Archive | December, 2013

The Dreamer Examines His Pillow

15 Dec

‘What is sex for?’ adult Donna asks her father.

‘For making babies!’ he replies; an answer so shockingly and refreshingly obvious that it hides the very strangeness of the question.

‘What is sex for?’

What is it for?

What’s being expressed here is a powerful desire for structure, an overwhelming need for certainty. Donna is asking someone with supposed authority to tell her how the world is organized. She wants her father to say that things are this way, and not that way, or that way, or that….

John Patrick Shanley’s play is rich and thought provoking. His characters speak with a street poetry that overflows with gloriously fresh imagery. The play bristles and sparkles with the contrast between plain speaking and magical attempts to capture the unknowable.

Donna and Tommy are trying to work it out.  Should they be together or not? It would probably be easier if Tommy knew who he was and what he was responsible for. (Another strand of Shanley’s intriguing exploration of certainty.) It would also be easier if Tommy wasn’t sleeping with Donna’s younger sister.

Photo by Tom Bannerman

Photo by Tom Bannerman

Ainslie Clouston and Scott Lee give brilliant performances as the lovers, and Peter McAllum is wonderful as Donna’s father.

Tom Bannerman’s clever set brings the TAP alive.

Director Vashti Pontaks’ production is funny and deeply stimulating. (And not just because of the discussions of sex, though they’re interesting. Shanley’s vision of sex and romantic love is a controversial one. Of course, the play doesn’t really reduce desire to a mere component in biological reproduction. Indeed, to my taste, Shanley actually overstates the power and importance of sex in our lives. And yes, I know, that’s a bold claim to hide away in a set of parentheses.)

But the play is an exhilarating reminder of the danger of reducing anything to something else.

For when we rob Life of its richness, it is we who are poorer.

Veronica Kaye


The Dreamer Examines His Pillow by John Patrick Shanley

at TAP Gallery til 21st Dec

Measure for Measure

11 Dec

Hypocrisy is my least favourite vice.

I don’t mean that I abhor it more than other vices.  Rather, of all the supposed vices, it’s one of those I think least warrants the title.

My problem with hypocrisy is this:  it’s too easily seconded in to attempts to shut down discussions of ethical behaviour.

For example, consider the criticisms aimed at so called ‘chardonnay drinking socialists’. According to some public commentators,  if you drink chardonnay, you’re no longer qualified to discuss the redistribution of wealth in our society. (Have you drunk some of the gawd awful chardonnays out there? I attend the opening nights of small indie theatre companies; I have.* Believe me, quaffing chardonnay doesn’t automatically rocket you into the privileged classes. Unless, of course, you remember that there are a billion people on the planet who don’t have access to clean water.)

Which brings me back to my point. (And, yes, there’ll be talk of theatre soon enough.) If you bemoan the fact that there are children who don’t have clean water and yet afford yourself a glass of wine occasionally you are a hypocrite. But how is that possibly worse than drinking and not mentioning that there are people worse off than you?

I believe we should have ethical aspirations. I believe we should say ‘We could all do better’. Because we could. But hypocrisy is often so shallowly conceived, and flatly presented, that these vital conversations don’t occur.

In Measure for Measure, Shakespeare presents a very simple hypocrite. Angelo is given sovereignty over Vienna while the Duke is absent. He then precedes to prosecute citizens who contravene regulations about sexuality morality, regulations that previously, under the Duke, were not enforced. (To a modern eye, fornication is not a crime, but it’s not too difficult to find contemporary parallels.) Angelo’s hypocrisy springs from the fact he’s guilty of the ‘crime’ but does not acknowledge it.

Nick Hunter plays Angelo with a fair sense of humour, and it’s a good choice. The meat in this play, as I will argue, is elsewhere.

Danielle Baynes2

Danielle Baynes plays Isabella the novitiate, who faces a tough moral dilemma (well, once again, probably not to modern eyes, and possibly not to most Elizabethans). She must decide whether to save her brother’s life at the cost of her virginity. I won’t describe what happens (though I’m not sure if you can be guilty of a spoiler in a Shakespearean play), but suffice to say it leaves one considering justice and mercy and the true nature of love.** Baynes’ performance is powerful. Her response when Angelo tries to force himself on her is heart wrenching. And her final action of the play will ignite many a post-show discussion.

Director Richard Hilliar draws some delightful performances from his cast.  Hailey McQueen is terrific fun as a nun. James Townsend is wonderful as the big talker who doesn’t know when to stop.  (In fact, as this piece is being played in rep with King Lear as part of the Sydney Shakespeare Festival, it’s fascinating to witness such an enormous versatility of performance from the entire cast.)

John Grinston plays the Duke, and does an admirable job.  There’s a suitable mix of gravitas and humour. But the Duke as written is a bizarre character, and it’s hard to know if Shakespeare thought of him as anything but a plot device. But he has a lot of stage time, and ultimately, despite avowing that he has all the other character’s best interests at heart, ends up treating them as little more than puppets.

A cautionary for playwrights, and other omnipotent beings? Or an insight into true hypocrisy?

Veronica Kaye

* For what my opinion is worth, Sydney Independent Theatre Company does not serve gawd awful chardonnay at their openings.

** I never do get round to discussing this in detail. See the play, then discuss it yourself in the bar afterwards, with some good chardonnay.

Measure for Measure

playing with King Lear as part of the Sydney Shakespeare Festival til 21st Dec

King Lear

6 Dec

King Lear is a brilliant play. And much discussed.

I’ve always been intrigued by Simone Weil’s reading. She saw a tussle between power and honesty, and concluded they were mutually exclusive. The opening sequence certainly prepares us for this view. Regan and Goneril sing their father’s praises in exchange for property. Cordelia is discreet, and is punished for it.

Orwell has a famous essay about Shakespeare and Tolstoy. He reminds us that Tolstoy didn’t especially warm to Shakespeare and had a particular dislike for this play. The story, it would seem, was too close to the bone for the great Russian writer.

I, too, find the story confronting. It’s the tragedy of the great moral gesture.

The play begins with Lear’s grand renunciation. The problem is he can’t maintain the grandness. Leof Kingsford-Smith’s portrayal is wonderfully and heartrendingly accurate. There’s a pomposity to the early Lear. We don’t dislike Lear for it – it’s common enough in older men. In fact, it awakens our pity. As the Fool later says, aren’t we supposed to grow wise before we grow old? Lear hasn’t. Will we?

But like us all, Lear doesn’t understand himself. Having made the grand gesture he wants gratitude, and is devastated when he doesn’t receive it. Who hasn’t been in the same situation? You are kind, and then you’re not acknowledged for that kindness, and so you become bitter. If you choose kindness (or any other moral gesture) perhaps it’s best to stick with it all the way.  (A lonely path, I suspect. But to what vistas might it lead?)


Director Richard Hilliar’s production is moving and engaging. Kingsford-Smith’s marvelous Lear is amply supported by some strong performances. Amy Scott-Smith presents an admirably icy Regan. This is nicely balanced by Hailey McQueen’s Goneril; a beautiful portrait of a small soul, troubled by inklings of self knowledge, but lacking the courage to confront them. Danielle Baynes as Cordelia is dignity and honesty personified.

And, in the world of the play, there’s no place for a character like Cordelia.

Many eighteenth century productions rewrote the final scenes. In their original form they were deemed too painful.

Or were they just too honest?

Is virtue really so little rewarded in this world?

Who knows? For most of us, it’s too hard to stick to, to find out.

And that’s the tragedy.

Veronica Kaye


King Lear

at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, as part of the Sydney Shakespeare Festival with Measure for Measure

until 21 Dec

for program dates