Review: Once In Royal David’s City (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Mar 19 – Apr 13, 2019
Playwright: Michael Gow
Director: Patrick Howard
Cast: Alana Birtles, Ben Brighton, Amy Victoria Brooks, Sandra Campbell, Nathalie Fenwick, Nicholas Foustellis, Angela Johnston, Alice Livingstone,
Aimee Lodge, Francisco Lopez, Martin Portus, Bryden White-Tuohey
Images by Bob Seary

Theatre review
Will is on the verge of beginning a new job, just as his mother coincidentally lays dying in hospital. It is a new life that beckons, and with all the emotions that should feel overwhelming, Will retreats into a lot of academia, as is typical of theatre directors and educationalists. He spends his time thinking about Marx and Brecht, dealing with ideas of resource ownership and distanciation; not quite preparing for the period of mourning that is sure to come. Michael Gow’s Once In Royal David’s City is a piece of writing perhaps not entirely interested in coherence, allowing itself to move in various directions, almost defying our need to condense its contents into a more conventional narrative form.

Patrick Howard’s direction reveals with honesty, the often contradictory states of being human. Will never quite behaves the way we expect him to, yet there is nothing unbelievable about how he goes about his business. There are some hallmarks of Brechtian theatre in the presentation, although those expressions can seem perfunctory. It is a handsome looking show, put together with excellent taste by production and lighting designer Victor Kalka, and costume associate Luciana Nguyen. Their minimalist style suits the bluntness of Gow’s writing, unpretentious but elegant.

Actor Francisco Lopez brings an unassuming geniality to the lead role, effective in monologues that allow him to directly address the audience, but too mellow in contrast with scene partners. More compelling performances come from the likes of Sandra Campbell, whose commanding presence in several small parts proves refreshing. Amy Victoria Brooks too, is memorable as Gail, an anguished soul roaming the hospital, in search of connection and consolation. Will’s mother Jeannie is played by Alice Livingstone, ironically lively, able to bring verve to a character that is otherwise written with little originality.

To love books is in some ways better than loving people. Books can be crafted to perfection, and we as readers can hold dear, words and ideas that we deem to be impeccably arranged. To love humans however, is quite another thing. Not only are we deeply flawed, we are transient, destined to break hearts wherever bonds are created. Death and impermanence, however are the ultimate provocation, intensifying all the sensations that define love. The heart wants what the heart wants. Mortal or immortal, it is hardly up to us to choose for whom we fall.

www.newtheatre.org.au

5 Questions with Zach Selmes and Caitlin Williams

Zach Selmes

Caitlin Williams: We might as well start out with the most obvious question – what’s your kink?
Zach Selmes: Such a Vanda question! Would it be such an actor thing of me to say “role-playing”?

You play two characters in this, the playwright Thomas and his character Kushemski. What drew you to these roles?
The greatest thing about acting is being given the opportunity to explore such a variety of characters, of lifestyles you’ll never lead, and play within that world for a while – a gentleman in the Austro-Hungarian empire, for example. I love this industry and if a show is meta, I’m interested! As an aspiring director, Thomas is an excellent example of the traps a creative with privilege can fall into if they aren’t thoughtful of their subject matter or choose to regard their colleagues as little more than puppets to do their bidding. He’s a great case-study on how NOT to negotiate with your actors.

You come from a musical theatre background, how does it feel working on straight theatre?
Two people alone onstage for ninety minutes is definitely a jump in the deep end. After majoring in musical theatre at uni, I played a lot of comedy roles in what were largely ensemble shows. More recently, I was in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night but played the fool and musician in both and always had a joke or instrument to charm the audience onto my side. ‘Venus in Fur’ is the first show I’ve done without a single song and, while Thomas gets in some dry zingers, he is far from comic relief. It’s a refreshing learning experience to be playing the antagonistic straight man.

What do you think this play has to say about the complexity of power in relationships?
It certainly subverts the idea that power comes down to physical dominance. Indeed, while it explores the erotic side of power, the play is far more driven by the psychological nature of Thomas and Vanda’s relationship. From the moment Vanda storms the stage, Thomas has to fight to maintain his directorial power and as soon as you think you have a handle on the power struggle within his play, it becomes apparent that any power Vanda has is a result of Kushemski’s manipulation of her… until she manipulates Thomas right back and the lines between the plays blur! It’s a constant tug of war and the longer it goes on, the more gloriously frustrated everyone becomes.

With the #MeToo movement all over the media, how do you feel this play is relevant to the current moment, particularly surrounding the treatment of actors?
I’ve been very fortunate to be a part of some overwhelmingly conscientious casts, but I’ve only fairly recently been delving into plays. While I could only reference media reports with regard to straight theatre, I can say first hand that being a young man on the musical theatre side of the fence means a lot of unsolicited attention – typically from male creatives or networking figures – in situations where it is difficult for a performer to refuse the advances for fear of losing current or future work. As we see with #MeToo, it’s an industry-wide problem because of the unique ways our work environment relies on trust. Every show that I’ve worked on has had a co-ed dressing room (often closer in size to a closet) where you have to trust that your colleagues are being respectful of your privacy. Onstage, you become more intimate with people in ways you normally wouldn’t and have to trust that their focus is on what’s best for the scene and show, and not something more sinister. The industry and its workers are vulnerable to that trust being taken advantage of or broken which is why it’s incredibly important to be constantly aware of your other actors and their wellbeing. Having support systems in place like cast reps and being a part of your actor’s union (MEAA) gives power back to the majority of the industry who just want to be able to work and create safely.

Caitlin Williams

Zach Selmes: You’ve been involved in a lot of shows recently, what’s special about Venus In Fur?
Caitlin Williams: What’s special to me about Venus In Fur, is that it lets me play a role I rarely get to play — the young, sexy, confident, take-no-prisoners Vanda. I can’t tell you how many times in the last two years I’ve played an older role or a male character rewritten as a woman, so it’s nice to finally get back to playing someone age appropriate who’s so much fun.

As an emerging female creative working both onstage and behind the scenes, how relevant do you find this play to the theatre scene in Sydney?
I think what this play shows is that the audition room is such a fascinating, terrifying thing, where the power imbalance is profound and can, as we’ve seen in the international and Sydney theatre scene, be easily exploited. What Thomas expects out of Vanda is a level of perfection that’s impossible for any woman to reach, and I think that standard of perfection is still subconsciously expected of emerging female artists.

Performing a two-person text isn’t easy, especially when that text involves a play within a play. Is there a craft to bouncing back and forth between character mid-scene? Mid-sentence even?
For these roles I’ve been finding lot of the character changes come from my voice and accents. Vanda Jordan has your typical American accent, while Vanda Von Dunayev has this much more regal, old-school transatlantic accent. I’ve found that once I’ve gotten the accent switches down then I can bring in that characterisation and physicality that comes along with each change.

Were you always a theatre kid, or was there a specific moment that converted you?
I think it was a high school production of A Midsummer Nights Dream, where I went in determined to play Helena. I’d never spoken a word of Shakespeare out loud before but I went in, auditioned, and got the part. Being part of a cast, getting to explore a character and have fun on stage in a safe environment, really kicked off a love of theatre in me.

As your character Vanda so eloquently describes Venus In Fur “basically it’s S&M Porn”. What would you say to any hesitant theatre-goers who worry the show might lack depth?
This is a play that’s fun, sexy, and hilarious. But it also tackles issues that the entertainment industry has really had to come to terms with in the form of #MeToo. This play is about female empowerment and the complexities of power in relationships.

Zach Selmes and Caitlin Williams can be seen in Venus In Fur by David Ives.
Dates: 10 – 13 Apr, 2019
Venue: 107, Redfern

5 Questions with Chantelle Jamieson and Lauren Richardson

Chantelle Jamieson

Lauren Richardson: Chantelle, what do you love about AFL?
Chantelle Jamieson: Well I grew up in Melbs, so love of footy kind of just seeps into your skin. I’m a huge bombers supporter having grown up in Essendon. There’s nothing like turning up at Essendon station on game day decked out in your black and red, and finding hundreds of others wearing the same colours as you. They are your tribe. And growing up being one of the only black kids at my school (the others were my sisters), it was really important to feel like you belonged somewhere- we belonged as Essendon supporters.

This play deals with many themes and one of them is ambition. It seems like there are many things your character would’ve liked the opportunity to tackle but she hasn’t. Are there things you’ve always wanted to try but haven’t and what’s held you back?
My character Mel is a WAG married to footy player Vance Arrowsmith (played by Andrew Shaw) life should be good, but she is deeply unhappy with where she’s ended up and constantly looking for the root of where it went wrong. I find it heartbreaking. There are always shoulda-coulda-woulda-didn’t-don’t moments in everyone’s life, but I haven’t really felt those to the kind of level that Mel does. It would make life unbearable.

Having a game plan and being strategic is essential. So let’s get analytical. What are Chantelle’s strengths and weaknesses?
Strength: finding a way to answer a question that might get too personal without actually answering it.
Weakness: wanting to avoid answering those questions.

What did you dream of becoming when you were small?
Like most kids who aren’t psychopaths- I loved animals. So I wanted to become a vet. My mum warned me that that would involve cutting animals open. So I dropped that idea. Then I wanted to become a jockey because that would mean working with horses. Mum warned me that I’d have to whip the horses to make them run fast. So, I dropped that idea too. My mum issued no warnings about becoming an actor.

What are the parallels do you think between footy and theatre?
For the audience, it’s a communal experience, the atmosphere is never exactly the same at every show or at every game. You have to be there to feel it.

Lauren Richardson

Chantelle Jamieson: Fierce is the story of Suzie Flack’s journey as a woman in a men’s AFL team, what has been the most challenging part of (corny pun alert) tackling this role?
Lauren Richardson: Suzie Flack is a character that has muscled her way, elbows out, into an environment that doesn’t expect or welcome her. But she stands her ground. Without apology. And I think that’s a task women aren’t always encouraged in. So I guess for Lauren the actor, backing myself. Standing my ground. Not diminishing. That’s felt confronting in rehearsal… but also exciting.

I know you grew up in NSW, what was your AFL knowledge like, going into Fierce?
Nil. Nada. Zero. I knew who the giants were and who the swans were. And that the guys that played were generally pretty lean, athletic and attractive. But the game itself made no sense to someone who grew up with “proper football”, the one with the right shaped ball [ie soccer] the beautiful game as my Dad calls it. I looked at AFL and it made no sense. We’re in an oval?! People are coming from all directions?! The balls bouncing all over the shop?! It just seemed like anarchy. But I’m a total convert. I think Aussie Rules is bloody brilliant now.

Suzie Flack is a super athlete, how have you gone about physically preparing for this role?
Go hard or go home hahaha. Obviously I’m an actor not an athlete. That being said, I’ve entered into a pretty rigorous physical engagement with my body throughout rehearsals. I’ve learnt how to box, as that’s something my character does. And unexpectedly I’ve fallen in love with it and have lofty aspirations to get in the ring competitively now. We’ve been lucky enough to get cast personal training from Spectrum Fitness so just clocking hours at the gym. We also got to go behind the scenes and watch GWS women’s team during training sessions which has been invaluable. And then just kicking the footy in the park with the boys in the cast who are very skilled and who have been very patient, kind and generous with me, a total novice. Oh, and protein shakes.

You worked with Janine Watson as an actor in Sport for Jove’s Three Sisters, how have you found working with her as a director?
Working with Janine has been a dream. We met working together as actors and since then have been firm friends, but it’s been a delight to become collaborators and co conspirators on this project. I have so much admiration and respect for her as an artist and as a woman. And working together has been challenging and exciting and incredibly fulfilling. I’ve loved every moment.

What can audiences look forward with Fierce?
It’s an exceptional piece of writing. A new Australian play that defies easy categorisation. Every scene surprises. It’s funny, physically dynamic and incredibly moving. And plus there’s some Justin Bieber in there for good measure!!!

Chantelle Jamieson and Lauren Richardson can be seen in Fierce, by Jane E. Thompson.
Dates: 20 Mar – 13 Apr, 2018
Venue: Old Fitz Theatre

5 Questions with Suzann James and Jodine Muir

Suzann James

Jodine Muir: What was your first acting experience and what made you want to act as a career?
Suzann James: Ha ha! I was living in Hong Kong and was cast as an alter ego in Neil Simon’s They’re Playing Our Song. I was also the choreographer but I didn’t know how to read music, so the whole cast had to put up with my learned harmonies whilst learning the dance routines. I knew I wanted to perform after seeing and being thoroughly captivated by a live performance of Steel Magnolias. I figured I was overseas, nobody knew me, so I had a license to fail… or not. So I went for it!

You have been a great support to your actress daughter, in particular keeping it ‘realistic’ to the highs and lows of an acting career. Did you have any similar support when you took up acting or did you learn on the job?
Yeah, no. I learnt on the job. And then got myself into a performing arts academy. And my daughter has kind of done the same thing. She was cast in an international musical, got the bug and now goes to a performing arts school. I guess we’re a little backwards in moving forwards.

What were your first impressions of the play The Realistic Joneses, what inspired you to get involved and do you have a personal connection to its themes?
Easy, I loved the script. And I kept getting so much more out of it every time I read it. I loved the way Will Eno’s quirky characters deal and react so differently to life’s dilemmas. It’s great how he can take the most mundane or depressing of subjects and make them funny and surprising. Actually I do have a nephew that has a similar challenge to the Joneses’ dilemma, and from my experience there are definitely parallels in the ways that they cope.

Your character in The Realistic Joneses seems to be the only one grounded in reality and has been called the ‘straight one’ to the other characters who appear to be avoiding reality. Do you feel this is true of your character and what other discoveries have you made?
Yes, she is sensible and has taken on the role as the responsible one. In her marriage she carries the intellectual and emotional burden, but funnily, resorts to her own quiet little crazy way of venting.

Why do you think these two odd couples in The Realistic Joneses are drawn together?
I think they all, just quietly, need each other. Filling voids, buoying spirits, entertaining, that sort of thing. It makes me think that we work better as a community. Friendships are invaluable. Feeling uncomfortable can be liberating and some issues are too big to deal with on your own. The challenges they’re facing have given them a greater appreciation of life, for living in the moment and of nature and the world around them.

Jodine Muir

Suzann James: What makes you laugh about your character, Pony?
Jodine Muir: Yes she does make me laugh a lot! I was drawn to Pony because she seemed to be having the most fun, at the expense of others! She says and does what she wants, whatever suits her mood. She doesn’t seem to be able to cope with much in her adult life and relies on others to help keep her together.

Have you ever had crazy neighbours?
Yes a few, they certainly keep things interesting! Right now I live next door to an aged care facility. One gentleman doesn’t have any noise awareness and mostly shouts his words in a muffled kind of way. Oddly enough, he manages to have many ongoing and engaging conversations with the staff and other occupants but I can never understand a word he says. It’s usually what wakes me up early in the morning!

Are you sympathetic to sick people? Or do you prefer to avoid them?
Quite the opposite of my character Pony, I would say that I am very nurturing and caring… probably to the point of being annoying! However, like Pony, if it impedes on my ability to sleep then my patience will be tested!

Have you seen anything else by Will Eno?
No I haven’t but I had heard of him and had planned to read some of his plays. That was the first reason I applied for the auditions. As soon as I read the play, I was hooked. I found the quirky behaviour and awkward dialogue between the characters delicious!

What do you think somebody might write about Pony after she’s gone?
Oh I love this question! Well, I think that they might say: “She made a few mistakes along the way but her heart was always in the right place!” Or perhaps… “She managed to avoid life and has instead found peace”.

Suzann James and Jodine Muir can be seen in The Realistic Joneses by Will Eno.
Dates: 13 – 30 Mar, 2019
Venue: Limelight On Oxford

Review: Wrath (Jackrabbit Theatre)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Mar 8 – 22, 2019
Playwright: Liam Maguire
Director: Liam Maguire
Cast: Madeleine Vizard, Adam Sollis, Jonny Hawkins, Elle Mickel, Amy Hack and Emma Harvie
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It all kicks off when the CEO spots a pubic hair in the boardroom. Liam Maguire’s Wrath is an absurd and very grotesque look at corporate culture, that dog-eat-dog world in which some of the most brutal of human behaviour can be found. Disguised behind a pretence of uncompromising suit-and-tie civility, with the notion of profit maximisation as guiding principle, these people are entrenched in a system that is profoundly immoral and surreptitiously harmful. The play amplifies all that is wrong about a segment of our lives that has grown substantial and ineludible.

There is semblance of a narrative, but it only serves as conduit for comedic sequences that attack and satirise out institutions of greed. Maguire’s exaggerated approach to humour makes for a flamboyant presentation; Wrath is often hilarious, with a wild spirit that persuades us to luxuriate in its artistic risks. Sound by Sam Maguire and lights by John Collopy, are valuable in creating the show’s faux display of overwrought melodrama, but design schemes eventually turn repetitive, and their efficacy markedly fades in later segments.

An eccentric cast keeps us amused from start to finish. Madeleine Vizard’s extravagant interpretation of CEO Stockwood is brilliant, in its unrelenting incisiveness for a scornful embodiment of the ruthless and power mad. It is a deliciously camp performance, satisfying with the textures she is able to provide in spite of all the exaggerated embellishment. There is a lot of big acting in the piece, and Elle Mickel is chief offender, in the best possible sense. As Daphne, she does not hold back, and we go along with where she dares to tread. Emma Harvie executes perfect timing for the mousy January, a secretary of few words, but all uttered with sublime precision.

These monsters of industry are pervasively and deeply woven into the fabric of our lives, and to wish to have them completely extricated is a pipe dream. We can however, restrict our individual participation in their dominion. We can find ways to retreat from them, to identify their competitors and adversaries, and work to boost those who will bring a greater sense of balance to how power is distributed in our economies. We need to resist the allure of the shiny seductive exteriors, of corporations that can never live up to what they promise. If we can take down the big guys, then those of us who are small can flourish.

www.jackrabbittheatre.com

Review: The Divorce Party (Life After Productions / The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Mar 12 – 16, 2019
Playwright: Liz Hobart
Director: Alexander Lee-Rekers
Cast: Meg Clarke, Badaidilaga Maftuh-Flynn, Ariadne Sgouros, Alexander Stylianou
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
We are in a car park behind a restaurant with four attendees of a divorce party, taking a cigarette break from the unusual festivities. Liz Hobart’s The Divorce Party is a curious work, structured like a puzzle to involve our participation in figuring out the stories therein. Although mildly intriguing, the play’s deliberate abstruseness never pays off. Barely an hour long, we lose interest early in the piece, and by the time its mysteries are revealed, none of it is able to cause a stir.

Set design by Damien Egan however, is charming with its accuracy in depicting contemporary Australian life, complete with push bin and bad graffiti. The actors demonstrate adequate familiarity with their individual roles, even if their collaboration feels incohesive. Ariadne Sgouros and Alexander Stylianou bring energy at every opportunity, and succeed in creating momentary stimuli for the piece. Meg Clarke has little to work with in terms of storyline, but manages to build a character of some authenticity. A very subtle performance by Badaidilaga Maftuh-Flynn helps create an enigmatic, if slightly too sombre, quality for his role.

With the proliferation of divorces, it is perhaps not entirely surprising that some people might want to commemorate the event. What was once a catalyst for vehement disapproval from all quarters, is now an ordinary part of life. When a relationship ends, it often means that suffering too, begins to find relief, so it does make sense that celebration is in order. As long as people wish to get married, there needs to be a liberal attitude towards divorce. Nobody should be tethered to any misery, and we should all know to walk out, if the heart so desires.

www.old505theatre.com

Review: Jess & Joe Forever (Sugary Rum Productions / 25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Mar 13 – 30, 2019
Playwright: Zoe Cooper
Director: Shaun Rennie
Cast: Nyx Calder, Julia Robertson
Images by Kate Williams

Theatre review
The children are on a mission to tell their story. It takes place in Joe’s hometown of Norfolk, where Jess had begun spending her summer holidays at 9 years-old. The two become fast friends, and go through thick and thin together. In Zoe Cooper’s Jess & Joe Forever, they find a way to recount seminal events of their young lives, like an informal kind of psychotherapy, not because there is anything wrong with them per se, but because the world seems intent on inflicting a very hard time on them both. Cooper’s writing is extraordinarily tender, beautifully authentic in the way these young voices are rendered. Its structure is suspenseful and intriguing, for a narrative that does much more than entertain.

Director Shaun Rennie takes great care to manufacture a sensitive atmosphere in which we can only receive Jess and Joe with hearts wide open, and in the process, come to an intimate understanding of how children respond to the bigger world, and all the the difficult things we cannot shield them from. The emotional crescendo Rennie is able to build into the plot of Jess & Joe Forever, is representative of theatre at its most captivating.

It is a wonderfully designed production. Isabel Hudson’s playground is perfectly proportioned for the small auditorium, with quaint illustrations along the backdrop reflecting an innocence so crucial to the play. Lights by Benjamin Brockman help to amplify the emotions of both characters and audience, so that none of the sentimentality escapes us. Ben Pierpoint’s work on sound provides for the mind’s eye, an evocative picture of what that small English seaside town must look like, and his music gives the show a sense of elevation, with its unmistakable sophistication.

We fall in love right away with the very excellent cast, both actors adorable and completely believable as our little hosts. As Jess, Julia Robertson brings to the role a strength and defiance that absolutely charms. Her effervescence is infectious, and even though her penchant for machine gun speed recitation of lines can sometimes be a challenge, the precision of her approach is unequivocally affecting. Nyx Calder is perfect as Joe, disarmingly poignant but also effortless and delightful in their depiction of youthful purity. The extraordinary vulnerability that Calder is able to convey, fills the gaps purposefully left behind by the playwright, impeccably addressing parts of Joe’s story where words can prove inadequate.

Watching these kids, we feel compelled to protect them, but we also know that their struggles will make them into resilient and wise adults. It is true that there is much sadness in the world. The societies we manufacture often seem to be endlessly flawed, and the thought that those who have done no harm, would still be subject to injustice and inequity, is devastating. Some of us will respond with resignation, but some will fight for things to be better. Jess & Joe Forever is bittersweet, because its anguish is palpable, but it also provides inspiration, so that we can know to always do the right thing.

www.facebook.com/sugaryrumproductions | www.belvoir.com.au