Saturday, November 30, 2013


The cast of Vere (Faith). © Matt Nettheim
Reviewed by James Karas

Vere (Faith) is a brilliant, if flawed, play by Australian playwright John Doyle that is now playing at the Drama Theatre in the Sydney Opera House. The play examines the terrible subject of dementia and its effect on the life of a brilliant physicist at the peak of his career.

It is the end of term and Professor Vere (brilliantly played by Paul Blackwell) bids farewell to his students and tells them that he is going to Switzerland to participate in a conference on the Higgs boson or particle. His participation in the research leading to the discovery of the particle is a monumental achievement and Vere is rightly excited about attending the conference.

The professor is then told that he is suffering from dementia “with all the bells and whistles.” It means that his mind will quickly degenerate.

The rest of the first act takes place in a staff room where the professor has drinks with some colleagues. They are a colourful, foulmouthed and often funny bunch. Some of their jokes or cracks are so esoteric that only other physicists could get them. “There is a sign in Munich that says that Heisenberg may have slept here” is one example and I almost got the joke thanks to Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen.

Vere’s mind begins to deteriorate as he briefly hallucinates about seeing his long-dead wife but relatively little time is spent on his pending dementia.

The second act takes place in Vere’s son’s apartment and the cast from  the first act become his family and would-be in-laws. The horny Vice Chancellor (Geoff Morrell) of the first act becomes a fundamentalist pastor. Physicist Kate (Rebecca Massey) of the first act becomes the loopy wife of the pastor and Simon (Yalin Ozucelik) another professor, becomes Vere’s son in the second act.

In the second act, Vere’s dementia has almost destroyed his brain except for moments of lucidity. He defecates on the floor and his family frantically tries to clean up the mess before the pastor with his wife and daughter (Matilda Bailey) arrive for dinner. We are treated to some low and obvious humour.

The fundamentalist pastor wants to save Vere’s soul from going to hell and maintains his belief in the creation of the world as described in Genesis. Truth is revealed by God and not discovered by human reason and imagination, according to the pastor. The juxtaposing arguments are brilliant and at the same time entertaining.

The play’s title and theme are related to the life of Vere Gordon Childe, an Australian archeologist who died in 1957. Childe apparently put an end to his life because he felt he was losing his faculties. The play is not clear about this but that act and the author’s father’s dementia were the impetus for writing the play.

Some of the dialogue and the structure of the play are reminiscent of Tom Stoppard’s work, especially Arcadia which has the same structure. As is said, much of Doyle’s humour in the first act simply went over my head and I suspect it did the same for most people in the audience. By contrast, in the second act, there was a tendency towards farce at the beginning but otherwise the humour and the pathos were real and affecting.

Paul Blackwell gives a terrific performance as the decent, brilliant and ultimately pathetic victim of an illness that he can do nothing about. He knows what will happen and the horrors of it are indescribable.

Morrell is superb as the Vice Chancellor and Pastor as is Rebecca Massey. Matthew Gregan plays an awkward, stammering, boorish academic in the first act and a callow, religious youth in the second act.

The sets by Pip Runciman are Early Ikea. The staff room and Vere’s house are decorated with cheap furniture and doors that look as if they were stolen from a construction site.

Director Sarah Goodes does an outstanding job in bringing out the humour and pathos of the play. The final scene is not surprising even after a cursory look at the programme notes but I was hoping for something more visually stunning that simply did not materialize.

Despite some flaws, it was still a thought-provoking and moving night at the theatre.


Vere (Faith)  by John Doyle continues until December 7, 2013 at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas
Christchurch, New Zealand is a devastated city under construction but judging by the production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado at the Court Theatre, it has lost none of its spirit or its sense of humour. The production’s whole is much greater than its parts and the end result is an energetic, funny and delightful evening out.

The Mikado is a perfect vehicle for satire and I doubt that there is any production that does not take liberties with Gilbert’s libretto to poke fun at just about everyone and everything in the city or country where it is produced. Director Ross Gumbley has taken full advantage of that license and takes shots at politicians, entertainers, radio and television announcers, construction work in Christchurch, even Michael Jackson’s hapless doctor. Some of the humour was lost on me being someone who had spent a mere week in the country but most of it came through and was funny. You don’t have to be from Christchurch to complain about all the roads being under construction at the same time – just drive around Toronto.

The production is done with one hand tied behind its back. A small orchestra is a minimum requirement for any production of the operetta. What does the Court Theatre have? A band! It consists of a piano, a xylophone and some drums but the players manage to produce some amazing music. The solos, duets, patter songs and ensemble pieces take over and the amalgam of sound is quite delightful. The task of orchestrating Sullivan’s music to fit the band of the Court Theatre was performed by Musical Director Luke Di Somma.

The quality of singing has its lacunae but again the overall effect is quite enjoyable. The star, even if he does not get most of the singing, is Matt McFarlane as Nanki-Poo, the son of the Mikado disguised as a ukulele player. He is handsome and wholesome and we want him to get the yummy Yum-Yum (Rachel Adams). Neither of them has stellar vocal talents but we are rooting for them. McFarlane has a pleasant midrange but does not venture much beyond. Adams tends to leap to her upper register and at times becomes somewhat shrill in that area.

The Mikado needs comic talent more than vocal prowess and here we are in luck. Danny Avery is the Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko who will take an online course to learn his job. Avery is a fast-moving comic who does an excellent job. Roy Snow as Pooh-Bah, the High Lord of Everything Else is very funny and has a resonant voice. He holds enough positions to make up a cabinet but his chief talent is being corrupt.  Snow engages the audience directly to good effect and laughter.

Juliet Reynolds-Midgley plays Katisha, the Mikado’s daughter-in-law-elect. She is the virago who wants to marry the handsome prince and we have to find a way of disposing of her. Aha, let her marry the Lord High Executioner and keep the laughter going.

The role of the Mikado is played by a woman, Lynda Milligan. She is encased in a Union Jack and you can and should see Queen Victoria in her rather than a Japanese monarch. Milligan plays the Mikado as an overdone and comic character, full of bluster. Well done.

The Male and Female Ensembles who seem to be made up of many amateurs do an exceptional job. They sing, they dance, they cavort, and they are wonderful. The imaginative choreography was done by Stephen Robertson.

The set and costume designs were also by Robertson. The set consisted of round platforms with a raised walkway at the rear and a small bridge on the right. There was even a joke about the money being spent on costumes instead of musicians. The costumes were good.

Ross Gumbley gets the laurel wreath for his imaginative re-working of parts of the libretto, his energetic directing and the highly entertaining production.

The Mikado  by W. S. Gilbert (libretto) and Arthur Sullivan (music) opened on November 23, 2013 and will run until January 14, 2014 at The Court Theatre, Christchurch, New Zealand.

Saturday, November 9, 2013


Reviewed by James Karas

In what play do you get the following: a countertenor who walks across the stage singing; a pianist who plays on a grand piano accompanying the countertenor and much of the dialogue; three ghosts and three people who die standing up: a puppet show?

If you stuck your hand up and yelled Hamlet you win a pair of tickets to the Belvoir St. Theatre production of that play in Sydney, Australia. “Production” may strike some people as somewhat of a misnomer and calling it an unrestrained ego trip for director Simon Stone may be closer to the mark.

The production does bear some relationship to Shakespeare’s play but it only serves as the basis for Stone to select scenes and characters that are suitable for his Hamlet. Anyone wishing to see a more familiar version of the play should give Belvoir Street a wide berth.

The lights go on a stage that is all black with black chairs lined up on the sides. We see a grand piano and a countertenor (Maximilian Riebl) walks on the stage singing Purcell’s O Solitude accompanied by pianist Luke Byrne.

We then see a man seated on a chair against the wall with a woman lying on a couple of chairs, her head on his lap. He saysThrift, thrift, Ophelia! The funeral baked meats
did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” Those lines are spoken to Horatio in Shakespeare’s play and they are not the opening dialogue. They are in Stone’s version.

That sets the stage for this extraordinary emasculation of Shakespeare to suit the whim or vision of Stone. Hamlet has some 34 characters but Stone produces his version with eight actors who do some dubious doubling up and the two musicians.

Hamlet is played by Toby Schmitz as an intense young man who is mad from beginning to end. Stone has Schmitz perform with high emotional intensity and mental turmoil but within a very limited range. Shakespeare’s Hamlet goes through a number of emotional stages from contemplation to rage to despair to the final peace of death when all is silence. There is very little modulation in the Stone/Schmitz Hamlet.

That is unfortunate because Schmitz seems more than capable of presenting a much wider emotional range and a more complex Hamlet. He has a full-throated, rich voice that can handle much more than Stone’s version of the complex prince. He is on stage almost throughout the performance making only occasional brief exits.

John Gaden’s Claudius is a reserved patrician who rarely loses his cool. His evil is well-hidden but he seems to have had enough polish to seduce his brother’s wife and plan the murder and usurpation of the throne.

Robyn Nevin’s Gertrude, with her mop of blonde hair, lacks the sexual magnetism that would draw Claudius to her and to fratricide and the two seemed fairly business-like.

Emily Barclay played what was left of Ophelia quite well and she did get some latitude in her Mad Scene to show that she can act.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Shakespeare’s two fools, were rolled into one but not given a name. Nathan Lovejoy played the unnamed character with a straight face mostly as a foil for Hamlet and as messenger for the King.

Hamlet’s Ghost (Anthony Phelan) appears at the beginning of the play and in the Bedroom Scene in Shakespeare’s play. In this production he was on stage much of the time. He is a flesh and blood Ghost and is given some of the Gravedigger’s lines near the end. There is no indication that he is supposed to be the Gravedigger. He is the Ghost that introduces Yorick’s skull.

Hamlet shoots Polonius who ends up in a pool of blood. He gets up (Ghost No. 2) and the Rosencrantz/Guildenstern stand-in comes on with blood all over. Ophelia returns as Ghost No. 3 after she drowns. The King, Ophelia and Laertes , all have blood all over as the end approaches.

How do you handle the fencing scene at the end where Laertes, the King, the Queen and finally Hamlet die? No weapons are used and no movement. All ten actors stand on stage and recite their lines. The Queen, Laertes and the King die in turn, standing on their feet. Hamlet’s turn comes and he goes into spasmodic fits, screeching as he approaches the end. The spasms and the screeching stop abruptly and he says “the rest is silence.”

Thank, God.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare  continues until December 1, 2013 at the Belvoir St.Theatre, 25 Belvoir St. Surrey Hills, Sydney, Australia.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


Valerie Bader and Peter Kowitz in The Floating World
Reviewed by James Karas

The Floating World is a play by Australian playwright John Romeril and is now playing at the 105-seat SBW Stables Theatre in Sydney. Among other things, the play provides a dazzling, bravura performance by Peter Kowitz as the main character, Les Harding.

Harding and his wife Irene (Valerie Bader) are on the Women’s Weekly Cherry Blossom Cruise bound for Japan. He spent part of World War II in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp and the cruise is a trip to the horrible past far more than a fun-filled holiday of a lifetime. Harding faces his tortured past as he goes through sea-sickness, drunkenness, rage, fits of jealousy and finally into madness. Each phase of the trip, especially the mad scene, requires Kowitz to perform at extreme emotional levels and maintain the same pitch for extraordinary lengths. A performance to marvel at by Kowitz.

The play moves forward as the cruise progresses towards Japan and returns to its port of departure and back into the past as remembered, imagined and relived by Harding.

The cruise has a Comic (Justin Smith) who is supposed to entertain the passengers. The passengers are supposed to have fun and that part of the play is a caricature of cruises so well done that it is enough to turn you off even the idea of getting on board such a ship forever. Smith is very good as the overenthusiastic entertainer who is so awful that he does not manage to get a single laugh.

Herbert Robinson (Tony Llewellyn-Jones) is a retired officer from the Royal Navy. He is a refined gentleman who spent the war in the Mediterranean and can know nothing about conditions in a prisoner-of-war camp. Llewellyn-Jones gives a fine performance as the refined Robinson who acts as a perfect foil for Harding.

The play moves quickly and seamlessly between past and present as the almost always drunk Harding loses his grip on reality. He starts imagining members of the crew as being people from his past. He recalls conditions in the camp and slowly goes mad.

The other strand of the plot is his unhappy relationship with his wife who tries to control his drinking and his misbehavior. Bader presents the classic image of the long-suffering spouse who tries to connect with other people on the ship.

Some of the characters speak at breakneck speeds and perhaps because of the speed, the accents or the many unfamiliar references, the play was not always easy to follow. The author provides three pages of glossary in the printed version of the script to help the audience but it was of marginal assistance.

The play is performed on a raised platform in the small theatre. There are very few props but there is extensive use of lighting changes including use of strobe lights to create the impression of the emotional and mental turmoil that Harding is experiencing.

Sam Strong directs this outstanding production of an amazing play. I wish I could have followed the machine-gun delivery of dialogue peppered with unfamiliar references. But nothing can take away from Kowitz’s bravura performance. 

The Floating World  by John Romeril continues until November 16, 2013 at SBW Stables  Theatre, 10 Nimrod St. King’s Cross, Sydney, Australia.


Sunday, November 3, 2013


Eryn Jean Norvill and Anna Lise Phillips in Sydney Theatre Company’s Romeo and Juliet © Lisa Tomasetti 2013

Reviewed by James Karas

Director Kip Williams wanted to produce a bold, youthful, innovative and startling staging of Romeo and Juliet for the Sydney Theatre Company. The result is a production that goes from parody to travesty of Shakespeare and provides a largely dreadful night at the theatre.

The first problem that Williams faces is Shakespeare. He simply did not write the play that Williams wants to produce. The solution: omit scenes and characters from the play and change the entire thrust of the tragedy so that it will fit Williams’s vision.

He takes out the first scene of Romeo and Juliet that shows the brawl between the servants of the Capulet and Montague households because he does not want the play to be about the feuding families. Of the more than twenty characters that Shakespeare wrote, Williams needs only ten to give us his interpretation.

This is a modern dress production where the characters drink to excess, smoke (cigarettes or whatever is at hand) or are simply on uppers. Hyperactivity is de rigueur.

In Shakespeare’s play, Capulet sends an illiterate servant to invite townspeople to a ball. In Williams’s version, Capulet (powerfully acted by Colin Moody) is probably a Mafia don and, the director having disposed of all the servants, he (Capulet) sends Paris (Alexander England) a nobleman and prospective husband of Juliet to do the menial chore. Really?

Incongruities are inevitable in a modern production (knives replace swords, for example) but in this production they go beyond the acceptable.

Williams wants the production to be fast-moving, modern, hip and provocative. Benvolio (Akos Armont) usually has a bottle in his hand or is pushing a shopping cart full of booze. Mercutio (Eamon Farren) boogies with a cigarette in his mouth and is quite out of it. He is so hyperactive during the Queen Mab speech, you hardly hear anything. The Nurse (Julie Forsyth) is also frequently drunk and is allowed to overact as if she were parodying herself.

Lady Capulet (Anna Lise Phillips) looks like an oversized caricature of a Barbie Doll and Tybalt (Josh McConville) looks like a Mafia enforcer.

Eryn Jean Norvill is an impressive and enjoyable Juliet. She is young, pretty, has a sense of humour and impeccable timing. She could make a marvelous Juliet in the hands of a less intrusive director. Dylan Young as Romeo is not as successful. Williams wants him to be a modern and very hip young man who has no passion or poetry left in him.

The sets by designer David Fleischer are another source of head-scratching. The interior scenes take place in a barren stately room. The stage revolves frequently to show us the black back of that room. In the latter half of the play we have a black bare stage with some props as necessary.

In Shakespeare’s play, we have the famous balcony scene with the outpouring of the most beautiful love poetry.  In Williams’s version, Juliet lives on the main floor with a window and doors opening from her bedroom to the street. Williams turns the balcony scene into a very funny piece and gets quite a few laughs out of it.

When Juliet makes an assignation to meet Romeo at Friar Laurence’s (a muscular Mitchell Butel who displayed his chest) she needs a ruse. Williams adds a scene where Juliet sneaks out of the house dressed like her Nurse.

From the Barbie Doll Lady Capulet to the overacting drunk Nurse, to the binging and hyperactive characters to the funny balcony scene, the production could be done on Saturday Night Live to good effect.

Every director has the right to put his stamp on his production and they all do. The bolder the attempt the greater the chance of success and grimmer the risk of failure. This production, like the hapless suitors of Portia in The Merchant of Venice went for gold and silver and came out almost empty-handed.

Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare played at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia from September 21 to November 2, 2013.