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

Review: The Overcoat (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Nov 15 – Dec 1, 2018
Book & Lyrics: Michael Costi (based on the short story by Nikolai Gogol)
Music: Rosemarie Costi
Director: Constantine Costi
Cast: Laura Bunting, Kate Cheel, Aaron Tsindos, Charles Wu
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Nikolai is an unremarkable man, an ordinary citizen of Russia, who lives and works in St Petersburg, not unlike the faceless millions in any of the world’s cities. He is unambitious, able to be content with a simple life, but the most basic of human requirements, dignity, eludes him. He is sold a luxurious coat, one he is unable to afford, with the promise that the new garment would finally help him gain the respect of people he sees every day at work. Based on Nikolai Gogol’s short novel of the same name, The Overcoat is about injustice, and the sacrifices some have to make, just to attain a level of subsistence.

Adapted by Michael Costi, whose book and lyrics retain the poignancy of the original, this musical version is an understated but thoroughly moving work of theatre. Rosemarie Costi’s music is consistently gripping, and delightfully idiosyncratic, incorporating shades of Kurt Weill and Stephen Sondheim to find exquisite balance in this sophisticated take on the genre. Director Constantine Costi exhibits great style, alongside a sensitive understanding of drama, for a production that lulls us gently to some very deep places in our hearts and minds.

Performer Charles Wu is an enchanting presence, vulnerable yet confident as Nikolai. Not only does he earn our empathy for the pitiful character, Wu elevates our experience of the sad story with his capacity to inspire our intellect. Aaron Tsindos’ booming voice thrills and satisfies, as do his extravagant depictions of several unforgettable supporting roles. Laura Bunting and Kate Cheel create a range of ebullient personalities, both actors proving themselves to be as commanding as they are charming.

Our protagonist procures his coat, with money that should have gone to food and rent. Before society can provide him with a feeling of belonging, Nikolai must give up more than all he has; we come to the cruel realisation that the real world does not offer unconditional love. When we participate in the labour force, we go to work for survival and for salvation, but there is never any guarantee that the exchange can be a fair one. In fact, we see in The Overcoat, that when the marketplace is left to its own devices, many of us are put in positions where we have to give more than we can ever receive in return. The unfairness is ubiquitous, and without intervention, disparities can only widen.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: The Dance Of Death (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Nov 10 – Dec 23, 2018
Playwright: August Strindberg (literal translation, May-Brit Akerholt)
Director: Judy Davis
Cast: Giorgia Avery, Colin Friels, Pamela Rabe, Toby Schmitz
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
Alice and Edgar live secluded on an island, married to each other but full of hate, in a state of constant exhaustion from having spent every waking moment bitter, and berating all that they come in contact with. When relative Kurt arrives for a brief visit, the antagonism escalates, as we observe the vitriol begin to infect their unsuspecting guest. From 1900, August Strindberg’s The Dance Of Death is characteristically expressionist, with the writer’s socialist attitudes perceptible in the play, although its criticisms of class are somewhat benign by today’s standards.

Its comedy is dark and caustic, and Judy Davis’ direction certainly conveys that subversive quality well, for a show that is consistently amusing, if not quite laugh out loud funny. Strindberg’s absurd and surreal dimensions are embraced by designers, who deliver a production many will find stimulating with its declarative flamboyance. Paul Charlier’s music is libidinous but disturbing, and extraordinarily theatrical in its effect. The stage floats on a pool of blood, with a backdrop proclaiming “hell on earth”; Brian Thomson’s set design and Matthew Scott’s lights conspire in a visual tango that intrigues and mystifies. Costumes and wigs by Judy Tanner are wonderfully evocative, with an exquisite red gown late in the piece, proving to be particularly memorable.

Pamela Rabe cuts a striking figure as the decadent former actress Alice, operatic in style and thoroughly entertaining, if slightly deficient with her character’s emotional authenticity. Edgar is played by Colin Friels, similarly heightened in his approach, for a beguiling study of narcissistic machismo at its ugliest. Cousin Kurt is taken through drastic transformations by Toby Schmitz, whose cheeky humour reinvigorates the action with each of his entrances.

The Dance Of Death succeeds at keeping us engaged, but we wait for poignancy that never arrives. It inspires us to think about marriage, about the way we deal with this thing called love, and how hate only exists in response to something unequivocally cherished, but the show keeps distant, as though aloof, unwilling to be touched, unable to move. Emotions can be frightening, so we go to art to better witness its machinations. Alice and Edgar share a love, but their vulnerabilities are all but calloused by the time we meet them at their twenty-fifth year of entanglement, and it is as though they no longer feel anything. They know only to make demands, and are incapable of giving anything, yet this dynamic is set on a perpetual loop, sustained by the ever surprising human capacity to withstand debasement. From the outside however, it is always easier to perceive with clarity, and we know that walking away from someone who has overstayed their welcome, is the simplest solution.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: random (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Oct 18 – Nov 11, 2018
Playwright: debbie tucker green
Director: Leticia Cáceres
Cast: Zahra Newman

Theatre review
A regular family wakes up to another ordinary day, getting ready for their midweek routine. We soon discover that things do not go as planned, when the police appear on their doorstep, delivering news of catastrophic proportions. debbie tucker green’s random is about youth violence in metropolitan cities, a consequence of our incompetence as communities to provide adequate care and guidance. The playwright’s unique combination of slang, patois and poetry, represents a sublime reshaping of the English language, that emerges from the Caribbean migrant experience in England. Keen observations of contemporary life, are positioned alongside nuanced social critique, giving palpable voice to the black working class.

Actor Zahra Newman plays all the characters in this one-woman show, proving herself a force of nature, and a legitimate superstar of the Australian stage. With extraordinary talent and skill, Newman tells the story of random with exceptional dynamism, taking us from jubilation to the extremes of tragedy, for an experience full of complexity and sentimental enthralment. The multitude of voices, emotions and gestures that the actor is able to portray for each and every personality, are administered with an astounding fluency, as we watch her switch flawlessly between states of mind, whether these people appear for a breathtaking split-second or for several bewitching minutes. Newman is an unequivocal genius, and the theatrical magic she dispenses here, is simply divine.

Directed by Leticia Cáceres, the production is sharp, powerful, often awe-inspiring. Hilarious at the start, and later on, turned harrowing, every moment is captivating, fuelled by an urgent confidence, a vehement need to present the play, with all its sociological pertinence and aesthetic glory. Designed with commendable sophistication, the staging features lights by Rachel Burke and music by The Sweats, both restrained in approach but marvellously efficacious, for this brazenly empty space.

There will be some who wish to call the phenomenon universal, but to neglect the racial dimension of violence in random would be callous. We are all capable of heinous acts, but the circumstances around racial inequity must always be taken into account when trying to understand the social ills of any community. Poor outcomes should never be considered random or accidental, when it is clear that the cards are clearly stacked against some. To be blind to the colour of our neighbours, is to be wilfully ignorant of the challenges that they face. We all deserve the same rights and privileges, but to imagine that things are already equal, and to behave as though nobody is ever in need of additional support, is to perpetuate and fortify the devil’s work.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: An Enemy Of The People (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Oct 7 – Nov 4, 2018
Playwright: Melissa Reeves (after Henrik Ibsen)
Director: Anne-Louise Sarks
Cast: Peter Carroll, Catherine Davies, Leon Ford, Steve Le Marquand, Kenneth Moraleda, Kate Mulvany, Nikita Waldron, Charles Wu
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Dr Stockman is wellness consultant at the local spa resort, where business is booming, resulting in great prosperity for the township. When contamination is discovered in the water and patients are developing diseases as a consequence, she proceeds to reveal all in order that harm can be minimised, and that the town can find the right way forward. Her good intentions however, are met with opposition by men in power, who are motivated only by self-interest, refusing to let emerge, the truth that will cost them severely. In Melissa Reeves’ version of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People, there is the added dimension of Dr Stockman’s gender, that fuels the actions of these deplorable men.

This revision of the 1882 classic arrives at a time of heightened consciousness, in matters relating to the deep-rooted, long-established and systematic deprivation of power as experienced by women everywhere. There is no explicit naming of misogyny in Reeves’ reinvention, but director Anne-Louise Sarks makes it abundantly clear, that what we are talking about here is not only Ibsen’s concerns over democracy and corruption, but also the currently pertinent topic, on the pervasive abuse of women, in this undeniably and resolutely patriarchal world. The show suffers a slow start, with tentative humour and uncomfortable chemistry between personalities, but things escalate for a spectacular second half, enthralling and powerful in its exposition of political ills and challenges that we face as a community.

The addition of a scene involving Stockman’s cleaning lady, Randine chastising the middle classes, along with the theatre-going bourgeoisie, expands our understanding of the body politic. In efforts to make our nations great again, it seems we inevitably become embroiled in discussions that turn increasingly petty in their scope; as we drill down deeper and get closer to the bone of what we think our problems are, we habitually turn exclusionary, always putting ourselves first and forgetting the rest. Intersectionality is not yet the custom, and in Reeves’ An Enemy Of The People, we watch it explained with agonising clarity.

Actor Kate Mulvany is strong as Dr Stockman, particularly persuasive when the role gets emotionally intense. There is an infallible sense of confidence in Mulvany that allows her audience to engage deeply in the arguments being made, and we find our philosophical and ideological selves gratifyingly enriched by the experience. The aforementioned Randine is played by Catherine Davies, who impresses with exquisite nuance and a robust presence. Also memorable is Kenneth Moraleda as the obnoxious Aslaksen, delightfully comical in his animated depiction of a crooked, repugnant undesirable.

2018 could be remembered for the unprecedented number of elected women officials quitting Australian politics, with names like Julia Banks, Emma Husar and Ann Sudmalis making the news, telling stories about bullying and intimidation taking place in quarters where we should be demanding the highest of integrity. The numbers reveal, plain and simple, that women are being deliberately shut out from positions of power, but myths around notions of biology and meritocracy have formed narratives that prevent us from carrying out justice, whether or not we are personally invested. Dr Stockman says she will fight to the bitter end, but our reality demonstrates that her solitary perseverance is no match for the glass ceiling.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: The Maids (Glitterbomb / 25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Aug 25 – Sep 15, 2018
Playwright: Jean Genet (translated by Bernard Frechtmann)
Director: Carissa Licciardello
Cast: Alexandra Aldrich, Skyler Ellis, Amanda McGregor
Images by Jasmin Simmons

Theatre review
Jean Genet’s The Maids is based on a 1933 murder in France. A pair of sisters work as maids in a rich man’s house, isolated from the rest of the world. Their shared oppression turns them monstrous, as they gradually bring to fruition, the heinous contents of their imagination. We may no longer, in the West, have servants of that kind, but it is a story that draws parallels with the many inequalities that persist, or are in fact escalating, in these supposedly modern times. We look at the birth of evil, from evil, and are made to consider the repercussions of a society determined to maintain its hierarchies.

Carissa Licciardello directs an extraordinarily intense and flamboyant production, using Genet’s macabre poetry to inspire a marvellous sense of heightened drama. Three wonderful actors work in perfect tandem, delivering a sensational piece of grotesque theatre, intriguing and powerful with what they bring to the stage. Alexandra Aldrich and Amanda McGregor play the sisters, both commanding in presence, as Claire and Solange, compelling from beginning to end, even when Genet’s writing turns impenetrable and obtuse. Male actor Skyler Ellis takes on the role of Madame with aplomb, demonstrating excellent nuance alongside the role’s predictable extravagance. Watching the maids feud with a man, creates a fresh intellectual dimension, helping the old play speak with more pertinence than it would otherwise have.

Humans have an insatiable desire to control one another. Our thirst for power, when untamed, has the ability to blind us to the fact that people’s freedoms are always essential. Compromises can be reached in all our interactions, of course, but it is clear that transgressions occur frequently, with or without our acknowledgement. The servants have no choice but to submit to the consequences of their poverty, but when people are subjected to conditions unnatural and perverse, it is certain that morbidity will result.

www.dasglitterbomb.com | www.belvoir.com.au