The Wild Duck

Malthouse Theatre, 14 March 2012

(I forgot to post this earlier this year)

Written by Simon Stone and Chris Ryan after Ibsen

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I didn’t think I’d like this production having endured Simon Stone’s laborious and pretentious version of Brecht’s Baal last year, but, I’ve got to concede that the Belvoir Street young guns delivered the goods with their take on Ibsen’s masterpiece, The Wild Duck. But let’s be clear, this is not Ibsen’s play as such. Now some folks might have a problem with a work that throws out Ibsen’s dialogue, but keeps its structure intact. I’m not one of them. Besides, Stone clearly declares his hand by stating that his production is merely after Ibsen. Pedants and conservative critics will moan about such a gambit, but I think it’s a stroke of genius, and one that results in compelling, if not great, theatre.

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The play is one of the Norwegian master’s best-known works for good reason. Like all his best writing for the stage, it exposes the cracks and fault lines in conventional verities about human behavior. For me, it’s always been a play about fanaticism, a cautionary tale about the relentless pursuit of the truth for its own sake without regard for consequences. The quest for truth is always noble, right? How can anything other than the truth sustain our lives and relationships? Ibsen deftly unsettles any simple understanding of the relationship between truth and untruth in his domestic tragedy, which culminates in the death of a young girl, Hedvig, who discovers the unsavory ‘truth’ about her parentage (I hate supplying plot summaries, so if you haven’t read the play you can find it here).

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The fanatic, in Ibsen’s text, Gregers Werle is convinced that he must expose the hypocrisy at the heart the marriage between Hjalmar and Gina Ekdal, Hedvig’s loving parents. Long story short, Hjalmer is not Hedvig’s father. The girl’s biological father is none other than Gregers’ old man, a rich old capitalist. Yes, this is a play about Daddy issues, and it has more than its fair share of Oedipal overtones.

Stone’s production makes Gregers Werle a much more reasonable, and sympathetic character, so the theme of fanaticism is muted. In fact, it’s a totally different play in many respects. It’s set in contemporary Australia for starters, and the characters speak with colloquial Aussie accents. Stone replaces Ibsen’s dialogue with his own original text (which he developed with Chris Ryan). This ensures that the jokes are funny, the cultural references are topical and the audience can more easily suspend disbelief (most existing English translations are lousy, and almost impossible to stage successfully).

Stone retains the structure, or the architecture of Ibsen’s original text, and this gives his work a solid dramatic foundation. This is not plagiarism. It’s common sense. There are only a limited amount of stories in the world, structurally speaking, and there is no harm done when an artist borrows the structure of another work. Many great artists have done this: Shakespeare, Kurasowa, Bob Dylan. Stone’s approach to this classic work is akin to a folksinger’s rewriting of an ancient ballad, which respects the traditional source by adapting it and making it resonate with the present.

Stone and his creative team find a way to make this great old text work on the contemporary stage by moving away from treating the text as a sacred object, or trying to produce an ‘authentic’ historical version of the play. They take a number of creative risks that pay high dividends. The set design, for example, is as startling and original as any that I’ve seen. The entire set is enclosed in a large Perspex box. The actors’ voices are amplified and fed through the theatre’s PA system. At times, the audience can clearly view their own reflection in the structure that envelopes and contains the action. Props are minimal, and there is no attempt to render a contemporary version of ‘naturalism’. This unique spatial configuration gives the work a televisual aspect, and at times the play comes across a bit like an Aussie soap opera. This is actually a strength insofar as it underscores the domestic themes present in Ibsen’s original text, and contemporary media.

This is not to say that the production is without flaws. The last scene, which occurs outside the Perspex enclosure, is unconvincing. Hedvig’s grieving parents have one last awkward encounter, which tries a little too hard to resolve issues that are perhaps best left hanging in the minds of the spectators. This is a relatively minor criticism of a bold and popular work. Adaptations are never easy. They require a great deal of skill and talent. Don’t believe me? Have a go at ‘ripping off’ an Ibsen play yourself. Ghosts is ripe for a contemporary makeover. Any takers? Go on, you know you want to.

Morrissey

Festival Hall, Melbourne, 19 December, 2012

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For me, Morrissey will forever be associated with a bittersweet time in my life. I had enough shit going on in my early twenties to relate to his misanthropic lyrics, and his blatant condemnation of quotidian drudgery. His was a singular voice — literate, witty and iconoclastic. While never a die-hard fan, I played The Smiths regularly between 1984 and 1987, the year of their premature demise. For reasons unknown, I never bothered to listen to any of Morrissey’s subsequent work. My loss.

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Last night, standing amongst a capacity crowd of Morrissey devotees in what has to be one of the shittiest music venues in the world, Melbourne’s Festival Hall, I made a belated acquaintance with the man’s solo canon. Morrissey was in fine form — the passage of time has not compromised his voice, which was strong and resonant. And he’s one of the most focused performers I’ve ever seen, delivering each song with the most apposite blend degree of passion, disdain, or humour.  Morrissey’s material did not peek with The Smiths all those years ago, a self-evident fact to the throngs assembled to pay tribute to his genius. I recognized a handful of songs by The Smiths, but the crowd sang along with most of the tunes. And what an eclectic crowd it was — oldies from the eighties, balding and grey, youngsters who weren’t born until The Smiths were well and truly consigned to the past. The young guy immediately in front of me was having the time of his life stomping, jumping and pumping his fists in the air as though he was some kind of demented athlete. He knew almost every lyric, which he acted out while gazing sincerely into the eyes of his girlfriend. Kids! Oh, the enthusiasm of youth.

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For a man reputed to be a curmudgeonly miserablist, he proved a charismatic if not charming performing despite keeping the chat to a minimum. He allowed a few fans onstage to hug him, and even passed his microphone to members of the audience, inviting them to respond to the performance. I was engaged throughout the performance despite the slightly mudding sound — the guitars lacked definition, sounding a bit too soupy. I think it’s time to buy some Morrissey CDs.

JB Smoove

Thornbury Theatre, 15 December, 2012

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JB Smoove bounds onto the stage to the sound of loud Hip Hop music, and unleashes a torrent of high-octane, expletive-ridden, patter that establishes his credentials as one bad mofo. This guy doesn’t let up. He makes a ruckus! I don’t know what he’s on, but I’ve got to get me some of that shit. He maintains a punishing pace throughout the best part of his 90-minute routine, which pulls out all stops. He spits out one hilarious tale after another, riffing like a jazz musician on a series of classic comedy themes, while illustrating his act with a repertoire of uproarious moves, grooves, and sound effects — he knows how to work a microphone as a prop and as an effects machine. He taps, smashes, and genuinely abuses his SM 58 in the service of his high-energy act, which makes it clear that JB is a distinct entity from Leon Black, the character he plays on Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, and whose success has given his career a monumental boost.

Smoove is a physical comedian who makes the most of his, pliable expressive face, which he twists and contorts to great effect. He rarely sits still, preferring action to mere stand-up. On one level, he shouldn’t be nearly as funny as he actually is. Most of his routines are politically incorrect rants about sex. We learn that he likes ‘bitches’ in high heels, that he produces prodigious quantities of cum, and that it’s important to give your bitch tittie attention, if you want to keep her satisfied. He also gives the audience occupational health and safety tips on how to have sex standing up without putting your back out, along with several other suggestions for keeping things hot in the bedroom. He gets away with this macho shit because he has an excess of attitude and charm, which, for me at least, neutralises the aggressive tone of his material. JB knows how to take the piss out of himself, and his swaggering, sexually potent persona is an ironic exaggeration, which is oddly endearing.

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To be fair, some of his funniest stories are not about sex. His extended yarn about the pleasures and perils of New York City hot dogs, for example, made the audience hoot and holler. The audience clearly loved him, and he managed to work in a few local references, which didn’t come across as cheesy, or forced. Leon discovered Tim Tams, and used his newfound taste for our national confection as a running gag. He even invited a member of the audience on stage to reprise one of his Leon Black scenes — the local lad delivered a creditable version of Leon, while JB stood in for the absent Larry David.

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JB is a hard working guy. Not only did he deliver an utterly compelling, if somewhat anarchic show, but he moved into the theatre’s foyer immediately after the performance to sign autographs and take photographs with his appreciative fans. He promised to return to Australia, and I have no doubt he’ll redeem his pledge. I’m also sure he’ll be playing a much bigger venue when he returns. The man is a star. Yep, this is shot I like.