Review: The Sound Of Music (Capitol Theatre)

Venue: Capitol Theatre (Sydney NSW), Dec 13 – Jan 17, 2015
Music: Richard Rodgers
Lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II
Book: Russel Crouse, Howard Lindsay
Director: Jeremy Sams
Cast: Johanna Allen, Lorraine Bayly, Eleanor Blythman, Du Toit Bredenkamp, Nakita Clarke, Savannah Clarke, Cameron Daddo, Jacqueline Dark, Philip Dodd, Louis Fontaine, Erica Giles, David James, Stefanie Jones, Amy Lehpamer, Dominica Matthews, Jude Padden-Row, Marina Prior, Madison Russo
Images by James Morgan

Theatre review
The Sound Of Music premièred on Broadway in 1959, which makes it a reasonable assumption that most of us had grown up with songs from the iconic musical, figuring prominently in each of our own musical education. Maria brought music to the Von Trapps, and also to lives of millions. Our familiarity with the songs in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s masterpiece is quite unparalleled, and although some of the show’s dialogue has long become archaic, its power over our cultural consciousness is second to none.

This manifestation for an Australian touring production is a straightforward one that presents no surprises. The text is unchanged, and all the trappings of a commercial musical are delivered efficiently. Sets transform with military precision, lighting evolves endlessly to take us through every mood change, and the last note to every song decides whether or not its audience should applaud. Everything is thoroughly refined, and the experience is orchestrated to a measured and mechanical perfection, but a cast in live theatre of course, will always be susceptible to some variation, even in the most immovable of productions like this one.

In the role of Maria is Amy Lehpamer, who delivers an impossibly flawless rendition of one of the most popular musical characters of all time. There is no denying the fact that viewers will gauge any actor taking on the part against the legendary film version, but Lehpamer easily meets our expectations, with deeply impressive technical abilities and a presence so warm that every last punter in the nosebleed section cannot help but be won over. She is glorious from prologue to curtain call, with an effortlessness that only a true star of the stage can portray. Similarly fabulous is Jacqueline Dark, whose Mother Abbess is simultaneously commanding and endearing, memorable for her astoundingly powerful singing in “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”. Cameron Daddo’s vocals are thankfully adequate, and while not a scene-stealing performance, his work as Captain Georg von Trapp is often believable and surprisingly moving, aided by a cast of enchanting youngsters who play his children with irresistible cuteness and brilliant conviction.

The anti-Nazi story in The Sound Of Music provides a gravity that helps set it apart from the often excessively frivolous quality of its genre. It is ironic that the entirety of its very large cast is of Caucasian appearance, but the show’s message is unambiguous. We think about the meaning of freedom, and its primary importance in any life. We think about the magic that comes from great music and great art, and how our humanity cannot be divorced from the wonderful capacity of song that brings hope to the darkest of days. When things are not going well, we can find ourselves caged in by fear, but it is our human ability to imagine something better that gives us resilience and ingenuity. In our weakest moments, the simplest of lyrics will lift us up; “Follow ev’ry rainbow till you find your dream.”

Review: They’ve Already Won (Belvoir St Theatre)

theyvealreadywonVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Dec 8 – 20, 2015
Playwrights: Harriet Gillies, Pierce Wilcox
Directors: Harriet Gillies, Pierce Wilcox
Cast: Harriet Gillies, Pierce Wilcox
Image by Mitch Lee

Theatre review
Art can find a way to represent the state of our collective consciousness as it stands, so that we may achieve an understanding of life, while remaining embroiled within. They’ve Already Won is about the now, and how individuals in societies such as ours, deal with the new face of media and its pervasiveness. It explores the interactivity of technology, and exposes the nature of our participation in the digital world, with all its anxieties and intellectual challenges.

As barriers to information and truth begin to crumble, we are forced to encounter pessimism like never before. Harriet Gillies and Pierce Wilcox’s play is about the way we respond to this incessant profusion of bad news arriving through all our screens, and how it dominates and shapes our culture as it stands today. The show addresses us directly, beginning almost like a lecture with Gillies orchestrating visual projections and sound cues, and Wilcox gesturing to illustrate their assertions, but thankfully, things turns increasingly fluid in style as they proceed. The work is beautifully considered and idiosyncratic, with rich content that will ring true and provoke. There are unusual and refreshing modes of expression in its staging, with a string of amusing scenes and surprising concepts. Execution of ideas could be more polished, but the production is ultimately an impressive one that offers a generous serving of food for thought.

They’ve Already Won can be seen as a political work, but it also allows us to be apathetic. It accurately reflects the confusion of modern life, revealing to us that the more we know, the less we know what to do. It is a feeling of helplessness that co-exists with a passion for betterment, an everyday duality that pulls in different directions. We can leave the show determined to be unfazed, but reality is tumultuous and we will be moved regardless.

Review: Dropped (The Goods Theatre Company)

redlineVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Dec 8 – 20, 2015
Playwright: Katy Warner
Director: Anthony Skuse
Cast: Deborah Galanos, Olivia Rose
Image by Christine Chahoud

Theatre review
Two soldiers are in a war zone, boots on the ground as it were. They are buddies, joined at the hip, supporting each other through the calamity in which they find themselves. Life could hardly be more vulnerable or dangerous, but they are upbeat, perhaps a result of the training they had received, or the innate strength that they had brought to their vocation. They also seem to be losing their minds a little. In their struggle for survival, the women let themselves drift in and out of fantasy, and we never know for sure which of their dialogue is fact, or fiction; it is all too distant from our comfy vantage point.

Katy Warner’s script is ambitious and difficult. Dropped is at times abstract, often turning surreal, and even though it offers effective points of reference for a sense of coherence, the play can be disorienting. It contains sentimental elements to help with an emotional connection, but Anthony Skuse’s direction seems to steer the show for a cerebral experience, attempting to engage our logic instead. The production is a polished one, with Verity Hampson’s lights especially memorable, but it is also alienating. It talks about hope and death, themes that are unquestionably universal, but its profundity escapes us.

Accomplished performances by Deborah Galanos and Olivia Rose keep the energy up, and their palpable commitment to the challenging parts is admirable. Galanos’ sincerity and Rose’s vivacity are appropriately showcased, making their respective characters affable, in spite of the unimaginably horrific circumstance they portray.

It is a new realisation that we no longer live in peaceful times. Stories about war and disaster must now come to the fore, and our consciousness must be reminded of the horrors that many are facing. It is unacceptable to hide behind delusions while our worlds are experiencing carnage. If we send people off to fight, the least we could do is to observe the bloodshed. The damage is real. As long as we fail to find solutions, we must all suffer the consequences.

Review: Swansong (Red Line Productions)

redlineproductionsVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Dec 1 – 5, 2015
Playwright: Connor McDermottroe
Director: Greg Carroll
Cast: Andre de Vanny

Theatre review
Occi is a young man in Ireland, suffering from mental illness and an uncontrollable tendency for violence. He does have moments of tranquillity though, and in between those two extremes, we discover qualities of a complex character that simultaneously repulses and attracts us. It is a tale about isolation, and therefore a statement about community. The monsters that live amongst us are cultivated by the forces surrounding them, and our complicity in the development of people like Occi must be examined. Connor McDermottroe’s Swansong may not contain people or places that we can easily relate to, but it is ultimately an exploration into human nature that we can all understand.

The play is structured with ample amounts of intrigue and tension built into an absorbing plot line that incorporates a satisfying string of revelations and surprises. It offers little insight or new perspectives into its concerns, but the writing provides extraordinary scope for a dynamic staging that can range from very quiet to very wild, within the sometimes restrictive monologue format. Director Greg Carroll and actor Andre de Vanny’s seamless collaboration focuses entirely on the performance of the piece. The production comes without a set design or props, and there is no sound design. Relying only on a simple costume and occasional lighting changes, Swansong is a mighty tour de force featuring an indisputable talent and his boundless energy and commitment. What de Vanny brings to the stage is faultlessly executed. Voice, face and body are operated at capacity, with a sense of euphoria that can only come with total abandonment. Nothing is kept in reserve, and the audience can only respond with an earnestness parallel to the show’s thorough and powerful vulnerability.

Occi’s life is full of struggles, but Swansong is not interested in our sympathies. We are free to look and judge him how we will, as we are want to do in our every day, but our eyes are opened to the experiences of an unusual existence, one that has tasted extremities that thankfully elude many of us. At the theatre, we seek our reflections, but what can be equally rewarding, is to catch a glimpse of some strange life that will never touch us otherwise. Our individual worlds can often be too small, and art is the antidote.

Review: The Good Doctor (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Nov 27, 2015 – Jan 17, 2016
Season continues at Glen Street Theatre (Belrose NSW), Jan 19 – 24, 2016
Playwright: Neil Simon
Director: Sandra Bates
Cast: Chloe Bayliss, Adriano Cappelletta, David Lynch, Kate Raison, Nathan Wilson
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Anything can happen in live theatre. Adriano Cappelletta was engaged to perform the lead role in The Good Doctor less than a week before opening night, replacing Glenn Hazeldine who had unfortunately sustained an injury right before preview performances were due to begin. It is a strange conundrum that happens on stage. We want a sense of danger and aliveness that recorded media is not able to replicate, but we admire the high polish a group of geniuses can cultivate in the flesh. At this early period of The Good Doctor‘s performance season, both are vigorously present.

The show consists of 10 or so short plays, all based on the writings of Anton Chekhov, and woven through a narration provided by Chekhov himself. It is pure entertainment, with some of his politics still recognisable, but Neil Simon’s script certainly does not dwell heavily on the deep and meaningful. Director Sandra Bates takes her cue from Simon and orchestrates a delightful production that makes no bones about playing for laughs. There is excellent and expert comedy in every scene, often nuanced and intricately conveyed, in a confident manner that never feels crude or patronising. For all its spirited frivolity, there is a sophistication to be found in Bates’ approach that reflects skill and flair for this genre of farcical classic comedy.

The Good Doctor boasts a cast of very strong players. Each is given four to six parts, and their versatility is demonstrated with great aplomb. Cappelletta is understandably short on fluency for opening night, but his thorough understanding of the material is frankly astonishing. We see the actor’s memory struggle on a few occasions, but the clarity at which he delivers each intention is commendable, and his natural charm keeps us firmly on his side from the very start. Equally endearing is Chloe Bayliss who captivates in every role. Her humour is sublime, and her presence magnetic. Bayliss is flawless in the production, and we are enchanted by her every appearance. Nathan Wilson plays the less mature men in the show, but his theatrical abilities are well-honed and impressive. There is a quality of exuberant abandonment to his style that appeals, along with a mischievous energy that contributes to the show’s enduring buoyancy.

Chekhov is not every person’s cup of tea, but he is a crowd-pleaser in The Good Doctor, a 40-year-old play that refuses to turn grey. It is true that there is fun to be had in our city’s many theatres, but it is not every day that a show appears, able to make us laugh without insulting our intelligence. It is indeed, very “charming and clever” (Neil Simon’s words), offering necessary respite in our much too serious and dreary lives.

Review: Hamlet (Montague Basement)

montaguebasementVenue: PACT Centre for Emerging Artists (Erskineville NSW), Dec 1 – 5, 2015
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Cast: Zach Beavon-Collin, Robert Boddington, Christian Byers, Lulu Howes, Patrick Morrow
Image by Zaina Ahmed

Theatre review
If Hamlet lives today, his claims about seeing the ghost of his recently deceased father would probably not be taken very seriously at all. In Saro Lusty-Cavallari’s adaptation, the Prince of Denmark deals with his bereavement by locking himself away with Disney films, and spends too much time online. We also only ever see the apparition in Hamlet’s presence (through television sets), which allows us to bring his sanity to question. This version of Hamlet explores youth and its detachment from reality, especially in the context of modern technology. It is about isolation, delusion, and that sense of entitlement often attributed to the privileged lives of children born in the economic boom of late twentieth century.

Lusty-Cavallari’s vision is focused and powerful. Substantial omissions are made to serve his reinterpretation, but his choices are interesting and thoughtful ones that challenge our preconceived notions about the text, and urges us to look with fresh eyes. We are made to consider if this Hamlet presents the same man in a different light, or whether this rendition is indeed an entirely different character from the one we had known. Performances do not always live up to the demands of Shakespeare’s writing, but Christian Byers brings good tension and drama with the title role, even if there is little variation in his approach to the prince’s temperament or gesticulations. Supporting player Patrick Morrow leaves a strong impression as Polonius, with effortless charm and a natural pace that help him stand out on a stage that does not shy away from outlandish theatrics.

Set design is beautifully executed, with components of media and technology strewn across the space, representing Hamlet’s room, and illustrating the disposable nature of our contemporary lives. “To be or not to be” almost becomes a flippant statement for a generation that struggles to find meaning, but the team in this production of Hamlet is determined to locate, in Shakespeare, relevance and resonance for themselves, and subversion it seems, is the only way.

Review: Through A Beaded Lash (The Depot Theatre)

depotVenue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Nov 25 – Dec 12, 2015
Playwright: Robert Allan
Director: Julie Baz
Cast: Leo Domigan, Ryan Henry, Emily McGowan, Cherilyn Price, Oliver Rynn, Roger Smith

Theatre review
Robert Allan’s Through A Beaded Lash jumps between today and the early 80’s, to look at the AIDS epidemic and its effect on Sydney’s gay community over the last 30 years. Stories of this nature are in abundance, but published works seem to be predominantly American, and to have a new Australian voice for this issue is not only refreshing, it is deeply important. Our concerns and ideas may not be much different, but we must remember that that period of fear and devastation is a significant part of our local histories, and not just a chain of events that happened only at a distant time and space.

Allan’s script is deliberately light in tone, but its heavy heart is palpable and unambiguous. The play’s nostalgic quality will appeal to many, not only to those who experienced that era first-hand, but also to young ones who recognise their connection with that legacy of pride and pain. As a work of comedy, its wit is not razor sharp and several of its jokes require revision, but its genuine and powerful sentimentality is irresistible. That pathos is effectively orchestrated by Julie Baz, whose direction ensures that not a dry eye leaves the venue. There are issues with chemistry in the cast, and the production is, on the whole, lacking in elegance, but ultimately, Through A Beaded Lash is a remarkably moving play.

Performances are not particularly refined, but Leo Domigan and Roger Smith provide memorable moments that surprise with their extraordinary authenticity. Oliver Rynn creates the most believable character in the show, delighting us with a natural approach that outshines the oft too affected style of several cohorts.

When the worst is gone, we find ourselves grappling with the trauma it leaves behind. People become stronger after horrific events, and they can only do their best to move on, with scars that become invisible over time but the damage will not be eradicated. Dangers exist in our ability to pretend that every dark day is over, and it is on occasions like this, that a truthful story can provide remembrance that will expose the vulnerability that we live with, and we see that the healing process must continue.

Review: King Lear (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Nov 24, 2015 – Jan 9, 2016
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Neil Armfield
Cast: Simon Barker, Wade Briggs, Helen Buday, Max Cullen, Alan Dukes, Eugene Gilfedder, Jacek Koman, Nick Masters, Colin Moody, Robyn Nevin, Eryn Jean Norvill, Geoffrey Rush, Phillip Slater, Helen Thomson, Mark Leonard Winter, Meyne Wyatt
Images by Heidrun Löhr

Theatre review
Lear finds himself rejected by all his daughters, and loses his mind. Redemption is eventually found, when he discovers grace and purity, but what remains of interest, is the rationale behind his torment. In King Lear, we look at issues surrounding mortality, kinship and honour, and examine how it is that good people can turn bad. The provocative difference between the elder “vicious sisters” Goneril and Regan, and the youngest Cordelia with a heart of gold, along with our observations of the king’s narcissism reflected in his immoral daughters’ greed, are pertinent to this discussion of evil and its roots. In the glaring absence of a maternal figure, a direct correlation can be made between Lear’s downfall and the depravity he had encouraged in his children. The tragedy is karmic, and Shakespeare’s morality play warns of the consequences one has to to reap from the seeds that are sowed.

The play is long and complex, with characters and narratives that can be explored endlessly. Finding a focus for a production of King Lear is crucial, and although Neil Armfield’s rendition is not short of drama and energy, its scope seems to be too wide, with too ambitious an approach. In its earnest efforts at unearthing nuance, it loses sight of elements that deliver poignancy, and the show is only able to resonate sporadically. Armfield’s trust in actors is evident. Personalities on stage are idiosyncratic, and the formidable lead players are certainly vibrant and appealing, but their work would benefit from greater manipulation by their director.

Geoffrey Rush’s vulnerability takes centre stage in his portrayal of Lear. His descent into madness is not particularly startling, but we are drawn into the authentic humanity that Rush reveals in states of devastation. He puts on a spirited performance, but bodily positions are often overly crouched, obscuring facial and physical expressions from view of the very large auditorium, making audience connection challenging at many points. Lear’s most theatrical scenes are interpreted with insufficient power, including an underwhelming death, but Rush’s way with words remains unquestionable and a real highlight of the production.

Stealing the show is Mark Leonard Winter who spends a majority of his stage time as Edgar completely naked. Nudity is difficult for any actor (and audience), but Winter overcomes the issue beautifully by arresting our attention, away from his body, onto a captivating performance that is dynamically varied and emotionally compelling. The actor displays a tenacious and magnetic conviction, as well as a commanding presence, balanced by extraordinary sensitivity, all outstanding qualities conspiring to create the most memorable supporting role of the play.

Also impressive are Robert Cousin’s sets and Nick Schlieper’s lights. The visions they create are breathtaking, and truly fascinating. Act Two in particular, begins with actors seemingly floating in a vast white of nothingness, where for a few seconds, no end and no beginning to space can be perceived. The manufacture of a storm, complete with an oversized wind machine and water falling incessantly from above, provide a sensational spectacle and additional dimension to what the actors work hard to achieve. The aesthetic is best described as minimal. We can sense the purposeful subtraction that has taken place to leave the various empty spaces for activity to occur, but the effectiveness of this bareness is clearly debatable. The production proves that King Lear‘s story can be told with few objects and visual symbols, but it will never be known if all that has been taken away is indeed redundant.

We hurt the ones we love most, and family is where the thin line between love and hate is most pronounced. It is because the people are important, that our emotions cannot disengage. Betrayal can only come from trust, and it is both sides of that same coin that Lear’s story addresses. The end is deeply pessimistic, but all tragedies leave behind a future, and the audience is an unequivocal part of it. How we move away from each tragic ending matters, but not every ending will bring elevation to life. Cordelia dies in her father’s arms after a period of sorrowful estrangement. Her demise is bittersweet, but for those who witness it, time is on our side, and we hold on to the belief that better is always possible.

Review: Ochres (Bangarra Dance Theatre)

bangarraVenue: Carriageworks (Eveleigh NSW), Nov 27 – Dec 5, 2015
Choreographers: Russell Page, Stephen Page, Bernadette Walong-Sene (with traditional choreography by Djakapurra Munyarryun)
Cast: Elma Kris, Yolande Brown, Deborah Brown, Waangenga Blanco, Tara Gower, Leonard Mickelo, Daniel Riley, Jasmin Sheppard, Tara Robertson, Kaine Sultan-Babij, Luke Currie-Richardson, Nicola Sabatino, Beau Dean Riley Smit, Rikki Mason, Yolanda Lowatta, Rika Hamaguchi
Image by Zan Wimberley

Theatre review
Traditional Aboriginal practices often involve ochre, a material of great cultural significance most notably used as a colouring substance in art and ceremony. In Bangarra Dance Theatre’s four-act production Ochres, the substance is applied on bodies to represent a connection with ancestry and culture; the same bodies communicate with impressive presence and energy, powerful meanings about the land on which we live. As a non-narrative theatrical form, dance is often inseparable from spirituality. It is concerned with establishing meaning through a language that often circumvents the cerebral, to reach a universal faculty of purity, regardless of experience and creed.

Ochres was first performed 21 years ago. Its choreography (by Djakapurra Munyarryun, Russell Page, Stephen Page and Bernadette Walong-Sene) is informed by traditional Aboriginal dance and by contemporary, balletic Western styles, reflecting the dual nature of modern Aboriginal Australia. At the centre of the work is a meditation on time, with its evocation of the past blended into a portrayal of the present, and positioned alongside an inquiry into the future.

It is a confident and proud work that imposes on the stage, an identity characterised by qualities of fortitude, strength and intelligence, performed sensitively by a captivating ensemble, cohesive in technique and sensibility. A harmony in the group provides the work with its quiet but resolute poignancy, beautifully supported by a highly-accomplished design team. Jennifer Irwin’s costumes, Jacob Nash’s set and Joseph Mercurio’s lights, all contribute to the visual excellence of Ochres. Music by David Page brims with soulful creativity, magnificently showcased by superior technical facilities of the Carriageworks auditorium.

In the years between Ochres‘ première and its revival today, Bangarra Dance Theatre has gradually moved into the mainstream, bringing its unique voice to audiences far and wide, entertaining and enlightening us no matter who we are, or where we have come from. Its message of peace is inherent in its artistic ideology, and the part it plays in continuing efforts of reconciliation is not to be underestimated. Our response to a seminal work like Ochres must be correspondingly celebratory, and with all the support and respect that it rightfully deserves.

Review: Debris (Red Line Productions)

redlineVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Nov 24 – 28, 2015
Playwright: Dennis Kelly
Director: Sean Hawkins
Cast: Felix Jozeps, Megan McGlinchey

Theatre review
Two small children, isolated and severely neglected, completely unaware about how the rest of the world lives. Their normal is in fact horrific, but they are none the wiser. We bring innocent lives to be, and imagine that every baby is given love and care because the alternative is unfathomable and simply unbearable. Dennis Kelly’s Debris illustrates a truth that we know exist but rarely acknowledge. It exposes the ugliest of humanity, and amplifies their brutality by having them voiced by the very young, removing any possibility of moral justification on our part as viewers.

The script is highly evocative and poetic in its surreal, or perhaps fantastical approach, inspired by the minds of children, and their unbridled way of interpreting things that they encounter, but the production is a simple one, with emphasis on performance by two fine actors and not much else. Our own artistry is called upon to visualise a more vivid experience than what is actually presented on stage. Lighting has a tendency to be too obvious in its creative choices, but sound design by Tom Hogan is delicate, thoughtful and effective. Felix Jozeps and Megan McGlinchey play the forsaken children with an enormous energy that keeps the show fast paced and taut. Their roles are harrowing but ultimately straightforward, with insufficient complexity built into the performance that could deliver nuances beyond the predictable.

Debris is an intense and emotionally violent show that demands our attention, but has nothing unusual to say. It is an excellent platform for actors who wish to flex their dramatic muscles, and we are certainly entertained by the display of extraordinary passion, but for all the pain that we see unleashed, we feel little of it. The fact that there are children suffering is not news to anyone, but it is information that bears repeating. We can think about how to make lives better, but it is also true that we do not need to create more lives at all.