Review: Night Slows Down (Don’t Look Away Theatre Company)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Nov 17 – Dec 9, 2017
Playwright: Phillip James Rouse
Director: Phillip James Rouse
Cast: Andre de Vanny, Danielle King, Johnny Nasser
Image by Ross Waldron

Theatre review
It is no secret that something very sinister is happening to our politics. For a variety of reasons, Australians have gradually become more extreme in our views, increasingly unable to tolerate differences, of opinions, lifestyles and backgrounds. In Phillip James Rouse’s Night Slows Down, a disastrous scenario presents itself, and the dark fantasy of those we call the alt-right or neo-Nazis, becomes reality.

The fascists have taken over, and they run the country by unleashing all the menacing impulses that have hitherto been forbidden. It is a regime based purely on unexamined emotion, where logic and level heads mean little. This is not the first time that we see a Nazi government, but unlike stories from the previous century, Night Slows Down is immediate, urgent and real. We recognise the people and places, and are unable to relegate these atrocities to a hazy past, a distant history that we tell ourselves is all but vanquished. Rouse’s stunning play is about a very near future, when we have taken one too many missteps, and the last straw finally breaks the camel’s back.

It is a fierce indictment of whiteness in cultures like ours; an ethnic majority that continually feels the need to exert its dominance. Even as it retains power, it never stops imagining a demise, and its imperialistic drive seems unable to be tamed. Their war cry in the play is “For The Future” through which enemies are constantly identified, for the now is never enough.

Fascism is not an idealistic state of being, but a never-ending project that discriminates and destroys. It has no meaning unto itself, except as an apparatus of ceaseless segregation and eradication. It pretends to be protecting something pure, but in fact its only true objective is to annihilate. The meaning of white is never stable, and those who seek preservation through its identification, are wholly responsible for their own anxiety.

Actor Andre de Vanny is outstanding as Seth, the racist bigot with no talent except for divisive politics. Like all the idiots in government we know who operate in the same way, it is a pointless exercise trying to reach a satisfactory understanding of their psychology, yet de Vanny has us entirely convinced of the villain’s whys and wherefores. His powerful portrayal of a simpleton overcome with hate, is as thrilling as it is distressing.

Also remarkable is leading lady Danielle King, who has us entranced with a profound capacity for depth and nuance. The emotional and intellectual scope she brings to the role of Sharon, allows us to interpret the story beyond the surfaces of good and bad. We are inspired to investigate the resonance she delivers, to discover for ourselves, what it is that consumes us as a society today, and whether we are able to offer effective resistance to corrupting forces. Johnny Nasser is a quieter presence, but no less affecting a performer, leaving an excellent impression, with a dignified emphasis on delivering authenticity to the role of Martin and his shocking persecution.

Lighting design by Sian James-Holland adds dynamism to proceedings, with a creative intricacy that sets a precise tone for each scene. The set is imagined with appropriate restraint, and cleverly executed by production designers Anna Gardiner and Martelle Hunt, to facilitate optimum showmanship by the very compelling cast. Night Slows Down is a tightly orchestrated work, brilliantly helmed by Phillip James Rouse as writer and director, to tell us something irrefutable and pertinent.

It is a discussion shaped by the most pressing issues of today. So much that is conceptual, buzzing in the ether, is consolidated here, for a catastrophic manifestation of our worst nightmares. It functions as warning and premonition. The drama captivates because it speaks our truth so loudly, even though the circumstances it describes, are grandiose in its fictiveness. We are terrified, because we know that the worst is only a hair away. |

5 Questions with Danielle King and Johnny Nasser

Danielle King

Johnny Nasser: Is theatre dead?
Danielle King: Fuck, I hope not! Maybe it’s starving. But it’s, historically, proved resilient. And, surely, somebody who has the insight, ability and fortunes to recognise the benefits of having a thriving arts scene to the mental health, education, evolution and tourism trade of a society will realise that it needs support….? Aren’t there studies saying this by far, far greater minds than mine? It’s hard enough trying to justify being involved in productions within the Independent Theatre scene where the actor is sponsoring the production with their time and resources for free without holding onto the ideal that Theatre will, any day now, be restored to health. Risks are still being taken, new writing still being discovered and classics still being performed- we just need to turn up and support the companies doing it.

Why do you act?
Because- you’ll be relieved to know- I’m not qualified to diagnose you, operate on you in surgery, defend you in a court of law, educate you in a classroom or even mix you a cocktail but I can be part of a company that tries to tell you a story to make you think differently, laugh, fall in love, chill you, break your heart and help you forget a shitty day. And I think that should have its place, and I’d like to be a part of that.

You have a lot of experience with classical text, does your approach as an actor differ with new writing?
I don’t think so. You’ve still got to find the truth and humanity in any text and attempt to communicate that. The difference is that you may be one of the first, if not the first, performer to attempt to find that characters voice in new writing, whereas you’re often following in other actors footsteps- sometimes extremely well documented and lauded and, therefore, intimidating footsteps. In new writing, you often have the writer there to be able to develop the piece and the language within it with the cast. Phil is handling our mangling of his writing with a gracious patience and, at times, a stick…

Have you ever been involved in a riot?
I haven’t. Especially not like the one Sharon describes in the play. I guess I can understand how a group of people can quickly and seemingly inexplicably become a mob and its terrifying. Even something as innocuous as a group of fans for a celebrity or a football match that’s particularly heated can become dangerous if the hysteria gets out of hand. To have that number of people powered by protest, frustration or passion it doesn’t seem to take much for civil human behaviour to become riotous. Maybe it’s something about being a group, you’re faceless and so the consequences feel removed. That seems to be Sharon’s experience in the play.

Do you have racist friends?
That’s such a tough question. Yeah, I probably do. Thoughtless, careless comments are made by some, which I may or may not call out at the time. So that’s something for me to address.. Snap judgements made, and shared, whilst watching the news etc. Having conversations with the cast and other creatives around events and sentiments in this play has been really challenging, however, with what’s happening around the world these are conversations to be had- and our medium happens to be the theatre.

Johnny Nasser

Danielle King: This is the first time we’ve worked together. Who are you and how’d you start acting?
Johnny Nasser: I’m someone who still doesn’t know what they want to be when they grow up, so I will continue to act until that happens. When will that be I wonder? I got a taste for acting as a teenager and had an older brother who was an actor who introduced me to the storytelling caper.

You recently did a creative development on another show and Night Slows Down is a new work, is this a coincidence or do you particularly enjoy being involved in the new writing process?
75% of the theatre work I have done has been new or actor supported devised work and I think I’m naturally drawn to that. Working on a new work takes a lot of commitment, energy and there’s no guarantees of an amazing product. When a show you’ve been involved in from its infancy works and resonates with an audience it’s very satisfying.

The subject of the play is pretty close to the bone looking at world events. Have you ever experienced similar behaviour to Martin, though not to the extent of the events in the play?
I’m of Lebanese descent and growing up got called the usual names: Wog etc… can’t say I enjoyed that and didn’t understand why I was being belittled when I felt like any other Australian kid. Even in terms of casual racism people should consider how a comment is received rather than intended.

When is violence acceptable?
When a cockroach invades your home. That sounds like a Seth comment from the play doesn’t it? My answer is never and sometimes. I have great admiration for those who refuse to resort to violence in the face of violence and tyranny. Could I be that brave? I doubt it.

What music are you listening to and are you discovering anything new?
In the play, Martin and Seth get into a passionate discussion about Kendrick Lamar, so I’m listening to plenty of Kendrick. Especially “M.A.A.D City” which is totally…… dope? Is that what the cool cats say? It’s quite a departure from my usual diet of ABC local radio I tell you!

Catch Danielle King and Johnny Nasser in Night Slows Down, by Phillip James Rouse.
Dates: 17 Nov – 9 Dec, 2017
Venue: Kings Cross Theatre

Review: Babes In The Woods – Australian Purity Defil’d (Don’t Look Away Theatre Company)

dontlookawayVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Dec 13, 2016 – Jan 21, 2017
Playwright: Phil Rouse
Music: Phillipe Klaus
Director: Phil Rouse
Cast: Annie Byron, Gabriel Fancourt, Sean Hawkins, Alex Malone, Eliza Reilly, Ildiko Susany
Image by Ross Waldron

Theatre review
It is Christmas time, and in Australia, we go absolutely bonkers. Phil Rouse’s pantomime take on Babes In The Woods is a wild, wacky jaunt that marks the end of 2016, celebratory in tone but fiercely castigating of our ever-frustrating sociopolitical climate. If the show is a summation of the way we were, these 12 months are, once again, nothing to be proud of.

Rouse’s production however, is a triumph. Exuberant, inventive, poignant, and very funny, his creation is both frivolous and meaningful, targeting issues that concern us all, but always in the right shade of humour, no matter how dark the subject. The big and brash style of presentation allows the worst of our behaviour to be put on display, all in the name of comedy, but its need to keep things frothy can seem to diminish the severity and gravity of what is being discussed. Nevertheless, it is an admirable effort that does not forget the downtrodden, as we indulge in the unrestrained merriment and mirth characteristic of our silly season.

Phillipe Klaus’ spirited work as composer and musical director keeps the show structured and cohesive. Not all performers are impressive with their singing, but Eliza Reilly is delightfully memorable as the powerfully voiced Angel of White Privilege, allowing white children Australia-wide to act recklessly, and delivering more than a few laughs to her captive audience. Sean Hawkins is hilarious and shameless as Jack the himbo lumberjack, flexing muscles, both comedic and anatomic, to get us going. It is a remarkable cast, infectiously enthusiastic and impressive with their uninhibited creativity and imagination.

The final musical number in Babes In The Woods lampoons the lip service we often pay to the less fortunate. It makes fun of the $50 we might give to charity each month for absolution from the first-world evils that we commit. Theatre is a powerful medium, but it can also be ineffectual. Our art should always aim to do more, but if catharsis is the best we can manage on the night, there needs to be an accompanying sense of enlightenment that would take us to brighter days. A happy new year is incumbent upon how much we are able to learn from yesterday, so that tomorrow can be made better.

5 Questions with Annie Byron and Ildiko Susany

Annie Byron

Annie Byron

Ildiko Susany: What would be one piece of advice you would give an emerging actor breaking into the industry?
Annie Byron: To thine own self be true. Train, meditate, exercise, read, forge your inner resources – you’ll need them. Pursue your passion. If the challenges start to sour your love of your craft, stop it and do something else. Persisting makes no sense if you are not being enriched by the experiences, and having fun.

How do you think things have changed for women in theatre since the time you started in the industry to now?
Well, not enough. It was astonishing to sit in those early Women In Theatre meetings last year and hear exactly the same things being said as in the Limited Life funding meetings of almost FOUR decades ago. But look! Within a year a whole Festival Fatale organised, that’s women working with women for women. Women have always supported each other. Maybe what’s changed is that companies generally take more seriously the need to be conscious of gender equity. I think we might be better organised and more articulate. I’d like to think the work of those who have gone before has made taking new steps easier. I’m not sure I can answer this question. It’s depressing that it still needs answering.

What do you think is the naughtiest part of this production of Babes In The Woods?
I think it has to be the relationship between Phyllis and Jack, with a moment of leg licking being one among numerous exquisite high points.

What is your biggest challenge in playing ‘The Dame’ (or, a woman playing a man, playing a woman)?
Before we started rehearsal, this is what I thought about most. Perhaps it says something about the level of subtlety of my performance (!) that now that we are in to it, I have kind of forgotten all about those layers, and I’m just going for a character, and for clarity of story telling. And enjoying the possibility of facial hair. There is a generous allocation of gender bending in this show, and I’m trusting it is something to be played with and enjoyed – without too much depth of thought.

If you could sing any song in this production (regardless of rights) what would it be?
“37 Babies” – the one I WILL be singing! It’s fierce and black and cheeky and political, and I adore it. Having been told repeatedly as a child that I couldn’t sing (and even instructed to mime in the school choir!) this is a major victory for me. I’m delighted that it is so steeped in the feel of Kurt Weill, and I intend to have a lot of fun with it!

Ildiko Susany

Ildiko Susany

Annie Byron: What do you experience as the things most needing to change for young women in our profession?
Ildio Susany: Gender parity. The erroneous view is that women require more training; women aren’t ready; women aren’t as talented or produce as good work as men in the industry (this is also the perception of artists of diverse backgrounds). This is completely false. We need to change this view from the outset. An example of this is that statistics show that roughly 50% of film school graduates are women and yet these women are only represented at less than 30% across all fields in the film industry. Women are in greater audience numbers than men and according to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, films with female leads made considerable more money than films with male leads. Women don’t need further training or internships – women need access to work and opportunity. Women need to be trusted for their work and skills and insights and capability in the same way that men are. Young women need to own this conversation. Be a part of Women In Theatre & Screen (WITS) and Women In Film and Television (WIFT). The industry is not a meritocracy – unconscious bias and notions of historic gender roles are still in effect today. We need to work together to change this.

Working with full commitment for little or no money, what makes being in an ‘independent’ production worthwhile?
Independent theatre is a place where artists can test their muscle, take risks and break new ground. I think this space can be the best for creating change and bringing major issues to light. I perform in independent theatre and create independent productions because I love to work, I love to be able to tell the stories that I want to tell (stories which may not be featured on the mainstage); stories which might be more inclusive and reflective of our society in terms of gender and diversity and the issues that we need to be exploring in society.

What is the best thing about being in our panto, Babes In The Woods?
The team. I’m working with some of the best artists, actors and creatives who are highly astute with excellent comic timing! It is a joy to play and improvise in this work space. I also love the themes and politics explored in this play which are centred on Australian identity and landscape.

What do you most enjoy about playing a male role?
My favourite part about playing the male role of Robbie is debunking the myths of masculinity and exploring issues of feminism, white privilege and male privilege from my perspective as a woman of colour.

Can you name 5 roles you would like to play by the time you are 60?
Lady Anne. Lady Macbeth. Eliza Schuyler Hamilton or Angelica Schuyler. Any other strong and complex female character – who might have to do some stunts or fight choreography!

Annie Byron and Ildiko Susany can be seen in Babes In The Woods by Phil Rouse (based on the good works of Tom Wright).
Dates: 13 – 21 Dec, 2016 and 6 – 21 Jan, 2017
Venue: Old Fitz Theatre

5 Questions with Francesca Savige and Damien Strouthos

Francesca Savige

Francesca Savige

Damien Strouthos: Do you scrunch or fold your toilet paper?
Francesca Savige: I scrunch-fold. It’s a metaphor for my whole life.

What has been your worst moment on stage in a past show?
General dire moments of insecurity aside, I had one incident of corpsing on stage that was was so inappropriate and unprofessional that I’m too embarrassed to go into detail. I regularly laugh in rehearsals (Anthony Gooley is making me giggle a lot in rehearsals at the moment) but I usually pull myself together for performance. This unspeakable occasion was out of control.

Who do you think will win Origin 1 next week?
Whether you mean football, electricity or Darwin, I lose.

What excites you about our production of Inner Voices?
The play, the director, the cast, the design the venue. Pretty much everything. That’s not me pimping for publicity, it’s fact. But if I had to pick one thing, it’s the brain stimulus. I’m loving good theatre that’s prompting discussions lately. I’m still reeling from Sport for Jove’s Taming of the Shrew, and this play is giving me plenty of delicious food for thought.

Where do you find the humanity in our show where there are no plain ‘good’ or ‘bad’ characters?
John Bell was the first director of Inner Voices in 1977, and in his intro to the Currency Press script, he writes that “There is a compassion in the play – not for Ivan himself but for his situation”. I think that’s the humanity in the whole play- we can all relate to the destruction of innocence, to abandonment and isolation… At least those of us who have been lost in shopping centres and put on leash. (Yep. Me too, Damien)

Damien Strouthos

Damien Strouthos

Francesca Savige: Having been on tour quite a lot over the past few years with Henry V and Romeo And Juliet for Bell Shakespeare, do you have a best and worst tour memory?
Damien Strouthos: Best and worst memory are probably one. Henry V 2014, performance in Sale, Victoria. A viral corpsing moment that effectively stopped the show (standard) during the last scene thanks to a Mathew Backer line fluff. 7/10 actors uncontrollably convulsing with laughter isn’t the best way to end a 2.5 hour Shakespeare. Or maybe it is. I had my fist half way down my throat trying to stop whilst we were meant to be signing a 3 part harmony of “I vow to thee my country”. To this day, mention to any of the actors from that company the phrase ‘Sale, Henry V‘ and you’ll get a good yarn.

What are you most enjoying about rehearsals at the Old Fitz at the moment?
$3 beers and working with some people I really admire.

Have you previously encountered Louis Nowra on page, stage or in person? And if so, what was that experience like?
I’ve read a few of his plays, never performed in one. Which is odd as Inner Voices is arguably his most obscure. The experience on working on it so far has been totally challenging in a good way. I haven’t met him but he hangs out at the Fitz a lot so I hopefully will get the opportunity to ask him why he put a bloke in a bear suit in scene 7.

Can you draw on any personal experience for your current role as the Russian infant King who was kept imprisoned for 23 years, with minimal human contact and communication?
My mother lost me a in a shopping centre once when I was too young to describe who I belonged to. I was also one of those kids who wore a child leash (there’s not really a better name for that?) so yeah, I totally understand oppression and isolation.

To be honest, I tend not to use my life in my work too much unless I’m really not hitting something emotionally. Just being informed by the given circumstances and using the words on the page and trying to be truthful. Without knowing it, your life informs your work I think.

If you could speak only one word for 23 years, what would it be?
I’ll just pop that there.

Francesca Savige and Damien Strouthos are appearing in Inner Voices by Louis Nowra.
Dates: 15 June – 9 July, 2016
Venue: Old Fitz Theatre

Review: Inner Voices (Don’t Look Away Theatre Company)

dontlookawayVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Jun 15 – Jul 9, 2016
Playwright: Louis Nowra
Director: Phil Rouse
Cast: Annie Byron, Julian Garner, Emily Goddard, Nicholas Papademetriou, Anthony Gooley, Francesa Savige, and Damien Strouthos
Image by Ross Waldron

Theatre review
Ivan VI lived 23 short years in Russia, but in Louis Nowra’s Inner Voices, his destiny is transformed dramatically to tell a story about how kings are made, and how countries are ruled. Originally published in 1977, Nowra’s words in the play remain fresh and humorous, and although its political edge seems to have worn with time, Inner Voices‘ punk sensibility is still evident today in its iconoclastic characterisations and anti-authoritarian outlook.

It is a very exuberant production that Phil Rouse has directed. Notwithstanding our unfamiliarity with its context, the unrelenting and spirited acerbity of his style keeps us engrossed. The thoroughness at which the text’s comedy is explored, is not only endlessly amusing, it also helps provide depth of meaning to an outlandish narrative. Thoughtfully designed, the production’s aesthetic values are textured and powerful. Anna Gardiner’s set and Katelyn Shaw’s sound design are especially remarkable in the degree to which they are able to consistently add surprising dimension to the play.

Inner Voices‘ cast of seven is an exceptionally dynamic bunch. Ivan is played by Damien Strouthos, whose uncanny ability to portray eccentricity is a perfect fit for the quirky role. The actor takes the opportunity to showcase excellent range in a part that goes through several significant transformations, and we see various facets to Strouthos’ talents, all equally accomplished. Anthony Gooley is absolutely memorable as Mirovich, with razor sharp wit and a flamboyant theatricality that knows no bounds. Enthralling and hilarious, Gooley is outstanding on this stage and we are kept amazed by the genius inventiveness he injects into every line of dialogue.

It is the eve of another federal election in Australia, and we think about the likely candidates who will rule us for another three years. Inner Voices reflects our prevailing cynicism, and exposes the falsities associated with the state of our politics and governments. We want truth and honesty from those who represent us, but we have become all too aware of the hypocrisies and cunning that are required for people to attain positions of power. If good people cannot win in a broken system, all we have are at best, compromised and substandard. Nowra’s play does not offer us any solutions, but it certainly is a reminder that we should want to do better.

Review: A Property Of The Clan (Blood Moon Theatre)

bloodmoonVenue: Blood Moon Theatre (Potts Point NSW), Sep 29 – Oct 17, 2015
Playwright: Nick Enright
Director: Phillip Rouse
Cast: George Banders, Megan Drury, Jack Starkey, Samantha Young
Image by Phyllis Wong

Theatre review
Nick Enright’s A Property Of The Clan first appeared in 1992. It was the precursor to his more famous Blackrock, both of which were written in response to the murder of a 14 year-old Australian schoolgirl. The play is mainly concerned with our youth, and how misogyny becomes an entrenched part of Australian culture through its early permeation into children’s lives at school and at home. It is a serious subject matter that retains its resonance in 2015. The characters are not obsessed with mobile phones and social media, but their desires and prejudices are no different. We observe a group of teenagers finding their place in society, acquiring values, and growing up. The circumstances in which they find themselves are exceptionally traumatic, but we recognise their hardship to be symptomatic of teenage life in general, and are made to consider the ways ideals and beliefs are reinforced at that sensitive age. The play is about what happens in the formative years, and the lifelong repercussions thereafter.

Direction by Phillip Rouse is restricted by a problematic space, with its tiny stage, awkward entrances and restrictive technical facilities, but his inventiveness shines through. Reducing the play to its essentials, but adding visual flourishes where possible, Rouse is able to make personalities and narratives effective, while creating an environment that feels energetic and nuanced. There are significant problems with lighting and blocking that cause distraction, but the powerful sincerity in the piece ultimately wins over its audience. Performances are strong and the cast is evenly pitched. The adult players approach their teenage roles with integrity and a surprising authenticity that allow us to identify with each of them and to sympathise with their experiences. Megan Drury is especially memorable in both her parts as Rachel and Diane. Her transformations from one to the other are fluently executed, and the balance she achieves between the divergent qualities of youth and gravity is beautifully measured.

The kids learn about discrimination at school, but they struggle to recognise the powers at play in their own spheres. We can talk about all the pressing issues of our times, evangelising on education, parenting, domestic violence and feminism, but the challenge is to make changes to the defects in our culture, and to find real solutions for the problems that we have. There is a gender issue we must address, and the way we teach girls and boys about their differences are in need of a revolution.

5 Questions with Phil Rouse

philrouseWhat is your favourite swear word?

What are you wearing?
Topman top and YD Jeans. Second hand, op-shop styling.

What is love?
Branson Coach House Barossa Valley Rare Single Vineyard Shiraz 2005, shared with good friends.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
The Complexity Of Belonging at Melbourne Festival. I give it an OK out of 5.

Is your new show going to be any good?
Well, it kicked arse in Melbourne. Only makes sense it will kick arse in Sydney.

Phil Rouse, artistic director of Don’t Look Away, is directing The Legend Of King O’Malley by Bob Ellis and Michael Boddy.
Show dates: 26 Nov – 13 Dec, 2014
Show venue: Seymour Centre

5 Questions with Lillian U

rsz_img_5095 (1)What is your favourite swear word?
Fuck. (In Context: Fuck fuck fuckity fuck.) It’s just so plosive.

What are you wearing?
Blue dress, no shoes! Enjoying my day off by getting out of my theatre blacks.

What is love?
Baby don’t hurt me! Don’t hurt me no more.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. Does it need more stars than Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz? It was pretty shiny. I give it four stars.

Is your new show going to be any good?
Heck yes! Rooted is smart, funny as balls and just that little bit heartbreaking. It’s a stellar cast and we have heaps of fun. We opened on Thursday and I swear I’ve laughed every single show and I’ve seen it SIX times now!

Lillian U is stage manager for Rooted.
Show dates: 30 Oct – 9 Nov, 2013
Show venue: NIDA Parade Theatres