Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Soul of Fire



Alanna Maclean

Canberra Times


Macbeth Poster

Review by Jane Freebury

The last time I saw Macbeth on screen it was set in the ganglands of Melbourne. Geoffrey Wright's film was not the first to opt for a mobster interpretation either, but I think it misses the point that you don’t have to be a gangster to behave like one. The ruling classes can behave just as ruthlessly as the mob in their pursuit of power.

So in this most recent take on the Bard's dour and bloody tale of regicide, it is Scotland's craggy peaks, desolate moors and wind-pummelled coast, rather than an underworld milieu, that bear witness to the barbarity of man. 

The original economy of one of Shakespeare's shortest plays has been opened up for striking visual interpretation here. Some judicious pruning by the screenwriters has also made more space for the images to speak for themselves, and how eloquent they are. As the camera goes wide and grand, director Justin Kurzel has seen to it that the homeland has more than a bit part.

Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw worked with director Kurzel on Snowtown and has made quite a name for himself in the True Detective series, also with terrific Australian films like Animal Kingdom and Cate Shortland’s remarkable and little known Lore. From exteriors to candle-lit interiors, he has done wonderful work again here.

Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard pair very well as partners in crime. She is all guile and seduction while he is the more impulsive and reactive, a man built for battle but not for courtly intrigue.

The underlying reasons why Macbeth murders Duncan remain, as ever, somewhat elusive. That 'blood will have blood' can only be taken so far, it seems to me, and the question of fundamental responsibility appears to have exercised scholars for a very long time. For all I know it's been an enduring source of fascination since 1606 when Shakespeare wrote ‘fin’ and put down his pen.

Instead of the traditional trio of toothless hags, and instead of an array of nubile adolescents as in Wright’s interpretation in 2006, the witches here could blend into the crowd. They are even accompanied by children. Taking heed of tantalising prophecies from women such as these might not be so deranged.

It is of course the figure of Lady Macbeth to whom we look once again for more answers. What drove her in the first place and how much was she responsible for making her man screw his courage 'to the sticking place’? The theme of manliness and Lady Macbeth’s observations on the manly spirit are intriguing to hear down the centuries.

In a nuanced and delicate interpretation of the character sometimes seen as the real villain of the piece, Marion Cotillard is a compelling blend of steely, mannish determination and maternal feeling. She is wrestling with grief — a creative interpellation here — and is she persuading her husband to take action where it may be a question of kill or be killed in Scotland’s own particular game of thrones? The ending suggests as much.

The Macbeths have lost a child, seen buried at the start, and are dealing with childlessness while other lords have been able to produce offspring and ensure their line. It is a convincing starting point for diminished responsibility, but less convincing as the trigger for a bloodbath. However, that's not the adaptation, it's the play and could be a good reason for its continuing fascination.

This is a visually stunning and intelligent Macbeth from Kurzel and his creative team. Another study of power in personal relationships like his fiercely chilling first feature, Snowtown.

4 Stars

Monday, October 5, 2015


Written by Suzanne F. Wohl
Directed by Alexander Hauer
The Street Theatre to 4 October 2015

Review by Len Power 2 October 2015

Bertha von Suttner was an Austrian pacifist and figurehead of a world-wide peace movement.  She relentlessly fought nationalist fanaticism, aggressive militarism and anti-Semitism.  As a writer and lecturer, she inspired her friend and benefactor Alfred Nobel to create a Peace Prize and she was the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for her most famous novel "Lay Down your Arms".

In a gripping performance, Austrian actress, Maxi Blaha, portrays episodes from Bertha von Suttner’s life and work.  Costumed by Moana Stemberger in a turn of the century period gown over a pair of modern day trousers and stylishly modern shoes, Maxi Blaha creates an impressive figure, giving a modern day relevance to the story of this woman who achieved so much for the peace movement.

All aspects of this complex woman are portrayed extremely well.  We see the frustration of an intelligent, educated woman trying to find her place in a world of men, flirting with a singing career initially and turning more successfully to writing.  She’s not perfect.  Some of her airs and graces are unattractive and there are hints of depression.

The accompanying mood music on electric guitar played by Georg Buxhofer adds a pleasing and haunting dimension to the show.  The simple set gives the impression of a period drawing room with tall windows using only some simple curtaining and expert lighting.

This is an opportunity to see a major Austrian actress in performance.  The depth of characterization presented here is quite extraordinary.

Originally published in Canberra City News digital edition 3 October 2015.  Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast in the ‘Artcetera’ program on Artsound FM 92.7 on Saturdays from 9am.


Presented by Global Creatures and Bazmark  
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Designer: Catherine Martin
Choreographer: John O’Connell
Musical Supervisor: Max Lambert
Musical Director: Daniel Edmonds
Lighting designer: Hugh Vanstone
Sound Design: Peter Grubb

QPAC Brisbane until October 17

Performance September 23rd reviewed by Bill Stephens

With a few notable exceptions, Australian musicals rarely have a long shelf life. Most productions open cold, without the luxury of expensive development workshops or out-of-town try-outs to finesse and smooth away wrinkles and adjust performances. Even when preview audience response is encouraging, negative critical reaction can often kill off a show before it has had time to find its audience, or for the audience to find it. “Eureka” in Melbourne, and “An Officer and a Gentleman” in Sydney, come to mind as just two examples of Australian productions which suffered this fate.

Among the notable exceptions however is the Baz Luhmann extravaganza, "Strictly Ballroom – The Musical" which opened in a blaze of publicity, with an impressive production team, and an even more impressive budget.

 “Strictly Ballroom” had its genesis in 1984 when Luhmann devised, directed and acted in a small show for his fellow NIDA students. It was set in the world of ballroom dancing, in which Luhmann himself had been a participant, with costumes by Catherine Martin who was later to become his wife.

NIDA was impressed enough with the show to sponsor it in the Czechoslovakian World Youth Drama Festival in 1986. It won awards for Best Production, Best Direction and earned 30-minute standing ovation.

In 1988, “Strictly Ballroom” was expanded for a successful season at the Wharf Studio in Sydney, where it was seen by record company executive, Ted Albert. Albert was so enthusiastic about the show that he became instrumental in obtaining finance for a film version.

With Canberran, Andrew Pike, head of the independent distribution company, Ronin Films on board, the film “Strictly Ballroom” had its world premiere in May 1992 at the Cannes Film Festival where it won the prestigious Prix De Jeunesse. After its Australian premiere at the Melbourne Film Festival, “Strictly Ballroom” was released nationally in Australia in August 1992, winning 8 AFI Awards, and running in cinemas for over a year.

The film went on to win awards all over the world, and became an essential inclusion in DVD collections, meanwhile Luhrmann and Martin went on to established themselves as a formidable team devising a string of international, award-winning international stage and film productions notable for their eye-popping originality and extravagant production values, among them “La Boheme”, “Moulin Rouge” and “The Great Gatsby”.

In 2011 Luhrmann announced that his company, Bazmark, intended to produce a lavish stage version of the film. Exciting news particularly as it had been some time since there had been a Baz Luhmann stage show. His international film-making career had taken off, and the idea that he would revisit the work that had provided him with his first success, both on stage and on film, was intriguing.

However it was not until April 2014 that Luhrmann’s vision was revealed when “Strictly Ballroom – The Musical” received its world premiere in the Lyric Theatre in Sydney.

Preceded by a storm of publicity, the show received a decidedly mixed critical reception. Catherine Martin's costume designs were widely praised but not her set designs. Baz Luhmann's idiosyncratic direction, together with the “curate’s egg" score by a gaggle of composers, including Luhrmann himself, also worried some critics. Others, perhaps expecting a duplication of the much admired film, complained that the
charm of the film had been swamped by the lavish production. 
The auditorium with coloured seating
Personally, I loved the sheer audacity, exuberance and spectacle of the show, starting from the moment of entering the theatre to discover that it had been transformed. All the seats had been covered with multi-coloured Lurex fabric to divide the theatre into four separate sections. Huge posters decorated the walls, so that the theatre resembled a suburban dance hall.

I loved the masses of glittering red curtains, (shades of “Moulin Rouge”), and when the show started, Martin’s brilliant costumes, each an eye-popping riot of spangles, sequins, feathers and tulle which spectacularly filled the stage. Her wonderfully fluid sets were able to be glided around the stage to compliment John O’Connell’s over-the-top choreography. I loved the mirror balls and the dancing couples positioned in each level of theatre balconies, but suspected, correctly as it turned out, that they would disappear after opening night.
The finale photographed from the audience perspective 

I loved most of the performances, especially those of Heather Mitchell and Drew Forsythe as Shirley and Doug Hastings. Natalie Gamsu and Fernando Mira were magnetic in the big Act One finale, as was Robert Grubb who managed to find a soul for the larger than life, Barry Fife.

Natalie Gamsu, Fernando Mira, Drew Forsythe, Heather Mitchell (back)
Phoebe Panaretos, Thomas Lacey (front)

Newcomers, Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos were impressive in the central roles of Scott Hastings and Fran. Lacey’s dancing was superb, although his acting and singing were less impressive. But the show is all about dancing - Scott Hastings dancing in particular - so it was easy to see why he had been cast.

Panaretos, on the other hand, despite singing beautifully and creating a beguiling character for Fran, was unable to convince that her dancing in the finale would have allowed them to win the competition.

The stylistic variation in the songs, which ranged through operetta, Gilbert and Sullivan and pop songs, was disconcerting. Many of the lyrics commented on the action but were unintelligible due to the frenetic staging. Also disappointing were the heavy-handed attempts at audience participation which may have been alright for a club show, but seemed out of place in a production of this quality.

The long, unfunny set-up for the opening number, in which the audience was split into four teams, colour-coded by their Lurex -covered seats and encouraged to barrack for their allotted couple in the dance competition, proved embarrassing. By the time the competition came around in the second act, the audience had forgotten what they were expected to do. Indeed, the long mad-cap finale was so deliberately chaotic and frenetic, that it was difficult to keep up with what was happening, and the audience never really got to see why Scott and Fran actually won the competition. 

Despite many moments of sheer brilliance in the production, it was obvious that the show needed more focus, particularly in the story-telling which seemed to get lost in the second act. As with the score, there was a feeling that there had been too many cooks involved in its preparation.

Six weeks later I had the opportunity to have a second look at “Strictly Ballroom”. The improvement was remarkable. The actors had by now settled into their roles, pointing up key lines and nailing their laughs. The opening scene had been trimmed and sharpened, the storyline was more focused, and the finale was working much better. Lacey and Panaretos were both engaging the audience with real star performances, and there were moments in the show which were so good they actually brought tears to my eyes.

By this time rumours were circulating that the producers intended to take advantage of the transfer of the show from Sydney to Melbourne in January 2015, to make more extensive changes. One wondered what they might be, and worried that the baby might be thrown out with the bath water.

However, having made whatever refinements were felt necessary before the Melbourne opening, presumably, the show seen by Melbourne and Brisbane audiences was the one Luhrmann had intended and the production was now at its optimum.

My opportunity to see how the show had evolved came during its final leg of its National tour in Brisbane, where I attended a sold-out matinee.
The ensemble 

The show still looked a million dollars in the huge QPAC theatre, and the cast were giving it everything they had.

I had expected more changes, but essentially the show has remained pretty much the same…bold, brash, beautiful and hugely entertaining. During its 18 month run, there had only been one cast change among its major principals. Drew Forsythe had relinquished his role as Doug Hastings during the Melbourne run, so that he could honour a prior commitment to tour with the Wharf Revue. The role had been taken over by Darren Gilshenan.

Inevitably, there were a few changes among the ensemble, but, on a parochial note, I was delighted to see two former Canberrans still with the show…. Damien Birmingham doing a fine job as Merv, and Daniel Edmonds confidently conducting the excellent pit band resplendent with purple glitter in his hair.

Only one musical number “Tina is Coming/Witches Song” had been dropped, but some others had been shortened, and re-arranged, improving the pace of the show,and the scene transitions remain magical.

The colourful lurex seat coverings remain, as do the posters, even though the original concept of having the show take place during the  dance contest with the audience barracking for their favorite dancers, has now been muted and the audience participation has thankfully been reduced to just two sequences. One..A nicely staged sequence in which two audience members are maneuvered around the stage by the colorfully costumed ensemble to the song “Beautiful When You Dance”…. The other follows the finale, when audience members are encouraged/inveigled on to the stage to dance with the cast. For me both sequences damage the integrity of the show...and we still don't get to see why Fran and Scott win the competition. We know from the beginning of the show that they are going to win it, but we don't actually see them beat their competitors.... just crowned the winners.

However “Strictly Ballroom” is very much Baz Luhrmann’s concept and Baz Luhrmann’s show. As we have come to expect from Luhrmann, it remains audacious, visually gorgeous and controversial. But he has stayed true to his vision of the show and that is to be applauded. One hopes that audiences around the world will have the opportunity to experience this production, which is one Australian musical which won’t just fade away. Indeed, when the amateur rights eventually become available, I’ve no doubt there will be many more productions of “Strictly Ballroom” which will delight and move audiences for years to come.

Baz Luhrmann

Sunday, October 4, 2015


Soul of Fire.

Written by Susanne Wolf. Directed by Alexander Hauer. Designed by Hannes Kaufmann.  Costumes by Moana Stemberger. Performed by Maxi Blaha and Georg Buxhofer on guitar. Street Two. The Street Theatre. October 2-4 2015


Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Bertha von Suttner (1843-1945)

This review opens with a confession. I decided to attend the German performance of Soul of Fire, in spite of the fact that I am not fluent in German. I do speak the language and have done since childhood, but I have to admit to having insufficient grasp of the language to fully comprehend the dialogue, but sufficient grasp to understand the fascinating life experiences of pacifist, novelist, ant-war campaigner and Nobel Laureate, the first female recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Maxi Blaha as Bertha von Suttner

Although the life of the remarkable Bertha von Suttner (1843-1914) is highly noteworthy for its significant contribution to international campaigns for peace, it is the striking performance by Maxi Blaha as this fiercely independent and courageous feminist and pacifist icon that persuaded me to attend the presentation for German speakers. Frank McKone has already posted an erudite and informative critique of the performance in English on Canberra Critics Circle, and readers may glean the key events and influences in von Suttner’s life by googling her name or reading her seminal novel ,Die Waffen Nieder” (Lay the Weapons Down). A glance at her biography will reveal the key moments in the production, such as her relationship with her mother, her family’s military background, her engagement to Artur Hohenstein who died at sea, her marriage and misfortunes and her platonic relationship with Alfred Nobel. One will learn of her literary contributions to magazines such as Neue Freie Presse, her lecture tours, her meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt and of course her investiture as the first woman and first Austrian to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Ironically, or perhaps fortunately, we learn of her death from cancer only months prior to the assassination of the Arch Duke Ferdinand and the onset of World War 1.

Georg Buxhofer and Maxi Blaha in Soul of Fire
But Soul of Fire is, as the title suggests, the story of a fiery soul, of a woman determined to fight against civilization’s habitual obsession with war. As Bertha says during the performance, war will continue as long as there exists war loving soldiers. It is the soul of the woman I have come to see, spoken in the language of the protagonist and uttered from the heart. Blaha embodies the spirit and the soul of a woman obsessed and confident in the knowledge that she is special, as told to her by her mother when a child. It is her longing for fame and wealth that drives her passion, and an instinctive understanding of the destructive nature and madness of war. Statuesque in a costume that expresses both the period and beneath the voluminous dress the tights of a contemporary activist, Blaha, accompanied by guitarist, Georg Buxhofer, fills the stage with Bertha’s intelligence, her frustrations, her passions and the courage of her cause until she savours the triumph of success in the publication of her novel and its translation into several languages.

In the intimate setting of Street Two at The Street Theatre, a simple design of hanging drapes, a chair upon a muted carpet and a backdrop of text panels that outline the history of Bertha von Suttner create an atmosphere of drawing room performance. This is an intriguing, informative and dramatically powerful piece of Museum Theatre, inspired by a life and brought to life by writer Susanne Wolf, the engrossing performance of Maxi Blaha and the atmospheric sounds of the guitar from Buxhofer. Director Alexander Hauer has orchestrated the moods from despondency to frustration to elation with deliberate attention to the varying phases of von Suttner’s varied and passionate life. The performance is both educational and theatrically evocative. We learn of Bertha’s longings and of her dedication to her cause as well as the trials and tribulations of her private life. Above all, we learn of a woman, whose achievements and message to the world may have been lost in the passage of time. Museum Theatre exists to bring to life those events and characters who shaped history, for better or for worse, and who have left their footprints in the sands of time as lessons for future generations.   

In this performance, Bertha von Suttner lives again, as a woman who campaigned for peace and dreamt of a vessel in which all were happy and at peace. Her vessel has been cast upon the rocks of history since her death, and we continue to be a world at wars. Museum Theatre, such as this sensitively written, intelligently directed and powerfully performed monologue, is a beacon of hope for the future and a plea to maintain the work and spirit of Bertha von Suttner in her struggle for world peace. Whether performed in English or in German and with songs  interestingly sung in English, Soul of Fire will instruct and inspire, and maybe move the world one step forward towards laying down its arms.


Composed by Karl Jenkins
Llewellyn Choir
Chorale Les Alizes
Conducted by Rowan Harvey Martin and Nathalie Delcourt
Anzac Memorial Chapel of St.Paul, RMC Duntroon
3 October 2015

‘The Armed Man’ by Welsh composer, Karl Jenkins, premiered in England in 2000.  Dedicated to the victims of the Kosovo crisis, it is a ‘Mass For Peace’ which describes the horrors of war but ends on a note of optimism for a world at peace.  Using the words of Rudyard Kipling, John Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Toge Sankichi and words from religious texts, Jenkins creates a strikingly dramatic musical vision of the horrors of war followed by an exquisitely emotional finale of hope for a future without war.

Canberra’s Llewellyn Choir joined with New Caledonia’s Chorale Les Alizes to present this extraordinary work.  The performance was conducted by Rowan Harvey-Martin.  It’s a lengthy, complex work that demands great skill from everyone involved to be successful.  The combined choirs sang confidently and clearly throughout and the Llewellyn Sinfonia played the music superbly.  Mezzo Soprano, Christina Wilson, and treble, Charlie Barnes, sang the solo passages with great feeling and accuracy.  The tension and colours in the work were maintained throughout by Rowan Harvey-Martin’s expert conducting.

Also on the program was a selection of works by the individual choirs.  Of the works chosen by the Llewellyn Choir, ‘Magnificat’ by Herbert Howells was particularly well sung.  ‘Ave Maria’ by Giulio Caccini and ‘Tant que vivray’ (So long as I live) by Claudin de Sermisy were beautifully sung by the Chorale Les Alizes, who were conducted by Nathalie Delcourt.  The works were nicely accompanied by Anthony Smith.

The Anzac Memorial Chapel of St. Paul at RMC Duntroon with its great acoustics was a perfect venue to hear this concert.  The two choirs, soloists, orchestra and conductors gave Canberra a particularly exciting and memorable music evening.

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast in the ‘Artcetera’ program on Artsound FM 92.7 on Saturdays from 9am.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR SHOW and other timeless stories

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show and other timeless stories

Created by Jonathan Worsley. Directed by Naomi Edwards. Producer JWR Productions and  Michael Sieders. Set Designer James Browne. Puppets created by Puppet Kitchen. Costume Designer Andrea Espinoza.  Lighting Designer. Nicholas Rayment. Composer/Sound Designer Shannon Brown. Movement Director Samantha Chester. The Q. Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre. September 30 – October 4. 2015

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins


The creative team behind The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show demonstrates that magic is not merely the province of the sleight of hand or the cunning illusion. In Jonathan Worsley’s puppet version of Eric Carle’s timeless and enchanting stories for the very young, magic dwells in the miracle of wonderment. It sparkles in the wide eyes of the children, transfixed by the company’s gentle and entrancing revelation of the story through puppetry, movement and colour. It glides upon the smiles of the adults, engrossed in the unfolding visual depiction of Eric Carle’s simply and beautifully woven stories of The Artist Who Painted The Blue Horse, Mr. Seahorse, The Very Lonely Firefly and the title tale that has earned its immortal place in the children’s library of classic tales, The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Under Naomi Edwards’ direction and in the chameleon set of James Browne, the four skilful actor/puppeteers create a storybook world of fascinating creatures, simple adventures and wondrous transformations to thrill and delight the very young audience of babes in arms, excited toddlers and enchanted Mums, Dads and Grandparents. ├Źn The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse children watch in amazement as the brightly clothed artist transforms in a moment a white canvas into the magical painting of a blue horse or a black polar bear or a polka dot donkey. Anything is possible in this amazing world of the imagination. Mr Seahorse gives birth to Mrs. Seahorse’s eggs after meeting a variety of fish, also caring for the eggs of the mothers.  The role of the father takes on a very special significance in the family life of the sea creatures. The Very Lonely Firefly travels the world past lights of many different things before finding a cluster of fireflies to be his friends. There are friends to be found if one only goes in search of those who share your world. And of course, The Very Hungry Caterpillar soon learns as he nurses his aching tummy full of fruit and vegetables and cake that the green leaf is his tummy’s best friend and the secret of his cocoon will fill him with hope of a new life as a brilliantly colourful and delicate butterfly.

Eric Carle’s world is one of magic, of colour, transformation, imagination and hope in the affirmation of life’s wonderment. In this absolutely wonderful puppet theatre production, the morals are not lost on the young audience. They will not be articulated from the mouths of the very young, but they will be understood in the amazed eyes, the spontaneous laughter, the excited wriggles and the enthusiastic clapping. This is children’s theatre of the very best kind. Eric Carle has captured the very hearts and minds of the 1-7 year olds for whom this fifty five minute performance is devised. James Browne has created a storybook setting in which the white pages turn to reveal a colourful scene beneath the sea , brightly coloured paintings upon the wall, a night scene and the vivid colours of the caterpillar’s world.  There is no need for the gratuitous participation of the rowdy pantomime. The magic in the story and the marvellously gentle puppetry, narration and musical backing, all illuminated by the changing scenes, are sufficient to bring Carle’s world to life and keep it vivid in the minds of an audience who are old enough to remember.

The names of the four actor/puppeteers are nowhere to be found,, which is a shame. Maybe the cast changes and they have decided not to credit the performers by name. The four whom I saw were thoroughly professional, deliberate in their pacing and enunciation to keep the audience enthralled and aware of the unfolding tale. Their movement too was gentle and their timing precise under Edwards’ direction. Mystery, intrigue, suspense and wonder were all played to perfection in the manipulation of New York Puppet Kitchen’s puppets, the turning of the pages and the telling of the story.

My four year old grandson sat fixed to his seat, only occasionally calling out in total involvement “a very hungry caterpillar” for all to hear. In his mind, and in mine, this not to be missed production will remain as a true testament to Carle’s world of wonderment and this company’s art in bringing it to life upon the Q’s stage.