Review: Things I Know To Be True (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jun 8 – Jul 21, 2019
Playwright: Andrew Bovell
Director: Neil Armfield
Cast: Miranda Daughtry, Tom Hobbs, Matt Levett, Tony Martin, Anna Lise Phillips, Helen Thomson
Images by Heidrun Löhr

Theatre review
Fran and Bob suddenly find themselves in their sixties, and although both have worked hard, there seems little to show for. After having put everything into raising a family, the couple is starting to have to confront their twilight years. With four adult children still struggling to find their own feet, and a marriage that has long lost its lustre, years of sacrifice seems to have delivered little contentment. Andrew Bovell’s Things I Know To Be True is a portrait of one family, in some ways typical of the Australian experience, but certainly not representative of our myriad diversities. More bitter than sweet, this family drama contains excellent humour and a great deal of sentimentality, as though trying to mask the pessimism that it fundamentally contains.

The Price family presents an admirable facade. There is undeniable love, very well depicted by director Neil Armfield, but we are encouraged to question the choices Fran and Bob had made, or more precisely, to question the options they had perceived to be available when deciding to follow the straight and narrow. Fran concedes that she had adopted others’ expectations as her own, that she believed her destiny was to be a mother and nothing else. Now observing her legacy, we see her constantly trying to find satisfaction, usually tenuous at best, with all that she had manifested. The thing about parenthood is that room for regret is virtually non-existent.

The production is incredibly well-crafted, with every faculty operating at levels of excellence, keeping us enthralled from beginning to end. Armfield magnifies all the comedy and drama, for a show determined to entertain, even if its emotional resonances tend to feel highly romanticised. Lights by Damien Cooper warmly lull us into a daze of tenderness, making us a forgiving audience for Things I Know To Be True, almost oblivious to its characters’ flaws and frequent moments of stupidity.

Terribly ordinary people are turned captivating, by a cast of actors brimming with charm. Tony Martin is especially charismatic as Bob, beautiful with the vulnerability that he so effectively depicts, alongside a convincing rendering of archetypal suburban masculinity. The very funny Helen Thomson, who never misses any opportunity to create laughter, plays Fran, a wonderfully complex character, able to sustain our empathy even after some very unkind behaviour. Miranda Daughtry is notable as youngest daughter Rosie, whose unyielding innocence sets the tone from curtain-up, allowing us to see the story with her eyes, often too pure for our own good.

Things I Know To Be True does not intend to be a cautionary tale, but one could be tempted to interpret it as such. Aside from Fran who had worked tirelessly for decades as a nurse, there is no evidence of any great contribution to society or to humanity, in these small, albeit painful, existences. The Prices think about nothing but themselves, and are perhaps unsurprisingly, overwhelmed with frustration and anguish. Fran and Bob were committed to being the best parents, but never found a way to impart a sense of fulfilment to their offspring. If we return to the initial unexamined notion of procreation as an obligatory social and personal imperative, we might be able to draw from Fran and Bob’s story, the consequences of doing things without thinking them through.

www.belvoir.com.au

5 Questions with Eden Falk and Charlie Garber

Eden Falk

What’s it like working together?
Eden Falk: I’ve known Charlie for like 15 years, we’ve always been at the same parties and we now both have kids, so now we’re at the same kids parties. But we’ve never really worked together and I’ve always wanted to. And its been super fun, I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed making a play as much. Sometimes rehearsals can feel like a bit of an uphill battle, but this room has felt endlessly playful, partly due to Charlie’s sense of humour and also to the team of wonderful actors he’s assembled. It’s been a real work in progress and the script has grown as we’ve reacted to it as actors, which has also been part of the fun. The show is ultimately an adventure love story, and so playing with the rules of those worlds and developing our characters with Charlie’s insane mind has been a real joy.

Favourite thing about Charlie?
His unashamed delivery of line readings. He knows these characters inside out and could kinda play any of them. Which means his direction is from the inside out and that’s lovely to work with. Seriously though, there was a moment in rehearsals where I thought he was going to act out the entire show as a monologue and I was like yep I’d pay to see that. 

Why did you say yes to the show?
I’ve always admired Charlie as an actor, I wish I was 10% as funny as he is. So when he asked me to be in his funny play I couldn’t say no. I also think he’s written a really clever exploration of identity, love and self belief. It works on many levels, the ridiculous, the comical, the fantastical, the sublime. I can’t wait to share it with people.

What is the biggest challenge when playing your character Dan?
This is the kind of show where the characters don’t always know exactly what’s wrong with them until it’s too late, so one of the big challenges has been not to over think that too much. As actors, we have to live in the moment as it happens, line by line. With Dan, there’s a lot of inner conflict that surfaces later in the show, but it works better if that isn’t played too heavily in the early scenes, which is in some ways different to how I’d usually approach a performance. But it’s also incredibly liberating; there’s a lightness of touch and an ease in the storytelling. You can just let go and let the play do the work.

Do you share any similarities with Dan?
Yikes. There’s a few – which considering he kind of becomes the anti-hero of the play (spoiler alert) is somewhat hard to admit. He’s pretty conflicted. Social media frustrates him and yet he spends all day in front of a computer. I don’t necessarily hate social media but I’m not crazy about it and having spent my early twenties without it I miss the days when we didn’t have so many ways to “connect”. But I can also sympathise with his need to escape these things, he just takes it way too far. It’s all about balance, and maybe Dan is yet to figure out what that is. I feel for the dude.

Charlie Garber

Why did you want to write this play now?
Charlie Garber: This play came about through wanting to write an adventure. A big show. I don’t know if I’ve achieved it at the quite the scale of storytelling I was hoping for but its still pretty big. I wanted to create a comedy epic – ridiculous, yet real. Big ideas, fun ideas, big scenes, big moments, yet funny and all that. to sucker punch the audience with stuff after opening them up with comedy.

Why did you want to write and direct?
I wanted to get the show up with a minimum of bother. If I’d been sitting next to a director who’s making their own mark on the play while I’m also revising the writing in rehearsals it could have been a difficult. Its an independent show – it has enough hurdles already. It’s not an artistic piece, it’s a comedy that needs to be staged simply. I’m not really a director. I’ve devised and co-directed a lot of stuff so I sort of know the ropes (and I’ve been directed by good directors) enough to get the thing up. 

What’s it like working together?
Eden is great to work with. We worked together ten years ago on Summer Folk directed by Eamon Flack which went on in Belvoir’s big rehearsal room for a week. Eden is a secret comedy weapon. He’s got great everyman appeal but with a strong sense of the ridiculous. He also has a lot of theatre experience so there’s a great short-hand. We’ve seen a lot of each other’s work so we sometimes know sooner what the other is trying to achieve.

What’s your favourite thing about Eden?
My favourite thing about Eden is that he has a daughter of a similar age to mine so we can relate. 

What is the biggest challenge when directing an epic, adventure comedy in the intimate downstairs Belvoir space?
The biggest challenge is treading the fine line of comedy – the epic and the ridiculous, getting performances which make it real yet slightly self aware. But these actors are gung ho masters of the art so we’re all good. Seriously I’m blessed with this cast to make the inherent ridiculousness of the show work. 

Eden Falk and Charlie Garber collaborate in The Astral Plane, by Charlie Garber.
Dates: 12 – 29 Jun, 2019
Venue: Belvoir St Theatre

Review: Extinction Of The Learned Response (Glitterbomb / 25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 7 – 25, 2019
Playwright: Emme Hoy
Director: Carissa Licciardello
Cast: Tel Benjamin, Sarah Meacham, Eddie Orton, Jennifer Rani
Images by Jasmin Simmons

Theatre review
Duncan and Marlow are running an unauthorised, and unethical, experiment. They have two mysterious subjects held captive in their laboratory, undergoing a gruelling training regime to appear more convincingly human. Rachel and Wells have problems mastering the most basic of social skills, and we are kept wondering about their natural form; they may look human, but the playwright Emme Hoy wants us to look deeper into who these people are inside, or if indeed, they are people at all. Essentially a work of science fiction, Extinction Of The Leaned Response does ultimately ask some worthwhile questions, but its intrigue is too mild, and its plot too hesitant, to be sufficiently provocative.

The show is moody, and adequately suspenseful, thanks in large measure to Ben Pierpoint’s genre specific sounds and Kelsey Lee’s adventurous lights. There is however a circumvention of the bizarre and absurd, in favour of naturalism, by director Carissa Licciardello, that seems a missed opportunity. An air of placidity provides sophistication to proceedings, but the story’s cruel circumstance calls for something more heightened that could make for a more satisfying theatricality.

Actors Sarah Meacham and Eddie Orton are fascinating as the test subjects, both effective in engaging our imagination. Undeterred by the abstruseness of their material, Meacham and Orton find ways to vitalise their parts, making Rachel and Wells memorable, and strangely charming. Tel Benjamin and Jennifer Rani play the dubious researchers, with excessive restraint perhaps, but are nevertheless entertaining performers with excellent conviction.

As humans, we are eternally enthralled by our own nature. Always seeking to define humanity, we constantly find new ways to understand ourselves, not only because of an indubitable narcissism, but also as a means to interact with the larger universe. When one wishes to make the world a better place, it is necessary to know deeply the self, before one should begin imposing on others. In their efforts to discover bigger truths however, the researchers in Extinction Of The Leaned Response commit transgressions that are horribly egregious. There can be no end to knowledge, but to recognise right from wrong, is a fundamental principle that must not be compromised.

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

Review: Winyanboga Yurringa (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 4 – 26, 2019
Playwright: Andrea James
Director: Anthea Williams
Cast: Roxanne McDonald, Tuuli Narkle, Angeline Penrith, Tasma Walton, Dalara Williams, Dubs Yunupingu
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
A group of Koori women are in the bush, gathered together for a camping trip on the bank of a great river. In Andrea James’ Winyanboga Yurringa, six city slickers take time off to get in touch with one another, with nature, and with tradition. They are a family, but individuals grow apart, and we watch the effort required, to firm up those bonds again, and to rediscover that which is truly important.

The play begins with a sense of ambiguity, very gradual in the way it divulges its raison d’être. The playwright insists that the audience too, takes time off from our hustle and bustle, to fall into a plot that is languid, perhaps slightly disorientating, but trusting that the journey will ultimately be a rewarding one. When its climax arrives, we are surprised by the depth of its poignancy.

Director Anthea Williams’ approach is not obviously sentimental, but she catches us unawares with a quiet power, to deliver a moving work about our Australian heritage. The show communicates differently to people of varying backgrounds, but it is evident that whether or not one is indigenous to this land, Winyanboga Yurringa says a lot that is meaningful about our relationship with it.

Lights by Verity Hampson emanate a disarming warmth, and along with Isabel Hudson’s evocative set design, the familiarity of our landscape is intuitively established on this stage. It is a romantic vision, perfectly partnered by music and sound design from Steve Francis and Brendon Boney, who are called upon to introduce a dimension of melancholic soulfulness to the production. The cast is uniformly accomplished, with Roxanne McDonald particularly impressive as Neecy, the maternal figure through which the play dispenses all its wisdom. McDonald is a sublime performer, with a potency and an intricacy to her style that has us enthralled and firmly won over.

In Winyanboga Yurringa we are reminded that there is so much to love about this place we call home. Regardless of our sins, this terra is and always will be divine; we can cause harm to it, and to one another, but it is the human race that will ultimately and certainly face extinction, before the earth can ever succumb. On Aboriginal land, it is Aboriginal knowledge that is our surest hope for sustainability, yet those voices are routinely subdued and trivialised, in a colonised culture that refuses to listen to solutions that exist right on our doorstep. The characters in Winyanboga Yurringa are the eponymous women of the sun, but they will only shine their light when invited. If we choose to dwell in darkness, the price is ours to pay.

www.belvoir.com.au

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