Review: The Boomkak Panto (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Nov 20 – Dec 23, 2021
Playwright: Virginia Gay
Director: Richard Carroll, Virginia Gay
Cast: Deborah Galanos, Virginia Gay, Rob Johnson, Billy McPherson, Hamed Sadeghi, Mary Soudi, Zoe Terakes, Toby Truslove
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
The show begins with a big city property developer descending upon the Australian country town of Boomkak, threatening to alter the way of life forever, in that archetypal sleepy village. Residents join forces, thinking that raising funds from staging a pantomime, would help them fight the evil mogul. Things make little sense in The Boomkak Panto, but the creators make no bones about finding inspiration from traditional children’s entertainment. Their presentation is loud and joyous, an appropriate awakening from 18 months of a pandemic induced slumber. It is celebratory in tone, and certainly feels quite frivolous to start, but Act 2 takes a more meaningful, if abrupt turn, to discussions about immigration and colonisation, along with gender and sexual politics.

One of the characters, Zoe is in the process of coming out as non-binary, and their storyline becomes increasingly prominent, over the course. It is commendable that The Boomkak Panto chooses to deviate from its initial frothiness, to involve itself in important social discussions, but one wonders if a more cohesive approach could have been found, for an improved sense of harmony for the show’s various trajectories.

Writer Virginia Gay’s jokes are plentiful, ranging from corny to genuinely hilarious. A handful of songs by Eddie Perfect give the production a touch of class, although its use of classic pop tunes are no less effective. The clash between earnestness and irony in The Boomkak Panto can make for an awkward  theatrical experience, but is also necessary, in its explorations of white identity in this day and age. Whiteness is thankfully self-aware on this stage, but is also evidently unable to relinquish its persistent dominance. 

Directed by Richard Carroll and by Gay herself, the work offers great amusement, with energy levels sustained at an admirable height throughout the duration of 2.5 hours. Visually captivating, with sets and costumes by Michael Hankin, and lights by Jasmine Rizk giving us lots of bedazzling colour and movement. Zara Stanton’s musical direction, along with Kellie-Anne Kimber’s sound design, combine to deliver a rich auditory experience. Hamed Sadeghi’s live accompaniment on Persian instruments is a notable highlight, valuable in providing a “countercultural” dimension to what is deemed classic Australian music.

The aforementioned Zoe is played by Zoe Terakes, who brings impressive presence, and an enjoyable air of recalcitrance to their performance. Virginia Gay is very strong as Alison, especially in two big scenes where she occupies centre stage, memorable for her remarkable ebullience. Stealing the show is Rob Johnson who, as the central (property developer) villain and as local idiot Butch, uses toxic masculinity in its various guises to generate unremitting laughter. Johnson’s timing and sense of mischief, are an absolute joy.

In the pantomime world, everything is old and predictable. Young minds are shaped in traditional ways, to make sense of the world in accordance with the values of previous generations. In Boomkak, storytellers are trying to flip the script, not to cause havoc, but to make things right. We have made a habit out of marginalising one another, constantly finding ways to denigrate some, so that others might reap advantages. It is unclear if we can ever reach a point of true justice and fairness, but it is in that unrelenting pursuit , in that active search and insistence on doing better, that we can find ways to live with integrity. 

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Julius Caesar (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Nov 15 – Dec 23, 2021
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Geraldine Hakewill, Ewen Leslie, Zahra Newman
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
When the Roman leader is assassinated in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, it is the very nature of democracy that comes into question. Two millennia after the fateful incident, we are still pondering, and living, the delusive meanings of democracy in our political realities. The men in Shakespeare’s play continue to bear a certain ambiguity in terms of their being good or bad, right or wrong. Fortunately for audiences of Kip Williams’ modern day adaptation, it is the all too familiar malevolence of 21st century communications technology that takes a lot of the unequivocal blame.

Mobile phones and social media, in addition to traditional news platforms, are the convenient new villains in this regeneration of the old classic. Video monitors occupy centre stage with an aggressive dominance, and actors are virtually never without their phones, always with camera on, pointing at themselves and at one another. We have to consume the play in ways that are similar, to how we consume the daily news about politics. Devices and screens overwhelm our senses, so that whatever is live and actually material, becomes secondary to digital transmissions.

We struggle to distinguish, the important from the distracting, and the truth from fake news. Williams’ direction makes the unrelenting noise that is so pervasive in our media habits, a central feature of his theatrical presentation, and the more he indulges in histrionics, the more we are seduced by all the frenzy. The story escalates along with our gleeful enjoyment of sequences that become increasingly hideous, and we begin to wonder if all the heartache and bloodshed, can only exist because of our audienceship. Our passive attention is made to take responsibility, in this salient reminder that under capitalism, the consumer is king.

David Bergman’s work on video design is humorous, detailed and dynamic. The abundant cultural references made therein, form a subtext for this version of Julius Caesar that not only updates the tale for contemporary sensibilities, it reframes the discussion about democracy to include technology and capitalism, so that the discourse feels urgent and strikingly intimate. Correspondingly, Stefan Gregory’s music and sound design takes charge of our nerve centres, in order that we can only respond to the series of egregious events, with appropriate revulsion. Also noteworthy are Elizabeth Gadsby’s set and costume design, offering efficient and unpretentious solutions to an otherwise complex staging. Lights by Amelia Lever-Davidson too are unobtrusive, yet satisfyingly dramatic in its various manifestations.

The three stellar actors called upon to play all the roles, are undeniably sublime. Geraldine Hakewill, Ewen Leslie and Zahra Newman impress with their thorough familiarity with the material, but it is their ability to engender an air of unpredictability that keeps us enthralled. It is live theatre in which everything is planned to the most minute, yet we experience it as though everything is coming from visceral impulses of each moment. Each performer is independently magnetic and powerful, but as a singular unit, they deliver a theatrical experience remarkably bold in its inventiveness, and thrilling in its capacity to make the story feel so immediate and involving.

The camera’s omnipresence strip the characters in Julius Caesar of their sincerity. Aware of being on screen at all times, their every word and deed can only appear performative, if not completely devoid of authenticity. It comes as a surprise then, that some of us still believe in our leaders, even when they are unabashedly hamming it up for our screens, shamelessly spouting nonsensical hyperbole and harmful rhetoric. The effectiveness with which media personalities (politicians and others) can use capitalism and technology to manipulate our sense of truth, to their advantage, is now a foregone conclusion. The end of the production is grim, as though proclaiming that resistance is futile, a statement only a scant few would dare refute.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Wherever She Wanders (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Darlinghurst NSW), Nov 5 – Dec 11, 2021
Playwright: Kendall Feaver
Director: Tessa Leong
Cast: Tony Cogin, Emily Havea, Mark Paguio, Jane Phegan, Fiona Press, Julia Robertson
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
When Paige Hutson is raped in her own room, barely a week into life as a fresher at one of Australia’s oldest residential colleges, it becomes apparent that sexual assault on campus is exceedingly commonplace, and that entrenched mechanisms purporting to deal with these egregious trespasses serve only to protect the system, and not the victims. Kendall Feaver’s “Wherever She Wanders” is a strangely polite look at how a young feminist Nikki Faletau navigates her activism, within the conservative walls of a structure that is perhaps the most patriarchal of all our institutions.

The play’s ideas are modern, but not radical by any stretch of the imagination. It may even seem to occasionally be sitting on the fence, in its attempts to prevent characters from turning caricature. While “Wherever She Wanders” may not convey the incendiary passion often associated with political movements of our time, it certainly paints a cogent picture of the dynamics at play. Feaver takes a lot of care to map out many issues unearthed by that one horrific incident, but it is debatable if the granularity at which it examines them is necessary, at a time when matters of this nature are already stringently scrutinised in so much of  our discourse.

Staging of the piece is humorous and jaunty. Directed by Tessa Leong, the show never fails to feel spirited, with an excellent attention to energy levels, aided by the commendable work contributed by designers, most notably Govin Ruben on lights, and James Brown on sound and music. “Wherever She Wanders” is engaging at every juncture, if slightly deficient in terms of the intellectual rigour, that a narrative of this nature should be able to provide.

Presented by an amiable cast, with the vivacious Emily Havea as lead, bringing a valuable intensity to the earnest advocate Nikki. It is her vitality that gives the production, and the topics of discussion, a sense of authenticity and gravity. Her adversary Jo Mulligan is College Master, and feminist from a bygone era. Played by Fiona Press, who demonstrates great empathy for the role, inviting us to think about the way gatekeepers operate in our daily lives. Actor Julia Robertson does marvellously to deliver for Paige, an abundance of complexity and nuance, so that we may locate both agency and integrity for a young woman in danger of being defined solely by an instance of violation.

Whether one believes that the systems have become broken through the ravages of time, or that the systems were always designed to fail so many of us, one should already have come to the conclusion that it seems only drastic measures, can address all the foundational and fundamental problems that plague our traditional institutions. We observe Nikki’s persistence as she goes about trying to change things, but there is no evidence that the complaints and conversations she participates in, ever result in significant progress. Where there is power imbalance, the subjugated always runs the risk of being patronised. As long as the powerful remain in charge, there is never any incentive for them to do anything more than to pretend to listen. Change does occasionally occur however, and persistence seems the only tool that the disadvantaged an hang on to, aside from the ever-present fantasy of  torching the whole place down.

www.griffintheatre.com.au