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Hero and Companion

3 Feb

Yes, I’m a fan of new work. And of writer-directors.

Some might find my tastes a little unusual. After all, theatre is one of those strange art forms where the norm seems to be that you do other people’s work, preferably once it’s already been done by someone else. (Of course, there are reasons for this: many understandable, few admirable.)

Hero and Companion is new work by writer-director Erica J. Brennan. It’s exciting and experimental, full of beautiful imagery, both visual and linguistic.

The two pieces are explorations of fear and anger.

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Photo by Reef Gahaa

The Hero Leaves a Tooth is a comedy of manners, set in a world where women have grown forbidding teeth in their vaginas. It’s a type of revenge fantasy. Set in a dining room amongst friends, it suggests that the potential for violence and fear that underscores sex, especially for women, is found not only in extreme circumstances but in the everyday.

Companion Piece tells of a woman who visits a watch shop for a repair, but it’s she herself who needs mending. If Hero suggests anger, this suggests that anger needs extraction.

These pieces value imagery, risk taking and a seductive resistance to clarity. They brim with metaphor, but rather than ponderously signifying, these metaphors invite reflection. Rather than snapping shut, like a set of teeth, the world opens up.

Brennan has surrounded herself with a quality team. Jake Nielsen and Matthew Predny have written two cracking opening numbers, which effectively introduce the vibrant theatre to follow. The design team (Camilla Turnbull, Ester Karuso-Thurn and Liam O’Keefe) do work that is attractive and effective.

Performances are generally good, especially the pitch perfect energy of Cat Martin and Victoria Greiner in Companion. Each piece has a show stopping monologue, each performed brilliantly – by Pollyanna Nowicki in Hero and Shauntelle Benjamin in Companion. It is in these set pieces that Brennan’s writing most shines.

Hero and Companion is presented as part of the Old 505 Freshworks season. The Old 505 should be congratulated for this, and for their ongoing commitment to new work.

Paul Gilchrist

 

Hero and Companion by Erica J. Brennan

Old 505 Theatre til 5 Feb

Tix and info here

Much Ado About Nothing

1 Feb

Needless to say, this is not new work. The play was written in 1598. It’s been performed a few times since then.

This production, by director Deborah Mulhall, is fun and intriguing.

When you choose to produce a play like this you’re in an interesting situation. Your audience will be made up of a whole range of people, some of who virtually know the play off-by-heart and others who are experiencing it for the first time. You’re either in conversation with a vast tradition or casting fresh magic.

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Photo by Grant Fraser

 

Mulhall finds in the play not just the oft played “merry war” between the sexes but also the fight for equal rights for women. There’s scriptural basis for this. Beatrice makes the impassioned plea “Oh God, that I were a man!” But the nub of this interpretation is the characterization of Hero. Here’s her journey in a nut shell (yes, a spoiler): She’s wary of marrying her suitor, but accepts him anyway. She then happily helps in the light-hearted plot to get a husband for her cousin. At her own wedding, she is defamed by her foolish fiance, and is so shocked she struggles to defend herself. When her husband-to-be is forced to acknowledge his breathtaking injustice, she criticizes him for his behavior, and marries him anyway. And then in the final moments she playfully teases her cousin for falling in love. Back and forth between refusal and acceptance of societal expectations; which is no problem, except Shakespeare only gives her sixty lines to do it in. Catherine Lewis as Hero is wonderful, an engaging stage presence, but if the character is to symbolize the struggle to end gender inequality perhaps the role is being asked to do too much. If you’re part of the great conversation with the text, it’ll give you plenty to talk about into the night. See it and make up your own mind.

But, as I said earlier, it’s an enjoyable night. Mulhall elicits some good performances from her cast. The comedy works well – not always an easy feat with Shakespeare.  The two characters who have long dominated the way the play is received, Beatrice and Benedict, are played marvelously by Emma Wright and Ted Crosby. They‘re articulate, charming and smart.

Possibly Shakespeare’s greatest insight into the human condition is that love, which can seem a type of madness, doesn’t necessarily make us stupid. We can both woe and be wise.

Paul Gilchrist

Much ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare

Genesian Theatre til 25th February

Tix and info  here

Osama the Hero

27 Jan

This is a foreign play, played in accent and set in a UK housing estate.

Theatre has always sought street cred. Though it’s gloriously fun, there’s something childish about pretending to be someone else. To compensate, we choose stories that are confronting and characters that are dangerous.

This production values bold vocal performances, a furious energy, and the exploration of the socially gritty.

Director Richard Hilliar and his cast give it their all. It’s not pretty (and not meant to be) but it is fiery and thought-provoking.

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Dennis Kelly’s script is about aspiration: wanting someone to look up to, wanting to do better, wanting safety.

Joshua McElroy plays Gary, a bewildered and isolated high school student, and finds both the humour and pathos in the character’s unsophisticated truth telling. Gary is asked to give a speech about ‘crimes against humanity’ and chooses to discuss Hello magazine, citing its celebrity nonsense and trashy materialism. Unsurprisingly, he’s not understood by his peers. This is exacerbated by his next speech, about Osama bin Laden. Gary admires bin Laden because (supposedly) he fought for what he believed – really fought, as against merely sent others to fight while eating in fancy restaurants.

This theme is taken up later, in a different key, by another teenager, Mandy (played intriguingly by Poppy Lynch as a tension between idiot child and sage.) Mandy once thought that somewhere there were some grownups in charge of everything, but she’s realized that no such abrogation of responsibility is possible.

In the meantime, the adults are exercising their authority in the only manner they know: violence. Gary has been tortured. His crime against humanity?  Allegedly blowing up a garage.

The residents of the estate are all damaged souls. Louise has a father who’s in prison for assaulting a pedophile, purportedly for her protection. Nicole Wineberg plays Louise with a fascinating mix of fire and vulnerability, allowing her to oscillate wildly between certainty and doubt; not so much a candle in the wind, as a blow torch in a hurricane. Louise’s brother, Francis, has been forced into acts of extreme cruelty, but has also had intimations of an alternative. Tel Benjamin plays him with power and insight. Recent arrival at the estate, Mark (Lynden Jones), is accused of being a pedophile himself. Jones nails cowardly and simpering (and considering the roles I’ve had the pleasure to see him in, including Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s a tribute to his versatility as a performer.)

Yes, Osama the Hero is a violent play. But it’s also a play about the sources of violence: culture, environment and, most of all, fear.

I began by suggesting this is a foreign play, but fear, that so urges us to erect borders, knows none itself.

Paul Gilchrist

 

Osama the Hero by Dennis Kelly

Kings Cross Theatre til 4 Feb

Tix and info here

 

The Testament of Mary

19 Jan

Here are a few things to keep in mind while reading this review:

  1. The performance I saw was a preview.
  2. I paid for my ticket.
  3. I don’t write reviews.

Despite whatever nonsense you may have learnt in Sunday School, the Original Sin was the writing up of a preview performance.

But I claim Immaculate status – because of the above point 3. I’m not going to do the whole judgement thing. Anyone who’s had anything to do with Christianity is probably over the whole judgement thing. It’s all a little more complex than that.

And this production begins with an image that suggests that very idea; a statue of Mary becomes a living, breathing woman. She then tells us her version of events.

Her life has been dominated by her son, and considering his fate, she is understandably traumatized. Alison Whyte gives an engrossing performance.

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Image by Lisa Tomasetti

Jesus is not presented as some great religious teacher or the Redeemer (but nor is he just a naughty boy.) Whatever vision he may have had, it is not shared by his mother. The evangelists who harass Mary for details of Jesus’ life are keen to aggrandize him, but according to his mother’s testimony, so was the man himself. The play offers many myths for reassessment, but perhaps the most universal of these myths is that of a mother’s uncritical devotion. This Mary suffers from a spiritual and imaginative exhaustion.

Her narrative focuses on only a few events: the raising of Lazarus from the dead, the wedding in Canaan, the crucifixion. She denies the Resurrection.

However, playwright Colm Tóibín allows Mary’s story some intriguing anomalies, preventing it from descending into a commonplace materialist attack on Christian theology. For example, Jesus is capable of miracles (though their value is ambiguous.) And, regarding the fate of the man, Mary and Lazarus’ sister oddly have exactly the same dream.

It is this dream that the evangelists wish to twist into the story of the Resurrection.

Mary says “They want what happened to live forever. What is being written down, they say, will change the world.”

So, in summary, Tóibín has made up a story about the evangelists making up a story.

Most audiences will feel Tóibín’s story is more likely, but only the naive will think he’s claiming it’s true.

The actual Original Sin is to expect stories to be true. If they are to be judged at all, it’s not in that way.

Paul Gilchrist

 

The Testament of Mary
By Colm Tóibín

Sydney Theatre Company
Directed by Imara Savage
Performed by Alison Whyte

Wharf 1
13 Jan — 25 Feb

Tix and info here

Tom Ballard: Boundless Plains to Share

16 Jan

As a dramatist, I don’t particularly warm to stand-up comedians, especially really good ones.

Stand-up seems like tennis played with the net down. (Writing a play is using the net as a tightrope, and chainsaws for balance.)

Boundless Plains to Share is about how we’ve put a net up and then popped razor wire on top: it’s about Australian policy towards asylum seekers. The title refers to the second verse of our national anthem.

In addition to being really funny, Ballard presents a history of the policy, and offers a solution to the ongoing issue.

Moral conundrum: When writing up a stand-up show, can you be guilty of a SPOILER?

Since our society has had trouble seeing any problem with the indefinite incarceration of children, I won’t be waiting for an answer to that one.

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Image by Richard Hedger

 

So here’s the SPOILER: Ballard has no solution. Instead, he intelligently, humanely and humorously suggests we can do better than we’re doing now. (For starters, we could release all children being held in detention.)

All dramatists (or, at least, really good ones) know that there never are complete solutions.

The whole messy unpleasant business that is Life only ceases to throw up conundrums when you’ve retired from the business.

The best we can do is to try to do better.

Fortunately, when you’re doing so badly*, that’s really easy.

Paul Gilchrist

*Currently 50 children are being held in detention, and over 2000 adults. None of them have committed a crime.

 

Tom Ballard: Boundless Plains to Share

Belvoir, 13 – 15 January

This production has now closed. I was not invited to write about this show.

Summer Rain

29 Nov

I should hate this production.

Not because of the performances, which are extraordinary. This cast is all class.

Not because of the direction: Trent Kidd’s debut is wonderful. In everything, from tone to tableau, he has created a beautiful piece of theatre.

Not because of the choreography: it’s delightful. (And also the work of Kidd.) I’d come back just for “Watch The Puddles”, performed by Catty Hamilton and Nat Jobe.

Not because of the music by Terence Clarke: Tim Cuniffe’s band is marvelous, and the singing gorgeous.

Not because of the set and costume: Mason Browne’s design is magnificent, and intriguingly versatile – at times evoking a Drysdale rural streetscape, and at others, the main bar of a country pub.

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Photo by Chris Lundie 

No, I should hate this production because of the script.

For me, it’s the archetypal example of a certain school of theatre: one that values nostalgia, sentimentality and simplicity.

Set in rural Australia in 1945, but written in 1983, it harks back, ever back, to something we imagine we have lost, but we’ve probably just imagined. And, in telling the story of a family of travelling performers who shake up a small country town, it’s dreadfully self serving in its vision of theatre. And the characterization? Everyone has passions but no one has thoughts. (The feelings are laconically expressed, of course. The playwright was certainly a master of the Aussie vernacular.)

As I said, I should hate it.

But Nick Enright knew what he was doing. Like The Tempest, the work of the mature Shakespeare, Summer Rain is a deeply humane gift, a tale of wonder and of reconciliation. They’re great dramatic themes, some would say the greatest. The play is an invitation to open our eyes to joy. And I say Whacko to that.

Paul Gilchrist

 

Summer Rain 

Book and lyrics by Nick Enright, Music and arrangements by Terence Clarke

at New Theatre til 17 December

tix and info here

The Screwtape Letters

23 Nov

When I read The Screwtape Letters years ago I loved it. C.S. Lewis is a first-rate Christian apologist and an incomparable stylist.

What is an apologist? Apologists defend the claims of Christianity, but not by a call to faith, but rather by historical evidence, philosophical arguments and the like.

Apologists attempt to make the magical appear possible, the absurd seem reasonable.

What Lewis does in The Screwtape Letters is save the Devil.

What I mean is that he saves the concept of the Devil from contemporary cultural forces that would have us view temptation as exciting and evil as transgressive.

Lewis presents Satan as hell bent, not on some metaphysical concept of damnation, but rather on human misery. As one human soul says, as he finds himself in Hell, I have arrived here by doing neither what I ought nor what I enjoyed.

Screwtape is a senior devil dispensing advice to a junior devil on how to best make the human soul in his charge damnable – that is miserable.

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Photo by John Leung

It’s a cute conceit, and one of Lewis’ neat tricks is to make Hell a bureaucracy. Sharp letters go back and forth between the departments, and it’s all great fun, but the result is that we’re given some wonderful insights into how we can potentially waste our lives: in sleepwalking habit, in obsession with trivia, in petty vanities. (A simple example: Encourage your human charge to read, suggests Screwtape, though not for enjoyment, but that he may say clever things to his friends.)

There have been several stage adaptations of the book, and this version by director Hailey McQueen works well. This is an achievement; the original source material is not fundamentally dramatic, nor even a dramatic monologue, but rather a set of essays framed in Lewis’ ironic epistolary form.

To make it work, you need a top notch cast, and Yannick Lawry and George Zhao provide the goods. As Screwtape, Lawry is suitably dapper and articulate, classically and coldly reasonable…until provoked. Zhao as Toadpipe gives a wonderful physical performance, his clowning providing the necessary texture which allows us to appreciate Lewis’ rich, beautiful prose.

Do you have to be Christian to enjoy this?

I’m not and I did.

Paul Gilchrist

 

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis (adaptation by Hailey McQueen)

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Tuesday 22 November- Saturday 10 December, then Melbourne and Canberra.

Tix and info here

Tiny Remarkable Bramble

21 Nov

I’m going to pretend I understood this one. Not that understanding is crucial for theatre. Or enjoyment. Or life.

Our protagonist, Alice, seems to need help in order to face the world.  At hand are a kooky collection of characters, played with appropriately high energy by Cathy Hunt’s cast. (I’ve been a fan of Hunt since I saw her Judith at the Bondi Pav a few years back.) Thomas Campbell plays a terrific toy soldier. Lucy Suze Taylor is a delightful vamp. Michael Whalley is a gorgeously awkward geek. Contessa Treffone is a charming innocent, bright-eyed and bubble-wrapped. (Yes, she actually is.) Catherine Terracini is the slogan-speaking motivator, engaging to us, maddening to Alice. Geraldine Viswanathan plays Alice with an intriguing mix of cynicism and vulnerability.  She’s in a sort of Wonderland, and soon it becomes apparent that these crazy kids are in as much need of help as she is. They’re hiding from the outside.

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Photo by Clare Hawley

Someone smart, someone like Picasso, said something like “I don’t paint what a tree looks like. I paint how it makes me feel.”

So, as Jessica Tuckwell’s Tiny Remarkable Bramble is clearly not a piece of naturalism, what aspect of human experience does it explore?

Perhaps it’s a riff on how the world can feel overwhelming, and on the potential for the mind to transcend this feeling. The script is jam packed with snappy dialogue, half-gag, half-nonsense (or perhaps all-gag if you’re in the likely position of being smarter than me.)

The characters are preparing for a talent quest. “It’s all a talent quest out there.” It’s a stimulating metaphor, though not one that especially resonates with me. (Life, for me, is that ocean swim where you don’t know which way is land. Or it’s a bunch of us on a raft, rationing the resources, and trying to get on.) But Life as a stupid compulsory competition probably seems a good description for a lot of people.

Paul Gilchrist

Tiny Remarkable Bramble by Jessica Tuckwell

Kings Cross Theatre as part of Invisible Circus

Tuesday 22nd November, Friday 25th November

Full program and tix here

Let’s Talk About You

21 Nov

‘I contain multitudes’ sang Walt Whitman.

Let’s Talk About You is a distillation of this idea.  Elaine Hudson and Anne Tenney portray different parts of the same person. I could simplify even more, and suggest Tenney plays the grander parts of the soul and Hudson plays the lesser. (This degree of distillation can be either potent or unpalatable, depending on how much you’ve already drunk.) Taylor Owynns plays the generous spirited friend attempting to make sense of her conflicted companion. All three actors give astounding performances, physically engaging, and vocally delicious.

Rivka Hartman’s script is full of sparkling one-liners. Is the divided self conceit just a device for making jokes, or is it an exploration of the human experience? This is light comedy. But though there are plenty of froth and bubbles, lurking below, in the back stories, are some rather frightening (male) sharks.

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Photo by Vicki Skarrat

The play is a paean to self-reflection. Like Socrates, I believe an unexamined life is not worth living; but I do feel it should be a take-home exam. Much of the play’s fun comes from the fact that the divided character’s very necessary self-examination is being practiced at exactly the wrong time. It’s difficult to have two conversations at once, and to be good in company, you must first learn to talk to yourself.

Paul Gilchrist

Let’s Talk About You by Rivka Hartman

The Depot Theatre til 26 Nov

Tix and more info here

The Angelica Complex

16 Nov

Early in this production the character says words to the effect: “As a woman, you can be either strong or vulnerable. You can’t be both.”

And then we’re gifted a performance that is both strong and vulnerable: strong in that Kym Vercoe is an extraordinary actor whose vocal and physical work is of the highest quality; vulnerable in that we’re given a heartbreaking insight into the challenges facing a woman who has newly become a mother.

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Kym Vercoe, photo by Phil Erbacher

 

Part of Invisible Circus, a festival of work by female theatre practitioners currently at KXT, Sunny Grace’s The Angelica Complex is one of the voices we need if our theatrical culture can claim to be truly diverse. (Though the fact I can use the word ‘diverse’ to label a work that explores such fundamentals of human existence as birth and breastfeeding suggests we might have a way to go. I blame society, not myself; in polite company, that’s always best.)

This is a powerful tale presented with both humour and pathos. Director Priscilla Jackman uses the traverse stage to full effect. Sometimes it’s a theatrical space for an individual woman’s intimate sharing of her joys and desperate challenges. At other times it becomes a symbol of a social space offering no escape from the gaze that sees only the role and never the person. Lucia May’s live video feed effectively captures the tension of a particular woman put on the spot, while Naomi Livingston’s vocals beautifully evoke the forces that tug at the boundaries of individuality.

Paul Gilchrist

 

The Angelica Complex

Priscilla Jackman (Co-creator & director)
Sunny Grace (Co-creator & writer)

Kings Cross Theatre

Saturday 12th November, Tuesday 15th November,Friday 18th November, Thursday 24th November and Sunday 27th November

As part of Invisible Circus. Full program and tix here