Review: Marisol (The Sydney Fringe)

Venue: Erskineville Town Hall(Erskineville NSW), Sep 3 – 7, 2019
Playwright: José Rivera
Director: Erin Louise Cotton
Cast: Chloe Baldacchino, Isabelle Fredericks, Sarah Maguire, Elizabeth Nicholls, Simon Thomson, Matthew Vautin

Theatre review
Marisol Perez is informed by her guardian angel that there is a revolt in the heavens. God is old and senile, no longer able to serve the universe, and a struggle for power is now under way. This means that earthlings are for the moment, no longer protected by the divine, and in José Rivera’s Marisol, it appears that when left to our own devices, we can only devolve into chaos and violence. The writing is surreal, and although approaching 30 years old, its apocalyptic sensibility seems more relevant than ever.

The production is at its most gratifying when actors are able to embody the play’s bizarre qualities, and approach the performance with an unabashed extravagance, whether dramatic or comedic. Matthew Vautin and Elizabeth Nicholls have strong moments on stage, both able to convey the dehumanised madness of the play’s dystopian vision. The eponymous role is taken on by Chloe Baldacchino, who brings a delicate timidness that can seem out of place. Director Erin Louise Cotton shows us the utter confusion of a world abandoned by all that is celestial, but without communicating anything particularly powerful with the text, Marisol leaves us with little more than an empty nihilism.

When we once again feel as if everything is going to hell in a handbasket, and the pessimism cripples us from being able to take any meaningful action that would make this world better, it is perhaps useful to indulge momentarily in delusions, that there are higher beings in the ether who have a greater purpose beyond our comprehension. It is one thing to feel disappointed with the way things are, but quite a lot worse when we turn hopeless, thinking that life is absolutely meaningless. The truth is that we know nothing outside of our tiny individual existences, but dreaming up gods and deities has always proven to be useful in making the human experience at least tolerable. We manifest the divine in our image and imagination, relating to them as separate superior entities, but actually, we can only ever pray to the sacred that resides within.

www.gradco.studio

Review: Nine (Seymour Centre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Sep 5 – 14, 2019
Book: Arthur Kopit
Music & Lyrics: Maury Yeston
Director: Alexander Andrews
Cast: Maddison Burton, Sophia Charters, Phoebe Clark, Kelly Goddard, Ellyn Gwillim, Amy Humphrey, Tayla Jarrett, Tisha Kelemen, Katelin Koprivec, Michele Lansdown, Andy Leonard, Victoria Luxton, Matilda Moran, Sarah Murr, Sophie Perkins, Caitlin Rose, Petronella van Tienen, Megan Walshe
Images by Blake Condon

Theatre review
Guido Contini is caving under pressure, unable to start work on another film, after the failure of his last three efforts. Instead his mind wanders, and in the 1982 musical Nine, we see him obsess over all the women he has loved, as though longing for one of them to turn into a muse and solve his writer’s block. An old-fashioned work, with a male protagonist placed firmly at the centre, surrounded by innumerable women often looking disposable, Nine however still boasts some of the finest melodies in the Broadway canon, with Maury Yeston’s songs remaining as stirring as they had always been.

Director Alexander Andrews assembles all the parts proficiently, and his production bears a level of polish that almost glosses over the regressive nature of its gender representations. Antonio Fernandez’s energetic musical direction, Madison Lee’s imaginative choreography, and James Wallis’ multifaceted lighting design, all combine to deliver an enjoyable, if slightly too traditional, musical extravaganza.

A cast full of conviction, determined to bring vibrancy to the stage, with Andy Leonard in the leading role, offering nuance in his acting, but not quite satisfactory in terms of vocal requirements for several of his songs. The quality of singing is in general slightly disappointing, although it must be noted that the “Folies Bergeres” number is performed with remarkable wit, by Katelin Koprivex as Stephanie and Michele Landsown as La Fleur, both impressive with the vigour they introduce for their memorable scene.

Writing can date, but theatre must always be made for now. Some works need a greater attempt at innovation, so that they can speak more resonantly with audiences of the time, and Nine is certainly an example of how a relic should be updated to match conversations of the day. Many will find it jarring to see so many women on this stage serving no other purpose than to facilitate the narrative of a man in delusion. For many others though, the sheer pleasure of hearing these splendid songs, is more than enough to make up for its political faux pas.

www.littletriangle.com.au

Review: Matriarch (Jinda Productions)

Venue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 3 – 7, 2019
Playwrights: Sandy Greenwood, Lauren Jarrett, Oliver V. Cowley
Director: Jasmin Sheppard
Cast: Sandy Greenwood
Images by Seiya Taguchi

Theatre review
Sandy Greenwood is a Koori woman deeply invested in her cultural heritage. In her one-woman show Matriarch, we learn that the experience of inter-generational trauma, makes it almost impossible for an individual like Greenwood to live without an intimate understanding of historical events that have affected her family. Greenwood’s story reaches back to her great-grandmother and beyond, involving Aboriginal women from three clans who had to battle unfathomable hardship, through colonisation, massacres and stolen generations, to raise children and to preserve bloodlines.

At just over an hour, the material we encounter is at once refreshing, and extraordinarily rich. The text of Matriarch often utilises slang and dialect unique to this land, and the voices that Greenwood channels in her portrayals of these marvellous mothers, are truly sublime. We witness their triumphs and their challenges, share in their humour and feel tremendous sadness for the injustices imposed upon them. Greenwood’s performance is relentlessly powerful. Her physical discipline, and her emotional range, insist that we are engaged and moved, by her honest expressions about life for Indigenous peoples in Australia.

Directed by Jasmin Sheppard, the show is both poignant and consistently entertaining. Every moment is given accurate focus, so that the audience responds precisely as the artists intend. Music by Sean Ryan enhances a sense of cultural specificity to the production, helpful in transporting us to regional locales that are so fundamental in the weaving of narratives about belonging and about land.

Before we can properly move forward, we need to own up completely to all the atrocities that have been committed in this process of colonisation. Problems cannot be adequately fixed, if the truth of these problems are not wholly revealed. The continual denial of responsibility, total or partial, means that those in power can only ever try to mend the surface of these issues. The passage of time means that the roots of our ills can only grow deeper. Indigenous voices must be listened to, and obeyed, right now.

www.jindaproductions.wordpress.com

Review: The Last Wife (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Aug 30 – Sep 29, 2019
Playwright: Kate Hennig
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Emma Chelsey, Emma Harvie, Simon London, Nikki Shiels, Bishanyia Vincent, Ben Wood
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
In Kate Hennig’s The Last Wife, we watch Catherine Parr make the most of an unfortunate situation when she is forced to marry King Henry VIII. Not content with being wallflower and figurehead, she finds ways to be useful, trying to place herself in a position of power, with mixed results, but hugely instrumental in the reinstatement of princesses Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession. The play imagines its characters with contemporary sensibilities and a corresponding modern language, each one is given a sense of cheeky sass that renders an entertaining immediacy for their storytelling. Not quite an entirely feminist reckoning of the past, The Last Wife is English history from a new perspective, the reframe of which provides a richer understanding of what had happened, and more importantly, of how women continue to have to navigate the patriarchy.

Directed by Mark Kilmurry, the production emphasises dynamics in these legendary relationships, able to impress upon us the intimate family problems of the royals, that bear reverberations that continue to affect us today. Its discussions about gender politics however, feel rudimentary, as do design elements that are at best adequate. Work on sound (uncredited) in particular is disappointing, often discordant with stage action, and lacking in elegance with how its cues are executed.

Actor Nikki Shiels’ portrayal of the queen is delicate, and although successful with the naturalism she introduces to the show, her Catherine Parr seldom exudes enough power for the narrative to really affect or inspire. The king is played by Ben Wood, whose irrepressible comic impulses prove enjoyable. While the two have a comfortable chemistry as lovers, they lack a cohesion in styles that would help us achieve a deeper appreciation of nuances in their scenes together. A young Elizabeth, the future queen, is made thoroughly enamouring by Emma Harvie, whose immaculate timing and exquisite charm, offer a generous sprinkling of star quality in the support role.

In every tragic victim, an alternate story can likely be written about their strength and ingenuity. Old tales about sad women reflect our conditioned need to see women languish. We are accustomed to an acceptance of women’s suffering, and we have learned to think of her pain as inevitable, as though there is beauty in that resignation. In The Last Wife, we see the women around Henry VIII exercise their autonomy whenever conditions permitted. We have for centuries, made lemonade from the lemons that are given. Adversity figures in many of our experiences, but the accompanying resilience and resourcefulness that get us through hardship need to propel us to something beyond survival.

www.ensemble.com.au

Review: Chorus (Old Fitz Theatre)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Aug 28 – Sep 21, 2019
Playwright: Ang Collins
Director: Clemence Williams
Cast: Jack Crumlin, Madelaine Osborn, Nicole Pingon, Ella Prince, Eliza Scott, Chemon Theys
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
Agamemnon is a pop star enjoying considerable success, but like the mythical king she has named herself after, accomplishments come at a very high price. Ang Collins’ Chorus talks a little about stardom, but is more concerned about a motherhood that never lived up to its promises. The play’s purposeful juxtaposition with the Greek legend also prompts us to think about gendered differences in the way we discuss morality, and how we are more permissive of one gender over the other, especially in matters pertaining to parenthood. It is a powerful context that Collins has formulated, with intriguing characters and exciting dialogue delivering an enjoyable theatrical experience. The story’s climax does however feel slightly underwhelming, due in part to the writing’s subtle approach. In preventing itself from turning exploitative, Chorus unfortunately loses some of its drama when we arrive at the crucial moment of revelation.

Performances are strong, with Ella Prince an appropriately assertive presence in the main role, bringing a wrathful intensity to a personality who has some very serious issues in need of resolution. Chemon Theys is memorable as love interest Cass, and persuasive in her portrayal of an unapologetic Instagram celebrity. The baby’s father is played by Jack Crumlin, marvellously complex and authentic with the emotions he depicts as the deeply conflicted Chris.

Much pleasure is derived from the cast’s wonderfully tight ensemble work, inspired by traditional Greek theatre, but given a contemporary twist, complete with live video projections by Sarah Hadley, that magnify the sense of grandeur introduced by the chorus as stage device. Emma White’s set design is elegant in its minimalism. Lights by Veronique Bennett are dynamic, able to add a hint of extravagance to proceedings. As director and sound designer, Clemence Williams’ sensual calibration of atmosphere makes for an absorbing production that holds us captive for the entire duration.

Agamemnon has every right to reject being defined as a mother, but this does not absolve her of responsibilities. We can be persuaded that love cannot be forced, but not doing one’s best to care for their offspring, is surely unequivocally immoral. We should all be encouraged to dream big, and we should learn to better celebrate those who dare to go out on a limb. Life turns hollow, when one is held back by fear and doubt. To be held back by duty however, is quite another thing.

www.bontom.com.au | www.redlineproductions.com.au

Review: Titus Andronicus (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Aug 27 – Sep 27, 2019
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Adena Jacobs
Cast: Melita Jurisic, Tariro Mavondo, Jane Montgomery Griffiths, Jayna Patel, Josh Price, Tony Ray Ray, Daniel Schlusser, Grace Truman, Catherine Văn-Davies
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
War is said to have ended, but the violence of man bears a momentum that cannot be halted. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus involves bloody revenge between feuding parties, a cyclical phenomenon too powerful it seems, for any single human to defy. More than a fixation on murder, the play draws us into its morbid, almost fetishistic preoccupation with rape, amputation, infanticide and cannibalism. It is that pornographic quality that makes Titus Andronicus one of Shakespeare’s least celebrated work, but exploiting this weakness, it appears, can deliver surprising results.

Under Adena Jacobs’ direction, this ultramodern staging removes all the charade of having to relay a narrative, choosing instead to delve right into the dark obsessions that Shakespeare had rightly identified to be a seductive force behind his storytelling. A tale about kings and queens is constructed to mask the titillation derived from the representation of destruction, blood and gore. Jacobs’ show rids itself of pretence, in order that we may come in direct confrontation with some of our ugliest realities. We have to decide what is pleasurable and what is objectionable, acknowledge the disturbing overlaps, and perhaps most importantly, evaluate our peculiar attraction to horror. If we can understand the appeal of witnessing the grotesque in our art, there must surely be correlations with real world harm that can be identified and demystified.

Flamboyantly macabre, Jacobs’ version of Titus Andronicus is avant-garde theatre at its most enthralling. Every scene a spectacle, as intriguing as they are outrageous. Shakespeare’s characters are portrayed to be as bizarre as they truly are, and in ridding the wolf of sheep’s clothing, we get closer to the essence of these people and of our shared inglorious humanity. Designer Eugyeene Teh does extraordinary work with sets, props and costumes, exhilarating with the freedom he expresses through the manifestation of some very wild visions. Video projections are a crucial element of the production, and Verity Hampson’s ability to seamlessly incorporate live and pre-recorded material with everything else that is demanded of our senses, makes for a series of multimedia juxtapositions that prove to be thoroughly, and unusually, satisfying. Sound design by Max Lyandvert forms a direct link with our nervous system, able to control our visceral responses with tremendous detail, in accordance with the shifting tensions being dramatically rendered.

An entirely splendid cast of performers, each one daring, inventive and spirited, present an experimental venture the degree of which is rarely seen on the big stages in Sydney. Playing Titus is Jane Montgomery Griffiths, whose unfailing emotional intensity provides a dependable anchor for us to navigate the feverishly chaotic action. The maternal quality she brings to the role prevents us from conveniently dismissing violence as par for the course in this story about warriors. Instead, we are compelled to connect with the moral dimensions that accompany each brutal thought and deed. Young actor Grace Truman leaves a marvellous impression with her conviction and focus, demonstrating herself to be an irresistible presence at the tender age of fifteen. Some of the show’s more extreme moments of performative transgression come from a radiant Catherine Văn-Davies, who uses her body to make statements about defilement in a way that is simultaneously vulnerable and defiant. In a piece that talks about people going too far, the inspired Văn-Davies certainly pushes the envelope in terms of what we have come to expect, of artistic establishments that tend to be obstinately conservative.

Amongst all the gruesome atrocities of Titus Andronicus, is something that feels like a transcendent beauty. It is clear that carnage has an alluring power; there is a part of us that loves the dark, that our capacity for cruelty, whether sadistic or masochistic, is undeniable. As audience, we are caught between knowing what is right, and wanting to see the worst. Artists are on hand to engage our imagination, sometimes for a discussion, and sometimes for catharsis. On this occasion, what we witness often seems strange, but its immense resonance demands that we look deeper, so that we find points of recognition within, that we come face to face with aspects of the self that are too hideous to address.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au

Review: Avalanche: A Love Story (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Aug 29 – Sep 14, 2019
Playwright: Julia Leigh
Director: Anne-Louise Sarks
Cast: Maxine Peake (with Jethro Jensen, Amy Wahhab)
Images by The Other Richard

Theatre review
Humans have an inexhaustible capacity for obsession. As individuals, we see the world in infinitely different ways, and each of us has our own private passions that can easily be seen as meaningless or bizarre by others. What is of fundamental importance to one, can be interpreted as totally nonsensical by another, yet we all cling on to these idiosyncrasies, often letting them consume and define us.

In the case of Julia Leigh’s Avalanche: A Love Story, an unnamed protagonist spends years absolutely absorbed by the notion of having to bear a child, and subjects herself to expensive and traumatising IVF treatments in hope of falling pregnant. She sacrifices relationships and a prestigious career in film making, to devote all her energies and resources, into the seemingly uncontrollable urge to have a baby. The play comprises scene after scene of one woman’s deep disappointments, and her inability to extricate herself from a suffering that only ever looks to be self-imposed. We watch in amazement, her persistence with this pipe dream, but certainly not all of us will be able to muster up the empathy that the playwright is intent on appealing to.

At best, the show is an honest and painful examination of experiences many have shared, but at its worst, Avalanche: A Love Story is a melodramatic and highly indulgent study of rich people’s problems, manifestly unaware of the way it opens itself to ridicule. The very skilful Anne-Louise Sarks brings, as director, an atmospheric intensity that almost has us forgetting, that the story requires our emotions invest in a kind of torment that can only befall the privileged.

There is no question that the production is adroitly assembled. Everything is considered, purposeful and remarkably polished, with not a hair out of place. Marg Horwell’s spectacular set design is unforgettable. Lizzie Powell’s lights and Stefan Gregory’s sounds are incredibly delicate in their rendering of a woman’s very genuine struggles. The contentious nature of this subject matter notwithstanding, the creative forces have no doubt accomplished a work of theatre replete with technical brilliance.

Maxine Peake too, is precise and inspired as performer of this 75 minute monologue. She holds our attention throughout, and convinces even the most sceptical, of the profound sorrow being expressed on stage. Her efforts are detailed and sensitive, always aiming to communicate at a level of uncompromising accuracy.

It is unlikely that Avalanche: A Love Story can preach beyond those already converted. The character’s anguish is undeniable, but the more that we delve into that narrative of grief, the more we question her choices. A woman can make any choice she so desires, but whether her need for sympathy as a result can ever be satisfied, is quite another matter.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au