Review: Stay Woke (Darlinghurst Theatre Company / Malthouse Theatre)

Venue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Mar 26 – Apr 17, 2022
Playwright: Aran Thangaratnam
Director: Bridget Balodis
Cast: Rose Adams, Brooke Lee, Dushan Philips, Kaivu Suvarna
Images by Phoebe Powell

Theatre review
Sai is joining his brother Niv at a snow resort. The two have always had a difficult relationship, but introducing Sai’s girlfriend Kate to the mix for the first time, is only making things worse. The young men are Asian-Australian with roots in Sri Lanka, and Kate is white, with very little familiarity about cultures beyond her ethnocentric existence. Niv has no tolerance for ignorance, so even though Kate means well, her social illiteracy causes incessant altercations to occur inside the chalet.

Aran Thangaratnam’s Stay Woke brings focus to the current process of reckoning, as we find ways to understand and undermine the white supremacy that has faced scant opposition these last few centuries. The comedy places one white character in tight quarters with three people of colour (including Niv’s romantic partner Mae), who now know better than to just let things slide. It is a challenging time, and the play helps make tangible, the difficult conversations that are taking place, as minorities devise strategies to confront the hegemony.

Thangaratnam’s writing is generous in spirit (there is no real vilification of Kate or any other white people), but its passion is unmistakable. The politics in Stay Woke are carefully considered, and its humour is well rendered, although some of its dialogue could benefit from being more conversational. Direction by Bridget Balodis too, lacks a convincing naturalism in early scenes, but as the stakes escalate, tensions are marvellously harnessed, in this mesmerising theatrical work about race relations and familial connections.

Production designer Matilda Woodroofe delivers a stunning set, complete with oversized windows revealing falling snow. Rachel Lee’s lights are invitingly warm, beautiful and nuanced, as they quietly transform with the show’s oft shifting moods. Sound design by Daniella A Esposito is ambitious, and perhaps too detailed in what it tries to establish for the staging, frequently drawing undue attention to itself, instead of providing gentle enhancement to the story being told.

Actor Dushan Philips brings great intensity to Niv, with a brand of overwrought expressiveness that feels entirely appropriate for the bombastic character. Kaivu Suvarna is a more subdued presence, but effective in cultivating an air of authenticity for the stage, as the more diplomatic Sai. Playing Kate is Rose Adams, who can be exaggerated with some of her comedy, although excellent at providing a clear interpretation of her role’s qualities. Brooke Lee is perhaps the most convincing of the cast, able to convey a sense of truthfulness for all their moments, whether comical or dramatic.

Stay Woke makes good points about who we are and how we should evolve, but there is a politeness to its pronouncements, that feels strangely conservative. For our art to be politically effective, it is necessary that we have the capacity to accommodate chaotic disruptions and unpleasurable assertions. We live in an awkward time, when so much of normalcy is being interrogated and deconstructed. For those who are used to experiencing big changes, we know that discomfort is a sensation that needs to be embraced, for without it, the old status quo remains triumphant. |

Review: Blithe Spirit (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Mar 21 – May 14, 2022
Playwright: Noël Coward
Director: Paige Rattray
Cast: Courtney Act, Matt Day, Nancy Denis, Bessie Holland, Tracy Mann, Megan Wilding, Brigid Zengeni
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Ruth and Charles are a wealthy couple who have run out of earthly pleasures to occupy themselves with, and are now toying with paranormal phenomena, for shits and giggles. What was originally meant to be the Condomines’ moment of disingenuous flirtation with the netherworld however, turns into a living nightmare when Charles’ ex-wife Elvira returns from the dead to haunt the household. Noël Coward’s 1941 comedy Blithe Spirit is a bit of harmless nostalgic English fun, the usual appeal of which resides almost entirely with its writer’s extraordinary wit.

With the passage of time, it is unsurprising that Coward’s work, now almost 80 years old, might have waned in its ability to tickle. Fortunately, the transcendental magic of theatre is ageless, and under the directorship of Paige Rattray, we find a renewed appreciation of the old play, and even though her contemporary production may not share very much in common, in terms of methodology, with the original creation, there is no denying that rapturous laughter was always the central intention.

It is a tremendously successful rendition, that relies upon Rattray’s uncanny ability to parody not only what Coward found worthy of satire, but also to lampoon old English sensibilities, such as those of Coward’s own, that represent so much of what many Australians today wish to establish distance from. Blithe Spirit has always made fun of the bourgeoisie, but now it is additionally useful in aiding in the ridicule of our colonial history.

Indeed it is that familiar English pomp that forms the basis of Rattray’s sarcastic and camp humour. Production design by David Fleischer involves conspicuous display of white money and class, for a sardonic rendering of the Condomines’ home and attire that look every bit the epitome of rich people nonsense. Sound design by Clemence Williams memorably adds to the cheekiness of attitude, as does Damien Cooper’s lighting design, which is additionally called upon to enhance the show’s cartoonish moments of supernaturality.

Performer Courtney Act brings excellent presence to the phantasmal role of Elvira, although a lack of nuance and depth in interpretation, tends to result in a regretful vapidity for the prominent part. Charles is played by Matt Day, admirably sure-footed and detailed with his contributions. The housemaid Edith is made larger than life by Megan Wilding’s creativity, the nature of which is undeniably inventive and mischievous. The wonderfully robust Brigid Zengeni portrays the clairvoyant Madame Arcati, as simultaneously kooky yet dignified. Nancy Denis and Tracy Mann are whimsical as family friends the Bradmans, both bringing considerable charm to the staging.

All theatre productions are collaborative efforts, but rare instances do occur, where a single star on the stage shines so bright, everything else can only settle for being mere witness to that magnificence. Playing Ruth, is actor Bessie Holland, who delivers nothing short of a masterclass, in a performance that exceeds even the greatest of expectations. It is a fearless embodiment of a great love for live comedy, replete with faultless instincts and exhaustively considered manoeuvres. Not only does Holland offer us crystal clarity with regards character and story, she has an ability to connect with her audience as though through a direct link to our viscera, so that an impossible joy is emitted, with every aural and visual punchline she precisely, and spiritedly, executes. It is a marvel that such talent is real, and an even greater miracle that we can attest to its existence in this very lifetime, with our own eyes.

Review: North By Northwest (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Mar 9 – Apr 3, 2022
Adaptation: Carolyn Burns
Director: Simon Phillips
Cast: David Campbell, Amber McMahon, Bert Labonté, Genevieve Lemon, Berynn Schwerdt, Dorje Swallow, Kaeng Chan, Lachlan Woods, Nicholas Bell, Sharon Millerchip, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Wadih Dona 
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 masterpiece involves espionage, mistaken identities, and an innocent fugitive on the run. It is however, not the story of North by Northwest that is responsible for it being regarded as one of cinematic history’s greatest instalments, but Hitchcock’s virtuosic manipulation of form, that had made the film a monumental achievement.

Transposing to the stage, a movie experience known for its visual trickery, is a formidable task. and this 2015 creation, by director Simon Philips and writer Carolyn Burns, is certainly ambitious. With a heavy reliance on video projections throughout the production (designed by Josh Burns), this theatrical reinvention of North by Northwest begins very much like a tribute to the great Hitchcock, with a tone of reverence that almost drowns out the parodic quality, of both the original and the intentions of this new iteration.

An abrupt shift occurs midway, when the humour becomes decidedly more pronounced. The show gets gradually funnier, as things get more farcical. The pastiche of North by Northwest can range from the very clever to the slightly misguided, but by its second half, the hilarity is undeniable.

Set design by Philips and Nick Schlieper feels more an object of function than of beauty, although Schlieper’s very dynamic lights are definitely an aesthetic pleasure. Together with Esther Marie Hayes’ costumes and Ian McDonald’s soundscapes (based on Bernard Herrmann’s original soundtrack compositions), design aspects of the staging take us back, effectively and pleasurably, to a much more elegant time.

Performer David Campbell is characteristically brimming with charisma, and demonstrates admirable agility for the physical requirements of playing a version of Roger Thornhill without the benefit of close ups, but he never quite delivers the nostalgic sensibilities that we crave. Memories of Cary Grant’s unrivalled suavity remains out of reach.

Leading lady Amber McMahon however is every bit the Hitchcockian femme fatale. As Eve Kendall, she is enigmatic and alluring, but also strangely believable, in this heightened revision of an iconic story and its archetypes. The supporting cast playfully tackle an endless number of small parts, along with manufacturing comically awkward visual gags for the video element. The energy that they emanate, in all their hustle and bustle, is invaluable in sustaining our attention.

It is now 7 years since this work of theatre first appeared in Melbourne, and it seems already to have  been superseded slightly by technocultural advancements. The increased reliance of multi-screens in everyday life, and the proliferation of drone technology, are but two examples of how quickly our senses have grown in sophistication. The simplicity of video in this rendition of North by Northwest, although a fundamental aspect, can seem too quaint and slightly twee. The majesty of Hitchcock’s 63-year-old original persists however, and being able to recall those sensations at this live event, is a real thrill.

Review: Nearer The Gods (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Mar 4 – Apr 23, 2022
Playwright: David Williamson
Director: Janine Watson
Cast: Violette Ayad, Jemwel Danao, Rowan Davie, Gareth Davies, Sean O’Shea, Sam O’Sullivan, Claudia Ware
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
It was the age of Enlightenment, and the beautiful mind of Isaac Newton held volumes of pivotal information, if only they could all be transformed into ink on paper. David Williamson’s Near the Gods pays particular attention to Newton’s seminal Principia, and the arduous three-year process by which the astronomer Edmund Halley had to coax the book into materiality. A somewhat quirky work of theatre, Williamson’s narrow focus on that singular historical incident, is unexpectedly idiosyncratic, although unlikely to be widely appealing.

The soporific subject matter of Near the Gods may not feel a natural fit for the modern stage, but director Janine Watson’s detailed and nuanced handling of the play, helps ensure that the audience is able to stay the course, whether or not we are ever able to really invest, in any part of the antiquated story.

Hugh O’Connor’s production design is extremely restrained, with the rejection of any faithful-to-period renderings, proving to be a wise and elegant decision. Lights by Matt Cox, along with Clare Hennessy’s sound design, too are conceived with an appropriate sense of minimalism, able to help move the narrative along effectively, with only slight embellishments introduced during opportune moments.

Actor Gareth Davies is amusing as the mad genius Newton, adept at bringing valuable liveliness to proceedings, even though the role is written with an excess of dry reverence. Halley is played with admirable commitment by a very passionate Rowan Davies, whose determination to entertain helps keep us engaged. Also noteworthy are Violette Ayad as Mary Halley, who offers flashes of genuine emotion in an otherwise distant and stolid affair, and Sean O’Shea’s flamboyance as King Charles II is an irresistibly funny element, if not always cohesive with the rest of the show.

It is arguable that creative people are only worth their salt, when something actually comes to be, as a result of their talent. Newton was at risk of having all the brilliance kept only on the inside of his mind. So many of us hold within ourselves, great insight and perspectives, that could benefit and inspire others, if only we knew how to make tangible, all that remains mere potential. Having written well over 50 plays, the writer Williamson is clearly not lacking in capacity for expression; if only this proficiency was available to more of us.

Review: Destroy, She Said (25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Mar 2 – 19, 2022
Original Author: Marguerite Duras
Director: Claudia Osborne
Cast: Gabriel Alvarado, Adriane Daff, Andreas Lohmeyer, Tommy Misa, Grace Smibert
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
Elisabeth is convalescing, in a hotel some distance from the city. There are mysterious guests observing her, and an equally mysterious forest nearby, that seems to cast a spell over everyone in its vicinity. Marguerite Duras’ book and film Destroy, She Says from 1969 tells a story about the convergence of loss and obsession, in between competing worlds where Elisabeth must eventually find a state of surrender.

In this stage adaptation by Claudia Osborne, the surreality of Duras’ mise-en-scène is made immediate and material, preserving the sinister beauty of the original, but with an addition of a very theatrical sense of humour, that makes the viewing experience both fascinating and amusing. There is so much to be curious about, in Osborne’s take on Destroy, She Says and so much that engages, but not necessarily through intellect. We too, have to find a way to surrender to its visceral allure, and trust in things that we know so little about. The result is sublime, however strange the ride can be.

Production design by Kelsey Lee and Grace Deacon melds old-world affluence with a decidedly contemporary sensibility that is both sensual and ironic, for a presentation memorable for its visual impact. Lee’s lights, together with a sound design by Angus Mills, usher the audience into a dream frequency, where we connect with impulses rather than logic, remarkable in being able to make us find coherence within the bizarre, and thoroughly enjoy it. 

Adriane Daff and Grace Smibert are the mesmerising leads, as Alissa and Elisabeth respectively, both invulnerably confident in their experimental approach, and unassailably impressive with their commanding presences. The women are individually captivating, but absolutely riveting when working as a single unit; we feel as though privy to a magical secret language that they have devised. Supporting players Gabriel Alvarado, Andreas Lohmeyer and Tommy Misa, are no less effective in their contributions, all bringing surprising and quirky elements to the stage, delivering bouts of laughter whilst provoking us with their interminably quizzical choices.

Destroy, She Says is challenging, but it is kind. It reaches out with an unusual vocabulary, in order that we may communicate differently, and perhaps attain something altogether more exalted, in this moment of congregation in an artistic space. We are left wondering why all that makes this show unusual, is not more usually encountered in our theatres, but we understand that anything normalised, simply ceases to be special. Art in this city needs to dare to embrace unconventionality. If we want only to interact with the familiar and the safe, the accountant’s office might be a better option. In this particular theatrical occasion though, we celebrate the best of human creativity, and revel in the boundless capacity of our imaginations. /

Review: Opening Night (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Feb 26 – Mar 27, 2022
Playwright: John Cassavetes, adapted by Carissa Licciardello
Director: Carissa Licciardello
Cast: Caitlin Burley, Jing-Xuan Chan, Anthony Harkin, Luke Mullins, Toni Scanlan, Leeanna Walsman
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Myrtle is having serious problems with the role she had signed on for; the show is about to open, but she is still unable to make sense of the play she had agreed to star in. In the meantime, the director and playwright are becoming increasingly abusive, heaping blame on her for not making it work, often saying that she has lost her spark as an actor, and that she has grown too old to be any good. There is nothing subtle about John Cassavetes’ Opening Night, and in this adaptation by Carissa Licciardello, the story does not get any less heavy-handed, in making its point about our reprehensible attitudes regarding women getting older.

Licciardello’s adaptation and direction are certainly enthusiastic in trying to assert the point of the exercise, but the message quickly becomes too simple and obvious. Plenty of effort is put into creating an air of mystery surrounding Myrtle’s behaviour, which provides an updated theatricality for the audience, although it becomes clear, that the plainness of its motivations struggles to sustain our interest for the production’s 100 minute duration.

David Fleischer’s set design too is uncomplicated, in its depiction of a masculine and superficially stylish world. Costumes by Mel Page are flattering, and appropriately understated. Nick Schlieper’s lights and Max Lyandvert’s sound are relied upon for dramatic flourishes, to further engage our senses, although those moments of abstract elevation can seem slightly gimmicky, when we fail to decipher enough behind, that could feel substantial.

Leading lady Leeanna Walsman conveys the confusion and dreariness of Myrtle’s arduous battles, but it is a conservative performance that offers little to relish. Myrtle’s director is played by Luke Mullins who thankfully injects dynamism into the show, for his part as an uncomplicated villain. Anthony Harkin and Toni Scanlon are Myrtle’s co-star and playwright respectively, both bringing a degree of nuance to their supporting roles. Caitlin Burley and Jing-Xuan Chan are solid presences in all of their brief appearances, both demonstrating noteworthy commitment.

At the end of Opening Night, we find a satisfying conclusion. In real life, Myrtle’s story could end up either way, good or bad, for real life is anything but predictable, but in a play that wants so much to talk about doing what is right in our storytelling and in our art, it is hard to imagine any other way for things to end. It is of course true that misogyny exists, and it is right that we should see it represented. It is also important that we reiterate again and again, our agency and power as women, to make exhaustive revisions to centuries of indoctrination about us being weak and domitable. We love watching Myrtle triumph, but even if she falters, we know that she is strong enough to get up and try again.