Review: The Merchant Of Venice (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 25 – Apr 1, 2017
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Anne-Louise Sarks
Cast: Mitchell Butel, Catherine Davies, Eugene Glifedder, Felicity McKay, Shiv Palekar, Damien Strouthos, Anthony Taufa, Jessica Tovey, Jo Turner, Jacob Warner
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
It is clear that Shakespeare wrote The Merchant Of Venice for an antisemitic audience. When we revisit the play today, there are choices to be made in its interpretation, to appropriately address its inherent prejudices. If it was indeed Shakespeare’s intention to shame and vilify Jewish people, contemporary productions must take the radical decision of going against the playwright’s will, or risk making statements that are completely unacceptable in our modern day.

Director Anne-Louise Sarks shifts the discussion from being an indictment on Jews, to one that chastises both Christianity and Judaism, effectively turning all the characters in The Merchant Of Venice uniformly into villains, and deftly solving the problem of Shakespeare’s racism. It is a thoroughly enjoyable staging, with commendable proficiency in all aspects, but it is the dialogue between Sarks and Shakespeare that is most engaging.

In imposing contemporary sensibilities onto the piece, Sarks lets us observe an evolution that has taken place over four centuries, and gives us the opportunity for repudiation and rectification. There is no better reason to remount classics, than using them to distance ourselves from the traditions and cultures they represent.

In acts of subversion, symbols of power, along with their gatekeepers and revered masters, are often implicated in the creation of something progressive and new. If we are to do Shakespeare endlessly, we must not permit the repetition of mistakes, even if it means changing the very essence of what is being said.

The role of Antonio the pious Christian, is carefully modified in this iteration to provide new meaning. Actor Jo Turner plays him unforgivable and contemptible, so that we too, want his pound of flesh. Shylock is performed by Mitchell Butel with excellent nuance, providing an image of vulnerable humanity, coupled with a vengeful ferocity, to make comprehensible the character’s temperament and intentions. It is an excellent cast, inventive and entertaining in all their contributions, for a show as amusing as it is intelligent.

In 2017, it is no longer tolerable to express any form of racial discrimination, but religion has itself become susceptible to scrutiny. In our refusal to abide by Shakespeare’s sanctimonious depiction of Christianity through the denigration of Jews, how we think about The Merchant Of Venice must go through transformation. What our gods represent must be allowed to move with the times, even if it means to disregard those who insist on adhering to unreasoning traditions.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au

Review: Richard III (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 25 – Apr 1, 2017
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Peter Evans
Cast: Ivan Donato, James Evans, Sandy Gore, James Lugton, Kevin Maclsaac, Kate Mulvany, Meredith Penman, Gareth Reeves, Rose Riley, Sarah Woods
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Born ugly, Richard never understood what it is to be loved, and his story details the effect on a person when rejection is a constant and central defining experience. Coupled with what we now term privilege, his aristocratic life places him in a position of power in spite of that perpetual derision, and what results is a bitter thirst for the reciprocation of inhumanity, that knows no bounds.

It is possible to think of evil as a condition that is somehow innate, even natural to some, or as Shakespeare does in Richard III, we can conceive of evil as a manufactured and socialised phenomenon. In director Peter Evan’s rendition, the way brutality manifests, is an unambiguous process of retribution; Richard’s behaviour is depicted as being a direct consequence of the way he suffers under the mistreatment of a cruel world.

The production is adequately assembled, but there is no overstating its capacity as a showcase for the staggering talents of Kate Mulvany, who takes on the eponymous role with splendid aplomb. Mulvany’s unequivocal brilliance occupies centre stage, having us enthralled at every second, and casting a shadow over the rest of the show. All we want, is to absorb every meticulous minutiae that she serves up in each word and gesture.

It is pure genius at work, and to witness a virtuoso performance that is so exhaustively invested and incredibly rich with resonance, is the kind of theatre that broadens our understanding of what art is capable of doing. When Mulvany strips off at dramatic climax, to reveal her own scoliosis, we see the severely curved spine that she shares with Richard, and in that moment, performativity and reality conflate, for one of the most powerful visions ever brought to stage. Our reaction is appropriately visceral, but we are also made to consider how we attribute a person’s merits, or more accurately in this case, demerits, to their natural traits. If Richard is a villain because of his congenital physical condition, we must question how Mulvany’s and everybody else’s corporeality, is able to determine the people that we eventually become. We wonder about the finality of fate from the point of birth, and the extent to which our existence is written in the stars, and on the flesh.

There are other members of cast who impress, most notably Meredith Penman and Sarah Woods who deliver sensational scenes of heightened emotion, but the piece dulls significantly in the short moments when our star is offstage. Evans’ frequent use of his actors as a chorus is occasionally awkward, although the sense of vigour they create is valuable in ensuring that our attention is sustained. The set and costumes do not quite achieve the luxury and decadence that it aspires to, and the use of a small television set to convey the presence of a dumbwaiter is an inelegant solution and a continual distraction.

Visual aesthetics in this Richard III may not be a strength, but the character we have come to see, is marvellously presented. To live is to learn, and to be human, we need to understand humanity. Art shows us all the possibilities of being, so that we can find ways to negotiate better, both our environs and our selves. It is unlikely that Richard is a straightforward reflection of any one of us, but through this extraordinary rendering of a man who suffers and who retaliates, we gain insight into the nature of personal demons and recognise the way we co-exist in communities. Love can bring about things most beautiful, but its absence, is how we invite every ugliness.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au

Review: Othello (Bell Shakespeare)

bellshakespeareVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Oct 25 – Dec 4, 2016
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Peter Evans
Cast: Ray Chong Nee, Joanna Downing, Alice Keohavong, Edmund Lembke-Hogan, James Lugton, Huw McKinnon, Elizabeth Nabben, Yalin Ozucelik, Michael Wahr
Image by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
As the saying goes, “well behaved women seldom make history”. Desdemona and Emilia are slaughtered by their respective husbands after displaying only wifely devotion, as well as prudent decorum to all and sundry in Othello. It is not a battle of the sexes in the play, for there is nothing that resembles a level playing field, but an examination of tyrannical brutality against women, and the treatment of women, in art and in society, as mere objects and possessions. Toxic masculinity is the villain, and it resides in every one of the play’s male characters. Jealousy and egotism are their driving force, and great drama certainly does ensue, along with observations on some of our ugliest traits as human beings.

It is a remarkably well-rehearsed production, with director Peter Evans’ innovative ideas keeping things fresh and relevant for contemporary audiences. Imagery is often beautifully manufactured; Evans’ efforts at adding visual resonance to Shakespeare’s text is admirable, especially noteworthy in Cassio’s “party scene”, involving strobe lights and levitating cask wine bladders. Lighting design by Paul Jackson is thoroughly adventurous, and relied upon heavily for scene transitions and atmospheric transformations, in the presence of a very minimal set, consisting little more than a big wheely table that is manoeuvred around the stage for a large portion of the show, breathtaking when effective, but unbelievably jarring when at its worst.

The cast is polished and energetic, but the show suffers from portrayals of very big emotions that are not necessarily persuasive. Ray Chong Nee is a stately and handsome Othello, perfect in his depiction of the character’s noble qualities, and enthralling as a romantic figure in the early sequences, but Othello’s descent into darker barbaric emotions is significantly less convincing. Bad guy Iago is powerfully performed by Yalin Ozucelik, charismatic and full of conviction, in a role that gives the plot its strongest propulsive vigour. Although slightly lacking in texture, the actor’s work remains captivating, with a delicious Machiavellianism that makes for excellent entertainment.

It is reported that one woman is killed by her partner every week in Australia. When the women are slain at the bitter end, our attention is drawn squarely onto the behaviour of the perpetrators. We begin to wonder if much has changed over the last four centuries, and are disturbed by the thought that the lowest of our nature continues to persist through aeons of civilisation. Shakespeare’s Othello, is a man’s story for men. It is a tragedy with logic and consequences, where a black man is used, in a highly prejudiced manner, to demonstrate that primordial impulses can lead to catastrophe. Our salvation can lie only in the understanding of our destructive nature, and in every effort to restrain and reshape those instincts. If we choose to improve, life becomes better, but where we take the cowardly alternative, there can only be loss.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au

Review: The Literati (Bell Shakespeare / Griffin Theatre Company)

griffinVenue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), May 27 – Jul 16, 2016
Playwright: Justin Fleming (after Molière)
Director: Lee Lewis
Cast: Caroline Brazier, Gareth Davies, Jamie Oxenbould, Kate Mulvany, Miranda Tapsell
Image by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
There are two halves to the family in Justin Fleming’s The Literati. Philomena and her elder daughter Amanda have aspirations for a sophisticated existence, both enamoured with books and language, while Christopher and younger daughter Juliet are of a simpler ilk, down-to-earth like true blue Aussies never to be caught dead with tickets on themselves. The play is about pretension, and the meaning of knowledge. We explore what it is to be good people, in a world where values are easily misplaced and ideas about virtue are unstable and skewed. Its message is uncomplicated, with a plot that proves to be entirely predictable, but The Literati is gorgeously written, with inexhaustible wit permeating every rhyming couplet in this thoughtful adaptation of Les Femmes Savantes by Molière. The jokes come fast and furious, along with inspired ruminations about diverse subjects including romance, intellectualism, purity and class.

Characters in The Literati are archetypal, but convenient moralistic jabs at “the bad guys” are thankfully few. The play wrestles with the problematic duo of Philomena and Amanda, shallow on one hand, but admirably ambitious on the other. Their desires are noble, but their mode of pursuance is misguided. The play sets up an old-fashioned dichotomy of pure and impure, but allows itself to negotiate between the two, so that we achieve a more textured understanding of good and bad within the story. Director Lee Lewis makes the appropriate decision of placing effect before depth, for a work that has nothing unusual to say but has very impressive ways of expressing its beliefs. The comedy is often flamboyant, but Fleming’s exquisite words are always in the spotlight, full of evocative power and mischievous vigour. The production is buoyant from start to finish, and although occasionally repetitious with its methods of eliciting laughter, we are kept engrossed in its electrifying showmanship.

Playing Christopher and Clinton is the one endearing Jamie Oxenbould, convincing and dynamic in his diverse roles. A memorable sequence features the actor alone on a revolving stage performing with meticulous clarity, and an exuberant sense of absurdity, both his characters in passionate dialogue with each other, completely absorbent of our attention, astonishment and adoration. Gareth Davies and Kate Mulvany offer up very broad humour with outlandish interpretations of their caricatures, finding every opportunity to perform their unrestrained comedy to a very appreciative and delighted crowd.

People in The Literati fight over the redundancy of words and culture, when notions of style are not validated by substance. The moral of Molière’s story is neither controversial nor surprising, but we are captivated by the production’s theatricality and the resonance of its language. In some ways, the show defeats its own argument, for what keeps us enthralled is not its idealistic core, but the talent that emanates from it. We fall in love with its gestures and articulations, but pay little heed to its very point of contention. We can look at art without the need for a presumed frame of reference or an indication of something behind, something deeper. Art is not a means to an end, but a sacred entity meaningful on its own terms. “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There’s nothing behind it.”

www.bellshakespeare.com.auwww.griffintheatre.com.au

Review: Romeo And Juliet (Bell Shakespeare)

bellshakespeareVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 20 – Mar 27, 2016
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Peter Evans
Cast: Cramer Cain, Justin Stewart Cotta, Michelle Doake, Michael Gupta, Angie Milliken, Kelly Paterniti, Hazem Shammas, Tom Stokes, Damien Strouthos, Jacob Warner, Alex Williams
Image by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Youth is wasted on the young, but romance is best experienced at a tender age. Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet is the most romantic of stories, which by the same token, would mean that it is a play that can seem completely ludicrous to some. A pair of teenagers meet at a party, decide to get married hours later and over the next few days go through hell and high water to stop their families from prying them apart. Human attraction and the sexual impulse are often mysterious, but instantly recognisable when present. In Peter Evans’ iteration, we see an abundance of sophistication and polish, but chemistry is in scarcity.

The production’s first half sees several energetic performers providing effective comedy and lively interaction. Notable supporting players include Michelle Doake and Damien Strouthos who delight with flamboyant theatrics that help us engage with nuances of the plot, while delivering surprising swells of laughter. Stars of the show Kelly Paterniti and Alex Williams bring passion to the narrative, but we are never quite convinced enough about the relationship to invest our emotion into their dilemma. In the tragic second half, an unravelling seems to occur, and we become even less involved in the lovers’ plight despite their catastrophic fate. Kelly Ryall does marvellous work with music, and even though wonderfully executed throughout, does not help the concluding melodrama take flight, and the greatest of love stories leaves us cold.

Juliet and Romeo are in love with strangers. Like many things in life, their connection defies logic but are indisputably real. Something magical happens between the two, but we are not privy to it. They are overwhelmed and moved to extremes, while we observe with slight curiosity, wondering how it is that innocent love can fade without warning. Time does strange things to people, but we must be there to witness its power. Our protagonists have seen little, but we can find solace in the fact that they had only ever experienced purity, if nothing much else.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au

Review: Hamlet (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Oct 27 – Dec 6, 2015
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Damien Ryan
Cast: Philip Dodd, Ivan Donato, Robin Goldsworthy, Josh McConville, Julia Ohannessian, Sean O’Shea, Matilda Ridgway, Catherine Terracini, Michael Wahr, Doris Younane
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Director Damien Ryan’s rendition of Hamlet takes place in mid-20th century Denmark, with surveillance technology, airport last call announcements, and broadcasts of royal weddings. The prince is deeply upset by the death of his father, and by his mother’s very quick remarriage, but within this modern context, his very well known nervous breakdown seems to also involve the pressures of nobility as we understand them today. Our memory of Diana, Princess of Wales persevere, and the way she had been spoken off as having gone out of control, serves as a parallel to this Hamlet.

Ryan’s ideas are refreshing and plentiful. They can be meaningful, or merely ornamental, but his work is invariably engaging. In our age of collective attention deficit disorder, the production’s ability to retain our interest for over 3 hours is remarkable. Every scene is energetic, whether poignant, comedic, or transitory, Ryan finds a way to deliver entertainment and a quality of intrigue regardless of the text’s intentions. This is excellent directing, that has given rise to a show that can captivate even the most cursory of Shakespeare’s fans. Visual design contributes significantly to its pleasures. Alicia Clements’ versatile set produces dimensions on the stage with minimal fuss, and lighting designer Matt Cox’s nightmarish atmosphere administers a mesmerising effect that takes charge of our gaze.

In its efforts at bringing a newness to Hamlet, it might be argued that some dramatic tensions are unfortunately lost from the plot. The significant subdual of King Claudius’ villainy, along with the decision to play Queen Gertrude as an innocent, might be politically correct moves, but they take away from the power struggles that provide a certain spiciness to the admittedly clichéd foundations, especially in its first half. Nevertheless, the sophisticated and measured performances of the entire cast are enjoyable, and thankfully, easy to follow.

Josh McConville’s interpretation of the title role is a dynamically ranging one that exhibits a daring freedom eager to explore and experiment. McConville is powerful with all that he presents, playing comedy and tragedy equally well, but the distinction between both can appear too drastic. We understand the subject of madness involved, but it is debatable whether consistency of character can be improved in his expression of Hamlet’s state of mind. Ophelia is played by Matilda Ridgway, who shakes off the personality’s obligatory tweeness over the course of the play and puts on an impressive display of sorrow and rage in her concluding moments, for some of the most passionate and compelling scenes of the production. Philip Dodd is memorable and disarmingly funny in his parts as Polonius and Gravedigger. The actor’s confident and nuanced comic timing is a necessary element that helps with the show’s buoyancy, effectively preventing any monotony from setting in.

Revenge speaks to our base desires. A hallmark of advanced societies is the rejection of capital punishment, yet stories about vengeance resonate with no trouble at all. In Hamlet, revenge is a cancer that destroys from within. Its effects are contrary to the emotions that guide it. When enacted, the only ones who win are those from the outside, uninvolved in the eye for eye narrative. It is a profound lesson, one that is deeply, and appropriately for this text, Christian. To forgive and forget is an ideal that is unthinkable for many, but probably the only alternative to our prince’s tragic demise.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au

Review: The Tempest (Bell Shakespeare)

bellshakespeare
Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Aug 19 – Sep 18, 2015
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: John Bell
Cast: Robert Alexander, Matthew Backer, Felix Gentle, Brian Lipson, Arky Michael, Hazem Shammas, Maeliosa Stafford, Damien Strouthos, Eloise Winestock
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Shakespeare’s fantastical masterpiece The Tempest, with all its mystique and magic, is almost an allegory for the transportative and imaginary qualities of the world of theatre. On Prospero’s island, anything can happen, and on the stage, it is precisely that boundless unpredictability that makes it a special, and for many, sacred space. Whether it is the stories of everyday that are being presented, or manifesting scenarios beyond the wildest of dreams, theatre has the ability to provide something extraordinary to all its participants.

Like Prospero abandoning the magical arts at the play’s end, John Bell directs his last production with this rendition of The Tempest. The cast he has amassed is an impressive one, and Bell’s extensive acting background is clear to see, in the fascinating and intricate characters being brought to life. Every player is detailed, energetic and palpably present, yet the resultant show is oddly placid. Themes of the text fail to resonate. Ideas such as the distinctions we draw between nations, between nature and civilisation, between freedom and confinement, struggle to find illumination, even though their presences in modern life remain relevant. Exoticism is explored well in the show, but its sense of adventurous fantasy is not always established with sufficient dynamism. Music by Alan John and sound design by Nate Edmondson are outstanding features; helping to drive the production through atmospheric transformations and exquisite moments of ethereality. Less successful are its visual elements that seem to lack whimsy and ambition. The story being told is celestial and outlandish, but what we see is staid and dated. Even exits and entrances are awkwardly managed to accommodate the inconvenient access to stage wings of the uninspired set.

Prospero is played by Brian Lipson, whose nuanced and vibrant performance provides sustenance for the entire plot, and whose sharp focus keeps us compelled. The production suffers from an overall lack of poignancy, but Lipson depicts emotions with gravitas and complexity that assist with some level of audience identification. Arky Michael and Hazem Shammas are a show-stealing couple whose mischievous antics are a persistent source of amusement. They create some of the most memorable sequences with brilliantly broad comedic interpretations of their dual roles (Michael plays Sebastian and Trinculo, and Shammas is Antonio and Stephano), captivating us with what looks to be an updated, and improved, Laurel and Hardy act.

The story is about kingdoms, sorcery, and heavenly creatures, but the show does not bear the majesty of the famed text. With its delicate and sincere approach, it is easy to be disappointed by the production’s simplicity, even though the thoroughness of its thespian executions are evident. William Shakespeare’s imagination is a genius that is unparalleled, and it seems that our meagre capacities in the dark auditorium requires greater facilitation, in order to achieve the same vision he had intended.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au