Sunday, May 29, 2011
Last night we saw the closing night performance of John Webster’s darkly tragic play The Duchess of Malfi (written 1612-13), directed by Steve Chinna with a cast drawn from UWA’s English & Cultural Studies theatre students.
From the moment we sat down the show looked promising – a simple set with plain flats – and the opening dance scene was eye-catching. Other than the odd piece of furniture – and at one point a starkly menacing coffin – most of the scene changes required nothing more than the deft shifting of these flats, ably handled by the cast.
I love the kind of understated design and direction that is not so minimalist as to be pretentious, but knows how to enhance a complicated plot and set of characters by keeping it streamlined.
I agree with what Tracy says above. It’s a richly cross-genre play, ranging from wit through an almost surreal burlesque (at least to modern tastes), through horror, to a more ‘conventional’ (maybe read ‘modern’) notion of tragedy. Teasing all these elements out so effectively shows what a brilliant director Steve Chinna is.
Tracy and I have worked with Steve before, and he and I are colleagues at UWA. I have met few directors and thinkers on theatre with as much depth, creativity and versatility as Steve. All his skills were on display in this production.
It’s such an intense blast of grotesque psycho-trauma fully charged not only to entertain but to challenge us as audience. It even asks questions of the theatre itself. This play includes some of the most memorable lines in English-language theatre. Beneath its in-your-face drama is an almost surprising subtlety, so hard to weave in a world in which the “ten thousand several doors” that death has, “for men to take their exits”, are almost default settings.
This brings to mind two of this production’s great aspects: the entries and exits that were deft and often stimulating in themselves, ominous and full of suggestion; and also the skilful handling of the substitutions within the blank verse, the movements into prose speech (e.g. Antonio), and the mini-closures of rhyming couplets. Steve Chinna is a supreme interpreter of verse in drama, much like Tim Cribb of Cambridge University.
The actors handled these with varying degrees of success, but what stood out across the performance was their ease of expression: the language glowed with clarity, as if the events were taking place down the road – though it’d be a very weird place they were happening in... The music was excellent, especially the live flute and percussion, never overdone.
As for the actors, I was taken with most performances in different ways at different times. After the show, I chatted with Steve, and he noted that he had asked the performers to let their characters grow and evolve with the moment. To be ‘mercurial’, I think he said, rather than operate within the expectation or ‘stencil’ of a character. Astute advice. It’s what allowed Aisling Murray as the Duchess, who began by playing the role a little too rigidly ‘haughty’, to settle into a far more complex and wide-ranging performance, coming into her own particularly in her last scenes.
Similarly with David Roman’s Duke Ferdinand: his interpretation of the Duchess’s mad, conflicted brother, actually blossomed with the revelations of his lycanthropy — Roman’s extreme take on this actually brought pathos as well as grotesque ‘humour’ to the part. There was tragedy in his revenge lust as well.
The Duchess’s other brother, the lustful and plotting Cardinal, was played with staid poise and perverse aloofness by Patrick Whitelaw. One of the play’s star turns was by Harriet Roberts as the saucy and coquettish Julia, the Cardinal’s mistress. Her timing was excellent.
Maybe the essence of this production’s tackling of the absurd contradictions in John Webster’s tragic revenge play was embodied in Mark Tilly’s Bosolo (‘a malcontent’) and his perversities. Tilly played Bosolo as both panto-villain and traumatised wrestler of split personality — a Jekyll and Hyde act that could have fallen flat on its face, but didn’t. In fact, insofar as he is the machine driving the plot and the ephemeral nature of ‘conscience’, I think he nailed Bosolo.
Friday, May 27, 2011
The reclaiming of ‘I’ isn’t a gain, but a willingness to be held accountable for the necessarily compromising effects and affect implicit in the deployment of words. The concentrations of poetry increase the impact of allusion as much as declaration, and the machinations to avoid locating culpability for the possibly deleterious effects of one's words should be held to account.
Thursday, May 12, 2011
Sunday, May 1, 2011
Graphology Postscriptum 8: Moondyne Festival, Toodyay
The marks a crosscut saw ‘insinuates’ (too soft, too quaint?)
Into the log’s circles of growth (irony, parody?)
Make carnevale and genealogy (fate of tree a footnote)
Or the shearer working hand-blades (sheep’s relief and distress)
Or Irish dancers smacking the road with heels (midday heat, not twilight)
And the Top Pub’s dark threshold (stories of you told in fourth person)
Snare drum and minor keys answering back (with a crash and a yawp)
Stand-up convict with dead-weight epilogue (heat straightening his beard)
Cautious proselytisers offering a glimpse (free games — prizes for the kids)
Moon-aspiring Plymouth and wavy white Corvettes (MGs delicately bright)
Classic and vintage prompts to touring (weekend outings fuel the town)
Old petrol-guzzlers cataclysms of clean air (drought hills, stark blue sky)
Carnevale on May Day where locals aspire ‘down’ (each a rebel, ipso facto)
Carnevale on May Day where Moondyne Joe rides again (here, onset of
Carnevale on May Day where Joe melds bikies and establishment (which is
And so the orange metal of the mobile forge (beaten flat)
And so the whores with hearts of gold (only the well-off could afford the
blousy historic costumes)
And so the coconut shies to raise funds for a swimming pool (the river run dry,
Each recognition a brief encounter (acts of mutual tolerance)
Each official doing-the-head-count (religion is truly the weather)
Each sale a contract (with the devil of Settlement)
We weave our way through with Sunday shopping (‘into town’ doubles as
We hear the town singers singing (against the jam session’s rousing)
We learn this ‘carnivalesque’ is post-Lent (masks on and off with curiosity)