Review: Banging Denmark (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jul 26 – Aug 24, 2019
Playwright: Van Badham
Director: Jessica Arthur
Cast: Michelle Lim Davidson, Patrick Jhanur, Amber McMahon, TJ Power, Megan Wilding
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
It is very 2019 to have in a comedy, an online feminist warrior meet a leader of digital misogynistic communities, but as we see in Van Badham’s Banging Denmark, that is exactly the kind of story we need right now. Jake has run out of easy conquests, and is now setting his sights on a Danish librarian, a woman from an enlightened future impervious to his seedy charms. The quickest way to achieve cut-through, he figures, would be to enlist the help of Ishtar, whom he knows to be struggling with poverty, having just sued her through defamation law for every penny. If Ishtar is authority of all things feminist, she would clearly be the one to get Jake into a raging feminist’s pants.

Badham’s writing is keenly observed and very biting. It pours scorn on those who are deserving of insult, for an intensely contemporary experience that appeals to our very à la mode, adversarial tendencies. The work feels original in its scope and structure, a tremendously entertaining tale that proves unpredictable, rich with imagination yet entirely plausible. It bears all the characteristics of a romantic-comedy, only to subvert the narrative time and again, for a meaningful agitation of our nonsensical desires.

Designed by Renée Mulder, the backdrop is an imposing conglomeration of speakers, a visual delight that doubles perhaps, as a symbolic gesture pointing to our all talking, no listening culture. Director Jessica Arthur introduces just enough acerbity so that her show connects with an easy humour, whilst retaining the valuable intentions of the piece. Although consistently stimulating, the production never gets too intellectually demanding. There is a cheekiness to Banging Denmark that many will find entertaining, and with an emphasis on story over ideology, it demonstrates a prudent need to prevent itself from alienating any of its audience.

Actor Amber McMahon is full of exuberance as the irrepressible Ishtar, delivering a thoroughly enjoyable performance that is as funny as it is intelligent. In the role of Jake is TJ Power, deeply impressive with the dynamic range he brings to the staging, remarkably confident in presence, able to turn a hateful character into something believable, salvageable and human. Three supporting players, Michelle Lim Davidson, Patrick Jhanur and Megan Wilding, offer a variety of textures that make the experience a surprisingly expansive one, that urges us to think beyond the lazy binary.

If Banging Denmark‘s happy ending leaves one unsatisfied, one should probably reflect on their appetite for discord and destruction. We live in such disharmony, largely because of our own design. We have found ways to argue and fight, committed to making things better in accordance with personal perspectives, but we keep moving further and further away from all fabled notions of peace. Addiction to technology is real, and with that it seems, we have become addicted to disunity; happier to wrestle with aggression and rivalries, than to find ways for friendly co-existence. This is an age with unprecedented, and unlimited, capacity for speaking, but it can often look like no one is listening.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Table (White Box Theatre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Jul 25 – Aug 17, 2019
Playwright: Tanya Ronder
Director: Kim Hardwick
Cast: Charles Upton, Stacey Duckworth, Mathew Lee, Julian Garner, Danielle King, Chantelle Jamieson, Annie Stafford, Brendan Miles, Nicole Pingon
Images by Danielle Lyonne

Theatre review
It was over a hundred years ago, that David Best built a table on the occasion of his marriage. Six generations of Bests later, the table still stands, modestly and in the background, accumulating scars inevitably derived from the passage of time. A substantial portion of Tanya Ronder’s Table centres around the globe-trotting Gideon Best, whom we meet at various points through the years, from his conception in Africa in 1951, to his return to England at 62 years old. The play features scintillating dialogue and fascinating characters, to explore the dynamics of a family that, for all their adventurous diversions, are ultimately no more than regular people.

The production is exceedingly elegant, with Isabel Hudson’s set and Martin Kinnane’s lights offering consistently sumptuous imagery, if slightly too insistent in creating a sense of moodiness. Nate Edmondson contributes two hours of music and sound, intricately magnifying every sensory peak and trough, highly effective in helping us find focus for all of Table‘s deliberately abrupt plot shifts. Director Kim Hardwick’s sensitive approach can at times seem too quiet, but the psychological and emotional accuracy that she is able to convey, for every aspect of the story, makes for a staging that sings with authenticity from beginning to end.

Actor Julian Garner brings an understated complexity to Gideon, for a convincing and empathetic portrait of a flawed individual. It is an often inventive performance by Garner, who also plays Gideon’s father Jack, oscillating effortlessly between humour and sentimentality, to deliver some of the show’s more powerful moments. Danielle King demonstrates a wonderful versatility in three roles, particularly impressive when taking the production to a satisfying crescendo at its final sequences. Also memorable is Chantelle Jamieson, an effervescent presence who introduces exceptional vitality, whether playing a carefree sixties commune member, or a nun.

The table is left behind by person after person. We watch it outlive its owners, roughed up but still sturdy, able to withstand centuries more trials and tribulations. Not all of us are leaving children behind, but personal legacies, big or small, good and bad, will have resonances that linger after our headstones are concreted. When Gideon comes back hoping for reconciliation, we see an older man finally recognising the magnitude of his actions, and the simultaneous insignificance of his egotistical self, and we wonder if it is only wishful thinking when we say that it is never too late turning over a new leaf.

www.whiteboxtheatre.com.au

5 Questions with Emily Dash and Dean Nash

Emily Dash

Dean Nash: What’s your favourite line of dialogue in Freefall and why?
Emily Dash: “I’m not your inspiration, I’m a fucking incineration”. I think this line sums up the vibrant character of Megan in a lot of ways. It very deliberately references the concept of “inspiration porn” and pushes against that, because that was something important to me. But it also shows her humour, her spirit, the way she doesn’t take anything – even conversations about death – too seriously.

What inspired you to write Freefall?
It was, of course, an opportunity to represent diverse issues and voices. Initially I was really interested in the dynamic between two people who are very different but love each other deeply, because I think it resonates with a lot of people. Love is beautiful, and challenging, but by no means simple – and nor is grief. Freefall is not a true story, but it’s a very real story – and it’s a testament to hope, to honour a great many experiences and various people who are close to my heart.

Describe your perfect Sunday.
My perfect Sunday would involve coffee and brunch with close friends, and then a relaxing indulgent day – walking my dog Bailey, reading, writing, watching TV and listening to music, doing a cryptic crossword with my mum. To finish it off would be dinner and a few drinks with my family – my parents, my brother Campbell, my sister Steph and her husband Simon – while we debate the answers to this week’s quiz in the Good Weekend.

If you could collaborate with any artist alive or dead who would it be.
Honestly? Sheridan Harbridge, or Daniel Monks.

What inspires you?
Strong, resilient people (especially women) being authentically themselves and having the courage to chase their dreams, who respect themselves, who value their relationships, build people up and strive to make a difference in the world.

Dean Nash

Emily Dash: Why do you think theatre is important?
Dean Nash: I’ve always seen the art of storytelling as an incredibly effective catalyst for positive change. Theatre entertains but it also challenges perceptions, poses questions, incites empathy, and informs; I think that is really important.

What makes a good scene partner?
Acting is reacting! I love working with actors that I know are going to make bold choices that I am going to be able to play off, and who in turn are going to catch whatever ball I throw to them. In Freefall I’m blessed to be working alongside a whole cast of beautifully honest and emotionally intelligent actors and I cannot wait for people to see this show.

What’s going to surprise people about Freefall?
I don’t think people will be prepared for the spectrum of emotions they will feel over the course of this show. Freefall is definitely a rollercoaster!

What songs do you think Shane would pick to represent each of the characters?
Megan – Walk On the Wild Side by Lou Reed
Millie – Paranoid Android by Radiohead
Carmen – Cigarettes Will Kill You by Ben Lee
Eleni – I’ll Be There For You by The Rembrandts
Shane – You’ve Got A Friend In Me by Randy Newman

A penguin walks through that door right now wearing a sombrero. What does he says and why is he here?
“The ice caps are melting and I want to taco’bout it!” The Mariachi penguin is on a crusade to bring awareness to the climate crisis!

Catch Emily Dash and Dean Nash in Freefall by Emily Dash, part of the “3x3x2 Festival of New Works”.
Dates: 14 – 24 Aug, 2019
Venue: PACT Centre for Emerging Artists

Review: Lord Of The Flies (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Jul 23 – Aug 24, 2019
Playwright: William Golding (adapted by Nigel Williams)
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Joseph Althouse, Justin Amankwah, Nyx Calder, Yerin Ha, Daniel Monks, Mark Paguio, Rahel Romahn, Eliza Scanlen, Contessa Treffone, Nikita Waldron, Mia Wasikowska
Images by Zan Wimberley

Theatre review
The boys are sent away from war, but their plane crashes and they land on an uninhabited island, having to fend for themselves, using instinct, along with their memories of civilisation. In Nigel Williams’ stage adaptation of William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies, the question of nature versus nurture once again comes to the fore. Jack is the unequivocal villain of the piece, a horrific specimen of mankind, hell-bent on causing death and destruction. His quick ascent to position of warlord tempts us to interpret the child’s evil tendencies as learned behaviour, although there is no denying the parts of ourselves that seem naturally drawn to causing harm.

The pessimistic tale is given a modern staging by director Kip Williams, who brings new dimensions to Golding’s concerns of 1954. Where many had in the past regarded Lord Of The Flies as a work about being human, Williams’ vision allows us to interrogate the text from perspectives of culture and gender, that had been routinely neglected. The diversity of cast (but alas, not of creatives) inspires discussions about whiteness and masculinity, as we ponder on the meanings of women playing boys, and of people of colour playing the colonials. Indeed, the production rarely lets us look away from the Brechtian artifice of its presentation, always consciously involving itself with a stylised design aesthetic that never tries to fool us with attempts at naturalism. The experience becomes one of theatre as commentary, rather than art as representation.

Instead of manufacturing a landscape of delusive vegetation, set design by Elizabeth Gadsby exposes the stage’s bare bones, for a chilling Brutalist effect, that establishes from the outset an appetite for subversion. Intensive work on lights by Alexander Berlage may lack restraint, but is undoubtedly spectacular with its many bold manoeuvres. James Brown’s sound design guides us through the story’s legendary descent into savagery, particularly impressive when it operates in conjunction with actors at their most dramatic and vivid.

There are moments when stagecraft overwhelms, but the ensemble proves nonetheless to be engaging, with Daniel Monks especially memorable in the role of Roger. Vile, vicious and thrilling in his depiction of a boy’s darkest inclinations, Monks delivers moments that are quite genuinely terrifying, and enormously powerful in what he has to say about our capacity for cruelty. The purest one is played by Rahel Romahn, who gives us a Piggy that is completely adorable, and in his nuanced demonstration of what virtue looks and sounds like, the actor ensures that all the show’s arguments can only be won by the good side. As the democratically elected leader of the pack, Mia Wasikowska is a passionate Ralph, but the actor tends to be too subtle in approach for the vast and cacophonous stage. Much more persuasive is Contessa Treffone as the big bad Jack, made resonant by Treffone’s intricate mimicry of masculine voice and gesture, for a portrait of male toxicity at its most despicable.

It is easy to get lost in discussions about how the boys have turned out so awfully, but more worthwhile is to find ways we can improve, or indeed reverse, this dreadful state we are in. Whether a result of genetics or of social conditioning, the characters in Lord Of The Flies are broken, and while one can choose to take a fatalistic reading of the text, the show certainly encourages a more hopeful interpretation. Boys will be boys, if we accept the status quo. Racism will remain a component of our structures, if we persist with them. Golding suggests that an intrusion is necessary for the lost ones to be rescued, but to sit and wait, is no solution for those who proclaim to be young and free.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Catch Me If You Can (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Jul 19 – Aug 18, 2019
Book: Terrance McNally
Music: Marc Shaiman
Lyrics: Scott Wittman, Marc Shaiman
Director: Cameron Mitchell
Cast: Jordan Angelides, Simon Burke, Jessica Di Costa, Jarood Draper, Tim Draxl, Joel Houwen, Penny Martin, Heather McInerney, Monique Salle, Jake Speer, Erica Stubbs, Riley Sutton, Stacey Thompson
Images by Robert Catto

Theatre review
It is the incredible but true story of Frank Abagnale, the young con man who pulled outlandish stunts in the middle of the previous century, and succeeded for years at evading authorities. One of the most notorious impostors of the time, made legendary by Steve Spielberg’s 2002 film Catch Me If You Can, Abagnale was able to pass himself off as a pilot, a doctor and a lawyer (amongst other things) and in the process expose the fallibility of American systems, along with the nature of the privilege that is bestowed upon white men. If you look and sound a certain way, you could get away with anything.

Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman’s songs for this musical rendition are consistently enjoyable and appropriately colourful with a swinging sixties vibe, but although cohesive as a whole, Terrance McNally’s book seems to make for a experience that is surprisingly low on stakes and therefore lacking in tension. Cameron Mitchell’s work as director and choreographer is energetic, able to hold our attention for the duration, although a lacklustre set design does make for a production that often appears vacant and unexciting.

Leading man Jake Speer sings his songs immaculately, a precise performer who brings great conviction to his part. As a crook however, Speer is too vanilla, lacking in mischief for a role that is entirely about perversion. The show is stolen by Tim Draxl, who plays FBI agent Hanratty with exceptional charisma, bringing much needed pizzazz to the strangely disengaging plot. Simon Burke and Penny Martin play the parents, both adorable in their quirky manifestations. Burke’s chemistry with Speer is particularly endearing, for father-and-son scenes remarkable in their authenticity.

It is true that we are all capable of doing bad, and the domino effect that ensues, from lies and other misdeeds, are certainly a phenomenon familiar to many. Frank Abagnale started on a slippery slope that saw him commit years to being a fraud, and we see him waiting to be caught, as though the brakes can only be pushed by an external entity. Self-destruction is a cruel mistress. Like an addiction that we feel powerless over, it tells us that we can stop it at any time, knowing that we will never find the wherewithal to turn over a new leaf that easily.

www.hayestheatre.com.au | www.laurenpetersdesign.com

Review: The Torrents (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jul 18 – Aug 24, 2019
Playwright: Oriel Gray
Director: Clare Watson
Cast: Emily Rose Brennan, Luke Carroll, Tony Cogin, Gareth Davies, Rob Johnson, Geoff Kelso, Sam Longley, Celia Pacquola, Steve Rodgers
Images by Philip Gostelow

Theatre review
Jenny Milford has barely begun working in a news room, but is already being threatened with the sack. It is the end of the nineteenth century, and the old white men of Koolgalla’s local newspaper simply cannot imagine a woman working with them. In the meantime, agriculture in Koolgalla is at a crossroads, with old interests having to give way to advancements, or the population will have to face extinction. The Torrents was written by Oriel Gray around 1955, and although its themes are undoubtedly pertinent, it comes as no surprise that this is only the play’s second staging in over half a century. Its plot structure is awkward, its dialogue dry, and its narrative too simple.

Director Clare Watson adds to Gray’s work a lot of ornamentation, and the show becomes, fortunately, of satisfactory quality. It is an elegantly designed production, not particularly inventive with any of its renderings, but certainly accomplished with what it sets out to achieve.

Actor Celia Pacquola is spirited in the leading role, able to introduce a modern sense of sass for Jenny to remain likeable. Although crucial to the story, the character often feels insufficiently dominant in the scheme of things, with many sequences seeming to keep her excluded. The play’s title refers to Rufus Torrent, editor of the paper, and his son Ben. The former played by a sturdy, dignified Tony Cogin, and the latter, a kooky Gareth Davies, whose impulsive comedy adds a reliable and welcome invigoration to proceedings.

It is evident that all performers in The Torrents invest in an attempt to fortify their show. There is good effervescent energy, and an admirable precision to their rhythms as an ensemble, and although the staging is ultimately underwhelming, polish of this standard is always impressive.

Like the residents of Koolgalla, we need something radical to wake us up to our impending destruction. It may be narcissism, or simply fear, that keeps us from accepting the truth of ecological and technological disasters that are already in motion. It was not until the old boys club in The Torrents were able to let the first woman in, that significant change was able to begin.

The powerful is almost always conservative. Those at the top are habituated into thinking that they must protect the existing, and are thus unable to conceive of big transformations that would make things better. They keep doing things the old way, to try and reinforce the security they imagine themselves enjoying. They manufacture a supremacy, to be protected at all costs, unwilling to recognise that it is not mother nature who will be obedient, but us, who must abide by nature’s laws.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au | www.bsstc.com.au

Review: The Lady Or The Tiger (Bondi Feast)

Venue: Bondi Pavilion Theatre (Bondi NSW), Jul 16 – 20, 2019
Devised by: Adriane Daff, Claudia Osborne, Eliza Scott, Mikala Westall
Directors: Claudia Osborne, Mikala Westall
Cast: Eliza Scott, Adriane Daff
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
There is a lady behind one door, and a tiger behind another, and it is pure luck should the accused make the right choice. Using Frank R. Stockton’s 1882 short story of the same name as departure point, The Lady Or The Tiger is inspired by the aforementioned’s device of unresolved storytelling, to create an experimental theatre that takes pleasure in a notion of disrupted narratives. The tiger says to the lady early in the piece, “did you skip a bit?” as though to prepare us for its intentionally fractured plot structure. Little episodes emerge from nowhere, and go nowhere. We can try to formulate cohesive meanings, or to simply stay in the moment, and luxuriate in the pure theatricality of the experience.

A spatial reversal sees the audience contained in a small nook of a room, as we watch the actors take on their roles on the expansive outside. Thomas Houghton’s lights bring glorious enhancement to an already breathtaking sight, not quite palatial but infinitely more grand than any small theatre is usually capable of providing. Sound by Angus Mills does exceptionally well, to help us hear every word of dialogue spoken in the open space, along with music that gently cradles the action taking place.

Performer Eliza Scott’s comedy is based on a charming vulnerability, that she harnesses with confidence and scintillating wit. Adriane Daff is an exacting and vivacious co-star, with a keen sense of comic timing that endears her to all. The pair is amusing, entertaining and inspiring. Even when we fail to make conventional sense of their shenanigans, there is much to indulge in these idiosyncratic presentations.

Directors Claudia Osborne and Mikala Westall assemble a fantastical range of ideas, full of whimsy and mischief, for a version of The Lady Or The Tiger that will appeal to the adventurous and sophisticated. They make a theatre that is anything but ordinary, shifting the emphasis away from “the moral of the story”, to an exploration of the means and purposes of communication. We have to connect in new ways, if the old is broken. We sit here each with our independent interpretations of the show, but a joyful harmony descends upon us, as though a kind of consensus has been reached.

www.kleinefeinheiten.com | www.bondifeast.com.au