Review: The King And I (Opera Australia / Sydney Opera House)

thekingandiVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), from Sep 7 – Nov 1, 2014
Music: Richard Rodgers
Book and Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II (based on Anna And The King Of Siam by Margaret Landon)
Director: Christopher Renshaw
Cast: Lisa McCune, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Shu-Cheen Yu, Jenny Liu, Adrian Li Donni, Marty Rhone, John Adam
Image by Brian Geach

Theatre review
There is no denying the contentiousness of casting a performer who is not of Asian heritage to play the role of the King of Siam. It is a very rare occasion that a main stage production in Australia features a specifically Asian character in its lead, and to deprive Asian actors of the opportunity to headline a show of this grand scale is unfortunate. On the other hand, we are a culture that believes in meritocracy, where the best candidate for the job should win the part. Instead of background, we look at ability, and in the case of Teddy Tahu Rhodes who is King, in the Sydney season of The King And I, he proves himself a force to be reckoned with. Handsome, imposing and astonishingly talented, Rhodes is in many ways, perfect for the role. His humour is confident and sharp, and his rich baritone voice is immensely satisfying. Rhodes has charisma in abundance, which is key to his successful portrayal of royalty and chauvinism.

Anna is played by the endearing Lisa McCune, who is surprisingly animated in her depiction of the English language teacher from Wales. Her voice is not the most powerful in the cast, but her interpretation of classics like Getting To Know You and Shall We Dance is thoroughly accomplished, and her enthusiasm for the role is more than evident. McCune’s Anna is a delicate figure, but her energy is consistently buoyant, and her performance is compelling and enjoyable. The production features outstanding supporting players, including soprano Jenny Liu as Tuptim who provides the most ethereal and emotional singing in the production. Liu’s ability to convey passion and angst is a great asset to the show, and she embodies the tragedy of the plot effectively. The role of Lady Thiang is performed by Shu-Cheen Yu who delights with a stunning theatricality derived from traditional Chinese forms. Her use of physical and facial expressions is a rare treat on Australian stages, which simply must not be missed.

Designers never share top billing with cast members, but this is a production with a visual glory that will be remembered for years to come. Brian Thomson’s scenic design is luxurious and exquisite, with Nigel Levings’ lighting providing further variation to scenes. We never stray far from the King’s palace, but the stage looks and feels different in every scene, and nearly every change is awe inspiring. The glamour and vibrancy of Roger Kirk’s costumes are second to none, with every ensemble conveying beauty and romance. Choreography of the legendary segment The Small House of Uncle Thomas by Susan Kikuchi (based on Jerome Robbins’ original work) is sublime. Watching the famed sequence emerge from the familiar film into reality, in such fine form is a dream come true. Christopher Renshaw serves as director of the production, bringing with him great amounts of flair and elegance, especially in bigger scenes with groups of children and servants. There are always nuances to discover and flourishes to admire in the background. Renshaw handles the writing’s awkward (and dated) racial dynamics well. Jokes are made out of the clashing and discord between races, but caricatures are toned down significantly so that characters escape obvious degradation.

In spite of the productions efforts however, we cannot escape the core message of The King And I, which pits two cultures against each other and concludes at a point where the Siamese King experiences a dramatic transformation, while the Caucasian Anna remains the same person. The underlying message is clear; one side requires improvement and the other can stay unchanged. Furthermore, the Asian character’s evolution needs to be in line with the Westerner’s standards of taste and acceptability in order for the show to find resolution. It is understandable that the esteemed nature of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s work is resistant to radical alteration, and the fact that the story is based on famous memoirs places psychological constraints on artistic licenses, but creativity in the arts should know no bounds, especially when it takes on the responsibility to improve ideologies and advance civilisations.

5 Questions with Joanna Weinberg

joannaweinbergWhat is your favourite swear word?
POES! It’s a South African word which is extremely rude and derogatory and politically incorrect and therefore satisfying to those in the know.

What are you wearing?
Bare feet , black nail polish and lots of drapy shawl things.

What is love?
My husband reads my reviews and lies to me if they are bad.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
Storytiller on the Sydney Fringe. Lots of stars.

Is your new show going to be any good?
My new show is already good. What a dumb question.

Joanna Weinberg is starring in Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs.
Show dates: Sundays 14, 21 and 28 Sep 2014
Show venue: Hayes Theatre Co

5 Questions with Amanda Collins

amandacollinsWhat is your favourite swear word?
There’s such a wealth, it’s hard to pick. Plus most depend on the situation. But I guess if I have to choose, I’d go with the tried and true Fuck! It’s just so versatile.

What are you wearing?
Currently I’m sporting a rather enviable crusty old track-suit pant and jumper combo. Stylish.

What is love?
Big question. Love is many things and comes in many forms. It is the very best humans are capable of and from its roots spring beautiful things such as hope, joy, kindness, happiness, empathy, wonder, understanding, acceptance, comfort, forgiveness, support, courage, empowerment, and strength.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
Macbeth. Loved it. 5 stars!

Is your new show going to be any good?

Amanda Collins is appearing in Four Dogs And A Bone, with Brief Candle Productions.
Show dates: 16 – 27 Sep, 2014
Show venue: The Old Fitzroy Hotel

5 Questions with Christian Byers

christianbyersWhat is your favourite swear word?
Fuck, fucked, fucker and all it’s fuckin’ cognates. Favourite fuckin’ word. Fuck. Fuckin’ nothin’ like a fuckin’ good fuck. If I had to choose between ‘fuck’ and oxygen, I’d choose oxygen, I’m not an idiot but I’d be in no rush. Stretch it out long and sing ‘fuck’ super strong without pause for breath in the interim. Beautiful word.

What are you wearing?

What is love?
Tenderness and time dilation.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
Double bill of Black Comedy and The Real Inspector Hound at SUDS, went on first night which was pretty good and again on final night, where vases were spontaneously smashed with hammers because directors deserve to cry. I kept a shard of the vase to remind myself to aaaaalways improvise, 5 stars.

Is your new show going to be any good?
It fucking better be. Actually, no you know what, it’s going to be brilliant but I get the feeling it’s going to get its fair share of hate. But those who love it will start devoting their lives to adapting Greek tragedies. Or makin’ fuckin’ pies with fuckin’ people in. That’s our aim at least.

Christian Byers is playing the role of Tereus in Procne & Tereus part of Sydney Fringe 2014.
Show dates: 16 – 20 Sep, 2014
Show venue: TAP Gallery

Review: Europe (Slip Of The Tongue)

slipofthetongueVenue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Sep 10 – 27, 2014
Playwright: Michael Gow
Director: James Beach
Cast: Pippa Grandison, Andrew Henry
Image by Kurt Sneddon

Theatre review
Making sense of humanity requires that we look at history. History gives us meaning and inspiration, it tells us how we should progress. The same follows for the concept of nationhood. The conceit of nations is a discussion about identity in relation to histories. Australia is thought of by many as a derivation of sorts. Its European settlement and ancestry has shaped its public image into one that is invariably referential. It constantly negates its first cultures and its recent migrations, to place emphasis on its ties with the European continent. We are spurned, forgotten and disparaged, yet we are desperate, supplicant and nostalgic. We define ourselves in European terms, and our score cards are created in their image. We wait for acceptance and approval like abandoned babies suffering from developmental retardation. We live in the shadows of parents who no longer remember our birth.

Douglas sacrifices every dollar on flights to Europe. He seeks to rekindle a week long romance with Barbara who had visited Australia briefly. Douglas believes that his life would be perfect if he wins her over. Barbara is perplexed that a flippant moment from the past has returned to haunt her. Douglas is surprised by her reaction and says repeatedly that he would leave, but misses every train. Michael Gow’s script is a comical love story, and a meditation on Australian whiteness. It examines tenuous connections with a motherland, and the existential angst of the castaway. James Beach’s direction is thoughtful and gentle. The duplicitous nature of the narrative is conveyed successfully, and the minimalism of his staging creates a tenderness that reflects Douglas’ internal complexion. There is a languidness that detracts from humour in the early scenes, but the resulting show is an elegant one that speaks intelligently, with an openness that welcomes interpretation.

Pippa Grandison is suitably continental in her approach. She succeeds in portraying the foreignness of Barbara, and her conscious efforts at creating a sense of exotic otherness is well considered and entertaining. Barbara is a stage actor, and Grandison could benefit from playing up her theatricality further, especially in the early segments where more energy could be put into the comedy of the characters’ encounters. Aussie country boy Douglas is played by Andrew Henry who uses just enough stereotyped conventionality to depict cultural relevance, but more appealing is the authentic naiveté he brings to the role. Henry’s work is confidently simple, which ensures that small gestures speak volumes, and dialogue is allowed to resonate. It must also be noted that his performance of intoxication at the play’s conclusion is completely delightful.

Romance provides spice to life. We long for attention and adoration to be reciprocated, so that some kind of affirmation can be established, but that attainment is only temporarily satisfactory, for romance is a need that can never be sated. As long as we keep thinking of ourselves as a chip off the old block, or as the apple that has fallen a little too far from the tree, we will forever be an inferior echo that fails to be its own self determining entity. There is much to love about our own place on earth. We need to acknowledge our histories but we need to make the best of the here and now, wherever we may be.

Review: Other Desert Cities (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembletheatreVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Sep 4 – Oct 18, 2014.
Playwright: Jon Robin Baitz
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Lisa Gormley, Deborah Kennedy, Diana McLean, Stephen Multari, Ken Shorter

Theatre review
It is Christmas time and we visit the home of an older Californian couple, both prominent figures from the right wing of politics. Polly and Lyman Wyeth are not always politically correct, but their self awareness gives them an air of relaxed charm. Their children Brook and Trip have arrived for the festivities, but we soon discover that all is not well. Brook is set to publish a tell-all memoir and takes the opportunity to reveal the book to her family. Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, is a tale about the damage our closest ones inflict upon us, family secrets, and the stories we dream up in place of missing pieces. We keep the truth from one another because we think that people need to be protected, and also because of shame. We can choose our friends, and run away from them when intimate revelations become problematic, but family ties are hard to break, so we keep the peace, by perpetuating lies.

Baitz’s script is classically structured. It is amusing, gripping and surprising, with the potential to be incredibly moving. Its themes of family disintegration, mental illness, regret and guilt are all loaded with sentimentality, and when handled well, could be heartbreaking. Mark Kilmurry’s direction brings out the dramatic conflicts of the story with some success, but tension does not build up sufficiently. It is an energetic show, with good amounts of shouting and crying, but the plot does not always engage. The cast seems to be discordant, each finding separate emphases, and their chemistry does not quite convince.

Lisa Gormley invests heavily into her character’s depression and her torment is clear to see. Her early scenes before confrontations begin, feel forced and inauthentic, but her work in the second act is the show’s saving grace. Ken Shorter’s naturalism is a joy to watch. His presence is genuine and strong, but he brings a warmth to the role that does not always serve the narrative well.

Ailsa Paterson’s set design confines the Wyeths in the 1970s. Their home is dated, and we see that they have not moved on for over twenty years. We live the consequences of our decisions, good or bad. There is no assurance that doing the right thing would lead to brighter days, but the Wyeths’ story gives hope that resolutions can be found if you try hard enough.

Review: Children Of The Sun (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Sep 8 – Oct 25, 2014
Playwright: Maxim Gorky (adapted by Andrew Upton)
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Valerie Bader, James Bell, Justine Clarke, Yure Covich, Jay Laga’aia, Jacqueline McKenzie, Hamish Michael, Julia Ohannessian, Chris Ryan, Helen Thomson, Contessa Treffone, Toby Truslove
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review (originally published at Auditorium Magazine)
In Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s Children Of The Sun, 12 characters of distinct and diverse personalities intermingle in the privileged Protasov household, each with their own sets of concerns and each holding world views that struggle to find cohesion and alliance. Written in 1905, but set 50 years earlier, Gorky’s play looks to the past in order that we may speak of the now. Created at a time of great political and social unrest, a fictional history was used to illustrate the disquiet of the day. The work is about the anxieties and uncertainties inherent in the process of revolution, and the troubling consequences of fragmentation in communities. In our age of technological modernity, we relate instinctively to its theme of individualistic narcissism, and the increasingly fracturing nature of our local and world affairs allows us to empathise with the writer’s angst and trepidation in the face of social upheaval.

The disharmony of relationships is strikingly enhanced in Upton’s version. Its farcical comedy is relentlessly witty and often surprisingly clever, but always subservient to the greater tension of unrest that gradually unfolds. The language we hear is modern, almost colloquially Australian, which not only makes for sharper punchlines, but also allows us to readily identify personality archetypes and status structures. The disconnect between the household’s apolitical characters and the political movement that intensifies on the outside is fascinating to observe. Upton’s dialogue portrays the insularity of daily life, with the characters unknowingly providing reverberations for a larger context. It is classic social commentary that seems immortal, because its necessity never seems to diminish.

Kip Williams’ marvelous direction of the piece works with all the nuances and philosophies of the script to deliver an irresistible production that is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Every character is intriguing and authentic, and Williams injects in each a dimension of dignity, refusing to make convenient fools of anyone. Herein lies the poignancy of work. The range of personalities is diverse, and even though we are unable to identify with everyone, we recognise the humanity in all of them. The vulnerability that they display is familiar, which means that the danger they encounter rings true for us.

Williams achieves a deliciously precarious balance between comedy and drama, effectively vacillating between frivolity and severity throughout the production. It is an intensely engaging show that manipulates our responses almost at will. There is an unpredictability to its plot that takes us off the beaten track and rejects our expectations, but it always enthralls our senses. Its rhythm is perfectly orchestrated in collaboration with our fluctuating emotions, and we become utterly lost in all its trials and tribulations.

Giving the narrative an impressive clarity is its extremely colourful and dynamic cast, many of whom exhibit extraordinary theatrical abilities that look very much like genius. Helen Thomson gives an unforgettable performance as Melaniya, a blundering seductress whose desperation is matched only by her beauty. Thomson’s work is precise and studied, but her instinctive timing creates a deceptive sense of spontaneity. Hilarious, playful, and larger than life, her every entrance is commanding and powerful. Thomson finds comedy in unexpected places, making us laugh while leaving us stupefied at the magnitude of her talents. Even more flamboyant is Hamish Michael, who is delightfully hammy as the painter Dimitri. His humour is unfettered and extravagant, always keen to highlight the vacuous pretensions of his role. Michael relishes the opportunity to play jester, with a wildness to his performance that is certainly amusing, and absolutely suited to the grand scale of the venue.

Pavel is the childlike patriarch, whose devotion to science renders him feckless in all other areas. Toby Truslove embodies the character’s eccentricity perfectly. The actor is slightly betrayed by his youthful appearance but his use of voice and physicality is very well-considered. Truslove’s ability to aggrandise what is basically an introspective personality helps establish Pavel as the charming man who finds himself the object of two women’s affections. Pavel’s sister Liza is his opposite. She is a creature of intuition and emotion, whose ill health is a symbolic manifestation of all the worries she carries for the world. Actor Jacqueline McKenzie is sensitive, elegant and tremendously affecting in the role. She demonstrates excellent range and an acute intellect that carves out the most intricate character on this stage.

Production design is restrained but highly evocative. David Fleischer’s big revolving stage holds several minimal structures that demarcate spaces, but all are in full view for the duration. The aesthetic is modern, but its sentiment is traditional. Significant plot devices like rain and fire are introduced gently, without causing a distraction from the story. Costumes and props are beautifully coordinated, with a sense of historical accuracy. Time and space is manufactured efficiently with minimal fuss, but every moment looks harmonious and beautiful.

This production of Children Of The Sun gives theatre lovers everything their hearts desire. It entertains, educates and thrills us, and it gives us so much to admire in the talent and skills that it showcases, but it does not provide answers to its own pressing questions. It is a quietly controversial work that makes statements about community, equity and political action. It makes us recognise the importance of social advancement, but seeks not to be divisive. It leaves with us a plea for progress and perhaps a yearning for a new revolution, but it relies on our own benevolence and intelligence to find a way.