Review: Monkey (Creative Practice Lab UNSW)

rsz_monkey-505Venue: UNSW Io Myers Studio (Kensington NSW), Mar 11 – 15, 2014
Director: Ben Winspear
Playwright: Les Winspear (based on the traditional Journey To The West)
Actors: Students from UNSW School of the Arts & Media

Theatre review
The enduring tale of Journey To The West is one of enlightenment and aspiration. It is also about mentoring, development and progression, all of which come together to make Les Winspear’s contemporary retelling of Monkey a natural thematic choice for a production involving young people. The characters in the story are mischievous, imperfect and unafraid of failure. This serves as great catalyst for students to approach their play with a sense of playfulness and daring.

Director Ben Winspear’s style is brave and bold. He is faithful to the story, but is audacious in vision. Rules are made to be broken, and one is tempted to conclude that rule-breaking is a method he cherishes when creating magic in the theatre. Or perhaps, it is simply his outrageous imagination that reaches beyond convention and the predictable, into a space that feels refreshing and original for contemporary audiences. Indeed, the director’s ability at materialising the fantastical details of Monkey, not only gives us a work that is dynamic and highly amusing, it provides a safe and spacious springboard for his student actors to experiment and perform. The wildness of this world they create, encourages lively expression but also comprises a healthy protection for those who need it. This is a stage so full of colour and vigour that nothing can look out of place.

Design is excellent. All aspects, from costume and props, to set, sound and lighting are thoughtful, inventive and confidently executed. It is by no means a show about polished production values, but what this crew achieves with a minuscule budget in the most basic of venues, is impressive. It is a beautiful collaboration of disciplines that works together to tell a story with clarity, wonder, and a lot of fun.

All performers appear to be students. It is a big cast, with varying degrees of ability, but unified by a common level of enthusiasm and commitment. Some seem to be appearing on stage for the very first time, and others are brazen and ambitious. Most are allowed their moment in the sun, and each bask in their own, in idiosyncratic, joyful ways. There are performers who impress with their use of voice, and some with their dance. Actors who charm us with comic timing, as well as those with outstanding physicality, and presence so strong, they steal our attention for a second or two.

Although Monkey and his friends reach a penultimate moment of glory, what we remember most after all the dust has settled, are his qualities of mischief and joy. We often forget the importance of the light, for the weight of darkness makes for easy victories, especially in the arts. It is unimportant what the scriptures at the end of Monkey may contain, if the journey that is taken fills itself with all that is gallant, and good.