Archive | December, 2022

The Woman and The Car

12 Dec

This is the first outing for indie company Ship’s Cat and they’ve chosen an intriguing piece.

Written by Mark Langham, the play presents Dorothy Levitt, a British racing car driver, and it being the early 1900’s and her being a woman, a feminist icon.

Levitt raced cars, motor boats and flew planes – all at a time when women were denied the vote, and even the right to open a bank account.  Langham doesn’t attempt a detailed history of Levitt’s extraordinary life, but focuses on a few days in 1909 in which she commits to write The Woman and the Car, a guidebook for female motorists. The book’s subtitle was A Chatty Little Hand Book for Women Who Motor or Want to Motor and this very Edwardian phrasing hints at the source of Langham’s unusual choice of tone. This is not a stuffy, pedantic bio-play but a type of drawing room farce. It’s littered with brilliant one-liners and terrific comic set ups and, under the direction of Cam Turnbull, the whole thing feels like a parody of those dreadful one room dramas of the early 20th century (which would be rightfully forgotten if they weren’t resurrected with painful regularity by amateur theatre.) The cast adopt the declarative tone and RP accent that dominate such pieces and play the humour brilliantly.

Lib Campbell is Dorothy Levitt, capturing her independent spirit, her fierce wit, and growing sense of desperation. One of the fascinations of the production is Campbell’s immensely watchable portrayal of Levitt’s character arc, from wise cracking swagger to debilitating misery.

Alexander Spinks is Selwyn Edge, Levitt’s married lover and employee of Napier, the company that provided her car. Selwyn functions in the piece as the archetypal obtuse male. He wants all he can get from Dorothy, both financially and physically, but he can’t make sense of her dissatisfaction with the patriarchy. One of my favourite lines is when Selwyn insists on telling Dorothy what it is that she is feeling: “being a woman – that seems to annoy you greatly”. His lack of understanding and empathy are painfully laughable.

Zoe Crawford is Isabel Savor, a female adventurer absolutely besotted with Dorothy. Though wanting to present as a confidant daredevil, Isabel is plagued by insecurities. She is unfulfilled by the limiting gender roles of her time, but struggles to forge a path of her own. She once proudly “shot a tiger in the face”, but her growing discomfort with hunting’s brutality indicates that her adoption of hyper-masculine behaviour was purely reactionary. A shot at genuine authenticity is possible when she admits her sexual feelings to Dorothy, but when they’re not rejected, Isabel has little idea how to act upon them. Crawford plays both the jokes and the pathos wonderfully.

Now, back to where I started: the unusual tone. Dorothy Levitt didn’t race her way joyously to old age; she’s presented as suffering a growing substance abuse problem, driven by both injuries sustained in competition and her bitter frustration at injustice. So why all the jokes? Some of them are, after all, deliberately rather silly. Don’t they just get in the way of a serious historical story?

Well, no. They capture something of the era, with its droll Edwardian humour. They capture something of Levitt’s exuberance. And, finally, they call attention to the fact that this (theatre, society) is a constructed world. (Man-made, if you like.) A story of patriarchal injustice is told in a way that highlights the artificiality of social structures, and so reminds us that what is made can be remade.

I look forward to seeing more from Ship’s Cat Theatre Co.

Paul Gilchrist

The Woman and The Car by Mark Langham

107 Projects until 18 Dec

Image by Clare Hawley

Boxing Day BBQ

11 Dec

Sam O’Sullivan’s Boxing Day BBQ is a fun take on some serious fracture lines in our society. Directed by Mark Kilmurry, the cast deliver comic magic.  

The BBQ is a family tradition. It was grandpa’s baby, but he and g-ma are gone, so now the younger generation(s) skate the hot plate. The gathering throws together the usual mix of ill-fitting pieces that make up the insolvable jigsaw that is family. (Comedy plus tragedy equals family; though this play is definitely comedy – the tragedy lies offstage, in the reality this comedy gives us the courage to acknowledge.)  

The new self-appointed patriarch, Peter, proudly wields the BBQ mate, finding what scant meaning he can from the upholding of banalities. Brian Meegan wonderfully captures Peter’s mix of unthinking privilege and dismayed emptiness. His daughter, Jennifer (Harriet Gordon-Anderson), is about to volunteer a year of her life as part of the crew of the Sea Bandit (a riff on the environmental activists’ Sea Shepherd.) Peter is horrified. His new wife, Val (Aileen Huynh) is not much of an ally, not because she agrees with Jennifer, but because intellectually she has vacated the field. (More on this below.) O’Sullivan gives Val one liners of beautiful vacuity, which Huynh plays to perfection. Peter’s sister Connie (Danielle Carter) is also at the do, an intelligent, articulate woman navigating both her brother’s obtuseness and her ex-husband’s gentle but futile longing. Jamie Oxenbould as Morris, her ex-husband, delivers a brilliant performance, heart-warming and full of pathos.    

Those fracture lines I began with? O’Sullivan’s play is a musing on objectivity versus subjectivity, and the collapse of these two categories into one in contemporary discourse. This is presented partly through discussions of perception; Peter is a wine merchant who takes for granted the notoriously slippery language of taste descriptors. But it is mainly explored through the characterisation of Val, who consistently avoids the tough issues by asserting the mantra of the lightweight Right: you have to question everything. This is, of course, never the radical and universal doubt of Descartes, but rather the selective use of ignorance to shore up privilege. (In the play, some characters are correct and others are not, and we’re invited to laugh at the inflexibility of the latter, and we do – but I won’t pretend that it wasn’t slightly disconcerting to find myself so easily enjoying the mockery of those who endorse intellectual humility, even when they don’t practise it.)

The play also explores change versus continuity, questioning the value of tradition. We’re told about the monkey step ladder experiment, in which five caged primates are sprayed with icy water if one attempts to climb a certain step ladder. Place a banana at the top of that ladder, replace some of the monkeys, and those remaining familiar with the spraying will police the others – inadvertently ensuring the banana is wasted. Val laughs at this experiment as an example of the absurdity of much that purports to be science but, of course, the story functions as a fable. Mechanical adherence to convention limits our ability to think outside the cage, leaving a lot of bananas wasted – or one planet, as is the case for us as we refuse the changes that might avert environmental disaster. (But traditions and conventions can also have value; they’re a type of cultural capital. One such tradition is that social tensions can be profitably explored through the dramatic trope that posits disparate characters and places them in an inescapable situation like a family Boxing Day BBQ – though O’Sullivan does disrupts this convention, offering the spoonful of honey of some magical realism to ease our acceptance of radical change.)

Finally, the play also offers itself as a representation of generational conflict. In the real war between the generations, the ultimate outcome is dully predictable; all that’s of interest is whether – this time – anything will be learnt from the vanquished before they forever quit the field. But this is comedy, and Boxing Day BBQ is a merry war, a playful paean to reconciliation and hope.

Paul Gilchrist

Boxing Day BBQ by Sam O’Sullivan

Ensemble until 15 Jan

Image by Prudence Upton

The Wasp

9 Dec

I don’t warm to the idea of granting stars to productions. (You know the stars I mean: “This Sydney Festival production of Hamlet by Swahili speaking puppets – Five Stars!!!”) As a writer about theatre I want what I’ve written to be read, and I know if my response to a production is abbreviated to a rating out of five then there goes my audience. (Unless, of course, I give a One Star rating, in which case a whole bunch of goblins pretending to be people will devour every word I’ve written with cold-hearted glee.)

But I don’t like star ratings for other reasons. They imply that productions are being compared and ranked according to some known and accepted criteria.  And they’re always so parsimonious:  Five Stars is hardly generous considering how many stars there actually are in the universe. And, finally (you’re thinking), ratings seem rather counter-intuitive: everything I enjoy eating from Woolies has a pitifully low rating compared to those life denying products that get full marks.

But, having said all that, some productions seem to beg a rating – because anything else I write about them gets dreadfully close to spoiler territory, and that wouldn’t be kind.

The Wasp by Morgan Lloyd Malcom is one of these productions. To discuss the themes of this production (which is what I like to do with every production, and why I attend theatre) is fraught with danger. As a play, The Wasp values twists and turns of plot. And what it values, it does extremely well. It’s an intense ride.

This particular production, presented by Akimbo & Co and directed by Becks Blake, is tight and brilliantly performed.  It’s a two hander (though even that feels like a spoiler.) Heather and Carla meet up years after school. They were very different people then, and things haven’t changed. Helen is awfully middle class and Cara Whitehouse’s portrayal is marvelous, and deeply discomforting. Carla is lower working class (or am I using a middle class euphemism for criminal class?) Jessica Bell as Carla is fantastic, capturing the casual brutality of a woman who’s done it hard. Lloyd Malcom’s script gives the characters a wonderful arc, and these two actors make it work superbly. The initial humour (and there’s a lot of it) is extraordinarily good, and when things get more…well less humorous, we find ourselves in very close company with the fractured and frightened.

Yes, I know, what a vague review. If I was to hazard a spoiler-free observation about the meaning of the play I would suggest it’s about the relationship between kindness and cruelty. We tend to think of these qualities as sort of binary opposites, that is defined by their opposition to each other (like “positive” and “negative” or “on” and “off”). But the play reminds us that the relationship between the two qualities is complex. I don’t mean the cliché that you have to be cruel to be kind. I mean that one of those two qualities can be so overwhelming that even when the other appears, or seems to do so, it’s reduced to a façade, a brittle shell that barely conceals its nemesis.  (And, usually, only one person is deceived….)

So, that star rating I was talking about? The one I was going to give because I’m kind?

Even theatre reviews can have twists.

Paul Gilchrist

The Wasp by Morgan Lloyd Malcom

KXT until 17 December

Image by Clare Hawley

A Christmas Carol

1 Dec

Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the best known characters in literature, and his catch phrase “Bah humbug” is oft quoted. (Especially by me when assaulted by Xmas muzak in shopping centres.)

It’s an absolute joy to watch John Bell in this role, and the pantomime-like retelling of Dickens’ famous tale by writer Hilary Bell and director Damien Ryan is delightful.

Dickens was one of those great nineteenth century writers who gave cruelty a bad name. If that seems a joke, as if cruelty could ever have been valorised, it’s indicative of how influential voices like Dickens have been. For much of our history, cruelty has not only been tolerated, it’s been encouraged. (Spare the rod and spoil the child was not the injunction of some sick sadists, or not only so: it was read from the Bible and taught from the pulpit.)  

Dickens had a gift for empathy. It’s suggested by his take on damnation. Marley, Scrooge’s deceased business partner, returns on Christmas Eve to warn of what awaits beyond the grave: an eternal vision of human suffering but no ability to intervene. It’s an odd vision of Hell. Compare it to Sartre’s. A cynic might say that to witness suffering and to do nothing is the very definition of secular heaven, a paradise the privileged enjoy perpetually.

What happens to Scrooge – that the visions he’s shown by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future affect a change in his character –  epitomises Dickens’ artistic purpose. If Scrooge’s moral transformation seems merely convenient to the cynic, Dickens might well look down on us and humbly suggest such visions do indeed make a difference. And clearly, by his own definition, he’s in Heaven, because if he is witnessing the suffering we inflict on each other, his stories, and this particular dramatization, do have the ability to intervene. They gently urge kindness.

And Dickens’ stories brim with good will. There are villains, of course, but there are also an extraordinary number of kind souls. (The cynic would say Dickens was a great writer of fiction.) The conceit of this production is that it’s performed by the Crummles, that inept but good-hearted acting troupe from Nicholas Nickleby.  

Part of the fascination of A Christmas Carol is its role in our image of the holiday. Christmas had long been built on solstice feasting but, in an increasingly secularised Victorian England, the day began to shed those other elements that made it a religious festival honouring the supposed incarnation of the divine in Jesus of Nazareth, and morphed into what it has become in the modern West – the day we wish each other well. (Good will to all was Dickens’ every day; we have at least gifted him Christmas.)

Dickens was endlessly comically inventive, and Ryan’s production captures this glorious exuberance. With Bell on stage is a terrific troupe, much more gifted than the Crummles. Valerie Bader, Jay James-Moody, Emily McKnight, Anthony Taufa, and Daryl Wallis on keyboard, give playful performances that evoke both laughter and tears. There’s song, dance, and puppetry.

And there’s one moment between Bell and a puppet (expertly given life by McKnight) that elicits gasps from the audience. You might call it the sound of hearts melting. Or you might call me sentimental. Dickens wouldn’t.

Paul Gilchrist

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, adapted for the stage by Hilary Bell

Ensemble Theatre until 29 Dec

Image by Jaimi Joy