Review: Henry V (Bell Shakespeare)

bellshakespeareVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Oct 21 – Nov 15, 2014
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Damien Ryan
Cast: Michael Sheasby, Matthew Backer, Drew Livingston, Damien Strouthos, Gabriel Fancourt, Eloise Winestock, Danielle King, Darcy Brown, Keith Agius, Ildiko Susany
Images by Michele Mossop

Theatre review
As the years pass, we become increasingly accustom to war being a fact of life. Wartime is no longer a set of specific and exceptional circumstances, especially with the proliferation of mass media and the normalisation of conflict as a topic of daily interest. Shakespeare’s Henry V includes the ambiguities and tensions between tragedy and heroism, but four centuries on, we seem no longer able to tell a story like this without letting casualties take centre stage.

Damien Ryan’s vision certainly reflects contemporary attitudes on the essential destructiveness of war. The injured and the dead are not obliterated from our sight, but are left critically present on stage to abate any hint of glory that might surface. The use of symbols and the visual lavishness of Ryan’s work is fiercely thoughtful, almost omnipresent. Space is explored to its creative limits, with the astonishingly dynamic use of bodies, sets and props to convey emotions and concepts. Ryan’s brand of theatre is captivating and exhilarating, but also undeniably sensitive and intelligent. His Henry V is complex but accessible, innovative but unpretentious. It aims to be a theatre for all, catering to aficionados, students and everyone else, encompassing every age and background. Shakespeare’s language is challenging for many, and the director works thoroughly to bring elucidation, although detractors are unlikely to have a change of heart with this text, which is probably one of Shakespeare’s more obscure pieces.

The production is visually beautiful, with accomplished and adventurous work from designers on all fronts. Anna Gardiner’s intricate set gives the stage an intimacy and provides performers with extensive possibilities for inventiveness. Gardiner’s costumes are not extravagant but accurately and astutely conceived, consistently effective in each character transformation and evolution. Sian James-Holland’s lighting design is one of the show’s main features. Her work is ambitious and powerful, at times conveying the plot more completely than other more tangible elements can manage. Also outstanding are music and sound designer Steve Francis’ achievements in his very specific control over atmospherics, and vocal composer Drew Livingston’s many charming and surprising songs accompanying the script.

Clearly, the performances are not the only stars of the show, but this is an undeniably excellent ensemble of actors. The chemistry they have found with each other, and in every scene, is exemplary. There is an athleticism to their creation, assisted by movement director Scott Witt, that is often breathtaking and marvelous to behold. The constant variation in tone and mood that they manufacture gives the production an extraordinarily textured feel. Keith Agius plays the more mature roles and is memorable for the depth of meaning he is able to bring to his lines. It is the gravity and an intensity that he puts into speeches that sets him apart. Matthew Backer shines with a distinct sense of humour that follows his assured presence, and his singing voice is quite sublime. The most vibrant actor will always leave an impression, and on this occasion, it is Damien Strouthos who wins us over with his agile, flamboyant and impossibly energetic approach.

It is clear that Shakespeare is revered internationally, but the universality of his writing is arguable. As societies become more aware of ethnic, gender and other differences in experience and background, it becomes less likely that any artist can claim to be relevant to everyone, but theatre is in a unique position of sheer proximity where it has the potential to move and touch, in a visceral manner. Shakespeare’s words might not always make sense, but what it gives birth to, is often blisteringly remarkable.

5 Questions with Justin Cotta

justincottaWhat is your favourite swear word?
“Fuck Me In The Face With A Chainsaw Gently”.
It’s not a singular swear word, as per the question, yet run together at a rate of knots… Actually, wait.. no… that just ends up sounding like an in-flight announcement on Aerolineas Argentinas… Say it slow to medium fast depending on the context. And don’t just say it when you’re angry. Try mixing it up a little. Use it in a moment of quietly suspended disbelief. Or, here’s a good one; when you run into someone unexpectedly like an old friend, you can go with..
“Well fuck me in the face with a chainsaw gently!!! If it isn’t Such ‘n Such from Such ‘n Such!?!”
Follow your gut and play with it. And don’t be harsh on yourself if you mess it up the first few times. Like anything, it’s a process. Trust me, you’ll start to dig it.

What are you wearing?
My skin.

What is love?
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. Franz Liszt’s Consolation #6. My sweetheart asleep on my chest. Creating the space for someone to be exactly who they are without judgement. The Collingwood Football Club. Curry. My Ducati. My family and My friends.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
The Motherfucker With The Hat at Eternity Playhouse. Rating: 6 out of 5. Absolutely brilliant. Adam Cook is such a magnificent director. The entire cast blew me away. Our Sweeney Todd will be richer for having seen this show.

Is your new show going to be any good?
I said yes to this role because it feels almost insurmountable. I honestly don’t know if I can pull it off Suzy. At times the demands of Sweeney have left me quivering in my boots. Sondheim is mocking me and bullying me as an actor and as a singer and as a musician. I am scared. To the core. I am filled with doubt. I am questioning myself and my choices in the rehearsal room. I want to run away. Particular songs break my heart. The story breaks my heart. No one wants to have their heart broken. That’s terrifying enough in and of itself… And yes of course, as actors we would be lying if we didn’t say that some of the discomfort is about the ego not wanting to be adjudged to be the giver of a poor/average performance. Aah those reductive and selfish thoughts! However, the fact that I am experiencing so much fear is a positive sign that I am invested in and care deeply about this production. I care deeply for the characters. I care for and respect the team that I am working with. Our wonderful director Giles Gartrell-Mills has assembled a stellar cast. And our MD, Liam Kemp, is a supremely talented musician/pianist. And so, to the question! Will it be any good? I can only guarantee you our passion and commitment. But as a cheeky indulgence, let me also answer you this way… If I weren’t pervaded by undercurrents of fear and doubt in week 3 of rehearsals for a production of Sweeney Todd, I would say, “Don’t bother going. The guy playing Sweeney doesn’t get it.”

Justin Cotta is starring in Sweeney Todd, at the New Theatre in Newtown.
Show dates: 18 Nov – 20 Dec, 2014
Show venue: New Theatre

5 Questions with Phil Rouse

philrouseWhat is your favourite swear word?

What are you wearing?
Topman top and YD Jeans. Second hand, op-shop styling.

What is love?
Branson Coach House Barossa Valley Rare Single Vineyard Shiraz 2005, shared with good friends.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
The Complexity Of Belonging at Melbourne Festival. I give it an OK out of 5.

Is your new show going to be any good?
Well, it kicked arse in Melbourne. Only makes sense it will kick arse in Sydney.

Phil Rouse, artistic director of Don’t Look Away, is directing The Legend Of King O’Malley by Bob Ellis and Michael Boddy.
Show dates: 26 Nov – 13 Dec, 2014
Show venue: Seymour Centre

Review: Anyone Can Whistle (Sydney University Musical Theatre Ensemble)

museVenue: King Street Theatre (Newtown NSW), Oct 15 – 25, 2014
Book: Arthurs Laurents
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Olivia Aleksoski, Alexander Andrews
Cast: Dani El-Rassi, Sarah Gaul, Curtis Gooding, Jordan Shea, William Wally Allington
Image by nick&nick Photography

Theatre review
Stephen Sondheim’s 50 year-old musical still works. Its themes of corrupt governments and the gullibility of humankind remain relevant, and the farce constructed around those societal issues make for scenarios that are amusing yet meaningful. Sydney University Musical Theatre Ensemble’s production might be an amateur one, but it features the vibrancy and enthusiasm of its young members that impress despite inadequate training and an overall lack of sophistication. The five-piece band headed by Music Director Douglas Emery delivers scaled down but punchy accompaniment that delights us with a sparkling joyousness, even if accuracy and cohesion can be improved.

Choreography by the ambitious Louise Flynn is loud and exciting, with the cast’s varying levels of dance ability utilised intelligently. Flynn has a keenness for theatricality and a lot of fun, which manifests effectively on a stage that is consistently colourful and dynamic. India Cordony as Police Chief Magruder takes every opportunity to inject comedy into her dance, and the results are outrageously memorable. Aidan Kane’s physical discipline pays off with a polish and professionalism that helps him stand out from the chorus line.

Dani El-Rassi and Jordy Shea are fiercely committed in their roles, and both present moments of brilliance that will further improve with greater confidence. William Allington as Treasurer Cooley is also engaging, with an effortless charm that keeps his performance buoyant. The show’s biggest parts are demanding, and not satisfactorily created on this occasion. Their love story is a substantial piece of the plot but the desperate shortage of chemistry between actors is quite painful to watch.

The work is directed by Olivia Aleksoski and Alexander Andrews who have used their wonderful troop of stars cleverly. Each personality is given room to shine, and although the show’s plot is not always clear or affecting, the energy that bubbles on stage is always refreshing. The miracles that happen in the story might have been fabricated, but it should be remembered that most artists are also faking it… until they make it someday.

5 Questions with Garry Stewart

garrystewartWhat is your favourite swear word?

What are you wearing?
Billions of bacteria and a few grams of body hair.

What is love?
A complex neurochemical and hormonal process.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
Hofesh Shechter’s Sun. I don’t believe in a rating system for art.

Is your new show going to be any good?
You be the judge.



Garry Stewart’s new work Choreography, presented as part of NIDA Student Productions.
Show dates: 21 – 28 Oct, 2014
Show venue: Carriageworks

5 Questions with Gerry Sont

gerrysontWhat is your favourite swear word?

What are you wearing?
Blue sweat shirt, jeans and sneakers.

What is love?
My wife! (I have to say that or she’ll kill me…)

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
The Maids at the STC, 4 stars, mainly for Elizabeth Debicki’s outstanding performance.

Is your new show going to be any good?
Does a bear shit in the woods? (Yes)


Gerry Sont is appearing in Leaves by Théâtre Excentrique and Emu Productions.
Show dates: 18 -29 Nov, 2014
Show venue: King Street Theatre

In Rehearsal: 1790: A Tale Not Often Told

Rehearsal images above from 1790: A Tale Not Often Told by Founding Modern Australia.
At Darling Quarter Theatre, from Nov 13 – 15, 2014.
More info at