Review: Son Of Byblos (25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 4 – 21, 2022
Playwright: James Elazzi
Director: Anna Jahjah
Cast: Violette Ayad, Kate Bookallil, Simon Elrahi, Deborah Galanos, Mansoor Noor
Images by David Hooley

Theatre review
Cousins Adam and Clare are queer Australians, but they are also Lebanese. Like many of our LGBTQIA+ compatriots from minority cultural backgrounds, they do not have the luxury to live loud and proud, like the mainstream examples we often see in white media. Instead, they indulge in their sexualities surreptitiously, and rely only on each other, for open and honest companionship. Things begin to unravel however, when Clare decides to marry a man, in a radical attempt to stop being a lesbian once and for all.

James Elazzi’s Son of Byblos exposes the truth about queer life on this land, as experienced by many people of colour. On one hand, it questions the progress that we think we have made as a political movement, and on the other, it challenges traditional ways of life that are still pervasive in enclaves everywhere, that continue to struggle with acceptance. Adam wants to be a good son to his loving parents, but he is never able to reconcile fundamental truths about his sexuality, with expectations at home.

This is by no means a new story. In fact in can be considered an age-old one, but Elazzi’s insistence on discussing the issue, prevents us from looking away. Delusions about social advancement, means that people can be left behind, but a play like Son of Byblos in 2022 reminds us that activism and advocacy should always be about those who are most disadvantaged. LGBTQIA+ progressivism in Australia it seems, has taken its eye off the ball.

The work is directed by Anna Jahjah who anchors the action in that space of conflict and tension, where tradition and rights of the individual, prove dissonant. Performances oscillate in and out of naturalism, but when the cast hits upon moments of authenticity, is when the drama really captivates.

Actor Mansoor Noor brings polish to the production, playing Adam with great nuance and believability. It is admirable that Noor’s portrayal of a difficult existence is one of a man taking it in his stride, rather than only looking tortured. There is a valuable air of dignity given to all the characters in Son of Byblos. Kate Bookallil as Clare is especially moving in her final scene, completely devastating as she tries to deal a final blow to her genuine self. Also very touching and vulnerable, is Violette Ayad who as old friend Angela, stands up for herself and refuses to be a pawn in Adam’s charade. Simon Elrahi and Deborah Galanos play Adam’s well-meaning parents, both warm presences that help us mediate this painful conundrum, of the truth against piety.

Sex in Son of Byblos is never depicted in a positive light. Instead of pleasure, connection and empowerment, it only delivers anguish. When we see that even the most beautiful things, can be turned harrowing, we must come to the realisation that resistance is critical.

www.belvoir.com.au / www.bnwtheatre.com.au

Review: Light Shining In Buckinghamshire (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Apr 7 – May 28, 2022
Playwright: Caryl Churchill
Directors: Eamon Flack, Hannah Goodwin
Cast: Arkia Ashraf, Rashidi Edward, Marco Chiappi, Emily Goddard, Sandy Greenwood, Rebecca Massey, Brandon McClelland, Angeline Penrith
Images by Teniola Komolafe

Theatre review
Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is based on what is known as the Putney Debates in England, that had taken place immediately after their civil war of 1647. Churchill frames those discussions in terms of a search for a new democracy, in relation to preconceived ideas that are mainly about religion, and property ownership. In these historical re-evaluations of events leading up to the establishment of the Commonwealth of England, Churchill focuses our attention, not on how a revolution could be won, but what the challenges might be thereafter, to formulate a renewed system for the distribution of resources, and to generate new and improved ideologies.

46 years after its Edinburgh premiere, Churchill’s pre-Thatcher concerns are more pertinent than ever. We have replaced monarchies with oligarchic plutocracies, with the wealthiest men spending unimaginable sums of money to rocket into space for a meagre few minutes, in the middle of a pandemic that continues to destroy incalculable livelihoods. It seems we are still unable to figure out meaningful revolutionaries, only knowing to reinstall one bad system after another.

The verbose play is directed by Eamon Flack and Hannah Goodwin, who convey an air of importance for these philosophical explorations, but clear and detailed elucidations are disappointingly sporadic. Much of the exchanges are muddled and perplexing, sometimes even coming across abstract or detached, when what we need is a political theatre that speaks with considerable force.

Set design by Michael Hankin is appropriately minimal and rustic, for the depiction of post-war purgatory. Ella Butler’s costumes are equally pared down, so that we may perceive realistic bodies at a time of great adversity. Lit by Damien Cooper, imagery in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is full of melancholy, able to evoke the disappointment that inevitably comes after a war is lost and won. Live music by Alyx Dennison and Marcus Whale is a highlight, and an unequivocal visceral treat, even if their severe percussion is used repeatedly to cause alarm.

The ensemble of eight actors demonstrates an admirable dedication for the material, and although not always able to communicate with great coherence, they are certainly an inviting presence that encourages us to participate in their various deliberations.

Revolutions are still needed, even if we are yet to have real certainties about how a new world should be. Knowing that we have had endless failed attempts, does not negate the fact that many things have improved through the ages. Perhaps we need to contend with the idea, that our efforts, no matter how radical, can only effect minor adjustments within the grand scheme. We should know by now, that overnight rehabilitations are impossible, much as our hearts desire them. Things seem to only get better in small increments, and the price for them are disproportionately high, which explains why the business of systemic change, has always only been for the brave.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Wayside Bride (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Apr 2 – May 29, 2022
Playwright: Alana Valentine
Directors: Eamon Flack, Hannah Goodwin
Cast: Arkia Ashraf, Maggie Blinco, Rashidi Edward, Marco Chiappi, Emily Goddard, Sandy Greenwood, Sacha Horler, Rebecca Massey, Brandon McClelland, Angeline Penrith 
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
It was in the mid-1970s that the Methodist minister Ted Noffs was charged with heresy by his own church. Having gone rogue in his efforts to serve the downtrodden in Sydney, through his founding of the Wayside Chapel in King Cross, Noffs was singled out to be made an undesirable, such is the Christian establishment’s penchant for ostracism and condemnation.

In Alana Valentine’s Wayside Bride, we are provided anecdotes from a wide range of sources, as testification for Noff’s incomparable social work. Replete with fascinating narratives and charming characters (many of whom were marginalised women unable to find other ministers willing to marry them), the play honours Noff along with his wife Margaret, with rigour and reverence. A prominent feature of Wayside Bride is Valentine’s own frustrations with the church, which gives additional dimensions of verve to the show, but which also has a tendency to make things feel somewhat alienating to secular audiences. We are after all, half a century lapsed, and the earnestness in depicting religious inanity, can seem outmoded at a time when Christianity is so resoundingly rejected or moderated, and no longer the dominant influence it had been.

Jointly directed by Eamon Flack and Hannah Goodwin, the production is a vibrant one, and an appropriately sentimental tribute to people who have contributed a great deal to this city. Its jokes may not always hit their mark, but the people it showcases are consistently endearing. 

Michael Hankin’s set design conveys both the spiritedness and the struggles, of those who have encountered Wayside Chapel through the years. Ella Butler’s costumes are rendered with a sense of nostalgic warmth, as well as humour. Lights by Damien Cooper and sound by Alyx Dennison are fairly restrained, but certainly effective in modulating atmosphere for every nuanced shift in tension and mood.

Actor Brandon McClelland is a convincing Ted Noffs, taking us back to a simpler time, when being virtuous seemed much less complicated. Sacha Horler is splendid as Margaret Noffs and also as Janice, playing both roles with exquisite timing and a brilliant imagination. Playwright Valentine is given physical omnipresence on the stage by Emily Goddard who demonstrates beautifully, the veneration that permeates all of Wayside Bride. Highly notable is Marco Chiappi in several memorable roles, each one colourful and engrossing, with a joyful sense of mischief yet always imbued with dignity, for these real-life characters.

It is true, that we should all do good for the world, regardless of one’s faith or lack thereof. It is also true, however, that some are simply unable to be good, without the help of religion. Doctrines written by men of faith have inflicted harm, knowingly and unknowingly, on all kinds of people everywhere in every epoch, yet there is no denying the efficacy of religion on those who need it. The Noffs were right, in holding firm to the fundamental belief in love, and in the universality of God’s creations. The mission is always simple, but the distractions are unceasing.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Destroy, She Said (25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Mar 2 – 19, 2022
Original Author: Marguerite Duras
Director: Claudia Osborne
Cast: Gabriel Alvarado, Adriane Daff, Andreas Lohmeyer, Tommy Misa, Grace Smibert
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
Elisabeth is convalescing, in a hotel some distance from the city. There are mysterious guests observing her, and an equally mysterious forest nearby, that seems to cast a spell over everyone in its vicinity. Marguerite Duras’ book and film Destroy, She Says from 1969 tells a story about the convergence of loss and obsession, in between competing worlds where Elisabeth must eventually find a state of surrender.

In this stage adaptation by Claudia Osborne, the surreality of Duras’ mise-en-scène is made immediate and material, preserving the sinister beauty of the original, but with an addition of a very theatrical sense of humour, that makes the viewing experience both fascinating and amusing. There is so much to be curious about, in Osborne’s take on Destroy, She Says and so much that engages, but not necessarily through intellect. We too, have to find a way to surrender to its visceral allure, and trust in things that we know so little about. The result is sublime, however strange the ride can be.

Production design by Kelsey Lee and Grace Deacon melds old-world affluence with a decidedly contemporary sensibility that is both sensual and ironic, for a presentation memorable for its visual impact. Lee’s lights, together with a sound design by Angus Mills, usher the audience into a dream frequency, where we connect with impulses rather than logic, remarkable in being able to make us find coherence within the bizarre, and thoroughly enjoy it. 

Adriane Daff and Grace Smibert are the mesmerising leads, as Alissa and Elisabeth respectively, both invulnerably confident in their experimental approach, and unassailably impressive with their commanding presences. The women are individually captivating, but absolutely riveting when working as a single unit; we feel as though privy to a magical secret language that they have devised. Supporting players Gabriel Alvarado, Andreas Lohmeyer and Tommy Misa, are no less effective in their contributions, all bringing surprising and quirky elements to the stage, delivering bouts of laughter whilst provoking us with their interminably quizzical choices.

Destroy, She Says is challenging, but it is kind. It reaches out with an unusual vocabulary, in order that we may communicate differently, and perhaps attain something altogether more exalted, in this moment of congregation in an artistic space. We are left wondering why all that makes this show unusual, is not more usually encountered in our theatres, but we understand that anything normalised, simply ceases to be special. Art in this city needs to dare to embrace unconventionality. If we want only to interact with the familiar and the safe, the accountant’s office might be a better option. In this particular theatrical occasion though, we celebrate the best of human creativity, and revel in the boundless capacity of our imaginations.

www.belvoir.com.au / www.fervour.net.au

Review: Opening Night (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Feb 26 – Mar 27, 2022
Playwright: John Cassavetes, adapted by Carissa Licciardello
Director: Carissa Licciardello
Cast: Caitlin Burley, Jing-Xuan Chan, Anthony Harkin, Luke Mullins, Toni Scanlan, Leeanna Walsman
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Myrtle is having serious problems with the role she had signed on for; the show is about to open, but she is still unable to make sense of the play she had agreed to star in. In the meantime, the director and playwright are becoming increasingly abusive, heaping blame on her for not making it work, often saying that she has lost her spark as an actor, and that she has grown too old to be any good. There is nothing subtle about John Cassavetes’ Opening Night, and in this adaptation by Carissa Licciardello, the story does not get any less heavy-handed, in making its point about our reprehensible attitudes regarding women getting older.

Licciardello’s adaptation and direction are certainly enthusiastic in trying to assert the point of the exercise, but the message quickly becomes too simple and obvious. Plenty of effort is put into creating an air of mystery surrounding Myrtle’s behaviour, which provides an updated theatricality for the audience, although it becomes clear, that the plainness of its motivations struggles to sustain our interest for the production’s 100 minute duration.

David Fleischer’s set design too is uncomplicated, in its depiction of a masculine and superficially stylish world. Costumes by Mel Page are flattering, and appropriately understated. Nick Schlieper’s lights and Max Lyandvert’s sound are relied upon for dramatic flourishes, to further engage our senses, although those moments of abstract elevation can seem slightly gimmicky, when we fail to decipher enough behind, that could feel substantial.

Leading lady Leeanna Walsman conveys the confusion and dreariness of Myrtle’s arduous battles, but it is a conservative performance that offers little to relish. Myrtle’s director is played by Luke Mullins who thankfully injects dynamism into the show, for his part as an uncomplicated villain. Anthony Harkin and Toni Scanlon are Myrtle’s co-star and playwright respectively, both bringing a degree of nuance to their supporting roles. Caitlin Burley and Jing-Xuan Chan are solid presences in all of their brief appearances, both demonstrating noteworthy commitment.

At the end of Opening Night, we find a satisfying conclusion. In real life, Myrtle’s story could end up either way, good or bad, for real life is anything but predictable, but in a play that wants so much to talk about doing what is right in our storytelling and in our art, it is hard to imagine any other way for things to end. It is of course true that misogyny exists, and it is right that we should see it represented. It is also important that we reiterate again and again, our agency and power as women, to make exhaustive revisions to centuries of indoctrination about us being weak and domitable. We love watching Myrtle triumph, but even if she falters, we know that she is strong enough to get up and try again.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: At What Cost? (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jan 29 – Feb 20, 2022
Playwright: Nathan Maynard
Director: Isaac Drandic
Cast: Luke Carroll, Sandy Greenwood, Alex Malone, Ari Maza Long
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Boyd has a very rich and meaningful life. Not only does he have to make a living to ensure the sustenance of his young family, there are a myriad responsibilities as an Aboriginal leader in Tasmania, that he has to undertake all through the day. The play At What Cost? by Nathan Maynard begins at the point where it is announced, that the remains of an ancestor is being returned to Boyd’s land and family, after being held dishonourably in London for several lifetimes.

The drama intensifies, when the sacred moment is marred by an external entity suddenly claiming to be mob, and insists on being part of rituals meant only for rightful descendants. Maynard’s writing is in a word, explosive. At What Cost? begins with extraordinary vitality, as it establishes the every day existence of its spirited characters, but the profound pain that takes over when Maynard’s real intentions come to the fore, is completely devastating.

It is the story of a colonialism that never ceases; one that morphs and takes by surprise, coming to undermine and subjugate from unpredictable places. Maynard’s searing honesty feels unbearably dangerous, but also absolutely essential. This is art that tells the truth of what routinely happens to our First Nations communities, and art that should shake you to the core as long as you live on this land, regardless of which tribe you belong to.

Director Isaac Drandic too, pulls no punches in his delivery of this incandescently political work. Full of pride, and of righteous anger, the staging puts on display not just the ravages suffered by our Indigenous peoples, but more importantly their eternally indomitable spirit. There is a generosity and vulnerability to At What Cost? that is disarmingly moving, with a crucial message about racial violence that needs urgently to be heeded.

Set design by Jacob Nash succinctly conveys both the material and metaphysical realms of Boyd’s existence, allowing us to, on one hand, identify with the normalcy of his daily life, and on the other, encounter the spirituality that informs all facets of his being. Keerthi Subramanyam’s costumes help provide a sense of immediacy for the personalities we meet, but is especially memorable for a ceremonial cloak that impresses with its beauty and grandeur. Lights by Chloe Ogilvie take us seamlessly from spaces mundane to ethereal, and music by Brendon Boney with sound design by David Bergman, manipulate with precision our emotional responses to each element of the narrative, as it escalates to a feverish pitch.

Actor Luke Carroll brings extraordinary passion to the project. As Boyd, we watch him develop from effortlessly delightful, to frighteningly austere, all while keeping us enchanted. The uncompromising and unapologetic qualities of the play, come through beautifully via Carroll’s powerful delivery. No less affecting is the scintillating Sandy Greenwood, whose embracive naturalism as the effervescent Nala, provides our moral compass with clear guidance, as we navigate trickier portions of the rageful tale. Alex Malone is fantastically excruciating, as the foolish Gracie. It is a courageous and forceful performance that makes its important point, with merciless abandon. Daniel is played by Ari Maza Long, with great charm and humour, for an inspiring portrait of the modern Aboriginal youth, that absolutely teems with compassion.

White supremacy creates racial categories, yet vehemently insists on being blind to their existence. White people often declare ignorance of racial difference, choosing only to believe in the universalities of the species, in an effort to deny the very systems of oppression they have built at the exclusion of others. That is, until aspects of that otherness becomes momentarily appealing, and white people step in to annex it without hesitation, and claim it their own.

In At What Cost?, we see a white person misappropriating and misidentifying cultures, in a way that can only be seen, as a clear extension of racial violence on this land. They feign obliviousness and ignorance, even to the extent of purporting to be doing good for Indigenous lives, but is in fact implementing the perpetual project of colonialism. The continual eradication of Indigenous rights, and removal of the very existence of Indigenous peoples, may not look like the genocide of previous centuries, but is no doubt under way, only in surreptitious guises.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: The Boomkak Panto (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Nov 20 – Dec 23, 2021
Playwright: Virginia Gay
Director: Richard Carroll, Virginia Gay
Cast: Deborah Galanos, Virginia Gay, Rob Johnson, Billy McPherson, Hamed Sadeghi, Mary Soudi, Zoe Terakes, Toby Truslove
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
The show begins with a big city property developer descending upon the Australian country town of Boomkak, threatening to alter the way of life forever, in that archetypal sleepy village. Residents join forces, thinking that raising funds from staging a pantomime, would help them fight the evil mogul. Things make little sense in The Boomkak Panto, but the creators make no bones about finding inspiration from traditional children’s entertainment. Their presentation is loud and joyous, an appropriate awakening from 18 months of a pandemic induced slumber. It is celebratory in tone, and certainly feels quite frivolous to start, but Act 2 takes a more meaningful, if abrupt turn, to discussions about immigration and colonisation, along with gender and sexual politics.

One of the characters, Zoe is in the process of coming out as non-binary, and their storyline becomes increasingly prominent, over the course. It is commendable that The Boomkak Panto chooses to deviate from its initial frothiness, to involve itself in important social discussions, but one wonders if a more cohesive approach could have been found, for an improved sense of harmony for the show’s various trajectories.

Writer Virginia Gay’s jokes are plentiful, ranging from corny to genuinely hilarious. A handful of songs by Eddie Perfect give the production a touch of class, although its use of classic pop tunes are no less effective. The clash between earnestness and irony in The Boomkak Panto can make for an awkward  theatrical experience, but is also necessary, in its explorations of white identity in this day and age. Whiteness is thankfully self-aware on this stage, but is also evidently unable to relinquish its persistent dominance. 

Directed by Richard Carroll and by Gay herself, the work offers great amusement, with energy levels sustained at an admirable height throughout the duration of 2.5 hours. Visually captivating, with sets and costumes by Michael Hankin, and lights by Jasmine Rizk giving us lots of bedazzling colour and movement. Zara Stanton’s musical direction, along with Kellie-Anne Kimber’s sound design, combine to deliver a rich auditory experience. Hamed Sadeghi’s live accompaniment on Persian instruments is a notable highlight, valuable in providing a “countercultural” dimension to what is deemed classic Australian music.

The aforementioned Zoe is played by Zoe Terakes, who brings impressive presence, and an enjoyable air of recalcitrance to their performance. Virginia Gay is very strong as Alison, especially in two big scenes where she occupies centre stage, memorable for her remarkable ebullience. Stealing the show is Rob Johnson who, as the central (property developer) villain and as local idiot Butch, uses toxic masculinity in its various guises to generate unremitting laughter. Johnson’s timing and sense of mischief, are an absolute joy.

In the pantomime world, everything is old and predictable. Young minds are shaped in traditional ways, to make sense of the world in accordance with the values of previous generations. In Boomkak, storytellers are trying to flip the script, not to cause havoc, but to make things right. We have made a habit out of marginalising one another, constantly finding ways to denigrate some, so that others might reap advantages. It is unclear if we can ever reach a point of true justice and fairness, but it is in that unrelenting pursuit , in that active search and insistence on doing better, that we can find ways to live with integrity. 

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: The Cherry Orchard (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 29 – Jun 27, 2021
Playwright: Anton Chekhov (adapted by Eamon Flack)
Director: Eamon Flack
Cast: Peter Carroll, Priscilla Doueihy, Nadie Kammallaweera, Kirsty Marillier, Lucia Mastrantone, Mandela Mathia, Sarah Meacham, Josh Price, Pamela Rabe, Keith Robinson, Jack Scott, Charles Wu
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
The Russian aristocracy as we had known them, were no longer to be, in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Members of Ranevskaya’s household scramble around, filled with anxiety at the prospect of the old world’s demise, completely at a loss as to what to expect of the future, and how to continue existing as the inevitable begins to set in.

In director Eamon Flack’s 2021 version, the power transitions that occur in The Cherry Orchard are represented not only by the idealism of our young. An unmistakeable racial dimension is introduced, with the emergence of the middle classes expressed as a parallel dialogue, about the changing status of Australia’s people of colour.

It is a valiant attempt by Flack to breathe new life into the play. Aside from successfully locating a contemporary resonance for the old tale, he replaces early twentieth century naturalistic styles with a theatrical exuberance, that makes the show more appealing to today’s compromised attention spans. The freshly sharpened farcical tone is enjoyable, as are its efforts at broadening the scope of Chekhov’s work, to be inclusive of the marginalised, such as the LGBT community, and people living with disabilities.

Actor Mandela Mathia is captivating as Lopahkin, the businessman with a recent background of peasantry. Now riding on the wave of new money rising, the Black man is confident but still humble, which Mathia portrays with admirable exactitude. It is a precise and varied performance, from one who proves as likeable as he is compelling. The old white guards are exemplified in The Cherry Orchard by Ranevskaya, slothful and ignorant, but nonetheless well-intentioned. Played by Pamela Rabe, the role is appropriately comical, with an air of deteriorating glamour that becomes progressively fragile.

Funniest in the ensemble include Lucia Mastrantone, unforgettable as the kooky governess Charlotta, and full of mischief as she invents one trick after another. Charles Wu takes a more understated approach, but is no less hilarious as the incredulously suave Yasha, complete with perfectly timed hip thrusts, almost convincing us that it might be possible to bring sexy back to Chekhov.

Set design by Romanie Harper is surprisingly stark, but its clean lines and minimal approach deliver an elegant, if slightly nondescript vista. Harper’s costumes are more imaginatively rendered, with each character’s appearance distinctly and eccentrically conceived. Lights by Nick Schlieper provide a warmth that keeps us reminded of the notion of home, that is fundamentally embedded within this narrative about power and property. Stefan Gregory’s use of eclectic music styles bring valuable energy to the work, whilst establishing a sense of indeterminacy to time and place, that allows us to connect with The Cherry Orchard in personal ways.

A little more than a century after the completion of Chekhov’s final play, we find ourselves back at a point of disgraceful wealth disparity. What may have been a hopeful forecast of a new way of life, can now be seen to be overly optimistic. There is no doubt that things have improved on many fronts, but the inordinate concentration of wealth today at the top end of town, reveals the failure of efforts to redistribute wealth, and to alleviate poverty. People might no longer wish to call themselves aristocrats and peasants, but all we have to do, is to look at all the numbers, that never lie.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: A Room Of One’s Own (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 6 – 23, 2021
Playwright: Virginia Woolf (adapted by Carissa Licciardello, Tom Wright)
Director: Carissa Licciardello
Cast: Anita Hegh, Ella Prince
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
It was almost a hundred years ago, when Virginia Woolf had given her lectures espousing the importance of championing women writers. Subsequently compiled and published in 1929 as an extended essay, A Room of One’s Own has since become a prominent work of twentieth-century feminist literature, providing language and concepts that have helped advance the cause.

Woolf’s meditations on liberation are, of course, much further-reaching than its immediate academic concerns. Finding ways to empower women writers, as we have discovered, involves an interrogation of how power is fundamentally distributed in our lives. These analyses about the people who do, and those who do not, have the space to think and write, generate a political discourse whereby women can contextualise their experience of freedom, or more likely lack thereof.

Adapted into a theatrical format by Carissa Licciardello and Tom Wright, we discover that Woolf’s words remain potent, even if her approach to these persistent issues can at times seem dated. We also observe that although much of how she had conveyed her thoughts, bear a passion that translates well to the stage, some of her writing is probably more effective when encountered in a book.

Performer Anita Hegh demonstrates a baffling super human memory, completely at ease with the enormous barrage of words she has to deliver. Her graceful gravitas creates for us, a version of Virginia Woolf who is engaging and persuasive, a formidable force of nature that lives up to our imagination, of what the legendary agitator could have been like in the flesh. Hegh’s work is extremely detailed, able to sustain our fascination with the intensity of her depictions, even in moments when one’s intellect falters at trying to keep up.

Licciardello’s direction of A Room of One’s Own introduces a substantial element of abstraction, to provide the show with a sense of elevation. In addition to what remains a lecture by Woolf, is a second performance space, a smaller cube in which a second actor Ella Prince is housed, as she manufactures physical augmentation to what is said and heard. These brief sequences are perfectly conceived, to add much needed theatricality, and to aide digestion of Woolf’s dense words.

David Fleischer’s work on set and costumes, are technically proficient but also surprisingly sensual. Lights by Kelsey Lee too, are soft and almost romantic in quality. The visuals offer a valuable counterpoint, to the understandably militant tone of the text. Music by Alice Chance is luscious, maybe even dreamlike, and along with Paul Charlier’s uplifting sound design, our mind is maintained in a mode of inspiration, as we welcome Woolf’s passionate call for progress.

“500 pounds a year” is the author’s unmissable refrain, reflecting a way of looking at equality that places emphasis on giving to women, what men possess. In the new century, we learn that what men possess, is no longer that which represents a better way of being. Woolf implies that to be rid of menial tasks, is the only way for women to think, but she was wrong. Many of modern feminism’s greatest thinkers were/are never able to leave the trenches of patriarchal oppression.

It is appropriate that both performers in the show are white women. Although much of what Woolf has written is valuable, it comes from a position of privilege that the author was evidently unwilling to confront. There is a deceptive simplicity to her message, and a strong tendency to preserve structures that should be called thoroughly into question. All she wants it seems, is to swap male for female, in these old ways of running things. What we need is to admit that these very systems of running things, are a problem, no matter who occupies positions within.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: My Brilliant Career (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Dec 5, 2020 – Jan 31, 2021
Playwright: Kendall Feaver (based on the novel by Miles Franklin)
Director: Kate Champion
Cast: Blazey Best, Jason Chong, Tom Conroy, Emma Harvie, Tracy Mann, Nikki Shiels, Guy Simon
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
The play begins with Sybylla making unapologetic pronouncements, declaring that this is all going to be about herself. Miles Franklin’s 1901 novel My Brilliant Career, features a feisty woman in a man’s world, and although the story takes place during what we now acknowledge as being the first wave of feminism, Sybylla seems terribly alone in her defiance. In the Australian outback, the teenager dreams of an existence beyond marriage and child-bearing, and for some inexplicable yet gratifying reason, we discover that unlike all the other women in her life, Sybylla finds the hubris to see things through.

The old-fashioned tale is rejuvenated by playwright Kendall Feaver, who manufactures engaging scenes for her stage version. Although frustratingly conservative in style and vision, it is nevertheless a compelling portrait of a radical young woman from our fabled past. Kate Champion directs with excellent humour, buoyed by an infectious and irrepressible sense of playfulness. Production design by Robert Cousins is restrained, but effective in helping us keep focus on characters and relationships. Occasional dazzling manoeuvres by lighting designer Amelia Lever-Davidson, deliver an enjoyable theatricality, as do composer Chrysoulla Markoulli and sound designer Steve Francis, who prove themselves cheeky collaborators with the whimsy that they so cleverly inject.

Actor Nikki Shiels too is adept at playing with irony, as she successfully bridges the many decades, between the original conception of the protagonist and our modern times, with a memorable sass and confidence. Shiels’ passion fills the space, allowing us to connect with the uplifting and spirited qualities of Sybylla. It is a strong supporting cast that we encounter, with a notable Guy Simon, whose romantic rendition of a love interest is effortlessly convincing and quite splendid, and Tracy Mann who steals the show with all of her roles, each one considered and arresting.

My Brilliant Career offers nothing new, yet the resonances it provides, are disarmingly powerful. After all these years, we can still recognise that so many Australian women face the same problems, as though we are stuck in the 19th Century. We still talk about how we can “have it all”, and we still think it extraordinary and audacious that a whole story can be told about our hopes and dreams. Of course, in many ways, we have progressed, and feminism has improved many things, but there must be something about us that is trapped in the past, when we notice Sybylla’s story striking a chord.

www.belvoir.com.au