Review: Hairworm (The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Oct 1 – 5, 2019
Playwright: Emma Wright
Director: Jess Davis
Cast: Phoebe Atkinson, Bernadette Fam, Jennifer Hart, Alex King, Rebekah Parsons, Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame, Grace Stamnas, Sophie Strykowski, Laura Wilson
Images by Becky Matthews

Theatre review
Emma Wright’s first play Hairworm is about anorexia. It details the experience of an unnamed protagonist, as she suffers that very severe form of mental illness. We watch her go through tremendous anguish, in a writing style that is often clinical, able only to have us regard the condition from an intellectual distance, without having to invest heavily in emotional dimensions of the subject. As a theatrical work, Hairworm does not connect with immediacy, but is valuable in terms of the insight it no doubt provides, into something real and troubling.

Directed by Jess Davis, the production is dynamic and exacting, with Priyanka Martin’s lights and Cecelia Strachan’s sound, conspiring to carefully render a sense of texture for each of its scenes. A disciplined cast brings further polish to the staging, with Rebekah Parsons’ conviction as the afflicted lead character, giving urgency to the show’s pace and rhythm. Alex King plays the sister, memorable for introducing a moment of genuine sentimentality to proceedings.

Theatre does not always have to engage our emotions, but it should find ways to make us care. Conventional narrative structures can seem banal when we have them deciphered and deconstructed, but the way we choose to tell stories, are in direct relation with our very nature, and it seems humans are mostly predictable beings. We see the suffering in Hairworm, just as we see all the suffering in real life, and as is commonplace, our instinct is to respond with an insulating nonchalance that is perhaps inevitable. Art can pierce through that veil of apathy, to get to what one would hope is an essential compassion that unites us. Without art and compassion, hope becomes unimaginable.

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Review: None So Blind (The Sydney Fringe)

Venue: Erskineville Town Hall(Erskineville NSW), Sep 24 – 28, 2019
Playwright: Garreth Cruickshank
Director: Susan Jordan
Cast: Thomas Burt, Russel Cronin, Dale Weseley Johnson-Green, Martin Portus

Theatre review
Shepherd is outside his house seeking help. He is blind and has lost his can opener, unable to prepare soup for dinner. Kind passerby Jude is lured in, but their newfound friendship turns sour in an instant, when it is revealed that Shepherd is a paedophile. Garreth Cruickshank’s None So Blind examines the evil lurking in our communities, placing a well-known archetype at the centre of its narrative to help us make sense of bad neighbours, who must somehow co-exist with the general population.

Cruickshank’s work contains strong ideas that will instigate valuable discussions. The Shepherd character is sufficiently complex to prevent us from dismissing him too easily, although audiences can rest assured that there is no sympathy for the devil here. Directed by Susan Jordan, the hour long play begins with an engaging nuance, but becomes too obvious as we approach its conclusion, with dialogue turning overly expository as tensions escalate. Actor Martin Portus depicts the monster as both grotesque and delicate, able to convey human qualities that are as awful as they are real. Jude is played by Russel Cronin, whose performance of compassion does not quite match the effectiveness with which he is able to articulate scornful disdain for the despicable villain of the piece.

We know so little of the subject, because the mere thought of it is so repulsive, we can hardly spare more than a moment’s deliberation. None So Blind challenges us to consider deeper, a truth that we have to live with, about people who will cause harm, whether we are vigilant or complacent. We often deal with dangers, by pretending that they do not exist. It is true that being paralysed with fear is no way to have a good life, but reminders are necessary, especially when we let our guard down too much.

www.sydneyfringe.com

Review: The Weir (The Vanguard)

Venue: The Vanguard (Newtown NSW), Sep 24 – 29, 2019
Playwright: Conor McPherson
Director: Vanessa Papastavros
Cast: Nick Barker-Pendree, Damien Carr, Martin Estridge, Daniela Haddad, Alex Neal
Images by Natalie Cartney

Theatre review
Valerie is moving from Dublin to the northwest of Ireland, and in between looking at properties, parks herself at a small rural pub where she is acquainted with several locals. In Conor McPherson’s The Weir, a sleepy town provides the perfect setting for the time-honoured tradition of telling ghost stories. Residents have little to distract themselves but each other, and a landscape that bears histories most fondly remembered through word of mouth, morphing and fantastical. While various supernatural tales form the entertaining crux of The Weir, they are surpassed by a nostalgic depiction of community, one that leaves a strong and perhaps surprising impression.

With the theatrical action set in a real bar, we are immediately engaged through the unmissable familiarity and intimacy of the physical context. Directed by Vanessa Papastavros, the production is pared down but effective. Dynamics between characters are rendered with a remarkable authenticity, with a cast of five that is endearing and compelling, manufacturing an easy chemistry that provides foundation for their performance, able to transport us effortlessly through time and space.

Actor Damien Carr brings a richness to the role of Jack, animated but also considered, adept at communicating a sense of depth that gives the show its gravity. Realtor Finbar is played by Nick Barker-Pendree, memorable for the confident zeal he introduces to proceedings. Valerie, the blow-in, is portrayed by Daniela Haddad with an understated and elegant naturalism, appropriate for these tight confines. Martin Estridge and Alex Neal are charming and very believable pub dwellers, both offering valuable colour to this memorable representation of small-town life.

No matter how outlandish our stories, for as long as they resonate, we can be sure that truth can be located therein. If ghosts are real, it is only because we believe in a certain essence of life, that exists beyond the flimsy nature of matter. It reflects an understanding of the eternal, that in one form or another, each entity leaves behind an imprint, whether significant or minuscule, and that our actions when alive must have an impact. This could be construed as wishful thinking or indeed, delusions of grandeur, but the fact remains that ghosts have always been, and we have always known ourselves to be consequential.

www.thevanguard.com.au

Review: Trojan Barbie (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 16 – 21, 2019
Playwright: Christine Evans
Director: Maddison Huber
Cast: Anthea Agoratsios, Sophie Avellino, Deng Deng, Sam Flack, Cathy Friend, Tristen Knox, Anjelica Murdaca, Taleece Paki, Lisa Robinson, Shannon Rossiter, Amy Sole, Kristelle Zibara

Theatre review
An homage to Euripides’ The Trojan Women, Christine Evans’ 2009 play Trojan Barbie places focus on legendary women of the Trojan War. Modern day tourist Lotte, who restores dolls in her normal life, is flung back to ancient times, where she is trapped in a women’s camp, witnessing the atrocities of war. Evans’ work is suitably tragic, but also surprisingly humorous in many of its early scenes. Familiar characters are rendered with a contemporary sensibility, allowing us to relate better to their stories, and to keep us amused.

Time travel aspects are not always presented effectively in the production, leaving us confused at several points, but director Maddison Huber ensures that each personality we encounter in her show, is distinct and memorable. Actor Lisa Robinson demonstrates strong comic abilities as Lotte, adept at delivering laughs even in the midst of battleground horrors. Kristelle Zibara is a convincing Hecuba, intense with the sorrow her maternal role is charged to convey. Sophie Avellino and Cathy Friend take on different kinds of madness, for Helen and Cassandra respectively, both performers bringing appropriate flamboyance to invigorate the stage. The show succeeds at dramatic moments of catastrophe, but when the action calls for a gentler touch, its lack of nuance can make for a less than satisfying experience.

A Chinese proverb says that women hold up half the sky. Even as men insist on occupying positions of power, we are always required to be on hand to pick up the pieces, whenever they bring degradation and destruction to the world. It is important that we look beyond how things currently operate, and commit to working towards a new system that does not simply replace men with women. These hierarchical modes of organising society have proven to be severely deficient, no matter who sits on top of the pile. If we want to ensure that nobody loses, it must mean that old ways of thinking about success, about winning, must be radically eliminated.

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Review: Romeo & Julien (The Sydney Fringe)

Venue: 107 (Redfern NSW), Sep 5 – 14, 2019
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Jamie Collette
Cast: Ali Aitken, Jackson Blair-West, Jayden Byrne, Sasha Dyer, Daniel Gabriel, David Halgren, Ryan Hodson, Cynthia Howard, Samantha Lambert, Charles Mayer, Chiara Osborn, David Soncin
Images by Isabella Torv

Theatre review
Juliet is now Julien, so the question would obviously relate to how this new perspective of gender in Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet would result. It might come as a surprise, that turning a heterosexual love story into a gay one, does not necessarily involve a complete and fundamental transformation of the centuries old play. The Capulet and the Montagues are still at loggerheads, and the drama we encounter is still about blood and kinship. All the conflict in Romeo & Julien come from the same sources as Shakespeare had intended, and it seems that making boys of both lovers, does not change anything in their story.

If one can accept the validity of an artistic license in this gender alteration, one could probably be willing to see that the original narrative can remain, given our understanding that gender is ultimately a meaningless construct. As director, Jamie Collette’s efforts at imposing a new inclusiveness to an old icon of Western literature is laudable, but his creative spirit can seem insufficiently radical, when viewed against the inevitably conservative associations when taking on the Bard. Nonetheless, there is inventiveness and vigour in Collette’s staging, ably assisted by Scott Witt’s dynamic fight choreography, and Sara Delavere’s colourful live music accompaniment.

The ensemble is not always cohesive or balanced, but strong acting by several individuals provide moments of professional sheen. Daniel Gabriel plays an androgynous, possibly bigender, Mercutio, introducing much needed flamboyance to proceedings, leaving an impression with the sheer magnitude of their stature and bold presence. Friar Lawrence is given detailed rendering by the dazzling David Halgren, who locates unexpected, and entertaining, dimensions for the pivotal role. Romeo is on this occasion, a tentative, quiet type, as performed by an overly naturalistic Jackson Blair-West. All eyes are on Jayden Byrne, who brings surprising emotional range to Julien, and is particularly satisfying as pop star, in several enjoyable musical interludes.

We are beginning a new era in which queerness does not have to tear our families apart. We have dreamt of a time of unprecedented normalisation, when queer people no longer have to come out, and in Romeo & Julien, we are given the opportunity to imagine that possibility. Whether one is inclined to find this Shakespeare title romantic or dreary, the present re-gendering is unlikely to cause any transformation to those prior opinions. It is true that whether one is male or female should have no bearing on outcomes, but it is undeniable that we have grown to expect queerness to add spice, especially when old and painfully obsolete texts are concerned.

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Review: The Real Thing (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Sep 9 – Oct 26, 2019
Playwright: Tom Stoppard
Director: Simon Phillips
Cast: Johnny Carr, Charlie Garber, Rachel Gordon, Geraldine Hakewill, Shiv Palekar, Julia Robertson, Dorje Swallow
Images by Lisa Tomasetti
Theatre review
Henry has an excellent relationship with words and philosophy, which is just as well, being a successful playwright much like his creator Tom Stoppard. In The Real Thing however, we discover that his cerebral talents do not extend to matters of the heart. It is that very human conundrum we deal with in Stoppard’s extraordinarily rigorous piece of writing, that it is one thing to be able to know so deeply all that can be intellectualised, yet be unable to have much control over how one loves. People in the play are smart. Their understanding of the world is astute and penetrating, and their talk is very highbrow, but when we observe the way their feelings are being enacted, it seems there is no escaping the fools that we ultimately are.

Couples in The Real Thing wrestle with issues of fidelity. They cheat, they are suspicious, they are apologetic, and they fail repeatedly. They struggle with the need to be faithful, often engaging in discussions about the meaning of love and monogamy, but what they say have little bearing on how they feel. A constant discord exists between logic and emotions, prompting us to wonder if there can be more than one real thing in the human experience, if what we think and how we act are so often not in concurrence.

Director Simon Phillips brings remarkable clarity not only to these immediate themes, but also to the many tangential musings that make The Real Thing memorable. The density of the text is translated on stage by Phillips into a luxuriant tapestry of inspiring observations emerging from Stoppard’s brilliant mind. In the role of Henry is the sensational Johnny Carr, bringing a startling truthfulness to dialogue that could very easily be turned, under the wrong hands, highfalutin and empty. The actor’s presence and timing have us captivated, as we find ourselves enraptured, deeply invested in the many meaningful discussions that provide the foundation, for an admittedly bourgeois narrative. Geraldine Hakewill too, is engaging as Annie, a strong counterpoint in the story, effortlessly convincing with the complexity she portrays, whether playing subject or object in this tale about affection and attraction.

Production designer Charles Davis delivers a spectacular set, wonderfully imagined for the revolve stage, to facilitate poetic parallels between words and visions. His costumes are quiet but effective, able to bridge the time disparity inherent in reviving a 37-year-old work. Lights by Nick Schlieper are correspondingly sophisticated, always pleasing with the imagery he manufactures, and exacting in the way he shifts our impulsive responses from scene to scene.

It is likely that one can arrive at the conclusion that realities are multitudinous, yet there is something in our nature that cannot resist the idea that there could be a singular essence to things, that there is a fundamental truth in how we regard the world. It is as though a key exists, that life is only ever experienced as a sort of mystery that requires solving. Henry’s racing thoughts are incessant, and luckily for us, always beautifully articulated, yet we only ever see him carry on like a fool for love, as though knowledge can never live up to its promise of having the answer to everything.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Splinter (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Sep 6 – Oct 12, 2019
Playwright: Hilary Bell
Director: Lee Lewis
Cast: Lucy Bell, Simon Gleeson
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Five-year-old Laura has just returned home, after a nine-month disappearance. Her parents are understandably traumatised, but relieved to have their nightmare come to an end. In Hilary Bell’s Splinter however, we see that the family’s problems do not vanish quite so easily, as questions arise about this sudden reunion. There are only two actors in Bell’s play, with little Lauren an apparition that we all have to conjure up with imagination, which proves a fascinating device for something that positions itself within the genre of psychological thriller. The ideas in Splinter are engaging, but it is arguable if its dialogue and plot structure are always effective in delivering the tension so crucial to this form of storytelling.

The show begins innocuously, perhaps even drearily, as a conventional family drama that overloads the stage with saccharine sentimentality. It takes a considerable while before director Lee Lewis introduces suspense elements that let the entertainment begin, by which time our boredom with the daytime television style of presentation had almost completely taken hold. At just over an hour long, there is little opportunity for us to settle sufficiently into the real substance of the piece, but the intrigue that does eventually manifest, is admittedly chilling.

The late transformation in atmosphere is cleverly manufactured by creatives including Alyx Dennison, whose sound design confirms the gear switch, giving us necessary cues to swiftly change focus in our interpretation of the narrative. Video projections by Mic Gruchy and lights by Benjamin Brockman become increasingly theatrical, thus guiding our minds into more pronounced spaces of fantasy and delusion.

Lucy Bell and Simon Gleeson perform the piece with extraordinary conviction, both bringing admirable intensity to a tale involving unimaginable suffering. Gleeson has the additional dimension of paranoia to help enrich his character, which he utilises compellingly, for several powerful moments of bloodcurdling dread. Bell is given less extravagant material, but nonetheless offers a reliable, self-possessed counterpoint that prevents Splinter from veering away from its central truthfulness.

Genre is infinitely more prevalent in film, because the form deals almost exclusively in illusion, and is therefore perfect for stories that require drastic alterations to reality. Theatre that venture into those territories must be praised accordingly, for even daring to test the possibilities of the live stage. There is a supernatural quality to Splinter that is almost inevitable, in its depiction of psychological disturbance. In those moments, the audience participates in seeing things that are not present, almost like artists who have the Midas touch, able to make something out of nothing, and in the process, giving to their communities a kind of magic that brings elevation to us all.

www.griffintheatre.com.au