Review: Much Ado About Nothing (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Oct 22 – Nov 24, 2019
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: James Evans
Cast: Vivienne Awosoga, Danny Ball, Marissa Bennett, Mandy Bishop, Will McDonald, Zindzi Okenyo, Suzanne Pereira, Duncan Ragg, Paul Reichstein, David Whitney
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It is the classic story of misunderstandings, and the bumpy road that lovers must take, before arriving at happily ever after. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing features endless witty repartee, between idiosyncratic characters who seem to specialise only in matters of the heart. Romance takes centre stage, in an old-fashioned world that wants us to believe that nothing is more valuable than a monogamous heterosexual union.

Although rarely inventive, the production, directed by James Evans, is a joyful one, with a sense of playfulness that helps us get through the inevitable return of a perennial favourite. In the role of Benedick is an irrepressible Duncan Ragg, genuinely hilarious with his robust comedy, cleverly conceived and perfectly executed. Zindzi Okenyo plays a sophisticated Beatrice, memorable for an understated approach that works to reduce the cheese factor in Shakespeare’s play.

Hero is given emotional authenticity by Vivienne Awosoga whose efforts at instilling strength makes palatable the damsel in distress, and her gullible husband-to-be Claudio is depicted by a vibrant Will McDonald, who leaves a remarkable impression with his creative and energetic presence. Demonstrating that it is often Shakespeare’s male roles that truly shine, Mandy Bishop steals the limelight as Dogberry and Balthasar, incisive and effortlessly funny with all that she brings to the stage.

It is true, that we spend inordinate amounts of time and attention on romantic love. We seek a satisfaction unique to that experience, determined to find someone to fill an emptiness that cannot be otherwise occupied. There are things much more logical, and much more within an individual’s control, yet we stray from the possibilities of real achievement, to pursue that which is in many ways narrow and selfish. It seems that being human, we are capable of immense knowledge, but wisdom does not always mean that we act in the best interests of our species.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au

5 Questions with Tariro Mavondo and Jayna Patel

Tariro Mavondo

Jayna Patel: Do you have any pre-show rituals or routines?
Tariro Mavondo: Yes I do. My rituals usually differ depending on what the role I’m playing requires, for instance if it is a highly physical role I will do an intensive physical as well as vocal warm up. I always do a 15-30 min movement yogic sequence to get me into my body and out of my head as well as a set of personal affirmations and 10-15 min breathing meditation. A ritual for a while now has been to brush my teeth before every show to cleanse the day and enter the theatrical space of imagination, possibilities and wonder. I’m partial to candles, dim lights and soft music in my dressing room  and maybe one or two hard hitting tracks too.

If you were to recast the play with celebrities, who would you cast as who?
In line with Adena’s casting because I think she nailed it I would cast Frances McDormand in the principal role of Titus, Vanessa Williams as Tamora, Danai Gurira as Aaron, Peter Dinklage as Saturninus, Travis Fimmel as Bassianus/Marcus double, and I’d still cast Jayna, Tony and Grace because y’all stars in my eyes!

If you had the chance to have dinner with William Shakespeare, what would you ask him?
I’m interested in the theory of Emilia Bassano a black woman who was one of the first professional females writer’s in Elizabethan England having wrote his plays and the theory of her being the dark lady he refer to in his sonnets so I’d probably ask him about that. I’d also put on my best hip hop artists and ask him if he digs it because my guess is he’d be really into it!

Your purple hair for this show is so bold and beautiful! Is there anything you wouldn’t do to your hair for a show?
Thank you! Yeah I’m loving the vibrancy and vitality of wearing purple hair. I have done many things to my hair for the screen and stage there really isn’t anything I wouldn’t do I don’t think. Although my preference is keep it as natural looking as possible and not wear wigs that are closer to European hair if the character doesn’t require that. Black hair has a complete politic of its own and reclaiming the nappy kinky coil look when I can is important to me.

What’s your favourite kind of pie? (excluding Chiron & Demetrius flavour)
I don’t eat very much meat so I’d probably pick a sweet dessert pie – anything with apple. Apple and rhubarb or blueberry. Apple pie is probably my favourite winter dessert I’m also largely dairy free but cream on my apple pie is a must, haha definitely my guilty pleasure!

Jayna Patel

Tariro Mavondo: What has been your favourite part of making Titus Andronicus? And why? 
Jayna Patel: I love Adena’s style of theatre making because it is a collaborative process, and as a young person who often has no say in what goes on to the stage (and sometimes in life!) it’s really refreshing and empowering to have been able to contribute.

You often wear cool political t-shirts and musical theatre t-shirts, what’s your favourite? And why? 
My favourite t-shirt says ‘anti-colonial, anti- capitalist, for climate justice’ because I’m a climate activist who’s frankly quite scared for the future of the planet given the current environmental and political situation – I love being able to express my views & send an important message using what I wear! 

What drew you to wanting to work on Titus?
It’s a pretty funny story actually. Before I was sent this offer I had no idea what Titus Andronicus was, in fact I wasn’t too fond of any Shakespeare at the time! But my mum came to me and said “oh hey, there’s this Shakespeare play thing going on, and they want a 15 year old to audition, do you wanna give it a go?” and i said “sure why not!” So I hear that I actually got in and I’m stoked, and then my dad says “isn’t that Shakespeare’s most violent play?” and the excitement began there…

As your first main stage gig at the Opera House how are you feeling? And how are you managing the school load as well?
The first day we got into the venue, I was buzzing with excitement/nerves and I haven’t stopped! I cannot wait to hit the stage with this amazing team of artist and creatives. And as for school work… uh, let’s just say hopefully none of my teachers are reading this article!

Catch Tariro Mavondo and Jayna Patel in Titus Andronicus, by William Shakespeare.
Dates: 27 Aug – 22 Sep, 2019
Venue: Sydney Opera House

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: The Miser (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Mar 2 – Apr 6, 2019
Playwright: Molière (a new version by Justin Fleming)
Director: Peter Evans
Cast: John Bell, Michelle Doake, Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Elizabeth Nabben, Sean O’Shea, Jamie Oxenbould, Russell Smith, Damien Strouthos, Jessica Tovey
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Harpagon is the most miserly man you can imagine. He wants to marry off his daughter to a rich noble who has offered to waive the customary dowry, and is himself eager to marry a young woman who seems likely to be a frugal wife. Justin Fleming’s new version of Molière’s The Miser is a faithful adaptation that inflicts little disruption on the 350 year-old work, but the application of contemporary Australian lexicon refreshes it for a newly immediate experience. That we remain accustom to patriarchal structures, with mediocre men still ruling the roost in much of our daily lives, means that the very old play retains resonance. We relate to Molière’s iconoclastic spirit, but a sense of resignation pervades the play, for which our modern sensibilities should not be content with.

Designer Anna Tregloan offers a simple setting that conveys both Harpagon’s wealth and meanness, but it is her costumes that really impress. Flamboyant, colourful and unexpectedly trendy, every character is attired with an admirable level of taste and irony, perfectly coordinated to create a memorable visual vibrancy. Music by Max Lyandvert is charming, able to lure us into the story with a seductive power not unlike the irresistible magnetism of money. Peter Evans’ direction of the piece is less fanciful, with a straightforward approach that relies heavily on what each performer brings to the table.

John Bell is a convincing Harpagon, effortless in his portrayal of a very unlikable personality. More energetic members of cast leave a stronger impression, with Michelle Doake delivering the biggest laughs as Frosine, a matchmaker of sorts, demonstrating extraordinary aptitude for the classic farce genre. Damien Strouthos plays the son Cléante, deftly transforming the powerless offspring into a force of comedy, through bold physical explorations that delight, by virtue of their inventive quirkiness.

The problem with misers is that nobody seems to benefit from their obsession with hoarding. Those guilty are themselves constantly miserable, overwhelmed with an anxiety that accompanies the belief that nothing is ever enough. Everybody else is subsequently deprived of resources that are withdrawn from productivity, unable to gain necessary access for the general advancement of society. Harpagon puts his money in a cash box, allowing no one to do anything with it. What was once highly valued, is converted into dead objects. To have money means being able to do what the heart desires and what the brain can conceive. It can buy meaningless things, but it can also facilitate the betterment of countless lives. Misunderstanding the nature of money and the mismanagement of it, is responsible for so much of our ills and those who have lots of it have so much to answer for.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au

Review: Julius Caesar (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Oct 23 – Nov 25, 2018
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: James Evans
Cast: Jemwel Danao, Maryanne Fonceca, Ghenoa Gela, Neveen Hanna, Emily Havea, James Lugton, Kenneth Ransom, Nick Simpson-Deeks, Russell Smith, Sara Zwangobani
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Some things never change, and Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar could just as well be a story about Canberra in 2018. A controversial leader gets knifed, and all hell breaks loose, in this tale of a mutiny that does not go quite as planned. Cassius and Brutus conspire to have their leader extinguished, in order that a better system of government can be installed, but after Caesar’s death, they find themselves quite inadvertently shot in the foot. This is the story of Malcolm Turnbull, of Tony Abbott, of Julia Gillard, and of Kevin Rudd; a tradition of the Australian government that seems a recent phenomenon, but is in fact centuries old. Even after the chief takes a brutal fall, discontent among the ranks refuses to dissipate, and the process of elimination keeps repeating.

An appropriately modern tone is injected by director James Evans, who assembles for the production, a satisfyingly cinematic look and feel. Music by Nate Edmondson is particularly noteworthy. Luscious, bold and flamboyantly epic, sound proves itself this staging’s most reliable element, whenever we begin searching for explanations to the goings on.

Actor Kenneth Ransom is an unusual Caesar, statuesque but with a subdued presence. Cassius and Brutus are played by Nick Simpson-Deeks and James Lugton respectively, both delivering entertaining and rich characterisations, as well as impressing us with their marvellous ability at harnessing chemistry. In the role of Mark Antony is Sara Zwangobani who all but steals the show in Act III, when her disarming luminosity is given opportunity to occupy centre stage. The actor is intense and authentic, with a visceral power in her performance as the Roman leader that truly dominates.

A healthy democracy requires that we go the polls every few years to cast a ballot on who we wish to have representing us. This does not happen every time the tide changes or every moment we feel disillusioned by those whom we had given office. It is certainly not dependent on how private media companies and other interests wish to exercise their influence. There will always be people who think they know better than the populace, and seek to subvert our electoral rights. We can only hope that those who reject the universal rights all citizens are equally entitled to, like Cassius and Brutus, will in real life, suffer every consequence of their corruption.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au

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

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Aug 28 – Sep 28, 2018
Playwright: Molière (a new version by Justin Fleming)
Director: Lee Lewis
Cast: Simon Burke, Danielle Cormack, Catherine Davies, Ben Gerrard, Rebecca Massey, Hamish Michael, Anthony Taufa
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Alceste believes that the only truths are the ones in her own head, refusing to accept any behaviour she perceives to be contrary, and charges them all with hypocrisy. As fate would have it, her lover Cymbeline is no believer in fidelity, and when Alceste has to confront Cymbeline’s covert flirtations with several others, matters of the head and heart come to agonising conflict, in this tale about how we value our principles. Justin Fleming’s new adaptation of Molière’s The Misanthrope brings the play into our contemporary times, by immersing it deep into our obsession with popular culture, and even more significantly, by altering the genders of its key roles.

Alceste is now a woman, played by Danielle Cormack, a powerful and captivating presence, appropriately representing the influential position of our lead character, although a persistently sombre approach to the central role, does significantly diminish the humour of the piece. Cymbeline, previously Célimène, is now a male pop star, convincingly portrayed by Ben Gerrard who luxuriates in the part’s farcical narcissism. Sexuality is turned entirely fluid in this rendition of The Misanthrope, with every personality capable of gay and straight love, and orientation is no longer a concern.

The production looks vivid, absolutely glitzy at times, with Dan Potra’s very flashy costumes leaving a particularly strong impression, but the show is often underwhelming, unable to excite with its comedy or philosophies. Director Lee Lewis succeeds at making things modern and coherent, but an air of banality does, unfortunately, pervade.

Passion for one’s beliefs, is often the propulsion that moves us to greater planes, but it is perhaps more exigent than ever, that we should learn as societies, to accommodate the opinions of others at these very fractious times. Unable to reconcile her disdain for all that is dishonest and insincere, Alceste is increasingly isolated, ultimately left only with a doctrine that has achieved nothing. It is a huge challenge, to hold on to what is right, yet able to negotiate all the contrarians that inevitably surround. To find the answer to our peace is difficult, but imperative.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au | www.griffintheatre.com.au

Review: Antony And Cleopatra (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Mar 3 – Apr 7, 2018
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Peter Evans
Cast: Johnny Carr, Ray Chong Nee, Joseph Del Re, Lucy Goleby, Catherine McClements, Ursula Mills, Zindzi Okenyo, Gareth Reeves, Steve Rodgers, Jo Turner, Janine Watson
Image by Heidrun Löhr

Theatre review
In Shakespeare’s version of the historical drama, we see Antony of Rome trying to sort out the world’s problems, while his lover Cleopatra of Egypt attends to matters of the heart. A story of two of the world’s legendary leaders is twisted askew in Antony And Cleopatra, and we observe how much the idea of a female ruler was disturbing to the English mind. Under Shakespeare’s depiction, the woman’s decisions are made around the feelings she carries for her beau, but the man is allowed to get on with business as usual, burdened by much more than a love affair.

The production is beautifully presented. Anna Cordingley’s simple solution for set design conveys stately glamour with little fuss or ostentation, and her costumes achieve a remarkable level of sophistication, crucial in making the royal characters convincing. Lights by Benjamin Cisterne are similarly attractive, especially impressive when displaying bold choices, although many instances of unintended glare from a reflective backdrop, are more than a little distracting. Director Peter Evans does well in manufacturing a visually captivating piece of theatre; his work with abstract physical movement is particularly effective, but the classic tragedy struggles to find any genuine sense of poignancy on this stage.

Cleopatra is played by Catherine McClements, who brings good humour to the piece, cleverly subverting much of Shakespeare’s inanely “feminised” dialogue. The actor is a powerful presence, and we submit to her queenly preeminence with little effort. Johnny Carr is an intense Antony, charming in his conviction, but a strange interpretation of the role’s final moments, sets the scene for an anticlimactic conclusion to the play. An absence of chemistry between the two leads, further diminishes the potential for greater piquancy in this ancient romance. Moments of drama can however, be found in scenes that feature supporting actor Lucy Goleby, who introduces both vigour and nuance to her depictions, of Pompey and Scarrus, adding excitement and significant tension to the show. Also memorable is the luminescent Zindzi Okenyo, sensuous and strong as Egypt’s maid of honour Charmian.

The women are languid in Antony And Cleopatra. Seductive and emotional, and despite visible attempts to elevate status and meanings around them, Cleopatra’s romantic fixation keeps the story firmly in a sphere of gender inequality. We wish for relationships to help us be better people, who will do better things, but what we see happen between these protagonists is quite the opposite. Love is a destructive and retrogressive force, causing people to lose their minds and weaken their fortitude. Just four years before the play’s first staging, Elizabeth I of England ended her reign, remaining to her last breath, The Virgin Queen, if not for anything true about what men can do to a woman, then certainly for what men can write about women.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au