Review: seven methods of killing kylie jenner (Darlinghurst Theatre Company)

Venue: Darlinghurst Theatre Company (Darlinghurst NSW), Apr 7 – May 2, 2021
Playwright: Jasmine Lee-Jones
Director: Shari Sebbens
Cast: Vivienne Awosoga, Moreblessing Maturure
Images by Teniola Komolafe

Theatre review
Twitter is blowing up, and Cleo is unable to go to sleep. The idea that an extraordinarily privileged white woman could be declared a “self-made billionaire” is not just absurd, it is proving completely enraging to the young Black student living in her tiny English flat. When Cleo whips out her phone, and starts to tweet her feelings in response to the announcement of Kylie Jenner’s newly minted status, her words come fast and furious. For those who have nothing to lose, anonymity in the Twittersphere is especially useful, in challenging authority and for exposing injustice. Speaking truth to power is incredibly seductive, as we see in Jamine Lee-Jones’ very twenty-first century play seven methods of killing kylie jenner, until one discovers that the incendiary capabilities of social media, can work in all directions.

Playwright Lee-Jones is so ahead of the curve, one is tempted to label her, an original. Her ability to distil incredibly complex concepts pertaining to discussions around race, feminism and queerness, that have been swirling like confused wildfire in recent years, into a coherent and powerful 90-minute two-hander for the stage, feels so much to be a sort of inconceivable genius. The way Lee-Jones is able to focus all our messy arguments into something persuasive and lucid, is completely remarkable. Also very noteworthy, is the wit that she introduces into every scene, no matter how heavy things get, that demonstrates a deep understanding of how theatre operates. The laughs are incessant, as are the searing hard facts that Lee-Jones exposes unapologetically.

Bringing scintillating life to Lee-Jones’ words of wisdom, is Shari Sebbens’ meticulous yet spirited direction of the work. There is an exuberant boldness to Sebbens’ approach that delivers to the audience an exceptionally jubilant experience; her show is full of infectious joy yet, importantly, we are never let off the hook. Every morsel of difficult truth is driven home with a fierce stridency. seven methods of killing kylie jenner however is not a didactic exercise. One can hardly imagine its tone to be conducive for the conversion of any adversaries, but for preaching to the choir, it is pure gospel.

Actor Moreblessing Maturure inhabits Cleo with unparalleled authenticity, making it impossible to discern any disparity between the performer and the role she brings to the stage. There is not one ounce of fakery in Maturure’s depictions. The intensity with which she conveys every political assertion, coupled with the sheer perfection of her comedic timing, delivers to us a theatre that is nothing less than life affirming. Also very dynamic is Vivienne Awosoga, who plays Kara, the lighter-skinned queer counterpart, offering crucial balance to Cleo’s sometimes sanctimonious beliefs. Awosoga exhibits impressive versatility, for a character who has to traverse a wide range of emotions and intentions within the duration. The pair’s glorious chemistry (along with so much else of the production) is one for our herstory books. They are splendid together, so impossibly tight in sensibility and rhythm, keeping us hopelessly captivated and wishing that their show would never end.

Cleverly paced video projections by Wendy Yu, that display text and imagery from Twitter, play a significant part in the storytelling. Along with sounds by Kim ‘Busty Beatz’ Bowers, the production never fails to stoke our passions, and to have us riled up at will. Kate Baldwin’s lighting design accurately and sensitively calibrates tone or mood for each sequence, while Keerthi Subramanyam’s set and costumes work with our imagination, to establish time and place for this tale of the Twitterati.

It has taken a long time for a show of this nature to materialise in our city. It has taken so much effort for culture to shift in so many quarters, in order that two Black women could appear on a prominent stage, be supported by other women of colour behind the scenes, to make grand pronouncements aimed at taking down the white supremacy that has plagued this land.

There is no guarantee however, that this seminal occasion will not just be a flash in the pan, that everything would revert to old ways. The worry that all energies have been depleted is not unfounded, as what seems on the surface to be an auspicious beginning, has in fact required years of investment and sacrifice. On the other hand, activists have always been tired. In fact, we become activists precisely because we are tired, of all the nonsense that fills our days. Being tired is not new to us, and our capacity for hope continues to lay beyond the bounds of human possibility, online and in real life.

www.darlinghursttheatre.com | www.greendoortheatrecompany.com

Review: Is There Something Wrong With That Lady? (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Darlinghurst NSW), Apr 13 – 24, 2021
Playwright: Debra Oswald
Director: Lee Lewis
Cast: Debra Oswald
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Debra Oswald is a writer who has experienced great successes, but the periods of disappointment in between, are long drawn out and much too frequent. Like most artists, Oswald just keeps persisting, which is probably why she names her autobiographical one-person play, Is there Something Wrong with that Lady? The answer of course is that, it is entirely normal that artists in this country go through extended stints of neglect and even humiliation. In fact it may seem that artists do not require encouragement to be, for we continue to thrive even as conditions worsen in this climate of inescapable economic rationalism. One might be tempted to go so far as to say, that to be an artist in Australia, you will have to be born this way, and a beneficiary of some twisted curse perhaps.

Oswald is unstoppable. She keeps churning out books, plays and teleplays, like her life depends on them, or more to the point, like she has something to say. In her 80-minute solo effort, Oswald is charming, brimming with humour, always affable and delightful. A true blue Australian, she never takes herself too seriously, but it becomes clear that what she stands for, is something worth fighting for. Embracing creatives like Oswald, is crucial in dismantling the old boys club that runs so much of this country. Elevating women of a certain age, will redefine the values we hold as a nation. At the very least, as exemplified by Oswald’s play, we will learn that a person’s worth is not to be measured only by money, but by their imagination, their resilience, and most of all, their capacity to help communities connect.

Lee Lewis’ direction of the work is fairly minimal, demonstrating a sense of confidence that allows the staging to place emphasis completely on the physical presence of Oswald herself. There are minor enhancements in terms of music by Jessica Dunn and lights by Ben Brockman, but it is the inordinate clarity with which we receive the writer’s words that is the most enchanting. Although not the most natural of performers, Oswald is a vibrant personality who holds our attention effortlessly. Her piece may benefit from a slight edit, if only to accommodate our twenty-first century attention span.

Artists work to bring cohesion to society, whether intentional or not. Oswald is a storyteller of the purest kind. Her impulse is to share with the world, the characters and narratives that come through her, as though a sacred duty, so that we can be captivated as groups, to find consensus, instead of thinking incessantly about the divisions in-between. If we understand the importance of finding ways to conceive of the world beyond parameters of money and power, we will understand that those in public office and in private corporations, are not likely to be our answer. Art will set us free, terrifying as it may be.

www.griffintheatre.com.au

Review: Half Time (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Apr 1 – May 2, 2021
Book: Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin
Lyrics: Nell Benjamin
Music: Matthew Sklar
Director: Helen Dallimore
Cast: Zoe Carides, Gabrielle Chan, Dolores Dunbar, Deni Gordon, Jaime Hadwen, Chaska Halliday, Nancye Hayes, Stefanie Jones, Donna Lee, Joy Miller, Coby Njoroge, Wendy-Lee Purdy, Eric Rasmussen, Monica Sayers, Tom Sharah
Images by David Hooley

Theatre review
The title of Half Time refers to the bit of song-and-dance that typically occurs in the middle of American sporting events. It is a tradition involving professional performers, who as we find out in the show, have an inordinately premature use-by date of 27 years old. As a marketing gimmick the New Jersey Cougars, a basketball team, assemble a group of seniors to present a surprising version of that mid-game entertainment. A noble idea on the surface, it is soon exposed to be an exercise based on the humiliation of our old.

Half Time the musical however, is a loving showcase of elders in the arts industry. The eight central roles are filled by our community’s most advanced, in an ensemble piece that tackles ageism head on. Director Helen Dallimore does an admirable job of keeping us emotionally invested, in stories that are perhaps much too cliché-laden and almost embarrassing in their predictability. Music by Matthew Sklar is sufficiently enjoyable, but it is the infectious earnestness harnessed by Dallimore that holds our attention.

Strong vocals by Dolores Dunbar-Joanne and Deni Gordon, provide their respective songs with a sentimentality that many will find deeply moving. Idiosyncratic personalities created by Zoe Carides, Gabrielle Chan and Nancye Hayes are memorable, and genuinely funny, in a production that endeavours to challenge our preconceived notions of the ageing process. Stefanie Jones gives a highly polished rendition of Tara, the old folks’ choreographer and coach, whilst Chaska Halliday and Coby Njoroge waste no opportunity to steal the show, whenever their breath-taking talents are positioned centre stage.

As the Chinese saying goes, “the older the ginger, the spicier it gets.” It is an incontrovertible truth that wisdom comes with age, yet the elderly (especially elderly women) are routinely shunned from so much of our lives. The tendency for the young to think of them as inconvenient, difficult and slow, and therefore exclude them from decisions on how things are run in the Western world, can only be of detrimental effect. To only value youthful qualities, is to risk repeating mistakes, as evidenced by so much that has been in written of history.

If we commit to honouring our elders the way so many Indigenous cultures do, we will have to shift our values, in a way that changes priorities in politics and economics. Resources will have to be regarded differently. We may even begin to see our relationship with nature, and ergo with the planet, in a radically different way. To place attention and care on the process of how each of us dies, instead of obsessing over an unattainable eternal youth, is likely the key, ironical as it may seem, to much better ways of life.

www.hayestheatre.com.au | www.nineteen98productions.com.au

Review: Fuente Ovejuna (Flight Path Theatre)

Venue: Flight Path Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Mar 25 – Apr 11, 2021
Playwright: Lope de Vega (adaptation by Angus Evans)
Director: Angus Evans
Cast: James Bean, Tristan Black, Julia Christensen, Steve Corner, Shayne de Groot, Dominique de Marco, Lucinda Howes, Suzann James, Martin Quinn, Davey Seagle, Idam Sondhi, Madeleine Withington
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Originally published early seventeenth century, Lope de Vega’s Fuenteovejuna is based upon the true story of a bloody revolt that took place in 1476 Castile. After sustained mistreatment by authorities, residents of the town Fuente Obejuna banded together and decapitated their commander in a coup. When investigators took to torturing individuals, each victim would refuse to divulge information, and in solidarity answered only that “Fuenteovejuna did it.”

Adapted and directed by Angus Evans, this new version of Fuente Ovejuna takes the opportunity to express the discontentment of contemporary Australians with our own leaders. Evans’ approach demonstrates that themes of the play could easily be applied to any period of recent political memory, but of particular salience is the Prime Minister’s current inability to manage the upheaval brought upon by revelations of sexual assaults, committed by members of his own government. Their sustained and wilful insolence certainly does inspire fantasies of mutiny and murder.

Evans’ ideas are put forward passionately, if not always sufficiently coherent. It is a galvanised team under his guidance, with all aspects of the production demonstrating admirable levels of commitment and energy. Actor Steve Corner leaves a particularly strong impression in a variety of roles. A powerful and compelling presence, he introduces a delicious, and necessary, sense of heightened drama, especially when occupying centre stage. Lucinda Howes as Laurencia, fires up our emotions in a crucial scene that sees her stoke the flames of rebellion. The authenticity that Howes musters for that moment, is sheer theatrical joy. Tristan Black is charming and very funny as Mengo, and as puppeteer for the King. The performer’s comic timing is perfect, and a real highlight of the show.

Live music is provided by Edward Hampton and Liam Peat, both musicians attentive and inordinately sensitive, adding tremendously to our enjoyment of the staging. Lights by Jas Borsovsky are suitably ambitious, and clever in their seemingly intuitive manipulations of our emotional responses. Victor Kalka’s set and Lucy Ferris’ costumes evoke a time past, whilst maintaining relevance to the present, so that we understand the foreign places to be no different from here, and the historical personalities to be the same as us.

It is gruesome but undeniably joyful to witness the execution of a heinous autocrat. The truth however, is that our systems of power, can withstand the toppling of any one figure, no matter how eminent. We may feel empowered when daydreaming about Prime Ministers, movie moguls and press barons being cancelled or removed at will, but these positions undoubtedly will be swiftly replaced, by more of the same.

Fuente Ovejuna is a story about solidarity, and the power of the people. In places like Australia, the establishment only exists, because we the people, allow it to. The reason we authorise its powers, is that we believe them to be beneficial to our existence, but it seems that what we believe, is almost entirely controlled by those powers that be, in an ominous cycle of causality.

It is easy to acknowledge that parts of our minds can fathom a way of life devoid of corruption, that in our imagination, an idealistic utopia always seems just a hair’s breadth away. We want to think that as a united people, we can make decisions that are right, that those determined to be rapacious and unjust can be vanquished. In reality however, our way of life has long been predicated on inequity and greed. If our fundamental values require that there be losers as well as winners, then surely true unity will forever elude us. We may experience flashes of reckoning, in fact these moments of cultural awakening seem to occur increasingly frequently, but there is little proof that knowing what is right, is ever going to lead us to actually doing better.

www.flightpaththeatre.org

Review: Exit The King (Red Line Productions)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Mar 20 – Apr 10, 2020
Playwright: Eugène Ionesco
Director: Megan Wilding
Cast: Toby Blome, Shakira Clanton, Jonny Hawkins, Rob Johnson, Emma O’Sullivan, Dalara Williams
Images by Robert Catto

Theatre review
The King has ruled for hundreds of years, but it is now time to retire. His body is failing, as well as his mind, and even though the will remains strong, there is no turning back. The end is nigh in Eugène Ionesco’s 1962 absurdist Exit the King, although it gradually becomes clear that it is in fact, a new beginning that the people really need. It is a timeless tale, an appealing lament that addresses our seemingly ever present desire for institutional change, and for better government.

Ionesco’s writing however, offers the viewer more than an enjoyable narrative. His work goes on endless tangents, often contradictory and deliberately obtuse, but when in the hands of the right creators, a rare form of theatrical magic is delivered. Director Megan Wilding revels in the mischievous and unpredictable qualities of the script, taking care to marry comedy with meaning, for a show that has us engaged on multiple levels, simultaneously. Wilding’s take on Exit the King is often very funny, but even more admirable, is her ability to keep our intellect keenly stimulated through all its jokes.

A highly amusing team of performers, is headed by Jonny Hawkins, who gives a thrilling depiction of King Berenger, the decrepit has-been determined to outstay his welcome. Incredibly nuanced, endlessly imaginative and brimming with generosity, watching the fierce talents of Hawkins in action, is pure inspiration. The divine Shakira Clanton plays a strong, imposing Queen Marguerite, making her support character rumble with danger, whether or not she is positioned centre stage. The devastating drama between a white king and a Black queen, is the immutable focal point of the show, no matter what shenanigans are thrown our way. All other actors in the piece are equal parts idiosyncratic and inventive, working with extraordinary cohesiveness for something that seriously satisfies.

The production is energised by Alexander Berlage’s lighting design, dynamic at every turn, as is Ben Pierpoint’s work on sound and music, reliably enhancing all the wonderful activity taking place on stage. Veronique Bennett transforms the space into a Warhol Factory, silver surfaces everywhere for a set that perhaps evokes flashbacks of facile rulers throughout history, who had done more harm than good for their peoples. The pop aesthetic is extended into costuming by Aleisa Jelbart, very au courant and very tongue-in-cheek.

There is likely no dignified way to overthrow a government, but in Exit the King, the fantasy of nature taking charge, intervening to simply kill off the problem, is certainly enticing. The truth is that although individuals who hold power do die away, structures will sustain themselves, and it appears that the more malevolent those systems, the more likely they will persist. The Black queen waits patiently for her white king to die, and in Ionesco’s fiction, her strategy proves successful. Real life however permits no passivity should we want the pale, male and stale to abdicate. There is a fight underway, and those invested, have no luxury of waiting.

www.redlineproductions.com.au

Review: Appropriate (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Mar 15 – Apr 10, 2021
Playwright: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Director: Wesley Enoch
Cast: Lucy Bell, Joel Bishop, Johnny Carr, James Fraser, Brenna Harding, Ella Jacob, Mandy McElhinney, Robbi Morgan, Sam Worthington
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Three siblings return, after the death of their father, to their Arkansas family home, in anticipation of the estate’s imminent sale. They are an unhappy bunch, and like many classics of stage and screen from the United States, these white Americans squabble and weep in each other’s presence, putting on display interpersonal conflicts and psychological trauma, as though resolution could eventually be found through performative acts of catharsis. In Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate however, characters ignore the most serious problems underpinning their very existence, unable to acknowledge fundamental faults that are more about a legacy relating to their Confederate history, than they are about individual infirmity.

Jacob-Jenkins draws a link between a sick society, and private lives constantly in search of emancipation. We are familiar with the idea that personal anguish compels us to seek remedies, but we rarely think about addressing wider contexts (in the case of Appropriate, both societal and familial), as being crucial in efforts to achieve a sense of well-being, or peace. This is especially true for those in positions of privilege. Jacob-Jenkins’ play features an all-white family, none of whom accept that the racism propagated by their forebears, has anything to do with their disquiet, much less be attentive to the racism that they continue to reinforce in their own daily lives.

This political statement, although a hugely consequential one, is made almost surreptitiously. The characters sweep these things under the carpet, and in the absence of an outside world that includes people of colour, none of what the play wishes to say, is presented explicitly. Director Wesley Enoch too, does not bring abundant emphasis to these matters, trusting instead that the message will resonate for those who want to hear it. Positioning the show as a somewhat conventional family drama however, means that Appropriate is not always satisfying. The reliance on a sense of realism, in efforts to make the narrative engrossing, has a tendency to reduce the drama to something slightly pedestrian. The play is much more than rich people fighting and being upset about their parochial concerns, but we are only provided glimpses of the real stakes that are actually involved.

An unevenness in the cast is largely responsible, for the production not conveying as much nuance and depth as required. Sam Worthington demonstrates good focus and intention, but an unfortunate lack in control over his voice and physicality in the role of Bo, makes for a confused, and confusing, performance that leaves us cold. Doing most of the heavy lifting is Mandy McElhinney, who shines brightly as resentful sister Toni, able to inject exuberance and irony into the dark comedy. Johnny Carr plays the intriguingly ambiguous Franz, proving himself a captivating actor, if a little too convincing as the reformed sex offender.

Work on design aspects is accomplished in general, with the closing minutes showcasing a dilapidating house, without actors, leaving a particularly strong impression. Set by Elizabeth Gadsby, lights by Trent Suidgeest, and sound by Steve Francis, combine to create the production’s most striking moments. We witness the house literally falling into disrepair, ravaged by time and by ghosts. We watch the spectacle unfold, and without words, hear the important questions ring through the chilly air. What had been left unsaid, is finally unleashed, but one wonders if this obtuse conclusion, although beautiful, is enough to drive home the moral of the story.

Observing white people in places like American and Australia, deny their racism, is nothing new for people of colour. It is always someone else at fault, and it is always a problem too big to fix today. There is always disowning of liability, and there is always a diminishment of responsibility. They routinely try to make everything vanish into thin air, as though out of sight, out of mind. They are terrified of being labelled racists, but every day prolong and extend the effects of racism. They say they did not create the system, but refuse to acknowledge that they are often its sole beneficiaries. The people in Appropriate will say that the worst is behind us, but what we see before our eyes, is a tragedy that rages on, only in hushed tones.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: You’re Not Special (Rogue Projects)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Mar 5 – 20, 2021
Playwright: Sam O’Sullivan
Director: Samantha Young
Cast: Arkia Ashraf, Kate Skinner, Ariadne Sgouros
Images by Kate Williams and Australian Theatre Live

Theatre review
Dan and Ellie are moving in together, as is the convention when humans decide to couple up. They expect to become closer as a matter of course, but like many others, these new living arrangements begin to test their mettle. You’re Not Special by Sam O’Sullivan is thankfully, not another rom-com on the humorous pitfalls of heteronormativity, but an intensely thought-provoking work about the tensions between organic and synthetic, in our age of unprecedented technological advancement. Characters in the play are caught up in their virtual lives on all their electronic devices, and at varying degrees, struggle to negotiate the nature of reality as it stands in the twenty-first century.

O’Sullivan’s writing is wonderfully engaging, with an intellectual curiosity that sustains our keen interest. There is a passion in the way its ideas are disseminated, that gives You’re Not Special a delicious sense of urgency, even though what it wishes to effect can feel somewhat didactic. Director Samantha Young does a splendid job of bringing to life, these concepts of right and wrong, in scenes featuring dramatic confrontations that always feel authentic and powerful. The show is very persuasive.

Arkia Ashraf’s uncompromising naturalism in his approach to the depiction of central character Dan, conveys a valuable quality of the everyman, one that invites the viewer to relate his story to each of our own lives. It is a solid, heavily introspective performance, that benefits tremendously from the intimacy of the space. Ellie is played by an exquisite Kate Skinner, scintillating in moments of vigour, and genuinely delightful when delivering comedy. In the enigmatic and pivotal role of April, is Ariadne Sgouros, who demonstrates excellent capacity for complexity. She revels in the many layers offered by the unusual personality, and challenges us to bring interpretations that are as expansive as the work she presents.

Design aspects are comparatively low-key, although appropriately so. Set and costumes by Anna Gardiner evoke a familiarity that helps us place the action at close psychological proximity. Martin Kinnane’s lights contribute a sense of dynamism to the narrative’s unfolding turmoil, and Kaitlyn Crocker’s sound design is memorable for surprising touches that hint at the surreal.

You’re Not Special asks important questions, but is perhaps too strident in its need to provide answers. Its default position of honouring an imagined point of human origin, and of what is traditionally thought of as “natural”, puts restrictions on the efficacy of its own artistic possibilities. The discussion of humanity and technology, when framed strictly as a duelling dichotomy, can feel mundane and old-fashioned. Technology can be thought of as essentially human, and at this point of our evolution, one could argue that a more futurist appreciation of lifestyles could be beneficial.

Quite certainly, truths often reside in all factions of our debates, and to participate in society, should not require that we must take sides on all issues, all the time. In 2021, it seems we have been conditioned to be irrepressibly opinionated over every matter. Maybe to remain impartial on some things, especially when the ethics involved are not cut-and-dried, means to keep an open mind.

www.rogueprojects.com.au

Review: Wild Thing (Flight Path Theatre)

Venue: Flight Path Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Mar 2 – Mar 20, 2021
Playwright: Suzanne Hawley
Director: Kim Hardwick
Cast: Di Adams, Philip D’Ambrosio, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Katrina Foster, Helen O’Connor, Di Smith
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
When Jackie’s health begins to fail, it is her group of besties who come to the rescue. Suzanne Hawley’s Wild Thing features four women who share a friendship of over half a century. Now in their sixties, each individual is no less vivacious or fun-loving, and even though nature does not spare them the usual and inevitable impediments, we discover their spirit to be unyielding.

Hawley’s endearing characters tell a meaningful story, of love, of resilience, and ultimately, of generosity. It showcases the best qualities of being old, and even though its earnestness can feel somewhat overwrought, there is much wisdom to be gained, as always, from being in close quarters with our seniors.

A humorous piece with lively direction by Kim Hardwick, Wild Thing opens up discussions surrounding ageing and death, in a surprisingly upbeat manner. End of life is an emotional affair, but it is also inescapable, so to treat it with some degree of levity can only be healthy.

The presentation is designed competently, with Tom Bannerman’s set leaving a particularly good impression. Able to offer versatility, as well as practical solutions, Bannerman’s creation is an efficient performance space that frees up the cast for what they do best.

Di Smith brings nuance to the role of Jackie, along with considerable dignity to this important tale of personal agency, for women of a certain age. Helen O’Connor is memorable as the carefree Elizabeth, bringing a sense of cheeky ebullience to the show. The passionate Frances is played by Katrina Foster, whose approach proves to be unmistakeably kooky, and Di Adams’ restraint only makes Susan’s sexual escapades more scandalous.

We need to talk a lot more, about the subject of dying. It seems that evasion is how Australians (and much of the world) typically deal with mortality, which is to say, that we do not deal with it at all. It is our propensity to leave facing it, until the final moments when we have nowhere to run. It is ironic that we should place attention on everything else except for the one certainty in life. Thankfully, art exists to remind us of who we are, at our most essential.

www.flightpaththeatre.org

Review: Playing Beatie Bow (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Feb 22 – May 1, 2021
Playwright: Kate Mulvany (based on the novel by Ruth Park)
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Tony Cogin, Lena Cruz, Claire Lovering, Heather Mitchell, Sofia Nolan, Rory O’Keeffe, Guy Simon, Catherine Văn-Davies, Ryan Yeates
Images by Daniel Boud
Theatre review
Two Sydney girls connect across centuries, through supernatural means, leaving indelible marks upon one another’s destinies. In Kate Mulvany’s brand new revision of Ruth Park’s 1980 novel Playing Beatie Bow, teenager Abigail wormholes from 2021 to 1873, meeting young Beatie Bow and her migrant Scottish family, in a story that broaches the sensitive subject of our colonial history. It also touches upon themes of female solidarity, of matrilineality, and on the nature of love, for places and for people, in a three-hour long epic that is as expansive as it is adventurous.

Abigail and Beatie are able to time travel, because they were born spaewives, ready to transcend physical realms of earthly existence. Mulvany as writer too, ventures beyond the obvious, so that the audience is never allowed to linger in the mundane. With Playing Beatie Bow, she insists that we look under every surface, to reach for a deeper appreciation and understanding about the people we like to think we are. The action takes place at The Rocks, where our history is especially rich, and where its cultural influence is particularly far reaching. To excavate at that location, is to uncover the gems, and the dross, that shape our Australian identities.

Direction by Kip Williams takes care to address both the issues, of who we are and who we ought to be. His work is honest, but also highly aspirational. It provides so much that is warm and fuzzy, through the nostalgia of the piece, and the saccharine sweetness of the relationships being depicted. The notion that we are good people, is reinforced through the classic, if slightly hackneyed, salt-of-the-earth tone of the staging. Concurrent though, is the refreshing incorporation of Aboriginal and Asian perspectives, that prove fundamental in encouraging a reimagination of community. The inclusion of people of colour within this context of an “Australian classic” addresses the exclusionary strategies, that have informed the ways we have been permitted, and not permitted, to conceive of ourselves, over centuries of white imperialism. Williams’ reformation of our collective attitude, is somewhat surreptitious but undoubtedly political.

David Fleischer’s set design takes full advantage of a very deep stage (at the extravagantly renovated Wharf Theatres), utilising configurations of sparseness to communicate elements of time and distance, that are central to a story that has us frequently thrust into moments of magical abyss. Lights by Nick Schlieper are appropriately ethereal, reliably transporting us through one translucent apparitional scene after another. Renée Mulder’s costumes provide great assistance, so that characters are convincing from the get-go. Music by Clemence Williams and Matthew Doyle, are sentimental and beautiful, and along with David Bergman’s restrained sound design, provide us with meditative spaces so that our thoughts and emotions can be activated, in the audience’s pursuit of interpretation and introspection.

A remarkable warmth emanates from the cast; they seem to be saying that this tale is for all of us, and that we are in this together. Catherine Văn-Davies is powerful as Abigail, an urgent and compelling presence whose sense of precision, keeps us attentive to all the valuable dimensions of what we discover to be a surprisingly complex exercise. Văn-Davies brings an authentic earthiness that anchors the production in a place that feels universal and meaningful, even when its flights of fancy take us far away from reality. It is often a deeply moving performance, one that tethers us to humanity, of the self and of others.

Guy Simon is unforgettable in his various roles, but as Johnny Whites, his controlled delivery of an Indigenous man whose daughters have been stolen by the crown, is utterly devastating. Heather Mitchell is a sheer delight as two vastly different matriarchs, both wonderfully comical, yet profound with what they convey. The precocious Beatie is played by Sofia Nolan, with excellent timing and a formidable exuberance. The show requires of its actors, a high level of technical proficiency, but they are unrelenting with the heart and soul of the piece, and as a result, the audience cannot help but be thoroughly affected.

We need to know our origins, in order that our destinations can be properly mapped out. We have for the longest time, misunderstood our past, and therefore so many have to suffer painful consequences. This is a task that has no room for delusions. We can no longer pretend to be wholly benevolent. People need to own up to their mistakes, make reparations, and correct our pathways. Travelling back in time to face the demons is hard, but for the brave, it is the only way forward.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Young Frankenstein (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Feb 18 – Mar 20, 2021
Book: Mel Brooks, Thomas Meehan
Music & Lyrics: Mel Brooks
Director: Alexander Berlage
Cast: Matthew Backer, Olivia Charalambous, Shannon Dooley, Nick Eynaud, Ben Gerrard, Amy Hack, Luke Leong-Tay, Lucia Mastrantone
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
American neurosurgeon Dr. Frederick Frankenstein has to make a trip to Transylvania, in order that he may secure the inheritance of a vast estate, upon the untimely death of his infamous nature-meddling grandfather. Mel Brooks’ 2007 musical version of Young Frankenstein, came to Broadway 33 years after the success of his 1974 film. What was originally a spoof of classic horror cinema, is now turned into a parody of Brooks’ own comedy oeuvre. It is arguable how well his body of work has stood the test of time, but as this new iteration of the musical at Hayes Theatre demonstrates, Mel Brooks’ writing contains indubitable genius, and with the right approach and attitude, a brilliant masterpiece can be unveiled.

Directed by Alexander Berlage (winner of 2018 and 2019 gongs for Best Direction of a Musical at the Sydney Theatre Awards), Young Frankenstein is post-modern, high-camp theatrical amusement at its best. Berlage takes radical liberties with the text, stridently ensuring that every moment of the show delivers something disarmingly witty, or at the very least kooky and fascinating. What results is a fast-paced production that feels constantly buoyed by humour, shimmering with inventiveness. Central to Berlage’s method, is an unyielding allegiance to principles of queerness, that locates for the intrinsic irony of Brooks’ universe, an amplified sense of flamboyant absurdity. Although not exactly the wildest of rides, the show is perhaps better suited to the open-minded.

The staging looks exquisite, even though many jokes are made about budgetary constraints met by Australian independent theatre. Isabel Hudson’s set is comprised of staircases that go nowhere, and doorways of unusual proportions, splendidly converting M.C. Escher’s legendary drawings into physical reality. In turn, these unusual architectural structures make for fantastical contortions, in how human figures traverse the space, for laughs as well as for sheer eccentricity. Costumes by Mason Brown combine the traditional with the subversive, making Savile Row meet Leigh Bowery, for an aesthetic that feels unexpectedly cohesive, and a true visual delight. Trent Suidgeest’s lighting design too is an absolute joy. Oscillating between vibrant clashes of primary colours, and a green monochrome that pays tribute to the black and white of the 1974 film and of the ones from early last century to which Brooks refers, Suidgeest provides a deeply satisfying sense of stylistic dynamism that is both relentless and surprising.

Leading man Matthew Backer’s appearance may be nothing like Gene Wilder’s, but fears of an inferior depiction of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein are laid to rest from the very first scene. The performer is meticulous yet instinctual, thoughtful but rambunctious, with mesmeric eyes that seize our attention, as they reveal all we need to know about the story, and the wider cultural implications of what we are witnessing. Also noteworthy is his reliably marvellous singing voice, a proverbial cherry on top that has us endlessly spoilt.

Shannon Dooley plays Elizabeth with wonderful idiosyncrasy, an admirably brassy presence whose scintillating confidence seems to know no bounds. The problematic German “dumb blonde” character Inga is given a clever twist. By casting male performer Ben Gerrard in the role, its offensive quality is dampened, and Gerrard’s respectfully controlled drag interpretation proves that intelligent, innovative thinking can solve many artistic conundrums, even those related to sacred, often archaic, legacies. Performers in Young Frankenstein are, without exception, accomplished and appealing. Luke Leong-Tay’s Igor and Lucia Mastrantone’s Frau Blucher are both effervescent and irresistibly mischievous. Nick Eynaud’s irreverent take on The Monster further emphasises the audacious flaunting of queerness, for a show that seems to have much more interesting things to say, than what Brooks had ever intended.

It is likely true, that many of us have reached a point of exhaustion, after a year of the pandemic, and half a decade of Trumpism and tumult from the far-right. If the Americans’ embrace of the silly 1974 Young Frankenstein film, was a reflection of their disillusionment and fatigue, from their participation in the war in Vietnam, then this new musical rendition arrives just in time to fulfil our need for something thoroughly and unapologetically frivolous. It is not always a good time for levity; the world has serious things to sort out, and art is sometimes all we have. For now, however, the brain deserves a rest, and the soul needs nothing more than a good hard laugh.

www.hayestheatre.com.au