The Maids (Jean Genet, translated by Benedict Andrews and Andre Upton): Sydney Theatre Company at the Sydney Theatre

Great performances, but the play didn’t really work for me

I didn’t actually know anything much about this play before seeing it. And, to be honest, the play – as a play – didn’t really do a huge amount for me.

But the performances were amazing. Seeing Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert together on stage was incredible, and they went through so many changes of mood and pace and tone that we saw a truly bravura performance from each of them. (I did have a little bit of trouble with Isabelle Huppert, because I always find accents challenging, and the dialogue was sometimes at such a pace that I missed some of it.) But equally impressive was that Elizabeth Debicki, in the smaller but key role of ‘Mistress’, was able to hold her own with two such powerful presences. Obviously this was partly due to professional and generous performances by the two stars, who were willing and able to step back when the play called for someone else to take the centre. But when Elizabeth Debicki was the focus, she truly owned the stage.

They also took the technically interesting approach of having a large video screen above the stage, displaying feeds from various cameras around the stage. Some of these were fixed – e.g. in the mirror, showing closeups of the actors when they were using it – but some focused on different places, ranging from closeups of flowers on the floor to a shot from the ceiling when Isabelle Huppert was cavorting on the bed. Apparently they didn’t always follow the same cues every night – though presumably some of them were fairly constant. It added an interesting extra dimension to the production.

Favourite moment

I actually can’t think of any one line or scene that particularly stood out to me.

Bechdal test

Well, duh. Only three characters, all female (although technically only two of them actually had names). Some of the time was spent talking about a man (the unseen ‘Master’) but mostly not.

Stars

3

Twelfth Night (William Shakespeare) – Shakespeare’s Globe production at the Apollo Theatre

Not a subtle production.

This production was quickly sold out at the Globe, so when the season finished it transferred to the Apollo Theatre, where it also sold out. Probably because it had Stephen Fry playing Malvolio.

It was all-male – apparently a revival of a very successful 2002 production. I seem to be in a minority in that I hated Mark Rylance as Olivia and Johnny Flynn as Viola. It seemed that Johnny Flynn was working so hard to maintain a falsetto voice that he didn’t have anything left to act with – certainly he didn’t give Viola any of the emotional depth that can (should!) be present. And I just found Mark Rylance over the top – not a drag-queen performance, but occasionally getting close to it. On the plus side, Viola and Sebastian did look convincingly similar.

However, I enjoyed Paul Chahidi’s Maria. Over the top, yes, but then the character is drawn with broader strokes anyway – emotional depth is possible, but not so essential. And he managed to have a very impressive cleavage!

But because of this, the storyline that I love about Twelfth Night – Viola/Olivia/Orsino – really didn’t work for me in this production, whereas (or perhaps because of this) I quite enjoyed the Sir Toby/Malvolio plot. These actors all gave solid, if not particularly nuanced, performances, with the emphasis being on broad comedy, ignoring any potential for pathos. It is, however, very arguable that this was how it was intended to be played, and trying for a different feel is to impose a 20th century sensibility on a 16th century work. (I still prefer it with pathos – and I think lines like ‘I was adored once, too’ do lend themselves to it – but I don’t think it’s fair to complain about its absence.)

The production was in Elizabethan dress, and an interesting touch was that they had the actors dressing and putting on their makeup onstage, as the audience was arriving.

Another nice touch – almost certainly a result of its originally being a Globe production – was that there was a bit of interaction with the audience. In fact, some audience members were actually seated in boxes on the stage. I’m not sure what you had to do to score one of these seats – when I made the booking, I’m pretty sure they didn’t show on the seating plan – but it certainly worked well.

There was one unfortunate incident the night we were there. During the gulling of Malvolio scene, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian were hiding inside a frame covered in leaves. At the end of the scene, just before the interval, Sir Andrew was exiting the stage still inside the frame, and he tripped over and fell quite hard. After the interval, Mark Rylance came on stage and said that although the actor seemed okay, they thought he should see a doctor, so someone else had to take over the part for the second half.

Favourite moment

The gulling of Malvolio scene (except for Sir Andrew falling at the end). Which is weird, because normally it’s a scene I hate. But in this production it did work. Which so many of the other (better) scenes didn’t.

Bechdal test

Not sure.

The play has some great scenes between Viola and Olivia, and for the purposes of the Bechdal test, I think it is irrelevant that Olivia doesn’t realise she is talking to a woman. But it is arguable that their conversations are all about a man – Orsino at first, obviously, but then ‘Cesario’.

Stars

3

The Convict’s Opera (Stephen Jeffreys – adapted from The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay): Sydney Theatre Company at the Sydney Theatre

I believe in its original incarnation, The Beggar’s Opera was quite a searing look at 18th century society. The same cannot be said of its reworking into The Convict’s Opera.

The basic premise is that a number of prisoners on a convict ship bound for Australia are given permission to put on a production of The Beggar’s Opera. So rehearsals of portions of the Opera are seen (fortunately in chronological order) interspersed with non-rehearsal scenes in which we learn about the convicts’ backgrounds, see the effect being involved in the play has on them and follow events such as a planned mutiny. There was enough plot and characterisation to keep the whole thing moving along, but nothing all that powerful or insightful about it.

Original songs from The Beggar’s Opera were mixed with more modern numbers, such as Sailing, 500 Miles, You’re So Vain and I Want to be Straight – though often with the words somewhat changed to fit the historical setting. There was no separate orchestra: where there was music, it was provided by the actors themselves, playing instruments on stage (or, if they weren’t actually playing them, doing a very, very good impersonation). For some reason, the actors seemed a little less comfortable with the very simple settings of the original songs, whereas some (though not all) of the modern songs were delivered very effectively. Overall, I thought the mix of old and new worked reasonably well, but not outstandingly so.

This was a co-production between the Sydney Theatre Company and Out of Joint: five of the actors were Australian, and five from the British company. I thought the cast was solid but not brilliant, with the best performances probably being Catherine Russell (Mrs Peachum/Bett Rock) and Brian Protheroe (Peachum/Ben Barnwell). I would also be curious to know whether the costume design was done before or after Juan Jackson was cast as Macheath/Harry Morton. Not that many actors have the physique for a final entrance in nothing more than a pair of budgie-smugglers, but he absolutely did!

Stephen Jeffreys, who did the adaptation, had previously written The Art of War, which was one of my favourite plays of 2007. The Convict’s Opera wasn’t painful to sit through, but neither did it even come close to the achievement of Art of War.

Plays in first half of 2008

So far in 2008 I have seen 8 plays:

Blackbird (David Harrower): Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf Theatre
The subject matter of this play is fairly confronting – a man receives an unexpected visit from a woman he had a sexual relationship with many years ago, when he was 40 and she was 12 – and apparently the first production, in Edinburgh, was very popular. But for some reason – I don’t know whether it was the cast, the direction or the play itself – I just wasn’t engaged by it. I think part of the point (aside from dealing with such a taboo subject) was to look at the layers of lies and deception gradually being stripped off, but in the end I didn’t really care what the final truths were.

As You Like It (William Shakespeare): Bell Shakespeare Company at the Playhouse (Sydney Opera House)
As You Like It has never really worked for me on the page, and I’d never actually seen a professional production before, so I was looking forward to seeing what Bell Shakespeare would do with it. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. I finally realised that Rosalind can be an engaging character, rather than a pain in the neck, and Celia came across as having a bit more backbone than I had thought. The production didn’t really change my opinion that Orlando is a bit of a thicko, but it seemed to me as if they’d just gone “OK, he’s a dork, let’s just accept that and move on”. So rather than try and make him anything more than he is, they concentrated on making him fundamentally likeable – and succeeded. Most of the rest of the cast were good fun as well, though Jacques seemed rather inconsistent between scenes (in that his personality was whatever they wanted for that particular scene, regardless of what he had been like before) but maybe that smoothed out later in the run: we saw it fairly early on. All in all, the production was a fun romp, and though I still wouldn’t put As You Like It on the same level as Twelfth Night or Much Ado, I now have more time for it than I did previously.

The Vertical Hour (David Hare): Sydney Theatre Company at the Drama Theatre (Sydney Opera House)
The problem with this was that the two main characters were self-righteous and basically unpleasant, and the number three character was nice enough but totally wet. It could have been an interesting debate about the Iraq war, and there were some good bits, but her voice was like fingernails down a blackboard, and he was a nasty manipulative piece of work, and this really made it difficult to get any empathy with either of their positions.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (William Shakespeare): Dash Arts at the Sydney Theatre
This production was by Indian and Sri Lankan actors, using a range of different languages – English, Tamil, Malayalam, Sinhalese, Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Sanskrit – without surtitles. So it helped to be moderately familiar with the text, or one might have been quite lost as to what was happening – languages would change between characters, and even within speeches. The performances and costumes were good, but what really struck me most was the athleticism of the production. The acrobatic work – apparently all done without safety harnesses – was just breathtaking.

Rock ‘n’ Roll (Tom Stoppard): Sydney Theatre Company at the Sydney Theatre
Michael thought this play was baby boomer self indulgence. I quite enjoyed it, though it would have been better if Matthew Newton (Jan) had had more charisma (or any). But I thought William Zappa (Max) was fine, and Genevieve Picot (Eleanor and then Esme) was very good. I thought the moment where (as Eleanor, suffering from breast cancer) rips off her wig and tears open the front of her dress was very powerful – far more confronting than any single moment in, for example, Blackbird. I might have got more out of the play if I had been more familiar with Czech history: the play starts in the late 60s and finishes in about 1990, and I knew absolutely nothing about what was happening in Prague through this period (nor did I have any idea that Plastic People of the Universe – a group whose name I was vaguely familiar with – were Czech). But the play did inspire me to look it up afterwards. Which has to be considered a Good Thing.

The Serpent’s Teeth (Daniel Keene): Sydney Theatre Company at the Drama Theatre (Sydney Opera House)
This was actually two one-act plays, dealing with different aspects of war. The first one, Citizens, was set at the dividing wall of an unnamed country beset by war. It was a series of vignettes of citizens walking past the wall, getting on with their day-to-day lives in the face of hardships – an old man and his grandson taking a tree to the next village, and bringing a different one back, a married, pregnant couple walking to a new home, a woman carrying her dog to find a vet. It had some very compelling moments – the bit where the husband and wife are arguing, and spill part of their last bottle of water made the whole audience gasp – but there was somehow something a bit distancing about it. In spite of being about “the human spirit”, it was intellectually interesting, but for the most part not emotionally gripping.

The second one, Soldiers, was set in an Australian airbase (or something), where the families of five dead soldiers are awaiting the return of the bodies – a mix of wives, siblings, parents, children, etc. This one really was emotionally compelling. At some stage, most of the characters had a “poem” – sort of Ancient-Greek style theatre – which I found a bit stylised and not really successful. But the interactions between family members, and between members of different families, were very powerful.

As with just about every other STC Actors Company production, the standouts were Amber McMahon, Hayley McElhinney, Pamela Rabe and John Gaden, with Peter Carroll also putting in excellent performances in each half.

The Great (Tony McNamara): Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf Theatre
This play about Catherine the Great was not very historically accurate, and had many intentional anachronisms (not to mention a truly remarkable number of horse references in the first act) but it was hugely fun. Robin McLeavy, who played young Catherine in the first act and her daughter Natalie in the second, was very funny, and Liz Alexander (the older, second-act Catherine) filled the stage with personality. Toby Schmitz as the second-act Orlo was wittily amusing but also emotionally resonant at times.Toby Schmitz was funny as Peter in the first half (though he seemed to have watched Hugh Laurie in Blackadder III way too many times) and okay as the son, Didi, in the second act. I thought the play was at its best when delivering clever dialogue and court intrigues, and at its weakest in the more emotional scenes (excepting some of the older Orlo’s). In particular, I found the love-of-Catherine’s life plotline not very successful. Overall, though, it was a fun play, if not particularly deep and meaningful.

Hamlet (William Shakespeare): Bell Shakespeare Company at the Drama Theatre (Sydney Opera House)
This production has had very good reviews, but it didn’t really work for me. Brendan Cowell’s Hamlet was very “big” (for want of a better word): he wasn’t actually chewing the scenery, but he was certainly very out there. I would like to see something a bit more intimate and introspective. And I didn’t think the scenes with the ghost were very successful: they were using a sort of split-stage effect (which the Cheek-By-Jowel Othello also used) with the ghost on one side of the stage, and everyone else on the other side, but rather than looking at the ghost, they were looking straight ahead, as if the ghost were in the audience. On the other hand, I enjoyed Colin Moody’s Claudius, and Heather Mitchell’s Gertrude was okay, up until her rather overdone death scene (it’s a bit of a worry when the audience actually laughs). Ophelia was pleasant, but not very strong, and R and G were basically a comedy act. The fencing in the duel scene wasn’t very impressive.

2007 in review

Books

I read 167 books in 2007, of which 106 were re-reads and 61 were new (though of the 61, there were two I didn’t finish – Lolita and Crime and Punishment). Dividing up by category, 104 were adult fiction, 32 children’s fiction, 20 young adult fiction and 11 non-fiction. By genre, I read 55 crime/thriller and 53 SF/fantasy – though SF/fantasy is spread across all age categories, and crime/thriller was only adult books. My most read author was Agatha Christie, of whom I am slowly doing a chronological re-read – this probably also skewed the genre numbers, since slightly over half the crime/thrillers I read were Christies. There was a big drop to my second-most-read author (Donna Andrews – also crime/thriller, and also a complete re-read – with 10 books) and there were 47 authors of whom I only read one book.

Probably my favourite “discovery” for the year was Sonia Soanes – I absolutely loved her verse-novel Stop Pretending: What happened when my big sister went crazy. Though I found her other books much less gripping – Stop Pretending was a very emotional book, whereas the others were a bit more lightweight. The other young adult book I was very impressed by was Alex Flinn’s Fade to Black, and I will probably be chasing up more of her work. In the adult fiction line, I have been enjoying Amanda Grange’s diary-of-Austen-hero books, and (at the other end of the “literature” scale) I am glad to have read The Odyssey, though at times it was a bit of a struggle.

None of the other new authors I tried really grabbed me, and of the new-books-by-favourite-authors probably the one I was most pleased to get was Susan Geason’s new(ish) Syd Fish story, Hook, Line and Sinker. This isn’t actually published, but it’s available for download from her website. The new Dick Francis was very readable, but not out of this world, and I was a bit underwhelmed by the new Lois McMaster Bujold fantasy – I don’t find this particular fantasy world all that interesting, and in any case I prefer her SF books.

Films

I saw 10 films at the cinema, and another 8 or so on various planes. There were no real stand-outs, though my favourites were probably Breach (which I unaccountably failed to blog), Hot Fuzz and Music and Lyrics, with honourable mentions to Pan’s Labyrinth and No Country for Old Men – these two were probably the “best” films I saw, but Pan’s Labyrinth was rather depressing – and very violent – and No Country for Old Men didn’t quite work for me. Amazing Grace and Sunshine are also worth mentioning.

The worst film I saw was probably Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, though there was competition from 300.

Plays

I only saw 6 plays, all by the Sydney Theatre Company. The two best were Riflemind and The Art of War, and I probably got least enjoyment from The Season at the Sarsparilla and Tales from the Vienna Woods – though neither of these came even close to the awfulness of 2006′s The Lost Echo . But I’m definitely going to make an attempt to get to the theatre more often in 2008.

Riflemind (Andrew Upton): Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf Theatre

This was a very depressing play. But it was also probably one of the most powerful productions I have seen this year.

The gist of it is that “Riflemind” was an incredibly popular rock band that broke up when John (Hugo Weaving) quit some years previously. They are now getting together for a few days to talk about the possibility of reforming for a tour.

All the performances were very strong, but I was particularly impressed by Susan Prior, who played John’s wife, Lynn. She was so tightly wound, so desperate for everything to work out, and her slide back into alcohol and drugs was both sad and inevitable. And the final scene, between her and John, was incredibly poignant.

There were times when the play seemed to be concentrating too much on being clever – all surface and no substance – but this was more than made up for by the moments of raw emotion. I don’t think I actually liked any of the characters. But at different times, I did feel sorry for all of them.

I found it interesting that in the end, the character you knew least well was the central one – John. In terms of the plot, everything relied on his decision, and yet you never really, completely saw inside his head. With all the others you absolutely knew what they wanted and what was driving them. And you did sort of know that with John, but even when everyone else was stripping bare their emotions, you felt that he was still holding something inside. I don’t mean that there was a vital piece of information about his motivations or anything – just that, unlike the others, he never completely let go. Not even in the scene towards the end when he was explaining to his brother what had happened with him (and, BTW, I really liked this scene – the sense that in spite of everything that had gone wrong between them, they still had a shared childhood, and a shared love of music.)

I saw this with Mark, as Michael is still overseas. He mentioned afterwards that he had read an article about the Sex Pistols (I think) which said that they were great when they were making music together, but a complete disaster the rest of the time. This seemed like the same sort of dynamic. When they were jamming – and presumably when on the stage – they were fine. So the challenge for the manager was to stop them from self-destructing before they got on the stage.

The Art of War (Stephen Jeffreys): Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf Theatre

I saw The Art of War back in June, so it has only taken me two months to get around to blogging it!

I was a bit concerned when I heard that it ran for three hours. And when I got the program and saw that most of the actors played multiple parts, and there were sevaral different plot threads and a Chorus, I thought I was in for another pretentious evening, with underwhelming storylines, and characters I didn’t care about. I could not have been more wrong!

The opening (Chorus reciting from Sun Tzu) was rather stagey and pretentious. But once the main part started, I got caught up in it: even though there were multiple completely separate stories (on one hand, the soldier, the journalist and the Iraq war, and on the other, the Australian company trying to break into the Chinese market – with both forming the backdrops to various tales of love and/or obsession) I found them all interesting and fulfilling rather than short and superficial. And I did like the conceit of applying The Art of War to actual war, to corporate infighting, and to personal relationships. Also, I became really interested in what was happening to the characters, and I genuinely cared about them. As the play progressed, I even came to enjoy the Chorus (particularly in moments such as the one in which they stopped reciting to argue amongst themselves about different translations of the text).

The play was specifically written for the STC Actors Company – the playwright claimed he had only seen a photo of them, but he must surely have also been given some background on their performance styles. As usual, amongst the younger members of the cast, the women (Hayley McElhinney and Amber McMahon) were good and the men a little less so. Of course, Pamela Rabe filled the stage with personality – the way her part was written (tough, idealistic, vulnerable, and uncompromising) was one of the strongest signs that the playwright must have had more to go on than just a photograph. As expected, John Gaden turned in solid performances for his roles, as did Peter Carroll. But for me, the real surprise was Colin Moody. I have seem him in other Actors Company productions, and have generally found him quite forgettable – not bad, but not outstandingly good either. But I thought he was fantastic as the career soldier who knows exactly what is going on – and what will happen – and is simply trying to make the best of a bad situation (both professionally and – with less confidence and competence – in his personal life).

This was the first play in ages that I came out of and thought that I would really love to see it again. (I didn’t, unfortunately. But I wish I could have.)

Films: 6; Plays: 2; Blog entries: 0

And the only excuse it the usual one – way too busy.

Sunshine at Hoyts, Broadway

I really enjoyed this film. It was as much about the psychological stresses as it was about the physical challenges: about making difficult decisions while under enormous pressures, and then dealing with the consequences.

The only thing I didn’t much like about it was that SPOILER FOLLOWS I would have preferred it if everything that went wrong had been the result of bad luck or bad judgement. Having deliberate sabotage turned the plot a bit too much into a straightforward get-the-bad-guy-save-the-world story. But although this was a detraction, it certainly didn’t spoil the film.

300 at Hoyts, Broadway

Lots of violence. Lots of shouting. Lots of muscles. Lots of visual effects (some of which were very striking). A bit more plot than I had expected. A lot more bling than I had expected. Not a lot of historical accuracy.

This was not a good film, but neither was it the video game that the trailer had made it look like.

Though perhaps the most interesting aspect of the experience was the fact that one of the pre-film ads was for female hygiene products. Looking around the audience, this film did not seem to have attracted the right demographic for that ad: I won’t say I was the only representative, but I was part of a very small minority.

The Season at the Sarsparilla (Patrick White ): Sydney Theatre Company at the Drama Theatre (Sydney Opera House)

I didn’t really enjoy this all that much, though that was more the circumstances than the production. We were in the third front row, which, at the Drama Theatre, means your eyes are about level with the actors’ feet – when you can see them around the tall person in front of you. And the woman next to me was wearing far too much scented powder. And most of the people sitting around us felt compelled to point out the bleeding obvious parts of the plot to their friends (normally about five minutes after the relevant point had become bleeding obvious).

So it was really hard to get into the play. One thing that did strike me, however, was the fact that when it was written it was contemporary, but this production very much emphasised the fact that it was “looking back” at how things used to be. I’m not sure whether it was trying to prompt nostalgia or a comfortable sense of modern superiority – or a combination of the two – but whichever it was, this was something that would clearly have been totally absent from original productions.

Hot Fuzz at Hoyts, Broadway

Heaps of fun. You really can’t go past a film that has a massive gun battle in the streets of Wells.

The Good German at Hoyts, Broadway

I wish I’d liked this film more than I did. It was visually great, George Clooney and Cate Blanchett looked absolutely perfect, it had lots of atmosphere, but overall it just didn’t quite work.

Troupers (Michael Cove): Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf Theatre

I wasn’t really sure what to expect with this play, but in the end I really enjoyed it. At the centre were really strong performances by Barry Otto, Blazey Best and Natasha Wanganeen, but it was also a quite moving picture of post-WWI Australia. Powerful and poignant, but also funny – a good night at the theatre.

The Good Shepherd at Hoyts, Broadway

This was an okay film, but I found it rather dull. As with any film that follows one character over a large number of years, it was more a series of snapshots of the life, rather than an overall development of relationships. So the political background story was okay, but I didn’t think it really worked as a character piece.

Pan’s Labyrinth at Hoyts, Broadway

This film was a real celebration of the grotesque, with some amazing visual imagery. It was rather more violent than I had expected – not just shoot-em-up violence (though there was quite a lot of that), but also the kind of slow, deliberate, measured violence that is much more confronting. In fact, there was one scene that I absolutely couldn’t watch: I looked over the top of my glasses, so it was all blurred and I couldn’t see it properly. But none of the violence was gratuitous – the point seemed to be to set the fantasy monsters against the human ones.

I liked the fact that you were never 100% told whether the fantasy stuff was real, or just the girl’s imagination. There was some evidence for either side of the argument. I believe the evidence for it being real outweighed that for it being imagination (and from something I’ve read, I gather the director thinks the same) but I like that it is something every individual audience member can decide for themselves.

2006 in Review

Films

I saw 22 films this year. The high points were probably Casino Royale, Flags of our Fathers and Superman Returns. The biggest disappointment was X-Men: The Last Stand, because it was so much weaker than the first two X-Men films. However, the actual Worst Film would be a competition between Lord of War (which I saw on a plane, so didn’t actually waste any money on), Tristan + Isolde and Mission: Impossible III.

Plays

I saw 12 plays in 2006 (though I only actually blogged 9 of them). Ten were from the Sydney Theatre Company subscriptions (although one of these – The History Boys – was actually a National Theatre of Great Britain production). Of the other two, one was the Russian production of Twelfth Night, which was here for the Sydney Festival, and the other was You Never Can Tell, which I saw in London. My favourites were probably Twelfth Night and Woman in Mind, and the worst was unquestionably The Lost Echo.

Books

I’ve been very slack about blogging books this year. However, in August I set up – and have been maintaining – a What I’m Reading book log. So I know that from August to the end of the year, I read 81 books – though two of them I gave up on, and another two I haven’t yet finished. 47 of them were first-time reads, and 34 were re-reads. Alternatively, I could sort them by target audience (48 adult, 9 young adult, 24 children) or by genre (25 fantasy/science fiction, 15 crime/thriller, 7 non-fiction, and the rest a variety).

It was quite a good year for new-books-by-favourite-authors. George R. R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows (book 4 in A Song of Ice and Fire) was a bit of a let down, but I don’t think it would have been possible to maintain the intensity of the third book in the series, and I still have high hopes for the rest of the story. Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Sharing Knife: Beguilement was enjoyable, but only half a story (the other half comes out this year), and I still prefer her Vorkosigan books. Jaclyn Moriarty’s The Betrayal of Bindy Mackenzie was interesting, but unlikely to become my favourite of her books. On the other hand, On the Jellicoe Road could end up being my favourite Melina Marchetta. The other exciting event was Under Orders – the first new Dick Francis in six years. It wasn’t his best work, but it was a long way from the structural mess of his last couple.

I think my favourite new author for the year would be Donna Andrews. Her chick-lit/detective story crossovers are a lot of fun, if not exactly great literature. I read them from the library, and I’ll hold off on buying them until I know for sure I want to re-read them, but I’m certainly hanging out for the latest (No Nest for the Wicket) to come out in paperback and turn up in the library. Other new (to me) authors included Naomi Novik (Anne McCaffrey meets Patrick O’Brien), Anthony Horowitz (James Bond for teenagers – and with some clearly conscious Fleming homages, which I’m sure people who’ve only seen the films don’t get) and Stella Rimington (spy stories by a former head of MI5). They were all enjoyable enough to read more than one of their books, but I didn’t get overly excited by any of them.

Reunion (David Mamet) and A Kind of Alaska (Harold Pinter): Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf Theatre

In their different ways, I found both Reunion and A Kind of Alaska somewhat unsatisfying.

Of the two, I think I enjoyed Reunion more. Both performances (Justine Clarke and Robert Menzies) were strong, and it was a wonderful use of awkward words and uncomfortable silences. Unlike some of the other plays we’ve seen, in this one, the director (Andrew Upton) clearly made a deliberate decision not to use American accents, or even nationality-neutral ones. This play was very definitely done in Australian. I don’t know if the text was changed at all (though I suspect not, as there were one or two slightly jarring US references), or if the character of Bernie was in any way subverted by this change, but overall I thought it worked very well with Bernie as a blue-collar, rather inarticulate Aussie Bloke. But although the production was good, it was still ultimately unsatisfying becuase it wasn’t really a story. It was just a snippet – a brief window into a moment of these two people’s lives – but with no real plot development or climax. Obviously that was the intention, and it was not uninteresting, but somehow it just wasn’t quite … enough.

A Kind of Alaska, on the other hand, did build up to a climax. But – and I don’t know if this was the performances or the play itself – at no time did I care as much about any of the characters as I did about Caroline and Bernie in Reunion. Possibly it also suffered from the fact that the last play we saw was Woman in Mind. Because Deborah in Alaska was in a not dissimilar situation from Susan in Woman in Mind – for different reasons, they were both in a world that wasn’t making sense to them. But with Susan, you saw everything from her perspective – you were literally inside her head with her – whereas Deborah was at more of a distance, and it was harder to engage with her, or with either of the other two characters. It’s probably not a fair comparison to make, as the two playwrights were aiming for totally different effects, but it’s one that I couldn’t help making, and which probably had a detrimental effect on my reaction to A Kind of Alaska.

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