Tag Archives: Ensemble

A Broadcast Coup

3 Feb

I used to laugh at reviews that referenced theorists such as Michel Foucault. When the play being critiqued did not actually mention the famous philosopher, and he had most certainly not written the thing – he hadn’t even volunteered to do front of house one night – then a discussion of his ideas seemed somewhat out of place.

But sometimes we learn (and, in doing so, become the cause of mirth in other petty-minded individuals.)

One of Foucault’s most famous works is The History of Sexuality. It’s three volumes long, and being a theatre critic, beyond my attention span. Fortunately, the dynamite is lit in the title: the history of sexuality….. how can sex have a history? Isn’t sex just a biological thing, as fundamental, as universal and as immutable as, say, breathing. Except in terms of some deep evolutionary perspective, how can sex be said to change? But Foucault was pointing out that sex is contingent on other aspects of the human experience. And, for Foucault, the key other aspect is power.

Sex and power; this is playwright Melanie Tait’s subject matter, and she approaches it with sharp humour, vibrant characters, recognisable tensions and a captivating story (and absolutely none of my theoretical pomposity.)

Mike King is a much lauded radio presenter. After so long at the top, his manner is imperious (if not quite Nero, certainly not Marcus Aurelius). In a wonderful portrayal, Tony Cogin captures both Mike’s charisma and selfishness. Mike is faithfully served by Louise (Sharon Millerchip), who admires his talent and cleans up the mess. Mike makes life hell for Troy (Ben Gerrard), the station manager, dismissing him as a mere “bureaucrat”. But new assistant producer, Noa, presents a challenge. Alex King brings to the role a brilliant energy that presents the truth of youth: that the blaze of righteous passion is partly fuelled by naivete.

And then there’s Jez, played by Amber McMahon. I’d pay to hear McMahon read the phonebook (though I appreciate such tickets might be expensive due to the rarity of the prop.) Jez is an ex-colleague of Mike’s, now producing a red hot podcast exposing the mistreatment of women in the workplace.

Tait’s script works a thrilling tension: that power is an aphrodisiac, and that power determines what is deemed acceptable sexual behaviour.

Our society is trying to work this tension out….and if Foucault is right, and sexuality has a history, then change for the better is possible (at least until that better is again redefined.)  

Paul Gilchrist

A Broadcast Coup by Melanie Tait

at Ensemble until 4 March

www.ensemble.com.au

Image by Prudence Upton

Boxing Day BBQ

11 Dec

Sam O’Sullivan’s Boxing Day BBQ is a fun take on some serious fracture lines in our society. Directed by Mark Kilmurry, the cast deliver comic magic.  

The BBQ is a family tradition. It was grandpa’s baby, but he and g-ma are gone, so now the younger generation(s) skate the hot plate. The gathering throws together the usual mix of ill-fitting pieces that make up the insolvable jigsaw that is family. (Comedy plus tragedy equals family; though this play is definitely comedy – the tragedy lies offstage, in the reality this comedy gives us the courage to acknowledge.)  

The new self-appointed patriarch, Peter, proudly wields the BBQ mate, finding what scant meaning he can from the upholding of banalities. Brian Meegan wonderfully captures Peter’s mix of unthinking privilege and dismayed emptiness. His daughter, Jennifer (Harriet Gordon-Anderson), is about to volunteer a year of her life as part of the crew of the Sea Bandit (a riff on the environmental activists’ Sea Shepherd.) Peter is horrified. His new wife, Val (Aileen Huynh) is not much of an ally, not because she agrees with Jennifer, but because intellectually she has vacated the field. (More on this below.) O’Sullivan gives Val one liners of beautiful vacuity, which Huynh plays to perfection. Peter’s sister Connie (Danielle Carter) is also at the do, an intelligent, articulate woman navigating both her brother’s obtuseness and her ex-husband’s gentle but futile longing. Jamie Oxenbould as Morris, her ex-husband, delivers a brilliant performance, heart-warming and full of pathos.    

Those fracture lines I began with? O’Sullivan’s play is a musing on objectivity versus subjectivity, and the collapse of these two categories into one in contemporary discourse. This is presented partly through discussions of perception; Peter is a wine merchant who takes for granted the notoriously slippery language of taste descriptors. But it is mainly explored through the characterisation of Val, who consistently avoids the tough issues by asserting the mantra of the lightweight Right: you have to question everything. This is, of course, never the radical and universal doubt of Descartes, but rather the selective use of ignorance to shore up privilege. (In the play, some characters are correct and others are not, and we’re invited to laugh at the inflexibility of the latter, and we do – but I won’t pretend that it wasn’t slightly disconcerting to find myself so easily enjoying the mockery of those who endorse intellectual humility, even when they don’t practise it.)

The play also explores change versus continuity, questioning the value of tradition. We’re told about the monkey step ladder experiment, in which five caged primates are sprayed with icy water if one attempts to climb a certain step ladder. Place a banana at the top of that ladder, replace some of the monkeys, and those remaining familiar with the spraying will police the others – inadvertently ensuring the banana is wasted. Val laughs at this experiment as an example of the absurdity of much that purports to be science but, of course, the story functions as a fable. Mechanical adherence to convention limits our ability to think outside the cage, leaving a lot of bananas wasted – or one planet, as is the case for us as we refuse the changes that might avert environmental disaster. (But traditions and conventions can also have value; they’re a type of cultural capital. One such tradition is that social tensions can be profitably explored through the dramatic trope that posits disparate characters and places them in an inescapable situation like a family Boxing Day BBQ – though O’Sullivan does disrupts this convention, offering the spoonful of honey of some magical realism to ease our acceptance of radical change.)

Finally, the play also offers itself as a representation of generational conflict. In the real war between the generations, the ultimate outcome is dully predictable; all that’s of interest is whether – this time – anything will be learnt from the vanquished before they forever quit the field. But this is comedy, and Boxing Day BBQ is a merry war, a playful paean to reconciliation and hope.

Paul Gilchrist

Boxing Day BBQ by Sam O’Sullivan

Ensemble until 15 Jan

ensemble.com.au

Image by Prudence Upton

A Christmas Carol

1 Dec

Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the best known characters in literature, and his catch phrase “Bah humbug” is oft quoted. (Especially by me when assaulted by Xmas muzak in shopping centres.)

It’s an absolute joy to watch John Bell in this role, and the pantomime-like retelling of Dickens’ famous tale by writer Hilary Bell and director Damien Ryan is delightful.

Dickens was one of those great nineteenth century writers who gave cruelty a bad name. If that seems a joke, as if cruelty could ever have been valorised, it’s indicative of how influential voices like Dickens have been. For much of our history, cruelty has not only been tolerated, it’s been encouraged. (Spare the rod and spoil the child was not the injunction of some sick sadists, or not only so: it was read from the Bible and taught from the pulpit.)  

Dickens had a gift for empathy. It’s suggested by his take on damnation. Marley, Scrooge’s deceased business partner, returns on Christmas Eve to warn of what awaits beyond the grave: an eternal vision of human suffering but no ability to intervene. It’s an odd vision of Hell. Compare it to Sartre’s. A cynic might say that to witness suffering and to do nothing is the very definition of secular heaven, a paradise the privileged enjoy perpetually.

What happens to Scrooge – that the visions he’s shown by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future affect a change in his character –  epitomises Dickens’ artistic purpose. If Scrooge’s moral transformation seems merely convenient to the cynic, Dickens might well look down on us and humbly suggest such visions do indeed make a difference. And clearly, by his own definition, he’s in Heaven, because if he is witnessing the suffering we inflict on each other, his stories, and this particular dramatization, do have the ability to intervene. They gently urge kindness.

And Dickens’ stories brim with good will. There are villains, of course, but there are also an extraordinary number of kind souls. (The cynic would say Dickens was a great writer of fiction.) The conceit of this production is that it’s performed by the Crummles, that inept but good-hearted acting troupe from Nicholas Nickleby.  

Part of the fascination of A Christmas Carol is its role in our image of the holiday. Christmas had long been built on solstice feasting but, in an increasingly secularised Victorian England, the day began to shed those other elements that made it a religious festival honouring the supposed incarnation of the divine in Jesus of Nazareth, and morphed into what it has become in the modern West – the day we wish each other well. (Good will to all was Dickens’ every day; we have at least gifted him Christmas.)

Dickens was endlessly comically inventive, and Ryan’s production captures this glorious exuberance. With Bell on stage is a terrific troupe, much more gifted than the Crummles. Valerie Bader, Jay James-Moody, Emily McKnight, Anthony Taufa, and Daryl Wallis on keyboard, give playful performances that evoke both laughter and tears. There’s song, dance, and puppetry.

And there’s one moment between Bell and a puppet (expertly given life by McKnight) that elicits gasps from the audience. You might call it the sound of hearts melting. Or you might call me sentimental. Dickens wouldn’t.

Paul Gilchrist

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, adapted for the stage by Hilary Bell

Ensemble Theatre until 29 Dec

www.ensemble.com.au/shows/a-christmas-carol/

Image by Jaimi Joy

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

ensemble.com.au  

Image by Prudence Upton

Photograph 51

13 Sep

Ensemble’s production of Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51, directed by Anna Ledwich, is utterly engaging theatre; intellectually stimulating and deeply moving.

It tells the story of Rosalind Franklin, one of the researchers who in the 1950’s uncovered the secrets of DNA.

Despite it’s reputation as a pure pursuit of knowledge, science is just another human activity, tainted by human failings.  

Rosalind is excluded from male enclaves and the attendant conversations in which ideas are casually shared. She’s assumed to be incapable of theoretical insight, and attempts are made to reduce her role to that of a technician. She’s portrayed by the male scientists as some sort of harridan simply for standing her ground. And she’s ultimately robbed of …. ah, but that’s a spoiler for those who don’t know her personal history. Let’s leave it this way: the conclusion is heartrending.

Yes, the play’s about science, but Ziegler’s extraordinary script is thoroughly captivating because it tells a very human story. Her Rosalind is a complete person, not a straw victim. She’s sublimely intelligent and gloriously independent, but we’re also asked to consider whether her flaws are inevitable responses to discrimination. Is Rosalind simply overly cautious? Does she really need to keep everyone at such a distance? Amber McMahon is absolutely magnificent in the role.

And the supporting cast do equally brilliant work. Garth Holcombe as Maurice Wilkins, Rosalind’s colleague at Kings College, is a superb portrait of a man threatened, one who would like to be noble, but who can’t quite manage it. His advice to PhD candidate Raymond Gosling (played with charm by Gareth Yuen) is to be kind to women; but the inadequacy of this advice – its patriarchal overtones – is beyond his comprehension. Ziegler employs a motif from The Winter’s Tale to underline this. Rosalind has seen Peter Brook’s production of the play starring John Gielgud as Leontes (but in a wonderful irony can’t recall the actor playing Hermione). Wilkins knows the work well, and the two might bond over this shared interest, except for their very different readings of the play’s finale. Does Hermione really survive? It’s a beautiful playwright’s trick, a gorgeous encapsulation of the issues at stake, and a sophisticated embrace of the openness of the dramatic form.    

Robert Jago as Francis Crick and Toby Blome as James Watson powerfully embody another very human flaw that mars the supposedly noble pursuit that is science: competition. The goal of discovering the truth of the DNA molecule is reduced to a “race” and, when an understanding is finally achieved, Crick asks grandly do you know what this means – only to offer a staggeringly uninspiring answer: wealth, status, women….

Emma Vine’s beautiful set, ostensibly a laboratory, evokes a chapel. It’s a poignant touch.  Are Science and Religion at odds? Rosalind says they are. But, at their best, both embody a humble desire for truth. At their worst, both are tragically beholden to the machinations of power.  

Paul Gilchrist

Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler

Ensemble Theatre until Oct 8

ensemble.com.au

Photo Credit Teniola Komolafe

The One

10 Aug

The One by Vanessa Bates is a bit of crazy fun with a beating heart.

Focussing on a Chinese Malaysian Australian family, the title of the play throws out a couple of questions. Has Mel found in Cal her romantic “one”? Or, of the two adult siblings Mel and Eric, which is their mother’s favourite “one”?

Director Darren Yap elicits wonderful comic performances from his cast. Shan-Ree Tan’s Eric, the meek librarian with a hidden side, is terrific, and powerfully affective when required. Angie Diaz’s Mel evokes the precocious child who (with her brother) once was a ballroom dancing star – albeit at the Asian-Australian Regional competition. Damien Strouthos’ Cal is gloriously hapless. Gabrielle Chan’s matriarch is a playful presentation of a woman intent on enjoying herself. Aileen Huynh’s waitress from hell is comic gold.

But, beyond all this, are issues of identity. The play asks where do the siblings belong? She remembers her childhood in Malaysia, but because of her appearance passes as non-Asian. (She’s a PPOC; a partial person of colour.) He remembers very little of Malaysia, but because of his appearance cops racist abuse.   

Belonging is an odd concept. A constant tension between belonging and not belonging is part of the human condition; an inevitable aspect of being individuals who live in communities. In one scene, Mel recalls an incident of racism from her childhood, a group of men at a restaurant hurling abuse. It’s the moment she knew she didn’t belong. But who would want to belong to a group that treats people that way? Forget the belonging, it’s the mistreatment. Belonging is a fantasy; a phantom hope born of pain. (It’s as though, stranded alone on a raft, surrounded by an ice cold sea, we tell ourselves that if we survive this horror, we’ll find a place where we’ll live forever. We won’t.) However, despite its fantastical elements, perhaps the concept of belonging functions like a legal fiction: imaginative nonsense, but useful in identifying something very real, injustice.

For all its fun, the play is a moving reminder that we must do better.

Paul Gilchrist

The One by Vanessa Bates

Ensemble Theatre until Aug 27

www.ensemble.com.au

Image by Prudence Upton