Review: Richard III (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 25 – Apr 1, 2017
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Peter Evans
Cast: Ivan Donato, James Evans, Sandy Gore, James Lugton, Kevin Maclsaac, Kate Mulvany, Meredith Penman, Gareth Reeves, Rose Riley, Sarah Woods
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Born ugly, Richard never understood what it is to be loved, and his story details the effect on a person when rejection is a constant and central defining experience. Coupled with what we now term privilege, his aristocratic life places him in a position of power in spite of that perpetual derision, and what results is a bitter thirst for the reciprocation of inhumanity, that knows no bounds.

It is possible to think of evil as a condition that is somehow innate, even natural to some, or as Shakespeare does in Richard III, we can conceive of evil as a manufactured and socialised phenomenon. In director Peter Evan’s rendition, the way brutality manifests, is an unambiguous process of retribution; Richard’s behaviour is depicted as being a direct consequence of the way he suffers under the mistreatment of a cruel world.

The production is adequately assembled, but there is no overstating its capacity as a showcase for the staggering talents of Kate Mulvany, who takes on the eponymous role with splendid aplomb. Mulvany’s unequivocal brilliance occupies centre stage, having us enthralled at every second, and casting a shadow over the rest of the show. All we want, is to absorb every meticulous minutiae that she serves up in each word and gesture.

It is pure genius at work, and to witness a virtuoso performance that is so exhaustively invested and incredibly rich with resonance, is the kind of theatre that broadens our understanding of what art is capable of doing. When Mulvany strips off at dramatic climax, to reveal her own scoliosis, we see the severely curved spine that she shares with Richard, and in that moment, performativity and reality conflate, for one of the most powerful visions ever brought to stage. Our reaction is appropriately visceral, but we are also made to consider how we attribute a person’s merits, or more accurately in this case, demerits, to their natural traits. If Richard is a villain because of his congenital physical condition, we must question how Mulvany’s and everybody else’s corporeality, is able to determine the people that we eventually become. We wonder about the finality of fate from the point of birth, and the extent to which our existence is written in the stars, and on the flesh.

There are other members of cast who impress, most notably Meredith Penman and Sarah Woods who deliver sensational scenes of heightened emotion, but the piece dulls significantly in the short moments when our star is offstage. Evans’ frequent use of his actors as a chorus is occasionally awkward, although the sense of vigour they create is valuable in ensuring that our attention is sustained. The set and costumes do not quite achieve the luxury and decadence that it aspires to, and the use of a small television set to convey the presence of a dumbwaiter is an inelegant solution and a continual distraction.

Visual aesthetics in this Richard III may not be a strength, but the character we have come to see, is marvellously presented. To live is to learn, and to be human, we need to understand humanity. Art shows us all the possibilities of being, so that we can find ways to negotiate better, both our environs and our selves. It is unlikely that Richard is a straightforward reflection of any one of us, but through this extraordinary rendering of a man who suffers and who retaliates, we gain insight into the nature of personal demons and recognise the way we co-exist in communities. Love can bring about things most beautiful, but its absence, is how we invite every ugliness.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au

Review: The Unknown Dancer In The Neighbourhood (Japan Foundation)

Venue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Mar 22 – 23, 2017
Playwright: Suguru Yamamoto
Director: Suguru Yamamoto
Cast: Wataru Kitao

Theatre review
The neighbourhood in question is Nagai, a small Japanese town, unremarkable and forgotten. The stories we hear are disparate, about individuals associated only by physical proximity, but each with an unmistakable sense of isolation. Suguru Yamamoto’s The Unknown Dancer In The Neighbourhood is about the loneliness of modern life, our increasing introversion as a result of technological advancements and the ever-present tensions rendered by our human need to connect.

It is a script with lots to say, and a long, meandering plot. Small narratives pique our interest, but in the absence of a more conventional approach to manufacturing drama, the 90-minute production struggles to sustain our attention. There are inventive elements to its staging methodology that make the show an artistic success in many ways, but its emotional dimensions, although intensely performed, are less affecting.

Wataru Kitao embodies a large number of characters, including a gorilla and a train, in this ambitious one-man show. A highly accomplished dancer utilising both European and Japanese disciplines, along with versatile vocal abilities, Kitao’s portrayals of all ages and genders with no reliance on costume or makeup changes, is clearly impressive. Brilliantly self-assured, his presence is a confident one that keeps audiences gratified.

The Unknown Dancer In The Neighbourhood shows us the problems of modernity but offers no solutions and does not place blame on anyone explicitly. It is a true representation of our experiences, so we know what it refers to, without requiring it to have everything spelled out. As each generation of trains move us faster and faster, we can only be carried away as the times see fit. Our humanity will offer resistance, but as history shows, people will transform along with the machines we build. The past can tell us so much of what to expect in the future, but the mystery of what is to come, will always prevail.

www.jpf.org.au

Review: The Homosexuals, Or Faggots (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Mar 17 – Apr 29, 2017
Playwright: Declan Greene
Director: Lee Lewis
Cast: Mama Alto, Simon Burke, Simon Corfield, Genevieve Lemon, Lincoln Younes
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Faggots are a kind of meatball dish, but the word is not usually used for that particular meaning. Like the n-word and the c-word, we have learned that some language has to be curbed, due to the power it exerts over the disenfranchised, who have to be protected from the cruelty that linguistic ammunition can brandish.

In Declan Greene’s important and ultra-modern work, The Homosexuals, Or Faggots, we investigate the nature of this constraint, not only in how we speak, but also in the lived experience of how we negotiate with each other’s positions in society. It is a discussion about the levels of privilege different groups of people are perceived to be inhabiting, and the layers of truth and illusion within those differentials. We think of each other as being certain types of people who exist on various hierarchical levels, but these can be misconstrued.

Warren and Kim are an inner-Sydney gay couple, both white and cis-male*. Having emerged from the systematic prejudice of homosexuals in earlier decades, they are now a part of the establishment; wealthy and entitled. Being the first generation of gays who live openly and free from persecution, their lives are self-imagined, with no prior examples to emulate. Their values have to be invented, and what constitutes a good life becomes a confusing ordeal. New to being top dog of Australian society, they are expected to be compassionate and altruistic, having tolerated insistent subjugation in previous years, but the couple is engrossed in their newfound prosperity, unable to behave in accordance with the responsibilities required of them, or are perhaps simply oblivious to their own elitism.

It is a highly intellectual exercise, dressed up in a lot of low-brow theatricality. Inspired by classic European farce, the show is rowdy, rude and ridiculous, but each of its uproarious manoeuvres is meticulously informed by the progressive politics that burns at its core. The audience relates to the work with a demanding complexity, laughing at every antic but engaging intimately with its cutting edge ideas. The action happens very quickly, and our minds are in a frenzy trying to decide right from wrong, real from false. Director Lee Lewis leaves us no room to breathe, insisting that we are swept up in the anxiety-fuelled mania, of her timely and accurate portrait of life in Sydney, 2017.

The hysterical and sweaty ensemble gives us everything. Simon Burke’s portrayal of middle-aged hedonism is as frantic as the cocaine that cushions his luxuriant existence, and although the production provides little room for nuance, his Warren is a character many of us will find familiar, convincing and unexpectedly sympathetic. His husband, Kim is preoccupied with all things academic, but much as he thinks intently about the world, he too lives on the surface. Simon Corfield’s exquisite performance of that duality is perfectly tuned, and incredible to watch. Also memorable is Genevieve Lemon as Diana, the only person on stage with a real soul. Confidently comedic, yet persuasively moving, Lemon makes us laugh and cry as she wills.

Political correctness may seem to be outmoded, but it remains a necessary protection against ignorance, wilful or otherwise. When we see idiots get voted into government, it is clear that hate is a form of currency that never stops working. The harmful things that people say, do in fact benefit those who trade in fear and stupidity. It is understandable then, that those same people would want to expand the parameters of concepts around freedom of speech. This week, our Caucasian Prime Minister is trying to make it permissible that we use racial differences to offend, insult and humiliate each other. We should never be surprised when the powerful wish to extend their dominance in the world, but when those who have benefited from the fruit of arduous social movements refuse to give back after their ascendancy, the disgust is intolerable.

*Read about cisgender at Wikipedia.

www.griffintheatre.com.au

Review: Crimes Of The Heart (Old Fitz Theatre)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Mar 15 – Apr 8, 2017
Playwright: Beth Henley
Director: Janine Watson
Cast: Caleb Alloway, Rowan Davie, Amanda Mcgregor, Laura Pike, Renae Small, Amy Usherwood
Image by Rupert Reid

Theatre review
It’s not Russia in 1900, but the three sisters in Beth Henley’s Crimes Of The Heart are similarly oppressed and emotionally tortured. Where Chekhov had expressed these pains in more sociopolitical terms, Henley’s story is specific about the patriarchy that these Magrath ladies have to operate under. They are gregarious personalities who fight hard to make lemonade out of an endless supply of lemons, but things never pan out well. They are trapped, by forces that remain invisible to them, and in their minds, they only have themselves to blame.

Completed in 1978, the play is no longer lustrous, but with our refreshed interest in feminism, its themes have again become pertinent. There are dominant men in these women’s lives who wreak havoc, but we never see them. To many women, especially those in decades past, gender inequity is rarely conspicuous. The Magraths do not for one moment realise the cause of their suffering, and like many of us, we take the blame personally, unable to perceive the wider connotations of how we exist, and the deeply problematic contexts by which we go about our daily business. Janine Watson’s direction takes the comedy to delightfully dark and twisted places for many perverse laughs, but the production’s inability to make forceful, the presence of evil fathers and husbands, is a sore point that prevents the drama and poignancy to sufficiently take hold.

The people who do appear on stage though, are effectively presented. All three sisters, Babe, Lenny and Meg are convincing, and very compelling. Renae Small in particular, is fascinating as Babe, with a subtle but wicked sense of humour that gives the show a distinctive flavour of subversiveness. Her ability to make believable the contradictory qualities of a delicate lady in trouble, but free from the torment of guilt, is truly impressive. Laura Pike demonstrates excellent authority over her depictions of emotion in the role of Lenny, and Amanda McGregor’s energetic theatricality as Meg, give Crimes Of The Heart a richness that keeps us invested in how its characters develop.

Jonathan Hindmarsh’s set design is a remarkable achievement that converts an inconvenient space into the Magrath’s evocative American home of mid-twentieth century. Along with Alexander Berlage’s lights, the actors are framed perfectly, in a manner that represents a constant reminder of the women’s unconscious captivity. Our lives are controlled by forces insidious and surreptitious, and how we experience being, will always have elements that are under the manipulation of others. We may never be able to overcome them all, but understanding systems and their machinations, is how we can begin learning to benefit from them, or to dismantle and debase them. The sisters wish for happier days, but without knowing the cause of their agony, they can only leave their hopes to the powers that be, which in this case, remain concealed and malevolent.

www.imperialartistry.ontrapages.com

5 Questions with Amanda McGregor and Laura Pike

Amanda McGregor

Laura Pike: You are eldest of three girls but Meg is the middle sister. What have you noticed about the middle sister syndrome?
Amand McGregor: Being in the middle feels like it encourages more rebellion. I know as the eldest sister – the first one off the block – I was more disciplined by my parents than my younger sisters were. Everyone knows that by the third kid, parents are more lax, like “Yeah whatever – have ice cream for dinner! Stay out all night long! We cool! You do you!” But the eldest often ends up pretty responsible and measured. I’m generalising, but it’s pretty much on point for me and my sisters, and I think for the McGraths too. Meg certainly is not responsible or measured, she lives in the moment.

Even though I’m the eldest, I certainly went through my wild phases. Meg went straight for the kill and started being a renegade from a young age, probably to differentiate herself from the very well-behaved Lenny – but also in order to mask the pain of her childhood.

Meg is a singer – have you had any aspirations about being a singer?
100% yes. At 13 I sang a TJ Dennis song with a live band at the Boyup Brook Country Music Festival. I wore black jeans and a black tassel midriff top and I felt so cool and like I was definitely a famous country music star. I still have a secret desire to sing country all day every day and be the female Willie Nelson.

Crimes Of The Heart deals with ghosts from the past? Do you have any?
I think we all do. So short answer yes, and the long answer would spill out of me with the right about of bourbon. There are certain relationships in my life where oceans lie between me and someone else because of pain and heartache. The person exists purely as a memory – they’re a ghost. So I can empathise with Meg in that sense. Everyone’s past haunts them from time to time, and I think Meg’s past is painfully unresolved.

What the wildest adventure you’ve ever had?
Probably a night in Hollywood that involved surprise drug deals, Steel Panther, a supposed member of the ‘Bra Boys, and a beautiful pit bull named Brooklyn.

Who do you get as your doppelgänger?
Sarah Jessica Parker when my hair is blonde-ish (a woman literally took a photo once not just OF me, but WITH me because “aw mate you look like that chick from Sex And The City!” It was on the Gold Coast. It was weird. I’m not sure why I posed for the photo). Then when my hair is dark, Winona Ryder, which makes all my dreams come true. I want to be Winona, forever. I think I’ll get a tattoo of her face.

Laura Pike

Amanda McGregor: What’s the most frustrating quality about Lenny that you can relate to?
Laura Pike: Oh my gosh I’ve had SO many cringe moments during rehearsal, where other cast have gone “Oh poor Lenny” and I’ve thought THAT’S ME! Lenny has this beautiful quality, where she takes care of everyone. She has a desperate need to bring people together, free them of their pain and look after others. But in doing so, she leaves herself last. This is definitely something I do and am working on strengthening. Having a healthy amount of selfishness and recognising when I need to fill up my own cup because the more I can do that, the more I can tip over into others cups.

Do you have any phobias?
YES! Waves. I grew up in PNG and we lived right on the water, but I’m so scared of waves. It didn’t help living in Bondi either. I’m especially scared of the part when the wave breaks or starts to barrel. It seems so menacing to me and people always say “you’ve just got to dive under it” but it freaks me out. And I’ve dreamt of tsunamis. I think I need to get onto this!

What are the differences between sisterhood in Mississippi 1974 and sisterhood in Sydney 2017?
Sisterhood is sisterhood, no matter what period of time or place. The relationship between sisters is universal. You grow up together, knowing each other’s vulnerabilities, strengths, traits and personality… oh and triggers. Boy do you know each other’s triggers! The bond between sisters is incredibly special. To be in the company of someone you deeply love and knowing in the pit of your being that you’d do ANYTHING for that person if they needed it. Luckily, some things have changed since the 1970s in regards to feminism and women’s rights. One of the biggest victories in Women’s Rights in the US came in 1972 when Congress approved the Equal Rights Amendment. However Mississippi was the ONLY state legislature that didn’t vote on the amendment. So when Crimes Of The Heart was set (1974) Women’s Rights hadn’t reached the South. Therefore my character Lenny (in dealing with her younger sister Babe’s marriage) is still of that old school mentality; “Don’t interfere; what goes on between and husband and wife is their own business”. Even the simple act of a woman calling a man was taboo. Today, women are more empowered to stand up for each other – I would even go so far as to say there is more of a global sisterhood of support, trust and love.

Lenny is the eldest of 3, you are the youngest of 3. What’s the worse thing your older sisters have done to you?
I also grew up in Cairns in a beautiful ‘Queenslander’ with lattice going all the way around our house. When I was a little one, I always needed to go to the loo in the middle of the night. My eldest sister came to me one day and commented on how brave I was taking such a risk. “What do you mean?” I pleaded and without blinking, she told me about the murderer that used to sit with his gun in the lattice, waiting for me each night. Bed wetting anyone?

What animal could you take down in a fight?
A pig. If it was in their pen. Filled with mud not poo. I snort when I laugh really loudly, so at least I’d fit in!

Amanda McGregor and Laura Pike can be seen in Crimes Of The Heart by Beth Henley.
Dates: 15 March – 8 April, 2017
Venue: Old Fitz Theatre

Review: Lady Eats Apple (Back To Back Theatre)

Venue: Carriageworks (Eveleigh NSW), Mar 16 – 18, 2017
Director: Bruce Gladwin
Cast/Devisors: Mark Deans, Simon Laherty, Romany Latham, Brian Lipson, Sarah Mainwaring, Scott Price

Theatre review
God told Adam that “in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die,” and so it seems, when Eve decided to take a bite of the forbidden fruit, it came to pass that humans would not be immortal beings. In Lady Eats Apple, the theme of death provides impetus for a three act show, featuring on one end of the scale, the most mundane of everyday interchanges, and on the other, some very extravagant explorations into esotericism.

In life, we see death, and through death, we see the heavens. It is existentialist theatre, with Director Bruce Gladwin offering us a close look at the simplest activities of our daily life, but with the rumbles of thereafter underscoring every action. What seems inconsequential begins to take on great meaning, when we come to an appreciation of the vastness in which we operate. The work is not preachy as its title might suggest, but it requires of the viewer to think of the afterlife, and to connect that conception with the here and now.

The staging is both minimal and staggeringly beautiful, both clumsy and incredibly exquisite. Mark Cuthbertson’s powerful set design does to the viewer what places of worship aim to do; it overwhelms us, creating a sensation of awe with each of its stunning transformations. Fascinating video projections by Rhian Hinkley are a riddle that challenges us at first, but goes on to deliver disarming images of glory and transcendence.

Lady Eats Apple features a very strong cast of actors, each one confident in their parts and persuasive with their stage presences. Scott Price is particularly impressive when setting the stage in Act One, playing a godlike figure, resolute and commanding with the vision he wishes to achieve. Also memorable is Sarah Mainwaring, who moves us with a very sensitive portrayal of empathy when attempting to rescue a man struggling to gain consciousness. Mark Deans and Simon Laherty entertain us, with their charming vibrancy, and with a healthy sense of humour that they bring to their respective characters.

Death can be frightening, if our imagination leads us astray. The play reiterates the line “we will take care of you,” offering us comfort and reassurance. We can only die alone, but our time on earth should be occupied with love and laughter. The community and companionship witnessed on this stage inspires us to remember, that whatever happens later, now is the time to make the most of things.

www.backtobacktheatre.com

Review: The Laden Table (Bakehouse Theatre Company)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Mar 10 – 25, 2017
Playwrights: Nur Alam, Raya Gadir, Chris Hill, Marian Kernahan, Ruth Kliman, Yvonne Perczuk
Director: Suzanne Millar
Cast: Alex Chalwell, Doron Chester, Suz Mawer, Sarah Meacham, Mansoor Noor, Jessica Paterson, Abi Rayment, Monroe Reimers, Gigi Sawires, Geoff Sirmai, Donald Sword, Justina Ward
Image by Natasha Narula

Theatre review
A resplendent, but homely, dining table awaits, with twelve empty chairs anticipating two families and their stories about cultural displacement and historical discord. The Laden Table features Jewish and Muslim Australians, and the baggage they continue to carry after centuries of religious hostility. Their lives are in Sydney, but they exist beyond the here and now. What had happened in the past and what is yet to come, are crucial to how they act and think today.

It is a magnificent piece of writing, that interrogates, with unyielding severity, the nature of prejudice and more specifically, the way good people make enemies of each other through their religious affiliations. The Laden Table offers insight into how the layperson of the Jewish and Muslim faiths conceives of their own oppression, and how that manifests into hateful beliefs and behaviour. Structurally intricate, but with a vivid and coherent plot line, the play addresses issues of great profundity in a manner that is both elucidative and deeply affecting. It teaches some of the biggest lessons any individual could wish to learn.

The production is arresting in its poignancy, and thoroughly captivating. Director Suzanne Millar does a marvellous job of creating a work full of texture and nuance, with regular shifts in dramatic tone that secure our attention for the show’s entirety. Lighting designer Benjamin Brockman provides instinctual logic to every one of The Laden Table‘s startling scene changes, and amplifies emotional impact throughout its narrative, whether subtle or sensational. Will Newnham’s sound design adds to the carefully calibrated atmosphere, moving us between unpredictable spaces, and leaving a remarkable impression with a special moment that fuses prayers of both faiths in surprising harmony.

Stakes are high in the story, and the ensemble overwhelms us with an authentic gravitas. War is happening elsewhere but in these two Australian households, we feel the reverberations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the sense of mortal danger faced by millions is more than a bleep on the nightly news. Gigi Sawires and Geoff Sirmai are the elders, both flamboyantly engaging and unconventionally colourful with what they bring to the table. Jessica Paterson and Monroe Reimers introduce convincing depth to their characters’suffering, and Suz Mawer is a powerful presence as a modern Muslim woman, constantly having to negotiate past and future, spirituality and logic. The vulnerable complexity that Mawer portrays so well, is embodiment of what the play represents; and to expect easy answers is impracticable.

Religion does a lot of good, but the harm it causes cannot be denied. Atheists will say that the eradication of religion will solve many of the world’s problems, but that utopia will never come, even within the next few lifetimes. The way our faith is ingrained, has a tenacious permanency that endures over generations. It shapes many minds and guides many deeds, but it is never beyond reproach or provocation. God will always be there, but how we relate to them changes, and how we want them reflected in our lives, is up to us.

www.bakehousetheatrecompany.com.au