Freud’s Last Session (Strange Duck Productions)

freudVenue: Theatre Royal (Sydney NSW), Aug 14 – Sep 1, 2013
Playwright: Mark St. Germain
Director: Adam Cook
Actors: Henri Szeps, Douglas Hansell

Theatre review
Theatre Royal is one of Sydney’s more beautiful theatres, usually showcasing large scale theatrical and musical productions due to its stage size and audience capacity. With just two actors and no scenic changes, Freud’s Last Session comes to Royal with extraordinary confidence. Mark Thompson’s set design is elegant, charming and effective, carefully carving out a perfectly sized performance space out of a very vast stage. It is, however, unfortunate that less attention is paid to acoustics resulting in poor volume levels for seats further back. The actors do not appear to be assisted by microphones, which is peculiar and fairly disappointing.

Henri Szeps is endearing as Sigmund Freud in his final days. His outlandish and controversial statements are presented with conviction and humour by Szeps, who presents to the audience a Freud who is unexpectedly affable. His masterful physical depiction of a feisty old man suffering from cancer is a joyful vision of experience and skill. Douglas Hansell is meticulous and detailed in his portrayal of C.S. Lewis. He delivers to the audience a sense of what London must have been like in the 1930s. Through his performance, we experience a time and place that is at once amusing and magical. The actors work well together, with a comfortable chemistry and excellent timing as a result of thorough familiarity with the material.

This is not a play with hugely dramatic moments that manipulates your emotions but its themes of religion and death are eternally fascinating, and they are dealt with with maturity, creativity and intellect. The characters see themselves as polar opposites, an atheist and a Christian, and argue engagingly about the differences in their belief systems and moralities. The play appeals to our human need to understand the afterlife and to question the existence of God, and it addresses the constant tension that resides between every point of view. Its conclusion is surprisingly universal and strangely satisfying.

Delectable Shelter (Critical Stages/The Hayloft Project)

delectableVenue: Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre (Sydney NSW), Aug 13 – 17, 2013
Playwright: Benedict Hardie
Director: Benedict Hardie
Actors: Andrew Broadbent, Brendan Hawke, Jolyon James, Simone Page Jones, Yesse Spence
Image by Pia Johnson

Theatre review
There are certain kinds of comedy that only appear in the theatre. They require an intimate space, and the immediacy of a live audience. Television and cinema do not generally provide the same experience, and in Australia especially, dark humour resides away from mainstream media, which continues to proliferate its benignity in service of financial voracity.

Delectable Shelter brings absurdity, big laughs and excellent entertainment to the stage, with outrageous “adult concepts”, gleeful “shock tactics”, and the most thorough use of irony imaginable. With the possible exception of one moment where two characters are locked in embrace, the play is filled with so much humour and social criticism that no space is left for sentimentality and romance. This prevents the show from appealing to wider audiences, but here is a unique and dynamic production that features wonderfully skilful  work from writer and director Benedict Hardie, who obviously isn’t concerned with catering to the masses. His Molieresque attacks on religion and the bourgeoisie are delivered with considerable wit in the form of imaginative, incisive commentary that cut with depth and precision.

Hardie’s cast is a formidable one. Not only are they required to work with quite extreme comic material, they mark out scene changes by performing four 1980s ballads in the style of classical Bach chorales, complete with hymnal harmonies. Simone Page Jones has an outstanding singing voice and the face of an angel but surprises with her eagerness at tackling the wackiest characters, like the body-builder who attempts to provide therapy to agoraphobics, and a religious leader of the Albatross cult who exhibits the most outstanding features of today’s religious leaders. Yesse Spence is painfully delicious as Biddy, a stereotype of the uptight upper-middle class white woman who will cross her legs at all costs, but needs to be reminded to breathe. Jolyon James impresses with his comic timing and range, creating innumerable colourful characters, all distinct and all hilarious.

This is a truly funny show propelled by some very talented people and an anarchic spirit. It anthropologises aspects of modern Australian life without providing a direct political statement, although it might be construed that laughter (and a reminder to breathe) is the best medicine for the predicament that we are only now starting to realise that we are in.

Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead (Sydney Theatre Company)

art-hamlet-202-620x349[1]Venue: Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Aug 6 – Sep 14, 2013
Playwright: Tom Stoppard
Director: Simon Phillips
Actors: Tim Minchin, Toby Schmitz, Ewen Leslie

Theatre review
Tom Stoppard’s 1966 work is embraced by many for its extraordinary wit and intellect. Sydney Theatre Company attracts vasts numbers of audiences, and it is a brave choice to present this play that many a lay person will find too wordy, philosophical, and abstract. Big chunks of text and their associated big ideas are delivered successively and quickly, and it is a challenging experience trying to keep up with every concept being discussed. However, like many great works of art, it is not only what you understand, but also what you don’t understand that makes the consumption of it necessary and worthwhile. Art inspires and elevates, even while it confuses.

From a technical perspective, the company continues to impress. Design elements are faultless, and execution of sound and lighting are perfectly honed to a fine craft. The theatre seats 900 people but it never feels too vast, even for a show like this where majority of the action involves just two actors. Performances are excellent, with Tim Minchin’s uncanny ability to blur the line between actor and role consistently outshining his counterparts. He seems so completely natural on stage, one can hardly imagine a different “real person” existing separately when the show is over. Ewen Leslie is the real showman in this production. He creates a mischievous character, infectious in his playfulness, and setting the stage alight at every entrance. After Cat On A Hot Tin Roof with Belvoir St Theatre, and the Tony Krawitz film, Dead Europe, it is thrilling to see Leslie’s departure from dark and broody roles to one that is full of vigour and hilarity.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead can be considered highbrow, but it’s central theme of “life and death” is universal. Playing with words, theatrical mechanisms, philosophical theories will not appeal to all, but we can relate to the existential conundrum that is the one constant in our lives. It is infinitely more satisfying to watch Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wrestling with the meaning of life, than for one to be engaged in endless self-examination. With any luck, you might even encounter ideas that could provide some level of enlightenment and make that arduous process, sometimes known as life, a bit more bearable.

Friday (Sydney Independent Theatre Company)

friday2Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Aug 6 – 31, 2013
Playwright: Daniela Giorgi
Director: Julie Baz
Actors: Peter Hayes, Gemma Scoble, Gertraud Ingeborg, Cherilyn Price, David Ritchie, Sarah Robinson

Theatre review
Daniela Giorgi’s political satire has an unambiguous message. In its prologue and epilogue, the play talks about the importance of active participation being the only means to effect change in politics and in life. This all sounds very dry and serious, but thankfully, the play’s structure is exuberantly quick and sharp, with succinct scenes that get straight to the point. It has a gentle sense of humour that keeps the proceedings light and entertaining, but this same lightness does seem to prevent a couple of heavier scenes from taking flight emotionally.

Peter Hayes’ performance is strong as the lead character Bill, a well-meaning and left-leaning Minister for Transport with a penchant for colourful language. His depiction of a gentle giant in government is endearing and central to the empathetic effectiveness of the narrative. Cherilyn Price is eminently believable as a well worn public servant, and provides some of the most genuine and lively moments. There are good performances from other members of the cast, but many suffer from playing their roles too plainly, resulting in two-dimensional, archetypal versions of “people in government”, “media types”, or “tourists” that on occasion fail to translate with much credibility.

There are lots of characters and many different ideas, but they all add to the tale, with none allowed to slow down the pace. The story is told with crystal clarity in spite of all the frantic action, and it is to the credit of both writer and director, that the audience is always connected to the plot. Colourful and delightful diversions are introduced throughout the play, entering and exiting seamlessly. It is noteworthy that spacial and psychological transitions that happen between scene changes are established with great flair. Friday might not hold the key to the great political challenges of our times, but it does showcase those challenges well, and presents them in the guise of a great night at the theatre.

Underbelly Arts Festival (Underbelly Arts)

tableauvivantVenue: Cockatoo Island (Cockatoo Island NSW), Aug 3 – 4, 2013
Executive Director: Jain Moralee
Artistic Director: Eliza Sarlos

Festival review
This is the second festival by Underbelly Arts on Cockatoo Island. Something like 30 works, with over 100 artists, presented over 2 days in a series of warehouse-like spaces of varying sizes. While a printed guide helps with navigation, it is the stumbling around and feeling lost amidst a world of art that is the most charming feature of this festival experience. An infectious sense of daring and freedom is at every corner you turn, where yet another confounding work awaits your attention.

Many of the “projects” incorporate a performative element, which involve periodic start times (such as Tableau Vivant by Penelope Benton and Alexandra Chapman, pictured above), but unless one is highly organised and determined, it is more likely to simply enter the action randomly at varying stages of progress. This isn’t a concern as none of the work seem to depend on conventional narrative, although they often do make you think, “what did I miss?”

One unusual case is “I Met You in a City That Isn’t on the Map” by Sydney collective, we do not unhappen. The work has a definite start and end point, but it allows for entry through the day, much like a theme-park ride. Participants choose one of four different experiences and are provided simple instructions before entering what appears to be an apocalyptic world. From what can be perceived among all the chaos, depending on your chosen journey, people are required to be demolishing buildings (made of cardboard boxes), renovating the city, guiding a blindfolded friend through all the convolution, or simply walking through with headphones that provide calming new-age type music. At exit point, yellow chalk in miniature human form are handed out, and their fates become entirely dependent on their possessor. With its level of viewer engagement and ambition, this work was a definite highlight of the festival.

“Virtual Reality” by Greg Pritchard and The Ronalds explores reality tv, digital communication and technological evolution with a simple installation that allows viewers to communicate with the four people appearing on individual screens, presumably away from the island. An interesting aspect of this project is the involvement of artists who reside in regional locales, and their ability to present their work in any city with the omnipresence of the internet. “Nothing to See Here” by Catherine Ryan and Amy Spiers, works with technology playfully to wipe out the Sydney Harbour Bridge from view, conjuring ideas of migration and ancestry in Australia.

A one-hour debate was held, “Debate: Love vs Art” with proponents on each side arguing the case for each. They work humorously and brightly on separating the two and then pushing the case for their side, but it gets gradually clearer over the duration, that indeed the two are one, and neither can stand alone. It is both expression of love (or art), and experience of art (or love) that “makes the world go round”, giving us energy for life. It is a “chicken or egg” question, but luckily the universe delivers cake and lets you eat it too.

Fireface (Stories Like These)

FIREFACE   Production PhotosVenue: ATYP Under The Wharf (Walsh Bay NSW), Aug 1 – 17, 2013
Playwright: Marius Von Mayenburg, translated by Maja Zade
Director: Luke Rogers
Actors: Darcy Brown, Darcie Irwin-Simpson, James Lugton, Lucy Miller, Ryan Bennett
Image credit: Phyllis Wong

Theatre review
The “nurture vs nature” debate is always a lively one, so building a play around that theme almost guarantees an exciting and instantly controversial exercise. Director Luke Rogers’ take on Fireface is powerful and thought-provoking. He deliberately restricts his work from providing easy answers, relying instead on the strength of the questions themselves to captivate his audience. Arguments and counter-arguments are presented with subtlety, producing theatre that is cerebral and discursive.

Set design is beautifully simple. The director’s use of the awkward wedge-shaped stage, basing all the action around a singular big table shows talent and thoughtfulness. Lighting and sound are pushed to their limit in terms of how much they can be utilised in what is essentially a narrative based play. They add to the drama, and assist with the innumerable scene changes in Von Mayenburg’s script, but are at times too noticeable and distracting. The final moments are fractured by several successive black outs, which unfortunately impede the story from developing with a greater sense of urgency.

Darcy Brown stars in the lead role and turns in a stunning performance. In addition to his enigmatic charisma, his artistic choices always feel just right, and the character he has created is simultaneously strange, compelling and frightening. James Lugton plays the distant, withdrawn father with painful accuracy. His role might be characterised by stupefying inanity, but the actor’s every appearance is entrancing. This is a strong cast, and their cohesion within the show’s unusual style and tone is thoroughly impressive. Together with Rogers, the work they have created here is intellectually demanding, and an artful triumph.

Dangerous Corner (The Genesian Theatre)

Dangerous Corner 1Venue: The Genesian Theatre (Sydney NSW), Jul 5 – Aug 10, 2013
Playwright: J.B. Priestley
Director: Peter Lavelle
Actors: Elizabeth MacGregor, Elinor Portch, Amy Fisher, Tom Massey, John Grinston, John Willis-Richards
Image credit: Craig O’Regan

Theatre review
Dangerous Corner was first staged in the early 30s, and this production is faithful to that era in every way possible. Every effort is made to provide a glimpse into early twentieth century England, without any distractions in gratuitous attempts at bringing the show “up to date”. The undeniable charm of the period is experienced through costume design, acting style and of course, The Genesian Theatre itself with its wondrous vintage space. Modern theatre cultures in the last thirty years, have been intently concerned with the dismantling of live performance traditions, but in director Peter Lavelle’s vision, the proscenium arch and all that it represents is revived, honoured and adored.

Hair design is beautiful and highly accomplished. Minute details and secondary elements in a production like this play a big part in winning over its audience. Set design is effective but somewhat minimal. There are no changes and movements to the stage set pieces, so one can imagine that further ornamentation could have been introduced fairly easily to enhance the sense of luxury and wealth of the characters.

Elizabeth MacGregor plays Olwen Peel with a quiet confidence. She takes command of the stage with her effortless and exquisite physicality, gesturing and gliding from one position to another with careful and genuine intent. Her lines are delivered with superb clarity, and this is true for the entire cast who are a real treat in regard to their use of voice. Elinor Portch plays the supporting role of Freda Caplan delightfully, performing with precision even when in the background, always listening and reacting appropriately, thereby heightening the effects of her co-players’ words.

The play ends spectacularly. A surprising epilogue is presented and the audience is mesmerised. Without giving too much away, it is a great few minutes of theatre that is at once fascinating and thrilling, letting one leave the theatre with a feeling that is quite thoroughly modern.

Romeo & Juliet (Impulse Theatre)

romeojulietVenue: King Street Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jul 31 – Aug 24, 2013
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Stephen Wallace
Actors: Rainee Lyleson, Dan Webber, Byron Hajduczok, Lisa Peers

Theatre review
This production of Romeo & Juliet transports the Montague and Capulet families to modern day Sydney, casting them as “Anglo-Saxon” and “Lebanese Muslim” adversaries. This is a well-meaning decision but its execution is rather less straightforward. Differences in religious beliefs are more complex than a family feud, which is essentially what the script offers, and presents a “square peg in a round hole” scenario, as the director works hard to make this vision work within the confines of Shakespeare’s classic text.

Young actor Dan Webber plays Romeo and does a marvellous job, especially in his scenes with Juliet. He sometimes rushes through scenes due to being so high energy, but the earnestness he brings to the role is exciting and refreshing. Rainee Lyleson plays a Muslim version of Juliet, but thankfully does not “perform” the religion beyond costume choices. She is a delightful sprightly girl, and comes alive in romantic moments with Romeo. Byron Hajduczok’s Mercutio and Lisa Peers’ Nurse are stronger performances in the show, both displaying confidence in their cleverly entertaining work.

Lighting design is utilised well, especially with scene changes, providing the audience with meaningful visual cues that introduce new settings efficiently. Set design is basic but effective, allowing for a wide variation in character blocking, which is a strength of this production. The actors move freely and use the stage to their best advantage. It is to the director’s credit that he leaves no room for stagnation, always careful to keep the play moving fast and lively.