Review: Exhale (Black Birds / Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Apr 9 – 13, 2019
Creators & Cast: Ayeesha Ash, Emele Ugavule

Theatre review
They live in Sydney, but they struggle to call it home. Ayeesha Ash is Māori Grenadian, and Emele Ugavule is Tokelauan Fijian. Their work Exhale relates to the sense of displacement that many experience in the metropolis, and the questions inevitably raised about background and origin, when examining notions of belonging. The artists identify in each other, the alienation that results from complex historical and ongoing operations of colonialism. They connect through a yearning for indigeneity, and it is this reclamation of cultural roots, that forms the substance on which, we too, can connect.

A thoughtful compilation of audio recordings and visual projections, help us visualise the women’s longing, but it is their very presence, as individuals and as a pair, that speak most saliently. Ash and Ugavule are compelling performers, both captivating with everything that they bring on stage. Their fifty-minute presentation is enjoyable and though-provoking, but explorations in Exhale have a tendency to feel too polite. The production is gentle, with moments of tenderness that are genuinely beautiful. Its spirit is evident, but it feels contained, perhaps hesitant with what it wishes to reveal.

Ash and Ugavule speak with their elders, who prove to be evasive, intentionally forgetful in their efforts to get on with life. We see in the young women, a frustration and a disquiet perhaps, but we wonder if a more urgent anger, could be helpful in the advancement of their stories. Not many of us are natural soldiers, but there are aggressors who will come to violate those who are peaceful, and when push comes to shove, one has to find the warrior within, even just for a brief theatrical sojourn.

www.black-birds.net

Review: Dead Cat Bounce (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Feb 22 – Apr 6, 2019
Playwright: Mary Rachel Brown
Director: Mitchell Butel
Cast: Kate Cheel, Lucia Mastrantone, Johnny Nasser, Josh Quong Tart
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
In Mary Rachel Brown’s Dead Cat Bounce, Gabriel is a moderately successful novelist, a middle aged alcoholic, and also it seems, quite the ladykiller. Two women are madly in love with him, in this story of addiction and redemption, but we spend most of the duration trying instead to figure out his appeal, wondering what it is that his current and ex beaus are actually drawn to. This of course, is not a wholly uncommon experience, for those of us who have watched our friends (and ourselves) fall for the wrong people, bewildered by the things a human heart is capable of making us do. In this play however, those dynamics are unconvincing, and worse, neither its narrative nor characters are capable of keeping us meaningfully engaged.

Little of the comedy manages to be truly amusing, and where we hope for poignancy, or at least some valuable depth to its observations of quite serious themes, we find only cliché and banality. People are often stupid, that is unassailable, but our storytelling must bring insightful illumination to our nature, even if it is idiocy that is placed under scrutiny. The production is fortunately, a fairly polished one, with Alexander Berlage’s lights and Nate Edmondson’s music providing a great deal of elevation, even if only on a cosmetic level.

Although lacking in substance, the show is undoubtedly energetic, with director Mitchell Butel maintaining a bold pitch in performances, insisting that we pay attention. Josh Quong Tart is accurate in his portrayal of the unremarkable Gabriel, intentionally unlikable but clearly committed to the part. His young lover Matilda is played by Kate Cheel, who demonstrates great inventiveness in her efforts to find creative dimensions within this unenviable task. Lucia Mastrantone takes every opportunity to bring the drama, for which we are grateful, even if her character Angela’s choices prove to be relentlessly frustrating. Equally intense is Johnny Nasser, whose personal charisma almost compensates for the flimsiness of Tony, a ridiculously whiny and small man, rendered with too much unnecessary kindness.

The women in Dead Cat Bounce are suckers for punishment, but it is not hard to figure out why they stand firm on playing the fool. Girls are taught that they are worthless without children and a husband. Society seems obsessed with instilling a sense of inadequacy in us, always finding ways to say that we are not good enough, and we seem never to be able to entirely escape from these systems of control. Matilda is smart enough to read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but somehow finds herself happily planning to raise a family with a drunk twice her age. Angela is a powerful woman in the publishing business, but is addicted to toxic men and all their unreasonable demands. From our vantage point, we can only conclude that they should simply have walked away, and learned to be unafraid of independence. If one should think that this is easier said than done, then that is indication of where much of the problem lies.

www.griffintheatre.com.au

5 Questions with Lucia Mastrantone and Josh Quong Tart

Lucia Mastrantone

Josh Quong Tart: For ‘great’ television, who would you choose as a partner if you were to enter The Amazing Race and why?
Lucia Mastrantone: Valentino Rossi because I’m not a lover of rugged travel nor roughing it whilst I travel. I’d love to fang it around the world with an Italian who’d be very good at getting you to each destination quickly and in time for an aperitif before dinner and face whatever adventure one needs to face after having a beautiful meal.

What was your greatest culinary disaster? Please explain.
Serving a gluten-free and vegetarian meal to a potential Italian mother-in-law. I don’t think that needs an explanation.

If you had all the money in the world what would you bid on at the auction house?
Australian art and furniture.

Re the art of comedy who do see as your funniest female actor?
Madeline Carn.

If you could choose anywhere in the world to tell someone you love something REALLY special where would that be and why?
The island of Ischia off the port of Naples. An unknown proper working Mediterranean village with incredible seafood, views, volcanic springs and nightlife that only Italians and Germans visit or know of, as a holiday resort.

Josh Quong Tart

Lucia Mastrantone: What is your favourite non-touristic destination in NSW?
Josh Quong Tart: Dolphin Point (near Ulladulla). Swimming in crystal clear water fed by the ocean into Burrill Lake. Best time to do it – on the incoming tide just before it peeks. Dive in let the current take you a couple of hundred meters where you can jump out and do it all over again. Amazing.

In what country overseas did you have your most romantic love affair and why was that so?
Innsbruck Austria. Travelling alone a few years back (got off the train by accident) to discover this beautiful place. I’m a big sucker for mountains and centuries-old town squares covered in snow and dripping elegant Christmas decos.

What would be your monster’s ball meal if you were ever on death row?
Spaghetti bol.

Who is your artistic idol?
Barry Humphries is right up there.

If you were a genie, what famous person would you like to find your genie bottle and bring you to life and why?
Jenny Morris singer in the 80’s. Cause she’s kinda fun and thinks big. I’d trust her judgement with her wishes.

Lucia Mastrantone and Josh Quong Tart can be seen in Griffin Theatre’s Dead Cat Bounce by Mary Rachel Brown.
Dates: 22 Feb – 6 Apr, 2019
Venue: SBW Stables Theatre

Review: Love And Anger (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jan 21 – 26, 2019
Creator: Betty Grumble
Cast: Betty Grumble
Images by Ryan Ammon, Liz Ham, Dean Tirkot

Theatre review
The legendary SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas makes several appearances in the show, but Betty Grumble’s Love And Anger does not try to recruit for the Society for Cutting Up Men. It seeks to unify the human race, and all of the planet, by interrogating (and integrating) the matter from which we are composed. Grumble’s work is about flesh and blood, the only things perhaps that we cannot deny of ourselves. We never fail to imagine our identities to be much more grandiose, and in that process, create endless demarcations and conflicts. The artist devotes her entirety to the demolition of those narratives, making us succumb to the admission and the acceptance of our truest and basest selves, in order that we may renounce the countless structures that ultimately seek to create more harm than good.

Grumble insists that our attention is placed on the here and now, and in a theatre space where all our corporeality is congregated, present and irrefutable, she does marvellous things to her body, with her body, inside and onto her body, so that we may reach an image of ourselves, beyond taboo and outrage, that represents a renewed purity. After Grumble removes all of her clothing, she finds ways to take away all the meanings imposed upon her nudity, and because her words are rarely effective in this exercise, the artist’s strongest statements must be made through physical manipulation. Her performance style almost fits into genres of clowning and cabaret, and as is customary in Australia, difficult messages come in the guise of comedy, and Grumble’s extremely bawdy humour is the bridge that leads us to her subversive epiphanies.

The best thing about Love And Anger, is Grumble herself. When we attempt to isolate the text from the artist, it becomes clear that the persona she has evolved, can offer us everything important irrespective of the context in which we locate her. It is the embodiment of culminated meanings that we come into contact with, that is most virtuous in the performance of Grumble. Those virtues are impossible to condense, but chief components of her expressions include beauty, femininity, masculinity, equality, compassion, joy, peace, and above all, love.

When goddesses unravel, we remain goddesses. Betty Grumble’s act explores the notion of ugliness in her efforts to redefine social and anti-social, but it is impossible that she would be perceived in any other way than benevolent and divine, even in the midst of (simulated) excretion. In Love And Anger, we discover that beauty is much more than skin deep. It exists through the skin and beyond it. We receive her beauty because of who she is, but it is probably a greater truth, that we receive her beauty because of who we are.

www.griffintheatre.com.au

Review: Since Ali Died (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jan 8 – 19, 2019
Playwright: Omar Musa
Director: Anthea Williams
Cast: Omar Musa (with guest vocalist Sarah Corry)
Images by Robert Catto
Theatre review
Omar Musa imagines himself travelling down a river with Muhammad Ali, both men outsiders, connected by experiences of ostracism. Musa’s Since Ali Died provides insight into how people of colour survive the dogged exclusions of white society. Through poetry, prose and hip hop phraseology, Musa’s extraordinary writing provides access to intense and complex emotions, that relate to a sense of displacement, in an Australia struggling to think of itself as anything other than an illegitimate monolith. It is a work about home, but on how it can disown you, presented in a theatrical context that sees a remarkable talent confront an audience comprising adversaries and allies, all of us relevant and implicated.

As performer, Musa is charisma personified. We are won over effortlessly, by a stage presence naturally confident yet vulnerable, one that showcases an honesty that many will find utterly disarming. Masculinity is portrayed in a delicate light, with director Anthea Williams carefully preventing any sense of alienation that could arise from the motivating fury of Musa’s expressions. It is an exercise in compassion that results, an occasion that welcomes all, one that encourages us to think about the parts we play, as individuals and as collectives, in Musa’s personal stories.

Melancholic and incredibly moving, Since Ali Died is a timely meditation on contemporary Australian life, an undeniable summation of all our unique challenges, whether spiritual, social or political. Black and brown people endure discrimination by white structures that lay fake claim to this land, just as Muslims are relegated impudently, to a status of religious inferiority. Omar Musa’s very body and soul, right before our eyes, is evidence of those injustices that insidiously constitute our harmful way of life. He is thriving, but he suffers. In his music, simultaneously celebratory and indignant, we are able to understand the strength that is required of people like Musa. It is dark but uplifting, refusing to give in to destruction. His energy is ample and indomitable, and although painful to see it expended on coping mechanism, there is plenty left for orchestrating a change.

www.griffintheatre.com.au | www.riversideparramatta.com.au

Review: The Smallest Hour (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Dec 5 – 15, 2018
Playwrights: Phil Spencer, Susie Youssef
Director: Scarlet McGlynn
Cast: Phil Spencer, Susie Youssef
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
In a city just like Sydney, Chris and Shelley cross paths on several occasions. Each is having an eventful, if not entirely enjoyable night, in this immense love story about the metropolis. Phil Spencer and Susie Youssef’s The Smallest Hour may not be grand in scale or indeed vision, but it captures the essence of that relationship between busy cities and its inhabitants, in a deeply beautiful way, for an expression of an intimacy that frequently borders on the obsessive. We are individuals who think of ourselves as distinct entities, separate from other humans and segregated from place; the observation here is that most of us are nothing without our towns, and Spencer and Youssef’s play is a splendid tribute to that sense of belonging.

The Smallest Hour is also a romantic comedy, and director Scarlet McGlynn’s ability to infuse humour into all of its romance, with place and with persons, ensures a production that will thoroughly delight every typical urbanite. Our imagination is cleverly manipulated, as the action moves from one location to the next, by Veronique Benett’s lights and Steve Francis’ music, guiding us surreptitiously through a series of familiar situations. There are no props and no costume changes to be seen on Tyler Hawkins’ simple stage design, but all the imagery that we receive, in our mind’s eye, is consistently vivid. The playwrights perform the work, mainly as narrators, but also as impeccable stand-ins for our protagonists. Both are remarkably endearing, and although not yet word perfect on opening night, they prove themselves consummate raconteurs, utterly and completely mesmerising with the tale they so adroitly weave.

The Smallest Hour reveals a love greater than Chris meets Shelley. It documents the way we navigate this environment, showing us how we have absorbed the physicality of this city, to live out existences so dynamic and spirited. Unlike boyfriends and girlfriends, we never ask that places give us their perfection; we understand better, our responsibilities as components of communities big and small, of collective identities that hold so much more promise than the insularity of our private selves. The lovers fixate on each other at conclusion, forgetting all the roads that lead them to one another. Their audience however, is left with evocations much more inspiring than petty concerns. We are asked to deal with matters of our heart, that relate not to any one, but to the entirety of this region; a very lucky love that must be cherished.

www.griffintheatre.com.au

Review: The Feather In The Web (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Oct 5 – Nov 17, 2018
Playwright: Nick Coyle
Director: Ben Winspear
Cast: Tina Bursill, Gareth Davies, Michelle Lim Davidson, Claire Lovering
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
At one point in the show, the protagonist declares that she has MS, but of what we are able to observe, Kimberly exhibits no symptoms of multiple sclerosis. We are nonetheless, tempted to pathologise her, to interpret all her absurd behaviour as evidence of some kind of mental disorder, to label her crazy. Nick Coyle’s The Feather In The Web is a tale of obsessive love, but one that is grounded in little reality. It is doubtful if audiences in general will be able to find points of meaningful connection with the play’s outlandish situations, but its wild imagination is certainly entertaining.

Director Ben Winspear’s creation is highly sophisticated, marvellously polished, and very funny indeed. It is a thoroughly engrossing production, full of mystery and always bursting with energy, featuring dynamic and seamless collaborations from an excellent design team. Sophie Fletcher and Mic Gruchy work wonders for a series of backdrops and projections that are as whimsical as they are functional. Lights by Trent Suidgeest are versatile and unpredictable, able to traverse mundane and surreal with ease, and sound by Steve Toulmini is bold and humorous, powerful in its control over the audience’s emotional responses.

The magnificent Claire Lovering is dazzling as Kimberly, exceptional in her ability to simultaneously deliver uproarious comedy with a grave solemnity. Brilliantly amusing, she sweeps us away to places that are completely nonsensical, but all the while, keeping us keenly aware of the troubling psyche that underlies her character’s strangeness. Lovering’s own vivacity and strength, represents a valuable female presence that offers balance, to moments where the text comes precariously close to misogyny. We are bewildered and upset by Kimberly’s incapacity for agency and self-determination, but are won over by her resolute attitude. Ultimately, we have to let a woman want what she wants.

Three supporting players take on a range of kooky types, with Gareth Davies particularly memorable for his unrelenting propensity for insisting on our laughter; his work is enjoyable no matter the personality he assumes. Michelle Lim Davidson introduces surprising depth in later sections, urging us to shift focus to something considerably more poignant. Tina Bursill’s nonchalant cruelty as Regina is acerbic and accurate, deliciously biting in one of the show’s more believable roles.

The Feather In The Web is often unsettling, because we cannot help but feel disturbed by the abnormality put on display. It is true however, that we have no right to want Kimberly to transform into someone normal and palatable. She is non-compliant and non-conformist, and much to our chagrin, she can think of nothing else but for her affections to be reciprocated. Her heart’s desire may be objectionable, but when we look at the things she has absolutely no interest in; conventionality, respectability, mediocrity, and other markers of social acceptability, Kimberly turns into someone quite remarkable.

www.griffintheatre.com.au