Review: Diplomacy (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Mar 23 – Apr 28, 2018
Playwright: Cyril Gély (translated and adapted by Julie Rose)
Director: John Bell
Cast: John Bell, John Gaden, Genevieve Lemon, James Lugton, Joseph Raggatt
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
On the eve of Paris’ impending decimation by the Nazis, Raoul Nordling a Swedish diplomat, pays a surprise visit to the hotel suite of German military governor Dietrich von Choltitz. In Cyril Gély’s Diplomacy, we witness the intense negotiations that lead to Choltitz’s eventual surrender. We always knew how the play was going to conclude, so it is the dynamics between the two men that are crucial to the drama that ensues.

These historical facts, albeit amplified, are fascinating. The idea that one man could thwart an operation of such scale, should prove to be quite astonishing, but the production is tepid, unable to convey the tension of war, and the very serious stakes never become sufficiently persuasive.

It is a good looking show; Michael Scott-Mitchell’s set design is sophisticated and inventively functional, while Genevieve Graham’s costumes are detailed and impeccably tailored. Lights by Matt Cox and sound by Nate Edmondson, are elegant, both suitably restrained and minimal in approach.

As Choltitz, John Bell is appropriately imposing, but it is a portrayal that can feel surface and impenetrable. John Gaden plays up the charm of Nordling, and makes good use of comic opportunities, but chemistry between the two leads struggles for authenticity, and their story ends up being told with only grandiosity and no discernible nuance.

Stories of war will always be worth recounting, as long as we continue to undertake them. Histories repeat, as though human nature will forever be doomed to replicate all its mistakes. Some will consult the annals to try for improvements to our behaviour, but others it seems, will look to the past only to learn how to win at meaningless battles of our future.

Review: Going Down (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 2 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Mar 23 – May 5, 2018
Playwright: Michele Lee
Director: Leticia Cáceres
Cast: Paul Blenheim, Catherine Davies, Josh Price, Naomi Rukavina, Jenny Wu
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
After the publication of her first book, young author Natalie finds herself at a crisis of authenticity. What she had thought to be a good representation of her life and times, has turned out a commercial disappointment. In the search for success, she embarks on a process of self-redefinition. Michele Lee’s Going Down is a tricky story to tell. The play begins at a point where we have to watch our protagonist cave in, to societal pressures that are determined to tell her that she is inadequate. Early scenes feature a confident woman being attacked for not producing a commercially viable product in her autobiography, and although she does offer some resistance, the premise of Going Down is that society wears Natalie down, transforming her from self-assured to self-doubting. Although we discover that society is ultimately right in its estimation of Natalie, as her story does lead to a conclusion of greater fulfilment, it remains a matter of contention that a young woman’s self belief should be defeated by market forces and community.

The spirit of the writing however, is undeniably vibrant, and the production is accordingly energetic and colourful. Set and costumes by The Sisters Hayes, along with lights by Sian James-Holland, are humorous and playful, completely delightful in their interpretation of the world inhabited by a youthful Melbournite. Much of the show’s comedy is reliant on visual cues, and the creatives are certainly excellent in this regard. Music too, is incisively formulated to reflect the culture being represented. Composer and sound designer The Sweats does marvellously to tell us precisely who these characters are, and in the process keeps us invigorated and entertained.

The extraordinary Catherine Davies plays Natalie, feisty yet vulnerable, for a character memorable for her passionate full throttle approach to living life. We are convinced by all that the actor offers, whether portraying juvenile antics or deep awakenings, her performance of the role is utterly perfect. The supporting cast is also effective and very funny. They play a big range of personalities, many of whom are weird and whacky, and thoroughly amusing. Director Leticia Cáceres has put together an inventive show, charming in its quirkiness. Her ability to infuse each moment of Going Down with layers of meaning, keeps us engaged, with both our instinctual and intellectual capacities.

It is difficult however, to find Natalie’s story entirely satisfying. Maybe being an ethnic minority does prevent one from being unfettered and wholly buoyant. Natalie is not a white woman, and the play questions if she can ever write a book that is blind to race. We wonder if she can ever put race aside, or if she will forever be talking about her Asian heritage. This is an honest conundrum, one that is worthy of considerable analysis. Natalie must be regarded as autonomous, for she is a grown woman, but our relentless expectations of her as one of the tribe must influence her conceptions of autonomy. The matter is a troubling one, and it awaits further exploration.

Review: The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Mar 21 – Apr 28, 2018
Playwright: Bertolt Brecht (translated by Tom Wright)
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Mitchell Butel, Peter Carroll, Tony Cogin, Ivan Donato, Anita Hegh, Brent Hill, Colin Moody, Monica Sayers, Hugo Weaving, Charles Wu, Ursula Yovich
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
A gangster film is projected on screen, as we witness it being shot on a sound stage. The action happens across not two, but three platforms. We watch a film, the making of the film, and a theatre production, all simultaneously and frantically taking place before our eyes. Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui is concerned with artifice and image, written at the time of Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel. Director Kip Williams’ decision for a multimedia presentation may seem initially, to be little more than gimmickry, but his profusion of Brechtian devices transcend academic tribute, proving themselves relevant and ultimately, highly effective.

Brought up to date by Tom Wright’s very shrewd adaptation, Arturo Ui’s story is now unquestionably of our time. A criminal hungry for attention, he stops at nothing to satisfy an interminable and narcissistic urge for notoriety. To make his presence a permanent fixture, Arturo takes on political ambitions in order that his influence may turn pervasive and inescapable. We can think of more than a few public figures who operate in a similar vein. It is a witty and wise transposition, taking Brecht’s meditations on the Hitler phenomenon and applying them to the current state of our world. Retaining the spirit of epic theatre, Wright’s work is dark but rarely pessimistic. A parable and cautionary tale, it demonstrates human nature at its worst, but is deliberate with its manipulations of our autonomy as audience and citizens. It always reminds us of our capacity to resist and reverse the actions of those with an appetite for destruction.

Williams’ production is sophisticated, often extravagant and flamboyant in its attitude and accompanying style. Its theatrical grandness is alluring; we find ourselves seduced by its many clever manoeuvres, and are surprised by our unequivocally political response to its ideas. The show knows what it wants to do, and achieves it well. Sections of dense dialogue might be lost, when we get distracted by the very busy stage, but the simple overall point of it all, is clear and powerful under Williams’ interpretations. The director’s ability to shift our attention between screen and stage becomes impressive, once we get over the shock of the unusual. Once we stop questioning the validity of the complicated form being presented, the efficacy at which information is being conveyed, through its complex amalgamations, is quite astounding.

The set takes the shape of an efficient film studio that accommodates complicated camera work whilst prioritising direct audience access, designed by Robert Cousins with appropriate restraint. Nick Schlieper’s lights are attractive and suitably dramatic, conspiring closely with cinematography to provide stunning live visuals with some very advanced video technology. Justine Kerrigan’s adventurous and imaginative cinematography is quite an amazing thing to behold. Also deeply satisfying is Stefan Gregory’s music, inspired by early genre films, and assisted by excellent sound engineering, to offer great drama and intrigue, electrifying from prologue to epilogue.

Hugo Weaving’s performance as Arturo Ui exhausts the gamut of emotions, as well as all the superlatives a critic is tempted to use in describing his brilliance. If there is ever perfection in art, Weaving embodies it here. The man is in charge every second, and we are putty in his hands, hopeless and lost in whatever he wishes to impart. His skill is second to none, and his mesmerising charisma is bewildering. It is hard to come close to the standard that he sets, but others in the cast too, are truly remarkable. Peter Carroll in particular, contributes extraordinary incisiveness as Dogsborough, depicting the blurred lines of good and bad with wonderful flair and persuasiveness.

If we see the natural world as an organism with tendency for chaos, and humankind’s insatiable need for creating order, in our own image, a kind of violation, then man’s obsession with power is an abomination. Arturo Ui goes against everything that we want to think of as good and right in the world, in his continual seizure of power and domination over every being, but it is likely that the only language he and his ilk understand is power, and to rival them requires that we take mirroring actions. Pacifism and the qualities of integrity that it encompasses, may be a more idealistic way of approaching peace, but in The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui it is hard to not see these romantic notions as ineffectual or much worse, calamitous. It is time perhaps to find better ways to fight fire with fire.

5 Questions with Danica Burch and Dominique Purdue

Danica Burch

Dominique Purdue: If you could describe your character using a song, what would it be?
Danica Burch: Due to the circumstances in this play, I think “Haunted” by Beyonce would be the most appropriate fit for poor Helen. But maybe at the end of the play she is more of a “Walking On Sunshine” kinda gal.

What movie traumatised you as a kid?
I remember watching Scary Movie 2 as a kid and I was actually really scared. I didn’t realise it was a parody of other horror films… and I obviously missed the comedy in it. Forrest Gump used to creep me out as well, especially the war scenes. I saw that film about 3 or 4 times as a kid and always found it really unsettling.

Apart from acting, what’s your dream job?
If I wasn’t acting, I think I would enjoy being a celebrity fashion stylist or maybe even someone’s personal creative director… Someone really extra like Lady Gaga or Cardi B. How fun would it be to dress someone up in ridiculous outfits and decide if they should arrive at the Grammy Awards in an alien egg or a meat dress.

If you could play any instrument, what would it be?
Well, I can already play the piano… I wish I was more skilled, but I no longer have a piano to practice on. Although, the other day I saw that you can get silicone keyboards that roll up for storage. It blew my mind. I think that I should get one so that I can start playing again. I’d also like to learn the violin one day.

If you could live in any fantasy universe, what would it be and why?
Well obviously I would love to ride a hippogriff and drink butterbeer and experience all that Hogwarts has to offer. But if that’s asking too much, I would settle for a world where teleportation is possible. I think it would be so useful and you would have so much extra time. No rush hour train rides, no sitting in traffic, no 23 hour flights to Europe. Also, think of the money you’d save!

Dominique Purdue

Danica Burch: What is your favourite theatre production that you have seen?
Dominique Purdue: There’s been so many, but I saw Twelfth Night last year at the Globe Theatre in London. It was insanely good; I always thought the Globe put on really traditional productions of Shakespeare, which I also enjoy, but this one was so well-adapted for modern audiences and I was literally laughing the entire time. I also bought an embarrassing amount of Shakespeare merchandise from the gift shop, so that was definitely a plus.

Do you believe in ghosts?
Hell yeah I do. I haven’t had a supernatural experience yet, but I watch too much Ghost Adventures to not believe in ghosts.

What is the weirdest food combo that you enjoy eating?
I like a lot of weird food combos. I like pineapple on pizza, so there’s that. I also like really, really salty fries dipped in ice cream.

What city, apart from Sydney, would you like to live in?
I’m an actor, so I’m gonna say New York, for sure. I also recently visited Lisbon in Portugal last year, and I surprisingly loved it, so I would definitely live in Lisbon for a good few months.

If you could get inside the mind of any actor in the world, who would it be and why?
Oh man, the dream! It changes every few weeks, but right now I’m gonna say Taika Waititi. He’s directed/acted in a bunch of golden indie films and he recently directed the new Thor film. I think he’s a genius, I love the sense of humour that in puts into each of his films, even when they’re dealing with some pretty hard-hitting issues. I would really have loved to have been in his head when he was developing/filming What We Do In the Shadows. That film should be a New Zealand national treasure.

Danica Burch and Dominique Purdue are appearing in Sherlock Holmes And The Speckled Band, by Arthur Conan Doyle, adapted by Max Gee.
Dates: 7th April – 12th May, 2018
Venue: Genesian Theatre

Review: Silent Disco (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Mar 22 – Apr 14, 2018
Playwright: Lachlan Philpott
Director: Johann Walraven
Cast: Leilani Loau, Badaidilaga Maftuh-Flynn, Natasha McNamara, Brendan Miles, Tom Misa, Gemma Scoble
Image by Liam O’Keefe

Theatre review
15 year-old Tamara has a talent for writing, but little else besides. Her story in Lachlan Philpott’s Silent Disco, is one of disadvantage and hopelessness. Although living in one of the world’s wealthiest nations, her future as a Millennial Australian is pessimistic. At the mercy of parents and a school system that are broken and desperately failing, we watch Tamara struggle, as her circumstances lead her to a path of ruin. The young rely on our nurturing, but when we offer only neglect and abuse, the inevitable result is destruction.

There is remarkable sophistication in Philpott’s beautifully stylised writing, but the ideas in Silent Disco are simple. Although its characters are dynamic, and the relationships between them are intriguing, Johann Walraven’s restrained direction provides only minimal dramatic tension, offering instead an unyielding sense of naturalistic authenticity to its melancholic situations. Set design by Ester Karuso-Thurn is visually arresting, but activity feels distant, in a vast space that requires a less understated approach. Jessica Dunn’s work as sound designer is refreshing, and her inventive compositions help enliven proceedings.

Actor Gemma Scoble is a convincing Tamara, looking and sounding every bit the rebellious school girl on all of our suburban high streets. Her portrayal of the wilful teen is certainly accurate, but a greater sense of theatricality would allow us to engage better with her experiences. Tamara’s boyfriend Squid, is played by Badaidilaga Maftuh-Flynn, appealing with the emotional nuances he very effectively conveys, and Leilani Loau’s performance as a compassionate teacher is quiet but powerful, and vitally thought-provoking.

We disapprove of any parent less than responsible and competent, but we routinely allow our community organisations to falter. Tamara’s parents are deeply disappointing and probably unforgivable, but their human flaws are understandable. As a nation that boasts of so much, our failure to protect each other should be even more reprehensible, but the ease with which we turn a blind eye, is appalling. In becoming increasingly individualistic, society turns neglectful. It is as though we have stopped thinking of the weak as deserving of care, and have begun regarding them as dispensable and contemptible.

Review: Home Invasion (The Old 505 Theatre / An Assorted Few)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Mar 21 – Apr 7, 2018
Writer: Christopher Bryant
Director: Alexander Berlage
Cast: Chloe Bayliss, Kate Cheel, Yure Covich, Morgan Maguire, Wendy Mocke, Cecilia Morrow
Images by Robert Catto

Theatre review
In Christopher Bryant’s Home Invasion, two modern American tragedies are memorialised, and analysed through the lens of pop culture. The murder of child beauty queen JonBenét Ramsey, and the suicide of an American Idol contestant, outside of pop star Paula Abdul’s home. Through these stories of unfulfilled lives, the play presents a cynical view of the woman’s world, in which her desires are shaped intractably, by portrayals in the media, of the feminine as being essentially inadequate and a scourge.

We meet the aforementioned singing aspirant June (who changes her name to Paula), along with a housewife Carol and a 15 year-old Lolita type, Sam. All three individuals are disturbed, but we have to join the dots to figure out their dysfunctions. Director Alexander Berlage places these characters within the glossy setting of our consumerist lives, drawing attention to the unrelenting superficiality that seems determined to prevent us from attaining healthy existences.

Set design by Jeremy Allen and Berlage’s lights, together with Ellen Stanistreet’s costumes, forge a powerful collaboration offering a series of striking imagery, often more impressive with the aesthetic statements being made, than the actual stories they help to tell.

Adventurous interpretations by a strong cast, keep us intrigued and intellectually stimulated. Kate Cheel is thoroughly captivating as the wannabe Paula, simultaneously critical and empathetic towards the narrative she inhabits. She turns an outrageously bizarre personality into someone we recognise, and although we may never understand the extreme measures she undertakes, the actor is more than able to convince us of Paula’s truths, impenetrable as they might be. Also wonderful, are Chloe Bayliss and Morgan Maguire, both marvellously animated, delightful with their comedy, whether frothy and madcap, or darkly unsettling.

The play seems to say that we are powerless against tragic narratives that are continually thrust open us by commercial media outlets, the same ones that are then consecrated and fetishised by society. Home Invasion depicts female subjugation in contemporary terms, as an operation inherent in processes of commodification and of the media. It is true that we are in danger of having our minds clouded and capitalised by institutions that will benefit from our delusions, but we must believe that resistance is possible, and necessary. Where the show ends, is where we begin deducing alternatives for our aftermath. |

Review: Master Class (Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Mar 20 – Apr 8, 2018
Playwright: Terrence McNally
Director: Adam Spreadbury-Maher
Cast: Jessica Boyd, Tomas Dalton, Dobbs Franks, Kala Gare, Amanda Muggleton
Image by Kate Ferguson

Theatre review
Maria Callas ranks amongst the world’s most loved opera singers in living memory. Terrence McNally’s Master Class features an extraordinary woman who understands her own magnificence, recreating sessions at the Juilliard School of 1971 and 1972, in which Callas provides instruction, on singing, art and life in general. McNally’s admiration is apparent, and the Callas he pens, is one determined to elicit her audience’s reverence, regardless of any feelings we may initially bear about the legendary star.

It is a spectacular piece of writing, with each line saturated with either comedy or pathos, and passionate lessons that many will find deeply affecting. It is also an extremely challenging work for the actor who decides to take Callas on, as no concessions are made that will allow any compromise in this portrayal of someone larger than life, and quite clearly a greater expression of human existence than most could ever fathom.

The best that one could hope for, is to come close, and actor Amanda Muggleton certainly does. Her astounding familiarity with the material and the technical precision she applies to it, are enough to impress, but the poignancy and disarming sense of spirit that she frequently delivers, not only has us captivated, we find ourselves moved, powerfully so, by her character’s unpredictably profound observations. We see Callas, but we also see Muggleton. In sections where the character is required to interact, with her audience or her students, there is often a humour that seems to emanate from Muggleton, that is somewhat distinct from La Divina, as she might figure in our imagination.

Adam Spreadbury-Maher’s direction is particularly noteworthy for the way vintage audio recordings are incorporated into the show. The simultaneous coalescence of Callas’ singing through speakers with Callas speaking on stage, is sublimely harmonised, to deliver a theatrical experience rarefied, and highly operatic. There is a tendency for the tone of performance to be repetitive, with speech patterns rarely deviating from an established range of inflections, but meanings and nuances of the text are always rigorously conveyed.

Callas wanted her students to leave it all on the stage; the inspiration she provides, is relevant to us all. The diva had lived fast, loved hard, and died young. In Master Class, some might choose to see a tragedy, but it is without doubt that her glory and influence remain immense and unequivocal. Whether or not one has an artistic practice, the notion that we have to give it our all, in order that something remarkable can result, is a lesson that bears repeating. It is not unusual advice by any means, but when it comes from a woman who had fought tooth and nail to attain her place in world history, its impact is tremendous.