A Hundred Words For Snow

19 May

This is a brilliant presentation of a brilliant play.

In Tatty Hennessy’s beautifully rich monologue, Rory has just lost her father. Before an untimely accident, he’d been planning to take her to the North Pole…..so teenage Rory decides the next best thing is to take his ashes there.

Her journey of discovery – into a lonely world of ice and cold, and unexpected beauty – is a gloriously gentle, deeply moving metaphor for grief.

Both Rory’s father and her younger self were enamoured by tales of the early polar explorers, men desperate to reach the Pole before modern technology reduced the ordeal to a difficult, but ultimately doable, tourist jaunt. These men who dared the unknown, the vast blank spaces on the map, showed extraordinary resilience, extraordinary hubris, and many died horribly. Rory is suitably fascinated by both their strength and their stupidity.

For all their hardship, much of the blank space they aimed to conquer had been traversed before. Perhaps if they’d spoken to the Inuit people, instead of dismissing them as savages, their journeys might have been easier.

But first times will be experienced as such.

Much of life consists of experiencing for the first time what’s in actuality being experienced for the billionth time. We walk the road alone, but the road is well trodden. (It’s a phenomena Rory herself acknowledges, not about her grief, but about her first serious sexual encounter; for all its uniqueness for her, it’s been experienced by all who came before.)

Eddie Pattison is magnificent as Rory, capturing her sadness, her fear, her humour, and her wonder, and creating a character so complete it feels less like a performance than an embodiment. Director Gavin Roach’s touch is light and wise, allowing this piece to achieve the dramatic miracle: the realisation of the individual that intimates the universal.    

Paul Gilchrist

A Hundred Words For Snow by Tatty Hennessy

Flight Path Theatre until 28 May

https://www.flightpaththeatre.org/whats-on/a-hundred-words-for-snow

Images: Cameron Grant (Parenthesy)

How To Live (After You Die)

14 May

This is simply a sharing; Lynette Wallworth tells us of her time in a Christian cult.

She stands alone on stage, and with the aid of only slides and a little music, she shares how at eighteen she succumbed to the cult – and then suffered four miserable years until she broke free.

She speaks with intelligence and wisdom. Her tale is beautifully discursive, as she weaves in anecdotes from her artistic work with indigenous people from around the globe. The spiritual experiences she relates, both her own and other people’s, are rich and life-affirming. They’re a powerful counterpoint to the tale of the cult.

Initially innocuous, but ultimately insidious, the charismatic cult in suburban Sydney encapsulates two ways in which the grand religious tradition can be corrupted.  

Wallworth admits to being seduced by the sweet promise of simplicity, that by joining the community the dreadful burden of choice would be lifted from her. We feel only sympathy, knowing in our hearts how tempting the abrogation of responsibility can be.

In contrast, the desire for power that mars the community is more difficult to forgive.  Must it always be such, that God is found in the Desert, but in carrying Her back to the City, joy and honesty sour to self-assertion and manipulation?

As Wallworth spoke of her eventual liberation from the cult, I was in tears.

And the gentle words of the nun who helped save her?  

Of course, to repeat those words here would be a spoiler, but they’re a tender reminder of the nature of God and what She would truly want for us.

Veronica Kaye

How To Live (After You Die)

Written, directed and performed by Lynette Wallworth

Playhouse, Sydney Opera House

Until Sat 14 May

https://www.sydneyoperahouse.com/events/whats-on/unwrapped/2022/how-to-live.html

a body is all that remains

12 May

A single performer stands on a bare, dimly lit stage. He speaks to us in a soft, gentle voice. There is a soundscape of lapping water.

This is Lungol Wekina, an indigenous Papua New Guinean storyteller. He shares with us the brutal impact of colonisation on his people and his desire for connection with his ancestors.

Is it possible to be guilty of writing a spoiler in discussing a show such us this? You might think not, but you might be wrong.

Wekina speaks of his people drowning. Or, more precisely, of being made to feel they have always been drowning.

The culprit? “The Project”.

It’s an interesting choice of phrase. It’s colonialism. It’s capitalism. And it suggests deliberate intention.

There’s beautiful poetry in Wekina’s telling – sparse language, but rich, with seemingly simple figurative language that gradually blossoms into glorious fullness.

Initially, the monologue is thick with the abstract language of cultural studies, the terminology of post-colonial theory. This is a tendency that’s become almost conventional in contemporary theatre – but Wekina does something wonderful with it. His sharing is short on specifics, on the concrete – and that’s his point: it’s gone. All gone. Taken from him.

He suggests the colonisers burnt down his people’s library, destroying their cultural heritage. But he acknowledges this is a metaphor, just a metaphor, and one he has built from the language of the oppressor. That is their power.

So he builds another metaphor, this time of the dancer. In her movements, and in her voice, the dancer encapsulates Wekina’s cultural heritage, his connection with his ancestors. He tells us, that after the shocking violence of first contact between indigenous people and the colonisers, the Project became more insidious, slipping gently on stage with the dancer, and slowly replacing her steps, her voice, with its own.

The old world is lost. The dance is lost.

But the motif of the dancer facilitates another perspective. As Yeats observed (sort of) how can you tell the dance from the dancer?   

And by now the stage is no longer dimly lit. There is the performer, and only the performer, in full light. And, as he speaks in his gentle voice, he ever so subtly evokes the movement of the dance.

If I say more, I feel I will be guilty of a spoiler.

I say only this: the finale is poignant and sorrowful. But it’s also hopeful, a vision of connection … with ancestors … and with all humankind.  Because what do we share?

Paul Gilchrist

a body is all that remains

written and performed by Lungol Wekina

as part of the Everything but the Kitchen Sink Festival

Flight Path Theatre until Thurs 12 May ( the festival runs to Fri 13)

https://www.flightpaththeatre.org/whats-on/everything-but-the-kitchen-sink

Silenced

10 May

Linda Nicholls-Gidley’s Silenced explores how women have been robbed of voice and the necessity of permitting them to speak.

Silenced is verbatim theatre, constructed from the testament of women, and performed by an ensemble of six actors.

Director Carly Fisher elicits good performances from her entire cast – Nola Bartolo, Chanika Desilva, Mariama Whitton, Sonya Kerr, Deborah Faye Lee and Nicholls-Gidley – and in combination with a fascinatingly unconventional script, this is powerful, thought-provoking theatre.

At times, it feels as though an oddly undramatic choice predominates. A group of women share their stories of being silenced. There is no tension between these women. Their stories are not detailed anecdotes, but rather abstractions, generalisations, sometimes expressed in distancing theoretical language. It’s as though this avoidance of the specific is an enactment of one of the more pernicious ways in which dissent is silenced – by reducing it to an inarticulate rage. But this linguistic choice serves another purpose; the abstract language creates a hard, unforgiving surface, like ice over a frozen lake – and the moment a skate breaks through the emotional shock is palpable. Nicholls-Gidley beautifully performs two heartrending monologues, one on prejudices regarding body weight, and another on post-natal depression. With affecting poignancy, Kerr presents another on the need to plan a secret escape route from a threatening male. Desilva shares an exuberantly satirical assertion that the character she portrays will neither be defined by her ethnic heritage nor denied its riches.

The dominant stylistic choice is also disrupted in other ways. Comic skits revisit advertising of the past, holding up historical misogyny for gleeful inspection and asking us whether reports of its death are indeed overstated.  On another occasion, the script returns to conventional dramatic form, positing opposing voices as the women discuss the behaviour of a female work colleague – is she justly assertive or just aggressive? (Another tension the script posits is between different types of silence, that which is chosen, such as meditation, in contrast with that which is enforced. Indeed the theme of silence and speech is such a gloriously rich field that the play ensures lively post show discussion: Is being allowed to speak the equivalent of being heard? Is our purpose in speaking to share our stories, to represent our truth, or is speech more like a tool we employ to impact the world, closer kin to hammer than camera? And are there times when silence is actually a moral obligation? A piece of theatre that evokes these questions is a treasure.)

But perhaps, on the simplest level, a group of women sharing their stories with one another is an invaluable model of what our society desperately needs –  a commitment to listening.

Paul Gilchrist

Silenced by Linda Nicholls-Gidley

Flight Path Theatre until Fri May 13 (as part of the Everything But the Kitchen Sink Festival)

https://www.flightpaththeatre.org

Son of Byblos

9 May

This is exciting premiere Australian work, and Belvoir’s 25A and Brave New Word should be congratulated.

Though new work, I’ve had the privilege of reading the script in an earlier incarnation; in 2019, when it was shortlisted for the Silver Gull Play Award.

This is not the same play, though it’s a close kissing cousin. James Elazzi’s engaging story of a young gay man living in a community reluctant to accept homosexuality has morphed since I first read it. It has opened up, and is now an ambiguous, provocative piece of theatre.

And though I’ve been fortunate enough to see brief glimpses of this stimulating work in its development, I’m still very distant from it.

An initial response might be to bristle at potential anachronisms. Is the Lebanese Australian Christian community still in denial? Do young members of this community still engage in duplicitous behaviour in order to protect themselves? I have absolutely no idea.

Which posits the interesting question: Is the role of the playwright to document society? And, if so, what technical and moral attributes would be required of them to do this effectively? And what sort of awareness, both in terms of aesthetics and epistemology, would the audience of such a work need? Watching a play like this, do I say “Well, that’s the Lebanese Australian Christian community” or do I postpone judgement, counting this play as merely the equivalent of a single anecdote from someone I assume is an insider?

In the play, the young protagonist, Adam, has sexual encounters with strangers in public toilets. This is a powerful image of marginalisation and the reckless desperation it engenders. Curiously, these are the only moments in the production not presented in a naturalist mode: the actor stands alone on stage simulating a sexual act, while all sound is pre-recorded and the other male participant is physically absent. Is it the anomalous nature of this act in Adam’s otherwise conventional life that is being suggested? Probably – because it’s not especially suggestive of sex. Are contemporary audiences not ready for more vivid representations of this type of anonymous sex? See my earlier comments on anachronism.  

Director Anna Jahjah has elicited wonderful performances from her cast, each presenting an individual wrenched in opposing directions, torn by the desire to reject their community’s unpalatable demands while simultaneously longing to hold that community together. Mansoor Noor’s Adam is a brilliantly complex portrayal of a young man morally disfigured by pain, a protagonist who evokes equal parts sympathy and antipathy.  Adam’s treatment of the two young women in his life is disturbing to watch. His cousin Claire also attempts to navigate the communal myopia, and Kate Bookallil plays her with both a thrilling waspishness and intense vulnerability. Angela, Adam’s ex-girlfriend, seeks sense and security in all the duplicity and deliberate obtuseness, with Violette Ayad’s fascinating portrayal endowing her with both dignity and fragility. Deborah Galanos plays Adam’s mother, Carol, with a performance balanced delicately between vivacity and anger. Simon Elrahi’s John is frustrated paternal expectation engaged in a gripping battle with loving acceptance.

Social documentation? The eternal challenge of individuality within community? Go and choose.

Paul Gilchrist

Son of Byblos by James Elazzi

Downstairs Belvoir until 21st May

belvoir.com.au

photo credit @davidhooley

The Merry Wives of Windsor

28 Apr

In my many conversations with our greatest playwright we’ve yet to disagree, and I suspect it will be no different when I assert that The Merry Wives of Windsor is not one of Shakespeare’s finest works.

It may be apocryphal, but it’s said the play was written at the request of Queen Elizabeth, who desired to see Falstaff in love. Judging by the outcome, many contemporary playwrights might consider themselves fortunate to never have had a dramatic request from the current Elizabeth.

Of course, this sort of catty criticism is a joy to write, a chore to read, and does nothing for artists or audiences.

The Merry Wives is a fun story of female revenge. Outraged that Sir John Falstaff plans to seduce them – more for their assets financial than physical – Mistresses Page and Ford scheme to humiliate him.

Admittedly, it’s all rather fantastical; Falstaff’s famous physique makes sexual success utterly unlikely, and so the fat knight needs be deceived not only by others but also himself. (And I wouldn’t be the first critic to suggest this foolish Falstaff is not the knight we know from his most well-known outing, Henry IV, Part 1.)

In this production, directed by Victor Kalka, Falstaff is played by Cheryl Ward. This is clever casting, because Ward is a consummate performer, and because our awareness that Falstaff is being played by a woman enhances the fundamental premise of the play – that Falstaff is being played by women. I suspect both the play, and the production, would benefit from positioning Falstaff more centre stage.

Image by Bob Seary

The merry wives are played by Suzann James (with an intelligent poise) and Roslyn Hicks (with playful vivacity) and are supported by an energetic cast. Occasionally, there’s too much energy; perhaps one too many bawdy jokes are signposted by pelvic thrusts.  As you count them, think of England.

Shakespeare’s two young lovers, Fenton and Anne Page, are played with an admirable, gentle truthfulness by Olivia Xegas and Jessie Lancaster, and serve as a wonderful contrast to all the surrounding nonsense.

This production is worth seeing for its curiosity, energy and absurdity.

Veronica Kaye

The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare

New Theatre until 21 May

newtheatre.org.au

Lady Precious Stream

6 Apr

This is a life-affirming production.

I don’t read anything about a show before I see it. (This decision is all about retaining objectivity and absolutely nothing to do with the fact reading takes effort and, if I was into effort, I wouldn’t write about theatre.)

Having read nothing about Lady Precious Stream, I initially thought it was an example of charming orientalism. It tells of a noble family’s attempts to marry off their youngest daughter to an appropriate suitor, despite her utterly unreasonable desire to live her own life.

What is orientalism? (And can it be charming? Or is it merely sinister?) Orientalism is a positing of the Other in a way that benefits the Occident. It may function as a justification of imperialism. It may function as way of establishing identity – by way of definition by opposition. (For example; in this play, characters are mocked for their misogyny and obsession with status. And, of course, there’s absolutely nothing like that in our society.)

That’s the sinister form of orientalism; what about the charming form? This presents the exotic. It offers a vision of life that is invigorating because it’s so different from our own. (And, potentially, from anyone anywhere’s actual life. Much thrilling and life-expanding theatre is this type of orientalism.)

As it turns out, Lady Precious Stream is a Chinese play.

What exactly is a Chinese play? What does the adjective in that term signify? (Skip this bit of pedantry if you want; after all, language is merely a net we drag through the ocean of reality; it doesn’t catch everything, and everything it catches it kills.) Is a Chinese play a play written in Chinese? Or a play written by someone born in China? Or a play written by someone not living in China but descended from people who did? Or a play that just happens to be about China, written by anyone?

Lady Precious Stream is based on a traditional Chinese story and was written in English by Chinese playwright S. I. Hsiung. It was first performed in the 1930’s in England, with an English cast. Is it accurate to call this play a piece of orientalism? After all, it was written by a Chinese playwright. But for who? An English audience. (See my earlier comment about pedantry.)

This production is by Asian-Australian company Slanted Theatre, and it’s a whole lot of fun.

It works beautifully on two levels: working within the parameters of the charming form of orientalism, and operating as a gentle parody of the reductionism that all orientalism tempts us into if we read it as realism.

What’s so marvellous about this production by director Tiffany Wong and her brilliant cast is its exuberant lightness.

The whole team offer wonderful comic performances. Wise beyond her years and cheekily independent, Susan Ling Young shines as Lady Precious Stream; it’s an inspired piece of casting. Steve Lu and Mym Kwa each play a couple, each doubling as both husband and wife, and the effect is dizzyingly mischievous.

The Flying Nun by Brand X provides an invaluable space for artists to experiment, and Wong uses the opportunity magnificently. Her playful mixing of modern tech and more traditional elements of movement and sound create an art work that is gloriously conscious of its status as an artefact. Who needs reality; this is magic.

Veronica Kaye

Lady Precious Stream by S. I. Hsiung

The Flying Nun by Brand X  1 April – 2 April

Image by Liangyu Sun @ theatreworks

The Spook

30 Mar

With apologies to L P Hartley, the past is a foreign country (more specifically, one of those obscure, miniscule European states who take Eurovision seriously.)

Historical comedies often function on the premise that we’ll happily laugh at people from the past. The temptation to feel superior is….overwhelming. And, really, who’s being hurt?

Photo by Bob Seary

Set in Bendigo in the late 60’s, The Spook by Melissa Reeves presents the conflict between small time ASIO operatives and the local branch of the Australian Communist Party. Much of the humour – and there’s plenty of it – comes from the skewing of pettiness and posturing in the face of genuine issues.

Laughing at our own irrelevance is an Australian tradition.

Or is it something more sinister? Humility is healthy, until it becomes negligence. The Spook guarantees a lot of fun in its playful mockery of banality and ego-driven myopia, but Reeves makes clear that political action is both necessary and significant. It has to be done, and it has to be done with care.

All politics are local, except when they’re not – and they’re not when our neighbours cease to be people and become types. See those around you as participants in some grand apocalyptic battle and it’s easy to forget they are human beings, fragile and flawed, just like yourself.

The Spook is a Cold War comedy, but only Australian political naivety could explain a failure to recognise the play’s contemporary relevance. The myth of the grand battle is still being told.  

(Speaking of forces of darkness: COVID hates theatre. It’s done its evil best to close this production on several occasions. Theatre needs actors to have spent lots of time together beforehand, in the rehearsal room, on the set – and on the first weekend of this production it was apparent that the wicked schemes of the malevolent virus had had some impact. But this is a brilliant team offering some wonderful performances, and I am sure by now the enemy has been vanquished and theatre holds the field. Courageous. Audacious. Exuberant.)

Veronica Kaye

The Spook by Melissa Reeves  

New Theatre until April 9

https://newtheatre.org.au/the-spook/

The Merchant of Venice

8 Sep

This is Shakespeare by video conference – which suggests something about the times, and about the nature of drama.

During a pandemic we seek new ways to share dramatic stories, and this production of The Merchant of Venice is inventive and intriguing.

I’ve never been a huge fan of the play. For me, the comedic situations sit awkwardly with the more serious exploration of intolerance. And the courtroom scene – despite Portia’s paean to mercy, or perhaps because of it – is awful. Not awful in the modern sense of being bad, but awful in the older sense of striking one with awe or causing dread.  That scene – with its deliberate mixing of theatrical artifice and painfully raw honesty, with its disconcerting confluence of the best and the worst in human nature – makes it difficult to care much about the lovers’ fooleries that follow.

Director Roslyn Hicks navigates this dangerous play with a light hand; allowing exuberance to glisten on the surface, while permitting the audience to sense for themselves the disturbing currents that swirl beneath. The cast embrace this approach with admirable energy and a fine control of the Shakespearean language.

And what a peculiar production in which to perform!

Presumably, each actor is alone in their own private space, waiting before their own camera. When they’re in a scene, they’re always in view, regardless if they’re speaking or not, isolated in their own little segment of screen. When they do speak, they speak directly to the camera. No one ever can touch.

What is this?

Theatre?

Film?

Zoom.

It’s not, of course.

What it is, is an invitation to consider both the parameters and potential of form.

Everyone wants the pandemic to end soon. This experiment might be a response to that pandemic, but hopefully it will live and grow.

 

The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

produced by Streamed Shakespeare

performed live 21st to 23rd August

now available on demand http://www.streamedshakespeare.com/

 

Welcome to the Masque

25 Aug

Last Sunday, at Riverside Parramatta, Genevieve Lemon and Max Lambert offered a soulful hour of cabaret.

Twenty five kilometres away, comfortable on my couch, I gratefully accepted their gift.

This is one way live performance continues in the age of COVID. Live streamed and shot with multiple cameras, Lemon and Lambert shared classics by mournful, magical composers like Carol King and Jodie Mitchell. There were songs of loss, love and hope; those aspects of the human experience, wild and intense, that call to be sung rather than said.

And though some of the banter between numbers felt strained, the musical presentation was brilliant.  Lambert played like a waterfall in the sunshine; great primal forces channeled, naturally and seemingly effortlessly, as eternal flow and sparkle. And Lemon’s voice – extraordinarily beautiful, rich and subtle – was used with an actor’s attention to meaning. The potential limitations of the small screen were transcended, a connection was kindled, and each classic shone with light and love.

Welcome to the Masque – Riverside Theatres Digital

riversideparramatta.com.au