Review: Janet’s Vagrant Love (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jan 19 – 22, 2023
Playwright: Elaine Crombie
Directors: Kirk Page
Cast: Elaine Crombie
Images by

Theatre review

In between personal anecdotes of love and loss, Elaine Crombie sings incredibly beautiful songs, as she plays her guitar, with accompanist Amaru Derwent on keyboard. The show is entitled Janet’s Vagrant Love, but not for a second do we feel that Crombie conveys anything but her own deepest truths, in these recollections, involving people who have come and gone. We witness joy and pain, seemingly dichotomous but in comfortable juxtaposition, as well as strength alongside vulnerability, such are the complexities and incoherence of existence.

Direction by Kirk Page allows the fractures to remain exposed and unvarnished in the show. The experience is simply about being in the presence of humanity, one that we can feel to be natural and real, with narratives that are as disjointed as those in every person’s life. The presentation may be unpretentious, but there is no denying the skill of Crombie’s vocals and song writing, delivering many moments of transcendence.

Crombie, as a Pitjantjatjara, Warrigmal, South Sea & German descended woman, very generously says that this place is home for all of us. It can only follow, that when one of our family, especially if they are part of a lineage that has grappled with generations of dispossession, takes to the stage and magnanimously shares the contents of her heart, we have to bear witness, and be filled with a deep appreciation, to be offered an opportunity that many do not deserve.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Blue (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jan 14 – 29, 2023
Playwright: Thomas Weatherall
Directors: Deborah Brown
Cast: Thomas Weatherall
Images by Joseph Mayers

Theatre review

Barely out of his teens, Mark is already facing some of life’s biggest challenges. Having been dealt devastatingly bad hands in quick succession, he is left to pick up the pieces, in a world he is not quite ready for. Thomas Weatherall’s Blue is a work of fiction, but its explorations of despair feel exhaustive and authentic. There is a beauty in his rhythmic arrangement of words, that keeps the darkness from becoming alienating, along with a wistful humour that gently endears. As is perhaps typical of young writing, Blue may not always be sufficiently insightful, but its ability to convey poignancy is unequivocal.

Directed by Deborah Brown, the staging is tender and immediate, consistently intimate in its rendering of a contemplative one-man show. Set design by Cris Baldwin and Jacob Nash evokes a glacial edge, mesmerising with its intricate detailing of surfaces, and effective at transporting us to the oceanic settings that play an important part of the storytelling. David Bergman’s video work is projected onto the entirely white vista, for breathtaking visual transformations that move us beyond the capacity of words. Lights by Chloe Ogilvie are soft and sensitive, helping us connect with the undulating melancholy of the piece. Wil Hughes’ minimal sound design too, is delicate in its efforts to enhance the efficacy of the words we hear.

As performer, Weatherall’s disarming charm lures us into the deeply introspective monologue, to participate in Blue‘s solemn ruminations about the nature of love and loss. Weatherall’s knack for naturalism makes convincing everything that he presents. His ability to inhabit Mark’s intense emotions is compelling, proving successful at drawing sympathy for the character’s very unfortunate circumstances.

Blue showcases a new era of masculinity, one that feels radically different from all preceding generations. It is unafraid of what it feels, and refuses to be humiliated for honouring truth and emotion. It disregards pretences of power, seeking instead genuine manifestations of strength. It values vulnerability, and understands human fallibility to be natural and necessary, in attaining improved lives, for the individual as well as for communities. When men stop denying the sadness that will always figure in being human, they can perhaps chart a new course, by first identifying what it is, that they really need, to make this existence truly fulfilling.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: The Jungle And The Sea (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Nov 12 – Dec 18, 2022
Playwrights: S. Shakthidharan and Eamon Flack
Directors: S. Shakthidharan and Eamon Flack
Cast: Anandavalli, Prakash Belawadi, Emma Harvie, Nadie Kammallaweera, Jacob Rajan, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Rajan Velu, Biman Wimalaratne
Images by Sriram Jeyaraman

Theatre review

The Jungle and The Sea tells the story of one Sri Lankan family, during the twenty-five years of civil war that left a nation devastated. Written and directed by the formidable pairing of S. Shakthidharan and Eamon Flack, the play is astonishing with the depth of emotion it elicits. A profoundly moving work, incorporating influences from the ancient texts of The Mahābhāratha and Antigone, our humanity is engaged at the most fundamental levels, through a tale of survival and of human ruin. Discussions on war require of us to cut through all that is superfluous; The Jungle and The Sea certainly gets to the core of what matters, giving Australian audiences a much needed reprieve from lives adorned with hollow distraction and incessant superficiality.

Performed in the English language, along with what could be considered an Australian sensibility, the production is a seamless meld of cultures that makes palpably authentic, what some might classify a foreign story. Style, form and tone are all inextricably Sri Lankan and Australian, consistent and simultaneous. Its theatrical language is both traditional and new, allowing access to the past, whilst creating meaning for the present. It values what a marginalised culture brings to the table, imbues it with agency and lets it occupy centre stage, in ways that we may all be captivated by this acutely consequential tale.

Set design by Dale Ferguson conflates the brutality of war with the tenderness of nature, for a performance space that is unobtrusive, yet intensely evocative. Ferguson’s costumes instil dignity for the show’s characters, who suffer the ravages of war but are nonetheless indomitable. Veronique Bennett’s lights are sensitive to the minute fluctuations in mood and timbre of the piece, always precise in helping our sight connect with sentiments that are varied and nuanced. Music by Arjunan Puveendran and sound by Steve Francis, are marvellously rendered to guide us on this odyssey of sorrow and salvation, with live musicians Indu Balachandran and Puveendran offering some of the most exquisite accompaniment one could hope to encounter.

A sensational cast of eight, each with remarkable skill and insight, takes us on a journey of unparalleled poignancy and grace. Kalieaswari Srinivasan shines as the spirited and defiant Abi, memorable for delivering irresistible drama, and for making the Antigone-inspired character an utterly endearing young woman. Prakash Belawadi demonstrates extraordinary versatility in various roles, impressive not only with the flawless timing he executes quite effortlessly, but also with the stirring humanity he introduces to all his parts. An extended scene between Belawadi and Emma Harvie as father and daughter Siva and Lakshmi, is unforgettable for its intricate weaving of comedy and trepidation, incredible for the heartiness of laughter they generate in the midst of great tragedy. Additionally, Harvie’s disarming naturalism brings to the show a resonance that only increases its believability.

Anandavalli who serves as performer, choreographer and cultural advisor, opens the show with a mesmerising dance, and as matriarch Gowrie brings an understated but powerful dimension to the truth-telling that is underway. Nadie Kammallaweera too is a strikingly elegant presence, able to convey rich layers of intention, that lay behind a thoughtful restraint. Jacob Rajan, Rajan Velu and Biman Wimalaratne are all accomplished actors tackling a range of support characters, in a show that speaks from a place of immense sincerity.

The Jungle and The Sea is heart breaking, but it is not merely catharsis that can be derived from what it expresses. After months of attack on Ukraine by Russia commencing in February this year of 2022, a missile struck Poland at the village of Przewodów, on the day the play opened in Sydney. It is clear that humans repeat mistakes, no matter how grave the consequences. Trauma makes us resort to denial, for it is natural that we shift attention away from pain, but stories are all we have, to remind us of the bad things we keep doing. War seems always to be bolstered by lies. Reaching for the truth, is perhaps the only tool for most of us, to help turn things for the good.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: The Italians (25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Oct 23 – Nov 6, 2022
Playwright: Danny Ball
Director: Riley Spadaro
Cast: Danny Ball, Philip D’ambrosio, Nic English, Deborah Galanos, Amy Hack, Emma O’Sullivan, Brandon Scane, Tony Poli
Images by Katherine Griffiths

Theatre review
Joe and Sal are very much in love, and just as they approach bourgeois heaven with impending nuptials and a home in North Bondi, Joe’s estranged cousin Luca materialises out of the blue to wreak havoc. Danny Ball’s The Italians too is a disruptor of middle class style and taste. The play seeks to assert a comedic sensibility that feels characteristic of an Italian-Australian identity, one that is bold and brassy, slightly crass in tone, and with a hint of irreverence. It is deliberately chaotic and sometimes incongruent, but always joyous and relentlessly playful.

Riley Spadaro’s direction introduces a distinct campness to this show that centres around a gay couple, including song and dance numbers that exist solely to entertain. It is discernible that The Italians wishes to break constrictive moulds, and deconstruct conventions of theatre-making that may have become too staid. It contributes to discussions about the decolonisation of the art form, and what it means to create Australian theatre, in this moment of increased awareness, around the legitimacy of minority cultures.

Set design by Grace Deacon features a vibrant wallpaper that establishes from the outset, an aesthetic that is almost garish, but knowingly so. Her costumes reflect an interest in archetypes, but are perhaps too predictable with the approach taken, for these larger than life characters. Phoebe Pilcher’s lights are delightful and dynamic, as they explore the possibilities of manufacturing, for a small space, something a little heightened and absurd. Also memorable are Luke Di Somma’s sound and music, especially when referencing soap opera traditions, for sequences that revel in the melodrama of people’s lives in The Italians.

Playwright Ball plays Sal, with a flamboyant streak, charming yet comedic, reminiscent of leading men in classic European film. Brandon Scane brings a greater sense of realism as Joe, that delivers a feeling of authenticity and universality, for a show that otherwise does become highly, and intentionally, slapstick. Philip D’ambrosio is a noteworthy supporting actor, especially for his turn as Pina, totally hilarious yet so convincing, as an elderly relative with a strange penchant for paracetamol. Performances can be somewhat uneven, in this unapologetically messy affair, but the spiritedness of this jubilant production is unquestionably enchanting.

Interrogating whiteness, is a way to release oneself from the oppressive grip of a culture obsessed with status and class. In The Italians, we observe an understanding of complexities around the proximity to whiteness, that certain Europeans experience. Joe and Sal are young white men, but being Italian and being gay, they know instinctively that the hierarchies that work surreptitiously on this land, are predicated on the unjust marginalisation of many who are deemed “less than”. They then have a choice, to lean on their whiteness, or to find ways to dismantle the injustices that are so thoroughly entrenched within all the systems that matter.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Never Closer (25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Oct 4 – 16, 2022
Playwright: Grace Chapple
Director: Hannah Goodwin
Cast: Emma Diaz, Raj Labade, Mabel Li, Philip Lynch, Ariadne Sgouros, Adam Sollis
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
Niamh returns to her hometown in Northern Ireland for Christmas, and finds that all her old friends from school are still there. It is 1987, and there are certainly compelling reasons to go search for greener pastures, but in Grace Chapple’s Never Closer, we explore the nature of human attachments, and what it is that makes us persist, or indeed relinquish. Chapple’s writing bears a generosity that lends a sense of sophistication, to a tale about the difficult decisions that people make. It is intricately considered, with an admirable sensitivity as she navigates some hard subjects, but made palatable by an effortless humour, that keeps the journey amusing.

Direction by Hannah Goodwin leans into the comedy of the piece, relishing in each of its funny details, whilst painstakingly creating for the audience, a realism that makes everything feel authentic and convincing. There are six distinct personalities in Never Closer, all of whom are made believable and endearing by Goodwin’s uncompromising approach, of making each moment count.

It is a splendid ensemble cast that tells the story, with an incredible chemistry that makes all that they offer up, feel meaningful and true. Mabel Li demonstrates great versatility as Niamh, seamless in the way she blends the comical with the earnest, in a show that really succeeds in being tender and hilarious both at once. Adam Sollis is charged with the responsibility of instigating some very bombastic drama, as Connor, which he accomplishes with a natural ease. Emma Diaz as Deirdre and Raj Labade as Jimmy, deliver nuances throughout, that seem subtle yet are palpably moving. Philip Lynch as Harry and Ariadne Sgouros as Mary, are bold with their desire to make us laugh, and they never miss a beat.

Stage design by Grace Deacon takes us decades back in time, impressive particularly with the many smaller household items that look completely to be from a bygone era. Costumes by Keerthi Subramanyam offer a constant reminder that the story is of a time past, even if the characters feel so present and intimate. Phoebe Pilcher’s lights and Alyx Dennison’s sounds, work quietly to manufacture a familiar domestic environment, but are certainly powerful when required to cause a ruckus.

As the saying goes, “the world is your oyster” and for the young, that is especially true. To see Niamh’s friends unwilling (or perhaps unable) to leave home, feels a sad waste of opportunity, but it should probably only be for each individual, to lay judgement on how one’s time on earth is spent. Many have stayed put, and accomplished much. Others have travelled far and wide, and seen all there is. In Never Closer we are shown that not all our destinies are reliant on personal decisions. Often where we go, is animated by circumstance, but only becoming apparent with the passage of time.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Looking For Alibrandi (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Oct 1 – Nov 6, 2022
Playwright: Vidya Rajan (based on the book by Melina Marchetta)
Director: Stephen Nicolazzo
Cast: John Marc Desengano, Ashley Lyons, Chanella Macri, Lucia Mastrantone, Hannah Monson, Jennifer Vuletic
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
It is the 1990s, and Josie is about to graduate from high school. We find out that the bright, young woman is determined to become a lawyer, which seems an aspiration not out of the ordinary, for many a modern Australian. Looking closer however, we see that she comes from a legacy of shattered dreams, with her mother and her grandmother, both feeling let down by life’s promises. A lot of Melina Marchett’s 1992 novel Looking for Alibrandi, is concerned with the immigrant experience, bringing particular focus to the post-war Italian diaspora. In this stage adaptation by Vidya Rajan, we see the emotional toll taken by three generations of Alibrandi women, and along with Josie, wonder if she will be the one who breaks the cycle of unfulfilled potential.

Thirty years on, Looking for Alibrandi can feel slightly old-fashioned in its rendering of marginalisation, as a daily reality for those who are considered lesser Australians. Its perspective places emphasis on the minutia of its characters, without sufficiently tackling the systemic factors that influence outcomes, or to put it more bluntly, it neglects to reveal the social structures that aid and abet prevailing inequities that privilege a certain class. The Alibrandi women have a tendency to blame only themselves for their woes, but we understand that things are never completely of their own doing.

Nonetheless, the writing is wonderfully humorous, and as a a work of entertainment, Looking for Alibrandi is certainly satisfying. Directed by Stephen Nicolazzo, the production is suffused with heart and soul, using a theme of tradition, to create a theatrical experience memorable for its atmosphere. The fragrance of Italian food stewing in an oversized pot for the entire duration, firmly establishes a sense that a subculture is occupying space, resolute in speaking on its own terms.

Almost half the stage, designed by Kate Davis, is taken up by crates filled with bulbous red tomatoes, against velvety crimson drapes indicating something classic, and desirous of an old-way extravagance. Sumptuous lights by Katie Sfetkidis are brash when necessary, to make effective the many witty punchlines, but also persuasively sentimental, for sections when we delve into the more rapturous aspects of the Alibrandi story. Daniel Nixon’s sound design incorporates curious background noise throughout the piece, occasionally distracting but an interesting commentary perhaps, on our obsession with silence in colonised forms of theatre audienceship.

In the role of Josie is Chanella Macri, who proves herself an accomplished comedian, flawless with her delivery of the many delightful jokes, that make Looking for Alibrandi a thoroughly amusing time. Paired with her ability to embody a consistent sense of truth, not only for her character but also for the deeper meanings inherent in the narrative, the compelling Macri impresses by telling the story with great integrity.

Lucia Mastrantone plays Josie’s mother Christina and schoolmate Sera, with a marvellous flamboyance layered over an intimate affiliation, that the actor clearly feels for the material. Jennifer Vuletic is a strong presence as Nonna and as archetypal nun Sister Bernadette, effortless in conveying authority for both matriarchs. Supporting cast members John Marc Desengano, Ashley Lyons and Hannah Monson are all endearing, and convincing with their contributions, in a show remarkable with its taut proficiencies and irresistible charm.

Josie’s talent and self-belief are the best ingredients for a success story, but they are still only just half the story. No matter how dedicated and hardworking, Josie still has forces working against her, in a world that remains racist and sexist, and Josie’s seeming obliviousness to those factors can only serve to make things even worse. Significant time has past since the original publication of Marchett’s book, making Josie close to 50 years of age today. We can only wonder if she has attained all her wishes, if the grit she demonstrates has taken her far, and if our society has allowed all that promise to flourish.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Who’s Afraid (25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Aug 24 – Sep 11, 2022
Director: Brendon McDonall
Cast: Danielle Cormack, Nicole Da Silva, David Franklin, Joshua Shediak
Images by Kasper Wensveen

Theatre review
It is New Year’s Day 2020, Australia is on fire, and a highly contagious virus is approaching. 2 couples are in a very upper class home, making efforts to fall pregnant. Sarah Walker’s Who’s Afraid is a sex comedy of sorts, involving lesbians Georgia and Nikki, trying to make babies with their gay acquaintances David and Marty, at a time when the world seemed intent on burning itself to the ground.

The concept is fiercely satirical,  for a culture that remains staunchly reverential about human procreation, but execution of the idea is ambivalent at best. There is little about the play that feels sufficiently critical of its characters, so the humour resides instead, with the clumsiness surrounding their negotiations and their various attempts at insemination.

Who’s Afraid has its compelling moments, especially when it makes references to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf and lets the couples get dark with their arguments, but its real focus is on delivering laughs with the comedy, which tends to be broad and obvious. Directed by Brendon McDonnall, who although leans in on the corniness, ensures that the story is told with clarity and a degree of nuance.

Production design by Grace Deacon is visually appealing, but the assemblage of the house’s multiple rooms on one small stage, proves a real challenge. Martin Kinnane’s lights provide a convincing sense of dimension, for the contrasting tone of each sequence, and Pru Montin’s sound design further enhances the show’s comic qualities.

The cast is energetic, and admirably invested in the piece. Danielle Cormack and Nicole Da Silva play Nikki and Georgia respectively, both with captivating presences, and a rambunctious approach that seizes our attention. David Franklin is Marty, similarly intense and almost forceful, in his need to elicit laughter. Joshua Shediak is a more relaxed performer, but no less magnetic as David, impressively demonstrating that restraint is necessary, when everything else is already spelling it all out for the audience.

The play’s hesitancy at making stronger and more rigorous arguments, against people having children, is its own worst enemy. An opportunity to be incendiary and controversial, is given up in favour of creating something frivolous, that ultimately offers little to ruminate on. There is no need for any finality to debates on bringing babies into a messed up world, but impassioned discussions on the matter, are certainly the right thing to encourage.

www.fouroneone.tvwww.belvoir.com.au

Review: Tell Me I’m Here (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Aug 20 – Sep 25, 2022
Playwright: Veronica Nadine Gleeson (based on the book by Anne Deveson)
Director: Leticia Cáceres
Cast: Tom Conroy, Deborah Galanos, Nadine Garner, Raj LaBade, Sean O’Shea Ellis, Jana Zvedeniuk
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Jonathan has schizophrenia, but he is not the only one who suffers its consequences. The story is told from his mother Anne’s perspective, who for obvious reasons, has to keep her wits about her, and is therefore extremely level-headed. Tell Me I’m Here is a stage adaptation by Veronica Nadine Gleeson, based on the 1991 memoir of the aforementioned Anne Deveson. We see the chaos created by Jonathan’s illness, along with a certain stoicism that Anne has to cultivate, in order to manage the challenges presented by her son’s condition.

There is a monotony to the hopeless exasperation expressed in the play, as well as an unrelenting frenzy brought on by the mental disorder. The story often feels stagnant, which is probably an accurate representation of Anne and Jonathan’s lives, but director Leticia Cáceres injects a great amount of energy to the staging, so that our attention is consistently engaged, even if our emotions tend to reflect Anne’s impassive pragmatism. Cáceres also ensures that characters are always depicted with dignity, as we explore the vulnerabilities of their difficult existence. The lead performers embody those admirable yet unenviable qualities with great aplomb.

Nadine Garner plays Anne, with an impressive exactitude that offers fine balance to the naturalism that she instinctively delivers, for this tale of parenthood and heart break. Tom Conroy is inventive in the role of Jonathan, and is suitably wild with a performance memorable for its radiant humanity. The unyielding intensity from both, are given moderation by a jaunty ensemble of four performers, Deborah Galanos, Raj LaBade, Sean O’Shea Ellis and Jana Zvedeniuk, who offer a sense of buoyancy, to a show that is at its heart, full of despondency.

Set design by Stephen Curtis features an imposing bookcase, stuffed with exemplars of breeding and sophistication, as though a reminder that all the refinement in the world, cannot prevent a person from the trauma that life will invariably dispense upon them. Costumes by Ella Butler bear a whimsical charm, that firmly positions all the personalities we encounter, in a realm that straddles perfectly, between theatricality and authenticity. Veronique Bennett’s lights are dynamic, almost busy, in their attempt at providing visual flourish, to accompany a narrative of the disturbed mind. Sound and music by the duo of Alyx Dennison  and Steve Francis are beautifully accomplished, able to convey nuanced textures for an emotional landscape that can otherwise feel too static.

Nature is cruel. The gift of life, comes with the surety of death, and in the process it seems no one leaves unscathed. Even those who are perceived to be awarded a charmed life, must think that the challenges that they do face in private, to be the hardest thing. To witness the torment of those in Tell Me I’m Here however, is a sobering reminder that there are indeed worse spaces to find oneself.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Moon Rabbit Rising (25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jun 29 – Jul 10, 2022
Director: Nicole Pingon
Cast: Mym Kwa, Jon Lam, Jasper Lee-Lindsay, Monica Sayers, Rachel Seeto
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
The ancient Chinese legend of 嫦娥 Chang’e has been told with many variations, but what is certain about the story, is that it involves her beau 后裔 Hou Yi, an elixir and the moon. Moon Rabbit Rising is a devised work based on that very tale. Without the use of any dialogue, we revisit a myth that has persisted through the ages, and that a billion people memorialise, during annual celebrations of the Mid-Autumn Festival.

What we remember about Chang’e and Houyi is explored through physical theatre in Moon Rabbit Rising, with a delicate sensibility that makes the presentation look more like an abstract dance, than a literal representation of the beloved narrative. Director Nicole Pingon’s creation is one of considerable beauty. It incorporates the story’s inherent naivety for a show able to express a gamut of emotions, from which the audience can form personal interpretations, whether about the immediate story, or tangential departures inspired by what one encounters.

Tyler Fitzpatrick’s evocative lighting design provides for the staging, a hypnotic quality that encourages our minds to simultaneously focus and dream, to use what our eyes see, and travel to mythical and perhaps philosophical spaces within. Christine Pan’s sound and music are wonderfully rich, memorable for the modernity and the sensuality she introduces, to this most traditional of folklore.

Elderly performer Jon Lam delivers untold resonance and profundity, as we delve into an exploration of heritage. Together with four younger members of cast, an exceptionally cohesive ensemble is built, with a shared earnestness that demonstrates a commitment to something that weighs of unmistakeable significance. Their faces reveal an intense connection with the material involved, and we reciprocate by investing sensitively into all that they offer.

On this land, people of colour have had to sublimate our histories, modifying and even burying psychic links to ancestral pasts, in order that we may be allowed to feel at home. That strategy for survival is not just a result of our acquiescence to unfriendly demands, but is in fact a way for many, to deal with difficult situations that had to be left behind. As we emerge from those traumas, it only makes sense to rediscover and embrace parts of what we had escaped. The danger of nostalgia however, is that we forget the bad that had come with the good. The prudent thing to do therefore, is to interrogate and question all that can be inherited, before retaining that which is truly valuable, in our forging of new identities.

www.littleeggscollective.comwww.belvoir.com.au

Review: Horses (25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jun 16 – 25, 2022
Playwright: Ian Sinclair
Director: Tait de Lorenzo
Cast: Justin Amankwah, Tom Dawson, Caitlin Doyle-Markwick, Nathaniel Langworthy, Charlotte Otton, Brontë Sparrow
Images by Robert Catto

Theatre review
The story takes place barely a century ago, during the Great Depression. Several hundred people gather to participate in a dance marathon, in hopes of winning a cash prize of $1,500. They are only allowed ten-minute breaks every 2 hours, and we hear early on, that previous contests had gone on each time, for over a thousand hours. It is a perverse reality show, that is part Big Brother and part ancient Roman blood sport, capitalising on the human’s insatiable thirst for exploitative entertainment. Based on Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel and Sydney Pollack’s 1969 film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, this new adaptation by Ian Sinclair moves the action from California to Sydney, and is concisely retitled Horses.

Although retaining the macabre qualities of the original, Sinclair’s vision is decidedly humorous, in this very modern transposition to the stage. Indeed, the bizarre conceit lends itself to a dark comedy, which director Tait de Lorenzo does not hesitate to use to her advantage. Instead of relying on the tragedy’s undeniably sad dimensions, de Lorenzo provokes us into thought, by making us laugh. The result is a surprisingly funny show, that also cares to be poignant enough for the important questions, about who we are and why we are, to emerge.

Production design by Cris Baldwin draws attention to the event as a spectacle for amusement, whilst ensuring that we never lose sight of the difficult times during which it had occurred. Benjamin Brockman’s lights convey the sorrowful heart of the story, even when offering bedazzling concoctions that fascinate our eyes. Similarly sophisticated, is sound design by Zac Saric offering an intricate and complex landscape, often telling us more than the dialogue does, about all that we need to know about Horses.

An excellent ensemble of six players, individually idiosyncratic, but wonderfully cohesive as a whole, take us on a revelatory and ultimately brutal vaudeville, about our worst selves. Nathaniel Langworthy and Charlotte Otton are effortlessly comical, with mischievous presences that insist on our mirthful responses. Tom Dawson and Caitlin Doyle-Markwick bring whimsy to the production, with a sense of experimental freedom, that helps us broaden our minds, as we form meanings from a theatre that speaks more in terms of symbols than it does in words. Justin Amankwah and Brontë Sparrow deliver the sentimental aspects of Horses, both captivating, and effective in engaging our empathy, for this hideous moment of self-reflection.

Watching Horses today, we need to be conscious of the difference in circumstances, between now and then. Although poised for a period of recession, we must not interpret the story in too similar a way from when it had been written. It is crucial that the truth about extreme wealth disparities in the twenty-first century, should play a significant role in modern interpretations of the story.

Like the competing dancers in Horses, we often find ourselves fighting one another, thinking that that is the only way to get ahead. Convinced that there can only be one winner in so many of our circumstances, we have been trained to not only act ruthlessly, but to submit to humiliation and self-blame. We have grown accustom to the top ten percent owning virtually everything in the world that is commodifiable, and we let them manipulate our lives to serve their purpose, of worsening that unforgivable discrepancy.

There is no reason, especially today, for any of us to demean ourselves in the name of entertainment, in order to make a buck, yet that seems to be par for the course. In so much of today’s idea of amusement, from television to TikTok, people put themselves through all manner of debasement, so that they can become winners of little consequence. The ones who benefit most, do not have themselves shown. They might shoot the horses, but they show us no mercy. They simply send in the clowns and reap all the rewards.

www.belvoir.com.au