Review: Hamlet (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 29 – Apr 4, 2020
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Peter Evans
Cast: Jeremi Campese, Tony Cogin, Jack Crumlin, James Evans, Harriet Gordon-Anderson, James Lugton, Jane Mahady, Lisa McCune, Robert Menzies, Aanisa Vylet, Sophie Wilde
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Having very recently lost his father, the young prince is understandably grief-stricken. Hamlet obsesses over his mother’s quick remarriage to the new King Claudius, almost as a form of distraction, but when the ghost of the dead king arrives to reveal that it was his own brother Claudius who had killed him, Hamlet becomes overwhelmed with fury. More than a revenge story, Shakespeare’s Hamlet examines the meaning of death, from the vantage point of a man obsessed with bereavement.

It is a handsome production, with Benjamin Cisterne’s lights giving a glamorous finish to the staging, and designer Anna Tregloan’s 1960’s costumes adding a sense of whimsy. Tregloan’s cyclorama depicts a beautiful Danish snowscape, but an awkward house-shaped frame sits centre stage, doing little more than to confuse with its lack of purpose. Video projections by Laura Turner helps us empathise with Hamlet’s tragic circumstances, as does Max Lyandvert’s restrained music compositions.

Director Peter Evans’ conservative style may not deliver anything unexpected, but his rendition is likely to appeal to fans of Shakespeare who favour a more conventional approach. Actor Harriet Gordon-Anderson is insufficiently charismatic as the lead, but displays clear dedication to her craft. What she offers as the Danish prince is not always convincing, due in part to her slight stature, although there is no questioning her conviction and focus for the role. The two problematic women in Hamlet, Gertrude and Ophelia, are played by Lisa McCune and Sophie Wilde respectively, both performers able to convey a certain level of power and integrity, in spite of Shakespeare’s intentions to portray them as useless. Robert Menzies leaves a strong impression as Polonius, animated and entertaining as the court’s chief counsellor.

In the twenty-first century, it is easy to take issue with the representation of women in Shakespeare’s work. We are far less likely to accept as reasonable, the extremely unbalanced way in which gender is expressed in his oeuvre. The current trend of placing women actors in key male roles does, to some extent, soften the blow of insults to half of humankind, but the strategy is rarely if ever, able to comprehensively address the gender problem that figures so centrally in all of Shakespeare’s narratives.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au

5 Questions with Jeremi Campese and Aanisa Vylet

Jeremi Campese

Aanisa Vylet: Hey Jeremi, what excites you the most about this production of Hamlet?
Jeremi Campese: Harriet’s performance first and foremost. But also, Peter’s vision of nostalgia incorporates projections of memories (shot on a period-appropriate Super 8mm camera!!). Placing the past in such clear view gives the present a REALLY moving poignancy at particular moments. I won’t say too much else about the projections, but they’re beautiful and work with Hamlet constantly trying to look back and remember/grieve for his father. The same for Ophelia too!

I understand that you have worked previously with Bell Shakespeare as part of their Players Education program, what was the process like and how has it contributed to your approach during rehearsals?
It was a total joy. Especially performing at regional schools: you’re often their only form of live Shakespeare (and sometimes of live performance) so they were super generous in their excitement and willingness to learn. Of course, there are down days and tough audiences — hormonal 14 years olds at 9am? Thank u next. The whole tour has just made me far more confident in myself as an actor and with the Shakespearean text. But most importantly, no audience can intimidate you after performing to some of those teenagers!

Can you tell us a little bit about your character Rosencrantz and his buddy Guildenstern?
Ros and Guil are school-friends of Hamlet’s. They probably haven’t seen him in a couple years since uni began, but the King and Queen call them after Hamlet’s behaviour becomes strange to find out what’s wrong. It’s a very fun dynamic because they’re constantly having to choose between their childhood friend and the authority of the Court.

Something that I very much respect about your practice is that you are self taught. Do you have any advice for younger actors who wish to pursue a similar path?
Acting is an applied discipline, so it’s only natural that best way to learn is just on the job. So, my advice would just be to keep yourself busy with work. If you don’t have a show lined up, go to auditions; if you don’t have auditions lined up, do workshops (ATYP run fantastic ones for e.g.); if you don’t have workshops lined up, read/learn monologues (contemporary, Shakespearean, classical). If you keep your actor-brain working whenever you can, you’ll always be improving. But also, don’t totally throw away drama school as an option: take those auditions and opportunities seriously.

Which character do you have a secret crush on in Hamlet?
WOW what a question. Maybe Gertrude. I truly think her and Claudius love each other dearly: and Lisa McCune (who’s playing her) and I agree, she was definitely a party animal when she was younger!

Aanisa Vylet

Jeremi Campese: What excites you most about this production of Hamlet?
Witnessing Harriet Gordon Anderson play Hamlet and seeing Peter Evans’ vision for the work unfold. What excites me the most about this endeavour is both Harriet and Peter’s commitment to drawing out Hamlet’s humanity. It is the first time I have witnessed Hamlet being played by a woman and I hope it is not the last.

The Mousetrap is a huge plot point in the play, and Shakespeare builds up to it a fair bit. Without giving too much away, what’s your vision for it in this show?
Hmmm…. Our collective vision is a melange of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Russian Absurdist Theatre, Ballet, Greek Tragedy & Comical Historical Pastoral Theatre.

Much of your work has been on contemporary and your own, new work (The Girl/The Woman was amazing). How have you found working on a classic text with such a long history of performance and study?
I will let you all in on a little secret – as a high school student I was terrified of Shakespeare. I am also an advocate of creating new work (as I truly believe we are the Shakespeare’s of our times). So… when I auditioned for this production I decidedly went in as my true self, with my truth and my interpretation of the text. I was deeply impressed with the collaborative approach of the Company. I felt at home as an artist and I quickly realised that we were creating a new play from an old story and I could still bring my artistry to it and I could learn quite a lot from the process.

I still believe we need to continue to create new stories that reflect the cultural sensibility of our times but I have also realised these stories have their place too. I believe the text, the world within these plays inspires audiences and speaks to the humanity in many people. The fears of “not knowing enough”, “not being articulate enough” or “stuffing it up” have calmed down due to these realizations, the help of generous cast members and an incredibly supportive company. And in terms of dealing with a text that has had such a long performance history… well… for me every text is up to interpretation.

Who’s your favourite character in the play?
Hamlet. Hands down. The first play I had ever seen was Bell Shakespeare’s Hamlet, directed by John Bell. I was in year 10. I related to Hamlet so much… I could not understand why. All I knew was that I couldn’t shake the feeling that something hidden within me was laid bare on stage.

QUICK! The Aanisa Vylet biopic is being made: who do you want playing you?
A chorus of women of colour speaking in voice.

Jeremi Campese and Aanisa Vylet can be seen in Hamlet, by Bell Shakespeare.
Dates: 29 Feb – 4 Apr, 2020
Venue: Sydney Opera House

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