Review: Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), May 11 – Jun 18, 2017
Playwright: Edward Albee
Director: Iain Sinclair
Cast: Darren Gilshenan, Genevieve Lemon, Claire Lovering, Brandon McClelland
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
It is a nondescript living room but a great deal happens in it. Edward Albee’s wild imagination is let loose in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, a modern classic that seems to be about a marriage breaking down, but the volume of themes and philosophical ideas it explores over a three-hour duration, extends beyond a person’s mental capacities within that one sitting. The incredible richness of Albee’s writing, and his insistence on disobeying conventions of literary coherence, produces something sensationally anti-naturalist, at times very strange, for all its misleading construct of a realist family drama. It all comes together beautifully, the ending result is quite sublime, but it is the disparate elements and divergence of meanings in all its interminable suggestions, that makes it a unique, rarely paralleled work.

Therefore, finding a focus becomes challenging for any production. Director Iain Sinclair uses the play’s absurdist qualities to his advantage, manufacturing a black comedy that not only delivers laughs but also, through its emphasis on uncomfortable contradictions, help draw attention to the many levels of meaning that the text implies. The show is often entertaining, but in spite of the great emotional upheaval that its characters experience, we remain at a distance, always at close observation, but from the outside. Visually pleasing, the staging draws inspiration from 1960s Americana, Michael Hankin’s set design and Sian James-Holland’s lights create a performance space that feels an accurate representation of the era, while establishing a sense of stifling oppressiveness crucial to the psyche of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.

Four actors conspire with unmistakable simpatico, to form a fascinating piece of theatre. Their personalities are individually distinct, but together they are harmonious, one engrossing organism that drives us through unexpected twists and turns. At the centre is Genevieve Lemon as Martha, ebullient and dedicated, determined to maintain a liveliness in the show even during its darkest troughs. The actor may not be able to sufficiently depict the rage crucial to the story, but there is no mistaking the turbulent existence Martha has to endure. Her husband George is played by Darren Gilshenan, who journeys into bleaker terrain more successfully, but who will be remembered for the mischievous approach he applies to the play’s cynical and sinister complexions. Effortlessly funny, Gilshenan is an engaging presence that keeps us fascinated at every audacious revelation. Similarly alluring is Claire Lovering, whose comedic confidence assures us that the tricks hidden up her sleeve are worth our anticipation. Honey is a small role, but the performer takes every opportunity to shine. Brendon McClelland brings out a complexity in Nick, a deceptively plain upstart, and surprises us with transformations that we never could see coming.

It is about marriage, it is about the way exercise control over one another, it is about the way we build meaning into our lives, it is about the futility of our pursuits. What a viewer will deduce from Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf could be a great many things, but there is no denying the nihilistic pessimism of Albee’s creation. In art we can find the truth, and it is without doubt that life can leave us bitter and hopeless. It is also true, that conflicting truths can co-exist, and whether one can perceive light through the darkness, is sometimes about luck, and sometimes about choice.

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Review: The Rasputin Affair (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Apr 1 – 30, 2017
Playwright: Kate Mulvany
Director: John Sheedy
Cast: Tom Budge, John Gaden, Hamish Michael, Zindzi Okenyo, Sean O’Shea
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Rasputin, the divisive and enigmatic figure of early 20th century Russia, remains a figure of contention in Kate Mulvany’s new play. The self-proclaimed “holy man” found himself at the centre of political upheaval through his association with the Tsar royalty, but his position as a religious leader has kept his contribution to social unrest of the time, ambiguous and mysterious. The Rasputin Affair is about the mounting outrage surrounding his rise to power, and assassination attempts led by members of the aristocracy.

A work of comedy, it lampoons archaic personality types and pokes fun at the hypocrisy of religious organisations. There are striking similarities to Molière’s Tartuffe, although the burden of history weighs heavy on Mulvany, whose efforts at providing background information detract significantly from the play’s entertainment quotient. John Sheedy’s direction is often imaginative, but even though his embellishments are delightful, the plot can seem needlessly convoluted, particularly in the first act. Staging becomes much more jaunty post-interval, as the production shifts gear and develops a broader, more appealing approach to its comedy.

Alicia Clements’ vibrant set design contributes beautifully to laughs, along with Matthew Marshall’s lights that give the imagery its finesse. It is an animated cast, particularly memorable in sequences that allow a bolder performance style. Sean O’Shea has just the right charisma, and theatrical sarcasm, for Rasputin. Dangerous, powerful and cryptic, we perceive his allure, as well as his disingenuity, and come to an understanding of the controversial qualities of the legendary character.

The separation of church and state is a familiar concept, but religious beliefs remain chronically ingrained in systems that rule our daily lives. The men who lead religious groups are never democratically elected, yet their influence on policies and ideology are resolutely tenacious. The Rasputin Affair is concerned with corruption, inspired by stories from a hundred years ago. With the inordinate amount of talk about feuding religions in our media, we must not cease to question the extent of their interference on our civil autonomy, whichever gods we have chosen to believe in.

www.ensemble.com.au

Review: Two (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Mar 24 – May 6, 2017
Playwright: Jim Cartwright
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Brian Meegan, Kate Raison
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
All kinds of things can happen in a pub, that old institution that uniquely combines commerce and community. It is wide open, with few restrictions on who and what are allowed to walk through its doors. Jim Cartwright’s Two first arrived at the very end of the 1980’s. Set in regional NSW, it paints a nostalgic picture of Australia before mobile phones, and before we began suspecting neighbours of wanting to bomb each other into pieces.

Men were masculine, women were feminine, and everyone was heterosexual. A comforting predictability existed, along with an indeterminate air of stifled constraint. The play features two actors in a series of roles that explore love and relationships, from an innocent time and space.

Kate Raison plays all the nice ladies with an admirable strength, bringing dimension to their predetermined passivity, and Brian Meegan keeps us entertained by introducing imaginative variation to his wide range of male characters. They make a confident and jubilant pair, adept at providing entertainment and pathos with each of Two‘s warmhearted vignettes. Director Mark Kilmurry stays out of the way of his actors’ talents, and leaves Cartwright’s vision intact, for a production that offers no surprises, but that communicates fluently with a remarkable simplicity.

For those of a certain age, there is no greater romance, than the romance one has with the past. We retain only the sweet, and those memories can make the living of today seem less dulcet. The Aussie pub is required to preserve tradition, but the financial imperative forces it to move along with the times. It is an allegory for us all. The past is often warm and comfy, but it is the essence of life that will insist we be taken in unexpected directions. The local watering hole may no longer know your name, but it still stands, awaiting new stories to be writ.

www.ensemble.com.au

Review: Odd Man Out (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jan 19 – March 18, 2017
Playwright: David Williamson
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Gael Ballantyne, Justin Stewart Cotta, Rachel Gordon, Lisa Gormley, Matt Minto, Bill Young
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Alice and Ryan meet on a bus, and are quickly drawn to each other. They have little in common, except for a shared desperation to become coupled up. Alice is sensitive about her biological clock running out of time, and Ryan is fearful of loneliness. They work hard to create a union, and in Odd Man Out, it seems tough grind is the key to success.

Marriage happens hastily for the pair. Ryan has never said “I love you” back to Alice, and proves himself embarrassing and humiliating in every social situation, but Alice decides to marry him anyway. No surprises then, that the husband turns out a disappointment. It is true, in David Williamson’s world of intractable heteronormativity, that women get into relationships to change men, while men hope for women in their lives to never grow.

We never really believe the Alice character. Maybe it is her severe lack of judgement that betrays the credibility of the narrative, or maybe, we are simply very tired of stupid girls in our stories. Turns out the “odd man out” here, could actually be a rather strange woman. Actor Lisa Gormley’s extraordinarily animated style may not have made things any better, but her conviction in spite of the playwright’s flawed imagination, is impressive. Her work is entertaining, and her aforementioned exuberance, does provide effective distraction from the play’s implausibilities.

Played by Justin Stewart Cotta, Ryan is a much more detailed and authentic personality who helps provide necessary grounding to Odd Man Out. Cotta turns in a spectacular performance, intelligent and thorough in his approach, for an interpretation that is immensely engaging and amusing, while retaining a solid amount of insightful nuance. Whether wildly rhapsodic or sensitive and quiet, Cotta provides the production with excellent layers of depth and clarity, giving the show a meaningful sense of purpose.

Mark Kilmurry’s direction of the piece is spirited and taut. The show has a vigorous energy aided by inventive use of a small chorus of actors, introduced into scenes of otherwise structurally simple dialogue. Sound design by Alistair Wallace is similarly effective in manufacturing a sense of motion and progression, for an urgency that helps us stay captivated.

The play ends abruptly, and awkwardly, with a fairy-tale conclusion that reveals a human need for hope, however misplaced it may be. Odd Man Out is fundamentally romantic, even if it is rarely sweet or poetic. Against all odds, we will dream up a way to make love happen, and that, is the essence of a life well lived.

www.ensemble.com.au

Review: Relatively Speaking (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Nov 18, 2016 – Jan 14, 2017
Playwright: Alan Auckbourn
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Jonny Hawkins, Tracy Mann, Emma Palmer, David Whitney
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It is a very serious case of mistaken identities in Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking, and the hilarity that ensues is rarely surpassed. It is about Ginny leaving one lover for another, but the story is hardly important in how the play is remembered. There is no throwaway line of dialogue, with each word calibrated to a staggering precision in order that we may experience the greatest amplitude of comedy possible. The 50-year-old work may not bear any trendy trimmings or indeed, political relevance to how we now live, but its theatrical structure and language specificity still remains outstanding in our age of perpetual mobile amusement.

The four riotous roles are performed flawlessly by a cast that can only be described as magnificent. Cohesive in tone and style, but each one idiosyncratic and independently captivating, their creations are all unforgettable, but it is the chemistry they manufacture for this ensemble piece that really delivers the goods. Ginny is played by the vivacious Emma Palmer, exuberant and dignified in her interpretation of a young woman in the swinging sixties. Jonny Hawkins is her adorable beau Greg, unbelievably animated and entirely compelling. David Whitney is the other man, spectacularly charming, knowing and droll as Philip, while his wife Sheila is brought to life by the truly extraordinary Tracy Mann with understated flair and impressive confidence.

It may all seem deeply familiar, but director Mark Kilmurry’s realisation of Relatively Speaking feels as though we had never actually seen a show of this genre executed with quite as much panache. His thorough engagement with the material and its particular form, ensures that the laughs are ceaseless for all of its two hours, and that we never tire of whatever he chooses to present. Life is never this much fun, but at the theatre, we sparkle eternal.

www.ensemble.com.au

Review: E-baby (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Oct 13 – Nov 13, 2016
Playwright: Jane Cafarella
Director: Nadia Tass
Cast: Danielle Carter, Gabrielle Scawthorne
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It is 2015, London-based attorney Catherine travels to Massachusetts and meets her pregnancy surrogate, Nellie. Jane Cafarella’s E-baby takes place over a period of 16 months, during which the two women communicate via the internet and phones. 30 years have passed since the first cases of surrogacy, and controversy around assisted reproductive technology has diminished considerably. We are no longer surprised to hear about people conceiving with medical help, and consequently, the play raises no eyebrows.

There are promising elements in the story, but it insists on shying away from a more explosive sense of drama. Both women’s personality flaws are clearly demonstrated, yet neither are allowed to turn into villains, in a play that tries too hard to always be nice. In its attempts to be fair and compassionate to both mothers, we experience little and learn even less. Catherine is self-absorbed and humourless, while Nellie is naively content within her ignorant and fervent religiosity. The show lets us recognise what motivates them, but struggles to help us care.

Humans do ridiculous things, and often, in our failure to explain why we do what we do, we risk feeling misunderstood and alienated. Catherine is unable to justify her unrelenting desire to procreate, and Nellie’s family is unconvinced that her actions are righteous. There are times in life when we are left isolated, with only personal desires as companion. What drives us, is a great many things, infinitely variable, but all valid, and when we choose whether or not to act accordingly, the consequences that follow must never be neglected. Catherine and Nellie believe that they come from a place of generosity but society will question their decisions in bringing innocent life to the world. We may remain unpersuaded, but there is no doubt that their perseverance is admirable. As we become increasingly cynical, it is important that we appreciate optimism and hope when we encounter it, because good things can sometimes be that needle in a haystack, and life is meaningless if we give up looking.

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Review: Barefoot In The Park (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Aug 25 – Oct 8, 2016
Playwright: Neil Simon
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Mia Lethbridge, Daniel Mitchell, Jamie Oxenbould, Georgie Parker, Jake Speer
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It is the 1960s. Corie and Paul are moving into their tiny New York apartment, about to begin life together as newlyweds. After 6 days of honeymoon bliss cooped up in a hotel room, they emerge to meet us just as the reality of mundanity begins to sink in. Divorce was a topic much more controversial at that time, and the threat of a marriage breakup in Neil Simon’s Barefoot In The Park has lost considerable effect in terms of the dramatic tension it is able to create, but as a frothy comedy, its structure and dialogue retain a classic charm that many will find irresistible.

Mia Lethbridge leads a cast of actors, memorable for their bubbly playfulness and congenial warmth. As Corie, Lethbridge’s perky portrayal of naivety is consistently delightful and surprisingly persuasive, with an energetic presence that holds the show together, along with all its relentless frivolities. Director Mark Kilmurry does an excellent job of the comedy, establishing a brilliant sense of timing for the production’s entirety that ensures top entertainment value, but the development of character conflicts require greater nuance for Simon’s plot to be more believable.

When two people get together and form an intense bond, the pleasures that materialise are almost always coupled with challenges, big and small. In Barefoot In The Park, we want the lovebirds to find a way to sort out their differences. We invest in their romance, because loneliness is an abominable monster that must be vanquished at all cost. Times change, but the fear of being alone is perennial. Without each other, Corie and Paul must find meaning only within themselves but in Neil Simon’s quaint fantasy, they only have to indulge in a mutual infatuation, so that their days may be filled with joy, to have and to hold, till death do they part.

www.ensemble.com.au