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.


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.


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.

Open Letter to Sydney’s Theatre Critics

14 Dec

Firstly, thanks so much. The job you have chosen is not an easy one, but it is important.

About this time, some of you will publish your “Best of the Year” list.

This is not something that usually interests me, unless subtlenuance is on your list – and then I’ll social-media-the-shit-out-of-it.

What I would love is if you’d spend some time discussing what is happening in the scene overall. After all, you see so much theatre, much more than the rest of us. Some of you, I know, will have seen over 150 shows this year!


An interest in quality control is what many of you have in common, so by all means tell us what shows you enjoyed the most. But there are many other things I’m also keen to know.

These include:

  • As a culture, what sort of things do we produce theatre about? Are there any themes we seem obsessed with? Or are there important issues not being explored? What conversations are we having with our audiences?
  • How much new writing is there? And what’s it about? And how does it compare to overseas work? Is there a distinctively Australian voice? And is this new work reactive, attempting to take part in existing contemporary conversations, or does it ambitiously address issues explored nowhere else?
  • How much work is actually genuine art? (Now, that’s a term to start a conversation.) How much of it is simply pure fun? And how much is merely produced as a showcase for the talents of the actors and directors?
  • When non-original work is produced, where is it from? Is it predominantly classics or is it recently imported material from theatrical hot spots like the UK and the US? Having seen the productions, why do you think these choices are being made?
  • How does the indie scene differ from the main stage?
  • There is a vital push for more diversity in programming and on stage. What impact is this having on the actual work?
  • What is the house style of particular theatres?
  • And what isn’t happening in the scene that you really think should? After all, a good critic recognises what’s happening, and a great critic knows what is not.

Go on, make outrageously broad generalizations. You’ve earned it!

And thanks again.

Paul Gilchrist

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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

Rats (Dirt)

31 Oct

I’m sitting in a park. In a few hours I’ll be in a theatre, but now I’m outside. It’s a magnificent spring day, the sort of day that makes you think God has bought herself a new Photoshop suite and is having some fun. The green of the trees and the blue of the sky vie with each other in brilliance. I’m not alone in my enjoyment: children play in raucous excited groups; parents gather in twos and threes and fours, chatting, smiling, laughing; and older people sit quietly, sunning themselves in the warmth. This park is in Hurstville. Demonized recently by Pauline Hanson, the suburb is the epitome of a gloriously diverse Australia.  It is difficult to picture a more beautiful scene: the trees, the grass, the flowers, the sky, the children, the howitzer.

Yes, tucked away in the corner of the park is a howitzer. It sits on a pedestal, but there is no plaque. It’s a veteran of I don’t know which conflict. The children are oblivious to it. Why is it here?

A few hours later I’m at the Old 505. It is the premiere performance of a new Australian work. I know many of the cast and the writer director. I’m excited about the show and I’m not disappointed. Chris Huntly-Turner has created a piece that’s ambitious, energetic and engaging. It’s an exploration of the experience of Australians during the siege of Tobruk in the Second World War. There are two plays in repertoire; Dirt, which explores the experience of the men at the front, and Moonshine, which explores the experience of the women at home. Tonight is Dirt.


Photo by Liam O’Keefe

It’s the story of Little People caught up in Big History. (These men are not in a park in Hurstville in 2016.) The division of Rats into plays dealing with the male and the female experiences reaps fascinating dividends in Dirt. These men face real current danger, but what are the expectations from home? And are they real or imagined? Why are we here? To do our duty? And what, exactly, is that?

I’ve never been a fan of World War Two. (Neither were most of the people who fought it.) It lends itself too easily to simplistic readings. Like some children’s book, the enemy seems too clearly bad, and we seem too clearly good. Every sabre rattler evokes WW2. But Huntly-Turner and his terrific cast and crew do a great job in exploring the treacherous nature of the terrain.

Our duty, whatever that may be, is difficult to map. But we will attempt to connect our suffering, our sacrifice, our sins with something larger. We will try to make sense of them.

And so a howitzer sits in a park in Hurstville.

Paul Gilchrist


Rats (Dirt) by Chris Huntly-Turner

fledgling theatre company

Old 505 Theatre til Sat 5 Nov




Tue 25 October 7pm, Thu 27 October 8pm, Sat 29 October 8pm, Tue 1 November 8pm,Wed 2 November 8pm, Fri 4 November 8pm and Sat 5 November 6pm


Tues 25 october 7pm, Wed 26 October 8pm, Fri 28 October 8pm, Thu 3 November 8pm and Sat 5 November 8pm

The Wit and Wisdom of Veronica Kaye

26 Oct

The trouble with reviewers is that, ultimately, they’re always writing about themselves. Every evaluation is simply their world view writ large. The more sophisticated critic will acknowledge this, but rarely in a review (usually in a bar).

I, however, will not hide behind any pretense of objectivity.

If it’s going to be all about me ULTIMATELY, then it may as well be all about me INITIALLY.

So, while other theatre writers might present lists of the best they have seen, I prefer to present the best of what I have written.


The Wit and Wisdom of Me

“Theatre is not space flight. When you get it wrong, no-one dies. We just don’t get to visit new worlds. (So, I suppose, it is like space flight.)” By Way of a Manifesto

“We judge art so it does not judge us.” To the Death, 2011

“Don’t give me that crap about theatre being the most natural thing in the world. ‘All the world’s a stage’ is just professional myopia. To footballers, all the world’s a game. To risk assessors, all the world’s an accident waiting to happen. To fishermen, all the world smells of fish.” StoryLines, 2012

“We should be wary when too many of our conversations about theatre sound like demarcation disputes, performance reviews, price negotiations, quality control panels, courts of petty session and magistrate’s verdicts. Only one conversation is vital. And it happens in the desert, when the artist battles with the devil – alone, naked and true – and in that battle forfeits her ego to win her soul. And tired but free, she returns to the city, and scratched in the dirt if necessary, she offers a vision of the kingdom of heaven.” Let the children keep their paint boxes

 “‘I’m only being honest,’ says the bully……It is naïve to think we communicate primarily to tell the truth. ‘Pass the salt’ is far more typical, and meaningful, than ‘That is the salt’. Truth maybe crucial but it is always secondary. We speak, we write, to impact on the world.” A Hoax, 2012

 “The obsession with acting in the drama theatre is like an obsession with anesthetic in the surgical theatre. Of course, you have to get it right, but it’s hardly the point of the process.” Masterclass, 2015

“There have been times and places where drama has been entirely banned. If you can’t see why, you haven’t seen it done well.” The Venetian Twins, 2012

“Reviews are our revenge on theatre. (And not just when we dislike it; after all, even 5 stars is rather parsimonious, considering how many stars there actually are.) In answer to the beautiful multiplicity of theatre, reviews offer a stern monotone. Which is why no-one takes them too seriously. Which is why I don’t write them. (They’re like trying to catch starlight in a jar.) When the Rain Stops Falling, 2012


Now, where are those pigeons?

“To be honest, I find it difficult to be overly interested in judging the technical details of a production.  Maybe I lack something. But I want a play to give me more than the satisfaction that I am superior to it and its creators. No-one survives this life, but I intend to go down fighting. I want a play to arm me for that fight. I want to leave the theatre with more than I entered. And that “more” is not disdain – or even admiration – for the artists. The plays I need are fuel for life; logs to feed our open fire. They give warmth. They give light.  So we’ll gather, in silent fascination, and watch. And as one flickers out, we’ll throw on another, and no two will burn the same. And so we’ll pass this night, the dark and the cold all around us, and know that no dawn comes, except of our own making.” But What’s It All About?

“If a piece of theatre doesn’t appear truthful, maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s original.” Conservatism in Theatre 2

“Whenever someone begins a comment with ‘I see a lot of theatre’ I’m left wondering whether it’s a claim to expertise, or just a cry for help.” The Small Poppies, 2013

“People go to the theatre for all sorts of reasons. For me, one of the greatest attractions is the insight it offers into how the world is viewed by others. If we’re asked our values we’re often lost for words. It’s hard to sum up our worldview in a few pithy sentences. It’s like asking a fish to describe the ocean. (Feel free to test the truth of this analogy.)” Shopping Centres and Gutters, 2011

“The problem with the pursuit of excellence is not that you’ll never catch it. The problem is you miss so much else. Doing something without fault is a secondary virtue. The crucial issue is what you’re trying to do, not how well you do it. Surely, it’s better to fail at something worthwhile than succeed at something worthless. Do you really want to be remembered for producing the play that most effectively keeps the world small and cold?”  The Pursuit of Excellence

“I’ve come to accept that people will attempt to inoculate themselves from art. In terms of theatre, most people do this by not going. Those of us forced to go – because of career, or the pursuit of career – adopt other methods. Most of us don’t want to be changed. We don’t want to be challenged. And, considering the lives of unparalleled privilege that most of us enjoy, that’s perfectly understandable.” Theatre as Just a Trick

“Only God knows the complete Truth. And She’s not sharing…What we call the Truth is simply the point at which we cease asking questions.” Dangerous Corner, 2013

“Remember when the most important question was ‘What is to be done?’, rather than ‘Who am I?’” Indian Embrace, 2013

“We reviewers need to keep in mind that if the artist really valued our opinion, they’d ask us to read the script before the production, or at least get us along to a couple of rehearsals. As it is, they ask us in when they’re finished. Obviously, they don’t intend taking what we say that seriously. (Analogy: We think we’re specialists, yet we’re only ever called in for the autopsy.) What are reviews for?

“It’s difficult to see you as serious writer if you won’t help mount a production of your play that could be truly awful. Worthwhile writing challenges established values, so a writer seeking status is as absurd as a spy wanting recognition. ‘But if it was any good wouldn’t someone pay me for it?’ That attitude is loud and clear in our society, and perfectly designed to silence dissent.” Natural Born Producers

“In a capitalist society, co-operation is not encouraged. Competition is. Careerists – people interested primarily in personal advancement – are held up as model citizens. To support this world view, it’s expected that writers about theatre will focus on evaluating performers and productions, as against discussing ideas. And so the prevailing economic structure influences everything; even trivialities like theatre criticism.” His Mother’s Voice,  2014

“Theatre’s particular oddness is that it is not first person. Theatre presents Life from the outside, which is decidedly not how Life is experienced.” Tell Me Again, 2014

“Every evaluation is a political act.” Truth in the Theatre Foyer

Veronica Kaye