Archive | April, 2023


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


26 Apr

When I was a child, my father would occasionally threaten to buy me a model train set. Fortunately for me, he retired early and had ample time to build his own. He laboured for seemingly endless hours in what came to be called “the train room”, one of the many rooms vacated in the family home by deserting children. Having spent forty years behind a desk as a railway clerk, my father needed to learn the skills required to create a miniature world (as against those required merely to survive one.)

Visits home invariably included visits to “the train room”, and seeing the set complete, not once did I wish my father had made good the threat that had hung over my early years. However, though a self-obsessed, opinionated twenty-something, I could still admire his skill and his effort, and found it easy to praise his achievement.

UFO, written by Kirby Medway and directed by Solomon Thomas, struck me as a bit of a train set. The 65 minute performance consists of four actors manipulating small models of themselves situated in a golf course (?), the site of a supposed UFO landing. The actors both voice the figurines and photograph them in the miniature landscape. These images are projected onto two large screens. The result is something like watching the creation of a stop motion animation.

Meticulously constructed, the images are beautiful and haunting.

The story is Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival meets Kafka’s The Castle meets Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s The Thunderbirds. It’s Arrival in that the characters are closely monitoring a landed UFO that may or may not be attempting to communicate with them. It’s The Castle because the characters are little people struggling to make sense of the human world, impotent and bewildered victims of a mysterious bureaucracy. It’s The Thunderbirds because … I used to really like The Thunderbirds.

There’s plenty of humour, which the cast (Matt Abotomey, James Harding, Angela Johnston and Tahlee Leeson) deliver wonderfully.

Because there’s such a focus on the technical side, it’s tempting to see this production as an experiment in form that has little interest in presenting meaning.

But, I guess, a bunch of tiny manipulated figures, who display only pettiness in the face of what is possibly the greatest challenge in human history, would seem for many a fitting metaphor for current affairs.     

Paul Gilchrist

UFO by Kirby Medway and Solomon Thomas

Produced by re:group performance collective

at Griffin until 29 April

Image by Lucy Parakhina

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)

9 Apr

The more discerning theatre-goer might surmise from the title that this is a comedy.

The fourth wall is firmly down as three actors share their attempt to present all 36 of Shakespeare’s plays.

Having said that, only Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and Hamlet are presented in any meaningful way (providing that wacky parody fits your definition of ‘meaningful’.) Most of the other plays are merely namedropped. Considering the alternative, this is in no way a criticism.

As an abridgement of Shakespeare’s plays, The Complete Works is equivalent to summarising Moby Dick with the word ‘whale’.

Written by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield, it’s been kicking around since the 1980’s. Ironically, for a piece that responds to our obsession with the Bard, I’ve seen it more times than I’ve seen most of his plays.

There’s some theatre in-jokes, but no need for any knowledge of the canon. The whole thing operates simply as an opportunity for some seriously crazy comedy. It’s audacious, exuberant and effervescent. Under the skilful direction of Madeleine Withington, the brilliant cast (Alexander Spinks, Lib Campbell and Tel Benjamin) gives this madness the high energy performances it deserves.

Once or twice the poetic (though not the dramatic) genius of Shakespeare is allowed to shine through, creating a poignant contrast that only enhances our enjoyment of the zaniness.

The original play is designed to facilitate improv and extra dialogue, and this team add some contemporary sparkle. (Though I’m not sure the references to the venue, both its history and nature, are conducive to the openhearted relaxed mood required to appreciate this sort of playful froth.)

Rachel Scane’s design is magnificent. Part locker room, part synthetic playing court, and peopled with characters in daggy sportswear, it’s a world where the trivial competes with the impossible, as weirdly captivating as the silliest of Guinness Book of Record feats.

80 minutes of energising entertainment; Shakespeare would have loved it.

Paul Gilchrist

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) by Adam Long, Daniel Singer, and Jess Winfield

presented by Precipice Creative

at Meraki Arts Bar until 22 April

Image by Clare Hawley

Cherry Smoke

2 Apr

Theatre is a weird art form. (Though, they all are, if you think about it.) What’s odd about theatre is the predominance of interpretive artists. Compare it to visual arts and literature, which are filled with creative artists.

Let me explain. If you buy a play from overseas, or dip back into the canon, no-one in your team is doing the original creative work. Everyone is interpreting what already exists. And, in theatre, this is par for the course. (It could be argued it’s what actors and directors always do, no matter from where the play is sourced.)

In theatre, no-one blinks an eye when you choose to produce, say, Hamlet … again. What is important is your take on the play. On opening night your hope is not that someone will say something like “Where’s the playwright? I got to meet the guy who absolutely nailed the debilitating chasm between the brutal simplicity of action and the rich ambiguity of thought.” No, you hope the buzz is more: “Swahili speaking puppets? What a brilliant choice!”

As result, we get what I call “cover theatre” – in the way a band is said to do a “cover” when they play a song they didn’t write. Those sort of musicians are usually relegated to RSL clubs, but fortunately, in theatre, there’s no such privileging of originality. (And, please, read to the conclusion of my review before concluding my attitude to this phenomena.)

Consider Crisscross’ production of James McManus’ Cherry Smoke. The play is American and has been kicking around for a decade or so. But, here and now, director Charlie Vaux’s production is an invitation to an intriguingly foreign world. It’s brutal; these characters are from the south of the US, and they’re seriously down and out. Cherry (Meg Hyeronimus) is homeless, effectively abandoned by her deeply damaged, and damaging, family. She looks for more in Fish (Tom Dawson), her “angel”, but he was forced into the boxing ring as a child, and so violence, and the incarceration that often follows, is his existence. He knows there’s something wrong with the “wires” in his head. Duffy (Fraser Crane) tries to guide Fish, but it’s a challenging task, especially when his garage barely breaks even and his own relationship with Bug (Alice Birbara) is troubled. She desperately wants a baby, and her childminding and occasional midwifery is, in Fish’s words, like being an alcho working in a bar. She “hates God” because He won’t give her what she feels she needs.

How do you find hope in such a world? Well, Cherry espouses a sort of soft-metal romanticism. It’s tough, sensual and hyperbolic. She calls Fish “Baby” a lot, and can’t eat, or breathe (she says) without him. She claims Jesus once lit her cigarette, with His finger. The smoke was cherry coloured. She offered Him one, but apparently He’s trying to quit. Her conclusion: He’s broken – just as they all are. There’s little more religion than that in the play, but the sequence evokes perfectly the pathos of weaving meaning from scraps.

We do cover theatre like this because it reminds us of basics. The world of the characters is one in which a “meanness” swirls endlessly, and lands randomly, refusing to be shaken off. In this world, posited by McManus and brought back to life here by Vaux and his committed cast, we meet again those age old problems of suffering and evil.

And so, in KXT’s cool new space in Broadway, we’re invited to a foreign place, to be reminded of our common humanity.   

Paul Gilchrist

Cherry Smoke by James McManus

presented by Crisscross Productions in association with Bakehouse Theatre

until April 8 at KXT Broadway

Image by Abraham de Souza