Frank Barnes

I think a lot about why I love going to theatre and am really thankful that, whatever the reason, I have the joy of doing so. It certainly wasn’t through the influence of my family and definitely not my teachers. (I am so envious of the lucky students who are encouraged to become involved in theatre these days. I hated Shakespeare when we were “studying” it and The Merchant of Venus, Macbeth and Julius Caesar were just words we read in class.)

That was until I had the experience of going to the then Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown to see Julius Caesar with a cast of four top actors of the time, 1959, and from then my love of theatre was born and my life changed. Over my many years (I am now well into my eighth decade) I have been involved as an actor (terrible), stage manager, set builder (also terrible), writer and director.

My first love is Australian theatre and I had the privilege of directing a large number of Aussie plays and musicals before I became an Officer with the union. I love plays, musicals opera and dance. Experimental theatre, while sometimes challenging and sometimes simply dreadful, is inspiring and necessary, and amateur theatre is what helped me develop my skills and kept me sane in my early years of teaching and gave me a sense of belonging to the places in which I spent my early years of teaching.

For me to go to shows, now that I live in Paradise, means a big commitment as I have to travel over four hours each way and choose to stay in an el cheapo motel (I was not in the old super scheme) but I love it and so my birthday present to myself this year was a trip to see The Mark Morris Dance Group.

Mark Morris Dance Group and Music Ensemble

The Joan Sutherland Theatre
Sydney Opera House

I first saw this world-renowned company in London in 1997 and fell in love with the seemingly simple choreography, celebratory colour and sheer joy and exuberance of their performances.

They performed four items from their repertoire, the first being Pacific, a wonderful performance in which 10 dancers dance in groups of two, three and four as well as the full ensemble. They are costumed in full-length skirts, the men topless and the women with matching tops with colours that match each group, so we see red, orange, green and blue groups that twist and swirl as the dancers show their wonderful strength and ability.

They are backed by the music ensemble of Georgy Valtchev on violin, Andrew James on cello and Colin Fowler on piano, an integral part of the Group.

The second performance is A Wooden Tree, a delightful performance piece performed to the music and words of Ivor Cutler (I had to Google Cutler to find out anything about him) who was a Scottish poet and performer, once appearing as the bus conductor in The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour).

This dance piece premiered in 2012 and was devised with Mikhail Baryshnikov in mind. Cutler’s personality and sharp humour emerge from his songs that, in this segment, include “Stick Out Your Chest”, “Got No Common Sense”, “I Love You But I Don’t Know What I Mean” and “Cockadoodledon’t”. These give some idea of the style and the dancers perform in the same style. I just loved this piece: it looked so easy but had some of the most complex performances. I laughed out loud all through it.

Whelm, the latest work by the Group, is also the most modern one in the show and was only premiered in April. The four dancers, costumed in black, are accompanied on the piano by Colin Fowler. It is probably the most complex of the four performances.

The final piece, Festival Dance, which contained a waltz, march and a polka, was so good that I sat there saying to myself, “Please don’t finish, please don’t finish”. It starts with a couple embracing. They are gradually joined by more dancers and eventually we see them all enter in two groups as if into a circus ring. The groups break into various couples and eventually we finish as we begin with the couple at the back. I felt the joy of all the dancers and performers and at the curtain call (yes, I was on my feet). Mark Morris joined the call dressed in Happy socks and shorts. My sort of guy!

I don’t have space for the other shows but will mention them briefly. Storm Boy shows what can be done with a written classic that was also a successful film. If you have missed it the two times it has been on, look out for the next time.

Also at the Sydney Theatre Company was a new Australian work, Boys Will Be Boys, a dark acerbic comedy about women in power playing men’s games, with great performances from Danielle Cormack and the wonderful Tina Bursill playing Arthur.

Meanwhile, the Belvoir became a bigger concern for me. I have subscribed to it from the start, having done so previously for Nimrod. I have always loved the small intimate space and the tackling of different and challenging plays and styles and a continual staging of Indigenous theatre.

During the past few years, however, there has been an inconsistency in the offerings. Some plays have had some really poor performances but the worst feature has been the rewriting of older plays and putting an Australian play in its place. Wild Duck was brilliant but so many have been simply awful.

Now we have a new play called The Wizard of Oz which I hate to say is close to the worst thing I have seen. It reminded me of my hippie theatre days when we put on shows we thought were brilliant but were basically a lot of self-indulgent crap.

At the Downstairs Theatre, meanwhile, Samson was an interesting play about four young people in a town coming to terms with life after the death of a friend. The delightful Ashleigh Cummings (Puberty Blues and Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries) shows she has a future in all forms of performance in a terrible production. Belvoir needs to lift its game.

Frank Barnes is retired from work but not from life. He hopes Belvoir lifts its game and was happy to see The Hayes Theatre kept up its promise with Dogfight, a musical about the Vietnam war.