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The Importance of Being Earnest Dragons, and other classic tales, as told by an Octopus

Tin Shed Theatre Company and Deep Sea Astronauts in association with Tamarama Rocks Surfers Theatre Company presents THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST DRAGONS, AND OTHER CLASSIC TALES, AS TOLD BY AN OCTOPUS by Alli Sebastian Wolf at the Old Fitzroy Theatre.

I delayed attending this production directed by Scarlet McGlynn of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST DRAGONS, AND OTHER CLASSIC TALES, AS TOLD BY AN OCTOPUS by Alli Sebastian Wolf, as Jason Blake in his Sydney Morning Herald review, early March, had suggested that time may improve the experience. I wanted to see it because the title was whimsically attractive to me and Augusta Supple (see her blog) had some regard for Ms Wolf’s work, having some sense of her development through a playwriting prism, firstly, OFF THE SHELF, and later, BRAND SPANKING NEW – two development organisations for new writers of the recent past. Since then this work has also had help from a residency at Queen St Studios and at Explicit Manor. “This is the first performance of the entire piece – whipped together in a few months under the guidance of director/producer Scarlet McGlynn.”

Three short plays: THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING DRAGONS, HIP HOP HIPPOLYTUS and DANTE’S GLAM ROCK INFERNO make up the evening. Each have their origin of inspiration from classic texts. Octopus (Paul Armstrong) sits resplendently dressed in smoking jacket and cravat in his red velvet armchair holding his pipe, flicking through books that surround him. He chats to us and acts as narrator, as a way of introducing this omnibus of stories. You know the ones. Firstly, says Octopus, “from that old poof” Oscar Wilde’s THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST; then, from “another old poof”, Euripides’ HIPPOLYTUS; and lastly from Dante’s LA DIVINA COMMEDIA. I guess he is not a poof but a breeder (Mr Wilde, of course was also married and had two children – a homosexual then, or, a bi-sexual?). There is in the writing conceit an honouring of a tradition, of pop culture history, to things like The Monty Python team, especially the wild imaginative and separate meanderings of Terry Gilliam, Fractured Fairy Tales in the cartoon programs of my youth and even to the Pirates of the Caribbean in the imagining of Octopus. Fun and comforting. What Octopus tells us is, however, is that these stories are going to be more than stories but also moral fables about the efficacy of love in different forms.

The first has Algernon (Richard Cox), now a Dragon, devouring the corpse of his hoped to be mother-in-law, Lady Bracknell, whilst talking to that poor lady’s nephew, Jack/Earnest (Charlie Falkner) about wooing. Most of the comedy in this early work is scored by that “old poof ” Wilde’s work – lots of quotation from the original – in this case more than politely nodding to the original author. Ms Wolf except for the absurd situated world and character excesses she has conjured for us, full of intriguing possibilities, offers not many palpable verbal hits of her own.

HIP HOP HIPPOLYTUS, is written in hip hop rhythmic poetic code, sometimes accompanied by music (Music Director & Composer, Tim Hill). In Ms Wolf’s appropriation of the Euripides, Aphrodite (Kara Boland), the Goddess of love seems to be encouraging a same sex relationship between herself and Atremis (Victoria Griener) the Goddess of the Hunt, who has an unrequited yearning for the chastity vowed Hippolytus (Tim Crewe), both Goddesses wreaking death wounds and havoc on Phaedra (Sarah Hodgetts) and Theseus (Andy Leonard) of the original, in their flirtatious struggles. I wrote “seems” because the technical frailties of some of the actors skills, failed microphone equipment and too loud music from the band hampered verbal clarity. I was often left to guess the events unfolding. The text, that I could hear, had rhythmic skill and some wit.

The final work, DANTE’S GLAM ROCK INFERNO has Virgil (Andy Leonard), as a transvestite, guiding Dante, the poet to Inferno. It is indeed glam rock and owes most of its inspiration to The Rocky Horror Show – Hedwig traditions – song, dance and innuendo. Unfortunately, the music buries the writing text/lyrics. The spoken wit is here carried primarily by Mr Leonard and Crewe who have some technique to their voice work and a practiced sense of timing. What the moral lessons about love that Octopus promised us are, I was not able to deduce from this performance. My curiosity about the potential Ms Wolf’s future work is aroused but not much more as this production of her work does not put it at the center of the experience. Visuals jokes, pictures, images more important than the words or their stylistic organisation for comic communication. Ms Wolf from what I could discern has wit and a keen sense of parody, but beyond the comic sketch as a homage to other people’s work, not very arresting. There is also a tendency to cheap vulgarisms to cover as comedy when all else is failing – the poofter jokes getting the biggest laughs on the night I attended – and oddly, a leaning to a misogynistic fate for her female characters. All the women in Earnest Dragons are killed and eaten (why one would kill off Lady Bracknell, who Wilde describes as “a Gorgon without being a myth” and the cause of most of the brilliant epigrams, I can’t begin to guess). The Goddesses in HIP HOP are fairly uncompromisingly ‘ugly’ with each other – with the swiveled smooth action hips of Ms Boland being the principal source of humour (she was virtually inaudible). And apart from the transvestite/transgender role played by Mr Leonard, there are no women in the last piece except as servants or chorines that may have come from an American seedy burlesque house, exploited sex objects (I was curious that the company had decided the dialogue was to be spoken in American approximations).

Ms Wolf says in the program, “I started Deep Sea Astronauts to get my friends into festivals for free and bring talented people out of shells into hanging out, to spark the sparks of making. I make work with the idea that anything we do has to be brilliant fun, giving talented people a place to create, collaborate and drink beer. It has worked out pretty well so far.” Indeed, they are playing in a pub theatre, but is it free?

The imagined world is tantalising. The Design led by Dylan James Tonkin and assisted by Gemma O’nions and Allegra Holmes is especially atmospheric with the imagery of a dull black and white flocked wallpaper, painted to cover all the walls and floor and works to expand the space of the Old Fitz, with the band of six musicians spread across the upper terrace. The costumes are remarkably witty and detailed and the organising of the quick changes ingenious. The head piece for Octopus is fun as most of the dressings are. Well done. The Lighting Design by Christopher Page is mostly useful as atmospheric “event” states with not much focused details to assist the clarity of the text. Often the actors/singers are in black holes and only faintly visible, the principal characters positioned on the penumbra of the states instead of in it. Considering that Mr Page was nominated for a Sydney Theatre Award for best lighting design for The Dark Room last year, one is not sure why the lighting of this production is so inappropriate. I’m inclined to attribute this to the inexperience of the actors and/or director rather than Mr Page. Ms McGlynn, the director, has managed to get the design elements and a cast and musicians together (remarkably 16 performers in this small theatre space) but does not really seem to be able to guide a fairly inexperienced company of actors to a sense of language usage to achieve the best from the written word e.g. rhythmic tempo to make the work consistently cogent and funny.

The first play suffers enormously with a sense of mis-timing and the comedy struggles under the holes in the action and re-action, one of the keys to comic technique. Mr Crew and Mr Leonard, with more experience, solve relatively, the interactions of the third play and come out of this production best. The singers are often not featured at all in the lighting design and part of the failure for us to follow/hear what is going on is the gloom that they are in, so we cannot see or ‘read’ the text of the lyrics – and then add the constant failure of equipment to capture and balance / monitor the sound, and some reason for lack of clarity of the text reveals itself. Ms McGlynn also directed BOXING DAY for the Old Fitz last year and still has the same weaknesses in her work.

Mr Blake had intimated in his review that the work is fairly suggestive of a university breakout, and given that I took his advice and waited to give it time to settle and saw it in the last week of its run, I would suggest nothing much has developed and I take on the same view as his, whatever Ms Supple hopes. How this work was thought to be ready for exposure in one of the few performing spaces available in Sydney is a very provocative question. I don’t believe anybody much was served by the airing of this work at this stage of its development. It seemed to be a premature exposure in a theatre house that is of much more sophisticated fare and production.

P.S. The performance was scheduled to begin at 8pm. We were admitted into the venue at 8.07pm and it did not commence until 8.21pm. We were given no explanation. The doors closed after a member of the audience arrived from the bar upstairs with their red wine and beer and nestled into her front bench seat which her friend had kept. I presume that is why we were held up !!!

I made mention of this at the performance of THE HORSES MOUTH which I attended at the Old Fitz last year. Nothing has changed. The actual starting time was almost identical Just what is the starting time at the Old Fitz? 8pm or 8.21pm?

Boring and rude, I reckon.

4 replies to “The Importance of Being Earnest Dragons, and other classic tales, as told by an Octopus”

  1. What a wonderfully thorough response, Kevin. And I agree with you about many of your points you make about the production.
    And I agree wholeheartedly that the consistent late starts at the Old Fitz makes me bored and tired also, and I believe it lowers the professional tone of the Fitz as a theatre… I am a bit old fashioned like that and I rarely think that the excuse of "yeah, but this theatre's in a pub, have a beer and chill out" cuts it for me. I like shows to start on time (you can see my stage manager roots poking through, can't you?).
    I do think that there needs to be acknowledgement of new work written by emerging writers who are very serious about their writing and their future as theatremakers. Despite its rushed/jovial/somewhat undergraduate presentation – and I agree re the inaudibility of some performers and several aspects of the production which could have been assisted by a sturdy dramaturg, more money a more experienced cast/ a different venue. But I have to say that I take very seriously Ms Sebastian Wolf's career intentions – besides being one of the few emerging comedy writers in Sydney at the moment, she is a NIDA Playwrights Studio graduate and I believe is mentored by Frank Moorhouse. I think she needs as many opportunities to test, develop try her work infront of audiences. I don't think this was her finest work – nor her ultimate work – but a necessary stepping stone in her expereince and development as a writer.
    I think there is an issue about Australia's new work development culture inherent in your response -and perhaps the old Fitz is perfectly positioned as a development theatre (casual beer chattering and late starts etc) but perhaps the price point of the tickets suggests otherwise.
    I agree that shabby time-keeping on the part of the theatre effects the reading of the work.
    I also think that writers need audiences to develop and need more time/space/money/resources – which I don't think this production had. I can't attest to the level of support of the residencies offered by Queen Street – as I don't work there anymore (and haven't for over a year) but I believe there was a team of several people – Verity Laughton, Jo Turner amongst them, who provided development support to McGlynn and Wolf for this production.
    On the point of misogyny in the Dante – I felt this was more a comment on men thinking they're such (rock)gods when really they're not… more of a comment on the delusion of male power.
    Developing plays is one thing – developing playwrights is another, but I am ever hopeful that our emerging playwrights of today will be grand leading playwrights of tomorrow.

  2. Kevin since bondi came into the equation the fitz has taken a dive and everything seems to be amateur or just work in progress. It has a great history but the stuff that goes on now is on par with high school productions. What would you recommend to the rocksurfers? I think they should just focus on bondi and give someone else the fitz to get back to its former glory.

  3. Dear Anonymous (not Augusta)

    It is not up to me to recommend how the Tamarama Rock Surfers program, but, like you, I feel the productions offered at the Old Fitz in the past year or so have not been of a top professional standard and like yourself, and Jason Blake, feel that sometimes I am watching University student mayhem on what used to be an exciting space with consistently challenging work at more mature stages of development with secure professional skills. (Even then it is a high-risk enterprise with no guarantee of success).

    On the back page of the present program for LYREBIRD, there is an acknowledgement: "Tamarama Rock Surfers are Australia's leading independent theatre company. We are committed to the development and presentation of new Australian writing and contemporary performance. Through our two venues, The Old Fitzroy Theatre and The Bondi Pavilion Theatre, the company ethos is to provide access and opportunity to independent artists and audiences alike." (sounds like the Griffin, who are streets ahead in comparative choice of work!!)

    I don't know whether the audiences, who are not friends or family of the creators, are being given enough consideration in the programming and quality of work being shown at the Old Fitz of late.

    Based on recent experiences at the Old Fitz it seems the space has become a try out space for developing work e.g. : BOXING DAY; THE HORSE'S MOUTH; and THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST DRAGONS, AN OTHER CLASSIC STORIES, AS TOLD BY AN OCTOPUS. All these works were – in writing terms – it seemed to me – in very early stages of growth. It is interesting to see that the team behind the curatorial work for these projects are a fairly consistent chosen few – and that the people in charge of 'producing' the work are, relatively, the same.

  4. continued…

    Augusta Supple in her comment reply on my site, talks of the importance of the audience for a writer to develop the work. No argument – crucial (Ms Supple also talks of budget as well. But budget does not seem too much of a problem for the above productions). But in a full length season (3-4 weeks) at the Old Fitz less tenable, especially, if the above work represents the best available to this company.

    Letting the audience know that this is 'work-in-development' rather than a finished one, would also be useful for the audience to know, to decide whether to invest the time and money in that venture again. Usually the Old Fitz has mixed the product about much more considerably, considerately, for the audience and the mix between the developing new and the finished product much more satisfactory.

    I wonder why organisations like PLAYWRIGHTS AUSTRALIA or THE N.S.W. WRITER'S ASSOCIATION do not have the spaces or venues to provide opportunities for the fledgling writing and writers to have designed explorations of the text with audience and budget? A Writer's laboratory where work gets an early opportunity to stand on its feet with production values and an audience. The 505 Theatre Space down at Central Railway seems to be an ideal size etc. Indeed, it is being used for that purpose. Perhaps NIDA with its writing course and facilities should provide this service to the community. Just make sure the directors working on the projects are ready as well. The blind leading the blind is not always a sure way to ensure good work. Interesting work but not always good work. At least, at NIDA, one presumes, that the mentors guiding the explorations would be first rate.

    I understand that the Sydney Theatre Company, Belvoir and Griffin attempt to contribute so why we are losing the Old Fitz to this consistent experimentation in new work, is a worry. Too few spaces in Sydney to see the vast international output.

    With two theatres, The Fitz and The Bondi Pav, maybe one is for developing work and the other for more finished work. Or that designated seasons are made to scramble it up. But at the moment The Old Fitz seems to be a space for the 'kids to play'. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but the games being played need to be more rigorously attended to for the venue to be regarded as a reliable place to go to the theatre. At the moment one is less and less sure of the quality of the product one is going to see.

    Anyway, just rambling, cogitating, brooding and so on and so forth…

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