Tag Archives: Old Fitzroy Theatre

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo

20 Apr

This play by Rajiv Joseph premiered in the US in 2009 and won the Pulitzer in 2010.

Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo is beautifully rich and multi-leveled. (Intriguingly, the program note tells us we will ‘get no answers’. A warning? An assurance?)

Set in 2003 in Iraq, it’s not naturalism. It’s got talking animals. And ghosts. And talking animal ghosts.

Poetically, it’s fascinating. The line by line level is engagingly colloquial and profane (fuck yeah bitch!), but take a step back and there are evocative recurring motifs. Ghosts that symbolize trauma and guilt. Odd golden objects that reflect skewed values. A zoo that suggests lives lived too small or simply wasted (‘Zoo is hell’). Hands, whole and broken, that are emblematic of our ability to both build and destroy. Talk of God that represents the quest for both ultimate meaning and culpability. And the tiger itself? The nature of violence and the awesome mystery of the created world. (Tyger, Tyger burning bright?) This cluster of motifs invites speculation about the links between creation and destruction, consequences and responsibility.

Maggie Dence in BENGAL TIGER AT THE BAGHDAD ZOO (c) Kate Williams

Photo by Kate Williams

Director Claudia Barrie’s production is powerful theatre, visually and linguistically exciting. The entire cast is terrific. Maggie Dence as the tiger is gloriously imperious; her imposing presence injects the character’s existential angst with a fascinating, and very funny, tension. Josh Anderson and Stephen Multari, as American soldiers, amusingly and movingly capture their characters’ inability to deal with the complexity of the situation, and their complicity.  Andrew Lindqvist plays an Iraqi translator and one time gardener and topiarist, a creator of hedge animals in a tyrant’s garden (‘God likes gardens.’) He gives a sensitive portrayal of a gentle, intelligent man, a foil to the invading foreigners, and an example of one more poor soul caught up in Big History. Tyler De Nawi as Saddam’s twisted son is charismatic and dangerous.

Isabel Hudson’s masks*, aided in their impact by mask coach and performer Aanisa Vylet, are a highlight. They create a world that is half-dream, half-nightmare. They’re a reminder that Creation, artistic and divine, has elements of both. For what is Creation, but a dominance that only ends with a frightening, fraught letting go?

Paul Gilchrist


Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph

at the Old Fitz til 6 May

tix and info here


*created from templates provided by Wintercroft Masks.

Binary Stars and Best Lives

30 Mar

What stories do we tell ourselves? Living in a pluralistic society, we’re well aware there’s more than one possible narrative.

It’s a choice, of course. Samantha Hill’s charmingly eclectic Binary Stars and Best Lives outlines some of the many, many options. There are indigenous stories, Ancient Greek myths, astrophysics, particle physics, New Age mantras, and the Aussie Everyman banter of the TV presenter.

How do you choose? The play amusingly suggests some stories are problematic. The Ancient Greek myth that explains the creation of the constellation the Pleiades is clearly misogynistic. But other narratives can be more insidious, promising personal empowerment but delivering a crippling sense of isolation and guilt. (For example, a mantra that says You can achieve anything if only you try quickly turns on its user and becomes You haven’t achieved so it must be your fault.) In choosing our narratives, we must choose wisely.

But there’s also a political battle for the control of the narrative. Tell yourself whatever story you like in your head, but we’re creatures of culture, and must live in a social world. The play explores several examples of this tussle to control the story. Cleverly subverting the Uncertainty Principle, any fascination with the indeterminate nature of particle reality takes on a wholly different importance when discussed by Schrödinger’s cat herself. In a similar exploration of hegemony, Babe understands that her troubled relationship with her TV celebrity husband will be discussed publicly, but knows only too well which of the two of them has the greater power to shape the way events are perceived.


Babe, and her world of domestic violence, is an echo of the current main stage production at the Old Fitz, Crimes of the Heart. And that’s an aspect of the New Fitz program of which this play is a part: contemporary Australian writers responding to existing works. I’m not quite sure what to make of the idea: is compulsory intertextuality simply an acceptance of the realities of the cultural landscape? Or is it an attempt to control the narrative*?

Whatever the case, the Old Fitz has provided a space for the cast and creatives behind Binary Stars and Best Lives to make a fun and thought-provoking new work.

Paul Gilchrist


Binary Stars and Best Lives by Samantha Hill

Directed by Michael Abercromby

at the Old Fitz til 8 April

tix and info here


*which is why I write about theatre.

Crimes of the Heart

22 Mar

This is a heart-warming comedy.

Though, I do declare, it took me some time to pick the tone. Which is sort of weird, since I usually find any play in which the actors speak in an accent other than their own rather funny. (Maybe I’m just a country hick.)

Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley is set in the South of the USA. It was first produced in 1979 and it won the Pulitzer in 1981.

It’s the story of three sisters facing one hell of a bad day.


Photo by Rupert Reid

Director Janine Watson’s production has class. The set by Jonathan Hindmarsh looks terrific. The cast are great fun to watch, creating kooky, vivacious, engaging characters.

Some would call these characters Larger-than-Life, but I find the phrase rather parochial; Life is plenty big enough to fit all we can ever throw at it.

The phrase a ‘bad day’ is also problematic, but in this case because it’s a vast understatement. On this particular day, Babe (Renae Small) has just shot her husband and faces prison. Her glamorous sister Meg (Amanda McGregor) returns home at the news and is forced to admit her show biz pretensions are a fraud. And Lenny (Laura Pike), plain, simple, strong Lenny, who’s stayed at home to care for their ailing grandfather, has just turned 30, and no one’s noticed. And hovering behind all this is the dreadful knowledge that their mother took her own life in this very house – because of a ‘bad day’.

Yes, it is a comedy; funny, feel good, and like all of the best comedy, with a vision of Life not to be laughed at.

For what’s the solution to bad days? Just keep having more of them, and acknowledge you’re not alone in it.

Paul Gilchrist


Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley

at Old Fitz til 8 April

Info and tix  here

Are We Awake?

6 Mar

This is part of the New Fitz program; the idea being that the Old Fitz will commission Australian dramatists to write responses to each of their main stage works. Are We Awake? is notionally a response to David Hare’s The Judas Kiss. Having missed opening, I haven’t been able to get along to Hare’s play, and since it’s been 18 years since I’ve seen it, I have little sense of what dialogue might be going on between the two pieces. I doubt it matters.

Are We Awake? by Charles O’Grady is a beautiful stand-alone new work. I congratulate Redline and PlayWriting Australia for making it happen.

It’s the story of two lovers, directed with a powerful simplicity by Sean Hawkins and played magnificently by Daniel Monks and Aleks Mikic. The lovers face a test that is common, though not commonly staged: one of them is disabled and in poor health.


The play is built on the question of What is Love?
Is it sharing or is it caring?
Is love the sharing with a partner of Life’s most joyous moments? Or is it the caring that becomes necessary when your partner faces Life’s challenges? (Or is that just a false dichotomy, the collapse of which heralds the arrival of real love?)

Are We Awake? is a small gem, a tender exploration of some awfully big questions.

Paul Gilchrist


Are We Awake? by Charles O’Grady

At the Old Fitz til 11 March

Tix and info here


15 Jan

It’s tempting to call this a masterclass in comic acting, and not just because as a writer about theatre my natural default position is banality posturing as wit. Created by Gareth Davies and Charlie Garber, Masterclass is very funny and brilliantly acted.

Davies and Garber give beautifully measured performances. Both their physical and vocal work has a wonderful texture. They know when to go exuberantly large, and they know when to defer to a casual everydudeness. (OK, that’s probably not a word. Or at least not til now.)

Davies plays a great actor. Garber plays one of his creations. Garber attempts to convince Davies to return to the stage. However, the actor feels the risk to a potential audience is just too high – because of the enormous power of his performances.

Photo by Marnya Rothe

Photo by Marnya Rothe

Some people might call it undergraduate humour. It delights in silliness. It takes aim at tropes that the more world weary amongst us have long recognized and now thoughtlessly accept.

The play is an exploration of our obsession with the great actor. It’s a disturbing element of our theatre culture, and here it’s playfully parodied.  (An analogy of my own perverse invention: 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 also raises interesting philosophical questions about the concept of character. Clearly, characters are not real people and the play has a lot of self aware fun with this idea. Characters lack autonomy. That’s the worm in the heart of our grand tradition of representational theatre: our ‘great’ theatre that purports to tell us the way things actually are. Of course, it doesn’t, and can’t; not if it struggles to present the dynamic of choice. Though some might say my argument is merely undergraduate.

Veronica Kaye


Masterclass by Gareth Davies and Charlie Garber

presented by Red Line Productions

Old Fitzroy Theatre  til 31st Jan


The Mercy Seat

30 Jun

Two mean spirited people with American accents remain in a room and argue about their relationship for 100 mins (including a 15 minute interval).

For many people, this would be the archetypal modern play. Which is why they stay at home.

But, in this case, context is all.  Our couple are arguing about their future while the rest of America, and much of the world, is in shock.

It is New York. It is September 12, 2001.

What to many was an unfathomable tragedy is to our couple an opportunity. They’re having an affair. He is married with children. Perhaps yesterday morning he was in one of the towers when the planes struck, instead of at his mistress’ place having his penis sucked. Is it their chance to just disappear and start again?

photo by Katy Green Loughrey

photo by Katy Green Loughrey

This production of Neil LaBute’s play is both funny and confronting. The performances by Rebecca Martin and Patrick Magee are powerful and intriguing.

Are we meant to take the characters as real people? Is this play gritty naturalism? If it is, it’s a vision of humanity so bleak that it approaches the immoral. (There’s a school of theatre that equates negativity with truthfulness. It’s the philosophy of those who wish to grant themselves moral holidays. If it’s just human nature to act dreadfully, how can my behaviour be at fault?)

The challenge of this play is the context. Presumably none of us have been in the situation represented.

Or have we?

Many of us are tempted to think the world is screwed, that it’s a chaotic mess, and that we’re all going to hell in a hand cart. I call it a temptation because it allows us to believe that it’s justifiable to be entirely self seeking. After all, in extremis, the call goes out “Every man for himself”.

The Mercy Seat is an intelligent and thought provoking production, a timely reminder that we must not use the magnitude of our society’s problems as an excuse to grant ourselves moral holidays.

Veronica Kaye


The Mercy Seat by Neil LaBute

Old Fitzroy Theatre til 5 July


Scenes from an Execution

19 May

Few people write dialogue better than Howard Barker; it’s funny, vibrant and explosive. And Barker’s Scenes from an Execution is a brilliant play.

It explores the relationship between the artist and society.

Galactia has been commissioned by the State to paint the Battle of Lepanto. She does, and the State is not happy. Galactia portrays war as something dreadful. The State wants it viewed as something glorious.

The play is set in Renaissance Venice. But, of course, it’s not. This is not a piece of historical realism. Barker’s characters could be here and now.

Photo by Katy Green Loughrey

Photo by Katy Green Loughrey

And director Richard Hilliar’s production is wonderful. His cast does terrific work. Lucy Miller as Galactia is magnificent; passionate, determined, and joyfully articulate. Carpeta is her lover. He’s another (competing) painter. Jeremy Waters delivers a beautifully pitched portrayal of cowardice that can’t help love its superior. And Mark Lee’s Urgentino, the Doge of Venice, is comic brilliance.

This is very rich theatre. Barker shares a swag of stimulating ideas. A particularly fascinating one involves the way society tames even the greatest art (but I’m not sure I can explore this one without a spoiler.)

So let me focus on just a single idea: the way society tries to control what art says.

In Galactia’s world, it’s the Church and the State who are the obvious powers. I began this response by suggesting it would be a mistake to assume this play is historical, to assume its message is that only in the dark past did we treat artists poorly.

This play demands we ask ourselves NOW what forces determine what art is allowed to say.

Our current patrons are the state, critics and the audience. What do they demand art say?

Let me offer the following list of absurd generalizations:

  1. Australian theatre must not question the extraordinary privileges that most of us enjoy in comparison to the majority of the world’s population.
  2. Australian theatre must not present characters that are intelligent, powerful political agents, as this would imply it might also be true of its audience (which would challenge the complacent acceptance of demand 1.)
  3. Australian theatre must be ‘professional’. That is, regardless of what the art says (not excepting demands 1 and 2) the focus of discussion must always be on the virtuosity of the production. This demand perpetuates a bourgeois emphasis on career, reduces art to a commercial product, and encourages the competition necessary for a capitalist society.

See this play. It’s very, very good. And come up with your own list.

Veronica Kaye


Scenes from an Execution by Howard Barker

Old Fitzroy Theatre til 31st May


Everything I Know I Learnt From Madonna

21 Feb

It’s an unlikely claim.

Wayne Tunks shares with us some of his family history and a lot of his love life.

Spliced into his monologue are Madonna lyrics (which made me aware of how few of her songs I know.)

I’m not exactly sure what Tunks has learned from Madonna. But his tale is engaging; funny at times, and at other times offering insight into the challenges of navigating romance and expressing sexual identity.

Photo by Katy Green Loughrey

Photo by Katy Green Loughrey

The “Everything I Know I Learnt From….” aspect of the title is cheekily appropriated, and suggests much about the tone of this show: confessional and playful.

Does everyone have mentors? Perhaps. Mine are Simone Weil and Catherine of Siena. (I’m guessing Tunks doesn’t know any of their songs either.)

Years ago I was doing a tour of the Whyalla steel works. (Remember, mentor Simone Weil). We met the guide in a lunch room that was adorned with a single safety poster. “Smart People Learn” it said. I laughed. And have been thinking about it ever since.

What have I learnt? And how do I learn? These questions must be asked. They’re the path to wisdom and happiness. The unexamined life is not worth living, says Socrates. Though not as amusingly as Wayne Tunks.

Veronica Kaye


Everything I Know I Learnt From Madonna 

written and performed by Wayne Tunks

Old Fitzroy Theatre until 22nd Feb



King Lear

6 Dec

King Lear is a brilliant play. And much discussed.

I’ve always been intrigued by Simone Weil’s reading. She saw a tussle between power and honesty, and concluded they were mutually exclusive. The opening sequence certainly prepares us for this view. Regan and Goneril sing their father’s praises in exchange for property. Cordelia is discreet, and is punished for it.

Orwell has a famous essay about Shakespeare and Tolstoy. He reminds us that Tolstoy didn’t especially warm to Shakespeare and had a particular dislike for this play. The story, it would seem, was too close to the bone for the great Russian writer.

I, too, find the story confronting. It’s the tragedy of the great moral gesture.

The play begins with Lear’s grand renunciation. The problem is he can’t maintain the grandness. Leof Kingsford-Smith’s portrayal is wonderfully and heartrendingly accurate. There’s a pomposity to the early Lear. We don’t dislike Lear for it – it’s common enough in older men. In fact, it awakens our pity. As the Fool later says, aren’t we supposed to grow wise before we grow old? Lear hasn’t. Will we?

But like us all, Lear doesn’t understand himself. Having made the grand gesture he wants gratitude, and is devastated when he doesn’t receive it. Who hasn’t been in the same situation? You are kind, and then you’re not acknowledged for that kindness, and so you become bitter. If you choose kindness (or any other moral gesture) perhaps it’s best to stick with it all the way.  (A lonely path, I suspect. But to what vistas might it lead?)


Director Richard Hilliar’s production is moving and engaging. Kingsford-Smith’s marvelous Lear is amply supported by some strong performances. Amy Scott-Smith presents an admirably icy Regan. This is nicely balanced by Hailey McQueen’s Goneril; a beautiful portrait of a small soul, troubled by inklings of self knowledge, but lacking the courage to confront them. Danielle Baynes as Cordelia is dignity and honesty personified.

And, in the world of the play, there’s no place for a character like Cordelia.

Many eighteenth century productions rewrote the final scenes. In their original form they were deemed too painful.

Or were they just too honest?

Is virtue really so little rewarded in this world?

Who knows? For most of us, it’s too hard to stick to, to find out.

And that’s the tragedy.

Veronica Kaye


King Lear

at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, as part of the Sydney Shakespeare Festival with Measure for Measure

until 21 Dec

for program dates http://www.sitco.net.au/

Blood Pressure

28 Aug

At times of acute stress I’m prone to foolish thoughts. Might a debilitating accident get me out of this? Could a shocking diagnosis suddenly absolve me of all responsibility? The hospital bed has a seductive simplicity.

Theatre that explores death can be escapist.

In asking ‘how are we to die?’ it can avoid an even greater question – ‘how are we to live?’

I have felt this at times, reflecting on plays about euthanasia. They frustrate me in the way that horror films often do.  They can be built on the premise that before the “monster” everything is dandy. There’s nothing to question. Life, with its myriad of possibilities, is a ‘given’.

Blood Pressure, a cleverly constructed two hander by Mark Rogers, asks us to consider the effect of sickness and death on the healthy. And director Sanja Simic draws top performances from Wade Briggs and Alexander Millwood.

There’s no greater isolation than that of the sick, and we will all die alone. But Life is a group activity, and every death diminishes us.

In this powerful piece, as one man faces the inevitability of his brother’s fate, a simple starkness gives way to a deeper insight: that none of us will experience our own death; it’s what we leave to others.

And it’s with that ‘given’ that we must determine how to live.

Veronica Kaye

Blood Pressure

til Sept 1 Old Fitzroy Theatre