14 Nov

Almitra Mavalvala has an absolutely beautiful voice and is a gifted songwriter.

Blacklisted is non-fiction, a sharing of Mavalvala’s personal story.

The title refers to Canada’s refusal to give her a visa. She holds a passport from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. She tells the story of leaving Karachi to pursue her dreams, and eventually ending up here.

Supported by a terrific band  – Tim Cunniffe on keyboard, Kayla Flax on cello and Sarita McHarg on sitar – Mavalvala’s music is mesmerising. Her spoken story has intriguing gaps. I wanted to know more about why she felt had to leave Pakistan. I wanted to know why she thinks Pakistan is “broken”. I would have loved the story to dig deeper into her assumption that she should be able to travel anywhere on the planet. Her argument is that she has been a victim of discrimination and I don’t question that – but when you consider how human cultures have long fought over land and access to resources, it’s odd that we moderns feel we have a right to go everywhere. I’m not defending parochialism, but living in a society in which virtually every theatre production begins with an acknowledgement of country that asserts “sovereignty was never ceded” it should come as no surprise that not every border is automatically open to us.

Mavalvala has some rich musings on belonging and the nature of home. As this work continues to develop – and I hope it does because Australian audiences need more like this – I encourage her to transcend the current theatrical tropes of victimhood, using her testimony of injustice as a step to explore the many walls we build and our reasons for building them, and sharing the beauty that is revealed when even a single brick is removed from one of those walls.

That beauty is implicit already in Mavalvala’s musical performance, and I count myself fortunate to have been in the audience for the show’s “First Look” season.   

Paul Gilchrist

Blacklisted written and performed by Almitra Mavalvala       

First Look Season, 9 -12 Nov, Hayes Theatre

Tis a Pity She’s A Whore

8 Nov

This is big, bold and bloody. (FYI one of those thanked on the program is a butcher.)

John Ford’s tragedy was written sometime in the 1620’s and initially enjoyed popularity. However, it dropped out of favour for several hundred years, and has only being revived since the 20th Century. It’s an absolutely terrific play, but its presentation of incest has discomforted many audiences.

Some critics have claimed it virtually condones the act, but you only have to do a body count to appreciate that Ford believed that such behaviour might end rather messily.

The taboo against incest is almost universal (though some of the Ancient Egyptian pharaohs gave it red hot go.) It’s a curious prohibition; if it’s between consenting adults (as it is in this play) and if there is no chance of conception (not as it is in this play) it can be difficult to explain exactly why we find it problematic. The more ethically adventurous might question if it actually is – though seeing this production, and realising that the act involves the incestuous lovers sharing a raw egg, its repulsiveness becomes plain. Excluding that odd touch, and some rather patchy lighting, this is a thoroughly thrilling production.

Flow Studios, with its clear playing space, balcony and simple décor featuring exposed wood, almost evokes a Jacobean or Caroline theatre. Director Harry Reid uses the space beautifully and elicits from his cast high-energy performances and a glorious commitment to the bloodiness. 

The lovers are brother and sister, and the actors deserve respect for taking on such confrontational roles. But it’s not just about shock; the siblings are performed with a fascinating richness.  Bayley Prendergast’s Giovanni is a single-minded selfish school boy academic, not above lying to his sister, clever but not wise. (You could argue he lacks even common sense; bed a healthy young woman without using effective contraception and the consequences are both damnable and predictable.) Olivia Hall-Smith’s Annabelle is less bull-headed than her brother, and so is buffeted by storms that appear only partly of her making. She’s giddily delighted when a secret desire is miraculously fulfilled, and terrified of hell fire and fearful for her life when the balloon bursts.

Annabella’s maid, Putana, is a descendant of Juliet’s nurse – vulgar and dispensing terrible advice – and Claudia Schnier wonderfully captures the character’s earthiness and glib devotion to hedonism. Putana’s turning of a blind eye to the potential consequences of her mistress’ actions gives her ultimate fate a horrific aptness.

Isabella Williams as Hippolito, a lover scorned, is powerfully waspish, and her masqued dance is a highlight, an extraordinary piece of movement.

Vasquez, the servant of Soranzo, who Annabella eventually marries, is a creation indicative of Ford’s genius, and Clay Crighton plays all the twists and turns of the character with consummate skill.  Utterly unscrupulous, Vasquez is in the tradition of the Machiavellian villain, a distant cousin of Iago – but what makes him so fascinating is that his apparent amorality is not driven by self-interest but rather by devotion to his master. In a play in which the focus is often perceived as the giving in to desire, it’s a thought-provoking subversion, an exciting addition to this beautiful, blood-splattered journey into the dark chambers of the human heart.

Paul Gilchrist

Tis a Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford

Flow Studios until 13 Nov

One Hour No Oil

30 Oct

One hundred minutes no intermission. Now, that’s a trigger warning. It triggered me – but my fears were misplaced. This play by Kenneth Moraleda and Jordan Shea is easy viewing.

It did, however, lead to much lengthier post-show musings. But more of that later.

John Gomez Goodway plays Bhing, a Filipino migrant working as a masseur in a town near the Western Australian mining fields. He has magic hands. He has a gift which verges on the supernatural; he can see physical pain in others. He is an inheritor of a grand tradition. Bhing has a new client, Scott, played by Shaw Cameron, a “skip”, a boiler maker from one of the mines. Scott is a “caveman”, desperate to ease the pain in his damaged shoulder, but uncertain about such close physical contact with a man, especially an Asian man.

We witness their massage sessions. Moraleda and Shea’s decision to privilege physicality is unexpectedly intellectually stimulating, and an exciting theatrical invitation. Director Moraleda and movement director Lauren Nalty effectively stylise the massage sessions – there’s no lying face down on a table – there’s a smooth flowing beauty.

Sometimes Bhing and Scott speak to each other, but often they express their thoughts and feelings in a stream of consciousness that’s sometimes directed at us, and sometimes not. Their relationship gradually changes. The marketing implies the transcending of hate…. but that’s marketing; the play offers something darker than that.

The performances are captivating, bravely participating in the creation of two rather unlikeable characters. (After beginning the show with the longest and most combative acknowledgement of country I’ve heard for a while, we were presented with two non-indigenous characters clearly living off the proceeds of that country. Similarly, there’s a moment when one of the characters – vagueness due to spoiler rule – has a clear duty of care but is conflicted about fulfilling it because he really wants to attend an interview with a bureaucracy so he can prove he has read their documentation about duty of care.) But don’t get the impression we’re being asked to watch two entitled bores; the writers provide plenty of moments of humour and charm which the performers play wonderfully.

The two actors share the space with musician Alec Steedman, who creates fun sound effects, and also performs two amusing cameos.

Two handers are notoriously difficult. How do you get the balance right between the characters? Do you try for balance at all? In this play, Bhing is assumed to be vastly superior to Scott. So what responsibilities, if any, might this incur?  Any answer to that is dependent on the answer to this: How does a relationship between two specific individuals – and there’s a lot of stage time to make them quite specific – evoke something wider to an audience?

The spoiler rule makes my point difficult to make, but it is tempting to read this play as a type of parable, or maybe even fable. If so, it’s moral is this: New comers owe you nothing. It’s just a “business arrangement”. They don’t like you, and maybe you should just die, so they can leave their past behind in the inevitability of their rise to middle class status. But don’t blame them, because you’ve done it yourself, to those who came before.

It’s an easy evening of theatre, written and performed with a gentle warmth that belies a deeper darkness. You’ve got to be happy with that.

Paul Gilchrist

One Hour No Oil by Kenneth Moraleda and Jordan Shea

Kings Cross Theatre until 5 Nov

Image by Clare Hawley

The Italians

28 Oct

Danny Ball’s The Italians is a fast and furious farce. It’s gloriously silly, and gleefully subversive.

The Italians are Australians. This is contemporary Sydney.

Director Riley Spadoro elicits fantastic comic performances from the entire cast. Here’s a few highlights. Teenage Maria, played by Amy Hack, delivers a dance number that is absolute gold, and not just because of the lamé outfit. Similarly, her love affair with Mikey the plumber, played by Philip D’Ambrosio, is brilliant bogan bombast. Doubling as elderly Giuseppina, D’Ambrosio in walking frame, holding court at the Catholic Club, handing out prescription drugs like homemade biscotti, is hilarious. Emma O’Sullivan as Patrizia, the Italian visiting from Italy, is delightfully audacious, and her turn as the Virgin Mary is miraculous. The two gay lovers, played by Ball and Brandon Scane, and cousin Luca, played by Nic English, are very funny and very real.   

Ball’s play is an exciting, intelligent and much needed interrogation of the concept of identity. As Maria says to her brother “Everybody’s gay now. Or at least queer. So you’re not special.” Who am I? is a question that resists definitive answer, at least when asked by a human being. But there are many reasons why we might assert an answer to that question – not all of them either wise or good.

The Italians challenges monolithic visions of what it is to be “Italian” in contemporary Australia. It does this through its playful awareness of stereotypes. It does it through the ongoing dispute as to the status of being Sardinian, Sicilian or Milanese. (Will the real Italian please stand up?) It does it through an onstage visit by Albo, the Australian prime minister with an Italian father. It does it when the only actual Italian character in the play screams at the rest You’re not Italian! And then there’s the absurdity of Ozzie. In a parody perfect portrayal by Deborah Galanos, decked in green, gold and uggies, sporting a blonde mullet, Ozzie complains he felt marginalised at his multicultural high school. It induces tears – of laughter.  And then there’s the end, which I can’t reveal because of the spoiler rule. Let’s just say it’s a mischievous invitation to consider who it is that constructs identities and asserts they are “realities”, and what they hope to gain.

Paul Gilchrist

The Italians by Danny Ball

Downstairs Belvoir, as part of 25A, until 6 Nov

Image by Katherine Griffiths

The Caretaker

20 Oct

This is a brilliant production of a brilliant play.

Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker is a remarkable portrait of lost souls. It features the most extraordinary dialogue, characters who speak as so many of us do:

In circumlocution.

In repetition.

In sentences that begin confidently and assured, only to ……

In awe of that single word or phrase we believe has a magical power.

In repetition.

In blustered, unearned high modality.

In low modality’s whispered reluctance.

In each utterance, each silence, language as the angel with whom we must wrestle to earn our birthright.

Iain Sinclair’s cast are sensational. They make us savour every syllable of Pinter’s text. And the physicality is hilarious. The sequence in which the three characters dispute ownership of a bag is magnificent. Darren Gilshenan as Davies, the man down on his luck, a stray who wags his tail now and bares his fangs then, delivers a performance of comic genius. (And I don’t mean it’s played just for laughs, but rather as a fully paid-up card-carrying member of the human comedy, as complete as it comes on that fantastical far side of the fourth wall.) Anthony Gooley as Aston, the man who offers Davies shelter, is gentle, slow, measured…. a mystery, that when revealed, is deeply affecting. Henry Nixon’s Mick is manic and volatile, the perfect foil to his brother’s quiet.

In one small, simple room these three performances reveal a world – one of damaged individuals longing to be whole. I left the theatre overwhelmed by two feelings:

wonder at what this artform can do,

and desire to cut each and every crazy broken soul just a little slack.

Paul Gilchrist

The Caretaker by Harold Pinter

Ensemble until 19 Nov  

Image by Prudence Upton

Past The Shallows

14 Oct

Julian Larnach’s play is based on Favel Parrett’s novel of the same name.

Set in a Tasmanian coastal community, it tells the story of three brothers attempting to survive their abusive father.

Designer Keerthi Subramanyam gives the actors a simple, clear acting space that becomes, through the power of language and the evocative AV design of Nema Adel, the family home, the beach, the bush, the ocean.

Director Ben Winspear’s cast do beautiful work. The three actors – Meg Clarke, Ryan Hodson, and Griffin McLaughlin – play all the characters. Intriguingly, the roles of the three siblings – ten year old Harry, fifteen year old Miles and nineteen year old Tom – are shared, with the actors swapping from character to character, and sometimes a character’s physicality being presented by one actor and their voice by another. It’s all a tour de force of fine performance. Of course, it’s also rather confusing for someone attempting to get their head around the story. It’s a decision whose purpose appears to be thematic rather than narrative driven, an evocation of the sibling’s inviolable bond.

As a narrative there are provocative choices being made. It definitely privileges the experience of the painfully vulnerable children, characters who suffer, but whose fundamental and exemplary goodness remains untouched.  In contrast, their father’s brutality is vast and deep, a force of nature, as wild and volatile as the ocean. Yes, he’s given a back history, but it feels a little like the explanation we offer for many forces of nature. (e.g. We say the tides are caused by gravity, but what on earth is gravity?)

Mentioning back history brings bubbling to the surface the notion of repressed memories. Our psychologically aware culture has accepted the possibility of memories being repressed, and that means every narrative can, if it chooses, hide the key to the present in the past, finding that key at whatever time best delivers a dramatic punch. The way this play deals with the relationship between past, present and future invites much discussion post-show …. and into the future.

Beside the father, the other key character who gets less time on stage than he might is Tom, the eldest brother. Because he can, Tom flees the violence, leaving his siblings behind. The ethical element of this decision is acknowledged, but it is not a focus of the play. Instead, we remain with the children in their suffering, being asked for empathy we’ve already given.

But once again, post-show, we might consider that empathy for the unempowered is a quality we could all nurture a little more.

Paul Gilchrist

Past The Shallows by Julian Larnach (adapted from the novel by Favel Parrett)

The Rebel Theatre until 9 November

Image by Jesse Hunniford

For the Grace of You Go I

13 Oct

For The Grace of You Go I by Alan Harris is very funny and very clever.

On the simplest level, the play is an indictment of our treatment of the mentally ill, of how programs purportedly designed to help them are, in fact, self-seeking.

But I don’t think the play is really about mental illness, or only is in so far as many mental illnesses are suffered by almost everyone. (I don’t in any way mean the play uses mental illness or is without sympathy for those who suffer.) What I mean is that the mental illness portrayed by the protagonist is a hyperbolic example of what most people experience. (But doesn’t the hyperbole make it an illness? No, it makes it drama.)

Jim believes he is both directing a movie and is its major character. I would argue, that in modernity, this is a common human experience. We do imagine our lives as films that are watched. Life as artefact. (If not the examined life, then the viewed life.) As theatre goers, it might be difficult to see how there could be a different way of thinking about it; after all, when you watch a play, a supposed representation of life, you are seeing life from the outside. But, outside the theatre (and inside it too) you are actually just in life. The watchable parts are an extraordinarily small part of being alive. It could be put this way: there’s doing, there’s being and there is. They’re not the same, and they’re not equal. (They’re in ascending order.)

Another philosophical invitation from the play comes when Jim says he can sometimes see the little man who sits at the control board just behind his skull, directing all his movements. It’s the homunculus fallacy; the idea that to explain vision, or indeed consciousness at all, there must be a little person inside us who is watching the movie we see play on our retina, or who is directing all our movements. Like a man inside a giant puppet suit.  He directs the suit. But who directs him? Another smaller person inside him, who sees him as the giant puppet suit? And inside that person? And on, ad infinitum…..

I’m not forgetting that Jim says he can see the little person at the control board. Most of us just imagine that person exists.

None of this is to suggest that the play is heavy. It’s very funny, deeply intriguing, and eminently watchable. (I’m the one being philosophically pretentious.)

On the night I saw the show there were technical problems, but still the performances were wonderful. The cast play the humour brilliantly, and director Lucy Clements works well the script’s truly unnerving tensions. One such is the contrast between James Smithers’ Jim and Shan-Ree Tan’s Mark.  Jim’s moving dedication to truth (despite, or because of, his dissociation) smacks up against Mark’s duplicity. Mark is the type of person who says something quite threatening, only to then claim it was all a joke. Tan navigates beautifully Mark’s piteous, painful habit of backtracking. Jane Angharad plays Irina with a genuine poignancy, the character exhibiting the naivety of the I-can-help-you-and-it-will-benefit-me-too sort. As is often the case with such characters, it’s as though she is suddenly confronted with a swim across the English Channel when she thought she was to loll in a plunge pool.

Paul Gilchrist

For The Grace of You Go I by Alan Harris

KXT until 15 Oct

Image by Clare Hawley

Mother May We

1 Oct

This captivating one-woman show raises a bunch of fascinating questions.

Andy Warhol said “In the future, everyone will have a 65 minute show at Griffin in which to share their trauma.” Of course, the comment is apocryphal, but it came to mind when writer performer Mel Ree suggested that Australians (or was it white people?) don’t like to hear stories of trauma. Admittedly, it is odd that we generally don’t enjoy paying to hear stories of actual suffering. (Though it is utterly, undeniably, incontrovertibly true, as Ree asserts, that the reluctance to hear such stories is part of the reason we’ve failed to achieve justice for our indigenous people.)

A show like this feels a little like a sermon. I don’t mean it’s preachy –  not at all. (Though it’s always fun to be told that I probably hold certain beliefs because of my ethnicity. Or at least as fun as the average sermon.) What I mean is that the experience somehow evokes that of going to church. I’m saying nothing new to suggest, that in our secular society, our theatres have become our cathedrals, our street performers our wayside chapels, and the kindness of strangers the visitations of angels. Ree appears to be bearing witness: this is what was done to me, this is what I have done, and this is what I have been given – each met with approving murmurs from the congregation.

In language that bubbles and bounces from the phraseology of critical theory, psychology and narratology to splendid lyric poetry, Ree shares her story. It’s about not being sufficiently loved, and the multiple disturbing ways this is manifest. 

Ree is of Papua New Guinean heritage. Her ancestors were witches. Some of her immediate family were …. troubled. Such are the gifts of diaspora and displacement. Here the deliberate obliqueness, the silences, are poignant. The rest is conscious mischievous exuberance, empowering play; we hear more about a late night booty call than about any violence.

I assume this performance is non-fiction (though obviously creative nonfiction; Ree tells us that we all build a narrative of our lives.) It’s fascinating seeing something like this in a theatre. What has become of character? Yeats suggested the performance of character is crucial to the ethical sense, because in performing someone else we establish that it’s possible to be different to who we currently are.

When our theatres no longer present characters, but rather bear witness, something else is happening…… something sadder, something smaller……. as necessary, as beautiful, as tears.  

I’ve suggested this is a story about trauma, but the conclusion is joyful. Ree tells of meeting a kind-hearted stranger. I won’t go into the details, partly because that would be a spoiler, but mainly because it’s familiar. We’re reminded of what is known by the wise of every culture: that what is taken from us we grieve, but we celebrate what we let go.

Paul Gilchrist

Mother May We by Mel Ree

SBW Stables Theatre  until Oct 8

Image credit DefinitelyDefne Photography

Chain Play

23 Sep

A chain play is created by a team of writers. Each writer drafts one scene, having read only the scene that directly precedes hers. Obviously, no-one expects the resultant script to be a paragon of textual integrity. Chain plays are a type of theatre game; and therein lies the key word – game.

This Chain Play by Slanted Theatre is a riotous celebration of Asian-Australian theatrical talent. The writing is sharp and funny, and the performances are mischievously exuberant.

Chain Play actually consists of two distinct works, each written according to the chain play methodology.

Where There’s a Will There’s a Way is written by Katrina Trinh, Mason Phoumirath, Julia Faragher, Niranjan Sriganeshwaran, Natasha Pontoh-Supit and Natania McLeod Roberts, and is directed by Katie Ord. It lands in the genre of sit-com, with plenty of great one liners and characters that are the Asian-Australian cousins of those in Commedia.

Susan Ling Young in Where There’s a Will There’s a Way

How Asian are You? written by Matt Bostock, Alan Fang, Grace Hu, Christina Kim, Eezu Tan and Simone Wang, and directed by Sammy Jing, is more conceptual.  Each scene digs into assumptions about Asian-Australian identity, and does so in ways that are both hilarious and poignant. (I’d like to see this type of digging continue in the Sydney theatre scene, digging deeper and deeper to see what we might find ……hopefully gold, and not just some gaping big hole.)

And, to conclude, a possibly utterly irrelevant philosophical digression: every play ever written is part of a chain play. We write informed by what is directly before us, sometimes only vaguely conscious of where we fit into the larger arc of history. And what we write then goes on to inform our near contemporaries, contributing to the intellectual and emotional environment to which they respond. Every playwright suffers from an inevitable myopia. Perhaps that’s no great tragedy; after all, if you can see too much further ahead than your audience, you’re not a prophet, you’re just irrelevant.

But a chain play, for all its playful nonsense, reminds us that we not only have to deal with the social environment in which we find ourselves, but we must also leave something for those who follow.   

Paul Gilchrist

Chain Play by Slanted Theatre

at Flight Path Theatre as part of the Sydney Fringe until Sept 24

Image by Aaron Cornelius

The Marriage Agency

22 Sep

The Marriage Agency by Saman Shad is joyfully funny.

Nasir believes in love, as expressed in the grand gesture. His hero is Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal for his wife, Mumtaz Mahal. So that others might come to share the miracle of love, Nasir establishes a marriage agency, here in Australia. After all, marriage is the most important decision in life. Passers-by assume it’s an Indian restaurant, and are disappointed there’s no butter chicken. Nasir’s wife, Tasnim, Indian in heritage but Australian born, doesn’t relate to the grand gesture. She’s more comfortable in the greys of life. (As someone not of Indian heritage I’m uncertain how to read pieces like this. Is a comment being made about the differences between cultures? Or between genders? Or are the differences specific to these characters? Is this reportage or fiction? But I’m comfortable in the uncertainty; it’s arguably this tension, present in all good dramatic pieces, that fuels post-show discussion.)

Director Kenneth Moraleda elicits wonderful comic performances from the entire cast. Both vocally and physically, Atharv Kolhatkar is absolutely brilliant as the dreamer Nasir. Caroline L George presents Tasnim as poised and professional, with an undercurrent of frustration which is deeply moving. Ashi Singh has a glorious stage presence as teenage daughter Salima, portraying a character of youthful, luminous intelligence that one can only hope is an image of imminent Australia. Lex Marinos as Bill, Nasir’s first customer, powerfully expresses the poignancy of grief balanced with the wish for future happiness. Kevin Batliwala plays a host of roles with aplomb, from obtuse butter chicken enthusiast, to a younger Nasir on his wedding day. These scenes (with Singh playing the younger Tasnim) are dreamt into being by the now struggling couple nearly two decades after the event and are theatrical magic.  

At the heart of this piece is the heart. What is love? Is it the unexpected breathtaking grand vista, or is it the million dogged, dutiful steps by which we might finally get to the top of that hill?

Paul Gilchrist

The Marriage Agency by Saman Shad

KXT until I Oct

Image by Phil Erbacher