Review: All My Sons (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Jun 4 – Jul 9, 2016
Playwright: Arthur Miller
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Anita Hegh, John Howard, Bert LaBonte, John Leary, Josh McConville, Robyn Nevin, Eryn Jean Norvill, Jack Ruwald, Chris Ryan, Contessa Treffone
Images by Zan Wimberley

Theatre review
Joe Keller’s wealth is a result of monumental sacrifice. Arthur Miller’s All My Sons is about the cost of money, and the naivety that can come with human greed. Joe makes the decision to choose financial success over a clear conscience, thinking that his riches will be able to shield him from the damage that he causes. There is a willing ignorance at play in Joe’s story that many of us understand. We think that the pluses that come with money are powerful enough to contain the inevitable minuses, and it is that misguided optimism that brings about a series of calamitous consequences to Joe’s family and his neighbours.

It is intoxicating drama and a powerful moral that allows the play to maintain its resonance through the decades. Miller’s interrogation of the American dream (now international), along with themes of money, family and war, have not faded with time in their impact, in fact, our engagement with the ideas in All My Sons seem to be more intimate than ever. Soldiers once sent off to war in blazes of glory, are now seen as individuals we need to protect at all costs. Ideologies once used to justify deaths in battle, are now tainted with commerce, corruption and oil. Great riches from hard work have now exposed themselves to be hollow corporations trading in fraud. These very contemporary concerns are paired with classic melodramatic storytelling, for a masterpiece that still packs a wallop in 2016.

Kip Williams’ direction keeps focus on the play’s essence. Almost minimal in style, our attention is not to stray from its characters and dialogue. There are no bells and whistles to fill the vast auditorium, just a family drama that gets increasingly turbulent. Personalities are clearly defined, and relationships are dynamically formed. Williams sets the pace of the production at lightning speed to help ensure that tension is sustained, and that the audience remain engrossed. The intriguing qualities of Miller’s plot are perfectly engineered to keep us hooked on the story, but the venue’s size makes it a challenge communicating emotional intensity without performers having to perform at the extremes of their sentimental capacities. We follow every interchange that happens on stage, but our feelings become involved only when scenes become passionate.

The more energetic of the cast leave a greater impression. Chris Ryan’s ability to portray heightened agony gives the production its gravity, and the actor’s remarkably lucid depiction of his character Chris Keller’s loss of innocence, provides a soulfulness to the production, especially effective at its moving conclusion. Eryn Jean Norvill plays Ann Deever with great charm and an authentic complexity that adds surprising texture to the show. Norvill’s vocal and physical emulation of 1940’s American style is a delight, as is the vibrancy of her stage presence. In the role of Joe Keller is John Howard, imposing and confident, every bit the patriarch of the tale, but seems to fluctuate with concentration levels. Although powerful and nuanced, the actor has a tendency to be subsumed when action becomes frantic on stage. Young actor Jack Ruwald is memorable as Bert, lively and with a genuine sense of impulsiveness that is deeply endearing.

We cannot expect friends and family to be perfect, because every human is flawed. People will make mistakes, but how we forge ahead with them is the basis of how we live each day. The Kellers survive on love and lies, but the two prove to be ultimately incompatible. Where there is love, truth must triumph, but the ugliness that surfaces stands every chance of dissolving what we hold precious. All My Sons might be about family, marriage, betrayal and deception, but it is fundamentally a cautionary tale of greed’s destructive nature. Forgiveness and understanding can mend many wounds in our relationships, but the scars that are left behind are permanent and inescapable. Joe’s abominable sin cannot be undone, and its repercussions are tragic and endless.

Review: Tribes (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), May 26 – Jul 2, 2016
Playwright: Nina Raine
Director: Susanna Dowling
Cast: Ana Maria Belo, Garth Holcombe, Genevieve Lemon, Stephen James King, Amber McMahon, Sean O’Shea
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Billy is the only deaf person in the family. His parents have gone to great lengths to make him feel part of the roost, no different from his siblings, and have brought him up to communicate by lip reading and speaking, both of which he does inordinately well, without ever having to learn sign language. Billy’s father, Christopher is determined to prevent his son from facing undue limitations in life, and has restricted Billy’s access to communities of the hearing impaired, which he considers to be restrictive and confining.

Nina Raine’s Tribes is a study of how people form attachments and associations, and the human need for a sense of belonging. It offers marvellous insight into lives of people who do not have the same hearing abilities as the majority, and through Billy’s story, we come to an understanding of the tensions between mainstream privileged existences and people on the fringes who experience the periphery of society. The script is comprised of exceptionally vibrant dialogue, with intriguing issues that deliver an enlightening and contemplative theatrical experience.

The production identifies the main concerns of Tribes and handles them well, but the family’s subtle dynamics require sharper elucidation. It is a complex play with complicated personalities, and although the main messages are relayed beautifully, its many smaller details if better defined, would produce a richer result. The strong cast keeps us deeply engrossed, with Genevieve Lemon and Sean O’Shea leaving remarkable impressions in the parental roles, both exuberant and mesmerising with their stage presences. Ana Maria Belo’s depth of emotion is powerfully affecting in scenes of melancholy, while Stephen James King has us endeared to the purity of his character’s demeanour and intentions. Completing the team of five are Garth Holcombe and Amber McMahon, with charmingly idiosyncratic and amusing interpretations of Billy’s problematic siblings.

When we find places that offer acceptance, they inevitably impose limitations upon how we perceive our own identities and potentials. Therein lies the conundrum of society. People are bonded by commonalities, but these same valuable qualities that are shared, can also be the linchpins that keep individuals from greater development. Groups have rules, and those rules will suppress uniqueness and originality. Geniuses are often lonely, but those who know to be dichotomous can have the best of both worlds, and if Billy plays his cards right, he can learn to have his cake and eat it too.

Review: The Literati (Bell Shakespeare / Griffin Theatre Company)

griffinVenue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), May 27 – Jul 16, 2016
Playwright: Justin Fleming (after Molière)
Director: Lee Lewis
Cast: Caroline Brazier, Gareth Davies, Jamie Oxenbould, Kate Mulvany, Miranda Tapsell
Image by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
There are two halves to the family in Justin Fleming’s The Literati. Philomena and her elder daughter Amanda have aspirations for a sophisticated existence, both enamoured with books and language, while Christopher and younger daughter Juliet are of a simpler ilk, down-to-earth like true blue Aussies never to be caught dead with tickets on themselves. The play is about pretension, and the meaning of knowledge. We explore what it is to be good people, in a world where values are easily misplaced and ideas about virtue are unstable and skewed. Its message is uncomplicated, with a plot that proves to be entirely predictable, but The Literati is gorgeously written, with inexhaustible wit permeating every rhyming couplet in this thoughtful adaptation of Les Femmes Savantes by Molière. The jokes come fast and furious, along with inspired ruminations about diverse subjects including romance, intellectualism, purity and class.

Characters in The Literati are archetypal, but convenient moralistic jabs at “the bad guys” are thankfully few. The play wrestles with the problematic duo of Philomena and Amanda, shallow on one hand, but admirably ambitious on the other. Their desires are noble, but their mode of pursuance is misguided. The play sets up an old-fashioned dichotomy of pure and impure, but allows itself to negotiate between the two, so that we achieve a more textured understanding of good and bad within the story. Director Lee Lewis makes the appropriate decision of placing effect before depth, for a work that has nothing unusual to say but has very impressive ways of expressing its beliefs. The comedy is often flamboyant, but Fleming’s exquisite words are always in the spotlight, full of evocative power and mischievous vigour. The production is buoyant from start to finish, and although occasionally repetitious with its methods of eliciting laughter, we are kept engrossed in its electrifying showmanship.

Playing Christopher and Clinton is the one endearing Jamie Oxenbould, convincing and dynamic in his diverse roles. A memorable sequence features the actor alone on a revolving stage performing with meticulous clarity, and an exuberant sense of absurdity, both his characters in passionate dialogue with each other, completely absorbent of our attention, astonishment and adoration. Gareth Davies and Kate Mulvany offer up very broad humour with outlandish interpretations of their caricatures, finding every opportunity to perform their unrestrained comedy to a very appreciative and delighted crowd.

People in The Literati fight over the redundancy of words and culture, when notions of style are not validated by substance. The moral of Molière’s story is neither controversial nor surprising, but we are captivated by the production’s theatricality and the resonance of its language. In some ways, the show defeats its own argument, for what keeps us enthralled is not its idealistic core, but the talent that emanates from it. We fall in love with its gestures and articulations, but pay little heed to its very point of contention. We can look at art without the need for a presumed frame of reference or an indication of something behind, something deeper. Art is not a means to an end, but a sacred entity meaningful on its own terms. “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”

Review: Smudge (The Kings Fools)

thekingsfoolsVenue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), May 27 – Jun 11, 2016
Playwright: Rachel Axler
Director: Stephen Lloyd-Coombs
Cast: Danielle Connor, Kieran Foster, Nick Hunter
Image by Liam O’Keefe

Theatre review
The curve balls that we encounter make life frustrating, and sometimes unbearable. We cannot exist without envisioning the future, but nature insists on disrupting our plans to make destiny something that we can never truly be masters of. In Rachel Axler’s Smudge, Colby and Nick give birth to a severely disabled baby. As the young couple tries to come to terms with the unexpected turn of events, we witness their struggles and disappointment, and measure them against a new life that we have little understanding of but whose rights are unequivocal. It is a brutal set of circumstances, but the play takes a less than obvious approach, avoiding melodrama at all costs in its exploration of relevant issues and of human behaviour.

The play is quirky and often comedic, with director Stephen Lloyd-Coombs maintaining a sensitive, delicate tone over proceedings, but the show is most effective at its darkest moments when characters are intense and irrational. Danielle Connor and Kieran Foster work well at creating believable presences and convincing emotion, but the production’s mildness of demeanour restricts how much it is able to convey on a visceral level. It is a story of considerable gravity, and although powerful in parts, Smudge can seem slightly detached from its own sorrow.

Accomplished work by Liam O’Keefe on lights and sound by Michael Toisuta give tension to the piece, and both conspire to add a dimension of supernaturality and of horror when appropriate. Theatrical pleasure is derived from a quality of surrealness created by O’Keefe and Toisuta’s atmospheric manipulations, and along with Elia Bosshard’s set, leave a strong impression with the show’s aesthetic and technical proficiencies.

We do not talk enough about disability. There is little understanding in mainstream communities about what people’s needs may be, when living with unique challenges. Colby and Nick are isolated, left to nurture a baby that is of them but also radically different from their realm of reality. Their story is an allegory about every person’s conflict with the unpredictability of life, but the specific experience of disabilities, physical and otherwise, must not be overlooked. Conversations needs to be had in order that societies can work towards becoming more inclusive, and we must learn about disadvantages that exist in our communities to bring about equity for all. The new family in Smudge are unable to cope on their own, but with our support, things can only get better.…