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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/

 

Angry Fags

12 Feb

Those expecting a queer subversion of Angry Birds will be disappointed. Or not – depending on how far they’re willing to stretch the whole bird, egg, pig analogy. (Yes, I had to research that.)

But as a political black comedy, Mark Nagle’s production of Topher Payne’s play is thought-provoking, fun theatre.

It’s a play about political strategy, and that’s a conversation our society needs to have. Too often we imagine our goals are all that matter, but how we attempt to achieve those goals is just as important. (An example: in Australia, current attempts to build an equitable society in regard to race are often hampered by well-intentioned voices who unthinkingly slip into the very racist attitudes they hope our society could leave behind. And so the process is made slower and more difficult. It’s the mistake Hilary Clinton made with her infamous “deplorables” comment. And, for that mistake, we are all paying.)

The world is made by our actions, not our intentions, and we must begin how we hope to end.

Set in the contemporary south of the USA, the queer characters reel at ongoing hate crimes. How can a more just world be made? One gay man says to another “They’re not frightened of us.” Is that the solution? A terror campaign?

                  Photo Credit Chris Lundie

Side note: all black comedies risk the same danger – that after the first death, there is no other (……laughter, that is.) This production has laughs a plenty despite the growing body count, and though the more sensitive may squirm, Nagle’s cast succeeds in both the pathos and the humour.

And the play’s discussion of political strategy is satisfyingly multileveled. Parallel to the debate about the use of violence is that of whether compromise is unavoidable, and whether it’s best to work from within the establishment or not.

With this intelligent and playful production, New Theatre shows once again why it is a vital part of Sydney’s theatre ecology.

Angry Fags by Topher Payne

New Theatre until March 7

Down an Alley Filled with Cats

27 Apr

Talk to virtually anyone in the theatre world and you soon learn that there is a grand tradition of self-obsession.

This production refuses to honour this tradition, instead presenting the audience with a simple, engaging entertainment.

I, however, uncomfortable with such radicalism, will adhere to the time tested way.

I would not choose to direct this play – because it’s so difficult.

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Photo by Andrew Langcake

Down an Alley Filled with Cats by Warwick Moss was first produced in 1984 and won the Premier’s Literary Award before seasons in the West End and New York. It’s a comic thriller. And that’s what makes it so challenging – getting the balance right between the playful and the serious.

This production has a good shot at it, but I’ll be honest, it took me a long time to pick the tone. Maybe I’m just slow. (See, it’s all about me.)

Actors Gabriel Egan and William Jordan easily hold our attention, but I suspect opening night nerves may have played a part in making vocal performances a little muddied.

The two participants in this cat and mouse game to possess a valuable object are (conveniently) locked together in a room. Dramatists love this trick of offering the characters no possibility of escape, and audiences often go along with it as it mirrors their experience of the theatre. But it’s a trick that demands careful consideration of the physicality of the performances; it’s inevitable that close proximity will have to reflect both intimacy and antipathy, and in so far as this genre is a distant cousin of naturalism, there’s enormous pressure to get the pacing right to make this appear believable.

Moss’ script uses other classic tricks – you might end up wondering with it’s intricately plotted or all just a sleight of hand – but it will lead to interesting post-show discussions. Were you taken in or not? Of course, if you’re part of the grand theatrical tradition, you never were, not for a second.

Paul Gilchrist

 

Down an Alley Filled with Cats by Warwick Moss

Directed by Tom Richards

at King Street Theatre until 13 May

tix and info here

Future Seekers

25 Apr

Carol Dance’s Future Seekers is made up of ten loosely interlinked short pieces. It boldly traverses time (1917 to 2017) and place (Russia, USA, Lithgow). Excepting costume, design is minimalist in the extreme.

This is big theatre, presented simply.

It explores how the past informs the present. Generation connects with generation.  It is a powerful reminder that our actions matter, that our present impacts on more than ourselves.

Dance’s writing is charming and good-hearted. A cold soul might call it naïve and, at times, convenient but it’s these very features that create the magic of its wide-eyed wonder and the appeal of its optimism.

Future Seekers - IMG_0044 (1)

Director Mark Langham elicits good performances fitting the broad, bright style of the piece. Occasionally characterizations falter, but there’s a real pleasure in watching four skilled actors (Neveen Hanna, Eli Saad, Sana’a Shaik and Michael Wood) move from role to role, exhibiting a playful versatility.

Between scenes pianist Philip Eames presents a series of classical pieces. His performance is beautiful, and the breadth of the selection eminently suits the play’s purpose: the sharing of the belief that in the immensity of the wide, wild world there is space enough for both surprise and connection – and from such a union hope is born.

Paul Gilchrist

 

Future Seekers by Carol Dance

at Philharmonia Hall, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay Arts Precinct until 30 April

tix and info here

Sex Object

24 Apr

This is new work, but I’m not the audience for it.

It’s for those who enjoy TV sitcom.

Writer Charlie Falkner has put together three hyperbolic characters; a pretentious artist, a vacuous New Ager (who the other characters also call pretentious), and an inarticulate slacker. Falkner then throws in a fourth, an escort, to stir the plot.

There are some funny lines and energetic performances, but it’s of that genre only too common in the indie scene – Philistine Theatre.

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Philistine Theatre has bad faith in the art form. It attempts to imitate the conventions of television or B grade film. Philistine Theatre claims its purpose is to simply entertain but, in aiming so low, it undermines its very reason for existence.

This play is a descendant of American slacker films. In these films, the protagonist fights for the right to smoke dope on his mother’s couch. In this version, the protagonist fights for the right to watch porn on his girlfriend’s dead father’s couch. As you can see, the genre has come a long way.

But seriously, Falkner does subvert the ending typical of this style of drama. In the films, it’s usually painful: the protagonist ‘grows up’ and becomes ‘responsible’, which could be interesting, if it weren’t for the fact that ‘responsible’ seems indistinguishable from ‘conventional’. However, Sex Object doesn’t go in for that sort of tripe; its ending is more like Porky’s. (An allusion that shows I’m far too familiar with C grade American films.)

The slacker, played amusingly by Falkner himself, has a porn addiction. This is not taken seriously by the script, which is not aiming to be anything but a light comedy. However, it’s as close as the audience gets to the sex implied in the title.

The marketing of the show suggests it’s an exploration of ‘millennials’, that category error pushed by other marketers when trying to sell mobile phones. Fortunately, Falkner knows the type of play he’s writing and doesn’t attempt any faux sociological analysis.

In fact, the program notes suggest the play says nothing (which is a fundamental tenet of Philistine Theatre.) But, of course, it does say something. The target of the play is what it calls ‘pretence’. It fights for the right to be small.

No, it may not have been my cup of tea, but as Voltaire could’ve said (if he’d indulged in such quaint euphemisms) I’ll fight for your right to drink it.

Congratulations to Jack Rabbit Theatre for producing new work and for the Depot for making it possible.

Paul Gilchrist

 

Sex Object by Charlie Falkner

Directed by Michael Abercromby

Presented by Jack Rabbit Theatre

at The Depot Theatre until 29 April

Tix and info here

 

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

20 Apr

This play by Rajiv Joseph premiered in the US in 2009 and won the Pulitzer in 2010.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is beautifully rich and multi-leveled. (Intriguingly, the program note tells us we will ‘get no answers’. A warning? An assurance?)

Set in 2003 in Iraq, it’s not naturalism. It’s got talking animals. And ghosts. And talking animal ghosts.

Poetically, it’s fascinating. The line by line level is engagingly colloquial and profane (fuck yeah bitch!), but take a step back and there are evocative recurring motifs. Ghosts that symbolize trauma and guilt. Odd golden objects that reflect skewed values. A zoo that suggests lives lived too small or simply wasted (‘Zoo is hell’). Hands, whole and broken, that are emblematic of our ability to both build and destroy. Talk of God that represents the quest for both ultimate meaning and culpability. And the tiger itself? The nature of violence and the awesome mystery of the created world. (Tyger, Tyger burning bright?) This cluster of motifs invites speculation about the links between creation and destruction, consequences and responsibility.

Maggie Dence in BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO (c) Kate Williams

Photo by Kate Williams

Director Claudia Barrie’s production is powerful theatre, visually and linguistically exciting. The entire cast is terrific. Maggie Dence as the tiger is gloriously imperious; her imposing presence injects the character’s existential angst with a fascinating, and very funny, tension. Josh Anderson and Stephen Multari, as American soldiers, amusingly and movingly capture their characters’ inability to deal with the complexity of the situation, and their complicity.  Andrew Lindqvist plays an Iraqi translator and one time gardener and topiarist, a creator of hedge animals in a tyrant’s garden (‘God likes gardens.’) He gives a sensitive portrayal of a gentle, intelligent man, a foil to the invading foreigners, and an example of one more poor soul caught up in Big History. Tyler De Nawi as Saddam’s twisted son is charismatic and dangerous.

Isabel Hudson’s masks*, aided in their impact by mask coach and performer Aanisa Vylet, are a highlight. They create a world that is half-dream, half-nightmare. They’re a reminder that Creation, artistic and divine, has elements of both. For what is Creation, but a dominance that only ends with a frightening, fraught letting go?

Paul Gilchrist

 

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph

at the Old Fitz til 6 May

tix and info here

 

*created from templates provided by Wintercroft Masks.

Fallen

11 Apr

Can a person change?

If so, is it done by denying your past or by accepting it?

And who determines how you should change? You or others? Are we creatures of our culture or autonomous individuals?

Charles Dickens funded a home for ‘fallen’ women. This play by Seanna van Helten explores the state of five of these women as they prepare for a new life in the colonies.

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Image by Marnya Rothe

Historical fiction always serves a contemporary fantasy. The Victorian world fascinates us because we can posit it as a cautionary tale: this is repression. There’s the danger we can be smug or complacent in our comparison, but used appropriately, it’s a yardstick to hold up to our own society and judge if we’re doing much better.

The rule in this home for ‘fallen’ woman is that your past is not to be discussed. It’s a perfect metaphor for the silencing of women’s voices.

Dickens doesn’t appear, so we never hear his take. And, intriguingly, we don’t hear too much from the women themselves. The characters silence each other, and the playwright chooses to tell us little about their backgrounds, or about the outcome of the whole experiment.  The plot becomes the relationships between the women in that place, that time. It’s a fascinating miniature.

The play could be read by a misogynist as an indictment of bullying, manipulation and emotional immaturity. That’s not the intention, of course – no more than Hamlet (say) is meant as a criticism of men. The play acknowledges that we are, to a huge degree, products of our environment. If this small contained world of women is less than perfect it reflects only a larger, more deeply flawed, world.

Now, let’s change it.

Paul Gilchrist

 

Fallen by Seanna van Helten

directed by Penny Harpham

at the Reginald at Seymour til 22nd April

Tix and more info here

Trade

11 Apr

Responsibility has gone out of fashion. Too many of us aspire to be victims.

And the truly marginalized? Perhaps we can pretend the competition is good for them.

Because unbridled capitalism is good, isn’t it? (It’s like a synonym for democracy, right?)

In Trade we follow the fortunes of a dodgy investment company. Manipulate the share price and buy or sell at the right time. And, when one deal goes spectacularly wrong and squillions are lost, it’s time to point the finger. Who is responsible? The fund manager has a golden parachute (literally and hilariously.) Sure, she does time… white collar time. In the meantime, the rest of her team reinvent themselves. Capitalism can be ethical, can’t it?  Greed is Good, that’s from the Sermon on the Mount, isn’t it?

Trade

Devised by the ensemble (Melissa Hume, Mathias Olofsson, Dymphna Carew, Alison Bennett and Alicia Gonzalez) and with words by Melissa Lee Speyer, this is sharp, very entertaining theatre.

Director Alison Bennett and movement director Dymphna Carew create a visual space that’s fun and fluid, evocative of a world where funds slip away, ethics slip away. “No risk. No reward.”

Performances are both precise and playful. Trade is very funny.

And wonderfully pointy. Just when you’re comfortably smug in your superiority to these coke-addicted high-flyers, you’re reminded: where, exactly, does your interest, your superannuation, come from?

There was a time when the question was not Who am I? but What is to be done? Exciting, vibrant and new, theatre like this takes me back, and can take us all forward.

Paul Gilchrist

 

Trade by Hurrah Hurrah

at the Old 505 Theatre until 15 April

tix and info here

Binary Stars and Best Lives

30 Mar

What stories do we tell ourselves? Living in a pluralistic society, we’re well aware there’s more than one possible narrative.

It’s a choice, of course. Samantha Hill’s charmingly eclectic Binary Stars and Best Lives outlines some of the many, many options. There are indigenous stories, Ancient Greek myths, astrophysics, particle physics, New Age mantras, and the Aussie Everyman banter of the TV presenter.

How do you choose? The play amusingly suggests some stories are problematic. The Ancient Greek myth that explains the creation of the constellation the Pleiades is clearly misogynistic. But other narratives can be more insidious, promising personal empowerment but delivering a crippling sense of isolation and guilt. (For example, a mantra that says You can achieve anything if only you try quickly turns on its user and becomes You haven’t achieved so it must be your fault.) In choosing our narratives, we must choose wisely.

But there’s also a political battle for the control of the narrative. Tell yourself whatever story you like in your head, but we’re creatures of culture, and must live in a social world. The play explores several examples of this tussle to control the story. Cleverly subverting the Uncertainty Principle, any fascination with the indeterminate nature of particle reality takes on a wholly different importance when discussed by Schrödinger’s cat herself. In a similar exploration of hegemony, Babe understands that her troubled relationship with her TV celebrity husband will be discussed publicly, but knows only too well which of the two of them has the greater power to shape the way events are perceived.

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Babe, and her world of domestic violence, is an echo of the current main stage production at the Old Fitz, Crimes of the Heart. And that’s an aspect of the New Fitz program of which this play is a part: contemporary Australian writers responding to existing works. I’m not quite sure what to make of the idea: is compulsory intertextuality simply an acceptance of the realities of the cultural landscape? Or is it an attempt to control the narrative*?

Whatever the case, the Old Fitz has provided a space for the cast and creatives behind Binary Stars and Best Lives to make a fun and thought-provoking new work.

Paul Gilchrist

 

Binary Stars and Best Lives by Samantha Hill

Directed by Michael Abercromby

at the Old Fitz til 8 April

tix and info here

 

*which is why I write about theatre.

The Age of Bones

28 Mar

And your taxes are paying for it.

An Indonesian man points directly at the audience.

His comment is simple and powerful; at least 60 Indonesian minors have been jailed in Australia for working on asylum seeker boats.

This injustice is the focus of Sandra Thibodeaux’s play. It tells the story of fifteen-year-old Ikan (Imam Setia Hagi) who finds himself imprisoned here, a foreign country. The Australian authorities seemingly make little attempt to contact his family, and his parents (Imas Sobariah and Budi Laksana) are grief stricken at his disappearance.

Age of Bones

The lost boy, of course, is Down Under, and this allows for a brilliant conceit: Ikan doesn’t languish in a cell, rather we see him beneath the ocean, surrounded by an array of bewildering sea creatures, brought to life by extraordinary puppetry (I Made Gunanta and I Wayan Sira) and performance (including Kadek Hobman as a very Aussie hammerhead, loutish yet not incapable of kindness.) This world beneath the sea suggests both the greatest fears of a fishing-based culture, and the absolute absurdity of Ikan’s predicament.

Created through collaboration between artists from the two countries, The Age of Bones is a thrilling mix of English and Indonesian (with the latter translated in surtitles.) Projection, puppetry, and set that’s a wonderful evocation of a sailing boat, make for a visually stunning production.

Working with Thibodeaux’s beautiful play, directors Iswadi Pratama and Alex Galeazzi have created a piece that is amusing, engaging and challenging.

Great theatre confronts its audience, asking crucial questions. The Age of Bones asks have we lost our way?

Paul Gilchrist

 

The Age of Bones by Sandra Thibodeaux

Riverside Theatre, Parramatta

Produced by Performing Lines / Satu Bulan / Teater Satu

This production has closed in Parramatta, but plays in Darwin 30 March to 9 April.

Tix and info here