Review: Jess & Joe Forever (Sugary Rum Productions / 25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Mar 13 – 30, 2019
Playwright: Zoe Cooper
Director: Shaun Rennie
Cast: Nyx Calder, Julia Robertson
Images by Kate Williams

Theatre review
The children are on a mission to tell their story. It takes place in Joe’s hometown of Norfolk, where Jess had begun spending her summer holidays at 9 years-old. The two become fast friends, and go through thick and thin together. In Zoe Cooper’s Jess & Joe Forever, they find a way to recount seminal events of their young lives, like an informal kind of psychotherapy, not because there is anything wrong with them per se, but because the world seems intent on inflicting a very hard time on them both. Cooper’s writing is extraordinarily tender, beautifully authentic in the way these young voices are rendered. Its structure is suspenseful and intriguing, for a narrative that does much more than entertain.

Director Shaun Rennie takes great care to manufacture a sensitive atmosphere in which we can only receive Jess and Joe with hearts wide open, and in the process, come to an intimate understanding of how children respond to the bigger world, and all the the difficult things we cannot shield them from. The emotional crescendo Rennie is able to build into the plot of Jess & Joe Forever, is representative of theatre at its most captivating.

It is a wonderfully designed production. Isabel Hudson’s playground is perfectly proportioned for the small auditorium, with quaint illustrations along the backdrop reflecting an innocence so crucial to the play. Lights by Benjamin Brockman help to amplify the emotions of both characters and audience, so that none of the sentimentality escapes us. Ben Pierpoint’s work on sound provides for the mind’s eye, an evocative picture of what that small English seaside town must look like, and his music gives the show a sense of elevation, with its unmistakable sophistication.

We fall in love right away with the very excellent cast, both actors adorable and completely believable as our little hosts. As Jess, Julia Robertson brings to the role a strength and defiance that absolutely charms. Her effervescence is infectious, and even though her penchant for machine gun speed recitation of lines can sometimes be a challenge, the precision of her approach is unequivocally affecting. Nyx Calder is perfect as Joe, disarmingly poignant but also effortless and delightful in their depiction of youthful purity. The extraordinary vulnerability that Calder is able to convey, fills the gaps purposefully left behind by the playwright, impeccably addressing parts of Joe’s story where words can prove inadequate.

Watching these kids, we feel compelled to protect them, but we also know that their struggles will make them into resilient and wise adults. It is true that there is much sadness in the world. The societies we manufacture often seem to be endlessly flawed, and the thought that those who have done no harm, would still be subject to injustice and inequity, is devastating. Some of us will respond with resignation, but some will fight for things to be better. Jess & Joe Forever is bittersweet, because its anguish is palpable, but it also provides inspiration, so that we can know to always do the right thing.

www.facebook.com/sugaryrumproductions | www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Every Brilliant Thing (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Mar 8 – 31, 2019
Playwrights: Duncan Macmillan, with Jonny Donahoe
Directors: Kate Champion, Steve Rodgers
Cast: Kate Mulvany
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
The narrator began compiling a list of brilliant things, when her mother first attempted suicide. In trying to understand why one should go to such extremes, the narrator, at the time a seven year-old child, focused her thoughts instead on all that is good about the world, whether they be ice cream, things with stripes, opening presents, or watching things grow. The list is then used as a vehicle for communication with her mother, who continues to struggle with depression, in the narrator’s efforts to connect, and to heal. Initially intended to be itemised at a thousand, the number keeps growing as our narrator herself grows up. We witness the list assume a bigger life, as it transforms into a basis on which the narrator deals with her own life.

Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe’s Every Brilliant Thing is full of sincerity, in its discussions about suicide, and the inter-generational effects of depression in families. The piece feels authentic with its explorations, and offers a theatrical intimacy for its sensitive subject matter. There is little however, that is unexpected, and it alternates frequently between poignancy and banality, in its attempts at informing and entertaining its audience. The themes are extremely delicate, and as such, we approach them sensibly, for a play that never turns very dramatic.

House lights are on for the entirety, during which performer Kate Mulvany addresses us directly. Many members of audience are given cards denoting an item from the narrator’s list, and are invited to read them out loud when asked. More extensive interactions are required of luckier attendees, who take to the stage briefly to play several small roles in the story. Mulvany’s charm proves boundless, as she opens herself up to a swarm of unpredictability in this theatre-in-the-round configuration. Her confidence and preparedness is thoroughly impressive, but pacing of the production can suffer in moments when she has more to manage than to simply tell a story. The show runs very long on opening night. Even though there is much to enjoy in watching live theatre do its magic, we do experience the disruption of plot tension, for better or for worse, at many points.

In the production and consumption of theatre, we form communities that must hold each other in mutual care. Sat face to face, Every Brilliant Thing gives us the opportunity to look at each other, and learn to look after each other. It reinforces the understanding that parts of us are frail, that we all have weaknesses behind our smiling faces. There may be a million wonderful things to encounter, but there is no denying that life is hard. The only way we can make it through, is to do it together.

www.belvoir.com.au

5 Questions with Kate Champion and Steve Rodgers

Kate Champion

Steve Rodgers: What’s the first memory you have of seeing live theatre?
Kate Champion: I was lucky enough to see Lindsey Kemp, the mime artist who taught Bowie, when I was pretty young. I remember there was nudity and men wearing frocks with powdered faces – they were moving but it wasn’t like any dance I’d ever seen and they were acting but it certainly wasn’t naturalism. It was exciting because it was outrageous and risky and different.

What works by others over the years have inspired you?
Hmmm – I always find this question difficult to answer because there are so many and afterwards I’ll end up thinking more about the ones I’ve left out. I find that work from genres other than the ones I work in have probably influenced me more. Music, film, comedy, visual arts, architecture, books…

You’ve been directing a heap of shows lately, Evie May a musical at Hayes Theatre, you’ve got Arthur Miller’s A View From A Bridge coming up at SASTC, what’s special about Every Brilliant Thing?
I am enjoying how different the shows I’ve been working on are – it really tests my skill set as a director. Every Brilliant Thing – as we wrote in the program notes – is almost not a play. It practically creates its own form which I love. Its form has come about as an honest and appropriate response to its subject matter. I come from a history of devising work from scratch. I recognise the skill with which Every Brilliant Thing has been devised and therefore appreciate its distilled and deceptive simplicity. To achieve what it does without the usual bells and whistles is its triumph.

What are the ingredients for a ‘brilliant’ rehearsal room?
I think having mutual respect in the room is vital. Giving everyone the ability to contribute their opinion yet at the same time asserting the necessary leadership that you, as directors, will make the final call. Talking about personal experiences around the subject matter of the play is vital. We’ve been writing our own list of Every Brilliant Thing every morning of rehearsal. Everyone who is in the room writes down ten brilliant things and then we read them out aloud. I think we’ve learnt more nuanced information about each other this way than we would have found out otherwise. It’s a ‘brilliant’ way to start the day. It’s also vital that everyone knows that they can be vulnerable in the room and will be supported. A combination of discipline and playfulness is imperative.

Why should people come to this play, now?
There seems to be a strong disconnect these days between a surface way of sharing and deep social isolation. Every Brilliant Thing brings us together as an audience literally face to face to share the personal account of a struggle with unstable mental health. This difficult subject matter is handled in a down to earth, tender, even lighthearted way which is ultimately beautifully life affirming. I think there’s a good chance it will still be relevant long into the future.

Steve Rodgers

Kate Champion: You’re both a writer and an actor – how do you think your acting experience influences your writing and visa versa?
Steve Rodgers: I think writing and acting inform each other in the sense that they’re both about making words live off the page. I guess obviously acting is more about playing the words, where as with playwriting you get the chance to create the words for someone else to play. But they talk to each other because they’re both beautiful imaginative leaps that require discipline.

How does Every Brilliant Thing differ from how you might approach other roles?
Every role I’ve ever done is about examining what I think I understand and know about the character in relation to my own experience, and what I don’t know or understand, and need to find out. This role is all about shedding your skin, without layering something else on top.

What’s it like going from the co-directing to the acting ‘head space’?
I understand the director has the final call, so as the co-director I think my job is to be a part of the discussion as another observer, offer another perspective, and in a small tight room like ours, try and make a few jokes. As an actor I’m also doing the same. It’s a discussion about personalising the work. I must admit watching Mulvers get up and do it each day is easier than getting up and doing it your self. I’m reminded how much acting personally costs.

Do you enjoy learning lines?
No… But when they’re learnt, I’m anyone’s.

What part of the process of creating/getting a show to the stage do you enjoy the most?
Rehearsals for me are sacred, where I’m always reminded I’m not alone in the world. People and stories… what else is there?

Kate Champion and Steve Rodgers are co-directing Every Brilliant Thing by Duncan Macmillan.
Dates: 8 – 31 Mar, 2019
Venue: Belvoir St Theatre

Review: Tuesday (Sign Of The Acorn / 25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Feb 6 – 23, 2019
Playwright: Louris van de Geer
Director: Nell Ranney
Cast: Frances Duca, Duncan Fellows, Tom Anson Mesker, Bridie McKim
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Four people in a supermarket, isolated in their own lanes, doing what are probably the most banal of activities, in the most mundane of places. In Louris van de Gerr’s Tuesday, we see ourselves on the most prosaic day of the week, caught up in private thoughts that reveal our truest, most unflattering selves. Structured as four interwoven monologues, these Australians do not interact with each other, but they exhibit common characteristics that serve to represent our identity. They may be of different genders and generations, but what we see in Tuesday are scared white people, filled with anxiety and aggression, completely self-obsessed even at a moment of catastrophe.

Van de Gerr’s writing is astonishingly detailed in its observations, thus able to connect in a way that feels intimate and authentic. Its disarming sarcasm makes for scintillating humour, and along with a subtle but cleverly structured narrative drive, Tuesday proves to be terrifically satisfying. Director Nell Ranney’s emphasis on tension and gravity from the get go, creates a powerful work of theatre that delivers incessant ironic laughter, as well as an undeniable sense of poignancy in its microscopic scrutiny into the everyday.

The production is designed exceedingly well. Isabel Hudson’s precarious placement of full uncapped bottles of milk, in perfect straight rows, insists that our bodies seize up in their presence, in fear of any accidents that might happen. Martin Kinnane’s quiet rendering of lights gives support to that mood of ubiquitous and impending horror, without ever drawing attention to itself. Sound design by Clare Hennessy is a marvellous achievement, heavily relied upon to convey every fluctuating degree of funny and frightening, for a highly sophisticated blend of comedy, drama and thriller.

A splendid ensemble comprising impressive measures of intelligence and creativity, takes us on an exercise in intuitive storytelling, riveting from beginning to end. Frances Duca fascinates us by combining poetic gestures with incisive speech, to emulate and comment on the sad housewife archetype. Equally memorable is Duncan Fellows’ interpretation of the pathetic but still respectable low-rung shop manager, hilarious in his naive perception of the world. Bridie McKim plays a mischievous schoolgirl, painfully accurate and unfettered in her spirited depiction of mindless rebelliousness. Tom Anson Mesker’s controlled and complex portrayal of masculinity at its puerile best and toxic worst, encourages us to examine the little irritations and provocations that can pervade our lives, pretending to be normalised, only to explode spectacularly when you least expect it.

The characters in Tuesday are consumed by annoyance, yet there is no evidence of anything serious actually happening within their personal realms. They are people who have no concerns about food and shelter, but are far away from any semblance of peace or contentment. In Australia, we have everything, in fact we have a great deal more than we need, yet we are endlessly restless, and increasingly selfish, always obsessing over issues like border defence and protectionism, without ever intending to be properly informed about the world beyond our shores. It is easy to see the crazy in others, but to understand one’s own madness is quite another thing.

www.facebook.com/SignoftheAcorn | www.belvoir.com.au

Review: The Iliad Out Loud (Sport For Jove Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jan 23 – 27, 2019
Playwright: William Zappa
Director: William Zappa
Cast: Blazey Best, Heather Mitchell, Socratis Otto, William Zappa
Images by Lisa Tomasetti, Jamie Williams

Theatre review
Homer’s ancient poem is adapted and abridged in William Zappa’s The Iliad Out Loud, first for radio, and now for the stage. This iteration of the epic stretches across three parts, each three hours long, presented by four actors and two musicians, in the form of a staged reading. It takes after what is believed to have happened in 8th century BC, when the original was performed, to be heard and not read. Zappa’s text can easily be repackaged as a novel, and often we wonder if that would have been a better format, especially during the very many drawn out battling sequences, which require only visualisation and no analysis on our part.

This condensation of events would likely be more rewarding for those who are already fans of the story. A thrilling ride for some can prove an ordeal for others, as the production routinely rushes past character development to cover significant occurrences. Without sufficient background understanding of personalities, we struggle to resonate with their trials and tribulations in all the warfare, that Zappa so exhaustively conveys.

Michael Askill and Hamed Sadehi are musicians and stars of the show, a two-man band that makes a real art form of their accompaniment. In the absence of more conventional theatrical imagery, Askill and Sadehi pull out all the stops to stoke our imagination, adding infinite colour to the pages of words being dispensed. Lighting by Matt Cox too, is inspired, with a series of elegant transformations to illumination, helping guide us through states of emotion.

Zappa is an outstanding reader, full of dynamism on his stage, holding our attention with extraordinary ease, effortless in sharing his immense enthusiasm for a seminal work of his heritage. It is a confident cast that travels with us on this journey, impressive in their detailed familiarity with every twist and turn of the 9 hours.

The warring men blame their behaviour alternately, on one woman Helen, or on the gods Zeus and his ilk. Their inability to face their own culpability in all the conflict, feels an accurate reflection of every war in every era. It may not be true that women are never in favour of such brutality, but it is certain that none of these atrocities can ever be perpetrated without men. All the war heroes in Iliad can be thought of as good guys, and our continual inclination to excuse them of the horrors that they choose to enact, reveals, at least in part, why we remain in a perpetual cycle of bloodshed.

www.sportforjove.com.au

Review: Counting & Cracking (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Town Hall (Sydney NSW), Jan 11 – Feb 2, 2019 | Ridley Centre (Adelaide Showgrounds, South Australia) Mar 2 – 9, 2019
Playwright: S. Shakthidharan
Director: Eamon Flack
Cast: Prakash Belawadi, Nicholas Brown, Jay Emmanuel, Rarriwuy Hick, Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Nadie Kammallaweera, Ahi Karunaharan, Monica Kumar, Gandhi MacIntyre, Shiv Palekar, Monroe Reimers, Hazem Shammas, Nipuni Sharada, Vaishnavi Suryaprakash, Rajan Velu, Sukania Venugopal
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
It was 1983 when Radha first came to Australia, escaping persecution in Sri Lanka during the racial riots of Black July. With her husband killed in the midst of unrest, Radha was left with no choice but to flee alone and pregnant, arriving in Sydney to put down new roots in a foreign land. S. Shakthidharan’s Counting & Cracking is a very big play, ambitious and benevolent, rhapsodic in its attempts to uncover the whole truth about a woman, observed as a maternal figure from the playwright’s vantage point. Shakthidharan’s work is warm and witty, generous in its seismic attempts to explain everything, taking us through half a century of untold stories to reach an understanding about the people we are today.

It is often a gripping production, directed by Eamon Flack who renders marvellously the play’s more domestic and romantic scenes. Relationships are beautifully cultivated, between powerful characters, with a convincing sentimentality that encourages the audience to invest deeply, our attention and our emotions, right from the very beginning. Political dimensions are communicated less lucidly, but we are able to gather sufficient information for the narrative drive to maintain interest.

Designer Dale Ferguson’s transformation of Sydney Town Hall’s colonial interior, into a festively radiant Sri Lankan space of congregation and celebration, is a sight to behold. Majestic and monumental, it embraces our bodies and psyches, holding us firmly inside its milieu, to have us luxuriate in all its extravagant expressions. Contrastingly, acoustics are a sore point for the production, with sound engineering unable to overcome the echoey vastness of the old building, thus resulting in occasional dissipation of dialogue. There are however auditory delights to be had, in the form of Stefan Gregory’s score, performed live by a trio of musicians (Kranthi Kiran Mudigonda, Janakan Raj and Venkhatesh Sritharan) whose expert accompaniment provides us with unparalleled sensuality and soulfulness.

Actors Nadie Kammallaweera and Vaishnavi Suryaprakash share the lead role, both captivating and extremely likeable, allowing us to fall under Radha’s spell for the show’s entire duration. Their combined dynamism gives Counting & Cracking complexity and authenticity, and we find ourselves moved by a tale that is at once unique, yet spiritually universal. Sukania Venugopal is memorable as Aacha, the vivacious matriarch who brings colour and effervescence to the stage with every exhilarating entrance. Radha’s son Siddhartha provides the cultural anchor for this Australian story, performed by a very compelling Shiv Palekar, whose luminous confidence proves to be as impressive as it is alluring.

It is always demanded of migrants that we prove our worth. Counting & Cracking is in some ways an exercise in showing the establishment that we contribute at least as much as the others; it makes a statement about our Australianness, arguing against incessant lies about immigration being nothing but a burden on this society. More valuable is the play’s reclamation of identity, in its insistence that the portrayal of Australian lives must include histories and origins that are routinely excluded and denied. As humans, we must always strive for unity, but cohesion must bear the unequivocal acceptance of difference, hard as it may be.

www.belvoir.com.au | www.co-curious.com

Review: The Club (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Dec 7 – 22, 2018
Playwright: David Williamson
Director: Tessa Leong
Cast: Jude Henshall, Louisa Mignone, Ellen Steele
Images by Marnya Rothe

Theatre review
Hundreds of millions of dollars go through Australia’s sporting organisations, and to view the industry as wholesome and virtuous is, to put it mildly, naive. Yet, we routinely attribute our sports stars and their colleagues, with a glow of reverence, and they in turn, present an image of habitual sanctimony. The men in David Williamson’s The Club are exposed of these hypocrisies. It is a story about white boys spoilt by their talent with an olive-shaped ball, who grow into stunted adulthood, and we watch their clumsy attempts at extending the glory days beyond bygone moments on the football field.

The corrupt and inane behaviour of these self-aggrandising men provide a platform for director Tessa Leong’s discussion of sexism and toxic masculinity, within an archetypal setting of a sporting arena, that conveniently encapsulates our nation’s sense of self-image. Three female performers take on all the roles, playing exaggerated versions of maleness, for a subversive exercise that makes statements about gender, and especially about the misguided adoration of what might be termed traditional masculinity. First half of the production is surprisingly conventional, a one-trick pony with a simple concept that quickly loses steam, but the show picks up furiously after interval, and what had felt gimmicky, turns into something far more complex and provocative.

The production is full of grandiose gesturing, not always powerful, but certainly delivered with extraordinary conviction. Actor Ellen Steele is particularly robust with her comedy, extremely cheeky and acerbic, a consistent delight in this portrait of ugliness. Jude Henshall and Louisa Mignone too, are exuberant performers who bring admirable rigour into their farce, for a rewarding study on the machinations of privilege and ignorance, frequently found in some segments of Australian society.

In sport, we celebrate high achievers not only for their accomplishments, but also for the whole of their persons. We want our heroes to be godlike, and imagine them to be infallible, consequently giving them powers, in the form of money and status, that they often exploit to the detriment of our collective good. It is no coincidence that these powerful are predominantly straight white men. Our institutions are structured to benefit a certain idea of supremacy, one that repeatedly exerts its imperialism over all others, and any action designed to take them down is met with disdain and even violence. Oppression requires concession, with the oppressed made to concede to notions of objectivity and meritocracy, that are demonstrably unjust. It is a survival strategy, to play to these rules, but only those willing to sacrifice can hope to foster a change.

www.belvoir.com.au | www.isthisyours.com.au