of the merging of fact and fiction here.

Breaking the Silence spans the four years when Nikolai, his wife Eugenia, son Sasha and maid Polya live together in an Imperial style railway carriage, hurtling through a changing country, trapped in an anachronism of the past. The family is Jewish and wealthy. It is 1920 and they are saved from starvation when a Party official meets Nikolai and makes him the Telephone Examiner of the Northern District.

The problem is that Nikolai doesn’t have the slightest intention of doing his new job. He is an inventor and an aristocrat and that is how he intends living his life. The invention on which he is working is one which will break the silence and create sound for motion pictures. In a bullet-ridden luxury rail carriage he obsesses over his invention while Eugenia and Polya try to cover for him so that the authorities won’t discover his laziness.

Everyone in the play changes except for Nikolai, who stays majestic and incorrigible at its heart. Eugenia becomes herself, a strong and vibrant woman after a lifetime of doing what she’s told and fearing her husband’s temper.

EUGENIA: He’s always found the idea of me working extremely unpleasant. He told me once he found the thought repulsive. And I seem to be forbidden more than ever before to touch any of his work, even to glance at it. Sometimes, Polya, I have an intense desire to go through everything of his.

Polya learns to read and gets a job that isn’t just tending to her employers’ needs and Sasha grows ashamed of his father and desperate to fit into the new Russia.

SASHA: When I have to go for a walk with Father – I keep well behind him. He looks so ridiculous, strolling along, in that great coat, with a cane, in the shunting yards, among all this rolling stock here, freight being unloaded, and there he is saying good morning to everyone with a wave, like he’s greeting farm labourers on his estate.

At the end of the play, forced to flee their country, the family finally realises what it’s leaving behind.

NIKOLAI: Nothing I have ever read or been told in my life has prepared me for this shock, the sheer physical sensation when one is faced with leaving one’s native land permanently – like you are being pulled away from a magnetic field and that everything will then stop. It will have been severed.

Breaking the Silence is a beautiful re-imagining of family history and a compelling drama.

Publisher: Methuen Drama

Cast: 5M, 2F

195: Hidden

12 Jan

Hidden by Michael Rohd and Laura Eason is another play in the Ethnodrama anthology. This one explores the themes of Anne Frank’s diary to look at how they relate to contemporary US culture. Interviews and research were conducted in much the way that any playwright would when writing a play on a particular subject.

Anne Frank

Anne Frank

I find it a little difficult to see what makes Hidden an ethnodrama and wonder if any play that uses interviews with real people as a basis for the play’s development would then be classified ethnodrama …

Perhaps because it was always intended to be a play (as opposed to being academic research that was later turned into a play), I found Hidden one of the strongest plays in Ethnodrama.

The play begins with a monologue from an elderly survivor of the Holocaust. She describes how she was separated from her mother in Auschwitz and sent to a work camp in Germany, peeling potatoes in an SS kitchen for the gigantic German woman who saved her.

Hidden explores the bystander phenomenon physically and through the text. There’s a harrowing account of the murder of all the Jews in a village in Eastern Europe.

JONO: So one day, my father gets me up early in the morning.
RYAN: Now you have to remember, this is Eastern Europe
JONO: He tells me to be quiet, to follow him.
RYAN: the late 1930s
JONO: There’s a gathering of other men, and boys my age. And women. The women are here, too.
JONO: I hear the sound of sleepy footsteps. I see the breath of hundreds of my neighbors making a cloud of mist as they wearily, curiously trudge towards the centre of town.
RYAN: You cannot judge my friend.
JONO: And suddenly, I see my friend, and his family in this crowd. And I realize, this crowd – they are all Jews.
RYAN: You cannot hold him accountable.
JONO: And I – I am standing in a mob of gentiles.
RYAN: He was a boy – barely a young man.
JONO: The men around me, workers. They have guns. The women, stones.

Together, the townsfolk kill their neighbours. Wiping out 60% of their community in a single day.

Scenes like this one are contrasted with contemporary scenes where bigotry, racism and patriotism are shown as they affect us now. A girl describes her terror at driving in the ‘wrong’ neighbourhood and finding the road blocked by a van that’s stopped in the middle of the street.

JENN: And there are these two guys, two black guys, just standing outside it talking really loudly. […] I’m trying not to panic, making sure all the doors are locked, trying to figure out what to do and suddenly, I see a couple other black guys join the first two. So, now it’s a group of like 5 or 6, all talking and laughing.

The guys try to get her to drive past but she’s afraid and when two of them walk towards her car she panics and drives the wrong way down a one-way street to get away. Instead of it being seen as an over-reaction, her classmates and teachers tell her she’s lucky to be alive.

While Hidden is most definitely a ‘message play’ and tells rather than shows its stories, it contains powerful messages and some strong and moving scenes.

Publisher: AltaMira Press (Published in Ethnodrama:an anthology of reality theatre)

Cast: 3M, 3F

194: Street Rat

11 Jan

I found Street Rat in a book on Ethnodrama. The play was adapted by Johnny Saldaña, Susan Finley and Macklin Finley from the ethnographic research of the Finleys into young homeless people living on the streets in New Orleans in the mid 1990s.

graffiti rat by Banksy

Street rat by Banksy

The play uses the research, the interviewees’ words and also the poetry that Macklin Finley wrote about the experience. As a play, I found it at times didactic and a little clumsy but this is likely to be a result of trying to turn interviews into theatre without including the character of an interviewer.

When characters articulate their politics and beliefs, it comes across as answers to an outsider’s questions but is presented, unconvincingly, as dialogue between young people.

TIGGER: I know plenty of f*cking straight up prostitutes. They’re cool as hell, but that’s not something I’m going to do.

ROACH: It makes you compromise yourself. People who do it have to be comfortable with doing it. Sometimes people get caught up in it, when they aren’t comfortable doing it, but they do it anyway. That causes so many problems.

The inclusion of Macklin’s poetry worked really well in some instances but in others felt perilously close to self-indulgent. The authors saw it as a Brechtian narratorial device, and it works best when it is making comment on the action, like the following example which followed the dropping of small change at Roach’s feet.

MACK: Three pennies
fall like
rain in
the thunderous
silence after.
Remorse is
a court word
holding no
tender in the
lives of men.

My response on reading Street Rat was that the poems shouldn’t all have been included in their entirety: sometimes one stanza says it all and extending is unnecessary. There were also too many poems so that, by the end of the play, I was becoming frustrated with their inclusion.

For an ethnodrama (a play that ‘consists of dramatized selections of narratives collected through interviewing and participation observation’ Denzin & Lincoln) Street Rat feels as if it has barely scratched the surface of the lives of its subjects. The poetry is real and sincere, but it is the poetry of an educated man, visiting the homeless youth, rather than being their stories.

Publisher: Altamira Press (in Ethnodrama: An anthology of reality theatre)

Cast: 5M, 4F

192: Colder

3 Jan

Lachlan Philpott wrote Colder after a close friend (Simon Knight) went missing and didn’t come back. In his play, David is a gay man in his mid thirties who has been missing once before, when he was seven.

Bison and Colder

At that time, David and his mother were atDisneyland, queuing for a ride. Past and present weave together throughout Colder as the action shifts from David’s first disappearance to his second, possibly permanent one.

There’s his mother, Robyn, played at 33, frantic in Disneyland and also at 59, a woman trying to keep things safe by locking them in Tupperware. There’s his best friend Kay, pregnant and alone. There’s his latest lover, Ed, and a parade of one-night stands.

The language is densely poetic, sentences overlap and different characters in different times finish off each other’s thoughts.

ED/ROBYN59: Will all these questions help

ED: I don’t know what was going on all I know is that he has …

KAY: That David isn’t anywhere to be found. We’ve called, we’ve looked we’ve searched and he has gone.

There’s also repetition to reinforce the musical rhythm of the language.

ROBYN59: I stare at her. Blink and wait for things to go back to colour.

ED: I stare at her and wait for him to jump out from behind something and laugh

KAY: Stare at her and wait for the colour that drained to return.

ED: Stare as she fiddles with a pen

ROBYN59: Hear her breath shorten, as the gap between when I asked and when she answers stretches out forever.

Colder is almost a radio play in its lyric description and lack of physical action. David is an enigma, his monologue near the end of the play raising more questions than it answers. Readers and audiences will strive to solve the puzzle because we can’t bear the loose strings, the not knowing. But in the real world most puzzles aren’t resolved. Some people disappear and never come back.

The closest we get to finding out what happened to David at the theme park is this, a few sentences sandwiched in another conversation, easy to miss:

DAVID: If I am away for a little while it won’t matter, while you are losing something in your bag, while you are rummaging for something in your pocket while you are humming something in your mouth while you are grimacing at the sun shielding your eyes and checking the map. Just a few steps.

Did he walk away and hide or was he taken when he left his mother’s side? Like his mother, we never know what happened to David in the theme park and, like everyone who loves him, we never know what happened to him as an adult. His mother’s desperate pledge is just words, weighted only by breath and longing…

ROBYN33: I will rip out my eyes and glue them to your feet to follow you everywhere you could go.

Publisher: Playlab Press (Published with Bison)

Cast: 3F, 3M

191: Mountain Language

2 Jan

Apologies first for the long gap in posting. A holiday from work, blogging and even play-reading was needed. But now it’s 2012 and, hopefully, I’ll get back into the swing of things.

Boat on Lake Cootharaba

Holidays at Lake Cootharaba

Today’s play seemed a quick way to ease myself back, but looks can be deceiving. Harold Pinter’s Mountain Language is dense with symbolism, meaning and emotion but sparse on the word count, which makes it a very quick read but one that needs to be mulled over and considered for a long time after finishing.

Mountain Language is a brutal assault of a play. Pinter specifically wrote it to be set anywhere and applicable everywhere. It is a play comprising four brief vignettes or scenes set around and inside a prison. There is torture and systematic oppression but most of it is implied rather than shown on stage.

The prison guards are part of the ruling class/culture/race and have outlawed the mountain language spoken by the people of the area.

OFFICER: Your language is forbidden. It is dead. No one is allowed to speak your language. Your language no longer exists.

Waiting to find a loved one are an elderly and a young woman. They are the mother and wife of a man held prisoner and the elderly woman’s hand has been bitten by a guard dog.

OFFICER: Who did this? Who bit you?
YOUNG WOMAN: A Dobermann pinscher.
OFFICER: Which one? […] What was his name? […] Every dog has a name. They answer to their name. They are given a name by their parents and that is their name, that is their name! Before they bite, they state their name. It’s a formal procedure. They state their name and then they bite.

The officers’ rules and statements are absurd, but the way they are delivered and received let the reader/audience know they are deadly serious. To ask a question or make a statement is dangerous. To simply exist or speak your own language or even look a particular way is a potential death sentence. Reason and argument no longer exist in this brutal regime.

This is why Mountain Language could be anywhere. It’s a play for every regime that has persecuted the indigenous population, for every fanatic group that sets out to destroy other religions, for occupied countries all over the world.  Those of us who live in countries with freedom of speech and dress and personal rights are fortunate indeed.

Publisher: Faber and Faber

Cast: 6M, 2F

186: Fractions

23 Nov

Marcel Dorney’s Fractions is a brilliant, exciting drama that teaches us as much about history as it does about the present.

Jolene Anderson as Hypatia in Fractions

Jolene Anderson as Hypatia in Queensland Theatre Company's production of Fractions

I was fortunate enough to see the opening night of its world premiere performance and to read the script the following day. This double immersion was incredibly satisfying and I’m glad I had the experiences in the order that I did rather than reading the play and then seeing the show. (This way there were no preconceptions or disappointment over characters not matching my imagination.)

Fractions tells the story of Hypatia, philosopher, teacher, astronomer, mathematician and the last librarian of the Library of Alexandria. Dorney is quick to note that his work is fiction, taking the tiny amount we know about Hypatia and using it as a provocation for some big questions.

While Hypatia is often portrayed as a martyr, Dorney makes her more complex than this. His Hypatia appears proud, cold and stubborn but these are a direct result of her searing intellect. She has devoted herself to learning and to mathematics: there is no place in her life for relationships or ‘petty’ things like religion, love or politics and this is what causes her downfall.

Hypatia is oblivious to the climate outside her library. She doesn’t realise that she is hated and feared for being a pagan in a city that has recently become Christian. When she is advised to convert to Christianity to protect herself and her library, she refuses, seeing it as a betrayal of her ethics.

HYPATIA: I am a teacher of mathematics, Magistrate. That is my one essential quality: as fire burns, or water is wet, I teach mathematics, or I am not.

That quality, in turn, derives from a principle: the search for truth, through rational inquiry. I do not claim to know the truth about the Kosmos. I do claim a dedication – to describing the Kosmos more truly. It is this dedication, and only this, that justifies the breath I draw.

But if I was to use that breath to profess a faith – that I do not share – I could no longer claim dedication to that principle […]

So far, everything I’ve mentioned here is to do with the history but Fractions is also a mirror for us now. Fear of the other, clinging to doctrines to justify hate, censorship of thoughts that differ from the norm, driving out other religions and destroying anything that challenges your faith – these are all just as present now as they were in 400 AD.

The only jarring note in the play (for me) was Dorney’s choice to incorporate contemporary slang in the often poetic and beautiful dialogue. Characters refer to each other as ‘mate’ and ‘kid’, there’s the occasional ‘f*ck’ and each time it happens, the line stands out like dog’s balls.

I understand the reasoning behind the decision to modernise the language. Dorney didn’t want to write a costume drama, he wanted it to be relevant and to speak to audiences right now in ways that they (we) understand. But, for me, each time there was a particularly ocker line I was thrown out of the play and back into my own skin. When Hypatia says, “You gonna protect me, are you, kid?” I expect her to ride off into a Western sunset and the world of the play cracks a little.

Aside from this miniscule quibble, Fractions was an absolute joy to read and to see. It left me with a hunger to know more about Hypatia, Orestes, Kyril and Synesius and with a deep love for the barbarian Rika.

As someone who was born stubborn and sticks to her morals and ethics even when doing so is blatantly stupid and self-harming, I found personal and philosophical comfort and warnings in Hypatia’s story. And her terrible quandary was just as bad as the titular one in Sophie’s Choice. Fearing the imminent destruction of her library, Hypatia has to choose which of the unique, priceless, books to save.

HYPATIA: I have, first, to – find the five hundred books out of eighty thousand, which I can tell you –

– but I won’t.
Let’s consider, instead, that we then have to splinter that tiny fraction into five … each of which has to contain enough of the history of ten separate disciplines, so that even if all four of its sisters were intercepted and destroyed –
When I say ‘we’, of course, I mean me. This is my job.

I had goosebumps and felt sick just at the thought of how much was lost, forever, and the small fraction that Hypatia saved.

If you’re in Brisbane, hurry and see the Queensland Theatre Company production of Fractions before it finishes. It’s also playing at Hothouse Theatre in Wodonga next year.

Publisher: Playlab Press

Cast: 4M, 1F

185: Boleros for the Disenchanted

21 Nov

Jose Rivera is an Obie award winning playwright with many successful plays and screenplays under his belt. Boleros for the Disenchanted is the play he wrote for, and about, his parents, in particular his mother.

couple dancing

It’s a full-blown, romantic play, a comedy at times and also the sort of drama that requires violins and symphony orchestras to properly tug your heart strings. While sentimental in places, it is also funny and touching.

I think what makes Boleros for the Disenchanted a difficult play is the playwright’s conflicted space for writing it. By making his mother something close to a saint (certainly religious enough for a sainthood), and making his father a loveable larrikin with a tendency for cheating, Rivera seems to be saying that women should forgive and stay, no matter what their men do.

The play begins in Miraflores, Puerto Rico, in 1953 with Flora (Rivera’s mother) discovering that her fiancé has been cheating on her. She’s furious, even when Maneulo tries to justify his urges.

MANUELO: Do you ask a tiger not to stalk the antelope? Do you ask the fish not to, to, to do what fish do all day? No. You let nature be. You let the flower blossom. And you must let a man be a man, Flora. I have waited a year for you. A man cannot stop being a man for a year. That’s sin. And our engagement is for yet another year. Two years in which my flower will not blossom! Is that fair?

When Manuelo refuses to remain celibate for the rest of their engagement, Flora breaks it off with him and goes to visit a cousin in the city to get over her heartbreak. That’s where she meets Eusebio (Rivera’s father) and although she’s prickly and cold, he makes her smile and soon they’re in love.

There are lots of great lines, especially from Flora’s parents, and the first half is classic romantic comedy material. But the play changes radically in the second half, which is set forty years later inAmerica.

Forced to leave Puerto Rico because there was no work, Flora and Eusebio tried to make a new start inAmerica, but they faced the migrants’ lot: discrimination, poor wages, menial labour and all the rest. When the second act opens, Eusebio has lost his legs and is confined to a hospital bed in their small home.

Flora becomes a marriage counsellor in the church, advising young couples on the realities of marriage, while dealing with the news of her own husband’s infidelities. As her mother told her at the start of the play, “marriage isn’t all laughter, parties, and making babies. Marriage is hell on earth if you’re not happy.” But the Flora who demanded fidelity in the first half of the play has learnt a bitter lesson in the second half. Her heart is broken but she sticks with her husband no matter what. And his philandering days are over as he is stuck in bed, being tended to and cleaned by his wife.

EUSEBIO: All my life, before I became a stump, I struggled against God’s fate and thought fatalism was the Puerto Rican’s poor excuse for never taking action, or rising up in anger to demand independence or justice or power. But the joke was on me. God’s fate was a lot stronger than I ever knew. He planted me in this bed like a flower in dirt and now I can’t get out, no matter how much I dream of running, running, running.

Read an interview with Jose Rivera where he discusses Boleros for the Disenchanted.

Publisher: American Conservatory Theater, 2009

Cast: 3M, 3F