Review: Artslab: Here We Are Again! (Shopfront Arts Co-op)

Venue: 107 (Redfern NSW), Nov 23 – 27, 2022
Images by Clare Hawley

Dalo Chips and Imli Chutney
Playwright/Director: Varuna Naicker
Cast: Karina Bracken, Madhullika Singh, Veena Sudarshan

Unkissed
Playwright/Director/Cast: Sarah Carroll

Theatre review

Piyal is in love with a married man, and trying to get her Fiji Indian family to understand her situation is challenging. Even though they live in Australia, where individuals enjoy greater rights and freedoms, Piyal’s respect for her own traditions means that she is unable to disregard what her family thinks. Dalo Chips and Imli Chutney by Varuna Naicker explores the tensions between cultures, from the perspective of those who live in the middle of conflicting values.

Naicker’s writing is well observed, insightful not only with the themes concerned, but also the emotions that emerge from having to navigate those quandaries. Three generations of women in the household are performed by Karina Bracken, Madhullika Singh and Veena Sudarshan, who bring integrity, along with intensity, to the story. A greater appreciation for the humour that inevitably arises from dilemmas of this nature, would make for a more engaging experience, but the message being conveyed remains important.

Unkissed is a one-woman show created by Sarah Carroll, based on the simple notion that the 24-year-old artist has yet to experience her first kiss. It begins as a parody of a PowerPoint presentation, demonstrating the extent to which Carroll researches on the subject, and subsequently escalates into something altogether more surreal and extravagant. The artist’s presence is strong, with an effortless capacity to hold our attention. The writing is cleverly structured, but not always substantial. There is a bravery in her performance style that could be applied to the text, for a more incisive look into the minds of the post-millennial generation.

Lighting design by Justin Phan for both shows, are ambitious and stirring, effective at providing enhancement to atmosphere, as required by the respective plot trajectories. Sound by Prema Yin for Dalo Chips and Imli Chutney is quietly sentimental, adding a sensual richness to the story.

Carroll and Naicker are both young women, going through all the normal things young women do, with the additional pursuit of making art. Art presents a unique opportunity for our young to find their place in the world. It takes a person out of themselves, making them find ways to care for others, in a mode of social communication that always holds one responsible, for what one releases unto the world. Artists are a species that interrogate deeper, and more persistently. It is a responsibility that must never be taken lightly.

www.shopfront.org.au

Review: The Dazzle (Meraki Arts Bar)

Venue: Meraki Arts Bar (Darlinghurst NSW), Nov 17 – Dec 3, 2022
Playwright: Richard Greenberg
Director:
Jane Angharad
Cast: Steve Corner, Alec Ebert, Meg Hyeronimus
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review

The Collyer brothers of New York City gained infamy a century ago, for their obsessive hoarding and other generally bizarre ways. Richard Greenberg’s The Dazzle explores their life together in a Harlem brownstone home, for a portrait of two grown men, trapped in a peculiar world, only partly of their own doing. The intriguing characters are depicted by Greenberg beyond the narrow confines of their public personae; Homer and Langley are given depth, dimension and indeed humanity, along with marvellous wit, in a play that absolutely endears and captivates.

Jane Angharad’s direction of the piece ensures that the strange relationships and personalities of The Dazzle, resonate with authenticity. She keeps us fascinated and increasingly invested, by finding ways to make elements of the narrative feel recognisable and intimate, even though most are unlikely to have experienced anything like it.

Costumes by Aloma Barnes render for the production an accurate sense of time and place, whilst adding some commendable visual flair, but set design for the Collyer home requires greater dilapidation, to better convey the severity of their situation. Catherine Mai’s lights and Johnny Yang’s sounds, work intricately with oscillations between comedy and drama in the sumptuous text, to build emotional intensity, for a journey that takes us somewhere unexpectedly rich with emotion.

Actor Steve Corner is brilliant in the role of Homer, with an immense range that incisively conveys the complexities involved, in this tale of extreme eccentricity. The textured flamboyance he brings to the show, is simply wonderful. Langley is played by Alec Ebert, who brings an unneeded restraint to the stage, but whose tender approach prevents us from perceiving the brothers as mere caricature. Meg Hyeronimus is convincing as Milly, the only person to have entered the Collyer’s private sanctuary in The Dazzle. Hyeronimus revels in the radical transformation that occurs for her part, able to represent both incarnations of Milly with equal conviction.

We are fascinated by stories like the Collyers’ or the Beales’ (of the legendary Grey Gardens documentary film) not because the people concerned might feel alien, but because we sense the closeness in proximity between their outrageous existences and our normal lives. It is a thin line that separates, and a precarious psychological boundary, that keeps us from falling off the deep end. There may be truth in declaring that normal is only ever a matter of subjectivity,  but misery is a state of being that refuses to be denied.

www.meraki.sydney

Review: The Tempest (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Nov 15 – Dec 17, 2022
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Peter Carroll, Jason Chong, Chantelle Jamieson, Mandy McElhinney, Shiv Palekar, Richard Roxburgh, Claude Scott-Mitchell, Guy Simon, Aaron Tsindos, Megan Wilding, Susie Youssef
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review

Prospero’s story of exile, in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, can easily serve as parable, for the history of white immigration to these lands we now call Australia. There is a stark and perverse contrast however, between Propsero’s determination to seek revenge, and white Australia’s general deference to those who had discarded them. What we do find analogous, is the cruel treatment of antecedent inhabitants. Caliban was born on the island, long before Prospero’s recent arrival, yet is being enslaved by the latter, who seems only able to think of himself as superior and entitled.

In Kip Williams’ abridged and delicately modernised version, we feel the air inside the auditorium seizing up, whenever Caliban takes centre stage to present his view of the world, and indeed to plead for justice. Performed by Birripi/Worimi actor Guy Simon, Caliban becomes the only character we can truly care about. Simon raises the stakes so high, with a portrayal unforgettable for its blistering intensity and scathing honesty, that we leave The Tempest with an entirely reinvented understanding of this otherwise archaic text.

Richard Roxburgh plays Prospero with an elegant strength, understated but replete with impressive gravity. The dainty but powerful spirit, Ariel is beautifully depicted by Peter Carroll, who brings grace and humour, along with unflappable conviction, to deliver a crucial element of ethereality to the show.

Set design by Jacob Nash is deceptively simple, with a generously sized boulder anchored in the middle of a revolve. The gradual revelations of special effects over the course of the production, demonstrates a deep knowledge of the relationship between audience and imagery. Likewise, with Nick Schlieper’s magical lights, we are expertly coaxed into believing that storms are raging and fairies are taking flight, when in fact it is all just smoke and mirrors. Elizabeth Gadsby’s costumes offer a rustic interpretation that appeals to those with a taste, for something more realistic and unassuming. Sound and music by Stefan Gregory construct a fantasy realm, into which we can luxuriate in Shakespeare’s brand of supernatural drama.

It is liberating to see Prospero in a new light, not only as victim, but also aggressor, after knowing The Tempest for a lifetime. The truth that hides in plain sight, implies a nefarious collusion that must be present, in order that lies may take hold. Regarding the rightful custodians of these lands, and those far and wide, entire canons are awaiting re-examination, should our claims of wishing to be democratic and just, are of any veracity.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Tongue Tied (Kings Cross Theatre)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Nov 11 – 26, 2022
Playwright: Clare Hennessy
Director:
Sarah Hadley
Cast: Di Adams, Clementine Anderson, Kieran Clancy-Lowe, Michael C Howlett, Madelaine Osbourne, Eloise Snape
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review

Rising star journalist Mia is investigating a case of sexual assault, at a Sydney beverage company. The bigwig accused of the crime refuses to speak, and has sent publicist Parker to ameliorate. Clare Hennessy’s Tongue Tied is concerned with the ethics around reportage, especially as they pertain to the privacy rights of victims. We also examine the nature of sex crimes from the perspective of the survivor, and the complications that are no doubt involved, in how one chooses to move forward from a devastating incident.

There is charming dialogue to be found in Hennessy’s writing, but the intentional ambiguities built into the narrative of Tongue Tied tends to form a detraction, from the dramatic tensions that should ensue. Although there is an abundance of care for its flawed characters that prevents them from turning caricature, it is likely that audiences would find none of them particularly appealing. In a play with nobody to root for, we are left cold. Direction by Sarah Hadley bears a tepidity that makes things feel overly distanced, for a discussion that should clearly feel much more passionate.

Actor Eloise Snape is accomplished in her portrayal of Mia, with a knack for naturalist performance that helps a great deal, to make things believable. Kieran Clancy-Lowe is less convincing as Millennial corporate animal Parker, oddly innocent in his portrayal of wilful ignorance of rape culture, in this post-MeToo era.

Production design by Cris Baldwin is rendered in the most literal manner, featuring an oversized television screen that stays on stage for the entirety, after being used only for several commencing seconds of the show. Lights by Aron Murray and sound by Johnny Yang, offer effective assistance to scene transitions, that provide a sense of tautness to the production’s overall pace. At just over an hour, Tongue Tied does not overstay its welcome, and when it concludes, little is left to linger.

www.kingsxtheatre.com

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

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

Theatre review

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: One Hour No Oil (Kings Cross Theatre)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Oct 26 – Nov 6, 2022
Playwright: Kenneth Moraleda, Jordan Shea
Director:
Kenneth Moraleda
Cast: John Gomez Goodway, Shaw Cameron. Alec Steedman
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review

Massage therapist Bhing was on his way to making a better life as an immigrant in Perth, when troublemaker Scott walked through the doors of Golden Touch, to seek help with various pains and ailments. When different worlds collide, in Kenneth Moraleda and Jordan Shea’s One Hour No Oil, it is the collapse of the very barriers of segregation, that makes visible the many social ills entrenched in our Australian lives. Things invisible and overlooked, yet hugely consequential, are unveiled in a piece of writing ostensibly describing an unlikely friendship. Meticulously considered, cleverly constructed and deeply felt, One Hour No Oil explores toxic masculinity, racism and poverty, amongst many other things, for a portrait of contemporary life that is both familiar yet profoundly revelatory.

Direction by Moraleda ensures every sociopolitical point is made with power and clarity, but unwavering focus is placed squarely on the devastating drama between two very dissimilar men, to deliver a riveting experience that proves rewarding on many levels. Set design by Soham Apte, along with costumes by Jessi Seymour, accurately provide all the visual cues necessary, for us to know as if instinctively, where the story takes place, and who these people are, whilst allowing for a performance space that imposes no limitations on its cast. Lights by Saint Clair, offer great enhancement to the emotional intensity of the piece. Music by Zac Saric and Alec Steedman are a crucial element that works surreptitiously, to guide our evolving temperament and sensibility through the journey. Steedman plays multiple instruments live, adding beautiful texture to a presentation memorable, for its complex melange of influences and inspirations.

Actor John Gomez Goodway is completely believable as Bhing, and nothing less than heart-breaking, in his depiction of a man surviving the tremendous challenges of an unjust world. It is a wonderfully surprising yet authentic performance, compelling and entertaining, but with a consistent emphasis on integrity for both the art form and for the character being celebrated. Shaw Cameron is a marvellously effervescent presence, able to prevent the dark role of Scott from turning dreary or hateful. There is impressive vulnerability in his rendering of a difficult personality, and an excellent sense of rigour that offers valuable detail to our understanding of the dynamics being articulated.

It is useful to think of that which oppresses, as being not any individual, but a system. It is important that we learn to appreciate the sentiment, as articulated by the poet Emma Lazarus, “until we are all free, we are none of us free.” Hard as it might be, we need to be able to see that our neighbours too need emancipation, much as their conditions appear to be different from our own. Indeed we must acknowledge that this system privileges some over others, but it is an illusion that even those who benefit the most, are receiving what they truly need for good and meaningful lives. Nobody gets away scot-free from something so diseased and pervasive, but until communities shift their values, progress shall remain elusive.

www.kwento.com.au

Review: Let The Right One In (Darlinghurst Theatre Company)

Venue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Oct 7 – Nov 20, 2022
Playwright: Jack Thorne (based on the novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist)
Director: Alexander Berlage
Cast: Stephen Anderton, Callan Colley, Will McDonald, Eddie Orton, Josh Price, Monica Sayers, Sebrina Thornton-Walker, Matthew Whittet
Images by Robert Catto

Theatre review
Things are going terribly for 12-year-old Oskar. His mother is a raging alcoholic, and the bullying at school is interminable. Meeting Eli late one night, may seem to indicate a change for the better, but falling in love with a vampire comes with major drawbacks. Jack Thorne’s adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel and film Let the Right One In, attempts to transpose an unorthodox story of young love to the stage, complete with all the hallmark features of a genre piece.

Under the directorship of Alexander Berlage, Let the Right One In becomes an unexpected concoction of romantic-comedy with horror elements. There are moments of gore to be sure, but a quirky sense of humour dominates the staging. It is a compelling experience, enjoyable especially for its unusual tackling of the supernatural, although the confluence of humour with revulsion, seems a tricky one to resolve.

Trent Suidgeest’s sensual lighting design is highly attractive, but can sometimes seem at odds with the comedy being performed. There are competing tones being presented, each one detracting from the other. Daniel Herten’s sound and music too, work consistently to build tension for something resolutely scary, seemingly unaware of the show’s strong tendencies toward the funny. Isabel Hudson’s set design is appropriately cold and stark, depicting somewhere appearing a cross between hospitals and abattoirs, with shiny surfaces that keeps the chill in our spines. Hudson’s costumes are evocative of Sweden, from whence the tale originates, but the main characters never really look persuasively like children.

Actor Will McDonald is very endearing as Oskar, perfectly conveying the innocence of his character, whilst offering a rich interpretation, of someone going through something impossibly intense. The challenging task of portraying Eli, who is both a small child, and a phantasm over a century old, is taken on by Sebrina Thornton-Walker, who brings a satisfying sense of macabre physicality to the role. Supporting players, Stephen Anderton, Callan Colley, Eddie Orton, Josh Price and Monica Sayers, are spirited in their embrace of the show’s absurdist dimensions, each one leaving a strong impression with the idiosyncrasies they are able to find, for the various personalities that we meet.

It is a strange phenomenon, that people should pay good money to make themselves feel scared. It is perhaps an opportunity for us to release, that which has to be psychologically suppressed, in order that we may face daily life with an attitude of normalcy. The possibilities of afterlife are hard to discount, for the unknown has the ability to take on infinite configurations, and the terror of death makes our imagination of that aftermath go to the darkest. Hence it is easy to believe the worst, but only in chosen occasions can we indulge in those frightful meditations.

www.darlinghursttheatre.com

Review: Mother May We (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Darlinghurst NSW), Sep 27 – Oct 8, 2022
Playwright: Mel Ree
Cast: Mel Ree
Images by DefinitelyDefne Photography

Theatre review
Mel Ree performs her own writing in Mother May We, a meditation on identity, heritage, aspiration and liberation. A vulnerable collection of thoughts, scant with autobiographical details, placing emphasis instead on the translation of deep personal feelings, into words. It is the essence of Ree’s being that emerges, from these poetic scenes, retaining for the subject a certain mystique, but leaving us a strong impression about the riveting personality we encounter.

With magnetism seeping from every pore, Ree makes an hour in her presence feel a fleeting moment. She charms and delights, with masterful control over her physicality, along with the silkiest of voices, Ree effortlessly but powerfully keeps us under her spell for the entire duration. Her presentation oscillates between humour, poignancy and eccentricity, serving up testimony from the perspective of a queer woman-of-colour on these colonised lands.

Whether flippant or sombre, the tone of Mother May We constantly morphs, but what it reveals is always and only the truth. In allowing that truth to occupy space so absolutely, Ree stands for something radical. There is a transformation that she synthesises, that we are made to be a part of, when we open ourselves to the autonomy of her storytelling. The audience is forever changed, as a result of encountering a soul, so insistent and so defiant, in the assertion of something that can only be described as the artist’s sense of authenticity.

The poetry is enhanced by an intricate sound design by Steven Khoury, who twists and turns our sensibilities, so that we connect with the various dimensions of quirkiness, that Ree brings forth so gregariously. Lights by Frankie Clarke and video by Nema Adel, mesmerise and titillate, much like the star of the show, full of surprises, and always with an underlying but distinct air of glamour.

It is perhaps the job of feminism, to wrestle with uncertainty and that which is undecided, because convenient answers have proven to only serve hegemonies that we know to rile against. In Mother May We things seem to be in flux, seeking for destinations that we discover ultimately to be further transitory points. It is our idiosyncrasies, that we should learn to honour. To cultivate a capacity for individuality in our humanity, and to resist that which demands uniformity and conformity. Feminism holds us at every inevitable occasion of chaos, when we are able to get to the truth, and it teaches us to be apprehensive, when things fall too neatly into tidy little boxes.

www.griffintheatre.com.au

Review: Overflow (Darlinghurst Theatre Company)

Venue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Sep 9 – 25, 2022
Playwright: Travis Alabanza
Director: Dino Dimitriadis
Cast: Janet Anderson
Images by Robert Catto

Theatre review
For an hour in a nightclub toilet, Rosie shares her thoughts, reflections and memories. It is perhaps not surprising that she has so much on her mind, being a young trans woman, who has had to navigate everything in life with extraordinary dexterity. It is perhaps not surprising also, that we find Rosie stuck in a public loo, hiding from the constant presence of threatening forces on the outside, as trans people remain some of the world’s most persecuted.

Travis Alabanza’s Overflow is a passionate one-person show, very much of our times. Trans people have always existed, but with the confluence of activism and technology, we find ourselves with a new voice, discovering access that had hitherto been unavailable. Alabanza’s verbosity represents floodgates being finally open, and in Overflow, they talk exhaustively about injustice and struggle, as well as emancipation and inspiration. It is the perspective of a new generation of transness, one filled with jubilation and with anguish.

Alabanza’s keen observations and irrefutable candour, are the ingredients to Overflow‘s immense power and intensity. There is a haphazardness to the work, as an inevitable result of the conceit, involving a person in the midst of trauma trying to find coherence, but under the directorship of Dino Dimitriadis, those fragmentations turn poetic, for a theatrical experience that is perhaps unexpectedly beautiful, in its expressions of frustration, fear and fury.

Janet Anderson plays Rosie with exceptional commitment, and irrepressible sass. It is an exhilarating performance, highly convincing with her depiction of challenges faced by trans communities everywhere. Delivering poignancy at select key moments, Anderson’s vulnerability is perhaps slightly too sparingly mobilised, although the intention of portraying Rosie as self-possessed and spirited, is certainly sagacious.

Flawlessly designed, this production of Overflow is an unequivocal treat for the eyes and ears. Set design by Dimitriades uses the claustrophobic scenario to create a tight enclosure, so that our attention is always kept sharply in focus. Costuming by Jamaica Moana conveys the precise era of where we are right now, along with Rosie’s brassy youthfulness. Lights by Benjamin Brockman are an astonishing pleasure, invoking the exuberance of club life, along with its dangerous and foreboding sides, to connect with our complex and contradictory instinctual responses. Sound and music are precisely and imaginatively rendered by Danni A. Espositol, who works intricately with Alabanza’s text, to amplify our emotional reactions for every detail of the play, in an exploration of humanity at its fundamental levels.

With new freedoms, come new forms of retaliation. In some ways, trans and gender non-conforming people have in recent years, found more room to be, but it seems our adversaries are concurrently triggered, and emboldened. Where we had previously felt the palpability of potential threat, that lurking sense of menace has turned into substantiated violence, most notably in places like North America, where more than one trans person is being murdered every day, keeping in mind that we are only an estimated 1.5% of the general population.

It is a legitimate worry that our numbers are too small, to be able to change enough hearts and minds, for the revolution to be completed. The creativity and fortitude we possess however, allow us to reach not one person at a time, but the masses, on the stage and on infinite internet screens. We are the wisest and the most captivating, and in Overflow it is clear that our message of defiance is not to be denied.

www.darlinghursttheatre.com

Review: A Raisin In The Sun (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Aug 27 – Oct 15, 2022
Playwright: Lorraine Hansberry
Director: Wesley Enoch
Cast: Nancy Denis, Bert LaBonté, Angela Mahlatjie, Zahra Newman, Gayle Samuels, Leinad Walker, Jacob Warner, Adolphus Waylee, Ibrahima Yade
Images by Joseph Mayers

Theatre review

It was 1959 when Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun debuted on Broadway, telling the story of a Chicago family living in poverty. Lena Younger is waiting for an insurance cheque to arrive, upon the death of her husband. Her son Walter is determined to invest that money in a liquor business, to which Lena has religious objections. The drama is constructed around the $10,000 and how this Black family had needed to lose the head of their household, before they could have a real chance at life.

Appearing between the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, Hansberry’s ground-breaking play was the first by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. With A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry also became the first African-American writer to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, so it is no exaggeration, to state that the cultural significance of the work is truly immense.

63 years on, there is little in the play that has diminished in relevance. In fact, with the exacerbation of wealth gaps everywhere, Hansberry’s observations on economic disparities, are as pertinent as they had always been. Her concerns about racial injustice, at our time of renewed vigour for social activism, retain their resonance. Hansberry’s depictions of women within patriarchal systems, were already modern and sophisticated during her times, so feminists too will have the rare pleasure of seeing intelligent and authentic women in a mid-century play, created many years before the second wave.

Director Wesley Enoch honours beautifully Hansberry’s vision, in a production that feels perfectly appropriate, in its choices to be faithful to an original text, that demonstrates itself to require little to no updating. Enoch ensures that all of the politics in A Raisin in the Sun is accentuated, whilst its humour and drama are harnessed robustly, to deliver a show that proves consistently riveting, involving characters that are as spirited as they are enchanting.

Brimming with charisma is Gayle Samuels, who plays Lena, an older woman who knows the limitations of her only son, but who also understands what he needs, to be able to hold his head high, as a Black man in the United States of America. Samuels’ is a vivacious performance, that conveys both the intensity of emotions for a person in Lena’s position, and the stoicism needed to deal with the challenging circumstances she is given. 

In the role of Walter is Bert LaBonté who brings both dignity and fallibility, to a tale of systemic oppression. Equally vulnerable and compelling, as Walter’s wife Ruth, is Zahra Newman whose determination to fortify a role that can easily be misinterpreted as subservient, is admirably judicious. Walter’s 20-year-old sister Beneatha is performed with astute ebullience, and excellent comic timing, by Angela Mahlatjie, another magnetic presence on a stage filled with marvellous actors. Supporting parts feature Nancy Denis, Leinad Walker, Jacob Warner, Adolphus Waylee and Ibrahim Yade; a cast memorable for their dedication and dazzling talent.

Designed by Mel Page, the presentation is suitably traditional in style, having us travel back decades, only to come to the realisation that so little has changed. Verity Hampson’s lights are similarly circumspect, totally devoid of gimmickry, for a taste of a classic theatre form that can still do so much for hearts and minds. Sound by Brendon Boney is subtly rendered, except during scene changes, in which we are given the opportunity to delight in music reminiscent of twentieth-century North America, the kind of which is underpinned by their African diaspora.

It is not often that we immediately think of slavery as a part of Australian colonial history, but the dispossession and displacement of Black peoples on this land, are at least as traumatic, and are certainly as consequential, as those suffered in other places. We do however, have a deficiency in our language, when discussing the nature of prejudice and violations on this land, having experienced colonisation in ways that are different from the United States, where the legacy of slavery has steered so much of discourse in their activism spaces.

It would appear that the way in which white people have pillaged this land, have over the centuries, manifested in modes of obfuscation, and that the (misguided) idea that we were not built on slavery, means that more explicit avenues of castigation, are not available to those seeking redress today. The atrocities are however utterly real, and learning from the fighters who have come before, even those overseas like Lorraine Hansberry, will always be an invaluable part of our strategies in decolonising this so-called Australia.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au