Review: Venus In Fur (107 Projects)

Venue: 107 Projects (Redfern NSW), Apr 10 – 13, 2019
Playwright: David Ives
Director: Emma Burns
Cast: Zach Selmes, Caitlin Williams
Images by Andrea Mudbidri

Theatre review
Thomas is casting for his play, a new rendition of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella Venus In Furs from 1870, about a man who is so infatuated that he asks to be the woman’s slave. Vanda arrives late, but is exceedingly well-prepared for her audition; it begins to look as though the actor knows the work better than its author. In David Ives’ marvellous reinvention entitled Venus In Fur, Thomas’ misogyny is exposed from the very start, as a sort of commentary on the hypocrisy of American liberalism, where the straight white male often fools no one but himself, with his twenty-first century wokeness.

Thomas argues that he writes about a man’s surrender, but Vanda understands all the manipulations involved, not only in the role she is charged to play, but also as it pertains her status in the rehearsal room. Ives’ play is dark and delightful, especially scintillating for those with a penchant for BDSM and sapiosexuality. It is smart, playful and dangerous, constantly teasing us with its language and plot, beguiling as it cajoles us into asking “who is the master”, and “who is the slave.”

Splendid direction by Emma Burns keeps us hopelessly enthralled. Intensely mysterious, but saliently expounded, Venus In Fur is made to feel as delicious as it is complex. Design elements are rudimentary, but Burns ensures that the action is always intriguing, and also deeply satisfying. Actor Caitlin Williams is wonderful as Vanda, aggressively intelligent with her interpretation of the enigmatic female. She makes the dialogue come to glorious life. Zach Selmes is similarly powerful, and convincing as the reprehensible Thomas. The performance is thoroughly rehearsed, and although not particularly inventive with what they bring to the stage, their show is unequivocally captivating.

Thomas is taught the important lesson, that to present himself as a feminist on his own terms, is a disgraceful transgression. He imagines that to put his fictive heroine in a position of power, absolves his neglect of her own desires. His slave’s submission is entirely conditional and self-serving; we learn that it is the slave and Thomas’ desires that come first. The world does not need a feminism that simply focuses on shifting power from one gender to another. We must learn to conceive of new societies in which hierarchies that require anyone to be positioned at the bottom, burdened with disadvantage, are no longer acceptable. In the bedroom, however, we can play with more sadistic parameters, as long as nobody gets hurt, and everybody gets what they want.

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Review: Exhale (Black Birds / Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Apr 9 – 13, 2019
Creators & Cast: Ayeesha Ash, Emele Ugavule

Theatre review
They live in Sydney, but they struggle to call it home. Ayeesha Ash is Māori Grenadian, and Emele Ugavule is Tokelauan Fijian. Their work Exhale relates to the sense of displacement that many experience in the metropolis, and the questions inevitably raised about background and origin, when examining notions of belonging. The artists identify in each other, the alienation that results from complex historical and ongoing operations of colonialism. They connect through a yearning for indigeneity, and it is this reclamation of cultural roots, that forms the substance on which, we too, can connect.

A thoughtful compilation of audio recordings and visual projections, help us visualise the women’s longing, but it is their very presence, as individuals and as a pair, that speak most saliently. Ash and Ugavule are compelling performers, both captivating with everything that they bring on stage. Their fifty-minute presentation is enjoyable and though-provoking, but explorations in Exhale have a tendency to feel too polite. The production is gentle, with moments of tenderness that are genuinely beautiful. Its spirit is evident, but it feels contained, perhaps hesitant with what it wishes to reveal.

Ash and Ugavule speak with their elders, who prove to be evasive, intentionally forgetful in their efforts to get on with life. We see in the young women, a frustration and a disquiet perhaps, but we wonder if a more urgent anger, could be helpful in the advancement of their stories. Not many of us are natural soldiers, but there are aggressors who will come to violate those who are peaceful, and when push comes to shove, one has to find the warrior within, even just for a brief theatrical sojourn.

www.black-birds.net

5 Questions with Stephanie Somerville and Megan Wilding

Stephanie Somerville

Megan Wilding: What has been the best piece of advice you’ve ever heard?
Stephanie Somerville: Probably something Rick Brayford, the head of the Aboriginal acting course, at WAAPA told me before I went for my call back for the acting course. I was super, super nervous and he said to me “It’s your land, now go act those little white girls off the stage.” I find myself saying that to myself a lot; it grounds me, gives me confidence and makes me laugh.

Do you have a mantra you say to yourself before you go on stage?
“It’s your land, now go act those little white girls off the stage.”

What has been the most exciting thing about bringing A Little Piece Of Ash to life?
I’ve never gotten to work with a writer/director on a play before. It feels like such an enormous privilege to help a friend and someone who I admire so deeply tell her story.

Do you have a good warm-up song that you blast before a show?
I usually have a little playlist for each show I do, and I’ve got a few already for A Little Piece Of Ash. It’s a lot of country music, but ‘G.U.Y’ by Lady Gaga is always a great one to get the blood pumping.

Why should people come and see A Little Piece Of Ash?
It’s a deeply touching and hilarious play about the absurdity of life, death and how we deal with it. It’s written by an incredible new talent. It’s powerful, it’s truthful, it’s Aboriginal and it’s completely unapologetic.

Megan Wilding

Stephanie Somerville: What first made you want to start writing?
Megan Wilding: Ever since I was a little anxiety-riddled kid, I found it hard to express what I was feeling. I discovered at quiet a young age that I could explore things that that were going on around me that I didn’t really understand through writing and making stories. As I grew older and became more aware of the theatre industry, it was just a natural progression that my writing turned into plays and performance poetry. It’s nice to give my feelings to characters and let them explore the extreme. Writing A Little Piece Of Ash certainly helped me understand my feelings towards loss and love a lot more.

Why did you feel it was important for you to also direct A Little Piece Of Ash?
Can I say I’m a bit of a control freak? A Little Piece Of Ash is my first little trauma baby, and I wasn’t ready to give her away just yet; I wanted to see her take her first steps and start to walk. Also, I’ve wanted to pursue directing for a while and this presented itself as a really great opportunity to jump in. Hopefully from here some more opportunities will come along.

What’s one thing you wish people talked about more?
Everything. Treaty, trauma, and truth. But more importantly I wished more people listened when someone spoke. It’s scary how much talking is done to blocked ears.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the show?
That there’s no one way to grieve; that you can and should reach out if you need to; that love can be expressed across time and space.

How do you unwind after a long day of writer/actor/directoring…?
I’ve watched every season of RuPaul’s Drag Race at least 5 times. Honestly, that show with all feathers and fierceness helps me switch off every time. Or a nice, hot, eucalyptus bath.

Stephanie Somerville and Megan Wilding are collaborating on A Little Piece Of Ash.
Dates: 12 – 27 Apr, 2019
Venue: Kings Cross Theatre

Review: Ditch (Dream Plane Productions)

Venue: Limelight on Oxford (Darlinghurst NSW), Apr 3 – 13, 2019
Playwright: Beth Steel
Director: Kim Hardwick
Cast: Laurence Coy, Angus Evans, Giles Gartrell-Mills, Fiona Press, Martin Quinn, Jasmin Simmons
Images by Becky Matthews

Theatre review
Beth Steel wrote about a very near future in her 2010 play Ditch, describing a nightmare scenario that seems to prophesy the currently ongoing Brexit ordeal, eventuating at the very worst possible place. We find ourselves in the middle of World War III, but this time, Great Britain is fighting as a fascist state, whilst its land is fast becoming submerged by rising sea levels. Steel’s work offers an alarming look at the world we are turning into. It shows us the horrors we are travelling towards, without dwelling on how we are getting ourselves there, leaving the audience to figure out the root of these problems, and making us go through a process of soul-searching, for an agonising reflective examination of the people that we are.

The play is heavy, but never alienating. A very strong cast turns what should be inconceivable, into an immediate and pressing tale full of frightening resonance. Fiona Press is a persuasive Mrs Peel, of an older generation (which makes her our contemporary) and has a lot to answer for. She keeps calm and carries on, trying to forge ahead as though blameless, or maybe more accurately, suppressing the guilty conscience that must plague her. The other elder of the group, Burns is played by a very nuanced Laurence Coy, able to distinctly represent both fragility and brutishness of the banal male archetype. Young Megan’s powerful presence is embodied by Jasmin Simmons, who impresses with her remarkably textured approach.

As the appropriately domineering and repulsive alpha soldier Turner, Giles Gartrel-Mills adds a subtle dimension of deception to the role, further enhancing the drama that he brings. Angus Evans is wonderfully authentic with the conviction, and precision, so discernible in his depiction of the traumatised Bug. New recruit James is effortlessly innocent, as performed by the incredibly earnest Martin Quinn.

Director Kim Hardwick’s insistence on her actors delivering accuracy and dynamism, proves to be very rewarding. The show’s crescendo grabs hold of us slowly and incrementally, as it builds to an explosive, and very satisfying, conclusion. The production is well designed on all fronts. Set and costumes by Victor Kalka, lights by Martin Kinnane, and sound by Stephanie Kelly, are all cleverly rendered for our easy suspension of disbelief, and for maximum tension. Ditch will not let us off the hook, in its tragedy about all our sins.

Completed pre-Brexit, about a post-Brexit world, Steel knew about the darkness that we were heading for, not because of some supernatural precognitive perception ability, but because our self-destruction is always written on the wall. Much as our catastrophes are unimaginable in scale, they were always foreseeable. Ditch does not wish expressly to be pessimistic, but the truth that it presents, would be challenging even for the most ardent of optimists. At this juncture of our evolution, or some might say devolution, the question seems to be moving away from “how do we survive this?” to something much more like “do we deserve to survive this?”

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Review: The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner (Jackrabbit Theatre / Little Eggs Collective)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Apr 2 – 13, 2019
Poet: Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Director: Julia Robertson
Cast: Lloyd Allison-Young, Mathew Lee, Nicholas Papademetriou, Nicole Pingon, Callan Purcell, Annie Stafford, Grace Stamnas, Mike Ugo, Laura Wilson
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
The theatrical action takes place in a rectangular sandpit, with nine people in disciplined formations, illustrating the 1798 poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The Romanticist’s words are turned tangible, as we watch his ship’s adventures unfold, from an optimistic start, into a journey that becomes increasingly perilous. The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner is parsed through the bodies of performers, for a transformation that takes the storytelling from one artistic form to another, and in the process, bending time to create a channel in which the past can visit the palpable present.

Directed by Julia Robertson, the production is whimsical, resolutely so, but it is insufficiently engaging, due mainly to the traverse arrangement of seating, which disallows the visual dimensions of the show to truly fulfil their intentions. Without an adequate backdrop, and without a raised stage, our eyes become restricted in what they are able to absorb and discern. The ensemble is focused, exquisitely cohesive with their offering. It is a spirited effort, especially inventive with the music and sounds that they generate, and along with composer Oliver Shermacher, auditory pleasures are a principal accomplishment of this work.

The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner may not connect as potently as it should, but it bears an integrity that is reassuring. There is a purity to its approach that feels artistically uncompromising and, therefore, admirable. In what we term “independent theatre”, nobody pays your bills but yourself. The sacrifices involved in undertaking this often thankless work are mammoth, and artists should not placate or ingratiate, in the hope of some imaginary professional advancement that will result. Their only responsibility is to the truth, and that is what we are here for, wherever we find ourselves to be.

www.jackrabbittheatre.com | www.facebook.com/littleeggscollective

Review: The Last Five Years (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Mar 29 – Apr 27, 2019
Writer/Composer: Jason Robert Brown
Director: Elsie Edgerton-Till
Cast: Christian Charisiou, Elise McCann
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
Jamie has no idea what he is getting himself into, when asking for Cathy’s hand in marriage. His writing career is going “gangbusters” and girls are throwing themselves at him, but he decides instead to get bogged down by the old ball-and-chain, who is herself a naggy talentless nobody, and who demands too much of her husband. The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown is an ill-advised musical about the disintegration of a relationship, in which misogyny is lavished right from the start, when Cathy is sobbing over her asshole husband moving out.

Things clearly can only get worse as the show progresses, as Jamie’s misplaced resentment becomes all-important, and he sings such charming lyrics as “I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy, I will not lose because you can’t win,” and “I could never rescue you, all you ever wanted, but I could never rescue you, no matter how I tried.” The story ends with little resolution, but it does not take prodigious imagination to see Jamie turning to digital incel communities after the separation.

Director Elsie Edgerton-Till may not succeed at glossing over the many gendered affronts, but her production is undeniably polished, able to make the simple two-hander feel confident and dynamic. Daryl Wallis’ musical direction is satisfying in its sophistication, and as pianist, he is particularly memorable in “Climbing Uphill”, with a sense of humour to his accompaniment that almost makes the whining wife’s desperation tolerable. Playing Jamie and Cathy are a couple of incontrovertibly excellent performers; Christian Charisiou and Elise McCann are both charismatic and enormously talented. They explore the material with impressive zeal, bringing to the stage extraordinary vigour and skill, trying to keep us delightfully engaged.

The Last Five Years reminds us that, for all the heartache associated with it, divorce is always a wonderful relief. In the throes of passion, and romantic naivety, we make mistakes, because being human, we never fail to want to make promises to horrible people, or to people who will eventually turn horrible. Love is natural and necessary, but rarely eternal. When time comes to call it quits, the apparatus is available to leave them to rot in their own filth. Cathy does not see it yet, but it is clear to us that although five years were lost, she has dodged one very toxic bullet.

www.ensemble.com.au

Review: Saturday Night Fever (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Mar 27 – Jun 2, 2019
Book: Robert Stigwood, in collaboration with Bill Oakes (based on the film by Nik Cohn)
Director: Karen Johnson Mortimer
Cast: Angelique Cassimatis, Natalie Conway, Paulini Curuenavuli, Euan Doidge, Bobby Fox, Melanie Hawkins, Marcia Hines, Stephen Mahy, Nana Matapule, Ryan Morgan, Tim ‘Timomatic’ Omaji
Images by Heidi Victoria

Theatre review
The plot was always flimsy in Saturday Night Fever, but all its music and dance sequences have made it an unequivocal icon of the disco era. With a soundtrack album that has sold over 45 million copies worldwide, its songs and their accompanying decadent style, proceeded to define entertainment in the immediate years after its 1977 release, and continue to retain significant cultural cache for generations thereafter. This live theatre version first appeared 1998 in the West End, predictably stirring with the deeply familiar and seductive song list, and this 2019 rendition is similarly appealing.

Accepting that the story is largely irrelevant to how one should enjoy the piece, song and dance is then allowed to become the focus. Choreography by Malik Le Nost is exhilarating, and faithfully nostalgic. Paul Herbert’s orchestrations amplify the pizzazz and schmaltz that the audience adores. We want the big productions to never end, but alas, several extended scenes that attempt to deliver drama, or at least some sense of narrative, only prove themselves to be unsought distractions that bring the energy down, along with our excitement, between the genuinely gratifying episodes of discotheque fabulosity.

Leading man Euan Doidge is a very average actor in the role of Tony Manero, but thankfully shows himself to be a sensational dancer, and doubtless for many an audience member, a real looker. Even with the completely disco-erroneous short haircut and tight trousers, Doidge is a breathtaking specimen who almost has us forgiving everything. His dance partner is the impossibly perfect Melanie Hawkins, who makes every one of Stephanie Mangano’s entrances look like an angel descending from above. Club DJ Monty is played by the thoroughly engaging Tim ‘Timomatic’ Omaji, who absolutely shines in the supporting role, with timing and moves that have us eating out of his palm. All the hits are sung marvellously, mainly by a fantastic group of four (Natalie Conway, Paulini Curuenavuli, Bobby Fox and Nana Matapule), but there is no denying the superstar power of Marcia Hines, who is called upon to inspire awe with each of her brief appearances.

Saturday Night Fever tries to give us more than what we bargain for, where it should know better its own strengths. Like legendary party animals of the late 70’s and their penchant for amphetamines and cocaine, we come to the show as hedonists with no time for emotion. Between bumps of pleasure, we have to endure moments of tedium, but we stay for the duration, because we know exactly what the next peak is going to bring.

wwww.saturdaynightfever.com.au