माँ की रसोई Maa Ki Rasoi – My Mother’s Kitchen

5 Jun

I don’t read the program before a show, nor after it (except to get the names of the creative team.)

I took Maa Ki Rasoi to be a sharing. I assumed the performer was sharing her personal story of her relationship with her mother. My assumption was supported by actor Madhullika Singh’s generous-spirited vulnerability, her warm-hearted performance style.  And my assumption was further encouraged by the meta-theatricality; we see the protagonist, a theatre maker, overtly choosing how to best tell her story.

If a personal sharing, this piece is part of a contemporary trend. It’s fascinating that personal testimony has become so common in theatre. We speak of the need to tell our stories, and this ubiquitous phrase has come to mean bearing witness to actual and specific lived experience. I’m not suggesting dramatists can’t or shouldn’t do this, but it’s curious that we’ve come to think it’s what they mainly do. (Hamlet undoubtedly reflects Shakespeare’s interests and assumptions, but does anyone really think it’s his personal story?)

Closely related to our desire to tell our stories is our interest in representation. It can only be good when our stages reflect the diversity of our population. But just as the phrase tell our stories has come to mean something very particular, so has representation. It’s come to mean something akin to speaking for, as we might imagine an elected representative speaks for her electorate. But an elected representative is chosen. Theatre makers aren’t chosen by those whom we increasingly assume they represent. In this piece, the protagonist makes a generalisation about South Asian mothers (already a rather broad category.) Am I being asked to consider this generalisation as testimony, information to add to my store of knowledge of South Asian mothers? Or am I being asked to consider the generalisation as I would’ve previously done in a theatre; that is, assume it’s telling me something about the protagonist’s mental habits?  

But this piece was not what I imagined. Maa Ki Rasoi is written and directed by Pratha Nagpal and, as previously suggested, performed by Madhullika Singh; so it’s not simply a personal sharing. (And, to anyone uninterested in the dramatic form and its development, all my earlier comments will appear just so much self-indulgent digression.) The piece mimics a personal sharing. I’m not suggesting this mimicry is dishonest or inauthentic, certainly no more than theatre is generally.

It’s a gentle story, presented with an overly gentle pace. The protagonist ponders the importance of cooking in her mother’s life. Both Nagpal’s writing and Singh’s performance present beautifully the tension between the wish for autonomy and the guilty regret of dismissing tradition. There’s delightful humour in the ironic exploration of words like feminism and patriarchy, abstractions that naturally fail to capture real life’s complexity. There’s also an intriguing use of the phrase safe space (or was it safe place?) Several times we’re told the kitchen is her mother’s safe space. Unless this phrase is in the process of morphing to mean happy space, what’s missing is a description of from what it is that her mother requires safety. It’s a poignant omission.

There are several other absences that are equally powerful. Many phrases in an Indian language (Hindi?) aren’t translated, and that refusal to privilege English speaks eloquently of both the joys and pains of the migrant experience. Similarly, for 45 minutes, the kitchen is empty. Spoken of, but absent, the protagonist’s mother is a wonderful symbol of how those we love imbue our every thought and feeling.

Paul Gilchrist

Maa Ki Rasoi – My Mother’s Kitchen by Pratha Nagpal  

at KXT until 4 June, as part of the TAPE OVER Festival


Scenes from the Climate Era

2 Jun

Eschewing a narrative is a bold choice. But as the title suggests, that’s what playwright David Finnigan does. We’re offered separate short scenes, all set in a world in which climate change is a very real challenge. (Our world.)

Sometimes these scenes are set twenty years in the past, sometimes twenty years in the future, sometimes now.  Here’s a few examples: a young couple consider the environmental impact of having a baby; an expert is told before a TV interview that hope is compulsory; a woman speaks to her counsellor about her climate related fears; a man tends the last living member of a dying frog species; a family in Penrith face the horror of 55 degree heat.

Finnigan’s script is both humorous and moving. Director Carissa Licciardello gives her cast a beautiful open playing space and their creation of the multifarious characters is brilliant.   

Many of the scenes forgo subtext; they’re about what they’re about – unless, that is, we’re actually being invited to consider them through the lens of a recurring motif. This motif is that our response to climate change has four stages: denial, the seeking of solutions, despair and then, finally, hope.

And though these four stages might offer an approach to each individual scene, I don’t think they’re the work’s overriding structure. But maybe they are. Does it matter? What do we expect theatre to offer in terms of an issue such as climate change? (To start with, climate change is so big, so wide reaching, while theatre’s strength is the particular and the specific.) Do we want theatre to offer solutions? Are we seeking motivation? Or will we settle for a snapshot of the phenomena as it is experienced by our species?

If we decide our goal is consciousness raising, then we get stuck on the snag that drama is fiction. The audience doesn’t know if anything the characters say is true. You could argue that’s the case in reality (and so Art imitates Life) except that drama’s forte is to present individual perspectives, usually in conflict, and its characters speak in order to achieve something, and that something is rarely the propagation of Truth. (Is the artform fundamentally cynical? No, it simply acknowledges that Pass the salt is a more common use of language than This is the salt.)  

This piece will certainly prove fuel to plenty of post-show conversations about climate (and, as is often case with such conversations, about the choice of fuel.)

Paul Gilchrist

Scenes from the Climate Era by David Finnigan

Belvoir until 25 June


image by Brett Boardman

Short Blanket

28 May

(not that anyone would care, but I think) What makes theatre an extraordinary artform is that it can do two extraordinary things.

The first of those extraordinary things is that theatre embodies thoughts and feelings. Ideas that are rich, complex and subtle, and feelings that are intense, ephemeral and ineffable, are embodied by an actor: through their voice, through their movement, and through their spatial relationship with their material environment and the people who inhabit it. If theatre can be said to fairly represent reality, it does so because of this sense of the concrete. As in the mysterious miracle that is Life, certain things just are.

The second of the extraordinary things theatre does is that it allows different voices. Characters have their own distinct perspective. This doesn’t only facilitate conflict; it also manifests multiplicity. If theatre can be said to fairly represent reality, it does so because of this sense of the unresolved. As in the mysterious miracle that is Life, nothing is neat.

What makes Short Blanket by Matt Bostock a terrific piece of theatre is that it embraces both of theatre’s extraordinary attributes. (New Australian work, especially in the indie scene, is prone to attempt only the first of them.)

Short Blanket is one of the most exciting new shows I’ve seen for quite a while; it’s whip-smart, with a beating heart.

It’s the story of writing a play, or more specifically the story of development hell. (I suspect writers only endure the development process – The I-don’t-think-my-character-would-say-that sort of torment – because at some time something like it will have to be lived through if the two special attributes of theatre are to be achieved.)

In Short Blanket, Lainey’s play is being workshopped. She wants to represent the challenges Asian Australians experience, or perhaps more broadly, the pain of the global majority in a world yet to fully divest itself of colonialism. But not everyone wants it presented her way. Actor Dominique wants it angrier. Actor Joey wants it more forgiving. Company artistic director Gloria wants it more saleable. I’m simplifying (as the mono-voice of a review will do) but I’m hoping to capture Short Blanket’s sense that not everything is obvious or inarguable (despite certainty being a rather fashionable fallacy at the moment.) A play that uses the dramatic form so well is fully conscious that not every aspect of reality can be easily represented in that dramatic form. As Gloria says to Lainey, (I paraphrase) You don’t have a story, you have a feeling.

How do you represent injustice in an artform that requires an audience to sit through it and to pay for the privilege? Why use the dramatic form for this purpose at all? Every tool is not for every job. (A personal digression: it is odd that we modern theatre makers see ourselves as a sort of priestly class, responsible for the ethical education of others.) The script is very aware of the tricky question of what value we are to put on theatre. One character suggests, that if your audience is predominantly white, it won’t matter if your show is crap, because they’ll still say it was a privilege to have seen it.

Tiffany Wong’s cast do wonderful work. Andrea Magpulong’s Lainey captures the tension between the desire to make a show happen and the desperate need to bear witness. Dominique Purdue brilliantly presents the actor’s journey from initial excitement to bitter disillusionment as her hopes for the project flounder. Joseph Tanti as Joey embodies both the brutal arrogance of the privileged characters he performs in the workshopped play and the difficulties of telling a story that isn’t his. Monica Russell as the artistic director of the company effectively marries both the cold rationality required for financial realities and the resentment of a pioneer who feels her long efforts are being ignored. Sayuri Narroway as the director of the workshop presents a calmness that cleverly hides a different agenda.

Wong uses the intimate Meraki space marvellously, effectively presenting both the world in which the artist characters perform and the world in which these artists reflect on that performance.

The last image of Short Blanket is especially powerful. The spoiler rule means I shouldn’t really describe it. But I can say it functions gloriously as both an indictment of injustice, and as an invitation to ponder from where our motivation for theatre-making should come.

Paul Gilchrist

Short Blanket by Matt Bostock

presented by Slanted Theatre

at Meraki Arts Bar until 3 June


Party Girl

26 May

“I don’t believe in anything,” says a woman dressed as a fairy.

It’s a provocative line, in several ways.

It encapsulates the key tension driving this very funny piece: an earthy, jaded, sharp-mouthed protagonist pretends to be a magical, fantastical being. It’s how you add some glitter to children’s parties. It’s also how you pay for your next bottle of vodka.

Lucy Heffernan, who wrote and performs Party Girl, is extraordinary. Her magnificent stage presence, her marvellous voice, her mean electric guitar all result in this under-an-hour show being a theatrical joy.

Fairy Sparkles tells of a day performing at kid’s parties. Linking her tale together are references to the rules of being a fairy. They are nothing but practical: Arrive in costume. Don’t be late. Don’t park too close to the birthday girl’s house. Don’t smoke.

But it’s not just the contrast between fictional fantasy and cynical pragmatism that fuels the show. At home, Mum is falling apart, a victim of mental illness. Where’s the magic in a world where this can happen? It’s hard to be ethereal when shit’s so real.

Director Lily Hayman uses the KXT traverse stage beautifully. A blank space, it slowly fills with detritus. It’s lit evocatively by Tyler Fitzpatrick, her design suggesting both rock performance with haze and the confusion of conflicting visions of life.

Linked to the whole pub rock vibe is the show’s awareness of class inequality, reinvigorating in a theatre scene currently focussing on alternative theories of privilege.   

Which oddly enough, brings me to the other way in which “I don’t believe in anything” is a provocative statement.

It’s a line that draws attention to the glorious ambiguity of that word believe. Believe to be true or believe to be of value? A thing can be true but not important (or helpful.) Can things be not true but important (or helpful)?

Yes, that’s what magic is. Not the magic that happens to you; I mean the type you cast yourself.  The world we experience is the spell we cast….up to a point. Where exactly that point is, the point where our personal magic ceases and the brute force of reality takes over – and it will – is a thing to argue. And a thing to test.

Paul Gilchrist

Party Girl by Lucy Heffernan

at KXT until May 28, as part of the TAPE OVER Festival


Image by Clare Hawley

Girl Band

21 May

Directed by Lucy Clements, Girl Band by Katy Warner is a wonderful satire on the music industry and pop culture – but it’s also a poignant exploration of power.

It’s 1994 and The Sensation Girls are on the cusp. Orchestrated by the ever unseen Darren and Craig, they’re a line up to inspire young women (and to make a heap of money, though not for the Girls themselves.) In one song, each of the group introduces themselves: “I’m smart! I’m sexy! I’m strong! I’m smiley! I’m sassy!” For young women, it’s no doubt an invaluable lesson in self-esteem (and stereotyping, and alliteration.)

With composition by Zoe Rinkel and lyrics by Warner, the production also beautifully skewers the music produced by manufactured groups.  “Boy Crazy” not only doesn’t pass the Bechdel test; its inane repetition ensures it can’t pass the Goldfish test. “I’m boy crazy. Boy crazy. I’m boy….” You know the rest.  Wisely, we’re not asked to listen to the entire song.

Similarly, the choreography by Amy Hack captures brilliantly the double standards of this musical genre. The lyrics of “Maybe” suggest a sweet uncertainty about the singer’s romantic interest, but the hilarious pseudo-sexy choreography leaves little doubt.

The play is set in the rehearsal room as the five group members prepare for a big industry showcase. Chaya Ocampo as Jade gives a terrific comic performance as a show business character whose “I’m smart!” is deliciously and unconsciously ironic. Jade Fuda and Meg Clarke as lovers capture the tensions created by management’s homophobic insistence on secrecy. LJ Wilson as MJ sings “I’m smiley!” while being delightfully not. MJ’s smarting because previous lead Didi has left and the vacated role has gone to new girl, Kiki. Of course, that’s not her real name, just another imposition from above. Kiki or Kathleen (played with magical exuberance by Madeline Marie Dona) is going to shake things up. Why can’t the girls have more creative control?

And so it comes down to power. Becky is the group’s choreographer, and Hack is magnificent in the role. While very funny, it’s simultaneously a deliberately disturbing portrait of complicity. Becky is reluctant to make waves, and there’s much more to management’s malevolence than just a cynical commitment to inauthenticity.

And that’s where the play’s exploration of power becomes particularly provocative. Our workplace can create misery in many ways, but are all those ways related? The slippery slope argument will always appear most convincing to those who have known real fear.

Paul Gilchrist

Girl Band by Katy Warner

at Riverside until 27 May


Image by Phil Erbacher


16 May

In one of my favourite cartoons, two dogs walk down the street and one complains to the other “It’s always ‘good dog’, never ‘great dog’.”

I was reminded of this comment on parsimony and praise as I watched Relativity by Mark St. Germain.

Not surprisingly, the play’s about Albert Einstein, though the title might be more than just a reference to his most famous theory.

The play explicitly asks “To be a great man, do you have to be a good one?” In the context of the story – Einstein receiving a surprise visitor to whom he is intimately and somewhat awkwardly related – the positing of this question so openly tells us that psychological veracity is not what’s being valued here.

So it’s a play of ideas? Well, the play’s fundamental question is an odd one. “To be a great man, do you have to be a good one?” ‘Great’? What does that actually mean? Does it mean ‘exceptionally good’? But that would beg the question. Or does ‘greatness’ simply mean to be held in high-esteem for reasons other than ethics? In which case, why connect greatness and goodness at all?

Discussions of greatness are often mere valorisations of celebrity. But, if instead, the fundamental question being asked is about the nature of goodness, then the play deals with this enormously complex issue rather obliquely. (This Einstein says Hitler was evil while an adulterer is not – a distinction you don’t need to be Einstein to make.)

What if I let go my philosophical pretensions, and see the play as just a historical portrait? This means I’m being asked to care if the actual Einstein was a good man or not, and that still presupposes a fascination with celebrity (and it’s not going to make any difference to the physics.) And another thing; since what’s portrayed is a private and presumably imagined conversation, can it be taken as an accurate representation of the man? In this play, Einstein says that thirty years of an average person’s life is not as valuable as a great work of art. Did the real man say anything like that?

Clearly, the play is thought-provoking.

It’s a three hander and director Johann Walraven elicits utterly watchable performances from his cast.  Nicholas Papademetriou as Einstein is a beautiful mixture of gentle-hearted humour and a laser sharp intellect. Nisrine Amine as his surprise visitor wonderfully tempers bewilderment at Einstein’s complexity and a cold anger at his self-absorption. Alison Chambers as Einstein’s housekeeper, and lover, is delightfully amusing when she’s manipulating him, and deeply poignant when the power relations are less clear.

Paul Gilchrist

Relativity by Mark St. Germain

at Riverside Parramatta from 10 – 13 May


Image by Iain Cox


11 May

“I’m not mean. The world is mean, and I’m in it.”

So says Clyde to one of her employees. (Apologies to playwright Lynn Nottage if I’ve misquoted her beautiful words.)

Clyde runs a sandwich shop frequented by truckers and staffed by ex-cons like herself.

Clyde, played by Nancy Denis with superbly exuberant strut and sass, actually is mean. In a unjust world, it’s a totally understandable survival strategy.

But this play is about not letting yourself be defined by what’s been done to you. It glories in agency, in responsibility, in the shedding of the excuses that hold us back.

Sandwich hand Letitia, played by Ebony Vagulans with a mesmerising combination of swagger and vulnerability, says she wants to stop blaming other people. Co-worker Jason is dreadfully ashamed of his past racism and is desperate to leave it behind, and Aaron Tsindos presents him as an utterly fascinating battle between anger and restraint. Rafael, in a performance by Gabriel Alvarado that glitters with comic magic, firmly looks forward, seeking reasons to celebrate. He and his fellow employees gain encouragement from Montrellous, the Buddha in the ‘hood (to paraphrase Rafael). Charles Allen captures Montrellous’ magnificent dignity and his ability to inspire others to find a beauty that can transcend cruel mundanity. Nottage’s masterstroke is to make the beauty they seek the perfect sandwich. It’s so every day that it can speak to everyone.

Darren Yap’s production of this splendid play is gloriously uplifting.   

Is the world perfect? no.

Can everyone transcend their suffering? maybe not.

Is it worth being reminded it’s a possibility? yes. Yes. And YES!!!!

Paul Gilchrist

Clyde’s by Lynn Nottage

Ensemble Theatre until 10 June


Image by Prudence Upton

A Streetcar Named Desire

2 May

Tennessee Williams’ play was first seen on Broadway in 1947. This production, co-directed by Tom Massey and Meg Girdler, captures what makes it a timeless classic.

Blanche, down on her luck, comes to stay with her sister. She expresses shock at where Stella lives and most particularly at Stanley, the man her sister has married. In Stanley and Blanche, Williams presents the eternal conflict between instinctual brute spontaneity and deliberate fanciful pretence. The beauty of Williams’ characterisation is that neither character is solely one nor the other.

And it’s this complexity that this production presents so well. Riley McNamara’s Stanley is strikingly both animal energy and gossipy pedantry. Georgia Britt’s Blanche is both airs and graces, and longing sensuality.  Britt’s performance is magnificent, and the sense of fragility she evokes is utterly heartbreaking.  

Where can Blanche find some sort of shelter?

Perhaps with Stanley’s ex-army buddy, Mitch (played by Matthew Doherty with a moving mixture of quiet hope and angry disappointment.) If not, surely Blanche will always have her sister, Stella (played by Ali Bendall with a beautifully truthful combination of patient tenderness and bewildered frustration.)

Because, up to now, Blanche has “always depended on the kindness of strangers” – perhaps the most poignant line in modern theatre. When Britt delivers it, the pathos is extraordinary, and the production achieves what the play was made for: the awakening of pity for all who are lost.

Paul Gilchrist

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

at the Genesian Theatre until 7 May


Image by Luke Holland 

All My Sons

1 May

Arthur Miller’s All My Sons premiered in 1947 (yes, over seventy five years ago) but this American standard is still searingly relevant and utterly engaging.

It was originally an antidote to American triumphalism. Following victory in the greatest conflict in human history, Miller was determined his nation didn’t slip into self-satisfied complacency.

The scenario is simple. Chris has invited Anne back to her hometown. She was the girl-next-door, and he wants her and she wants him. But the problem is this: she was once his brother’s sweetheart. Larry has gone missing in the war and his mother, Kate, still awaits his return. To this domestic drama – the universal tension between the way things were and the way they might be, dreadful enough in itself – Miller adds an ethical dimension. The fathers of both lovers were convicted of supplying faulty aircraft components that resulted in the deaths of twenty-one American pilots. Chris’s father, Joe, has since been exonerated, and is now a wealthy man. Anne’s father is still in gaol.

Joe can claim to have been simply “practical”, getting ahead when the opportunity arose, and this might conflict with his son’s “principles”, but Miller suggests this tension is not merely academic. The worm at the heart of capitalism spoils everything.

This is intensely emotional theatre, and director Saro Lusty-Cavallari elicits brilliant performances from his cast. Kath Gordon’s Kate is a deeply moving portrait of obsessive denial. Kyle Barrett’s Chris encapsulates both the inspirational strength of the morally engaged individual and the bewilderment that comes with the realisation that his lone efforts may not be enough. Bridget Haberecht’s Anne is beautifully rich, capturing both the wild hope for a happiness she thought had passed her by and her growing fear at the enormity of the obstacles that remain. Her pain is palpable; it’s an extraordinary performance.  

This is a wonderfully powerful production of a classic play, a necessary indictment of any society in which getting ahead matters more than those that might be left behind.

Paul Gilchrist

All My Sons by Arthur Miller

at New Theatre until 27 May


Image by Chris Lundie


27 Apr

As a writer, one might assume I have a deep love for language (though, being a theatre reviewer, one might expect that love to be expressed in the form of a disturbing fetish for cliché, banality and formulaic structure.)

But it’s not all about language. One of the glories of theatre is that it combines language with physicality. There aren’t just words, there are bodies saying those words. And what those bodies do as they say the words, and what they do when they’re not saying the words, produces a splendid complexity. (I love that in theatre a character can say how much she adores her husband at the very moment she is seen making love to someone else.)

What happens when language is taken out of theatre? (It’s worth noting, that in the rehearsal room of new work, the most common alteration to the text is the cut: I don’t need those words, says an actor, to present that emotion.) What happens in a performance when movement is privileged? What happens is a beautiful reminder of physicality: its richness, its expressiveness, its significance.

That’s what Mortel is. This 60 minute piece of physical theatre is a paean to the body; its energy, its strength, its beauty.

Directed magnificently by Steven Ljubović and performed by a gifted cast (Phoebe Atkinson, Gemma Burwell, Abbey Dimech, Giani Leon, Meg Hyeronimus, Levi Kenway, Aiden Morris, Bella Ridgway, and Shannon Thomas) Mortel highlights the experience of embodiment, of what it is to be a body. This might seem a strange thing for me to assert, but as Wittgenstein suggested “The human body is the best picture of the human soul”. Witnessing the extraordinary things the body can do is a reminder of possibility, of potential, of the flame that burns within us (which I think is a pretty passable definition of the ineffable entity that is the soul.)

It’s probably not accurate to call Mortel a dance work, but the cast interact beautifully with Kieran Camejo’s evocative and ingeniously varied soundscape. And with the space lit magically by Clare Sheridan, Ljubović creates powerful images, ones of passionate interactions and of poignant isolation. Both the initial and concluding tableaux are deeply moving expressions of the essence of individuality, that blessing and burden shared by us all.

Paul Gilchrist

Mortel directed by Steven Ljubović

Presented by Merak in association with bAKEHOUSE Theatre

At KXT on Broadway until April 29


Image by Abraham de Souza