Review: Fuente Ovejuna (Flight Path Theatre)

Venue: Flight Path Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Mar 25 – Apr 11, 2021
Playwright: Lope de Vega (adaptation by Angus Evans)
Director: Angus Evans
Cast: James Bean, Tristan Black, Julia Christensen, Steve Corner, Shayne de Groot, Dominique de Marco, Lucinda Howes, Suzann James, Martin Quinn, Davey Seagle, Idam Sondhi, Madeleine Withington
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Originally published early seventeenth century, Lope de Vega’s Fuenteovejuna is based upon the true story of a bloody revolt that took place in 1476 Castile. After sustained mistreatment by authorities, residents of the town Fuente Obejuna banded together and decapitated their commander in a coup. When investigators took to torturing individuals, each victim would refuse to divulge information, and in solidarity answered only that “Fuenteovejuna did it.”

Adapted and directed by Angus Evans, this new version of Fuente Ovejuna takes the opportunity to express the discontentment of contemporary Australians with our own leaders. Evans’ approach demonstrates that themes of the play could easily be applied to any period of recent political memory, but of particular salience is the Prime Minister’s current inability to manage the upheaval brought upon by revelations of sexual assaults, committed by members of his own government. Their sustained and wilful insolence certainly does inspire fantasies of mutiny and murder.

Evans’ ideas are put forward passionately, if not always sufficiently coherent. It is a galvanised team under his guidance, with all aspects of the production demonstrating admirable levels of commitment and energy. Actor Steve Corner leaves a particularly strong impression in a variety of roles. A powerful and compelling presence, he introduces a delicious, and necessary, sense of heightened drama, especially when occupying centre stage. Lucinda Howes as Laurencia, fires up our emotions in a crucial scene that sees her stoke the flames of rebellion. The authenticity that Howes musters for that moment, is sheer theatrical joy. Tristan Black is charming and very funny as Mengo, and as puppeteer for the King. The performer’s comic timing is perfect, and a real highlight of the show.

Live music is provided by Edward Hampton and Liam Peat, both musicians attentive and inordinately sensitive, adding tremendously to our enjoyment of the staging. Lights by Jas Borsovsky are suitably ambitious, and clever in their seemingly intuitive manipulations of our emotional responses. Victor Kalka’s set and Lucy Ferris’ costumes evoke a time past, whilst maintaining relevance to the present, so that we understand the foreign places to be no different from here, and the historical personalities to be the same as us.

It is gruesome but undeniably joyful to witness the execution of a heinous autocrat. The truth however, is that our systems of power, can withstand the toppling of any one figure, no matter how eminent. We may feel empowered when daydreaming about Prime Ministers, movie moguls and press barons being cancelled or removed at will, but these positions undoubtedly will be swiftly replaced, by more of the same.

Fuente Ovejuna is a story about solidarity, and the power of the people. In places like Australia, the establishment only exists, because we the people, allow it to. The reason we authorise its powers, is that we believe them to be beneficial to our existence, but it seems that what we believe, is almost entirely controlled by those powers that be, in an ominous cycle of causality.

It is easy to acknowledge that parts of our minds can fathom a way of life devoid of corruption, that in our imagination, an idealistic utopia always seems just a hair’s breadth away. We want to think that as a united people, we can make decisions that are right, that those determined to be rapacious and unjust can be vanquished. In reality however, our way of life has long been predicated on inequity and greed. If our fundamental values require that there be losers as well as winners, then surely true unity will forever elude us. We may experience flashes of reckoning, in fact these moments of cultural awakening seem to occur increasingly frequently, but there is little proof that knowing what is right, is ever going to lead us to actually doing better.

www.flightpaththeatre.org

Review: Exit The King (Red Line Productions)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Mar 20 – Apr 10, 2020
Playwright: Eugène Ionesco
Director: Megan Wilding
Cast: Toby Blome, Shakira Clanton, Jonny Hawkins, Rob Johnson, Emma O’Sullivan, Dalara Williams
Images by Robert Catto

Theatre review
The King has ruled for hundreds of years, but it is now time to retire. His body is failing, as well as his mind, and even though the will remains strong, there is no turning back. The end is nigh in Eugène Ionesco’s 1962 absurdist Exit the King, although it gradually becomes clear that it is in fact, a new beginning that the people really need. It is a timeless tale, an appealing lament that addresses our seemingly ever present desire for institutional change, and for better government.

Ionesco’s writing however, offers the viewer more than an enjoyable narrative. His work goes on endless tangents, often contradictory and deliberately obtuse, but when in the hands of the right creators, a rare form of theatrical magic is delivered. Director Megan Wilding revels in the mischievous and unpredictable qualities of the script, taking care to marry comedy with meaning, for a show that has us engaged on multiple levels, simultaneously. Wilding’s take on Exit the King is often very funny, but even more admirable, is her ability to keep our intellect keenly stimulated through all its jokes.

A highly amusing team of performers, is headed by Jonny Hawkins, who gives a thrilling depiction of King Berenger, the decrepit has-been determined to outstay his welcome. Incredibly nuanced, endlessly imaginative and brimming with generosity, watching the fierce talents of Hawkins in action, is pure inspiration. The divine Shakira Clanton plays a strong, imposing Queen Marguerite, making her support character rumble with danger, whether or not she is positioned centre stage. The devastating drama between a white king and a Black queen, is the immutable focal point of the show, no matter what shenanigans are thrown our way. All other actors in the piece are equal parts idiosyncratic and inventive, working with extraordinary cohesiveness for something that seriously satisfies.

The production is energised by Alexander Berlage’s lighting design, dynamic at every turn, as is Ben Pierpoint’s work on sound and music, reliably enhancing all the wonderful activity taking place on stage. Veronique Bennett transforms the space into a Warhol Factory, silver surfaces everywhere for a set that perhaps evokes flashbacks of facile rulers throughout history, who had done more harm than good for their peoples. The pop aesthetic is extended into costuming by Aleisa Jelbart, very au courant and very tongue-in-cheek.

There is likely no dignified way to overthrow a government, but in Exit the King, the fantasy of nature taking charge, intervening to simply kill off the problem, is certainly enticing. The truth is that although individuals who hold power do die away, structures will sustain themselves, and it appears that the more malevolent those systems, the more likely they will persist. The Black queen waits patiently for her white king to die, and in Ionesco’s fiction, her strategy proves successful. Real life however permits no passivity should we want the pale, male and stale to abdicate. There is a fight underway, and those invested, have no luxury of waiting.

www.redlineproductions.com.au

Review: Appropriate (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Mar 15 – Apr 10, 2021
Playwright: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Director: Wesley Enoch
Cast: Lucy Bell, Joel Bishop, Johnny Carr, James Fraser, Brenna Harding, Ella Jacob, Mandy McElhinney, Robbi Morgan, Sam Worthington
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Three siblings return, after the death of their father, to their Arkansas family home, in anticipation of the estate’s imminent sale. They are an unhappy bunch, and like many classics of stage and screen from the United States, these white Americans squabble and weep in each other’s presence, putting on display interpersonal conflicts and psychological trauma, as though resolution could eventually be found through performative acts of catharsis. In Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate however, characters ignore the most serious problems underpinning their very existence, unable to acknowledge fundamental faults that are more about a legacy relating to their Confederate history, than they are about individual infirmity.

Jacob-Jenkins draws a link between a sick society, and private lives constantly in search of emancipation. We are familiar with the idea that personal anguish compels us to seek remedies, but we rarely think about addressing wider contexts (in the case of Appropriate, both societal and familial), as being crucial in efforts to achieve a sense of well-being, or peace. This is especially true for those in positions of privilege. Jacob-Jenkins’ play features an all-white family, none of whom accept that the racism propagated by their forebears, has anything to do with their disquiet, much less be attentive to the racism that they continue to reinforce in their own daily lives.

This political statement, although a hugely consequential one, is made almost surreptitiously. The characters sweep these things under the carpet, and in the absence of an outside world that includes people of colour, none of what the play wishes to say, is presented explicitly. Director Wesley Enoch too, does not bring abundant emphasis to these matters, trusting instead that the message will resonate for those who want to hear it. Positioning the show as a somewhat conventional family drama however, means that Appropriate is not always satisfying. The reliance on a sense of realism, in efforts to make the narrative engrossing, has a tendency to reduce the drama to something slightly pedestrian. The play is much more than rich people fighting and being upset about their parochial concerns, but we are only provided glimpses of the real stakes that are actually involved.

An unevenness in the cast is largely responsible, for the production not conveying as much nuance and depth as required. Sam Worthington demonstrates good focus and intention, but an unfortunate lack in control over his voice and physicality in the role of Bo, makes for a confused, and confusing, performance that leaves us cold. Doing most of the heavy lifting is Mandy McElhinney, who shines brightly as resentful sister Toni, able to inject exuberance and irony into the dark comedy. Johnny Carr plays the intriguingly ambiguous Franz, proving himself a captivating actor, if a little too convincing as the reformed sex offender.

Work on design aspects is accomplished in general, with the closing minutes showcasing a dilapidating house, without actors, leaving a particularly strong impression. Set by Elizabeth Gadsby, lights by Trent Suidgeest, and sound by Steve Francis, combine to create the production’s most striking moments. We witness the house literally falling into disrepair, ravaged by time and by ghosts. We watch the spectacle unfold, and without words, hear the important questions ring through the chilly air. What had been left unsaid, is finally unleashed, but one wonders if this obtuse conclusion, although beautiful, is enough to drive home the moral of the story.

Observing white people in places like American and Australia, deny their racism, is nothing new for people of colour. It is always someone else at fault, and it is always a problem too big to fix today. There is always disowning of liability, and there is always a diminishment of responsibility. They routinely try to make everything vanish into thin air, as though out of sight, out of mind. They are terrified of being labelled racists, but every day prolong and extend the effects of racism. They say they did not create the system, but refuse to acknowledge that they are often its sole beneficiaries. The people in Appropriate will say that the worst is behind us, but what we see before our eyes, is a tragedy that rages on, only in hushed tones.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: You’re Not Special (Rogue Projects)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Mar 5 – 20, 2021
Playwright: Sam O’Sullivan
Director: Samantha Young
Cast: Arkia Ashraf, Kate Skinner, Ariadne Sgouros
Images by Kate Williams and Australian Theatre Live

Theatre review
Dan and Ellie are moving in together, as is the convention when humans decide to couple up. They expect to become closer as a matter of course, but like many others, these new living arrangements begin to test their mettle. You’re Not Special by Sam O’Sullivan is thankfully, not another rom-com on the humorous pitfalls of heteronormativity, but an intensely thought-provoking work about the tensions between organic and synthetic, in our age of unprecedented technological advancement. Characters in the play are caught up in their virtual lives on all their electronic devices, and at varying degrees, struggle to negotiate the nature of reality as it stands in the twenty-first century.

O’Sullivan’s writing is wonderfully engaging, with an intellectual curiosity that sustains our keen interest. There is a passion in the way its ideas are disseminated, that gives You’re Not Special a delicious sense of urgency, even though what it wishes to effect can feel somewhat didactic. Director Samantha Young does a splendid job of bringing to life, these concepts of right and wrong, in scenes featuring dramatic confrontations that always feel authentic and powerful. The show is very persuasive.

Arkia Ashraf’s uncompromising naturalism in his approach to the depiction of central character Dan, conveys a valuable quality of the everyman, one that invites the viewer to relate his story to each of our own lives. It is a solid, heavily introspective performance, that benefits tremendously from the intimacy of the space. Ellie is played by an exquisite Kate Skinner, scintillating in moments of vigour, and genuinely delightful when delivering comedy. In the enigmatic and pivotal role of April, is Ariadne Sgouros, who demonstrates excellent capacity for complexity. She revels in the many layers offered by the unusual personality, and challenges us to bring interpretations that are as expansive as the work she presents.

Design aspects are comparatively low-key, although appropriately so. Set and costumes by Anna Gardiner evoke a familiarity that helps us place the action at close psychological proximity. Martin Kinnane’s lights contribute a sense of dynamism to the narrative’s unfolding turmoil, and Kaitlyn Crocker’s sound design is memorable for surprising touches that hint at the surreal.

You’re Not Special asks important questions, but is perhaps too strident in its need to provide answers. Its default position of honouring an imagined point of human origin, and of what is traditionally thought of as “natural”, puts restrictions on the efficacy of its own artistic possibilities. The discussion of humanity and technology, when framed strictly as a duelling dichotomy, can feel mundane and old-fashioned. Technology can be thought of as essentially human, and at this point of our evolution, one could argue that a more futurist appreciation of lifestyles could be beneficial.

Quite certainly, truths often reside in all factions of our debates, and to participate in society, should not require that we must take sides on all issues, all the time. In 2021, it seems we have been conditioned to be irrepressibly opinionated over every matter. Maybe to remain impartial on some things, especially when the ethics involved are not cut-and-dried, means to keep an open mind.

www.rogueprojects.com.au

Review: Wild Thing (Flight Path Theatre)

Venue: Flight Path Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Mar 2 – Mar 20, 2021
Playwright: Suzanne Hawley
Director: Kim Hardwick
Cast: Di Adams, Philip D’Ambrosio, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Katrina Foster, Helen O’Connor, Di Smith
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
When Jackie’s health begins to fail, it is her group of besties who come to the rescue. Suzanne Hawley’s Wild Thing features four women who share a friendship of over half a century. Now in their sixties, each individual is no less vivacious or fun-loving, and even though nature does not spare them the usual and inevitable impediments, we discover their spirit to be unyielding.

Hawley’s endearing characters tell a meaningful story, of love, of resilience, and ultimately, of generosity. It showcases the best qualities of being old, and even though its earnestness can feel somewhat overwrought, there is much wisdom to be gained, as always, from being in close quarters with our seniors.

A humorous piece with lively direction by Kim Hardwick, Wild Thing opens up discussions surrounding ageing and death, in a surprisingly upbeat manner. End of life is an emotional affair, but it is also inescapable, so to treat it with some degree of levity can only be healthy.

The presentation is designed competently, with Tom Bannerman’s set leaving a particularly good impression. Able to offer versatility, as well as practical solutions, Bannerman’s creation is an efficient performance space that frees up the cast for what they do best.

Di Smith brings nuance to the role of Jackie, along with considerable dignity to this important tale of personal agency, for women of a certain age. Helen O’Connor is memorable as the carefree Elizabeth, bringing a sense of cheeky ebullience to the show. The passionate Frances is played by Katrina Foster, whose approach proves to be unmistakeably kooky, and Di Adams’ restraint only makes Susan’s sexual escapades more scandalous.

We need to talk a lot more, about the subject of dying. It seems that evasion is how Australians (and much of the world) typically deal with mortality, which is to say, that we do not deal with it at all. It is our propensity to leave facing it, until the final moments when we have nowhere to run. It is ironic that we should place attention on everything else except for the one certainty in life. Thankfully, art exists to remind us of who we are, at our most essential.

www.flightpaththeatre.org