In the Spotlight: Independent Melbourne – Mockingbird Theatre

Chris Baldock and Jason Cavanagh
Chris Baldock and Jason Cavanagh

Since its inception in 2012 Mockingbird Theatre has been quietly carving a place for itself amongst the Melbourne independent theatre scene. Founded by award-winning director Chris Baldock, Mockingbird’s productions have garnered critical acclaim for their intelligence and sensitivity.

Aussie Theatre’s Brendan McCallum talked to Chris Baldock and actor Angelo De Cata about the foundation of the company and their latest production Manuel Puig’s 1983 adaption of his novel Kiss of the Spiderwoman, now playing at Richmond’s The Owl and The Pussycat Theatre.

One of the enduring ironies of the stage is its ephemerality. Plays are written, lines are spoken, and at the closing of the curtain come final night, all that can be left are the memories. Even the great plays, the acknowledged masterpieces, are subject to an occasional ‘little death’, quietly calling for a committed individual or troupe to reach across time and reanimate the spirit of its text from the body of its manuscript.

“I have a huge amount of respect for the independent theatre scene in Melbourne”, says Chris Baldock, founder and Artistic Director of Melbourne-based independent Mockingbird Theatre. “I am very much from a text based background and felt that many important plays weren’t being seen on the independent stage.”

Baldock, drawing inspiration from legendary not-for-profit groups such as Steppenwolf, Roundabout, and Manhattan Theatre Club, saw a gap between the indie and mainstream stages that he felt was ripe for filling. “Red Stitch does the best of the new plays and other companies have their own particular flavour”, he observes, “so I thought why not start a company where we produce plays that I know I would like to see, whether contemporary or a little bit more classic, as I know many other people would like to experience them.”  With Mockingbird’s productions of The Laramie Project, Blue/Orange and Equus receiving glowing reviews, it appears he may be on to something.  “I believe the plays we produce are ones that should be seen”, Baldock states simply.

That philosophy no doubt has informed the choice for Mockingbird’s current production Kiss of the Spiderwoman by Manuel Puig. Adapted from his own novel by the author for the stage in 1983, the two-hander tells the story of Molina and Valentin, incarcerated in a Buenos Aries prison – Molina (Angelo De Cata) for the ‘corruption of a minor’ and Valentino (Adam Ward) for supposed seditious activity against the government. A political parable of sorts, it sees these two men forging an unlikely relationship despite the privations of their position and ultimately champions escapism as a political activity that can prove as subversive as any overt rebellion. At its heart is the love that flowers between the two men, trapped between their convictions and their passions.

“It’s the theme of acceptance and the breaking down of prejudice that got me”, says Baldock.”Throw two opposing people in a room for a length of time and ignorance, intolerance and belief systems get thrown out the window.”

Angelo De Cata, tasked with the role of Molina, concurs. Kiss of the Spiderwoman is, he says, “an intense, confronting experience that remains relevant because it is about humanity and human connection. All humans crave connections with others.”

For Baldock, De Cata was the ideal choice for Molina: “I always wanted Angelo for this role. I never had anyone else in mind.  He brings an intelligence, humour and depth to this role that is masterful,” he says of De Cata. “His compassion and heart as a person is matched in his performance, which is vital for us to relate and believe this character.”

Kiss of the Spiderwoman is not the first time the two have collaborated, Baldock and De Cata shared the stage in a production of The Judas Kiss, with De Cata playing Robbie Ross to Baldock’s Oscar Wilde. “He is an actor’s director in that he understands the acting process first hand”, says De Cata of Baldock. “He knows how to communicate what he wants so that we have an understanding of his vision for the play. He challenges you too look outside the square and to not always go for the obvious.”

Angelo De Cato and Adam Ward Photo:  Chris Baldock
Angelo De Cato and Adam Ward
Photo: Chris Baldock

The oppressive dimensions of a prison cell’s confines were part of what led Mockingbird to The Owl and The Pussycat Theatre in Richmond. The intimate scope of that stage has proven instrumental to the atmosphere that Baldock is hoping to capture in this production. “Jason Cavanagh, who runs the venue, badgered me hard to make sure I understood how well it would work there”, Baldock reflects. “The brick work even lends itself to the cell environment. I can’t think of a more perfect venue.” De Cata concurs, saying of the space that “it is perfect for the telling of this story … The audience should feel that they are in the cell with us. The intensity of this play would not work in a bigger venue.”

For De Cata, an accomplished performer of musical theatre, doing purely dramatic texts such as Kiss of the Spiderwoman is a way of keeping his skills sharp. “I like to do at least one play and one musical a year”, he says. “They are both rewarding in very different ways. In a play you only have the text to work with and it is a great way to hone your acting skills. I feel that doing plays has made me a better musical theatre performer.”

Baldock exudes a quiet confidence in Mockingbird’s prospects, perhaps understandable given the success of the company thus far in its creative mission. Nonetheless, there is an humility present in him that speaks of an artist’s cognisance that the work is only valid so long as the audiences turn up. For now that does not seem to be a problem.

“I am still blown away by how much our work is being embraced by audiences, particularly the general public who are hearing about us and coming to find out for themselves what we are all about”, he says. “It’s very humbling seeing my personal dream turn into something much bigger than me so soon.”

With Mockingbird gathering steam, what lies beyond Kiss of the Spiderwoman? Baldock shows his hand somewhat, while keeping one or two cards close to his chest. “Next year is shaping up to be quite incredible”, he says. “We are starting with The Temperamentals for Midsumma, which is a fantastic play about the first gay movement pre-Stonewall. I can also announce that we are doing the premiere of Quills which is generating a huge buzz already.” Beyond that, however, we’ll just have to wait to see what Mockingbird has up its sleeves.  “The rest are a secret to be announced at the year’s end, at our season launch”, Baldock teases. “It’s an exciting time for us and we can’t wait to grow and learn.”

Kiss of the Spiderwoman, directed by Chris Baldock with Adam Ward and Angelo De Cata, is now playing at The Owl and The Pussycat Theatre in Richmond, Melbourne, until September 15. See for bookings.

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