Page to the stage

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POET Geoff Page is always doing something different. He’s published 18 collections of poetry, two novels, four verse novels and other a biography of jazz musician Bernie McGann.

Together with actor Chrissie Shaw, he adapted one verse novel into the Canberra Critics Circle award-winning “Drumming on Water”. He’s even founded a series of jazz performances at the ANU.

Now Page has turned his 2006 verse novel “Lawrie & Shirley: the final cadenza: a movie in verse” into a stage play about two aging love-birds and their scheming children. Very briefly, Lawrie is an octogenarian  ladies man, and even at 80, but meets  his match in 70-year-old Shirley, and love  blossoms along with a good deal of humour, probably because elderly people are not supposed to enjoy the pleasures of the flesh.

“It’s a beautifully drawn story,” The play’s director, PJ Williams tells me. He’s never directed a solo piece before, nor a narrative in verse, so there were challenges to meet, considerably helped by the fact that “Geoff’s done a beautiful job of building the characters.”

Another big help that is in “reading something off the page then putting something on the stage,” he’s had Chrissie Shaw to lighten the load. She performs by herself for 80 minutes, “that’ a tough ask on any actor,” he says.

“It’s about negotiating between the actor’s relationship with the audience but also make the characters come to life,” he says, “but it’s not about an actor putting on funny voices – it’s about storytelling.” And that’s just what it is, as Shaw narrates the whole story.

Williams has been involved since June or July this year, but Page started taking the novel into workshop under The Street Theatre’s  “Hive” program a couple of years ago and gradually condensed the story for the stage.

The end result is not exactly a straight play. It’s also “a poem, a movie, a play.” That doesn’t mean that it’s really a movie, but Page has written it like a film script, complete with camera and lighting directions like “interior – night.” This has given a clue to the lighting designer Gillian Schwab, the musician, violinist Ewan Foster, and the designer Imogen Keen, who will be incorporating cinema-style images of old age into the visual side – we’ll see close-ups of aging skin and a hand, for instance.

So is directing a verse play the same as any other kind of play? Well yes and no, Williams says. You still have to ask, what is the story? What are the motives? Who’s doing what? But then again, “you’re also asking the audience to tune into an aural world with rhythmic structure matters – you prioritise the voice more than in prose.”

So isn’t that how you do Shakespeare? Well yes and no, Williams says.  These days there’s a tendency to “flatten” Shakespeare’s lines, whereas he’s discovered that the important thing is “finding the line in the play, not dumbing down the rhythms.”

Chrissie Shaw.
“Lawrie and Shirley – a Movie in Verse” by Geoff Page, is at The Street Theatre until October 23, bookings to 6247 1223.


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