Review: The Apologists (Unlikely Productions)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jan 20 – 31, 2021
Playwrights: Lucinda Burnett (New Universe), Cordelia O’Neill (Seven, The Sweetest Hour), Iskandar Sharazuddin (Excuses)
Director: Jane Moriarty
Cast: Gabrielle Scawthorn
Images by Steve Gregson

Theatre review
Comprised of three monologues, each one utilising the concept of an apology as starting point, the appropriately titled The Apologists deals not only with personal turmoil that accompanies any event that necessitates an admission of guilt, but also the public aspects to which these difficult situations pertain.

In Iskandar Sharazuddin’s Excuses, it is the Chief Executive of the UK’s National Health Service, who takes a very public tumble. Cordelia O’Neill’s Seven, The Sweetest Hour involves a social media influencer whose self-obsession leads to an innocent victim paying the ultimate price. New Universe by Lucinda Burnett talks about the revelations of an NGO overlooking sexual abuse taking place where aid is meant to be implemented.

Although relatively short in length, each of the pieces are intricately conceived, and exhaustively explored. They involve high stakes and familiar situations, delving deep into characters beyond the pithy news headlines their stories would no doubt inspire, on millions of mobile scrolls.

The incomparable Gabrielle Scawthorn performs three separate roles, eschewing all things superficial, so that we can access the heart of each matter expeditiously. The unambiguity of her delivery style, ensures that our immersion into these narratives are gripping and powerful. Scawthorn’s ability to elicit empathy for the personalities we meet, is quite extraordinary, and a welcome antidote for these times of pervasive and succumbing apathy.

Jane Moriarty’s direction is crisp and concise, always able to locate a purpose, and drive home a point for each moment of the show. Lights by Saul Valiunas and sound by Rob Donnelly-Jackson, offer uncomplicated solutions to enhance dramatic effect at crucial junctures, of this otherwise barebones presentation.

It is easy to say sorry, and get away with it. We see organisations, big and small, express remorse over countless things on countless occasions, but rarely do we see any structural changes that will ensure improvements. Too often we chastise individuals, wanting them to be served their just desserts, but in the process, we neglect the machinations of systems that have facilitated these misdeeds. History is then allowed to keep repeating, which reduces apologies to being essentially meaningless.

www.unlikelyproductions.co.uk

Review: Dorr-e Dari: A Poetic Crash Course In The Language Of Love (PYT Fairfield)

Venue: Carriageworks (Eveleigh NSW), Jan 20 – 24, 2021
Director: Paul Dwyer
Cast: Mahdi Mohammadi, Bibi Goul Mossavi, Jawad Yaqoubi
Images by Anna Kucera

Theatre review
In Dorr-e Dari, the aspect of Sydney we call a cultural melting pot, comes to life, as artists with roots in Kabul, Tehran and Quetta collaborate to present a work based on Persian poetry. Subtitled “A Poetic Crash Course in the Language of Love” we are treated to philosophical perspectives on affairs of the heart, not restricted to the romantic, but relevant to all tender parts of humanity. Many of the words are foreign, but the sentiments of Dorr-e Dari feel to be wholly universal.

On stage for the entirety, a trio of artists Mahdi Mohammadi, Bibi Goul Mossavi and Jawad Yaqoubi present a bilingual show that often deals with tradition, but tailored to a modern Australian sensibility. With an English-speaking audience in mind, they find ways to cross bridges, and formulate translations, so that through these ancient writings, a new cohesion can be forged, especially between tribes that seem, on the surface, to be incompatible. It appears that to locate commonalities in the details of how our emotions work, is to create a sense of peace in how we experience and understand the world. For a work about love, it is indeed the nature of our shared existence on this one land that becomes fundamental.

Directed by Paul Dwyer, the show is unexpectedly beautiful in its somewhat fragmented form. Sequences can be naturalistic or theatrical, conversational or ceremonial, spiritual or didactical; there are dance sequences, comedic anecdotes, and videophone footage (live and pre-recorded), Dorr-e Dari is unconstrained in the ways it wishes to communicate. The tone is however, pleasantly cohesive, with all three performers proving to be highly likeable, and very welcoming presences, even if slightly unseasoned by conventional standards.

As we become used to the notion of having to bring diversity to all our social and professional endeavours, we gain a new appreciation for a post-assimilation world, where cultures of colonisation should no longer dominate our conversations. It is of great significance that Dorr-e Dari commences with a welcome to country by Indigenous elder, Aunty Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor (who also contributes her own love poem). As a people with roots from all over the planet, the only point of convergence for Australians, should we ever feel the need to have only one, must always have a First Nations emphasis. This is the most rational, and the most just, way for us to advance as a nation. The future of Australia needs to provide dignity for all, not only for the most barbaric.

www.pyt.com.au

Review: Maureen: Harbinger Of Death (Seymour Centre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Jan 15 – 23, 2021
Playwright: Jonny Hawkins
Director: Nell Ranney
Cast: Jonny Hawkins
Images by Yaya Stempler

Theatre review
In the prologue, we learn that some of Jonny Hawkins’ best friends are old ladies. It is a somewhat strange declaration to make, but the truth is that very few young Australians, can say that they spend much time at all with the elderly. As a colonised nation, we routinely ignore the old. Youth is money, and money is everything, in this Western style civilisation we all have to live. Thank heavens then, that Hawkins has created a play that shifts our focus, making us look intently at a woman in her glorious eighties. Maureen: Harbinger Of Death may not be an entirely true story, but none of it ever feels less than real.

This one-person show involves Hawkins themself performing as Maureen, sat permanently in a chair, never tiring of a nice, long chat. Her advanced years lead her to believe that she has the ability to foreshadow the death of friends, for she has seen them depart one by one. The writing is witty, extremely warm and often very poignant. Direction by Nell Ranney is extraordinarily elegant, for an appropriately restrained production featuring a larger than life character. Lights by Nick Schlieper and sound design by Steve Toulmin, are quietly resolved but always just right. Isabel Hudson’s work on set and costume is delicately considered, and a visual delight.

As performer, Hawkins is remarkable. They inhabit and convey wonderfully, the luminous essence of Maureen, a woman any audience will find instantly loveable. Their generosity of spirit offers a bridge, one that invites us to regard the octogenarian in the same way. Hawkins’ sharp comedic sense ensures that we are riveted, and the ease with which they command the stage, is quite a marvel to observe.

Maureen: Harbinger Of Death is a dignified portrait, of a person otherwise overlooked and forgotten. All of us are valuable cogs of the same machine, yet only a few at the top are ever celebrated. Our way of life requires that each must give till it hurts, but how we are rewarded for the same pain, is certainly unequal and unjust. So many are chewed up and spat out; so many are given use-by dates, and mercilessly abandoned thereafter. By contrast, many of our minority cultures revere the elderly. If only we knew to make better choices.

www.nellranney.com.au

Review: Sunshine Super Girl (Performing Lines)

Venue: Sydney Town Hall (Sydney NSW), Jan 8 – 17, 2021
Playwright: Andrea James
Director: Andrea James
Cast: Luke Carroll, Jax Compton, Tuuli Narkle, Katina Olsen, Kyle Shilling
Images by Yaya Stempler

Theatre review
Living legend Evonne Goolagong ruled tennis through the 1970s, a remarkable feat by anyone’s standards, but her successes as a young Aboriginal woman can never be underemphasised. Systemic forces put in place through all these years of colonisation, means that any instances of excellence by the Indigenous population of our land, represents a defiant tenacity, whether or not the individual chooses to identify along political lines. In Andrea James’ Sunshine Super Girl, our heroine thinks of herself as apolitical, however there is no mistaking her achievements as anything but an immense source of pride and inspiration for Australians of all stripes.

Written and directed by James, the work is a captivating study of not just the sporting icon, but also the environment in which all Indigenous women have to endure. Sunshine Super Girl‘s discussions of gender and race, although handled with a lightness of touch, does not shy away from the hard realities that women of colour deal with every day and everywhere. The actual narrative of Goolagong’s glory years is uncomplicated and rarely overtly dramatic, but James’ meticulous direction, along with marvelous choreography by Katina Olsen and Vicki Van Hout, work in collaboration to deliver a rich and soulful creation, that many will find genuinely moving.

There is a tender sincerity to the production that makes its 90-minute duration a terrific experience. Music and sound by Gail Priest are intricate and sensitive, while lights by Karen Norris and projections by Mic Gruchy help us reach emotional depths beyond that which dialogue can provide. Set and costumes by Romanie Harper and Melanie Liertz convey contextual information with great efficiency, able to manufacture a sophisticated aesthetic that is elegant, authentic and very pleasing to the eye.

Leading lady Tuuli Narkle is a charismatic and truthful presence, who impresses with the thoroughness of her reflections, and the precision with which she executes her creative ideas. As a young Goolagong, Narkle is confident, nuanced and simply brilliant. The supporting cast comprises Luke Carroll, Jax Compton, Katina Olsen, Kyle Shilling, a formidable team beautifully cohesive at every turn, yet each performer is able to demonstrate distinct strengths that appeal to the audience in varied ways.

The importance of success stories and role models for minority communities, are often overlooked. Without sufficient examples of accomplishments by people like us, it is easy to think that everything is out of reach. On the other hand, these extraordinary personalities draw attention to the irregularity of people like us making it big. We must place attention on structural mechanisms that are hindrances for particular groups. This often means that dominant cultures have to consciously cede power, before parity can ever have a chance to be attained. Not many of us can be Evonne Goolagong, and we should not have to be exceptional in order to walk this earth with joy and dignity.

www.performinglines.org.au

Review: Superheroes (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Sep 25 – Oct 31, 2020
Playwright: Mark Rogers
Director: Shari Sebbens
Cast: Gemma Bird Matheson, Claire Lovering, Aleks Mikic
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Superheroes by Mark Rogers tells the stories of two women at opposite ends of the world; Jana is near Sarajevo, and Emily is near Sydney. Their lives are different as can be, but on this one stage, we cannot help but draw parallels, such is the nature of being human. We create meaning from things we observe, and make distinct each personality whom we encounter, focussing quite naturally on how they are separate, but in this strange juxtaposition of experiences within Rogers’ text, we are additionally compelled to find ways to see ourselves as a unified species. We examine microcosms in war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina and a more privileged Australia, finding ways to understand the people that we are, wondering if vastly different environments mean that we are necessarily disparate, or essentially one and the same.

Rogers’ scintillating writing is brought to life by Shari Sebbens’ dynamic and vigorous direction. The show brims with passion, offering emotional intensity from start to end. Claire Lovering is exquisite as Jana, delivering a deeply considered and precise portrayal, of a woman unable to emerge from the trauma and conflict that has shaped her community. It is an unequivocally profound performance by Lovering. Emily is played by Gemma Bird Matheson, memorable for her exuberance and an enjoyable sense of rawness she introduces to the production. It is an extremely likeable presence that she brings. Aleks Mikic takes on separate roles as male counterparts to the leads, succeeding on both counts, with his uncanny ability to convey authenticity whilst dispensing generous measures of natural charm.

Also noteworthy is lighting design by Verity Hampson, efficient yet refined as it helps us navigate movements in time. Production designer Renée Mulder exercises restrained elegance for her work on costumes and set. David Bergman’s sound and music are dramatic but unobtrusive, surreptitiously manipulating our emotional responses as the plot unfolds.

Even in the most ordinary of lives, courage is paramount. Even the most cowardly, have known moments of bravery in order that they may survive. In these challenging times of 2020, we are startled to realise the strength and resilience each can possess. The most noble of us however, have the capacity not only to stay afloat, but to keep making the best choices for the sake of all, when self-preservation seems the order of the day.

www.griffintheatre.com.au

Review: Wonnangatta (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Sep 21 – Oct 31, 2020
Playwright: Angus Cerini
Director: Jessica Arthur
Cast: Wayne Blair, Hugo Weaving
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
We see in Angus Cerini’s Wonnangatta, two men in various states of distress, coming to grips with the murder of a friend. The story takes place in the remote Victorian Alps, one century ago, inevitably taking the familiar tone of the Australian gothic fable. Our obsession with the landscape, and the nature of our mateship, come to the fore as the characters wrestle with isolation, despair and terror. Cerini’s writing is remarkably visceral in quality, allowing for ample manifestations of mood in the theatrical form to activate various aspects of our imagination.

Production design by Jacob Nash is sparse but highly evocative, featuring a structure reminiscent of a meandering cliff, that works in conjunction with Nick Schlieper’s lights to convincingly shepherd us into the abyss of Wonnangatta‘s haunting realms. Music and sound by Stefan Gregory provide valuable demarcations that shift our perceptions of time, in accordance with the men’s increasing bewilderment.

Actors Wayne Blair and Hugo Weaving bring undeniable charisma and gravity to the experience, although multiple blunders with collisions of their dialogue prove distracting. Director Jessica Arthur introduces a gradual crescendo to tension levels that sustains our interest, and it becomes evident that the performance is at its most enjoyable when the duo invests in the kinetic poeticism of the writing. An emphasis on the narrative’s linearity can however, work against the strengths of the show. We want to indulge in the despondent beauty of its netherworld, but often find ourselves trying to pay attention to details that detract from its more ephemeral pleasures.

Stories about our forefathers tend to involve hardship, and in 2020, that resonance is certainly apparent. There is a constant sense of foreboding in Wonnangatta that relates so directly to our lives today, as though fear, misery and anxiety are the most fundamental features of our humanity. We are reminded that survival is what we have to do. For decades, many have lived with lofty ideals, thinking that the meaning of life relates to so much more, than keeping alive to welcome the morning. It is a humbling moment, one most of us could do well to appreciate.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Distorted (Fixed Foot Productions)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Mar 10 – 22, 2020
Playwright: Xavier Coy
Director: Richard Hilliar
Cast: Michael Arvithis, Xavier Coy, Emma Louise, Poppy Lynch, Lex Marinos, Tristan McKinnon, Kate Rutherford, Jack Walton, David Woodland, Sheree Zellner
Images by Becky Matthews

Theatre review
Xavier Coy’s Distorted comprises short episodes, involving ten main characters, all of whom are connected, and all of whom have less than joyful lives. They look like people from any Western city, who have struggles that look ordinary, yet none of which can be easily dealt with. Life is hard, by Coy’s estimation, but what he presents is perversely delightful. There is a veiled humour to the despondent scenarios being enacted, that feels like a bitter irony acknowledging that our complaints can only ever feel haughty when there are roofs over heads, and no shortage of food in bellies.

In Distorted, we observe the all-consuming nature of these personal problems, whilst forming a perspective that reveals these frustrations to be ultimately inconsequential and somewhat narcissistic. Director Richard Hilliar does an excellent job of depicting both the accuracy of these egocentric experiences, and a wider view that it all amounts to little. The show is captivating in every moment, with Hilliar’s knack for drama keeping us mesmerised.

Stage design by Hamish Elliot is gracefully rendered, and effective in facilitating the quick scene changes that happen throughout the duration. Jasmin Borsovsky’s lights too, help us instinctively navigate spacial transformations, as do Martin Gallagher’s sounds that work with our subconscious to make sense of the many abrupt shifts in time. A strong cast performs the piece, with each character believable and realistic. The team tells a cohesive story, remarkable with the even focus they provide so compellingly, to have us invest in every little detail that is being conveyed.

Most of the people in Distorted find the world a difficult place, but they do little to seek to change it. One of them spends considerable time in psychotherapy, where he tries to find ways to fix himself, even though the play gives no evidence of the young man suffering any illness. We have become conditioned to always think that it is the individual who needs improvement, that when things go wrong, we need to fix ourselves, without ever questioning if it is the external environment that requires interrogation. Happiness must come from within, but when we encounter anxiety and exasperation, we must not forget to transcend the self, and identify first, the structures we operate under that are determined to beat us down.

www.facebook.com/fixedfootproductions

Review: Cusp (ATYP)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Mar 11 – 28, 2020
Playwright: Mary Anne Butler
Director: Fraser Corfield
Cast: Stevie Jean, Josh McElroy, Nyasha Ogden
Images by Tracey Schramm

Theatre review
In a Northern Territory rural town, three young people are about to leave their teenage years behind. Unlike many of their counterparts in big cities, Elvis, Maddie and Rosie have no time to waste. Mary Anne Butler’s Cusp tackles the worlds of those who do not have the luxury to slowly figure things out. It is a story about class and poverty, an exploration into structures we have to operate under that are manifestly unjust and inadequate, yet are rarely questioned. At seventeen or eighteen, characters in the play have to deal with matters as severe as pregnancy and incarceration, with little support and guidance from those who should know better.

Butler’s scintillating dialogue keeps us engrossed in the personalities she introduces. Director Fraser Corfield brings sincerity and honesty to the play, creating a show with genuine resonances, even though its staging can at times feel static and visually repetitive. Lights by Jessie Davis and sound by Brad Fawcett are sensitively designed, for a remarkably elegant style of presentation.

Three impressive actors bring passion and conviction to their roles, all of them adept at having the audience spellbound. As Rosie, Nyasha Ogden is a captivating presence, warm and very believable as the Indigenous girl trying to reconcile wishes of her community with personal desires. Stevie Jean depicts Maddie’s loss of innocence with a charming boldness, effective in helping us contemplate how a very young woman can exercise her agency. A memorable Josh McElroy is detailed and delicate as Elvis, a familiar juvenile type with troubling anger issues.

The sentence “some people get better choices to choose from” is uttered twice in Cusp. There is overwhelming evidence that wealth inequality in Australia has risen to an unprecedented level, with the general population experiencing over half a decade of stagnating wages, while constant reports of GDP growth fool us into thinking that the country is being managed well. We continue to think of ourselves as an egalitarian people, but are simultaneously, completely comfortable with ignoring the fact that only a small percentage is reaping the rewards of a strong economy. The rest of us are stuck with the indoctrination, that if life is not working out well, we only have ourselves to blame. We are in fact kept in the dark, whilst the few who are much better off, steal everything they can, in broad daylight.

www.atyp.com.au

Review: The Bridges Of Madison County (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Mar 6 – Apr 5, 2020
Book: Marsha Norman (based on the novel by Robert James Waller)
Music & Lyrics: Jason Robert Brown
Director: Neil Gooding
Cast: Michael Beckley, Anton Berezin, Beth Daly, Kate Maree Hoolihan, Zoe Ioannou, Katie McKee, Ian Stenlake, Grady Swithenbank
Images by Grant Leslie

Theatre review
When we encounter Francesca, she is a housewife in 1960s Iowa, with 2 kids and a husband, seemingly happy to be on a farm living the simple life. A fortuitous meeting with photographer Robert however, reveals that she does want more. The Bridges of Madison County is one of the most famous of American romances, a novella by Robert James Waller that has sold over 60 million copies since its initial publication in 1992. Francesca’s struggles about fulfilling her duties as wife and mother, are presented as completely incongruent with what might be a greater happiness. For a moment, she experiences exhilaration with Robert, but must weigh the consequences should she dare to follow her heart.

This musical version, first created in 2013, features strong songwriting by Jason Robert Brown, but its individual numbers, although delightful, do not necessarily add up to a satisfying plot for the show. Direction by Neil Gooding is able to suffuse a sense of intensity to the emotions being depicted, but the general pace for its storytelling is unsatisfying. Design and technical aspects of the production are on the whole accomplished, with Phoebe Pilcher’s work on lights noteworthy for bringing valuable flamboyance to the staging.

Performer Kate Maree Hoolihan plays a very sentimental Francesca. Her interpretation tends to be simplistic, but proves ultimately to be a moving one. Ian Stenlake looks every bit the National Geographer photographer and love interest Robert, but some of his singing at crucial points are not quite up to scratch. Although evident that the couple works hard to find chemistry, the attraction between the two is never really convincing. Beth Daly and Michael Beckley however are memorable as Marge and Charlie, quirky neighbours who bring occasional but very needed humour to the staging.

In the song “Almost Real”, we hear Francesca talk about her relationship with Chiara, her sister in Naples, who “would open her legs just as easy as speaking.” In her efforts to separate herself from that negative perspective of a free woman, Francesca spends her life doing what she thinks is the right thing, but it is clear that all she does is dedicate herself to being a subject of conformity. Although an indisputably credible character, the writers of Bridges refuse to allow Francesca the gratification she craves, and deserves. We are made to think that to be a good mother, Francesca simply has to give herself up, and that we must all realise, is a lie.

www.goodingproductions.com

Review: Hamlet (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 29 – Apr 4, 2020
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Peter Evans
Cast: Jeremi Campese, Tony Cogin, Jack Crumlin, James Evans, Harriet Gordon-Anderson, James Lugton, Jane Mahady, Lisa McCune, Robert Menzies, Aanisa Vylet, Sophie Wilde
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Having very recently lost his father, the young prince is understandably grief-stricken. Hamlet obsesses over his mother’s quick remarriage to the new King Claudius, almost as a form of distraction, but when the ghost of the dead king arrives to reveal that it was his own brother Claudius who had killed him, Hamlet becomes overwhelmed with fury. More than a revenge story, Shakespeare’s Hamlet examines the meaning of death, from the vantage point of a man obsessed with bereavement.

It is a handsome production, with Benjamin Cisterne’s lights giving a glamorous finish to the staging, and designer Anna Tregloan’s 1960’s costumes adding a sense of whimsy. Tregloan’s cyclorama depicts a beautiful Danish snowscape, but an awkward house-shaped frame sits centre stage, doing little more than to confuse with its lack of purpose. Video projections by Laura Turner helps us empathise with Hamlet’s tragic circumstances, as does Max Lyandvert’s restrained music compositions.

Director Peter Evans’ conservative style may not deliver anything unexpected, but his rendition is likely to appeal to fans of Shakespeare who favour a more conventional approach. Actor Harriet Gordon-Anderson is insufficiently charismatic as the lead, but displays clear dedication to her craft. What she offers as the Danish prince is not always convincing, due in part to her slight stature, although there is no questioning her conviction and focus for the role. The two problematic women in Hamlet, Gertrude and Ophelia, are played by Lisa McCune and Sophie Wilde respectively, both performers able to convey a certain level of power and integrity, in spite of Shakespeare’s intentions to portray them as useless. Robert Menzies leaves a strong impression as Polonius, animated and entertaining as the court’s chief counsellor.

In the twenty-first century, it is easy to take issue with the representation of women in Shakespeare’s work. We are far less likely to accept as reasonable, the extremely unbalanced way in which gender is expressed in his oeuvre. The current trend of placing women actors in key male roles does, to some extent, soften the blow of insults to half of humankind, but the strategy is rarely if ever, able to comprehensively address the gender problem that figures so centrally in all of Shakespeare’s narratives.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au