Review: Ghosts (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Sep 16 – Oct 22, 2017
Playwright: Henrik Ibsen (adapted by Eamon Flack)
Director: Eamon Flack
Cast: Tom Conroy, Taylor Ferguson, Robert Menzies, Colin Moody, Pamela Rabe
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
It is late 19th century, and the widowed Mrs Alving is building an orphanage so that her dead husband’s money can be released from her conscience. She is still unable to find peace, even though her poisonous marriage is now over, after having suffered in silence for decades. Ibsen’s Ghosts is about the incontrovertible links between past and present. It looks at how we are controlled by beliefs, events and decisions of days gone by, and the unconscious ways in which we keep ourselves and one another bound to societal rules and conventions.

Mrs Alving understands that a better life is possible, yet she persists with misery. Director Eamon Flack prompts us to question the nature of our protagonist’s volition, whilst simultaneously placing emphasis on external forces that insist on her compliance. From all our personal experiences, we know the tension that lies inevitably between others and the will of the self. The concept of a self-determined existence is an attractive one, even though none of us can lay claim to have fashioned an entirely independent state of being.

Ghosts is an inherently challenging work, and with the passage of time, its narrative has turned predictably archaic, leaving only its central philosophies to speak with pertinence. Tradition and religion no longer hold the same power, so the Alving family’s story is in many ways only a relic, but Flack’s ability to turn the essence of Ibsen’s writing into a resonating force for his show, is certainly admirable.

Pamela Rabe’s performance as Mrs Alving has an understated charm, that shifts the play’s old melodramatic quality to something that is altogether more elegant and naturalistic. It is quite extraordinary, the way Rabe sublimates obsolete details into her very convincing storytelling. All the actors are worth their salt, successful in bringing invigoration and surprising nuance, to some very dry material. Equally remarkable are Nick Schlieper’s lights, especially noteworthy in the final act, when imagery turns breathlessly sublime, and we see baroque paintings come to life.

Artists need knowledge of the past, in order that they may forge new ground, but like characters in Ghosts, their work is constantly under threat of being undermined by the reverence we so often attribute to the historical. The continual resurrection of dead white males like Ibsen can be considered necessary, but it can also be thought symptomatic of problems that the Australian artistic landscape faces. Our art means little if it hinges so strongly on traditions of olden Europe. The Alving patriarch might be dead and buried, but those he had left behind are doomed to perpetuate his agony. We want them to renounce those burdens and henceforth, prosper with the current of their own autonomy, but it seems easier said that done.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Hir (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Aug 12 – Sep 10, 2017
Playwright: Taylor Mac
Director: Anthea Williams
Cast: Kurt Pimblett, Greg Stone, Helen Thomson, Michael Whalley
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Paige is suddenly emancipated. By a stroke of luck, her abusive husband Arnold has turned invalid, revealing a fortuitous way out of misery. She revels in her new freedom with a maniacal glee, and together with her now transgender son Max, their household is transformed to radically embrace every concept of anti-patriarchy that they come across. Taylor Mac’s Hir is a revenge story, centring on a protagonist who tries to find independence and a better life by subverting prevailing notions of gender, the very thing she identifies to have been responsible for her adversities.

The play is uproarious, with Paige in various states of hysteria, desperately seeking redefinition for her existence. The action begins when her elder son Isaac, having been dishonourably discharged from war, returns to the deliberate chaos at home (set design by Michael Hankin is remarkably mirthful). Unable to come to terms with the shock of the new, Isaac attempts to restore the old order, and things quickly escalate. We watch Paige being confronted by her position as mother and wife, as she persists with the project of queering everything, and are enthralled by the brutal tenacity at which she sticks to her guns, in a face off with a past she is determined to be rid of. It is a wild premise that the playwright establishes, and the ride that we get taken on, is as emotionally powerful as it is entertaining, all the while maintaining a level of intellect that many will find irresistible.

It is a spectacular production, painstaking in the way its progressive, and sometimes obscure, ideas are interpreted with brilliant lucidity, to be presented alongside some thoroughly enjoyable comedy. Director Anthea Williams brings to the piece, a boldness of spirit, that allows its controversial qualities to speak poignantly and persuasively. Hir is political theatre, unapologetic in its desire to make an impact on the way we think.

Playing Paige is the absolutely scintillating Helen Thomson. The actor is gloriously funny, with perfect timing and faultless instincts that have us hopelessly captivated. A portrayal of a woman reclaiming space, strength and sovereignty, Thomson is commanding and, when required, vulnerable. She is called upon to make some very extreme statements about womanhood, and although not to everyone’s tastes, the way she delivers each audacious proclamation, is beyond gratifying.

If Paige finds the answers she wants, she will discover that it is not necessarily happiness, but a heavy burden that she will encounter, when living a life of integrity and enlightenment. When we reject conventions and systems that are unfairly stacked against us, we are guaranteed only honesty and liberation. To not expect hardship is foolish. In the struggle against deceit and inequity, fulfilment when derived, is often more painful than joyous. It is how the bastards keep us dishonest, by issuing modicums of petty bribery that offer an illusory sense of security and comfort, so that we maintain the eternally exploitative status quo. In cases when a straw does break the camel’s back however, a woman scorned will unleash a fury of mythical proportions, to seek redress and to aggravate for a revolution.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: The Rover (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jul 1 – Aug 6, 2017
Playwright: Aphra Behn
Director: Eamon Flack
Cast: Gareth Davies, Andre de Vanny, Taylor Ferguson, Leon Ford, Nathan Lovejoy, Elizabeth Nabben, Toby Schmitz, Nikki Shiels, Kiruna Stamell, Megan Wilding
Image by Anna Kucera

Theatre review
It is mid 17th century, and a bunch of rowdy English tourists descend upon Naples to partake in the masqueraded festivities of Carnival time. Aphra Behn’s depiction of wild revelry may be restricted by mores of the Restoration era, but its spiritedness is nonetheless unmistakable. In its atmosphere of debauchery, the characters talk of love and marriage, preoccupied with the sport of spouse hunting.

The play is conventional, but as the production’s prologue asserts, we cannot ignore Behn’s position as England’s first woman playwright, or the feminine perspective that her work brings to the stage. Although women are again, and literally, divided into virgins and whores in The Rover, they each act with agency, and their desires are provided due significance. Whether nuns or courtesans, we always know what it is that they want for themselves, and we watch them going about procuring what are essentially self-determined lives.

Director Eamon Flack delivers a thoroughly enjoyable work of high octane comedy, playfully inventive in approach, and unabashedly raucous with its expressions. Details can become confused, as the show’s humour takes first priority, but narratives are of slight importance in a show of this nature. It dazzles and it delights, with Mel Page’s brilliant work as set and costume designer scoring high; the imagery presented by The Rover is deliciously colourful and consistently alluring. Lights by Matt Scott are jaunty and energetic, with the inclusion of a “follow spot” enhancing the vaudeville quality of performances.

It is a remarkable cast, unrelenting with their extraordinary exuberance and skill. Flack showcases each of the player’s idiosyncratic sense of humour, while maintaining a cohesion to the comedy style of his creation. Megan Wilding is a standout in dual roles, seductive as the saucy temptress Lucetta, and delightfully foulmouthed as the maid Moretta, but always irresistibly funny and disarmingly magnetic, no matter the personality we encounter. As the charming cad Willmore, Toby Schmitz is a refreshing presence, theatrical but with a striking spontaneity that introduces a hint of danger, to the inevitable predictability of the story.

American comedian Beth Stelling says, “nothing makes a dick go softer than a funny woman.” The fallacious idea of women being less effective in comedy, still persists, but in The Rover, five comical women and five humorous men demonstrate that the funny bone recognises only talent, unconstrained by notions of gender. From Shakespeare to Gogol, and from Chaplin to Gervais, male geniuses have staked their dominance in the field. Spaces in art, like in commerce and politics, continue to be usurped by the masculine, but feminine retaliation is underway, as it has for generations, in this seemingly unending operation. After all, a woman’s work is never done.

www.belvoir.com.au

5 Questions with Thomas Campbell and Jane Phegan

Thomas Campbell


Jane Phegan: What attracts you to Enda Walsh’s writing? Misterman is the second play of his that you have performed.
I love Enda Walsh’s plays and characters because I pick up a script of his and have no idea where to start and that excites me. There’s a consistent theme through most of his plays where his characters are searching for love so there’s a deep truth to them. Added to that, he uses extraordinary language and word play so it’s a delight and a challenge to speak his words. He’s effing brilliant.

Why do you want to take this work or work in general to the Edinburgh stage?
Edinburgh Fringe has always been a bit of a bucket list thing for me but it’s a very expensive exercise so seemed like a bit of an impossibility. When we took Misterman to Hobart last year and had a mini tour experience, Hartley, our lighting designer, suggested we look at going to Edinburgh so we started to put the wheels in motion. Also, Misterman is just a great showy piece for all of us and then I thought I should take my comedy piece, One Hander, as well. Why not?

What inspired you to write and perform One Hander?
I was living in London, having my UK ‘experience’, pretty depressed and artistically deprived. I’ve always had these stories about people’s reactions to my hand, or lack thereof, which have been great dinner party fodder. So at about 3am one morning, after my 10th episode of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, I decided to get off my arse and face a fear and do a stand up comedy open mic night. I started writing, did the open mic night, and a month later I did a full hour show at the Battersea Barge in London. That’s where it began.

Like myself, you have worked with Kate Gaul several times – what keeps you coming back for more?
Kate Gaul is a genius. She’s unbelievably hard working and has such rigour to her work. She’s constantly asking questions of herself and her creatives right up until the show closes. She always asks ‘what is the story we are telling?’ which seems like basic question but it’s the most important and tends to get forgotten in a lot of productions I see. She’s also not afraid to be ‘direct’ as opposed to ‘polite’ in a rehearsal room which I respond well to and believe it’s a short cut to the best work.

What’s your favourite musical?
I love musicals but my favourite changes daily depending on the mood I’m in. Today it’s probably my old favourite, Into The Woods, because I remember getting a VHS copy of the OBC production with Bernadette Peters, when I was about 13 and watching it 4 times back to back in the one day. It was the first musical I saw that showed they didn’t have to just be frothy and shiny but could have cracking acting as well. I’m also a little bit obsessed with Dear Evan Hansen at the moment- I have a dodgy bootleg copy- but I’m yet to work out if it’s just Ben Platt’s performance that is the extraordinary thing or the show or both.

Jane Phegan


Thomas Campbell: Tell me about the play and your role?
It is a beautiful piece by Noelle Janaczewska that takes the audience on a wild adventure down the Amazon, a long dreamed of destination, and through the history of that part of the world. At the same time the character is coming to terms with her father’s illness and exploring their relationship which centres around a shared love of literature. They are both venturing into other worlds and the unknown. It is in turn a poetic, funny and, as Ben Neutze described, “ultimately heartbreaking piece of theatre”.

What’s it been like to revisit a role for the second time?
I am just beginning to revisit the role and Noelle has made some minor edits – that is one of the brilliant aspects of being able to do a piece more than once – the ability to refine and go further. I hope to do the same with the performance! I’m looking forward to going back into the world of the show and finding new gems with a sense of knowing.

Are you nervous about taking your work to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival?
Of course!! What a loony thing to do! It’s bad enough taking to the stage on your own in Sydney let alone in front of an international audience. But that is what we do, is it not? Move toward that which scares us the most. Now I’m really nervous – thanks Tom!

What’s Kate Gaul like as a director?
I have worked with Kate a number of times now and that is because I trust her 100%.That trust extends to both the bigger picture and also my performance. Because of that I can push the boundaries of what I think is possible (and be pushed!) and know that she will never let me (or her) look foolish or the show be under par. She is imaginative, forthright, assured, switched on and fun. I admire her drive and Kate is such an intelligent director, in tune with the work and only taking on what she is truly inspired to bring to life.

How are you travelling with a group of misfits like myself?
Actually travelling? By plane. Maybe a train here and there. And I hope we can walk to the venue! How am “dealing” with the group of misfits? I am one! We’re going to have a ball and we get to showcase some Australian work on the international stage. Super excited.

Tom Campbell and Jane Phegan are in Siren Theatre Company’s Edinburgh Program season of Misterman, Good With Maps and One Hander.
Dates: 14 – 18 June, 2017
Venue: Belvoir St Theatre

Review: Mr Burns (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 19 – Jun 25, 2017
Playwright: Anne Washburn
Music: Michael Friedman
Lyrics: Anne Washburn
Director: Imara Savage
Cast: Paula Arundell, Mitchell Butel, Esther Hannaford, Jude Henshall, Brent Hill, Ezra Juanta, Jacqy Phillips
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
There are three distinct acts in Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play. First, we discover that the world has gone to hell in a handbasket; it is the apocalypse, and we have run out of electricity. A small group of survivors huddle together, trying to keep themselves sane by retelling episodes of The Simpsons. They each contribute fragments, but memory, like all human ability, proves to be considerably less than infallible.

Over the next decades, this compulsion to hark back to when things were better, grows in magnitude. The act of storytelling becomes grander, so do the increasingly fabricated remembrances of how things had been, back in the day. Eventually, we see that The Simpsons is turned into a kind of origin story that no longer accurately recreates the real thing.

Anne Washburn’s play is wildly imagined, but not always successful in its ability to aid our suspension of disbelief, as is necessary for all styles of science fiction. At each step of the narrative, we are bothered by questions left unanswered, that create an expanding sense of implausibility to the narrative. It is appropriate then, that the show turns progressively extravagant, until in Act Three, where we are presented with something that looks no different from standard Broadway musical fare.

The production begins dour, perhaps understandably so, but its long and enduring dullness marks a disappointing start for a crowd that has clearly amassed for that very particular Simpsons sense of humour. Satisfaction eventually arrives with Act Two, as the tone turns quirky and playful, and stimulating philosophy is introduced to its existentialist explorations.

The first musical number appears, quite unexpectedly, weaving American pop references into a kind of campy postmodern mash-up, to excellent effect. We see the characters desperately trying to hold on to all things bright and shiny from the past, much like the conservatives in our real life, unable to come to terms with their new circumstances. Entertainment continues to be dispensed henceforth, but we discover that the show had reached its peaked too soon. It all comes to a somewhat underwhelming conclusion.

It is a proficiently designed production. Mr Burns’ black sequinned catsuit by Jonathon Oxlade is very fabulous indeed, an unforgettable vision for the theatrical annals. Oxlade’s sets are appropriate to each sequence, but the show offers only a few surprises with its imagery, presumably restrained by its context of resource depletion.

Mitchell Butel leads an endearing cast of enthusiastic and colourful performers. As Mr Burns, Butel’s gangly limbs attempt to steal the show with their incredible animated dexterity, but the actor’s comedic capacities are impressive, and a real asset to this tenaciously serious creation.

It really is no joke, that we refuse to adequately address our energy crisis. Those with a stake in industries that are bringing devastation to the environment, like the villainous Mr Burns, continue to be allowed to plunder and destroy. We have to keep optimistic in order to be of any effect as opposition to their corruption, but the prevailing state of confused democracy seems to be getting us nowhere. Knowing right from wrong, is no longer sufficient in mobilising power and generating action, in our current climate of fake news, alternative facts, and insatiable greed. If history teaches us anything, it is revolution that will shift paradigm, but there is no hint even of burgeoning insurgency, in this age of despondent complacency.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Guru Of Chai (Indian Ink / Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 16 – Jun 4, 2017
Playwright: Justin Lewis, Jacob Rajan
Director: Justin Lewis
Cast: Jacob Rajan
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
The story begins at the Bangalore City railway station. We meet Kutisa at a street stall selling chai, a vivacious man who cannot help but tell us a wondrous story about himself, a parrot, and a family of orphaned sisters whom he adopts into his care. Supernatural beings and high drama ensue, accompanied by extravagant emotions surrounding birth, death and betrayal. Guru Of Chai is gripping, made even more compelling by the work of a masterful performer full of drive, and magnificently skilled.

Jacob Rajan is scintillating in this one-man show. Almost like magic, his presence takes over the theatre, and we fall under his spell. Playing what seems to be an endless number of characters, Rajan is crystal clear with each manifestation, weaving the most vivid of narratives through his immense talent and artistry. It is a real pleasure to be able to submit to an expert guiding hand, and perceive the confidence in the actor and in ourselves, that the play can only progress flawlessly.

Direction by Justin Lewis ensures that the story is told at great detail and precision, with great care put into showcasing the best of his actor’s abilities. Gentle assistance from Cathy Knowsley’s lights and David Ward’s music, provide us with deeply evocative suggestions that transform a black box into the busy, sweltering streets of India. It is a small production that unfolds before us, but what we are made to see in our minds, is infinitely bigger.

There is something about Guru Of Chai that feels like a fairy tale, even though its characters encounter only the brutal realities of hardship and poverty. By removing us from the here and now, into a space far away, experiencing Kutisa’s world is as though we have stepped into a dream. When art meets us in reverie, the capacity of our minds turn boundless, and we can learn great things about the universe that are unimaginable in our insular everyday. We connect with other lives, no matter how dissimilar from what we are used to, and discover that which is unambiguously human, or perhaps something like a soul, that keeps us from feeling isolated, that gives us a glimpse of the eternal.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: The Dog / The Cat (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Apr 13 – May 7, 2017
Playwrights: Brendan Cowell (The Dog), Lally Katz (The Cat)
Directors: Ralph Myers, Anthea Williams
Cast: Sheridan Harbridge, Benedict Hardie, Xavier Samuel
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
We like to subscribe to the notion that there are cat people, and in a separate category there are dog people. This either/or dynamic could easily be applied to this double bill. Brendan Cowell’s The Dog and Lally Katz’s The Cat are both contemporary Australian comedies, but there is little in their respective senses of humour that unites them. Not to say that one is funnier than the other, for that judgement can only be a subjective one, but the probability of individuals enjoying one half of the presentation, and not the other (are you a cat person or a dog person?) is highly likely.

While Cowell’s work is a naturalistic exploration of today’s personalities and relationships, Katz’s approach is highly stylised, relying on surreal elements for its laughs. Both are filled with frothy, inconsequential observations that tell us nothing surprising, but there is certainly a lot of entertainment to be found in their dual presentation. Some of its jokes are genuinely funny, and when they are less than effective, the flamboyant cast invariably finds ways to make things work.

Benedict Hardie is wonderful, and perfect, in all three of his roles, determined that every word of dialogue is served with flair and purpose. Sheridan Harbridge and Xavier Samuel too, are delightful in the more outrageous comedy of The Cat, both in their element, and unimaginably creative with their artistic choices. On this stage, it is the acting that makes all the difference. Often, we could hardly care about what is being said, when enthralled in the masterful comedic performances so diligently bestowed upon us.

Laughing together in an auditorium beings us closer. We discover where we are similar, and remember that we are a community, sharing in life as compatriots and neighbours. So much of current discourse is about separation and hostilities. Even though the enemy is always abstract, we fall every day, for the allure of convenient condemnation. Theatre is essentially about camaraderie. We have to forsake our phones and isolation, just for a couple of hours, to sit, watch and listen, as one body, to react as one body to what is usually a reflection of ourselves. The Dog / The Cat brings us parts of being human that are silly, and in all that silliness, we are moved to recognise that the vulnerabilities of people are the same, and realise we can so easily just be there, and be good with one another.

www.belvoir.com.au