Review: Mark Colvin’s Kidney (Belvoir St Theatre)

belvoirVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Feb 25 – Apr 2, 2017
Playwright: Tommy Murphy
Director: David Berthold
Cast: Peter Carroll, Kit Esuruoso, John Howard, Sarah Peirse, Chris Stollery, Helen Thomson
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
We want many ideas and themes running through our plays, so that they may be experienced with complexity and a sense of surprise. In Mark Colvin’s Kidney, by Tommy Murphy, we think about friendship, altruism, wealth, technology, and the Leveson “phone-hacking” inquiry, divergent concepts that the writer consolidates with the help of a real story.

It is a tricky undertaking, having to find the right balance so that our focus sticks with the plot’s main concern. The play wants to talk about the unusual affair of a broadcaster, Mark Colvin’s kidney transplant, but sets of circumstances in the donor’s life that take us to the main event, often seem equally or more interesting, perhaps due, admittedly, to the brevity at which they are dispensed. Protagonist Mary-Ellen Field is an extraordinary woman who has had a very full life, and we require more than just that one great deed of rescuing a sick man, to satisfy our desire to know and celebrate her.

Murphy’s representation of characters, Mary-Ellen and Mark, is warm, vibrant and suitably life-affirming. Actors Sarah Peirse and John Howard are both immensely affable, but their unpreparedness for opening night is apparent, and disappointing. The magic of the piece lies in the fascinating implausibility, of a friendship developing so quickly and deeply in cyberspace, with the actors assigned the unenviable task of making that relationship believable. Director David Berthold’s spatial manipulations are marvellously imagined, for his creative portrayal of dialogue that takes place only on mobile devices, but performances fail, ironically, to make convincing, events that actually did happen.

It is nonetheless, a feel-good uplifting tale that is at once hopeful and inspiring. Mary-Ellen’s determination to give up her kidney may not be entirely comprehensible, but we recognise the divine in her actions. Her name may not bear enough eminence to claim space in the title, but she is a modern day real-life hero to whom we should all aspire, if only we could come away with a greater understanding of what it is that makes her tick.

Review: Prize Fighter (La Boite Theatre Company / Belvoir St Theatre)

laboiteVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jan 6 – 22, 2017
Playwright: Future D. Fidel
Director: Todd MacDonald
Cast: Margi Brown-Ash, Thuso Lekwape, Gideon Mzembe, Pacharo Mzembe, Zindzi Okenyo, Kenneth Ransom
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
We meet Isa as he tries to make a new life in Australia. After experiencing years of trauma in Congo, he now focuses aggression onto the fighting ring, and as he boxes his way through flashbacks of unimaginably tough times, we witness his tragic biography unfold onstage.

Prize Fighter involves a young man making sense of the world, in order that healing and a brighter future become possible. It is also about a migrant reaching out to his adopted land, asking for understanding and acceptance. Future D. Fidel’s writing is concise and simple. The play knows what it wishes to say and says it clearly, but its inability to delve deeper into our protagonist’s psychological and emotional complexities, results in a story that has a tendency to feel generic.

Direction by Todd MacDonald gives the show exciting vigour, with an athletic cast providing a beautiful sense of visual animation. Lighting design by David Walters is creative, surprising and very polished, but the production often feels distant, or perhaps elusive. Its dim dreamlike quality seems to prevent us from connecting firmly with the characters, and we struggle to connect with an intensity that would befit Isa’s plight.

We hear about humanitarian crises, on the news every day. Reports are made by people in positions of privilege, for the consumption of people with privilege. These stories affect us all, but the stakes are infinitely higher for those seeking refuge, yet their voices are rarely heard in our cacophonous landscape of upper-class broadcast culture. Prize Fighter is a rare opportunity for a first-person account, an important contribution to unceasing discussions on who are allowed to occupy this land. If the world is one, our boundaries can only be false, but humans have always been at war, and even though utopia is only imagined, life means little if we are unable to conceive of something better.

Review: Girl Asleep (Belvoir St Theatre)

belvoirstVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Dec 2 – 24, 2016
Playwright: Matthew Whittet
Director: Rosemary Myers
Cast: Ruby Burke, Sheridan Harbridge, Amber McMahon, Martha Morgan, Ellen Steele, Matthew Whittet, Dylan Young
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
Alice and Dorothy are young ladies who travel famously into their subconscious, for memorable stories that have shaped generations. In Matthew Whittet’s Girl Asleep, Greta joins the list, for an exploration into teenage anxiety as it relates to all things social, familial and sexual. Like her predecessors, we meet Greta when she is in a moment of confusion, but our new heroine seems stronger, more independent and wilful, as we watch her battle the demons to emerge with newfound wisdom.

The play is often funny, but its explorations do not go deep enough for us to derive much more than what is presented on the surface. As the show becomes more surreal, we expect harder truths to reveal themselves, but what we get instead are elaborate effects (courtesy of a very impressive team of designers) that fascinate our senses without much intellectual engagement. Music by Luke Smiles and Harry Covill, along with Richard Vabre’s lights and Jonathan Oxlade’s set and costumes, are truly commendable, for the many dimensions they add to what is essentially a static stage.

Ellen Steele brings an admirable dignity to Greta, choosing to portray the girl with grit and pluckiness, without a hint of twee. Her relationships are established with authenticity, most notably her friendship with Elliot, played by the very charming Dylan Young, who brings a valuable quality of joyful innocence to the production. The actor’s irresistible comedy is certainly one of the strongest assets of a show memorable for its sense of humour.

Greta is not quite ready to grow up, but there are forces determined to hurry her into womanhood. Nature has a way of taking us places against our will. Just as we learn to be content with how things are, disruptions inevitably come upon us, and we have to fasten those seat belts again for yet another bumpy ride. Childhood may be a wonderful time, but the promise of better days is always palpable, and in our every breath, we anticipate new gifts from the great unknown.

Review: Faith Healer (Belvoir St Theatre)

belvoirVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Oct 22 – Nov 27, 2016
Playwright: Brian Friel
Director: Judy Davis
Cast: Colin Friels, Pip Miller, Alison Whyte
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Frank makes his living as a faith healer, travelling all over Britain with a performance that showcases his charismatic arrogance, and sometimes actually, miraculously healing people in the process. There are serious troubles in private however, but none of his energy is put into finding a cure for the suffering at home. Brian Friel’s play is meandering, and often obscure, with its Rashomon style of getting at the truth by taking us through layers of subjectivity and delusions, in a simple format of successive monologues.

Three characters, speaking in distinctive voices, help us piece together a puzzle that is both confusing and intriguing. Talent manager Teddy’s warm candour is endearingly portrayed by Pip Miller, who captivates with a precise and dynamic approach. The vividness of his storytelling is inviting, and contrasts with Frank’s enigmatic style that can often alienate, in spite of actor Colin Friels’ powerful presence. The shamanic showman’s life is occupied by smoke and mirrors, and his penchant for embellishments and denials have us mystified even when his followers are kept mesmerised. In the role of Frank’s wife, Grace, is Alison Whyte, impressive with an extraordinary emotional agility, perfect for a character replete with volatility.

Director Judy Davis insists that we watch closely at the cast, but her stagnant presentation is demanding of us, and probably excessive in its minimalism. Design however, is noteworthy, with a spectacular cyclorama by Brian Thomson depicting a wide variation of cloudy skies, transforming with every one of Verity Hampson’s lighting changes. The weather we see in the backdrop is often the most truthful element on stage.

When Frank’s audience falls into his concoction of fiction and non-fiction, they are willing participants in a show, all wishing to believe. When people turn to the faith business for salvation, it is because tall tales feel more real than reality. The afflicted come to Frank for a cure, but more accurately, what they seek most is certainty. A life of doubt and ambiguity is unbearable, and the allure of faith lies in its ability to turn hope into surety. When the whole world turns cruel, comfort can only come from the extraterrestrial.

Review: The Drover’s Wife (Belvoir St Theatre)

belvoirVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Sep 17 – Oct 16, 2016
Playwright: Leah Purcell
Director: Leticia Cáceres
Cast: Tony Cogin, Mark Coles Smith, Benedict Hardie, Will McDonald, Leah Purcell
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
In Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife, race relations in Australia are placed front and centre, and we have nowhere to hide from its confrontations. 1893 is in some ways a long time ago, but in Aboriginal terms especially, we can still think of the story as a contemporary one. The invasion is ongoing, and the carnage, although better disguised, still persists. The cruelty and brutality demonstrated in Purcell’s play is a necessary point of discussion for our nation. Turning abstract into flesh, we look into the face of horror, and any denial of responsibility is impossible. When Molly meets Yadaka, revelations are made about identity and how it is constructed or understood in Australia. We watch fanatic bigotry in action at its extremes, and relate it to what we know to happen today, and can only react with despondence and anger.

It is a powerful piece of writing, unforgiving and unrelenting in its accusations, balanced by a sensitive incorporation of grace and compassion in its depictions. What Leticia Cáceres brings to the stage as director, is cuttingly honest but with a lucid rationality that prevents us from feeling alienated by its outrage. The relationship between Molly and Yadaka is a tricky one that goes through drastic transformations, and the production’s ability to portray it with authenticity, convincing at every point, is deeply impressive and the linchpin to its success. As actor, Purcell’s formidable presence is captivating, and Mark Coles Smith, as Yadaka, is equally compelling, with a dynamic and empathetic approach that mesmerises. Tony Cogin and Benedict Hardie play a range of objectionable and revolting characters who are thoroughly disturbing, but it must be said that their work is remarkably bold, and brilliantly conceived.

A statement that promises redress is made at the play’s end, but what it represents is not an optimistic prophecy. What we have instead, is a continuing process of struggle and suffering that generations of Aboriginal people are enduring. The Drover’s Wife wants us to look at the injustices of 1893 and recognise that, although much has changed in over a hundred years, much of the same remains. A dominant foreign culture exists on this land that requires the subjugation of our native communities. European colonisation, at its very foundations, disallows any room for its oppressed to gain autonomy or sovereignty, unless we begin to acknowledge the need for a radical dismantling of systems. The damage may be severe, but we must believe that reparations are possible, and the urgency for them to occur cannot be overstated.

Review: Beirut Adrenaline (Théâtre Excentrique)

excentriqueVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jul 27 – Aug 14, 2016
Playwrights: Jalie Barcilon, Hala Ghosn
Director: Anna Jahjah
Cast: Danielle Dona, Neveen Hanna, Mansoor Noor, Eli Saad, Sana’a Shaik, Delphine Vuagnoux
Image by Emma Lois

Theatre review
The play is set wartime, approximately thirty years ago in Beirut. We do not see politicians or armies, only civilians who attempt to live every day with as much normalcy as they can muster. Amidst constant worry and foreboding, every step they take becomes a heavy one, with repercussions that no one can be certain of. Their experience may now be considered a chapter of the past, but war is ever-present, and its unchanging complexion means that every story of survival, or otherwise, serves to help us reflect on the many dark events of our day.

The stress and anxiety from that state of emergency is portrayed well in Beirut Adrenaline, even though time and space is, in the play, often confused. Like the experience of trauma, the production opens with a sense of disoriented bewilderment, and we are forced into an inconvenient struggle to figure out each of its story’s where, when and who. It takes considerable time before we are able to form enough narrative coherence, but it is a worthwhile investment that ultimately does take us to a satisfying conclusion.

Neveen Hanna and Eli Saad play the bigger parts in the show, and are both affecting. We warm up to them slowly, but their efforts are fundamentally passionate, with an impressive sincerity especially moving at the climactic end. Mansoor Noor’s animated approach for his teenage character is delightful, and the confident demeanour he brings to the stage is refreshing and quite critical in adding a quality of exhilaration to its often sombre tone.

Although Beirut Adrenaline is rough around the edges, unable to provide a polished telling of its pessimistic tale, it does leave us with a truthful and evocative essence of those terrifying experiences. It is in our nature to want easy answers and impeccable solutions, but war is a beast that will forever resist our every grasp and restraint. The notion of world peace exists only in the phantasmagoric land of fairy tales and beauty queens. To find any progress, our existences must include the acknowledgement of suffering, especially of those we call our enemies.

Review: Twelfth Night Or What You Will (Belvoir St Theatre)

belvoirVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jul 23 – Sep 4, 2016
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Eamon Flack
Cast: Peter Carroll, Anita Hegh, John Howard, Lucia Mastrantone, Amber McMahon, Anthony Phelan, Keith Robinson, Damien Ryan, Nikki Shiels, Emele Ugavule
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Characters in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night Or What You Will are drunk with infatuation. They chase after that sweet sensation of being overcome by the notion of love, obsessed with finding reciprocation from the object of their desire. It is an escape from the harsher realities of life, this frivolous respite. Taking us away from stories of war, of incarcerated children, or of religious schism. Countering the dark with light, we can go to the theatre for mirth, seeking refuge in its momentary illusions so that our souls can rest and be comforted, like a baby, safe in her mother’s womb.

The production understands the joy it has to deliver, in order that it may bear any meaning at all. Director Eamon Flack’s approach takes things back to basics, creating a show that looks and feels as if presented by a troupe of Elizabethan travelling players, who have little more than their bodies and voices to tell the story with. Flack’s experimentation with working from a script that is virtually unedited, means that we rely on the actors to make every line of dialogue count, including the many instances of “archaic nonsense” (Flack’s words) that only the scholarly would appreciate. It is a tall order, and the results are predictably mixed. The very accomplished and esteemed cast delivers three hours of wonder, amusement and laughter, along with interludes of bewilderment and boredom. Anthony Phelan’s camp humour is outrageous, completely gleeful in its tenacious need to tickle our funny bone. Keith Robinson is charming as Feste, breaking through the fourth wall for a firm connection with his audience, daring to improvise beyond Shakespeare’s words. Peter Carroll and Lucia Mastrantone impress with their energy and precision, both inventive in their surprising artistic choices.

The world can spin too fast, too manic for mere humans to cope. Retreating into the classics can help us regain composure, and with the old-fashioned Twelfth Night, we can hope to find our feet again, in everything that is placid and familiar. Tradition is valuable in the way it reminds us of what is good and time-honoured, giving us an understanding of humanity’s nature, helping us define our place in the world, but it is also the basis on which we decide what needs to change, and how we can progress and become better. Shakespeare is a past that continues to haunt us, but we can make of him what we will.