Archive | May, 2014

It’s Dark Outside

28 May

I don’t read the program before a show. Or after.

So I sat down in the theatre knowing nothing about It’s Dark Outside. What I experienced was bewildering, beautiful and sad.

Afterwards I broke my rule and had a peek. According to the program, dementia was the starting idea of the artists’ process – in particular, a phenomena called Sundowning Syndrome, which is a “confusion and restlessness” experienced by some patients.

Phot by Richard Jefferson

Photo by Richard Jefferson

So that’s what I saw. I could blame my lack of awareness on my own parochial nature, but I prefer to blame society. This disease affects so many, but we often ignore it.

Creators Arielle Gray, Chris Isaacs and Tim Watts have produced some magical melancholy.  Built fundamentally from puppetry and projection, it’s visually stunning. Wordless, its power comes from the brilliant performances of the creators and the evocative musical composition of Rachael Dease.

An old man is being chased. Or is he doing the chasing?

Pursuing or being pursued; these are fundamental aspects of the human experience. They’re a direct function of the dimension of space. Unfortunately, they’re not a function of that other dimension we live in – time. It allows movement in only one direction. And that’s the sorrow.

Veronica Kaye


It’s Dark Outside by Arielle Gray, Chris Isaacs and Tim Watts

Riverside Theatre til 29 May

It’s Dark Outside is currently on a national tour.


The Young Tycoons

22 May

It’s obvious who The Young Tycoons is about. And some of the best laughs of the show come from this cheekiness.

This is the third outing for C J Johnson’s play and it’s a lot of fun.

Director Michael Pigott elicits good comic performances from all his cast. Edmund Lembke-Hogan and Laurence Coy both offer an amusing take on the volatile mix of privilege and stupidity. Terry Serio shines as the gruff commonsense right-hand man. Paige Gardiner, as the model girlfriend of a young mogul, is charming and ditsy in all the right places. James Lugton is articulate, intelligent and charismatic as a “Ferguson” journalist. (I think it was “Ferguson”. Definitely some F surname. Definitely not Fairfax.)

Photo by Noni Carroll

Photo by Noni Carroll

The Young Tycoons is witty and engaging, though the large number of scene changes proves a challenge.

This is a very precise satire. (Some might think my choice of adjective euphemistic.) The play doesn’t expose, or explore, all the dreadful ramifications of concentrating immense power in the hands of an oligarchy. It focuses more on the personal lives of the two billionaire media families. The characters come across as reasonably likeable, and only minor injuries are sustained as they clumsily stumble on the discarded remnants of a whole lot of broken moral compasses.

So, is this satire without bite? Just a sort of celebrity gossip piece?

No, I think it draws attention to an extraordinary fault line in our society. The dramatic tension of this play is the divisive concept of ‘dynasty’. Are you really going to get to run the business just because Daddy did?

It’s truly bizarre, that in a heartless capitalist society driven solely by profits, we would still consider passing on power through bloodlines.

For me, the play is not just a gentle taunting of privileged rich kids. Rather, it’s a forceful reminder that an all-consuming materialism simply will not meet our human needs. Not even the needs of those, who drowning in excess, have lost their way.

Veronica Kaye


The Young Tycoons by C J Johnson

Eternity Playhouse til 15 Jun


20 May

On Saturday night, I went along to the Sydney University Drama Society production of Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, and very much enjoyed it.

In the 1880’s, when it was first produced, Ghosts caused quite a scandal because of its discussion of sexually transmitted infections. To our standards, the discussion might appear subtle to the point of non-existence, but then again, a lot of modern theatre makers would feel the need to present the audience with a scene showing precisely how the characters got the STI in the first place.


This production, directed by Finn Davis, plays to the strengths of student theatre. Despite the characters ranging in age from early twenties to at least mid forties, all the actors are young. And they do good work. Diana Reid’s vocal work is particularly impressive. (However, the production as a whole would benefit from a more textured pace.) The set by Kryssa Karavolas is a beautifully simple white box, with an impressive (but suitably understated) mural on the upstage wall, exorcising the production of any alienating naturalism. The nineteenth century is evoked only gently by costuming.

The impact of all this is to prevent the play becoming trapped in its original context.

The characters talk a lot about ‘reputation’ and ‘duty’, and the easy way to deal with this challenge might be to dismiss such stuff as rather quaint. But a stripped back production like this makes that a difficult avoidance strategy to implement. Admittedly, reputation in the nineteenth century often hinged on one’s sexual behaviour, but an obsession with how we’re perceived by others is hardly a demon we’ve slain. And the renaming of vices as virtues (in the play ‘cowardice’ is rebranded as ‘duty’) is a life-denying habit that still haunts us.

Veronica Kaye

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Monisha Rudhran  

Studio B,  Sydney University, til 24 May

Scenes from an Execution

19 May

Few people write dialogue better than Howard Barker; it’s funny, vibrant and explosive. And Barker’s Scenes from an Execution is a brilliant play.

It explores the relationship between the artist and society.

Galactia has been commissioned by the State to paint the Battle of Lepanto. She does, and the State is not happy. Galactia portrays war as something dreadful. The State wants it viewed as something glorious.

The play is set in Renaissance Venice. But, of course, it’s not. This is not a piece of historical realism. Barker’s characters could be here and now.

Photo by Katy Green Loughrey

Photo by Katy Green Loughrey

And director Richard Hilliar’s production is wonderful. His cast does terrific work. Lucy Miller as Galactia is magnificent; passionate, determined, and joyfully articulate. Carpeta is her lover. He’s another (competing) painter. Jeremy Waters delivers a beautifully pitched portrayal of cowardice that can’t help love its superior. And Mark Lee’s Urgentino, the Doge of Venice, is comic brilliance.

This is very rich theatre. Barker shares a swag of stimulating ideas. A particularly fascinating one involves the way society tames even the greatest art (but I’m not sure I can explore this one without a spoiler.)

So let me focus on just a single idea: the way society tries to control what art says.

In Galactia’s world, it’s the Church and the State who are the obvious powers. I began this response by suggesting it would be a mistake to assume this play is historical, to assume its message is that only in the dark past did we treat artists poorly.

This play demands we ask ourselves NOW what forces determine what art is allowed to say.

Our current patrons are the state, critics and the audience. What do they demand art say?

Let me offer the following list of absurd generalizations:

  1. Australian theatre must not question the extraordinary privileges that most of us enjoy in comparison to the majority of the world’s population.
  2. Australian theatre must not present characters that are intelligent, powerful political agents, as this would imply it might also be true of its audience (which would challenge the complacent acceptance of demand 1.)
  3. Australian theatre must be ‘professional’. That is, regardless of what the art says (not excepting demands 1 and 2) the focus of discussion must always be on the virtuosity of the production. This demand perpetuates a bourgeois emphasis on career, reduces art to a commercial product, and encourages the competition necessary for a capitalist society.

See this play. It’s very, very good. And come up with your own list.

Veronica Kaye


Scenes from an Execution by Howard Barker

Old Fitzroy Theatre til 31st May


15 May

Transgressive theatre dissolves received wisdoms in an acid bath of wit.

An old tension in psychology is that between nature and nurture. Are we born a particular way? Or is it our experiences that create the person we are?

Writer/director Mark Langham has presented a very funny, very clever play that pushes this tension centre stage. And then pushes it right off.


Amanda, played with an energetic kookiness by Amylea Griffin, is being held by the police for questioning. She has committed some heinous crime, though no-one seems quite certain what it is. In a series of flashbacks, both amusing and disturbing, Elizabeth MacGregor and Paul Armstrong wonderfully portray crazy characters who inhabit Amanda’s back history. This personal history is so wacky we’re clearly not getting reality – whatever that could be.

The concept of identity itself is being questioned (whereas the tired dichotomy of nature versus nurture merely takes the concept for granted and hence perpetuates it.) Langham’s thought provoking play highlights this exploration with a playful recurring motif, that of molecular transfer. If you sit on a bike, there’s a transfer of molecules; the bike seat becomes a little ‘human’, and the human a little ‘bike’. The hard and fast sense of identity is dissolved.

Langham further works this vein by incorporating Brechtian elements into the production. The stage manager (Noemie Jounot) grumbles hilariously in and out of the action. It’s a powerful reminder that this is all verisimilitude; the actors are only playing at creating characters or identities.

And then, thematically, there’s a tension that tears complacent realism apart. The question is raised: What part in our lives is played by fear? What by hope?

(Personal digression: Hope is the most radical of the three Christian virtues. The other two are Love and Faith. Love can speak for itself. Faith is out of fashion; it’s an assertion of knowledge we feel we have no right to claim. Hope, on the other hand, is a glorious unknowing, an appreciation that our visions of our world, and ourselves, are always incomplete.)

Hope is our forgotten virtue. Its very openness makes it difficult for conventionality to portray.

And it is impossible to own.

It requires a letting go.

Veronica Kaye


Amanda by Mark Langham

at TAP Gallery til May 18th


9 May

Theatre is for people who can’t handle reality. But, though it can be mind altering, it’s a wiser choice than most illicit substances.

Thematically, this play shouldn’t interest me. I’ve never been much into drugs. (In fact, in 1996, whenever my friends would begin raving about the movie, I’d quietly slip away to the bar again.*)

But this production, directed by Luke Berman, is terrific. The cast of four create – with extraordinary energy, courage and commitment – the world of drug addled 80’s Edinburgh.


Damien Carr plays Mark (whose story we most closely follow) with a winning, empathy-inducing stage presence. Taylor Beadle-Williams plays an array of ‘lassies’; beautiful portraits of tough women doing it hard in a misogynistic culture. Brendon Taylor’s scene as an unwillingly witness to sexist violence, with his fear that he must intervene, is magic. Leigh Scully perfectly captures a variety of imposing and physically threatening male characters, only later to display an extraordinary range when he so convincingly plays Mark’s mother.

Harry Gibson’s adaptation of the original novel by Irvine Welsh is episodic, wide ranging, and frighteningly effective.

When Life has become a disease, whose symptoms are boredom and disappointment, a cure will be sought.  This play presents the desperate measures people take to self medicate, often with catastrophic consequences.

This is confronting theatre. There’s sex, violence and two hours of Scottish accents. And it works.

It’s both funny and horrifying. It’s hard to imagine how anyone ever thought this tale glorified drug usage. It doesn’t preach – it’s far too cool for that – but honesty is the most powerful pedagogy.

As I began by saying, thematically this show shouldn’t be my cup of tea. I don’t have much patience with people who find Life dull and disappointing. (My parochialism, no doubt, the result of being privileged enough to sit around comfortably drinking too many cups of tea. And fine red wine.)

But this production is eye opening, sympathetic, electric.

And it does what theatre can do so well, throw open windows to other, sometimes harsher, realities.

Veronica Kaye

*Trainspotting is very conscious of the dangers of that most commonly abused of drugs – alcohol.



King Street Theatre til 24 May

Thom Pain (based on nothing)

8 May

I try to avoid appearing as one of those self proclaimed experts who compare performances. You know the type. They say things like “I preferred the third grave digger in the ’28 production. Olivier. At the Old Vic. Oh, didn’t you see it?”

Well, the last time I saw Will Eno’s Thom Pain (based on nothing) was in 2009. Luke Mullins. Downstairs Belvoir. Oh, didn’t you see it?

Mullin’s Thom was more aggressive than the current Thom, played by David Jeffrey in this SITCO production, directed by Julie Baz.

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Mullin’s was more lash out, than lash in (a play on words I’ve taken from Eno’s brilliant script.) Jeffrey is more inward, more self-deprecating. His performance is touching and very, very funny.

The title is an intriguing entree to the world of the play. The ‘Pain’ is obvious: Thom is disconnected. He speaks of himself in the third person. He refers to a past romantic relationship, but we never get her name.

But Thom Pain is also Poor Tom from King Lear. (Eno’s allusion, not mine.) Like Edgar in Lear, who adopts the persona Poor Tom at a time of crisis, Thom finds in ‘madness’ a type of security. His uproarious ramblings are much more structured than one might initially imagine, and his stories are sharper than any vulnerable tear-laden sharing. This one man show will not leave you feeling you’ve accidentally stumbled into some sort of support group. Thom is very much in control of his narrative. And, with a lot of laughs, you’re going to hear it his way.

Thom Pain also evokes Thomas Paine. (Or at least it does for me. Maybe I’m more nerd than wanker.) Paine was the English/American radical writer responsible for Common Sense, which fired the American independence movement, and The Rights of Man, which defended the French Revolution’s dream of liberty, equality and fraternity. He was a man deeply dissatisfied with the existing order, a man who demanded we could do better. Perhaps predictably, he died estranged from many of his contemporaries. Only six people attended his funeral. Eno’s Thom Pain could conceivably share the same fate.

But I don’t want to push this allusion too far. Eno’s Thom is more existential in his pain. More self centred.

And one of the things that makes this play so very dazzling is its dynamic and endlessly inventive word play. Eno takes simple idiomatic expressions, and inverts them, reverses them, pulls them inside out. (One small example, no doubt misquoted: “I didn’t know where I was, but I know I wasn’t in love.”) Idiomatic language is our companion in the everyday (and so, oddly, an intimation of the eternal). It speaks our common humanity. But Thom is betrayed by this common humanity. Or is he the traitor?

Either way, in this production, the result is hilarious.

Veronica Kaye


Thom Pain (based on nothing) by Will Eno

Old Fitzroy til 10 May

His Mother’s Voice

4 May

(If this response seems to range far and wide I apologise in advance. I write in response to the plays I see, and this one is big and bold.)

One of the greatest gifts of Marxism is the concept of ideology. One of the greatest curses was the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Firstly, the Cultural Revolution, where a half of Justin Fleming’s intelligent, thought-provoking play is set.

In 1966, Mao decided to purge China of influences deemed capitalist, reactionary, un-Chinese. The result was a human tragedy of heartbreaking proportions. Millions were persecuted whose only crime was to offer the gift of diversity. Fleming’s play focuses on the trauma suffered by one of these families, targeted simply because of their love of Western music.

Phot by Tessa Tran, Breathing Light Photography

Photo by Tessa Tran, Breathing Light Photography

Director Suzanne Millar and her entire ensemble do a fine job of evoking a society in crisis. The staging is simple, beautiful, and provides the perfect arena to present a truly awful spectacle; naïve exuberance overcome by dreadful paranoia. Renee Lim, as the music teacher determined to pass on her gift to her son, delivers a moving portrayal of steely resilience.

The other half of the story is set in the 1980’s, in both China and Australia, and presents the long term consequences of the Revolution. Dannielle Jackson and Michael Gooley give intelligent, likeable performances as father and daughter, two Australians navigating their connections with people whose trauma is still raw.

For me, two lines from the play encapsulate its philosophy. (I know, it’s a minor crime in itself to attempt such a thing; to force a reduction on what’s decidedly a multi-voiced art-form.)

One of these lines is delivered by Gooley, as the crusty Australian diplomat. “We have to keep the door open,” he says. Discussions must continue.

The second of the lines is foreshadowed by a cool, frightening party official, played admirably by John Goodway.  Then Alice Keohavong, in a wonderfully amusing portrayal of a Chinese emissary in Canberra, snaps it out again. As they bargain the return to China of a talented pianist (played by Harry Tseng), trouble is encountered. Gooley suggests there are ‘contradictions’. “Contradictions? We like contradictions!” chirps Keohavong. The human spirit resists a tyrannous simplicity.

(I try to avoid quoting other writers in my responses, except the playwrights themselves, whom I no doubt misquote. And I apologise for that! But here I’ll quote Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity nothing straight was ever made.” And when we attempt to do so, we do nothing but violence.)

And now, finally, back to where I started, one of Marxism’s gifts: ideology.

In Marxist theory, ideology refers to the cultural norms that aid the perpetuation of particular economic structures. (Let me give a small example of my own. In a capitalist society, co-operation is not encouraged. Competition is. Careerists – people interested primarily in personal advancement – are held up as model citizens. To support this world view, it’s expected that writers about theatre will focus on evaluating performers and productions, as against discussing ideas. And so the prevailing economic structure influences everything; even trivialities like theatre criticism.*)

It was the belief that culture actually mattered that led to the Cultural Revolution. (Though Mao probably misread Marx; Karl was more inclined to believe that the economic structure creates culture, as against culture creating the economic structure.)

But the rub is this: how much do we think culture matters?

Mao launched a maniacal attack, and this sort of lunacy gives cultural introspection a bad name. It leads us to think it’s best to just let a thousand flowers bloom, without ever bothering to stop and smell them.

But surely we should think about cultural content, about the impact of our art? (As against merely the advancement of our careers.)

Mao’s mistake was to think this should be done by state edict rather than discussion. It’s as though he assumed there were problems to be fixed, as against possibilities to be encouraged.

And what does this engaging, exciting production by bAKEHOUSE offer the cultural discussion?

The gift of diversity.

Veronica Kaye

*I’m ignoring the whole (obvious) issue of the commodification of art and the reduction of audience members to consumers as against co-producers.


His Mother’s Voice by Justin Fleming

ATYP til 17 May