Review: They Divided The Sky (Daniel Schlusser Ensemble)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jun 13 – 30, 2018
Playwright: Daniel Schlusser (from the Christa Wolf novel)
Director: Daniel Schlusser
Cast: Stephen Phillips, Nikki Shiels
Images by Patrick Boland

Theatre review
Adapted from Christa Wolf’s novel Der geteilte Himmel, Daniel Schlusser’s They Divided The Sky tells the story of Rita and Manfred, lovers in East Germany, just before the 1961 erection of the Berlin wall. Like pieces of demolished concrete scattered in the aftermath, romantic fragments constitute the play, as we wade through a recollection of events, trying to piece together truths of the past.

Politics of that era is central to the piece, but resonance is derived instead, from the personal relationship between its two characters. With mid-century German ideologies taking a backseat, we focus on the dynamics of the pair, examining the intricacies of love at a time of social unrest.

They Divided The Sky is challenging, but ultimately fulfilling, work. Schlusser’s writing and direction require of us, a deep concentration, in order that its transcendental beauty can take effect. Incisive lighting design by Amelia Lever-Davidson helps us tune in, with a degree of meditative attention, in order that we may approach the staging with a heightened sensitivity. James Paul’s sound design manipulates our emotions so that we respond accurately, on a visceral level, even when our minds are yet to figure out what it all means.

Stephen Phillips and Nikki Shiels are the wonderful actors charged with the responsibility of keeping us intrigued and invested. With an usual approach to plot structure, the play is slow to draw us in, but we are captivated from the start, by the strong presence of its cast. Individually, Phillips and Shiels are precise and cerebral with what they bring, and as a couple, their chemistry is unusually powerful. Whether subtle or intense, their energy is able to fill the stage, and in every shade of light and dark that they manufacture, we discover something special in their ephemeral theatricality.

A love is never more devastating than when it ends prematurely. In a week that has seen migrant children torn away mercilessly from their parents, we can easily imagine what it feels like to have a heart be broken, not by the object of desire, but by cruel external forces. In a world increasingly adversarial, the dreaded history of Germany in two halves serves as cautionary tale, for what could result from our appetite for strife and disunity. We can all have our own principles, but to let them get in the way of peace, is our biggest offence.

www.belvoir.com.au | www.danielschlusser.com

Review: Bliss (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jun 9 – Jul 15, 2018
Playwright: Peter Carey (adapted for the stage by Tom Wright)
Director: Matthew Lutton
Cast: Marco Chiappi, Mark Coles Smith, Will McDonald, Amber McMahon, Charlotte Nicdao, Susan Prior, Anna Samson, Toby Truslove
Images by Pia Johnson

Theatre review
Harry Joy escapes a narrow death, but in the return to consciousness, he is no longer the same. Peter Carey’s 1981 novel Bliss is the story of an archetypal ad man, exemplary only in the mediocrity that he embodies, coming to the realisation that the hell he endures is in fact present in the here and now, and not a figment about a foreboded afterlife. Tom Wright’s adaptation for the stage is appropriately surreal, as Joy begins to see the absurdity of the world that he inhabits. Scenes are whimsically comedic, with a flamboyant sense of neurosis that makes for amusing theatre, but its tale of redemption feels surprisingly distant. The central concerns in Bliss remain relevant, but 37 years is a long while for us to retain meaningful identification with its plot and people.

Although little of the content has been updated for our times, director Matthew Lutton’s stylistic choices are undeniably au courant, inventive and imaginative. Sprightly, with a little acerbity, it is an energetic production, spouting clever ideas at every turn. The moral of its story can seem too basic, and obvious, but the show’s structural complexities keep us attentive. Marg Horwell’s set is a simple concept that proves highly effective in shifting dimensions, thereby conveying time and space in a dynamic manner. Paul Jackson’s big, blunt lighting transformations give us lots of delicious drama, and Stefan Gregory’s music has a quirky edge that is delightfully unpredictable.

Actor Toby Truslove is a credible leading man, especially persuasive in moments of melancholy. His quiet but confident interpretation of the play’s humour, brings a subtlety that offers refreshing juxtaposition against a lot of theatrical commotion. As Bettina Joy, Amber McMahon’s rigorous elucidations are as illuminating as they are entertaining. The performer is to be admired for the integrity she is able to introduce, to a character who is destroyed for daring to follow her bliss. Marco Chiappi and Susan Prior are memorable for the boldness of their satire, both personalities radiant and irresistibly funny on this stage.

There can never be enough stories warning us about the single-minded pursuit of money. The seductive powers of materialism seem to grow ever so exponentially, no matter how much we are told of its dangers. The all-or-nothing propositions of Bliss however, give it a quality of the parable, the kind that conclude with unrealistic resolutions that will struggle to deliver inspiration. It is easy to say that the root of all evil is money, but much harder to find an alternate undertaking, when one is deeply entrenched in the deceptive glory of gold.

www.belvoir.com.au | www.malthousetheatre.com.au

Review: The Sugar House (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 5 – Jun 3, 2018
Playwright: Alana Valentine
Director: Sarah Goodes
Cast: Sheridan Harbridge, Sacha Horler, Lex Marinos, Josh McConville, Kris McQuade, Nikki Shiels
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Narelle is the first of her family to go to university. Growing up under her grandmother June’s strict guidance, Narelle carries the hopes of generations of McCreadies, whose existences in Sydney have struggled persistently with poverty and criminality. In Alana Valentine’s The Sugar House, we observe the life story of one Sydneysider and her family, alternating between the years 1966, 1985 and 2007, watching the evolution of Narelle along with this city, forming an understanding of our own growth and gradual gentrification.

Our daily endurance of life in one of the world’s most expensive cities, can often delude us into believing only in its sophistication and varnished veneers. We try hard to forget its past, particularly in relation to invasions and genocide, as well as the deep seated impact of convict and refugee immigration. We imagine ourselves to be worldly and refined, and become precious in our embodiment of this glamoured image. In some ways, this is what June had always wanted for Narelle. Breaking the poverty cycle, might have meant for the matriarch, an end to suffering and injustice, but Narelle and our reality in Sydney today, has serious complications that she probably never foresaw.

The play is unmistakably sentimental, with sounds in its dialogue that are authentic and profoundly beautiful. The plot does meander slightly, but vivid personalities keep us attentive and intrigued. The Sugar House is passionately constructed, by playwright Valentine and director Sarah Goodes, who establish a soulfulness for the production that forms its irresistible allure. It talks about our community, the forgotten and hidden parts of it, with a refreshing honesty that many will find engaging. Narelle’s story is not all our stories, but no Sydneysider can escape the reverberations of her family’s experience.

Actor Sheridan Harbridge is a charming Narelle, persuasive at all ages but especially impressive with her sensitive portrayal of the 8 year-old version, impeccable in her presentation of a child full of intelligence and infectious life. June is played by the very compelling Kris McQuade, whose powerful combination of warmth and austerity, gives anchor, and accuracy, to a play concerned with history and accountability. Sacha Horler delivers a stunning performance in the supporting role of Margo, Narelle’s mother, depicting immense and glorious strength alongside the incessantly cruel torment she tolerates.

The stage is flanked on two sides by tall, mid-century windows (elegantly created by set designer Michael Hankin) demarcating a space that can be read either as glossy and new, or coarse and antiquated, depending on the scenes taking place before them. How we think of our city, should be similarly complex and heterogeneous. Our surface wishes to project a certain ideal, and that represents one truth of Sydney, which has emerged from our earnest aspirations, but layers beneath contain aspects that many have less pride for. Regrettable and shameful pasts make people rewrite histories. Lies can be used to mislead others, but the more that we try to deny ourselves the real stuff that we are made of, the more we will feel the emptiness in its place.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: The Readers (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 5 – 19, 2018
Playwright: Scott Smart
Director: Elizabeth Nabben
Cast: Anni Finsterer, John McNeill, Scott Smart
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It is tempting to judge ourselves by things we read in the news. The extremities of society, whether the great successes or our dismal failures, give a powerful impression of the people we are, but routinely neglected are the smaller stories of millions of individuals, those that offer a more accurate picture of daily Australian life. Scott Smart’s The Readers puts focus on those who make up the regular working class, the ones who rarely make the papers.

Peter and Lachlan read electricity metre boxes for a living, going about their business with little fuss or drama. They are two white men who seem to suffer no disadvantage, but their lives are not without challenges. In our current state of accelerating capitalism, what were once perfectly respectable jobs, are gradually turned humiliating. The play shows the insidious nature of how money is allowed to compromise the dignity of our workers. Peter and Lachlan have rules to abide by, but not all of them are reasonable.

The production is elegantly directed by Elizabeth Nabben, who manifests a quiet charm around her characters and situations. It seems society has accepted that employers will, by some degree, infringe upon their staff, and The Readers embodies a quality of nonchalance that reflects that reality. Working for someone does not mean that one becomes a stakeholder, one simply becomes an instrument of functionality, and will have to accept a certain amount of dehumanisation within their prescribed responsibilities. It is the profit motive that takes precedence, rather than the welfare of our communities.

John McNeill and Scott Smart play the key roles, both subtle but strong with their humour, delivering excellent nuance for this gentle piece of theatre. They form an amusing duo, comedic but also poignant, without having to reach for creative choices that may be too obvious. The third wheel Annie, a flimsy character with arguably unconvincing traits, is performed by Anni Finsterer who plays up the silliness to great effect, for moments of extraordinary hamminess that prove surprisingly delightful.

In The Readers, we see that the only thing trickling down from top to bottom, is the anxiety of business ownership. Profits, on the other hand, remain exclusively within the upper crust. Managers do not hesitate to exert pressure on those who have to put in the hard yards, but only shareholders stand to gain monetary wise. Peter and Lachlan never complain. Like most of our work force, people accept their lot, accustom to the feeling of disempowerment. We are taught to work hard, to grin and bear it, in order that rewards may be delivered. That belief is not a lie, but it is clearly not the entire truth.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Greater Sunrise (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Apr 5 – 21, 2018
Playwright: Zoe Hogan
Director: Julia Patey
Cast: Laurence Coy, Jose Da Costa, Cassandra Sorrell, Alexander Stylianou
Images by Hon Boey

Theatre review
Australia’s history with Timor-Leste is chequered, to say the least. In Zoe Hogan’s Greater Sunrise, we see an account of the evil that we are capable of, when dealing with a neighbouring nation rich with oil, but poor in influence. Australian aid worker Joana discovers the ugly operations that her government undertakes in the country she is assigned to help, and tries to find a way for justice to prevail.

It is admirable that Hogan brings attention to the important but under-reported issues surrounding our relationship with Timor-Leste, but the play struggles to speak powerfully, with a plot structure that is perhaps too filmic in its approach to work on the stage. The erratic timeline and its excessively frequent scene changes, prevent us from becoming invested sufficiently in Joana’s story.

Cassandra Sorrell shows good conviction in the lead role, but performances in Greater Sunrise are rarely more than adequate. The production feels distant and vague, preventing us from finding any meaningful resonance that could correspond with its grand message. Lights by Benjamin Brockman and sound by Clare Hennessy, however, provide a level of polish that helps sustain our attention. The emotional cues provided by design elements give the narrative some tenacity when other aspects falter.

Greater Sunrise provides valuable elucidation about the ongoing project of colonisation in our region. It tells us that we need to find satisfactory methods of reparation for the way Indigenous communities have been unjustly exploited, and also to take responsibility for the immoral and unethical dimensions of our insatiable capitalistic drives. The planet provides immense wonder, but its allure seems determined to elicit human behaviour that is cruel and deplorable.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Sami In Paradise (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Apr 1 – 29, 2018
Playwright: Nikolai Erdman (adapted by Eamon Flack and the company)
Director: Eamon Flack
Cast: Paula Arundell, Fayssal Bazzi, Nancy Denis, Charlie Gerber, Victoria Haralabidou, Marta Kaczmarek, Mandela Mathia, Arky Michael, Yalin Ozucelik, Hazem Shammas, Vaishnavi Suryaprakash
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
In a refugee camp, life is cheap. Its inhabitants are essentially stateless, treated like human waste; unwanted and despised by the world. When word goes out that Sami is contemplating suicide, a throng materialises, of groups suddenly taking interest in his existence, not to offer dissuasion or rescue, but to leverage his impending death for their own purposes. Nikolai Erdman’s deeply cynical The Suicide undergoes a wild adaptation by director Eamon Flack and the company of Sami In Paradise, updating the 90 year-old play so that it converges with concerns of the day. The ubiquitous but blasé digital activism being disseminated in developed nations, is juxtaposed against the dire plight of asylum seekers, to deliver a work that interrogates our social consciousness through some very acerbic humour.

A thoroughly entertaining production, Sami In Paradise engages cleverly with its audience, discussing the most serious of issues with a deceptively light touch. The many laughs that it provides requires that we pay attention to matters that many usually choose to turn a blind eye to; the only way to indulge in its comedy is to be engrossed in the dark tale that lies at the centre of all the jolly action. An effervescent carnival atmosphere is manufactured by Flack, who demonstrates extraordinary inventiveness in his use of space and talent. Jethro Woodward’s music plays an integral part in calibrating energy and mood for the piece, with musicians Mahan Ghobadi and Hamed Sadeghi proving invaluable to the show’s resounding success.

A motley crew of sprightly characters, inexhaustibly mischievous, take to the stage for an exceptionally well-rehearsed and creative theatrical experience. Their confident chemistry ensures that we enjoy every minute of their presentation; delightful and provocative in equal measure. Leading man Yalin Ozucelik’s glorious portrayal of the despondent and confused Sami, is a work of comic genius. Technically brilliant, but also undeniably soulful, his storytelling captivates and inspires, while keeping us endlessly amused. The cast’s ability to convey a sense of depth within each of its jokey manoeuvres, makes their show revelatory and meaningful.

Humans are capable of great atrocities, and it is important that art helps us understand the parts of ourselves that are reprehensible. It is easy to ignore the ugly ways in which we operate, and let comforting delusions lead us to believe that humanity is only benevolent. Art has to embody and reflect the truth, and the more that it is able to let us see who we actually are, the more it needs to be championed, even if the results are difficult. Sami acknowledges that we hold power over his destiny, and asks us point blank, if we wish to have him killed. Our answer should be simple, but all the evidence suggests that we are not capable of doing the right thing.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Single Asian Female (Belvoir St Theatre / La Boite Theatre Company)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Feb 16 – Mar 23, 2018
Playwright: Michelle Law
Director: Claire Christian
Cast: Emily Burton, Lucy Heffernan, Patrick Jhanur, Alex Lee, Courtney Stewart, Hsiao-Ling Tang
Image by Dan Boud

Theatre review
Social status in Australia is ordered, always with the married white man at the top. Michelle Law’s Single Asian Female is therefore quite instinctively, a play about the experience of being deemed inadequate, in at least three different ways. The lead characters have to contend with the notion that their marital status, ethnicity and gender are problems, in a story about perfectly normal, or more accurately, complete people who can never quite be good enough. Pearl and her two daughters try to get on with life, but they face challenges every day for being unmarried, for being women, for being “ethnic”. Fortunately, the Wong ladies are talented, resourceful and resilient, so we see them coping well, or perhaps it is their sense of humour that keeps them afloat.

It may be a narrative that is concerned with adversity, but the show is joyful, and laugh-out-loud funny from start to end. The portrayal of family dynamics in Single Asian Female is lovingly crafted, to elicit warm and fuzzy feelings that we cannot help but luxuriate in. Director Claire Christian introduces passion and playfulness into every scene, with gloriously snappy exchanges that are as entertaining as they are convincing. Effective and lively use of space, on designer Moe Assaad’s colourful set, makes two-and-a-half hours go by in a flash.

Brought to vibrant life by a group of extraordinarily charming and confident actors, Single Asian Female features excellent performances and some blistering chemistry that is unequivocally enthralling. Hsiao-Ling Tang is very animated as Pearl, not particularly naturalistic in approach, but a consummate storyteller, remarkably powerful and authentic with all that she brings to the stage. The sisters are played by Alex Lee and Courtney Stewart, both exquisitely detailed and ingeniously creative, delivering some of the most riveting characters of Australian theatre in recent years. Supporting roles too are beautifully concocted. Emily Burton is effortlessly and persistently hilarious, Lucy Heffernan embodies obnoxious types worryingly well, and Patrick Jhanur invents an alluring new masculinity with beguiling quantities of sweetness. This formidable cast of six is likely the best company one could have on any given night.

Unlike Europe, we are but a stone’s throw away from Asia, yet our cultural and national identities are stubbornly thought of as Western. We conveniently disregard Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, and similarly, people of colour with migrant histories are routinely relegated to a lower class. Rightful owners of this land are indisputable, but the way privilege is organised and distributed in this country clearly still favours, in very aggressive fashion, its colonisers. All the people in Single Asian Female are, regardless of colour, as Australian as one another, but the playing field on which we all have to exist, needs to even out.

www.belvoir.com.au | www.laboite.com.au