Tag Archives: Richard Hilliar

Scenes from an Execution

19 May

Few people write dialogue better than Howard Barker; it’s funny, vibrant and explosive. And Barker’s Scenes from an Execution is a brilliant play.

It explores the relationship between the artist and society.

Galactia has been commissioned by the State to paint the Battle of Lepanto. She does, and the State is not happy. Galactia portrays war as something dreadful. The State wants it viewed as something glorious.

The play is set in Renaissance Venice. But, of course, it’s not. This is not a piece of historical realism. Barker’s characters could be here and now.

Photo by Katy Green Loughrey

Photo by Katy Green Loughrey

And director Richard Hilliar’s production is wonderful. His cast does terrific work. Lucy Miller as Galactia is magnificent; passionate, determined, and joyfully articulate. Carpeta is her lover. He’s another (competing) painter. Jeremy Waters delivers a beautifully pitched portrayal of cowardice that can’t help love its superior. And Mark Lee’s Urgentino, the Doge of Venice, is comic brilliance.

This is very rich theatre. Barker shares a swag of stimulating ideas. A particularly fascinating one involves the way society tames even the greatest art (but I’m not sure I can explore this one without a spoiler.)

So let me focus on just a single idea: the way society tries to control what art says.

In Galactia’s world, it’s the Church and the State who are the obvious powers. I began this response by suggesting it would be a mistake to assume this play is historical, to assume its message is that only in the dark past did we treat artists poorly.

This play demands we ask ourselves NOW what forces determine what art is allowed to say.

Our current patrons are the state, critics and the audience. What do they demand art say?

Let me offer the following list of absurd generalizations:

  1. Australian theatre must not question the extraordinary privileges that most of us enjoy in comparison to the majority of the world’s population.
  2. Australian theatre must not present characters that are intelligent, powerful political agents, as this would imply it might also be true of its audience (which would challenge the complacent acceptance of demand 1.)
  3. Australian theatre must be ‘professional’. That is, regardless of what the art says (not excepting demands 1 and 2) the focus of discussion must always be on the virtuosity of the production. This demand perpetuates a bourgeois emphasis on career, reduces art to a commercial product, and encourages the competition necessary for a capitalist society.

See this play. It’s very, very good. And come up with your own list.

Veronica Kaye


Scenes from an Execution by Howard Barker

Old Fitzroy Theatre til 31st May



10 Jan

Wittenberg has all the ingredients for a good night out –  allusions to Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, a scholarly awareness of the German Sturm und Drang movement, all topped off with in depth references to sixteenth century theological debate!

No, seriously, it’s all very accessible. And, yes, it’s terrific fun.

Hamlet is at uni, and his two tutors, John Faustus and Martin Luther, battle for his soul. The mixing of characters derived from both fiction and fact is a sure signal that we’re in for some wackiness.

It’s a game of intellectual tennis with some top class verbal athletes shooting sharp, hilarious volleys back and forth across the net. (Admittedly, it’s a rather loose net. The play is built on what I feel is a false, or at least exaggerated, dichotomy; that between faith and reason. In this way, it’s very much an American play, part of that nation’s culture wars between the Right and the Left. But I’m far from suggesting it’s parochial. Much of the discourse about spiritual experience in the West has long been skewed towards epistemology – by the extraordinary success of the Scientific Revolution.)

David Woodland; photo by Katy Green Loughrey

David Woodland; photo by Katy Green Loughrey

It’s a very watchable game, even if one player is given a tennis racquet and the other only a ping pong bat. The play clearly favours Faustus. He’s presented as the voice of reason and skepticism. David Woodland does a wonderful job of bringing this likable and passionate rogue alive. And Nick Curnow does well to make Luther a marvelously enjoyable prig.

Director Richard Hilliar has elicited fine performances from the whole cast, and writer David Davalos’ brilliant language is a joy to hear.

Articulate, erudite, and a damn good night!

(Though you don’t, in the foyer, want to meet a bore like me,                               who’ll bang on about the privileging of epistemology!)

Veronica Kaye

Wittenberg by David Davalos

at The Old Fitzroy til 25 Jan



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 http://www.sitco.net.au/


16 Jun

To see ancient Greek drama is a blessing.

To see it done well is a gift from the gods.

I saw director Richard Hilliar’s production of Sophocles’ Electra on the last night of its run. I wished I had seen it earlier, because I would’ve gone to see it again.

Firstly, because it was a superb production. Hilliar’s use of the stage is brilliant. The entire cast is wonderful, and Amy Scott-Smith as Electra is just extraordinary.*

Secondly, because well produced classical theatre is a window into another world.

I know many people will disagree with this attitude. They will argue eternal relevance. They will argue that the passions explored in ancient Greek drama are universal.

I doubt the existence of such universals. I’m not sure who would ever be in the position to judge that such feelings were so ubiquitous.

Sophocles wrote in a particular time and place for a particular audience. If he is appreciated now it is because of excellent productions such as this, and because he continues to speak to particular people.

For me, the ancient Greeks are too fierce. And they care too much about family.

Sure, I’m being facetious, but also I’m not.

I suspect some things have been added to the philosophical ‘tool box’ since they lived. And I do mean in terms of ‘ways of seeing’, rather than the obvious material benefits that make our lives longer, safer, and dare I say, more middle class than theirs.

Let me give a single example. It’s a ridiculous historical generalization and I don’t mean to defend it, but here it is anyway:  I suspect something happened on the fields of Assisi that altered human sensibility, or at least added another way of looking at the world to the many already available. When Francis sang to Brother Sun and Sister Moon, and lived a life of what can only be described as extreme gentleness, something else was added to the ‘tool box’.

And this ‘adding’, or at least rediscovering, has happened over and over again. (Though, again as a single undefended example, the early 20th century suffragettes might seriously question whether any ‘rediscovering’ was going on as they fought for representation.)

My point, long winded though I have been, is that Sophocles’ vision of life is particular, and limited. As must everyone’s be.

That’s my universal.

Productions like this are magnificent because they make us realise, or remember, that there can be this ‘way of seeing’ too.

I suspect this is the greatest gift theatre can give.

Veronica Kaye

Electra by Sophocles

at TAP Gallery til 15 June


* For those new to my blog, it’s probably worth pointing out that I write what I call responses, rather than reviews.