Secret men's business. By: Jane Hampson. 14th March 1999. Sun Herald
Jane Hampson quizzes actors John Waters, Tom Conti and David Wenham on the art of male friendship.
In case you've been stuck in outer Siberia for most of the 90s (lucky you), let's refresh your memory. On the Venus side of things is the phenomenon of female bonding, (allegedly) carried out while shopping or going to the bathroom together. Over in the Mars camp, male friendship is bound by (allegedly) things more practical. Such as fire (see: No, mate, I know what's wrong; sub-group suburban barbecue) and the car engine (ditto, but with the bonnet open).
Unbreakable ties, we're told, are forged between men in such situations. Moments of essential bonding that lead to Mateship. And that's as strong as anything forged in a BHP mill, not to mention the locker room.
Ah, but how brittle male friendship can be. All it takes is one little banana peel ...
In the case of the much talked about new play called Art, that banana peel is a painting. A very expensive, all-white canvas that proves the catalyst for the breakdown of a three-way friendship.
Art is a play by Yasmina Reza which, since opening in Paris in 1994, has been translated into 30 languages. It has been playing in London's West End since 1996 and New York's Broadway since early last year.
It comes to Sydney next month and stars David Wenham, John Waters and, controversially, British import Tom Conti, who has weathered a storm of protest about being cast instead of a local actor. Over breakfast on the first day of rehearsal the trio pondered the conundrum that is male friendship, and the pinpoint accuracy with which Reza, a woman, has dissected it.
"In England, men go to pubs together, but in France they go to dinner or to the movies or theatre," Conti said. "In England, men don't do that because you go to the movies with a girl."
Wenham continued: "It's football in Melbourne. The opening gambit in Melbourne is, 'So, who do you barrack for?' You can't escape it."
Waters, who plays Serge, the one who has just spent 200,000 francs on an all-white painting, said: "What is that crucial point in the play where we say to each other, 'What bonds us to each other?'. "I mean, don't you think women are more emotional in their friendships and give themselves more emotionally in a friendship than men? I think so, generally."
Audiences worldwide have found Art's male unbonding over a painting very funny. The kind of funny that crosses language barriers. But while the audiences are rolling in the aisles, critics have been more sceptical. Some have hailed it "sophisticated and stylish", but others described it as "banal" and "pandering to popular prejudice".
"It's people in the audience and people on stage against a common enemy, or what is perceived to be a common enemy - which is modernity. Modern art," Conti said. "You know when Marc (Conti's character) says it (the painting) is a piece of s---, the audience is like, 'We're on the same wavelength'."
"But that's not to say that modern art should be dismissed wholesale," said Wenham. "Everyone has a different reaction to art. You can't say one person or one person's work is more valid than another person's."
Waters contends that in its deconstruction of modern art and male friendship, Art is a play that is particularly French; France being a country where art, life and the universe are up for constant discussion.
"France is one of the few countries where philosophers are actually TV stars," he said. "You know, 'Our special guest for today is Jean-Claude something, philosophe de...' They examine everything.
"We're hedonists. We like to say, 'Ah, they're too serious', but they examine everything. There's a lot of Gallic examination in this play."
So will the play be modified for perceived local tastes? "No," Conti said. "I don't think any of us is wearing a hat with corks."
Waters said: "People talk about Australian mateship as if Australian men were the only people who had mates.
"It's all over the world. Just because there's a version of it in Australia we've made it into a sort of icon of Australian culture, the fact that men hang out and drink beer.
"Perhaps the fact that we dwell on it says something about Australia, not the mateship itself."
* Art opens at the Theatre Royal, City, from April 3.
Waters would give up film for Art. THE AUSTRALIAN. 19th February 1999. By: CATHERINE TAYLOR
Actor John Waters says if an "evil warlord" forced him to choose between a career in film or the stage, he wouldn't hesitate to pick live performance. "Working on film has its attractions but nothing replaces the buzz of performing on stage," says Waters, following yesterday's announcement that he will star in the Australian production of the Broadway stage hit Art, which opens in Sydney in April.
Waters and David Wenham, both winners of the AFI's best actor gong, will feature alongside Tony awardwinning British actor Tom Conti in the three-man comedy, which is expected to tour to Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane.
Waters, now filming an American telemovie on the Gold Coast before heading back to his one-man cabaret show about the life of Jacques Brel, is well known for his work on Australian television. He was seen on stage last year in Sir Peter Hall's production of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband.
Art is set in Paris and revolves around Waters's character, Serge.
He buys a work of contemporary art, sparking a debate with his two friends over the aesthetic worth of the piece. The differing opinions between Serge, Marc (Conti) and Yvan (Wenham) lead to an exploration of male relationships.
"It's a very clever piece of writing which makes a fantastically entertaining play," says Waters.
Wenham is best known for his performance in the film The Boys, and for his character Diver Dan in the ABC drama SeaChange.
Conti, nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in the 1982 film Reuben Reuben, was most recently seen in Australia as a guest on the hit TV comedy Friends.
Art was written by French playwright Yasmina Reza and has been translated into 25 languages.
It has found enormous critical success, winning the Olivier Award for best comedy in 1996 and a Tony award for best play last year. It has recently opened in Chicago and Los Angeles while continuing a threeyear run on the West End and 12 months on Broadway.
Bernadette Hayes, executive producer of the Australian production, says competition was stiff to secure the rights to the show, originally coproduced by David Pugh and actor Sean Connery.
The $1 million Australian production will premiere as part of the Sydney Theatre Company's 1999 season and will be co-produced by impresario John Frost and Sports and Entertainment Limited.
In the style of many major musicals -such as Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Rent the Australian version of Art will be identical to international productions, with director Rachel Kavanaugh flying in to oversee rehearsals and ensure the show matches the vision of original director Matthew Warchus.
The 90-minute one-act play will be performed in Sydney's 1200-seat Theatre Royal.
Leaping into the breach. THE AUSTRALIAN. 26th March 1999. By: CATHERINE TAYLOR
The sudden withdrawal of John Waters from the play Art will cost at least $40,000 according to producer John Frost, who says he will have to reshoot a television commercial and publicity photographs as well as reprint brochures featuring Waters's replacement, Geoff Morrell.
"I can't recoup that. It is a loss we have to write off and it just means that on opening night no one will be drinking Dom Perignon," says Frost.
Frost and co-producer James Erskine launched a lightening-fast international search to replace Waters after learning on Sunday night -just 19 days before opening night in Sydney that he would quit the show because of illness. Morrell was hired on Tuesday.
But Frost admits the controversy surrounding the show -which began with anger from union members over the casting of British actor Tom Conti in one of the three roles -has helped to heat up the box office.
"While all this has been going on, ticket sales are just going up and up and up,"
Frost says. The play, which opens for previews on April 3, has so far sold more than $1 million worth of tickets.
British actors Tom Courtenay (who originated the part in the London production) and Nigel Havers were considered to replace Waters, Frost confirmed, as were Australian actors Richard Roxburgh, Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson, Hugo Weaving and Colin Friels.
In the end it was Morrell a stage actor of vast experience, also known for his role as Fisk in TV series Murder Call -who had the right mix of talent and availability, minimising disruptions to rehearsals.
"We realised we couldn't get a big star in time and we thought we have an actor who looks right, has a profile in the theatre and a small television profile. Let's go with that," says Frost. "If we had waited longer, it would have been damaging to the production and probably to us financially."
Morrell had not even finished reading the script before turning up for his first meeting with director Rachel Kavanaugh and the cast on Wednesday.
"I am excited and obviously there is a nervous edge," he says. "The most difficult thing is discovering the material and finding the character. That is now my biggest task . . . but I feel I'm pretty well equipped for a situation like this."
Indeed, the part -for which Morrell has had to pull out of a production at Sydney's Ensemble Theatre -is a situation he has faced before. In 1993 Morrell took over from Frank Gallagher in a Sydney Theatre Company production of Death and the Maiden with just one week to go until opening night.
Kavanaugh says Morrell's presence has already nudged the play in new directions.
"Like good actors do, they adapted and played together very quickly, which was very very encouraging for me."
Actor David Wenham says: "We are well aware of the situation and we are not going to let the play collapse. It's about friendship and relies on a dynamic between three different people. Obviously John and Geoff bring different things to the part and that's great. I can come to the play fresh again now."
Art will be recast for its Melbourne season, possibly giving Waters a second chance to play the role.