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Son of Byblos

9 May

This is exciting premiere Australian work, and Belvoir’s 25A and Brave New Word should be congratulated.

Though new work, I’ve had the privilege of reading the script in an earlier incarnation; in 2019, when it was shortlisted for the Silver Gull Play Award.

This is not the same play, though it’s a close kissing cousin. James Elazzi’s engaging story of a young gay man living in a community reluctant to accept homosexuality has morphed since I first read it. It has opened up, and is now an ambiguous, provocative piece of theatre.

And though I’ve been fortunate enough to see brief glimpses of this stimulating work in its development, I’m still very distant from it.

An initial response might be to bristle at potential anachronisms. Is the Lebanese Australian Christian community still in denial? Do young members of this community still engage in duplicitous behaviour in order to protect themselves? I have absolutely no idea.

Which posits the interesting question: Is the role of the playwright to document society? And, if so, what technical and moral attributes would be required of them to do this effectively? And what sort of awareness, both in terms of aesthetics and epistemology, would the audience of such a work need? Watching a play like this, do I say “Well, that’s the Lebanese Australian Christian community” or do I postpone judgement, counting this play as merely the equivalent of a single anecdote from someone I assume is an insider?

In the play, the young protagonist, Adam, has sexual encounters with strangers in public toilets. This is a powerful image of marginalisation and the reckless desperation it engenders. Curiously, these are the only moments in the production not presented in a naturalist mode: the actor stands alone on stage simulating a sexual act, while all sound is pre-recorded and the other male participant is physically absent. Is it the anomalous nature of this act in Adam’s otherwise conventional life that is being suggested? Probably – because it’s not especially suggestive of sex. Are contemporary audiences not ready for more vivid representations of this type of anonymous sex? See my earlier comments on anachronism.  

Director Anna Jahjah has elicited wonderful performances from her cast, each presenting an individual wrenched in opposing directions, torn by the desire to reject their community’s unpalatable demands while simultaneously longing to hold that community together. Mansoor Noor’s Adam is a brilliantly complex portrayal of a young man morally disfigured by pain, a protagonist who evokes equal parts sympathy and antipathy.  Adam’s treatment of the two young women in his life is disturbing to watch. His cousin Claire also attempts to navigate the communal myopia, and Kate Bookallil plays her with both a thrilling waspishness and intense vulnerability. Angela, Adam’s ex-girlfriend, seeks sense and security in all the duplicity and deliberate obtuseness, with Violette Ayad’s fascinating portrayal endowing her with both dignity and fragility. Deborah Galanos plays Adam’s mother, Carol, with a performance balanced delicately between vivacity and anger. Simon Elrahi’s John is frustrated paternal expectation engaged in a gripping battle with loving acceptance.

Social documentation? The eternal challenge of individuality within community? Go and choose.

Paul Gilchrist

Son of Byblos by James Elazzi

Downstairs Belvoir until 21st May

belvoir.com.au

photo credit @davidhooley

The Merry Wives of Windsor

28 Apr

In my many conversations with our greatest playwright we’ve yet to disagree, and I suspect it will be no different when I assert that The Merry Wives of Windsor is not one of Shakespeare’s finest works.

It may be apocryphal, but it’s said the play was written at the request of Queen Elizabeth, who desired to see Falstaff in love. Judging by the outcome, many contemporary playwrights might consider themselves fortunate to never have had a dramatic request from the current Elizabeth.

Of course, this sort of catty criticism is a joy to write, a chore to read, and does nothing for artists or audiences.

The Merry Wives is a fun story of female revenge. Outraged that Sir John Falstaff plans to seduce them – more for their assets financial than physical – Mistresses Page and Ford scheme to humiliate him.

Admittedly, it’s all rather fantastical; Falstaff’s famous physique makes sexual success utterly unlikely, and so the fat knight needs be deceived not only by others but also himself. (And I wouldn’t be the first critic to suggest this foolish Falstaff is not the knight we know from his most well-known outing, Henry IV, Part 1.)

In this production, directed by Victor Kalka, Falstaff is played by Cheryl Ward. This is clever casting, because Ward is a consummate performer, and because our awareness that Falstaff is being played by a woman enhances the fundamental premise of the play – that Falstaff is being played by women. I suspect both the play, and the production, would benefit from positioning Falstaff more centre stage.

Image by Bob Seary

The merry wives are played by Suzann James (with an intelligent poise) and Roslyn Hicks (with playful vivacity) and are supported by an energetic cast. Occasionally, there’s too much energy; perhaps one too many bawdy jokes are signposted by pelvic thrusts.  As you count them, think of England.

Shakespeare’s two young lovers, Fenton and Anne Page, are played with an admirable, gentle truthfulness by Olivia Xegas and Jessie Lancaster, and serve as a wonderful contrast to all the surrounding nonsense.

This production is worth seeing for its curiosity, energy and absurdity.

Veronica Kaye

The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare

New Theatre until 21 May

newtheatre.org.au

Lady Precious Stream

6 Apr

This is a life-affirming production.

I don’t read anything about a show before I see it. (This decision is all about retaining objectivity and absolutely nothing to do with the fact reading takes effort and, if I was into effort, I wouldn’t write about theatre.)

Having read nothing about Lady Precious Stream, I initially thought it was an example of charming orientalism. It tells of a noble family’s attempts to marry off their youngest daughter to an appropriate suitor, despite her utterly unreasonable desire to live her own life.

What is orientalism? (And can it be charming? Or is it merely sinister?) Orientalism is a positing of the Other in a way that benefits the Occident. It may function as a justification of imperialism. It may function as way of establishing identity – by way of definition by opposition. (For example; in this play, characters are mocked for their misogyny and obsession with status. And, of course, there’s absolutely nothing like that in our society.)

That’s the sinister form of orientalism; what about the charming form? This presents the exotic. It offers a vision of life that is invigorating because it’s so different from our own. (And, potentially, from anyone anywhere’s actual life. Much thrilling and life-expanding theatre is this type of orientalism.)

As it turns out, Lady Precious Stream is a Chinese play.

What exactly is a Chinese play? What does the adjective in that term signify? (Skip this bit of pedantry if you want; after all, language is merely a net we drag through the ocean of reality; it doesn’t catch everything, and everything it catches it kills.) Is a Chinese play a play written in Chinese? Or a play written by someone born in China? Or a play written by someone not living in China but descended from people who did? Or a play that just happens to be about China, written by anyone?

Lady Precious Stream is based on a traditional Chinese story and was written in English by Chinese playwright S. I. Hsiung. It was first performed in the 1930’s in England, with an English cast. Is it accurate to call this play a piece of orientalism? After all, it was written by a Chinese playwright. But for who? An English audience. (See my earlier comment about pedantry.)

This production is by Asian-Australian company Slanted Theatre, and it’s a whole lot of fun.

It works beautifully on two levels: working within the parameters of the charming form of orientalism, and operating as a gentle parody of the reductionism that all orientalism tempts us into if we read it as realism.

What’s so marvellous about this production by director Tiffany Wong and her brilliant cast is its exuberant lightness.

The whole team offer wonderful comic performances. Wise beyond her years and cheekily independent, Susan Ling Young shines as Lady Precious Stream; it’s an inspired piece of casting. Steve Lu and Mym Kwa each play a couple, each doubling as both husband and wife, and the effect is dizzyingly mischievous.

The Flying Nun by Brand X provides an invaluable space for artists to experiment, and Wong uses the opportunity magnificently. Her playful mixing of modern tech and more traditional elements of movement and sound create an art work that is gloriously conscious of its status as an artefact. Who needs reality; this is magic.

Veronica Kaye

Lady Precious Stream by S. I. Hsiung

The Flying Nun by Brand X  1 April – 2 April

Image by Liangyu Sun @ theatreworks

The Spook

30 Mar

With apologies to L P Hartley, the past is a foreign country (more specifically, one of those obscure, miniscule European states who take Eurovision seriously.)

Historical comedies often function on the premise that we’ll happily laugh at people from the past. The temptation to feel superior is….overwhelming. And, really, who’s being hurt?

Photo by Bob Seary

Set in Bendigo in the late 60’s, The Spook by Melissa Reeves presents the conflict between small time ASIO operatives and the local branch of the Australian Communist Party. Much of the humour – and there’s plenty of it – comes from the skewing of pettiness and posturing in the face of genuine issues.

Laughing at our own irrelevance is an Australian tradition.

Or is it something more sinister? Humility is healthy, until it becomes negligence. The Spook guarantees a lot of fun in its playful mockery of banality and ego-driven myopia, but Reeves makes clear that political action is both necessary and significant. It has to be done, and it has to be done with care.

All politics are local, except when they’re not – and they’re not when our neighbours cease to be people and become types. See those around you as participants in some grand apocalyptic battle and it’s easy to forget they are human beings, fragile and flawed, just like yourself.

The Spook is a Cold War comedy, but only Australian political naivety could explain a failure to recognise the play’s contemporary relevance. The myth of the grand battle is still being told.  

(Speaking of forces of darkness: COVID hates theatre. It’s done its evil best to close this production on several occasions. Theatre needs actors to have spent lots of time together beforehand, in the rehearsal room, on the set – and on the first weekend of this production it was apparent that the wicked schemes of the malevolent virus had had some impact. But this is a brilliant team offering some wonderful performances, and I am sure by now the enemy has been vanquished and theatre holds the field. Courageous. Audacious. Exuberant.)

Veronica Kaye

The Spook by Melissa Reeves  

New Theatre until April 9

https://newtheatre.org.au/the-spook/

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.

Down_An_Alley_Filled_With_Cats_Production_Photo_09

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.

Jack-Rabbit-750x501

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.