Review: Jatinga (Bakehouse Theatre Company)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jun 9 – 24, 2017
Playwright: Purva Naresh
Director: Suzanne Millar
Cast: Sapna Bhavnani, Karina Bracken, Claudette Clarke, Jarrod Crellin, Faezeh Jalali, Sheila Kumar, Suz Mawer, Bali Padda, Monroe Reimers, Trishala Sharma, Teresa Tate Britten, Amrik Tumber
Image by Natasha Narula

Theatre review
In the north-eastern region of India, a tourist hot-spot exists in the village of Jatinga, known for the mysterious phenomenon of birds plunging to their death, every year after the monsoon season. In Purva Naresh’s play Jatinga, it is the phenomenon of “runaway girls” that takes focus. Journalist Madhumita discovers five young women escaping harrowing fates, and in her efforts to publish a story that draws attention to their plight, she finds herself thinking like villagers hungry for tourism dollars, deciding whether to resort to sensationalism, in order that the greater good can be served.

The play is purposeful, and undeniably powerful. Addressing issues of poverty, Jatinga is relevant to audiences of all nations, at a time when economic inequality is a serious social concern. We may not suffer the same symptoms in the developed world, but the fact that the refugee crisis is unsolved and escalating, and that we continue to obsess over “terrorist threats”, show that persistent disparities, that our first-world systems thrive on, are creating problems that have landed us in a state of emergency. The rich will always want the poor separate and contained, but the poor can often break through the barriers of money. Radical action is always an option, when people have nothing to lose.

The women in Jatinga tell simple stories, but the production is strangely convoluted. Shifting timelines and interweaving narratives provide a sense of theatricality, but unnecessary confusion often gets in the way of our empathy. The show must be lauded however, for not turning to “disaster porn” to keep us engaged. The women are victims, but they are also spirited and strong individuals. Director Suzanne Millar’s resolve in portraying them as such, is certainly admirable.

An excellent cast, wonderfully cohesive, perform a colourful work replete with vigour and sincerity. Suz Mawer is captivating, and tremendously persuasive, as the journalist Madhumita. Her thorough authenticity holds the piece together, even though the stakes are admittedly lowest for the character she portrays. Also noteworthy is Nate Edmondson’s work on music, transportative and transformative in its effect, from scene to scene.

When the birds take to suicide, we wish for it to be an act of nature, and convince ourselves that things stay in balance with their sacrifice. Murmurs of the birds actually being killed by villagers, are disregarded by the tourists who wish to witness something romantic and extraordinary. We bury the truth, in order that our fabricated realities can be sustained. We want to think that refugees have proper channels to seek asylum, and we want to believe that terrorists are mentally ill. We insist that the poor only need work harder to create better lives, and we sweep the truth under carpets, sit back and watch as towers are burnt to ashes.

www.bakehousetheatrecompany.com.au

5 Questions with Sapna Bhavnani and Faezeh Jalali

Sapna Bhavnani

Faezeh Jalali: If you were a book which one would you be and why?
Sapna Bhavnani: A few years ago my god daughter handed me a book and said “look Sapna, this is you.” On the cover was an illustration of an inked woman and her 2 daughters. The book was The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson. I read that book in half an hour and cried through most of it. More than the mom, I related to the stories of the daughters. And as cliché as it sounds, being an inked woman myself, I cannot think of another book I would rather be. And maybe, just maybe, because I haven’t read any other book since Nancy Drew and Famous Five. Don’t you judge me!

What gives you great joy and what is your greatest frustration?
Yoga. In my recent years of practice, I have started journeying inwards more that outwards. It’s one of the most challenging things I have ever done. The process of being true to yourself at every moment and working towards the ability to witness joy and pain equally, with the same level of non-enthusiasm is my new high. The process of stepping out of my body and witnessing myself as a third party in the room is my new theatre.

You created the character of the old woman in the play Jatinga. What inspired you to write her and what about you is similar to the old woman?
We are all born old. We carry with us stories and burdens from previous lives. We carry guilt and shame from current lives. We carry ambitions and hopes to the future lives. And the circle continues. Age does not have a gender or an age. So yes, Sapna is similar to the old woman. But so is Faezeh, and Suzanne, and every member of the cast regardless of the burden of gender or nationality.

How many tattoos do you have? Tell the story of one of them.
Only an amateur counts the number of drinks consumed. I am an alcoholic.

Sapna means dream- what is/are yours? (I’ll make this hard by asking you to describe it as a fairytale)
I’m constantly in a lucid dream space. I have 7 imaginary friends, all called Alice and 5 mannequins also all called Alice. It’s the way I call their names that distinguishes one Alice from the other. We all live happily ever after in a one-bedroom apartment in Bandra, Bombay with 3 cats and 45 plants. Our most favourite thing to do is take a road trip to our farmhouse 3 hours outside Bomaby to visit the 3 other Alice’s that live there with 4 cats and 89 trees and a gazillion flowers. As you can see it’s an ongoing fairytale and keeps on getting more magical with each passing moment or should I say with each passing Alice.

Faezeh Jalali

Sapna Bhavnani: What keeps you ticking in the theatre world after so many years?
Faezeh Jalali: Experimentation and the desire to take risks and tell stories that are important to me. I won’t take on a play that doesn’t excite me because I won’t be able to create it truthfully. I enjoy the creative process and making theatre that pushes boundaries comfort zones, physical and intellectual limits. Theatre that is socio-political, that is relevant to our current times. I wouldn’t be happy doing living room dramas and probably would do a shoddy job of those.

How did you prepare for Manda?
I think the process is organic. I think the character is in the writing and in the work done with other actors right from the first development/audition. For me the character comes alive on the floor in the body, not from writing notes or thinking too deeply about it. The playwright gives you the most information and I take that and fly…

What is the next project seeding in that wonderful brain of yours?
Several. I’m writing a new play, I guess you could say some sort of a musical satire about religion, godmen/godwomen/religious heads. I want to do one physical piece based on Mumbai life. I have written small sections of action but would need to string those together. I want it to be a circus piece actually. And a couple of others, that other writers will write or have written.

If there is another profession you could be in, what would that be?
As a teenager I wanted to take revenge on my dentist so I did take pre-medical with theatre, in undergrad. But then I imagined myself doing that and it bored me. So it didn’t work out. There was a phase when I thought I’d be a physicist. That fizzled out. Currently I think some sort of chef.

Are you sure you’re not Kashmiri?
No, I’m sure I’m not Kashmiri or should I say yes I’m sure I’m not Kashmiri. I’m a citizen of the planet (she said cheesily).

Sapna Bhavnani and Faezeh Jalali can be seen in Jatinga by Purva Naresh.
Dates: 9 – 24 June, 2017
Venue: Kings Cross Theatre

Review: Between The Streetlight And The Moon (Mophead Productions)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), May 5 – 27, 2017
Playwright: Melita Rowston
Director: Anthony Skuse
Cast: Joanna Downing, Ben McIvor, Lucy Miller, Suzanne Pereira, Lani Tupu
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Talent is a thing of mystery, and one of its elusive qualities surrounds the faith that an artist should have in their own abilities. In Melita Rowston’s Between The Streetlight And The Moon, we examine the ways in which painters are able to find a sense of belief in themselves, or more accurately, how their spirits can be dampened, by longstanding institutions that thrive on their own elitism and the implied deterrent of new individuals who wish to join the ranks.

The number of female names in the world of celebrated Western artists, is unquestionably paltry. The play looks at the way women painters and their work, are routinely subjugated and subsumed by their male mentors and counterparts. This chauvinism seems systematic, and it feels dangerously instinctual, and we wonder if this dynamic exists everywhere else in life.

Rowston’s writing is at its best when wistful and poetic. Her words are powerfully evocative, always passionate with advocacy for something meaningful. The plot is however, not as gripping as it wishes to be. Intrigue builds slowly, and when the story eventually becomes dramatic, we find ourselves more interested in Rowston’s philosophical ideas than the narrative being woven over them. Dialogue has a tendency to sound stilted when scenes attempt to be conversational, but the language turns beautifully sublime when characters move into more heightened modes of theatricality.

Actor Lucy Miller is an entrancing presence as painter-turned-academic, Zadie. Vulnerable, with an unmistakable gravitas, Miller brings authenticity to a protagonist who exists between shifting states of self-doubt and self-belief. Also impressive is Joanna Downing as the enthusiastic emergent, Dominique. Precise and considered, Downing’s portrayal of a brainy Millennial is truly delightful, even if her French accent is comically exaggerated.

Visual design is sparing but elegant. The use of projections to assist with our imagination of classic paintings is effective, and very gratifying, but an interpretation of The Seine requires much bolder execution. Live accompaniment by Benjamin Freeman on piano, adds brilliant flair to the show, a rare treat that theatregoers will find thoroughly enjoyable.

Zadie suffers humiliation when she mistakes a streetlight for the full moon. It is hard to conceive of creativity without sensitivity, but it is the artist’s responsibility to weather attacks on their pride, and return with greater vigour. It is also the responsibility of society to provide support to those who have the ability to give expression and meaning, to the human experience. In Australia, we have to give mindful emphasis to those artists whose voices continue to be silenced by a history of colonialism and its accompanying white patriarchy. Our art must strive for an accurate reflection of Australian life, and the white male artist is far from enough.

www.mophead.com.au

Review: The Laden Table (Bakehouse Theatre Company)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Mar 10 – 25, 2017
Playwrights: Nur Alam, Raya Gadir, Chris Hill, Marian Kernahan, Ruth Kliman, Yvonne Perczuk
Director: Suzanne Millar
Cast: Alex Chalwell, Doron Chester, Suz Mawer, Sarah Meacham, Mansoor Noor, Jessica Paterson, Abi Rayment, Monroe Reimers, Gigi Sawires, Geoff Sirmai, Donald Sword, Justina Ward
Image by Natasha Narula

Theatre review
A resplendent, but homely, dining table awaits, with twelve empty chairs anticipating two families and their stories about cultural displacement and historical discord. The Laden Table features Jewish and Muslim Australians, and the baggage they continue to carry after centuries of religious hostility. Their lives are in Sydney, but they exist beyond the here and now. What had happened in the past and what is yet to come, are crucial to how they act and think today.

It is a magnificent piece of writing, that interrogates, with unyielding severity, the nature of prejudice and more specifically, the way good people make enemies of each other through their religious affiliations. The Laden Table offers insight into how the layperson of the Jewish and Muslim faiths conceives of their own oppression, and how that manifests into hateful beliefs and behaviour. Structurally intricate, but with a vivid and coherent plot line, the play addresses issues of great profundity in a manner that is both elucidative and deeply affecting. It teaches some of the biggest lessons any individual could wish to learn.

The production is arresting in its poignancy, and thoroughly captivating. Director Suzanne Millar does a marvellous job of creating a work full of texture and nuance, with regular shifts in dramatic tone that secure our attention for the show’s entirety. Lighting designer Benjamin Brockman provides instinctual logic to every one of The Laden Table‘s startling scene changes, and amplifies emotional impact throughout its narrative, whether subtle or sensational. Will Newnham’s sound design adds to the carefully calibrated atmosphere, moving us between unpredictable spaces, and leaving a remarkable impression with a special moment that fuses prayers of both faiths in surprising harmony.

Stakes are high in the story, and the ensemble overwhelms us with an authentic gravitas. War is happening elsewhere but in these two Australian households, we feel the reverberations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the sense of mortal danger faced by millions is more than a bleep on the nightly news. Gigi Sawires and Geoff Sirmai are the elders, both flamboyantly engaging and unconventionally colourful with what they bring to the table. Jessica Paterson and Monroe Reimers introduce convincing depth to their characters’suffering, and Suz Mawer is a powerful presence as a modern Muslim woman, constantly having to negotiate past and future, spirituality and logic. The vulnerable complexity that Mawer portrays so well, is embodiment of what the play represents; and to expect easy answers is impracticable.

Religion does a lot of good, but the harm it causes cannot be denied. Atheists will say that the eradication of religion will solve many of the world’s problems, but that utopia will never come, even within the next few lifetimes. The way our faith is ingrained, has a tenacious permanency that endures over generations. It shapes many minds and guides many deeds, but it is never beyond reproach or provocation. God will always be there, but how we relate to them changes, and how we want them reflected in our lives, is up to us.

www.bakehousetheatrecompany.com.au

5 Questions with Mansoor Noor and Jessica Paterson

Mansoor Noor

Mansoor Noor

Jessica Paterson: You’ve been involved with The Laden Table longer than I have. What has been your experience of the project so far?
Mansoor Noor: Not much longer, however the last development occurred before the election and I remember reading the play with the cast for the first time after Trump was announced POTUS and, sadly, finding even more relevance in what was being said, for example in a line as simple as, “after all you’re a man of Middle Eastern appearance, I’m surprised they let you back into the country.”

Do you relate to your character?
Other than having a complicated relationship with an attractive girlfriend (that’s right, Jess) I have a lot in common with Mousa. Sad face. He’s a boy who’s grown up in a somewhat religious Middle Eastern family, with sometimes narrow-minded perspectives on race and religion that have formed over a long period of war and displacement, and has had to develop his own understanding of the world through his personal experiences.

You’re a pretty top-notch photographer, I’ve heard. Do you approach your two art forms similarly?
Suzy is definitely going to think I’m using her blog to market myself. What of it Suzy? (Please don’t give me a bad review based on this empty threat). I guess working as a photographer sort of requires me to tap into a bit of the actor’s “director brain”. It’s important to make sure the artist isn’t tense and to help them find a thought process instead of becoming self-conscious / going into their own head. If you want to see just how relaxed people look in my photos you can find them at http://www.mansoornoor.com – thanks Suzy 😉 (Ed’s note: invoice in the mail, pal xx)

If you could swap lives with anyone else in the world for a day, who would it be and why?
I don’t want to get political… or I would say Mr. Turnbull and talk about letting in the refugees, which is actually a theme in the play… so I’ll say Mr. Trump. Not even to permanently reverse his numerous numb-headed executive orders but just so I can hang pictures of mini Trump all over the White House, and upscale stationary such as staplers and pens in the hope of giving him an even larger “small hands” complex. See, that wasn’t so political.

What’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve done on stage?
One time during Drama School I wheeled a bed onto the stage instead of a couch. It was third year American scene work… and fortunately it wasn’t my scene. I was also once caught playing UNO off-stage with my scene partner by an audience member during a very intense scene on stage. I didn’t even win 😦

Jessica Paterson

Jessica Paterson

Mansoor Noor: Why is it important to tell this story?
Jessica Paterson: This story looks at racism and cultural understanding in Australia from an intimate perspective. We’re all well versed in the absurdities of Trump and One Nation. But what happens when the people disagreeing with us are those we love the most?

Do you relate to your character?
I definitely relate to Ruth. She’s intellectual and critical of her world, but is a really emotional creature as well. And she can (mostly) keep her shit together. I love that sense of competency, of coping with the situations that are thrown her way. But she also has a complex religious and cultural background that is quite different to my own, which has been fascinating to explore.

Food is a really important aspect in the show. What’s your favourite food in the show?
Oh man. I love all the foods, but in rehearsals I’ve had my first experience with Challah, which I’m really enjoying getting into every night. It’s delicious!

Do you enjoy working with Mansoor? Tell us about how great he is.
Yeah, he’s alright.

What’s the strangest acting relating thing you’ve ever done?
Once I was housesitting and my friends had a whole wall of photo frames that they’d hung but not filled with pictures yet. So I filled them all with my headshots.

Mansoor Noor and Jessica Paterson can be seen in The Laden Table.
Dates: 10 – 25 March, 2017
Venue: Kings Cross Theatre

Review: Blink (Stories Like These)

storiesliketheseVenue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Feb 9 – Mar 4, 2017
Playwright: Phil Porter
Director: Luke Rogers
Cast: James Raggatt, Charlotte Hazzard
Image by Robert Catto

Theatre review
It is a love story between a simple man and a complicated woman. Phil Porter’s Blink is a work of fantasy that magnifies the experience of infatuation, to sometimes inappropriate levels of obsession. We can choose to see Jonah as a creepy stalker, even though the play tries to show him only as naive and sweet. His actions are clearly harmless, but that of course, is what most men will say about their fixations. Sophie is made mastermind of Jonah’s actions, and although there is something gratifying in having a woman orchestrate her own experience of romance, the reprehensible fact that Jonah is a Peeping Tom who follows her everywhere, thinking that the object of his desire is completely oblivious, cannot be discounted.

Ultimately though, the characters do develop mutual feelings, and what the play does with their relationship is wistful, and very whimsical. Anna Gardiner’s set design corresponds with the quirkiness of the text, for a performance space imaginatively conceived to provide an enchanting sense of innocent wonder. Director Luke Rogers brings good coherence to a piece of unfettered mosaic-like writing, and his ability to balance upbeat energy with a daydream quality, gives the production its charming, and distinct style. In the role of Jonah is James Raggatt, awfully adorable and convincingly wide-eyed in his Tim Burton-esque interpretation of a young man smitten. His gentle but animated approach almost makes you believe his trespasses to be no more than a little innocuous skylarking. Sophie is a much more complex character, played by Charlotte Hazzard who portrays a woman’s need to be seen, with vital delicate care.

We all want to be acknowledged, for to be invisible is intolerable, but we are not always ready to pay the price for a bit of attention. Sophie wants to be on Jonah’s mind, but is unwilling to offer anything in return. Relationships do not always fit definitions or expectations. People can connect in unexpected ways, but convention can be agonising, and if we let it, can pull us apart. What a happy ending looks like, is familiar to everyone, but when destiny takes us in different directions, we may have to modify our beliefs, and see an alternate image of fulfilment.

www.storieslikethese.com

Review: Osama The Hero (Tooth And Sinew Theatre)

toothandsinewVenue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jan 21 – Feb 4, 2017
Playwright: Dennis Kelly
Director: Richard Hilliar
Cast: Tel Benjamin, Lynden Jones, Poppy Lynch, Joshua McElroy, Nicole Wineberg
Image by Ross Waldron

Theatre review
Just slightly beneath the skin of every human existence lies the barely contained need for violence, but like every propensity that we try to suppress, it finds expression in unexpected ways. Dennis Kelly’s Osama The Hero discusses our thirst for blood, looking at where that appetite comes from, and how it manifests. We find ourselves in an English housing estate, observing a group of neighbours inflicting cruel harm on one of their own.

It is a tale about scapegoating, and the habitual transference of our evil desires onto easy targets. In the case of Kelly’s play, young Gary, and his innocence, become the object of the group’s brutality, and in the process of his persecution, revelations are made about our oft-unexplained and neglected violent selves.

Director Richard Hilliar goes to great pains for every one of the play’s savage moments to occur with great power. The transgressions are hideous, and they are presented as such. A cultural gap exists between us and the working classes of England located at the centre of the drama, and it is arguable if the production’s interest in that specificity of experience has been made to translate effectively. As we are kept dazzled by the uniqueness of a cultural other, we often lose sight of the universality that can allow the work to resonate more intimately.

The ensemble of five is unquestionably energetic and committed, but the challenge posed by Kelly’s language and its accompanying encumbrance of dialects, can be a cause for distraction. Our attention alternates between hearing meanings, and observing the unsatisfying labour put into achieving what is ultimately a cosmetic accuracy. At their best however, the actors provide masochistic delight in an atmosphere of terrifying menace, the kind of which one would hope to encounter only at the theatre. Nicole Wineberg is particularly memorable in a scene involving her character Louise’s obsession over a video showing a man being killed. She brings the show to an intense peak, with the palpable depiction of a woman lost in evil and dread.

Bad people are almost always other people. If Osama The Hero succeeds, we should see ourselves in its characters, and gain a better understanding of the way we operate, as individuals and collectives, in these post-9/11 times of terror and fear. There is perhaps no solution to our unyielding need to make enemies out of fellow human beings, but knowing how that process works is essential if our evolution is to be progressive. When Osama bin Laden was executed, we never really expected the world to suddenly become a better place, but it certainly quenched the thirst of our carnivorous vengeance, if only for a moment.

www.toothandsinew.com