Autumn Theatres

Mock Duck at the Malthouse

It’s one of Melbourne’s brightest Left theatres so naturally, when I hail a taxi in Spencer Street for the short trip over the river, the driver has never heard of it and has to tap Malthouse into his GPS. It’s a week night but at the theatre the bar is busy, the restaurant is busy and there is a lively undercurrent of foyer background noise. It’s like dropping into a Gaia prayer service at an inner-city farmer’s market. Conversationalists near me are retransmitting Radio National sermons to each other. Tonight, these intense types, who have emotional moments choosing organic potatoes, have chosen to savour the Malthouse’s Mock Duck.

That’s not really its name, but that’s what we’re here for. The program says it’s actually called The Wild Duck, a play “after Henrik Ibsen” written by Simon Stone and Chris Ryan and directed by Stone. Once in the auditorium we sit and stare at dark, uninspiring reflections of ourselves. The raked seating, assembled in an L shape, faces two perspex sides of what we discover is a large box. It’s like looking into huge reflective sunglasses. Houselights dim, the play starts and lights inside the box turn those perspex mirrors into glass walls looking into a bare, rectangular, dark-walled, dark-carpeted playing space. So apart from the audience are the players that once they even actually set light to a cigarette. It’s just like watching television.

The Mock Duck is Tweet theatre, for the writing is chopped into short, highly charged scenes. When it begins the actors are already in place. They act, there is a blackout, the lights come on to show different actors in different places doing different things. We marvel at how they came and went without us seeing. There is a blackout, and so it goes on, telling a story that has little to do with Ibsen’s play. If you know the original it’s odd to find that familiar names now belong to strangers. If you don’t know the Ibsen then Stone and Ryan tell a fast-paced story about people with odd names, as a duck wanders about.

It took Ibsen five acts to do it; now it’s eighty minutes in the fast lane. For most of that time there are these short scenes until, towards the end, they stretch a bit longer and the play drives into a cul-de-sac. Simon Stone’s direction is lively but of the “What I learned in drama school” variety. There is a time when the actors speak over each other in structured layers of confusion. We hear all the noise and pick out the meanings. It’s fun, but probably also means that most of the words weren’t worth hearing anyway.

John Gaden, who seems to be in everything, was in it. Anita Hegh was in it. Ewin Leslie, Eloise Mignon, Anthony Phelan and Toby Schmitz were in it. The actors have been given one-dimensional characters to play: they don’t sell full-strength classics at the Malthouse. Each short scene has the intensity of an audition piece. Brief, concentrated, played to impress. It’s clever, but also superficial and mediocre because it has wrecked something superior to build something inferior.

The construction of this Mock Duck used some leftover bits from Ibsen but major body parts are missing. These rebuilt characters should be wearing handicapped stickers on their foreheads. Gregers Werle is missing arms and legs, so to speak, so brutally has his role been cut back, diminished and trivialised for the actor and his audience. Dear little Hedvig has grown foul-mouthed, while her pistol suicide has been upgraded to an appointment with a double-barrelled shotgun. Mrs Soerby was lost in the writers’ mash up. Poor Hjalmar Ekdal has had his not-yet-invented great invention stolen, but been given a newly intellectual wife. The duck (no program credit) has seen his/her part enlarged.

If you don’t know the play, the comic-strip interpretation is probably enjoyable. But if you do then it seems annoying, and also only too explicable. These sorts of productions, travesties of classic plays, are a sign of a loss of confidence in the ability of writers to tell new stories, to speak beyond the coterie. They appeal to managements because they have familiar titles for selling tickets, though they are plays probably no one has seen, and are usually eighty-minute quickies that don’t overtax the concentration powers of their subscriber covens. In May and June Sydney’s Belvoir Street will be staging the Stone remix of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude.

Funny that Ibsen, who tore down old theatre traditions and steamrollered realism onto our stages, has now been recycled to construct something so trivial. Though there was another burlesque, at Cambridge in 1925 (Ninette de Valois choreographed). The actors came back on stage at the end and sang “Daisy, Daisy”. There was hissing and booing and everyone had a lovely time. 

Underground Shakespeare

It was dullest beginning of a play imaginable. Two actors lay on the floor as three actors moved chairs to the front of the stage and sat on them. The middle actor, who wore a crown, leaned forward. Stage and audience were lit by the same dreary yellow house lights. The king spoke, quietly. It was utterly banal. What happened next took me completely by surprise. The instant King Henry (Bob Pavlich) spoke I was utterly touched, moved, involved. I don’t think theatre textbooks have goosebumps in their indexes but they should have.

The advertising for the Nothing But Roaring production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I promised “No bloody mobile phones”. On the steep stairway leading below Flinders Lane to the fortyfivedownstairs auditorium we waited for the theatre to open. Eventually it did and we got a campy introduction and a welcome to the theatre. Being a nervous playgoer, completely convinced that theatre managements are out to get us, I began to worry that we were in for a theatre restaurant performance.

The theatre is a large room. On one side were rows of seats facing the playing space. Coming out from the seating, on either side, a single rows of chairs had been placed to mark the right and left sides of the playing space. Facing us, at the back of the stage, was a tall, freestanding row of shelves. They held modern books, papers, swords and daggers and had hanging space for some costumes.

We found seats. The five players, all male, came in quietly. They sorted through the props, spread out and chatted to the audience. There was none of the boisterous, showing-off loudness that Bell Shakespeare goes in for when it tries this sort of thing.

At eight o’clock the actors moved to their places. “So shaken are we, so wan with care,” said King Henry to us. There was no yelling or screaming. The lighting was boring and I don’t even like this Tudor king. At times like this you wonder if the rest of the audience is also affected. For while this completely captivated me it may not have worked on audience members who did not know the play.

During the performance a woman seated in front of me was obviously not partaking of what was on offer. For the much of the play she concentrated on doing things to her boyfriend’s back with her face half turned towards him and away from the stage. Two young women beside me could not be parted from their phones and active texting. What they were missing was an example of “Original Practices” Shakespeare, when for once academia gets something right. This is the sort of Shakespearean playing we have been hiding from for generations. It returns to the “practices and conventions” of Shakespeare’s time. This single production turns Bell Shakespeare on its head. Directed by Rob Conkie, who also acted, the play came from performances at Perth’s New Fortune theatre.

Blonde-headed George Lingard, studying acting at the Victoria College of the Arts, played Prince Hal as a pretty Windsor prince. He also doubled as Kate Percy. Tom Considine played Falstaff. The literary belly (most of it) was in an over-garment that was put on and taken off. Considine’s Falstaff was funny and memorable. Bob Pavlich, Chris White and Rob Conkie peopled the stage as they doubled roles. Characters came and went as the five actors changed persons by turning their cloaks.

If there was stage makeup it was very light. When Prince Hal first rose from the floor to speak, “Thou art so fat-witted with drinking of old sack”, his cheek was marked with red weals from lying on the floor. Without all the usual cutting and excess decoration piled on by modern directors the performance introduced a fresh new writer who can tell stories and give actors interesting things to play. He should do well at HBO. Our thin-blooded theatre culture needs regular seasons of Shakespeare performed like this. If all our Shakespeare was influenced by original practices we would probably be bored senseless after a handful of productions; seen infrequently this is inspiring, fresh and lively theatre. Regular seasons would give young actors the opportunity to challenge themselves and each other, and impress us, with their interpretations.

Kate Percy made her entrance: it was George Lingard, with a length of dress material hanging from his waist over his Prince Hal costume. The audience tittered. Within seconds, most of us accepted the convention that Lingard was now a woman. The faces of the people on the side nearest the playing, who could be clearly seen, went from amusement to concentration almost immediately. There were exceptions. A scattering of people (like the two sitting beside me) thought his entrance was a giggle, and therefore that whatever he said must also have been absolutely amusing. There was silence when the players kissed. Cleverly the kissing pair also doubled as rivals Hotspur and Prince Hal.

The other female role, the Hostess (Bob Pavlich), was more in the tradition of funny man in women’s clothes. The audience had little trouble in reading one performance as a real woman and the other as closer to drag comedy.

This is the Shakespeare that has been banished from our stages. It’s related to the sort of performance seen one night in France by Edward Gordon Craig: 

a circus was here one evening—3 children 3 men and 1 goat performed the entire thing—no tent—one lamp—on the river side—800 spectators on benches and soap boxes—band i.e. 1 drum 1 bassoon … I never was present at such a perfect spectacle—never saw such a scene—nor heard such persuasive music—and left the ring in a state of enchantment. 

Alcoholic Cow

Between Hobart’s Theatre Royal and the pub is a laneway. If you wander down it you will come to the stage door. Go in and then walk up and up and up and you will find yourself in the Backspace. Here you will find a bar, 160 plastic chairs, and a playing space.

The play is enjoyable. It’s Ruben Guthrie by Brendan Cowell, presented by Blue Cow Theatre. It’s about alcoholism. It’s funny, the writing is sharp, it’s also at least thirty minutes too long, and the ending is a mistake, but it’s not boring. Robert Jarman’s direction keeps it running at full speed. It’s one of the good plays to come out of Belvoir Street.

This is provincial Hobart. Blue Cow assembled a cast of actors for the play who could have politely out-acted, or acted with, some of the public servants in our big, mainland subsidised theatres. There was Scott Farrow in the lead. He has a mouth shaped for wit. On stage for over two hours, he kept the pace and the vitality pumping fast. Good players supported his lead. Chelle Burtt as his mother, Les Winspear as his father. Melanie Irons was fashion model fiancée one, Mel King dangerous fiancée two, Andrew Casey was the gay fiend friend, and John Xintavelonis his advertising company boss.

The good things Blue Cow displayed here would be even better if fitted around good original writing. In this provincial setting good productions and good acting are meritorious but there is a missing element which could really make it exceptional. If they also supported playwrights the results would be exciting. But this is dangerous territory. As soon as you start talking sexy like this about what should be done theatre companies start thinking “government grants”. They also start rushing about trying to replicate the stuff the precious inner-city theatres of Melbourne and Sydney allow onto their stages. Geography doesn’t insulate from the addiction. Buying a needed drink at interval I picked up a program for the subsidised Tasmanian Theatre Company. Flicking through its pages of coming attractions I’m begging for mercy. It’s like wandering into the Malthouse. It would be nice to see a small company espousing popular theatre and denying themselves the vanity, and the subsidies, of unpopular theatre.

Ruben Guthrie is a very good propaganda play. They truck in school kids to teach them the joys of dope and grog. There’s a clear lesson from the play that being out of it is much more fun than being abstentious. I heeded the message. When I got home I poured a drink. 

The Wild Duck played at the Malthouse Theatre from February 17 to March 17. 
Henry IV, Part I played at fortyfivedownstairs from February 28 to March 11. 
Ruben Guthrie played at the Theatre Royal Backspace from March 22 to 31.

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