Review: Before The Water Gets Cold (Smoking Gum Theatre)

smokinggumVenue: Sydney Theatre School (Chippendale NSW), Aug 23 – 27, 2016
Playwright: Charles O’Grady
Director: Lucinda Vitek
Cast: Samuel Beazley, Robin Chen, Julia Robertson, Amy Zhang

Theatre review
Part poetry, part dance and part play, Before The Water Gets Cold is a multidisciplinary exploration into the nature of artistic expression. With themes of love and loneliness providing its main threads of inspiration, what we see on stage are four performers inhabiting a range of personalities, not to convey a narrative, but to evoke sensations and emotions that we are all familiar with.

The work is guided by an innovative spirit, and is often a refreshing experience, although significant portions can seem clichéd, due to its inability to transcend the derivative. Writing, direction and choreography exhibit moments of beauty through their various modes of experimentation, but a greater sense of originality, or perhaps boldness, is missing in the production.

Performer Julia Robertson is memorable for her captivating presence, and a surprising authenticity that she brings, even to the more absurdist sequences of the show. Her work with Robin Chen in a montage composed of romantic movie quotations is particularly delightful. Composer Josephine Gibson and sound designer Jeaux Pfeffer contribute proficiently to this collaboration, both sensitive and understated in style, for a delicate air that envelopes the auditorium.

Before The Water Gets Cold wishes to marry logic with something more ephemeral, but a greater trust in the visceral instance would allow us to dive in deeper into its artistry. The mind gets in the way of much of life’s pleasures, and at the theatre, an opportunity for us to be in touch with the magic of the here and now is always present, if only we resist the temptation to analyse everything even before it begins to happen.

5 Questions with Lulu Howes and Caitlin West

Lulu Howes

Lulu Howes

Caitlin West: So you’re condensing 15 books and 250 stories down to a single show. Is there a theme or set of themes that have guided and tied together your telling of these stories?
Lulu Howes: I’d say our approach to adapting such a large body of work was inspired by the vastness of Ovid’s original text. Metamorphoses is such a sprawling book, it picks up threads of myths and then drops them, tells half stories, revisits characters sporadically. Ovid really seems to pick and choose what he’s interested in, then loosely ties everything up in the theme of ‘metamorphoses’. So the myths we’ve chosen to work with and the way we’ve decided to adapt them is pretty eclectic. We were all drawn to different stories for different reasons, and I think this boundlessness is what binds them together, embracing that vastness rather than running away from it. That being said, there are definitely some themes that have continued to crop up. If I had to pick, the big three would probably be gender, politics and power.

How closely has the language of the original text shaped your telling of these stories?
I’m not even sure how many translations of Metamorphoses we now have between us – probably too many. Trying to find the right mode of expression to represent a myth has been half the battle of adaptation, so language has definitely played a massive part. Sometimes we’ll quote directly from a translation, or use the Elizabethan adaptation, or delve into how Ovid has presented a particular idea. More than anything else I think the comedy of the original text has worked its way into a lot of the play. There’s a lot of satire and a lot of silliness.

Saro has directed you in a few shows in the past. How have you found working with him as an actor?
The same but different. It’s been a very collaborative process – everyone’s open to each other’s ideas and feedback so in that regard it feels very familiar. Having done shows together in the past we went into Metamorphoses with a great friendship to work off and a good idea of what it might be like devising together. I think it’s been a really natural transition, especially with Imogen stepping into a more directorial role and just generally being amazing. Saro’s got great comic timing and likes improvisation more than I do, which is good because it keeps me on my toes and terrible because I can’t always keep a straight face.

Can you tell me a bit about how you’re approaching the task of characterisation in a show that presumably is dealing with multiple character voices?
There’s such a huge array of characters in the show, there hasn’t been a set approach. As almost none of the characters reappear in more than one scene, it’s been about establishing really strong voices or images in a short amount of time. Different methods have worked for different scenes, whether we’re improvising and working off each other in the room, or painstakingly going through the script to create these really defined voices for a two-minute scene. We’ve both been able to pick and choose who might play which character, with no expectation that if the character is a man it should be played by Saro or vice versa. In general there’s been a lot of freedom with how we tackle these characters, and way, way too many costume changes.

Seriously, will there be Kanye West references?
There are already too many, we need to be stopped.

Caitlin West

Caitlin West

Lulu Howes: Tammy & Kite is delving into the world of children and the things they ‘do or don’t see.’ What first drew you to this idea?
When Hannah and I first came together to make this show, we both knew that we wanted to talk about children, siblings and the imagination. As someone with a much younger sister, and with a personal interest in child play therapy, I was keen to look at how children process and express difficult emotions. This was complemented by Hannah, who came at this as an artist, and as someone with an incredible visual imagination. She had a million ideas for how we could translate those concepts into something really beautiful and tangible. So I guess it was kind of a crossover of our own personal interests and skills, and a shared desire to try to communicate and think about the way a child sees the world.

I am so excited to see you and Hannah (Cox) onstage together; you’re both such energetic, engaging performers. What does the inside of your rehearsal room look like at the moment?
Well, at the moment, I’m sitting here writing this, while Hannah plays a pretty intense game of handball with herself against the wall. There’s a pile of discarded toys and books on the floor, a half-finished Lego spaceship on the bed, and Phillip the duck is sitting next to me. We’ve just finished rehearsing a scene where Kite saves Tammy from a monster armed only with a light sabre, so we’re taking a break before we move on to some of the more tightly choreographed puppet scenes.

A ten year old wants to come see Tammy & Kite. How do you describe the play to them?
In this show we’re trying to use a language that will be accessible to both young people and adults (although perhaps for different reasons and in different ways) so to be honest, I think I’d tell them the same thing I’d tell an adult. In a nutshell in Tammy & Kite we’re taking the best and the worst parts about being a kid, and trying to translate them into something that grown-ups can understand.

What’s the scariest/hardest/most challenging part of devising your own show?
I think the scariest thing, when creating a show from scratch with another person, is knowing how to trust that person enough to fail. When you’re rehearsing a show with a bunch of other actors, or with a pre-written script, or with a director who’s always in the room with you, it can be easier in a sense to hide behind those things or to use them to fall back on when you get it wrong. Hannah and I were already great friends before we started working on this show, which was a big help, but over the rehearsal process I think we’ve both gotten a lot better at trying out new things, and not being afraid to do that. I think once you let go of the fear of trying something that might not work, that’s when you end up finding the seeds of the best stuff.

If you could go back in time and give kid Caitlin one piece of advice, what would it be?
When the ice cream truck plays “Greensleeves” that does not mean it has run out of ice cream and don’t let anyone tell you that it does.

Lulu Howes and Caitlin West can both be seen in Sydney Fringe Festival shows by Montague Basement.

Tammy & Kite
Dates: 13 – 17 September, 2016 at 8pm
Venue: Erskineville Town Hall

Dates: 13 – 17 September, 2016 at 10pm
Venue: Erskineville Town Hall

Review: Look Back In Anger (Red Line Productions)

redlineVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Aug 16 – Sep 10, 2016 | Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Sep 13 – 17, 2016
Playwright: John Osborne
Directors: Damien Ryan, Lizzie Schebesta
Cast: Robin Goldsworthy, Andrew Henry, Melissa Bonne, Chantelle Jamieson
Image by John Marmaras

Theatre review
Jimmy is a very angry young man, and in Look Back In Anger, we are subjected to a series of his incessant, long and very tedious rants that prove themselves to be ultimately ineffectual, and highly irritating. At one point, he insists “that voice that cries out doesn’t have to be a weakling’s does it?”

1956 it seems, was a completely different time. Today, a white man with youth and a university education, living in a Western society, is considered to be in possession of the greatest of privileges, and we have no patience for their complaints about their perceived (and possibly, imagined) injustices of life. Of course, residing in positions of advantage does not automatically absolve a person of angst and self-proclaimed victimhood. Jimmy’s grief with our troubled existence is valid, and it is his right to refuse to suck it up, grin and bear it, but like all the furious white male voices that rule the talk-back radio waves, we can choose to ignore their shrill babble. John Osborne’s play is well structured, but its themes and concerns could not be more dated, and for many feminists, not much is lost if Look Back In Anger, along with its overt misogyny, is left dead, buried and cremated.

From a technical perspective however, co-directors Damien Ryan and Lizzie Schebesta have revived the play with admirable accuracy and nuance, delivering powerful drama, especially to those more welcoming of its ethos. Also accomplished are its designers; Jonathan Hindmarsh’s set and Anna Gardiner’s costumes add meaningful, dynamic touches to the look of the piece, thoughtfully utilising the space’s intimacy to provide a vibrant immediacy to the experience.

The cast is uniformly strong, with each actor contributing impressive depth in their characterisations of less than inspiring personalities. Osborne’s dialogue is provocative (to say the least), and his lines are given tremendous fervour by an ensemble insistent on winning us over. Andrew Henry is at his bombastic best as Jimmy, with a portrayal so passionate and convincing that we struggle to detach our dislike for the character from what is actually an excellent performance by the leading man. Henry finds scintillating chemistry with each of his co-stars, and it must be said that every scene is captivating, but also undeniably excruciating for audiences less tolerant of its turgid drivel.

Like many works of art (good or bad) that cause exasperation, Look Back In Anger will spark discussion. In its time, the work was relevant for its interest in class consciousness and issues of poverty, but these ideas have evolved into something that is now inseparable from contexts of race and gender. In the past, audiences were able to understand the world from Jimmy’s perspective, but today, the world turns the tables and puts him under scrutiny. We are made to look at anxieties of the white man, but his anger scarcely raises a brow. Perhaps it is only himself who could possibly benefit from wallowing in that distorted and narcissistic reflection.

Review: Orpheus (Lies, Lies And Propaganda / Suspicious Woman Productions)

liesliesVenue: Blood Moon Theatre (Potts Point NSW), Aug 18 – 27, 2016
Director: Michael Dean
Dramaturg: Jasper Garner Gore
Cast: Dymphna Carew, Curly Fernandez, Victoria Greiner, Lana Kershaw, Daniel Monks, Bodelle de Ronde, Michael Yore
Image by Sasha Cohen

Theatre review
Orpheus’ story is often told with emphasis on a husband’s drudgery in trying to rescue his wife from the mouths of danger, but in Michael Dean’s revision, we explore the possibility of Eurydice being a more provocative character, whose own desires are more complicated and less convenient for her husband’s legend. Hell is an Australian outback hick town, from which Eurydice finds herself unable to leave, but Orpheus is determined to bring her back to their life in the city, where a previously shared reality seems to be fading with the passage of time.

Similarities with David Lynch’s surrealism where “this whole world is wild at heart and weird on top” can be observed in Dean’s portrayal of an ugly yet seductive foreboding, set within a seedy bar where the drawing of raffle tickets is “the moment we’ve all been waiting for.” Michael Yore’s music and Liam O’Keefe’s lights provide splendid transportative atmospherics for an operatic expression of an ancient mystery suited to contemporary times, and Rachel Weiner’s illuminative choreography, although excessively demanding at certain points, demonstrates a healthy instinct for space as a fundamental device of communication.

With little in terms of dialogue that could be employed, the depiction of characters relies heavily on movement and presence, which the cast accomplishes with dexterity, but there is a gentleness to the overall approach that contradicts some of the darker elements in the piece. A greater sense of gravity and perhaps bigger personalities would generate a more sinister edge to fortify its enigmatic tone. Daniel Monks leaves a strong impression in the title role, authentic and captivating with his ability to meaningfully embody Orpheus’ sentimental qualities. The actor’s unequivocal focus and connection with all who are on and off stage, is the basis on which the production addresses its emotional dimensions.

Michael Dean’s vision of theatre as a dynamic and unpredictable art form is marvellously realised in Orpheus. Adventurous, playful and iconoclastic, Dean’s presentation is a surprising and delightful show that challenges not only notions of storytelling, but also conventions of our cultural endeavours. It is a virtuous exercise, made even more wonderful by sheer, undeniable talent and exquisite taste. There is exceptional work to be found here, the kind that makes us want more of the same from every stage, but it is the utter unorthodoxy and subversive nature of its appeal that provides its avant-garde lustre. |

Review: Bijou (Smallshows / The Depot Theatre)

smallshowsVenue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Aug 17 – 27, 2016
Playwright: Chrissie Shaw
Director: Susan Pilbeam
Cast: Alan Hicks, Chrissie Shaw
Image by Lyndel Arnett

Theatre review
Bijou has lived through a lot. Now in her autumn years, she looks back and recounts stories, with the aide of abounding song and dance, to share her experiences as a woman on the fringes of Parisian society. Chrissie Shaw’s script is charming, with surprising revelations that are guaranteed to delight, and even though it shies away from a stronger sense of drama that could deliver greater poignancy, it is certainly not afraid to touch on the raunchier aspects of Bijou’s past.

As performer, Shaw’s vocal abilities are her greatest asset. Interpretations of yesteryear songs are consistently enchanting, and the sharp focus she maintains in her one-woman show format is thoroughly impressive. Alan Hicks is on the piano providing accompaniment, with tremendous style and effortless flair. His voice and humour make only brief appearances, but they are very memorable indeed.

The elders of every community are truly the most valuable in terms of the wisdom they can offer, yet we relegate them to minor roles, often forgetting to include them in our ways of life. In Bijou, we are shown that many of the answers we seek, have already been found by those who had come before us. The seniors are ignored at our own peril, and the beauty of Bijou’s story, and of Shaw’s work, demonstrates how much there is to lose, if we persist with that ignorance. We can learn from going through firsthand, every high and low of life, but we must also listen to those who had taken the hard road, so that we may explore newer, more peaceful ones.

Review: Tribunal (Powerhouse Youth Theatre / Griffin Theatre Company)

pytVenue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Aug 12 – 20, 2016
Concept: Karen Therese
Collaborators/text/performers: Sarah Coconis, Paul Dwyer, Iman Etri, Katie Green, Rhonda Grovenor Dixon, Bilal Hafda, Mahdi Mohammadi, Karen Therese, Jawad Yaqoubi
Image by Gracie Partridge

Theatre review
Any story can be told at the theatre, whether exaggerated or realistic, but to create something convincing is often a struggle for practitioners. In Tribunal, key personalities play themselves, leaving no room for us to doubt their authenticity. The presentation is a discussion of colonialism in Australia, with a particular focus on our habitual mistreatment through the years, of groups that are systematically subjugated and persecuted by a rapacious government, and its complicit populace. The production places side by side, an Aboriginal elder and an Iranian refugee, not only to convey the injustices inflicted upon them, but also to emphasise the delusionary insistence by White Australia of the land’s Westernness and its racist exclusion of all that it considers “other”.

Our weathered sensibilities may no longer be able to react with shock at the show’s revelations, but its verbatim, anecdotal format is unquestionably powerful, due especially to the sheer presence of those who have suffered under our cruelty. The act of putting on display their pain and damage, creates a palpable state of emergency and crisis that we simply cannot extricate ourselves from. In the guise of a tribunal hearing, the production turns its passive audience into the awakened body politic; we are all implicated in these harrowing recounts, no matter how long ago or how far away these events had taken place. Powerless individuals who shirk responsibility are, for the moment at least, given passionate idealism, and the audience begins to think about its part, as citizens involved in the machinations contributing to the humanitarian catastrophes that must be addressed.

We may not all run off into the night with radical courses of action inspired by Tribunal, but it sows the seeds required for a nation to evolve stronger morals and to inculcate better humanitarian values into its every decision, especially the tough ones. Bringing people from abstract consciousness, into a real life sharing of space, is theatrical magic that can do wonders to how we experience society. It is easy being inhumane to those who only live in imagination, but when confronted face to face, we can only be guided by compassion and love, which are after all, the most valued of all our qualities as the earth’s beings.

Review: House Of Games (New Theatre)

newtheatreVenue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Aug 9 – Sep 10, 2016
Playwright: Richard Bean (based on the film by Jonathan Katz, David Mamet)
Director: Louise Fischer
Cast: Ben Brock, Hannah Day, Cheyne Fynn, Charles Jones, Mark Langham, Rebecca Levy, Colin McCarlie, Katherine Shearer, Benjamin Vickers, Cindy Wang
Image by Bob Seary

Theatre review
House Of Games features a psychiatrist and a group of con artists. It wishes to be full of surprises and unexpected twists, but the unsophisticated writing relies on the unbelievable gullibility of its protagonist, as well as a gullible audience, for any of its plot to be effective. Its premise is interesting, with a straitlaced academic type finding herself embroiled in the underground activities of the Chicago lowlife, but there could not be a more predictable way to tell the story. Every revelation aims to deliver thrills, but is only disappointing in its failure to offer anything more than what is obviously anticipated ahead of every juncture.

Leading lady Katherine Shearer shows good conviction, in spite of a frankly ridiculous role that seems to take pleasure in depicting a woman’s status and accomplishments as an esteemed doctor, only to take her down more than a few notches by turning her suddenly, and unreasonably, stupid and naive. The actor’s impressive presence almost holds the show together, but we struggle to reconcile her character Margaret’s undeniable intelligence with the absurd predicament in which she finds herself. Co-star Ben Brock displays enough charm for initial scenes of flirtation to work, but to make Margaret “blinded by love” and be so thoroughly entangled in his deceptions, is a tall order that is beyond any sensible performance.

Names of three male writers are attached to this play. It is arduous, and deeply boring, to take them to task for a misogynist creation, but the show offers little else worthy of discussion. It is to their credit however, that the driving force behind House Of Games is Margaret’s ambitions, but it seems that diminishing those very desires is the only way to make sense of things. Feminist readings do not require that every woman comes out on top, but the masochistic treatment of “a strong female” here is reprehensible, because her degradation results from weak logic and too little plausibility, a figment of the imagination of a boys’ club, intimated, perturbed and panicked.