Review: The Campaign (Seymour Centre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Feb 11 – 28, 2019
Playwright: Campion Decent
Director: Kim Hardwick
Cast: Tim McGarry, Simon Croker, Mathew Lee, Madeline MacRae, Jane Phegan
Images by Jasmine Simmons

Theatre review
Up until 1997, some of the harshest anti-homosexuality laws in the Western world, were found in our very own Tasmania. In Campion Decent’s The Campaign, we witness the rife homophobia in the Australian state, as well as the hard work by rights groups that fought tooth and nail to bring legislative reform. The story begins in 1988 when community leader Rodney Croome was arrested alongside many others of the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group (previously known as the Tasmanian Gay Law Reform Group), for setting up a stall at Salamanca Market collecting signatures for a petition, towards the decriminalisation of consensual sex between adult males.

A verbatim work featuring first-hand accounts by activists from that critical decade of LGBTQI history, The Campaign feels a thorough and accurate compilation of memories pertaining to that period of incredible dedication by a group of tireless advocates. With focus placed almost entirely on political machinations, the play can suffer from a lack of drama and theatricality, even though director Kim Hardwick’s determination to inject colour and movement into the staging is evident. Her efforts to keep things pacy, helps liven up dialogue that tends to be dry and stoic.

A disarmingly earnest group of five performs a big number of roles, with Mathew Lee memorable for the authentic emotions he brings to the stage, in the role of Croome especially. Jane Phegan too is a genuine and purposeful presence, as is Tim McGarry whose rigour is a joy to watch. Simon Croker and Madeline MacRae are commendable for bringing both gravity and dynamism to their various characters, in an ensemble that proves itself remarkably well rehearsed, and full of magnanimous conviction.

The Campaign is about the heroes of the movement, but occasional glimpses of villains, make us wonder if those vicious sentiments can ever be extinguished. It has taken a very long time to attain legislative protections, but as witnessed in national debates relating to the 2017 same-sex marriage referendum, people’s attitudes can still be extremely malicious and harmful. For many of us, the reasons for that hatred may have to remain a mystery; the incomprehensible need to vilify those whose identities and actions are completely of no consequence to others, is absurd, and unfortunately relentless.

www.whiteboxtheatre.com.au

Review: The Deep Blue Sea (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Feb 4 – Mar 7, 2020
Playwright: Terrence Rattigan
Director: Paige Rattray
Cast: Fayssal Bazzi, Paul Capsis, Matt Day, Vanessa Downing, Marta Dusseldorp, Charlie Garber, Brandon McClelland, Contessa Treffone
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Hester Collyer is having such a miserable time, that when we first meet her, we catch her in the process of attempting suicide. It is the 50’s in Terrence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, and therefore not surprising to find a woman unfulfilled and depressed. She may have two men vying for her attention, but no amount of romance and love, can mollify her agony. Although a natural artist, having picked up painting at a tender age, she is steered away from her talents, being a clergyman’s daughter, to focus instead on becoming a wife and mother.

We watch our protagonist invest heavily into her lover Freddie, but the relationship is unrewarding no matter how hard each party tries. Her husband William too, works hard for a reconciliation, but Hester is simply unable to find satisfaction in all his acquiescence. Director Paige Rattray understands that Hester has placed all her eggs in the wrong basket, and as we watch the story unfold, it is Rattray’s understanding of events that truly resonate, even as poor Hester herself remains in the dark about her own situation.

Rattray’s feminist intervention is represented by a clever set design by David Fleischer, which gives us alternate views of the same small apartment containing, and constraining, Hester’s tiny world; we are given two perspectives of the narrative, as though a reminder that there are parallel interpretations taking place, feminist and anti-feminist, at each step of the plot trajectory. Other design elements too are noteworthy, with Nick Schlieper’s lights surreptitious but persuasive at all times, and James Brown’s work on sound, restrained but sublime in its dramatic effect.

Actor Marta Dusseldorp gives a thrilling performance in the lead role, endlessly inventive, and courageous with each of her artistic choices. It is a spellbinding depiction of female suffering, powerful in its authenticity, but more importantly, astute with the meanings that she conveys, almost behind Hester’s back. The show is surprisingly comedic, as a result of its modern sensibility. The cast uses Rattigan’s old-fashioned melodrama to put on a show that oscillates between laughter and melancholy, a subtly camp approach that proves highly entertaining.

Paul Capsis is unforgettable as Miller, an uncompromisingly queer presence that functions as a beacon of wisdom, for Hester and for the audience. Fayssal Bazzi and Matt Day are convincing love interests, both helping to make perfect sense of the conundrum at hand. We see that it matters not, whether they are good or bad men, they simply have no bearing on a grown woman’s happiness. Also memorable is Brandon McClelland, whose straightlaced irony as Phillip Welch proves deeply amusing. Confident and perfectly pitched, McClelland delivers some of the show’s best laughs.

The Deep Blue Sea is an excellent example of how the world can destroy a person, when she plays by prescribed rules. At the end of her story, we wonder if Hester is ever going to discard those external expectations, and find a way to carve out a self-determined existence. Women are broken every day, but one wonders how many are able to resist returning to square one, even in the twenty-first century, at each attempt of revival. Bravery is not often found on the well-trodden path, and glory is reserved only for those who dare.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Feb 6 – Mar 8, 2020
Playwright: Steve Rodgers (based on a novella by Peter Goldsworthy)
Director: Darren Yap
Cast: Valerie Bader, Emma Jackson, Mark Lee, Liam Nunan, Grace Truman, Matthew Whittet
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Linda and Rick are a young couple in love, full of hope for the future, and like many who had come before, they decide to have children. In Peter Goldsworthy’s Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam (adapted for the stage by Steve Rodgers), it is that collision of optimism and the inevitable harshness of real life that comes to the fore, when a happy family of four is met with the curse of a terminal illness.

The play is predictably emotional, with Darren Yap’s direction making no apologies for the extremely sentimental tone that his production takes. Death however, may seem a more vacillating topic than the show might suggest. As we watch the Pollards go through turmoil, finding ways to deal with the impending passing of a beloved, Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam exposes the surprisingly disparate attitudes we may hold, for a completely universal experience. It becomes obvious that because we so rarely talk about death, that we almost never have opportunities to create consensus, so it only makes sense that personal beliefs can vary greatly in relation to the topic.

Characters inhabit a relentlessly dark space, and the trauma being presented feels authentic, even if one does not share in the Pollards’ persuasions about the afterlife. The cast is uniformly strong, impressive with the chemistry they harness as an ensemble, able to give a sense of elevation to some very simple personalities. Actors Liam Nunan and Grace Truman are memorable as the children, passionate and intense with their portrayals of interrupted innocence. Emma Jackson and Matthew Whittet are their parents, both full of conviction, and remarkably elegant in their approaches for this unabashedly stirring work. Valerie Bader and Mark Lee take on a range of senior roles, precise and marvellously deliberate with what they bring to the stage.

Also noteworthy is Emma Vine’s set design, offering considerable versatility and easy scene transitions, whilst remaining pleasing to the eye. Verity Hampson’s lights, along with music and sound by Max Lambert and Sean Peter, ensure that the audience is drawn into the tragedy, through tenacious engagement of our senses.

Death can be thought of as more than a mournful occurrence. In fact, some think of it as a welcome end to suffering. In the lightness of romance, Linda and Rick create new life, unafraid of all the hardship that is sure to come. In sickness, one is made to confront mortality, with fear and sadness invariably becoming part of that process. Along with having to say a long goodbye to loved ones, it is perhaps the uncertainty about what happens thereafter, that causes the greatest despair. We may differ in how we regard the nature of death, but the beauty of life that we have all witnessed, does not have to end when the lights are turned off for the last time.

www.belvoir.com.au | www.riversideparramatta.com.au/NTofP

Review: Pomona (Kings Cross Theatre)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jan 24 – Feb 8, 2020
Playwright: Alistair McDowell
Director: Anthony Skuse
Cast: Jane Angharad, Kevin Batliwala, Amanda McGregor, Lauren Richardson, Monica Sayers, James Smithers, Dorje Swallow
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
A concrete plot of barren land sitting in the middle of the city, can only raise suspicion. It is simply unbelievable that what appears to be prime real estate is left to languish, as though millions of dollars are left unclaimed, right in front of our eyes. In Alistair McDowell’s Pomona, we are taken underground. In the absence of visible buildings, our cynicism goes into overdrive, as we watch the worst of our capitalistic impulses emerge, through a series of horrific criminal scenarios. The play imagines the most nefarious commercial activities taking place in hidden bunkers, behind closed doors. If business dealings dare be depraved in broad daylight, what more the shady dealings that happen in secret.

Pomona‘s drama involves missing persons, snuff films and more. It is not an exploitative work by any means, but that very tendency of ours to exploit, is placed under scrutiny. Director Anthony Skuse prompts questions about nature and nurture, and the origins of corruption, as we observe characters carrying out unspeakable acts. People seem to be either good or bad, but there is no denying the conditions we all have to operate under, that are in most cases, beyond repair. Lighting design by Veronique Benett is suitably gloomy, for the irrevocably pessimistic world being explored. Music by Nate Edmondson, commanding and tenacious, keeps tensions unrelenting for this foreboding representation of our dangerous lives.

The production is an engaging one, with powerful concepts and a cleverly fractured plot, conspiring to hold our attention. Actors Amanda McGregor and James Smithers depict some very big and genuine emotions, both wonderfully mesmerising with the focus they bring to the stage. Also memorable is Lauren Richardson, who has the unenviable task of inhabiting and portraying the unceasing terror of a woman escaping violence. Moments of innocence by the charming Kevin Batilwala are a delightful reprieve, while Jane Angharad, Monica Sayers and Dorje Swallow play some seriously dubious types who make us confront our own sense of morality.

In a dog eat dog world, good guys finish last. In Pomona, we may want to get rid of the baddies, but there is nothing to stop their positions being usurped by more of the same. Evil runs so much of the world, because of the way things are structured. The way we revere money and power, has allowed bad things to happen again and again. We can no longer afford to imagine that simply placing good people in harmful institutions will fix our problems. We have to move emphasis away from undesirable individuals, to a better understanding of the systems that govern our lives, and begin destroying them, as a first step to improving things for all.

www.secrethouse.com.au

Review: The Visitors (Moogahlin Performing Arts)

Venue: Carriageworks (Eveleigh NSW), Jan 22 – 26, 2020
Playwright: Jane Harrison
Director: Frederick Copperwaite
Cast: John Blair, Damion Hunter, Colin Kinchela, Nathan Leslie, Leroy Parsons, Glenn Shea, Kerri Simpson
Images by Jamie James

Theatre review
Seven men gather on the shore of Gadigal land, debating whether to welcome or to repel those arriving on ships from overseas. It is 1788, but in Jane Harrison’s The Visitors, these Aboriginal leaders are dressed in three-piece suits, and they speak an English that sounds more like characters from Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men, than even any of us would today. Indeed, Harrison’s writing assumes not only the style of classic white theatre, its narrative structure is modelled after the conceit of that 1954 play, involving a council being disrupted by the doubts of a single cautiously deliberative soul.

As though purposefully addressing a Western audience, The Visitors pulls out all the stops so that there is no mistaking the Aboriginal work’s intent to question and to confront. With both content and form shaped in a way that is unequivocally understandable to colonisers, we watch these Indigenous characters painstakingly discuss an appropriate response for what they had imagined to be temporary entrants. Their compassionate struggle with the matter is only made more moving, by the enormity of the fallout that remains unbeknownst to them, that is to become the daily lived experience of all their descendants.

Directed by Frederick Copperwaite, the staging is as polished as it is passionate, with important arguments delivered in ways that are precise and affecting. Visually satisfying, with Lisa Mimmochi’s exacting set and costumes, along with Chloe Ogilvie’s elegant lights, providing a sense of sophisticated dynamism to the story. Sound design by Phil Downing, with additional music by Tim Gray, too are instrumental in transporting us deep into the psyche of rightful land owners past and present.

The ensemble is marvellously cohesive, unwavering in their dedication to this powerful tale. John Blair and Glenn Shea are particularly memorable for their exquisite timing, both performers turning on the charm, having us absolutely captivated by their effortless humour. An impressive gravity is contributed by Leroy Parsons, very convincing and engrossing as Walter, the brave one who dares go against the tide. The show is brought to an intense conclusion by Damion Hunter’s disarming soliloquy as Gordon, who in the crucial moment reveals emotions that are just as raw today as they were at the dawn of this catastrophe.

It may seem that our Indigenous are always meeting us halfway. In The Visitors, they dress and speak like their oppressors, almost like a last-ditch attempt to get people hearing. Characters in the play fail to understand why the whites feel the need to steal; that basic question so many continue to evade today. Colonisation in Australia has been a ruthless project ongoing for over two centuries, and its pace only ever gets more ferocious. One of the men in the play expresses bewilderment at the felling of just one tree in the hands of the whites. Little did he know the true depth of destruction that was to come.

www.moogahlin.org

Review: Anthem (Roslyn Packer Theatre)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Jan 15 – 19, 2020
Playwrights: Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas, Irine Vela
Director: Susie Dee
Cast: Maude Davey, Reef Ireland, Ruci Kaisila, Thuso Lekwape, Amanda Ma, Maria Mercedes, Tony Nikolakopoulos, Eryn Jean Norvill, Sahil Saluja, Osamah Sami, Eva Seymour, Carly Sheppard, Jenny M. Thomas, Dan Witton
Images by Victor Frankovski

Theatre review
Much of the action takes place in train carriages around the Greater Melbourne area, where more than anywhere else, an accurate cross section can be obtained of who Australians are today. Rich and poor have to sit together, as do black, brown and white, along with young and old. When extricated from our respective communities, classes and silos, we are forced to look at the real differences that define us, probably more so than the similarities that we like to imagine give meaning to our national identity. In Anthem, it is the very nature of discrepancies, of wealth, power and all that might constitute a person’s cultural capital, that are exposed and very powerfully discussed.

On a land that remains unceded by its Indigenous who make up only an estimated 3.3% of the current population, it is absurd that the rest of us should experience privilege of any description. Director Susie Dee does a splendid job of articulating, not only that injustice, but also the harmful collective delusion driving this nation, that some of us deserve more than others. Anthem makes it clear that no one here can legitimately possess more than others; for as long as Indigenous peoples are marginalised and unable to exercise rights of ownership, the rest of us can only ever be holders of dubious property and position.

The politics of the piece is made saliently resonant by Dee, who imbues every vignette of Anthem with accuracy and urgency, accompanied by a strident level of realism that defies us to ignore the problems residing in the very foundation of our Australian existences. An extraordinary cast keeps us mesmerised for the entirety of these 150 passionate minutes. Tremendously well-rehearsed and unbelievably cohesive, their performance represents some of the most gripping theatre one could ever hope to see. Actor Carly Sheppard is unforgettable, giving voice to Black Australia, able to portray humour alongside a virtuous fury, to make an important and conclusive statement about Indigenous rights.

Ruci Kaisila, Jenny M. Thomas and Dan Witton provide live music over the duration, sensational in their manipulation of atmosphere and emotions, through the very accomplished works of composer and sound designer Irine Vela. Set and costumes by Marg Horwell are intelligently executed, able to convey a sense of veracity for characters and situations, whilst offering theatrical dynamism to our experience of the show. Paul Jackson’s lights too, bring animation to the stage, and is valuable in establishing tone for every nuanced moment of this sensitively rendered play.

As Australians, we have grown accustomed to tolerating inequalities in our social order. It has become acceptable that the rich get richer, at the expense of the poor, who can obviously only get poorer as a result. Marginalised communities, most notably Indigenous peoples, are routinely subjugated and muzzled, as our structures continue to privilege voices that adhere to conditions stipulated by white patriarchy. We have learned to think of the downtrodden as deserving of their lack of position in society. Even when we find ourselves oppressed by those with money and power, we take on the blame in accordance with the conditioning enforced by those at the top. It is no wonder then that James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time is invoked in both the prologue and epilogue of Anthem. The only solution is a revolution, if only enough of us can see beyond the lies.

www.performinglines.org.au

Review: Lady Tabouli (National Theatre of Parramatta)

Venue: Riverside Theatres (Parramatta NSW), Jan 9 – 18, 2020
Playwright: James Elazzi
Director: Dino Dimitriadis
Cast: Nisrine Amine, Deborah Galanos, Antony Makhlouf, Johnny Nasser
Images by Robert Catto

Theatre review
Danny is compliant and cheerful, as he lends a hand to his sister Josephine, who is causing a frenzy at home, preparing for her son’s christening. They are modern day Lebanese-Australians, very much a part of mainstream contemporary life, but not without their own traditions, as is common amongst minority groups. In James Elazzi’s Lady Tabouli, we celebrate the uniqueness of that cultural heritage, but together with everything good that contributes to the diverse tapestry defining our experience of identity on this land, comes a regressiveness determined to oppress the same people who wish to preserve those values.

As the hour draws close for the big event, in the midst of a lot of spirited hullabaloo, Danny decides to come out of the closet. The incongruity of sensibilities in Lady Tabouli, of a man revealing his true self whilst his family attempts to enact the most symbolic of ceremonies, forces us to acknowledge the complexities of our multiculturalism, especially in terms of LGBTQI issues, and how Australia must look beyond legislation to address the prejudice inherent in so much of our cultural practice. Gayness may no longer be illegal, but in so much of Australian society, gay people continue to be shunned.

Elazzi’s writing is powerful and passionate. Its incisive honesty provides an urgency that grips us, having us invested in the family’s story, regardless of where we stand in relation to its arguments. An abrupt conclusion however, suggests that more could be explored, even if we do appreciate the ambiguity pertaining to Danny’s subsequent developments. Directed by Dino Dimitriadis, the work is mesmerising when emotions run high. Early scenes are appropriately manic, but its humour never really takes flight. When things turn serious is when the magic happens. There is a depth to the way its characters and narrative are presented that absolutely captivates, alongside a sorrow that sings with disarming authenticity, of rejection and of loss.

That melancholy is exhaustively manufactured by the formidable partnership of Benjamin Brockman’s lights and Ben Pierpoint’s sounds, both elements hellbent on having our emotions respond with intense empathy. The show begins in the kitchen, depicted by production designer Jonathan Hindmarsh with middle class respectability, prosperous but ordinary, that transforms into the proverbial good room, where a more idiosyncratic notion of selfhood can be expressed.

Actor Antony Makhlouf is a compelling Danny, accurate in his portrayal of frustrated despondency, for a young man caught between two worlds. His mother is played by Deborah Galanos, a big presence bringing resonance to themes of piety and control, in a story about emancipation and freedom. Josephine the overbearing sister, is made scintillating by an exuberant Nisrine Amine, and Johnny Nasser is wonderfully nuanced in dual roles, adding intriguing texture to the show.

We have always tried to exercise control over nature, whether using commerce as a form of logic to plunder earthly resources, or to obliterate the most beautiful of human connections in the name of religion. We constantly position ourselves above, interpreting our variety of intelligence as solution for what we deem to be chaos in the world. More than ever before, we can see clearly that rather than being able to achieve order, what we do best is destruction. In pessimistic times, it is hard to talk about growth and progress, but our capacity for evil becomes painfully comprehensible.

www.riversideparramatta.com.au/NTofP