Review: The Norman Conquests (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Nov 2, 2018 – Jan 12, 2019
Playwright: Alan Ayckbourn
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Danielle Carter, Rachel Gordon, Brian Meegan, Sam O’Sullivan, Yalin Ozucelik, Matilda Ridgway
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Ruth’s husband is having dalliances with her sister and her sister-in-law. These extramarital trysts with Norman are at least momentarily pleasurable, but it comes as no surprise that there is pandemonium when the cat is out of the bag. Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy The Norman Conquests takes place in a weekend, with each instalment encompassing the action at a specific area of the family’s country home. Table Manners occurs in the dining hall, Living Together in the living room, and Round And Round The Garden in the garden. They form a cohesive whole, but each part stands alone, for this intricate 1973 comedy about the meaning of marriage, at a time of sexual liberation as Britain emerges from the swinging sixties.

Its humour is of a classic style, with 45-year-old jokes likely to divide audiences, but at the heart of the piece is Ruth’s surprising permissiveness, still refreshing by today’s standards. Her reluctance to see the affairs as necessarily catastrophic, but more of an annoyance, leads us to a progressive evaluation of monogamy, still relevant to how we conceive of relationships and marriages today. This revival, directed by Mark Kilmurry, is bright and bubbly, a compelling jaunt back in time that is surprisingly resonant, even if its language is obviously outdated.

The characters may sound like the past, but they are made to feel current, by an excellent, and tireless, uniformly captivating cast. Yalin Ozucelik gives Norman an appropriate sex appeal, cleverly depicting that familiar blend of naivety and cunning, to convey the ambiguously deceptive quality of men who love too many. Matilda Ridgway is a marvellously complex Annie, the aforementioned sister, richly imagined with veraciously human conflicts, clearly presented for a personality sensual and intelligent. Ruth is played by Rachel Gordon, wonderfully vivacious and highly sophisticated, for an exemplary portrait of a woman with an open mind, unafraid to set her own rules.

When Ruth declares that she does not own her husband, we are urged to re-examine sexual relationships, and perhaps define them anew. In letting our loved ones go, we in turn disallow ourselves from ever being enslaved. Love, however, can make free people want to be bound. To have and to hold is a divine notion, but life without freedom is abhorrent, just as life without love is unbearable. In every intimate connection, whether fleeting or longstanding, delicate negotiations are required; traditional prescriptive methods, when adopted unquestioned, rarely deliver satisfactory results. Congress between organic beings can never be completely predictable, for every entity is different and in constant flux. We just need to make sure that nobody gets hurt, although it seems always to be easier said than done.

www.ensemble.com.au

Review: A Cheery Soul (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Nov 5 – Dec 15, 2018
Playwright: Patrick White
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Emma Harvie, Anita Hegh, Jay James-Moody, Brandon McClelland, Tara Morice, Sarah Peirse, Monica Sayers, Shari Sebbens, Nikki Shiels, Bruce Spence, Anthony Taufa
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Miss Docker is an inconvenient older lady. Living in the suburbs, her presence is a constant source of irritation to all and sundry, even though she goes out of her trying way to be a useful member of community. Possessing neither great discernible talent, nor satisfactory social skills, her good intentions prove inadequate, and having gone past an ascribed use-by date, exclusion is her daily reality.

Critical of the Australian middle classes, Patrick White’s A Cheery Soul takes aim at our parochial values, and that strange sense of fear resulting from our insecure colonial identity, one that corrupts the way we are with one another. Additionally, the play is a study of how women are devalued, through its depictions of a character who has failed to fulfil her destiny of wife and mother, in a society determined to disallow her from deviating from its narrow definitions of womanhood.

White’s signature incorporation of poetry and abstraction have a tendency to dilute the drama in his narratives, and although director Kip Williams does well to introduce a generous and robust scale of theatricality that is quite dazzling, the show oscillates regularly between entertaining and challenging, for an experience that feels, ultimately, not much more than moderately rewarding. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that live video is an inventive and memorable device here, with Williams and set designer Elizabeth Gadsby demonstrating an admirable meeting of the minds for a very effective use of the medium.

Actor Sarah Peirse brings a charming and familiar eccentricity to Docker that conveys a valuable realism for the piece, but it is arguable if the protagonist is on this occasion, sufficiently appealing for us to be firmly engaged with the plot. Reverend Wakeman is played by Brandon McClelland, whose flamboyant approach offers wonderful moments of intensity that add texture to a persistently sad story. Ensemble work is strong in the production, with sequences featuring the cast performing as a haunting chorus especially beautiful.

When scared little people make up the majority, it is the imaginative and the adventurous who are ostracised. Still in our psyche, an outpost of the old British Empire, we remain consumed by anxiety, always thinking ourselves deficient, desperate to be as good as everyone else in faraway fantasised Europe. We behave as though neglected and orphaned, consequently responding by always choosing to embrace the ordinary, in a constant state of keeping up with the Joneses, and irrational in our fear of all things different and unexpected. There is little value in living by replicating, even though it gives an impression of social cohesion, conformity holds us back from progress and deprives us of compassion. In A Cheery Soul we see that to love thy neighbour can be easy, if only we learned to step of our own way.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Whose Uterus Is it Anyway? (The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Oct 30 – Nov 10, 2018
Playwright: Georgie Adamson
Director: Eve Beck
Cast: Toby Blome, Alexandra Morgan, Finn Murphy, Chelsea Needham, Annie Stafford
Images by Jasmin Simmons

Theatre review
It is a game show in the reality competition style, involving the infliction of humiliation and abuse for the benefit of a television audience. In this case, contestants are made to jump through hoops before they are awarded the reproductive health care that they require. George Adamson’s Whose Uterus Is It Anyway? is an indictment of the way bodies of women and trans men are controlled, relegated to a lower class, when they deviate from unreasonably strict norms. When a uterus is not being used for procreation, society sees fit that its owner is put through a process of castigation, as enacted here by a white man in a stylised lab coat, playing the role of game show host, manipulating scenarios and exercising his power, to ridicule his subjects.

Ideas in the play are fresh and exciting, assembled with an enjoyable quirky humour. Its writing could be further refined for a more satisfying plot structure, but its unique approach makes for a show that is at once pertinent and amusing. Eve Beck’s direction for the piece contains appropriately subversive measures, and although its comedy proves slightly inconsistent, there is no doubting the production’s ability to have us firmly engage with its stimulating themes. Martin Kinnane’s lights and Camille Ostrowsky’s set design provide dynamism to a visual aesthetic that conveys effectively, the sinister quality of institutionalised medicine and media. Alex Lee-Rekers is detailed with his work on sound, helping us navigate the many subtle tonal and emotional shifts of the show.

An excellent cast brings to life the theatrical and substantive absurdity of Whose Uterus Is It Anyway?. Toby Blome is captivating as the central authority figure, and as four additional subsidiary characters, his efforts are just as compelling. Alexandra Morgan and Annie Stafford are funny women, both exuberant and incisive with their delivery. Finn Murphy and Chelsea Needham dial up the poignancy factor, for some genuinely moving moments that give the staging a crucial quotient of gravity.

As evidenced in Lysistrata’s fabled sex strike, societies have always been petrified of women using their bodies for anything other than gestation. The impulse to reproduce has fuelled an unquenchable thirst to control our bodies, and as a consequence all of how we exist is dictated in accordance with that sense of ownership and entitlement. Three women in the play, along with a trans man, have made decisions for themselves, but it is clear that their bodies are being held hostage, by traditions and systems that struggle to acknowledge our independence. If our subjugation stems from sex and babies, it would only make sense that a revolution can be precipitated by a radical rethink of our identities in those terms. We should define ourselves in creative and courageous ways, rejecting labels and responsibilities when required, not only to live with greater integrity, but to forge a better, more equitable future.

www.biteprod.com.au

Review: Madiba (State Theatre)

Venue: State Theatre (Sydney NSW), Nov 1 – 18, 2018
Book: Jean-Pierre Hadida, Alicia Sebrien
Author & Composer: Jean-Pierre Hadida
Additional Material: Lunik Grio, Emmanuelle Sebrien
Directors: Pierre-Yves Duchesne, Dennis Watkins
Cast: Courtney Bell, Barry Conrad, David Denis, Blake Erickson, Perci Moeketsi, Ruva Ngwenya, Tim ‘Timomatic’ Omaji, Madeline Perrone, Tarisai Vushe
Images by Serge Thomann

Theatre review
Known as Father of the Nation, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela served 27 years in prison, for activities opposing apartheid. In the musical Madiba, we see his personal struggles, and the inspiration he had provided, and continues to provide, for racial reconciliation in the region and around the world. Mandela’s heroic aura is unwavering as the centrepiece of a production that unfortunately, never quite lives up to the man’s eminence.

The writing manages to establish coherence for a timeline that stretches fifty years, but it is insufficiently rousing, for themes that one expects to be much more intrinsically emotional. The minimalist approach to visual design proves a challenge for the large stage, with lights that get absorbed by heavy curtains before adequate illumination can be provided to performers.

It is however, an excellent cast that presents the musical, with Perci Moeketsi effortlessly convincing as Mandela, an affable presence who reminds us of the warm personality so often seen in the media. Brilliant dancing by David Denis, Tim ‘Timomatic’ Omaji and a very spirited ensemble, has us thoroughly mesmerised. Barry Conrad, Ruva Ngwenya and Tarisai Vushe thrill us with their singing, making full use of the opportunity to showcase their extraordinary vocal talents.

When Noah emerged from his ark after the great flood, a rainbow of peace appeared in the sky, signifying a new beginning. The dream of a rainbow nation in post-apartheid South Africa, is a vision about inclusivity, for a future in which black and white are no longer divided. Now five years after Mandela’s passing, white supremacy can be seen trying again to rear its ugly head, everywhere from Europe and America, to Africa and Australia. The project of decolonisation is a huge undertaking, an extremely difficult exercise that often seems doomed to failure, but forces determined to defeat fascism can never be crushed. We remember the sacrifices made by Mandela and his country, and the progress they were able to attain under onerous circumstances, and use them as motivation, for all the battles that lie ahead.

wwww.madibamusical.com.au

Review: Freud’s Last Session (Clock & Spiel Productions)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Oct 30 – Nov 10, 2018
Playwright: Mark St. Germain
Director: Hailey McQueen
Cast: Yannick Lawry, Nicholas Papademetriou
Images by Alison Lee Rubie

Theatre review
Two men, one atheist and one Christian have an intelligent, and civilised, discussion about the existence of God, in Mark St. Germain’s Freud’s Last Session. A fictional account of Sigmund Freud, approaching the end of life, inviting C.S. Lewis in for a meeting, presumably to help allay inevitable fears of impending death. Everything they talk about is relevant, even fundamental to our very being, but these are ideas we have tossed around in our minds many times, with decisions settled for each individual years ago. Some might be able to see new light on old questions and find the play intellectually stimulating, but for most, the best it can offer is an opportunity to hear the other side of arguments, within its stringently binary presentation of truths.

It is a polished production, with Hailey McQueen’s direction giving the theological themes an elegant and balanced focus. Tyler Ray Hawkins’ work on set decoration is noteworthy for its visual flair, cleverly manufacturing a sense of vibrant theatricality whilst maintaining realism in Freud’s office. Both actors deliver solid performances, with Nicholas Papademetriou particularly convincing as the ailing psychoanalyst, accurate in his portrayal of a legendary figure in his last days, but in a manner that is charmingly playful, to have us engaged and entertained. Lewis is played by Yannick Lawry, appropriately uptight, with an energetic presence that keeps things lively for his audience.

Life is mysterious, so there is no surprise that we often respond by embracing ideas that pertain to the supernatural. Science is in the business of demystification, but our nature seems not to permit an end to human interrogations; for every answer we discover, further questions will arise. The world is determined to be unknowable, yet we desire only to thrive on certainty. God may or may not exist, but if we agree that our time on earth is real, it should then follow that our emphasis must always be concerned with the here and now. The truth however is that, whatever we think is holy up above, has served to divide us. We see ourselves doing unspeakably cruel things to one another in the name of God, yet are unable to disown religious doctrines, refusing to acknowledge the harm that it can cause. The world has never been without Gods, so to imagine ourselves as entirely secular, although an appealing idea, is probably futile. The next best thing would be to trust that each of us can learn to be better persons with each passing day, no matter how ridiculous our personal beliefs.

www.clockandspielproductions.com

Review: Degenerate Art (Old Fitz Theatre)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Oct 17 – Nov 4, 2018
Playwright: Toby Schmitz
Director: Toby Schmitz
Cast: Septimus Caton, Guy Edmonds, Giles Gartrell-Mills, Henry Nixon, Megan O’Connell, Rupert Reid, Toby Schmitz
Images by John Mamaras

Theatre review
If it were a painting, Toby Schmitz’s Degenerate Art would comprise a thousand tiny brush strokes, too detailed and too intricate, but they collude to present broad strokes that are imperiously forceful, certain to make an impact. Like other bad boy artists of renown such as Adam Cullen and Damien Hirst, the work is brash and obnoxious, replete with evidence of genius, but unlike white box museums that allow us to glance, gasp and swiftly walk past, Schmitz’s 100 minutes of grandiose cocky art, holds us hostage in our overly snug seats, intimidating us into thinking that some very big meaning lies behind all that is being waxed lyrical in the playwright’s very many excessive diatribes.

The play is ostensibly about Hitler’s relationship with art, and the ironic and incongruous phenomenon of fascist attitudes always seeming to surround the dissemination and consumption of art. We see prominent Nazi figures of the time, arguing over art like any healthy society should, but the way these white men cannot help but escalate their competition of penis extensions into acts of violence, is despicable and telling. Visually sumptuous, the staging is provided a glossy glamour by Alexander Berlage’s diligent lighting design. Schmitz assembles a testosterone fest that begins desirous but eventually turns shrill, with shouty blokes intent on asserting their importance, a reminder that art cannot help but imitate real life.

Although little room for nuance, Degenerate Art is a showcase for some remarkable performances, and the rhapsodic peacocking of its six male actors proves to be truly impressive. Megan O’Connell too, is an effective and memorable narrator, despite never really being able to overcome looking like an afterthought. It is frustrating that we are still being subjected to groups of white men talking about Nazism. To some, it might make sense that white male villains can only be played by white men, but for others, this is completely counter-intuitive, and a lazy, even irresponsible way of getting into discussions about fascism. Actions speak louder than words, especially when the words are deafening.

www.redlineproductions.com.au

Review: Pramkicker (Vox Theatre)

Venue: Chippen Street Theatre (Chippendale NSW), Oct 24 – Nov 3, 2018
Playwright: Sadie Hasler
Director: Linda Nicholls-Gidley
Cast: Cecilia Morrow, Vaishnavi Suryaprakash
Images by Jasmin Simmons

Theatre review
Jude is attending anger management support groups, as punishment for having, amongst other things, kicked a pram at a coffee shop. Her sister Suse is assigned to be her companion for this remedial process, and together they fall deep into discussions about motherhood, and in Jude’s case, the rejection of it. Sadie Hasler’s Pramkicker is a marvellously written work about the modern woman, and the choices she is able to make for herself. Using the experience of childbearing as a springboard, we delve into philosophical, as well as practical, ruminations about all that is expected of women, in order that we may examine the freedoms we do and do not have, in defining existence for ourselves.

Dialogue in Pramkicker is deliciously witty, with some truly scintillating perspectives of life that are brutally honest but rarely disclosed. The characters go through wonderful transformations during the course of the play, for deeply beautiful depictions of sisterhood and of female sovereignty. Emotionally robust, the show takes us from ecstatic laughter to exquisite poignancy. Directed by Linda Nicholls-Gidley whose imaginative and sensitive use of space, generates for the staging a variety of dimensions that engage with us effectively at different mental states. A faster pace would deliver a greater sense of exhilaration to accompany its outrageous conversations, but it is doubtless that this is a production that packs a punch.

Actor Cecilia Morrow is powerful as Jude, with an excellent sense of conviction that befits the role’s very appealing dauntlessness. Suse is portrayed with great authenticity by Vaishnavi Suryaprakash, charismatic with a hint of innocence, perfect for the part of younger sister. Jointly, the pair establishes an extraordinary chemistry that forms the soul of the production, and we find ourselves hopelessly enamoured, and invested in their stories.

For eons, we have been told that it is our duty to procreate. Jude is one of increasing numbers, who has refused that responsibility, and in place of parenthood, she has to find meaning for her own life, in ways that are not prescribed and preordained. We see her in moments of confusion, not fully able to grapple with the enormity, of having accepted this radical freedom. With no tethers to ascertain her identity, it becomes a conscious effort to be who she wants to be, and we see that things could have been easier if she had just gone with rules of the normal playbook. Independence is not for the faint of heart, but it is the only option for those who cannot settle for anything less.

www.voxtheatre.com.au