Review: Guru Of Chai (Indian Ink / Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 16 – Jun 4, 2017
Playwright: Justin Lewis, Jacob Rajan
Director: Justin Lewis
Cast: Jacob Rajan
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
The story begins at the Bangalore City railway station. We meet Kutisa at a street stall selling chai, a vivacious man who cannot help but tell us a wondrous story about himself, a parrot, and a family of orphaned sisters whom he adopts into his care. Supernatural beings and high drama ensue, accompanied by extravagant emotions surrounding birth, death and betrayal. Guru Of Chai is gripping, made even more compelling by the work of a masterful performer full of drive, and magnificently skilled.

Jacob Rajan is scintillating in this one-man show. Almost like magic, his presence takes over the theatre, and we fall under his spell. Playing what seems to be an endless number of characters, Rajan is crystal clear with each manifestation, weaving the most vivid of narratives through his immense talent and artistry. It is a real pleasure to be able to submit to an expert guiding hand, and perceive the confidence in the actor and in ourselves, that the play can only progress flawlessly.

Direction by Justin Lewis ensures that the story is told at great detail and precision, with great care put into showcasing the best of his actor’s abilities. Gentle assistance from Cathy Knowsley’s lights and David Ward’s music, provide us with deeply evocative suggestions that transform a black box into the busy, sweltering streets of India. It is a small production that unfolds before us, but what we are made to see in our minds, is infinitely bigger.

There is something about Guru Of Chai that feels like a fairy tale, even though its characters encounter only the brutal realities of hardship and poverty. By removing us from the here and now, into a space far away, experiencing Kutisa’s world is as though we have stepped into a dream. When art meets us in reverie, the capacity of our minds turn boundless, and we can learn great things about the universe that are unimaginable in our insular everyday. We connect with other lives, no matter how dissimilar from what we are used to, and discover that which is unambiguously human, or perhaps something like a soul, that keeps us from feeling isolated, that gives us a glimpse of the eternal.

www.belvoir.com.au

5 Questions with Mathew Costin and Joseph JU Taylor

Mathew Costin

Joseph JU Taylor: How does knowing that these characters are real people and that their own words form the dialogue change how you approach the characters?
Mathew Costin: It has meant that you really have to find ways to make the overall story work through a much more limited range of behaviours – to find a balance between communicating the message of the play and living truthfully in their shoes

What has been the biggest challenge in rehearsal?
Making the characters dynamic and compelling.

Has the process of developing Talking To Terrorists changed your perception of what terrorism is?
Yes, in that no matter where these ‘terrorists’ come from, we could swap them around, change only the names of places and people – and the stories would still be believable.

Were you surprised at all by any sense of recognising aspects of yourself in characters that have a violent history?
The answer to this question is more about recognising that our ‘passive’ actions as a member of a society that supports unjust treatment of powerless people – makes us all terrorists. They don’t all have a gun or a bomb in their hand. Sadly, as Australian’s, we share a violent history already, even in this generation.

What do you hope an audience will come away from after watching this play?
I hope the audience has a desire to experiment in really engaging with the people they used to fear, judge or dismiss.

Joseph JU Taylor

Mathew Costin: How does knowing that these stories are real people and that their own words form the dialogue change how you approach the characters?
Joseph JU Taylor: You always try and find some personal truth in the lines of dialogue of any script but knowing that the characters in Talking To Terrorists are real people and that the playwright has constructed the story using the words of these people gives an additional layer of responsibility. It’s an enormous honour to be given the opportunity to breath life into the words of this play – it’s also a great challenge!

You’re playing five different roles, is there a specific character you are most drawn too?
That questions a little like asking a parent to choose their favourite child! No, it’s impossible to pick a favourite, I am just so pleased to give voice and body to them.

Has the process of developing Talking To Terrorists changed your perception of what terrorism is?
It certainly has. It is so easy to see things in black and white, especially against the onslaught of the 24 hour news cycle. We are given a very specific narrative for world events and one that still paints the sides as largely “good” versus “bad”. This play gives voice to those that have been led into the world of terrorism as well as those that are the victims. It also highlights the political nature of information manipulation. Talking To Terrorists was written over ten years ago but the stories resonate strongly in 2017.

Were you surprised at all by any sense of recognising aspects of yourself in characters that have a violent history?
Yes, and that is very much the point. There is a line in the play that encapsulates how much circumstance drives action: “The difference between a terrorist and the rest of us really isn’t that great”. Anyone has the potential to do terrible acts and it is a great folly to assume immunity to fault.

What do you hope an audience will come away from after watching this play?
I hope it will stimulate discussion, that the play will help people humanise all of those that are caught up in the impact of terror. The vast majority of people on any side of the arguments are victims. The biggest threats to cohesive existence is the refusal to discuss and listen. We need to talk to terrorists.

Mathew Costin and Joseph JU Taylor can be seen in Talking To Terrorists by Robin Soans.
Dates: 23 May – 3 June, 2017
Venue: King Street Theatre

Review: Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), May 11 – Jun 18, 2017
Playwright: Edward Albee
Director: Iain Sinclair
Cast: Darren Gilshenan, Genevieve Lemon, Claire Lovering, Brandon McClelland
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
It is a nondescript living room but a great deal happens in it. Edward Albee’s wild imagination is let loose in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, a modern classic that seems to be about a marriage breaking down, but the volume of themes and philosophical ideas it explores over a three-hour duration, extends beyond a person’s mental capacities within that one sitting. The incredible richness of Albee’s writing, and his insistence on disobeying conventions of literary coherence, produces something sensationally anti-naturalist, at times very strange, for all its misleading construct of a realist family drama. It all comes together beautifully, the ending result is quite sublime, but it is the disparate elements and divergence of meanings in all its interminable suggestions, that makes it a unique, rarely paralleled work.

Therefore, finding a focus becomes challenging for any production. Director Iain Sinclair uses the play’s absurdist qualities to his advantage, manufacturing a black comedy that not only delivers laughs but also, through its emphasis on uncomfortable contradictions, help draw attention to the many levels of meaning that the text implies. The show is often entertaining, but in spite of the great emotional upheaval that its characters experience, we remain at a distance, always at close observation, but from the outside. Visually pleasing, the staging draws inspiration from 1960s Americana, Michael Hankin’s set design and Sian James-Holland’s lights create a performance space that feels an accurate representation of the era, while establishing a sense of stifling oppressiveness crucial to the psyche of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.

Four actors conspire with unmistakable simpatico, to form a fascinating piece of theatre. Their personalities are individually distinct, but together they are harmonious, one engrossing organism that drives us through unexpected twists and turns. At the centre is Genevieve Lemon as Martha, ebullient and dedicated, determined to maintain a liveliness in the show even during its darkest troughs. The actor may not be able to sufficiently depict the rage crucial to the story, but there is no mistaking the turbulent existence Martha has to endure. Her husband George is played by Darren Gilshenan, who journeys into bleaker terrain more successfully, but who will be remembered for the mischievous approach he applies to the play’s cynical and sinister complexions. Effortlessly funny, Gilshenan is an engaging presence that keeps us fascinated at every audacious revelation. Similarly alluring is Claire Lovering, whose comedic confidence assures us that the tricks hidden up her sleeve are worth our anticipation. Honey is a small role, but the performer takes every opportunity to shine. Brendon McClelland brings out a complexity in Nick, a deceptively plain upstart, and surprises us with transformations that we never could see coming.

It is about marriage, it is about the way exercise control over one another, it is about the way we build meaning into our lives, it is about the futility of our pursuits. What a viewer will deduce from Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf could be a great many things, but there is no denying the nihilistic pessimism of Albee’s creation. In art we can find the truth, and it is without doubt that life can leave us bitter and hopeless. It is also true, that conflicting truths can co-exist, and whether one can perceive light through the darkness, is sometimes about luck, and sometimes about choice.

www.ensemble.com.au

5 Questions with Sam O’Sullivan and Whitney Richards

Sam O’Sullivan

Whitney Richards: What was the seedling from Doubt that started this whole process?
Sam O’Sullivan: In the preface of Doubt, John Patrick Shanley, wrote about the feeling of doubt having negative, weak connotations, however he views it as a sign of strength. He wrote that doubt is the first step towards change and the ability to grow. If we’re too stuck in our ways, too certain of our world, we lose our capacity for empathy and risk isolating ourselves from our fellow humans. I loved this idea and it influenced my entire reading of Shanley’s play. From this, I knew I wanted to write something about doubt as strength.

Are you surprised with how the original idea has evolved into the final product?
Yes and no. My brief from Redline was always to take an element of the play – whatever spoke to me – and run with it. And Doubt is such a rich piece of writing, that there were a lot of directions I could have run. So I’m not too surprised that we have ended up where we are, but in saying that, I think I’ve always been conscious that we are on the same night as Doubt. We want to have a play that will interest the audiences who are coming to see Shanley’s play.

Do you think it’s a happy accident that the team is mostly WA migrants? How has that influenced the production?
It is a happy accident because, with the exception of my relationship with you (Whitney), none of us really knew each other before we started working on this play. But we definitely all bonded very quickly and I think Perth had something to do with that.

What has been different about this quick response process to how you usually work?
I always work for quite sporadic, intense periods and then shove scripts away in a drawer to ferment for a few months while I go something else. This time around, I haven’t been able walk away for too long, so to compensate I think I’ve been a lot more collaborative with the cast and production team to fast track some of the creative decisions.

As a writer/actor, what is it like to step back and hand your work over to other actors? Basically… do you love us?
It’s awful. I’ve never seen a bigger bunch of numpties make something so simple look so difficult. 🙂 But yes, I love you.

Whitney Richards

Sam O’Sullivan: What’s the best and worst thing about travelling alone?
Well, I’ve done this one a lot lately. Although it’s always been paired with touring a show which is really bloody stressful alone. You’re not sharing the workload of scheduling and plans which can be a bugger but also you get to do what you want when you want. At times I’ve felt a little vulnerable. Like I had to be hyper aware of personal safety. I did have my heart broken whilst overseas and that really sucked.

My travel self is my best self. I feel more alive and keen to push myself to try new things. When you travel alone you are without metaphorical baggage. No job title, no relationships. You become more present. You are forced to make friends. And fast track these relationships because you know your have limited time. People see you for who you are which I’ve found to be a confidence boost. I come home feeling more comfortable in my own skin. I do have moments of sadness when something at home triggers a memory from my travels; a song or a person or a show and I have no-one to rekindle the memory with.

What can your siblings do that still drive you nuts?
Actually, I’ve always completely admired my older sisters. They’re intelligent, fiery and hilarious women and mums. There’s a bit of an age gap between us so they never drove me nuts in the way my nieces and nephews do to each other. Such a power play there. It’s fascinating to watch the love and the hate. The care for each other and then the violence! Just like the characters in The Wind In The Underground. It’s been fun playing siblings that grew up together because my sisters and I didn’t get to do that. I’m younger than my sisters so I reckon I was probably the irritating one. I do remember visiting my sister when I had turned 18 and her saying to me “You’re so different. I can have a conversation with you now.”

Whats a private joke that only you and your siblings would find funny?
It might be a WA thing or an us thing…but we’ve always enjoyed the word “jobby”. Its means poo. Yep.

How has rehearsing The Wind In The Underground been different to other plays?
It’s always thrilling to be involved in new works. You get to witness and be a part of the changes that make it a stronger and stronger story. I love hearing from writers about the impetus for the story and characters. It was odd watching Doubt the other night and remembering that The Wind In The Underground is a response to that. It’s such a different world. I think people seeing the double will have an excellent night at the theatre.

The 40 minute slot is something I’ve never done before. The story has to be simpler than a 1hr+ show to have a satisfying beginning middle and end. Claire is an interesting person to explore. She doesn’t say a whole lot so finding a way to thread her emotional journey together continues to be an interesting process for me. She’s stuck in an place I found myself in a few years ago (pre-travel) so that’s been familiar territory.

I hadn’t worked with anyone on our team before, so it’s been a bloody delight getting to know these hilarious humans. We feel like a real family.

Whats your favourite thing about the Old Fitz?
I spend my nights ushering at Belvoir St and Sydney Theatre Company so when I have a night off, I usually try to spend it away from the theatre. I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t see everything at the Old Fitz. I’ve really enjoyed my time there though. Firstly, the space itself is really great. The 60ish seater is truly my favourite. It’s perfect for really hearing and connecting with an audience. You’re much closer to the feedback loop. It reminds me of the beautiful Blue Room theatre in Perth. I’m enjoying the vom entrance very much too.

It seems like Redline have a great connection with the patrons of the pub, the people who run it and the theatre community. So from someone coming in with fresh eyes, that seems to be a beautiful functioning thing. I’m looking forward to our season and hope to see more shows there in the future.

Whitney Richards appears in The Wind In The Underground by Sam O’Sullivan.
Dates: 23 May – 3 June, 2017
Venue: Old Fitz Theatre

Review: Homeroom Series (ATYP)

Venue: ATYP (Walsh Bay NSW), May 10 – 19, 2017
Images by Tracey Schramm

Girls Like That
Playwright: Evan Placey
Director: Robert Jago
Cast: Annika Bates, Claire Giuffre, Ella Hosty-Snelgrove, Rashie Kase, Michelle Khurana, Molly Kyriakakidis-Costello, Miranda Longhurst, Emily Longville, Natasha Pontoh-Supit, Cara Severino, Emily Simmons, Lucy Valencic, Lara Wood

Michael Swordfish
Playwright: Lachlan Philpott
Director: Tamara Smith
Cast: Ashutosh Bidkar, Eden Bradford, Fergus Finlayson, Jason Hartill, Tim Kenzler, Louis Nicholls, Angus Powell, Daniel Steel, Gus Watts

Theatre review
Two plays about teenagers in high schools, both utterly contemporary, and equally relevant to the Australian experience. Evan Placey’s Girls Like That makes a powerful statement about feminism for the young, and Lachlan Philpott’s Michael Swordfish offers unconventional observations about teenage masculinity. Uncompromisingly complex, they each offer an unusual opportunity to explore adolescence in ways that might be surprising, through themes that are confronting but pertinent to all our lives. We watch the young, and learn about ourselves.

Robert Jago’s exquisite direction of Girls Like That is powerful, deeply engaging and thrilling in its combativeness. Michael Swordfish takes a gentler approach, with director Tamara Smith offering a poetic perspective to our young men’s lives. Designers, too many to mention, do an excellent job for an impressive pairing of shows that look and sound as vibrant as they are polished.

The actors are uniformly compelling and enthusiastic, with many displaying very fine potential for serious careers in performance. Cara Severino’s ebullience is unforgettable, while Rashie Kase has an unshakeable authenticity that can convince us of anything. Louis Nicholls portrays his character with a sense of creative freedom and adventure, and Gus Watts captures our attention with a confident hand at subtle comedy. These fledgling artists, all 22 of them, should feel greatly encouraged by the outstanding quality of work here.

The characters are in their formative years, so what they acquire now, could well stay with them for the rest of their days. What happens to them, and how they react, are depicted in both plays with a degree of honesty, that does not allow us to detach. For their contexts of juvenility, it is easy to diminish these experiences and consider them trivial, but contained within their microcosms, are truthful interrogations about our shared existence. Through these kids, we discern right from wrong, and decide how we must evolve.

www.atyp.com.au

Review: Educating Rita (The Depot Theatre)

Venue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), May 10 – 20, 2017
Playwright: Willy Russell
Director: Julie Baz
Cast: David Jeffrey, Emily McGowan
Image by Katy Green Loughrey

Theatre review
We meet Rita as she begins to realise her discontentment with banality. Going back to school, she wishes to make improvements to her life, although not entirely sure what a better existence should look like. Her tutor Frank on the other hand, is an alcoholic, and a poet who no longer writes. Both are subconsciously thinking “anywhere but here,” but only Rita knows to seek for answers in a productive way.

Willy Russell’s Educating Rita is about aspirations, and also, in its very British way, about class distinctions. Its humour relies on Rita’s lack of sophistication as a Liverpudlian hairdresser, but under Julie Baz’s direction, the characters speak as Australians, with our Rita in a broader, shall we say, working class type accent.

It is a bold decision that proves to be at times effective, and at others, quite awkward. The text mentions a slew of British places and personalities, and talks of Australia as a faraway country, so the production’s ability to assist with our suspension of disbelief tends to be inconsistent. However, the show remains otherwise attentive to the spirit of Russell’s writing, and we always feel that its heart is kept in the right place.

The actors take a couple of scenes to warm up, but when Emily McGowan gets comfortable in her role, Rita’s endearing qualities shine through, allowing us to engage with the play’s ideas and sentimentality. Both actors, McGowan and David Jeffrey, can on occasion slip into an unfortunate reticence with their parts, but when confident, their scenes become involving and quite amusing. Also noteworthy is Tim Linghaus’ music providing an air of melancholy appropriate to the characters’ inner worlds.

Rita and Frank cross paths, as they both embark on new trajectories. Life is change, but we do not have to think of moving up as the only meaningful way to achieve progress. We have to value the sense of surprise in all our narratives, just as we know to enjoy the simple straightforward increments in things we usually pursue. The universe will take us places, whether we like it or not. It is how we choose to understand them and delight in them, that makes all the difference.

www.thedepottheatre.com

Review: Doubt: A Parable (Apocalypse Theatre Company)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), May 10 – Jun 3, 2017
Playwright: John Patrick Shanley
Director: Dino Dimitriades
Cast: Charmaine Bingwa, Damian de Montemas, Belinda Giblin, Matilda Ridgway
Image by Robert Catto

Theatre review
John Patrick Shanley’s genius masterpiece, Doubt: A Parable takes a deep and extensive look at the nature of doubt, and through it, reaches for something fundamentally real about who we are. Its greater power however, lies in its narrative. It is the literal rather than the allegorical that many will find affecting in the play, with the ongoing predicament of paedophile priests in our churches never seeming to find satisfying resolution.

Sister Aloysious possesses no concrete evidence of Father Flynn’s trespasses, but her position as school principal requires that students are protected at all cost. Operating under severely defective systems of patriarchy and the clergy, Aloysious can only do the right thing by dehumanising herself in order that she may be able to undertake necessary measures, “in the pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God.”

This sensitive interpretation by director Dino Dimitriadis pulls close focus to Shanley’s words, with theatrical devices kept at an intentional quiet, so that we garner maximum impact from the extraordinary writing. Design aspects are minimal and unobtrusive, but elegantly effective.

Performed with great detail by an impassioned cast of four, we are offered a marvellous intensity of interplay between characters that could only emerge from exhaustive study and immersion into the text. Belinda Giblin is stunning as Aloysious, psychologically meticulous and emotionally complex, she gives us crystal clear insight into the personality being presented, while providing astute access to the unusual world in which she resides. A wealth of meanings are implied in Shanley’s dialogue, and Giblin makes certain that we receive them all.

Father Flynn’s uncompromising ambiguity is the show’s dramatic lynch pin, brilliantly manufactured by Damian de Montemas whose hints of malice keeps us engrossed and on edge, even if he does sound uncomfortable in his American accent. The magnetic Charmaine Bingwa leaves a strong impression in a singular pivotal scene, embodying Mrs Muller’s specificity of time and space with a remarkable authenticity of presence. Matilda Ridgway is a quirky Sister James, veering slightly too far from naturalism, but whose interpretations are unquestionably entertaining.

We watch these people participate in a religion that has overwhelmed their lives, and wonder if Catholicism takes more than it gives. We see the destruction it causes, and are suspicious of the way it claims to be of benefit to these individuals. We also see the inextricability of religion, and the difficulty of achieving emancipation from its indoctrination. As our nation continues to wage war against “radical Islam”, rapists in our Catholic and Christian churches are allowed to fester year after year. We hear about investigations and inquisitions taking place every day but they deliver little, while our children face dangers that are constant, secretive and insidious. Sister Aloysious does the best she can, but knows that it is not yet enough.

www.apocalypsetheatrecompany.com