Review: The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Mar 21 – Apr 28, 2018
Playwright: Bertolt Brecht (translated by Tom Wright)
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Mitchell Butel, Peter Carroll, Tony Cogin, Ivan Donato, Anita Hegh, Brent Hill, Colin Moody, Monica Sayers, Hugo Weaving, Charles Wu, Ursula Yovich
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
A gangster film is projected on screen, as we witness it being shot on a sound stage. The action happens across not two, but three platforms. We watch a film, the making of the film, and a theatre production, all simultaneously and frantically taking place before our eyes. Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui is concerned with artifice and image, written at the time of Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel. Director Kip Williams’ decision for a multimedia presentation may seem initially, to be little more than gimmickry, but his profusion of Brechtian devices transcend academic tribute, proving themselves relevant and ultimately, highly effective.

Brought up to date by Tom Wright’s very shrewd adaptation, Arturo Ui’s story is now unquestionably of our time. A criminal hungry for attention, he stops at nothing to satisfy an interminable and narcissistic urge for notoriety. To make his presence a permanent fixture, Arturo takes on political ambitions in order that his influence may turn pervasive and inescapable. We can think of more than a few public figures who operate in a similar vein. It is a witty and wise transposition, taking Brecht’s meditations on the Hitler phenomenon and applying them to the current state of our world. Retaining the spirit of epic theatre, Wright’s work is dark but rarely pessimistic. A parable and cautionary tale, it demonstrates human nature at its worst, but is deliberate with its manipulations of our autonomy as audience and citizens. It always reminds us of our capacity to resist and reverse the actions of those with an appetite for destruction.

Williams’ production is sophisticated, often extravagant and flamboyant in its attitude and accompanying style. Its theatrical grandness is alluring; we find ourselves seduced by its many clever manoeuvres, and are surprised by our unequivocally political response to its ideas. The show knows what it wants to do, and achieves it well. Sections of dense dialogue might be lost, when we get distracted by the very busy stage, but the simple overall point of it all, is clear and powerful under Williams’ interpretations. The director’s ability to shift our attention between screen and stage becomes impressive, once we get over the shock of the unusual. Once we stop questioning the validity of the complicated form being presented, the efficacy at which information is being conveyed, through its complex amalgamations, is quite astounding.

The set takes the shape of an efficient film studio that accommodates complicated camera work whilst prioritising direct audience access, designed by Robert Cousins with appropriate restraint. Nick Schlieper’s lights are attractive and suitably dramatic, conspiring closely with cinematography to provide stunning live visuals with some very advanced video technology. Justine Kerrigan’s adventurous and imaginative cinematography is quite an amazing thing to behold. Also deeply satisfying is Stefan Gregory’s music, inspired by early genre films, and assisted by excellent sound engineering, to offer great drama and intrigue, electrifying from prologue to epilogue.

Hugo Weaving’s performance as Arturo Ui exhausts the gamut of emotions, as well as all the superlatives a critic is tempted to use in describing his brilliance. If there is ever perfection in art, Weaving embodies it here. The man is in charge every second, and we are putty in his hands, hopeless and lost in whatever he wishes to impart. His skill is second to none, and his mesmerising charisma is bewildering. It is hard to come close to the standard that he sets, but others in the cast too, are truly remarkable. Peter Carroll in particular, contributes extraordinary incisiveness as Dogsborough, depicting the blurred lines of good and bad with wonderful flair and persuasiveness.

If we see the natural world as an organism with tendency for chaos, and humankind’s insatiable need for creating order, in our own image, a kind of violation, then man’s obsession with power is an abomination. Arturo Ui goes against everything that we want to think of as good and right in the world, in his continual seizure of power and domination over every being, but it is likely that the only language he and his ilk understand is power, and to rival them requires that we take mirroring actions. Pacifism and the qualities of integrity that it encompasses, may be a more idealistic way of approaching peace, but in The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui it is hard to not see these romantic notions as ineffectual or much worse, calamitous. It is time perhaps to find better ways to fight fire with fire.

Review: Endgame (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Mar 31 – May 9, 2015
Playwright: Samuel Beckett
Director: Andrew Upton
Cast: Tom Budge, Sarah Peirse, Bruce Spence, Hugo Weaving
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review (originally published at Auditorium Magazine)
On stage, artists can communicate ideas that they believe to be of interest to the wider community. They can also use it as grounds for exploration, to develop an improved understanding of the nature of their practice, or to investigate issues surrounding our lives. Stories are shared and concepts are illustrated, that may or may not connect with audiences but we never quite leave the theatre the same as when we first arrived. Samuel Beckett’s Endgame is light on narrative, but heavy on inventiveness, guided by a profound curiosity that brutally interrogates the fundamentals of existence. It is the most self-aware of texts, constantly drawing attention to the very act of writing, and also to the fragile artifice of its theatricality. If philosophy is its fixation, then any sense of conventionality must be removed from its structure, in order that everything may come under scrutiny, including basic notions of character and plot.

The play is both accessible and inaccessible. It challenges the way we read, and how we make sense, in the theatrical space, of language and signs, but it does not intend to alienate. Director Andrew Upton retains the integrity of Beckett’s words, sometimes impenetrable but always marvellous, and creates around them an intoxicating live experience that fascinates at every moment. Unreservedly intellectual, it is no surprise that one can be made to feel out of their depth at times, but the work’s density constantly morphs so that a switch in tone or subject inevitably occurs, and we become engaged again, only more thoroughly than ever, as our capacities gradually grow in their level of receptiveness. Upton’s voice increases in clarity over time, and the piece gains power accordingly.

Hugo Weaving is mesmeric as the hideous and hateful Hamm. Even in a wheelchair with legs bound and eyes obscured behind opaque spectacles, the star is irresistibly charismatic, and completely enthralling. Edith Piaf was said to have declared that she could sing the phone book and make it sound great. Similarly, Weaving captivates us with every word, even when we find our minds struggling to match the depth of what is being expounded. The extreme meticulousness of his approach seizes our attention, and the wild and unpredictable flourishes he builds into every scene and stanza is truly magnificent to witness. Endgame discusses the distinctions between meaninglessness and meaningfulness. Under Weaving’s spell, all that unfolds feels meaningful, and we are encouraged to seek a cerebral equivalent to the emotional sensations delivered to our gut. Also turning in a stunning performance is Tom Budge in the role of Clov, the voluntary slave who waits on Hamm for no straightforward reason. The actor opens the play in a wordless sequence, impressing us with his extraordinary physical expression. Part mime and part dance, the beauty of his execution shines in spite of the depressively ominous context he helps set up. Budge goes on to prove himself sensitive to the needs of black comedy, constantly toying with the delicate balance between morbidity and humour, much to our twisted delight. His dynamic range is quite exceptional, and the character he creates is fascinating from every perspective.

The single-act play does not require nor permit much flamboyance with design, but there is no shortage of creativity on show here. Nick Schlieper’s set is a dungeon built so horrifying, it could only have been dreamt up by a healthy dose of genius irony. The generous Roslyn Packer stage is expertly curtailed to evoke the oppressiveness explored in Beckett’s writing, and that shrunken performance space provides amplification for the performance energies so brilliantly harnessed. Lights also by Schlieper, and sound by Max Lyandvert are restrained but unquestionably satisfying, always in subtle control over our sensory reactions. Renée Mulder flexes her costume design muscles within the narrow demands of the piece, embellishing characters with objects and textures of interest and creating extraordinary colours out of a dark, sombre vista.

Difficult texts must exist, or our artistic landscape is worth nothing. If everything is within one’s grasp, one ceases to evolve. Endgame is about two hours long, but it contains wisdom from entire lifetimes by several outstanding minds. This production seduces with entertaining touches and intriguing elements, then presents life’s big questions in rarely articulated ways. If its propositions are unfamiliar, revisiting them seems necessary, like a good book that engages and bewilders, it tempts you at its end, to return to the start for another bout.

Review: Macbeth (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Jul 21 – Sep 27, 2014
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Paula Arundell, Kate Box, Ivan Donato, Eden Falk, John Gaden, Melita Jurisic, Robert Menzies, Hugo Weaving
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review (originally published Auditorium Magazine Peace Issue 2014)
In the process of art-making, it is often the spirit of experimentation that elevates a work to heights of significance and esteem. Major theatre companies around the world with greater access to funding and other resources do not always prioritise innovation in their repertoire, often choosing instead to deliver entertainment that their patrons would readily embrace. The decision to stage a version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with a prominent actor in the title role, exemplifies the kind of tension that exists where a show’s anticipated mass popularity and the expectations that come along with it, threatens the commitment to artistic risk, in the trepidation of alienating audiences or indeed, underestimating their ability to relate to unconventional interpretations.

Kip Williams’ direction of the piece reflects an awareness of the diversity in his audience’s tastes. Shakespeare is left untainted and the celebrity actor is given ample room to flex his dramatic muscles for his legions of fans, but the stage is thoroughly explored around those prerequisites. Williams gives the crowd what they have come for, but also offers up fresh concepts and unexpected flourishes that prevent the production from ever appearing unoriginal or unambitious. Williams’ vision does not rewrite the 400 year-old play, and neither does it add significantly to its themes and ideas, but he uses the text to explore the nature of the art form in all its physical and emotive possibilities. The audience’s early excitement is further amplified, when we discover upon stepping into the venue, that our tickets point to seats located on the stage itself, and we are positioned so that the auditorium come into full view and our more familiar chairs have become the backdrop. The meaning of this radical reversion is open and unexplained, but it seems the director wishes to keep us close to the action by placing us directly on stage with the performers.

The production begins as though we are observing a casual reading, with the only discernible element of set design being a simple table (that seems to find its way into every rehearsal space). The cast appears in nondescript clothing, looking more regular than average Joes on the streets of Sydney. None of the grandeur of fictitious kingdoms, or the formalities associated with Shakespeare are present. Disappointment in the production’s minimalism is soon dispelled when the first murder takes place, and a series of fantastical effects begins to unfold. Supernaturalism figures heavily in Shakespeare’s writing, and the depiction of a world that is half earth, half hell is a striking gesture from Williams’ directorial hand. His ghostly atmospherics are deftly created by production designer Alice Babidge’s ingenuity, together with the adventurous efforts of lighting designer Nick Schlieper and the insidious talents of Max Lyandvert, composer and sound designer. It comes as no surprise that Sydney Theatre Company delivers a technically proficient show, but the stage craft in their production of Macbeth, shows flair and intuition in addition to expertise.

Hugo Weaving as Macbeth is absolutely captivating, perhaps unsurprisingly so. The role is wildly imagined and Weaving’s impressive range is exposed dramatically. The actor’s control of voice and body is confident and skilled, and his thorough exploration of the text translates into a dynamic performance that keeps us delighted and entertained. Acting on this stage is professional and committed, but characters are distant. We watch their stories with fascination, but we are not always emotionally engaged. Performances are thoughtful and calculated, but they do not always resonate viscerally, and can sometimes lack an intuitive energy. Weaving’s work in the “dagger scene” is clear in its motivations, showing us the onset of the character’s descent into madness, but the impending consequences that befall him do not translate with enough power. We do not sense sufficiently the grave danger that awaits him, but when emotions of regret take hold later in the piece, Weaving’s mastery truly shines.

The other famed soliloquy, Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, is similarly underwhelming. Melita Jurisic plays her role with an alluring extravagance, but the heightened lunacy at her final scene feels almost too predictable after presenting a Lady Macbeth who had already seemed quite deranged from the start. Nevertheless, Jurisic’s intensity adds a sensational energy of avant-gardism that gives the production a sophisticated modern edge. Her anti-naturalist style fits beautifully with the show’s paranormal quality, and the toughness that she injects into the role keeps us mesmerised. Paula Arundell crosses gender and ethnic boundaries to play a compelling Banquo. Arundell’s work has a natural authenticity that helps create a character that is consistently believable, and her considerable stage presence gives Banquo an effortless palpability. Her star quality is pronounced even at the scene of the feast, where she plays an apparition, wordless and with little movement. There is an appealing stillness that she delivers, which our eyes very readily gravitate towards.

Williams’ use of space is a greater achievement than his use of Shakespeare’s script. His determination and love for theatrical experimentation is exhilarating to witness, and while his concepts might have been inspired by Macbeth, they can appear quite divorced from the text itself. Furthermore, the story and its characters often feel subsumed by the grandness of his aspirations. The narrative is a majestic one and it resists abatement. We want to be swept away by its drama and tragedy, but our indulgence in all the spectacle takes precedence and our senses struggle to form a meaningful reconciliation between form and content. This is a strong production with artistic merit emerging from all aspects and faculties, and although it connects more with our senses that it does with our emotions, what we see and hear is utterly breathtaking.

Waiting For Godot (Sydney Theatre Company)

godotVenue: Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Nov 12 – Dec 21, 2013
Playwright: Samuel Beckett
Director: Andrew Upton
Actors: Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast, Luke Mullins

Theatre review
Andrew Upton was brought in last minute to direct Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Waiting For Godot. The original director had taken ill, so the company’s artistic director steps up to the challenge, and, like a blessing in disguise, presents to us a skilfully crafted rendition of Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece. The script’s absurdist nature, along with its surreal elements are retained, but the work lays emphasis on psychological validity, which allows for a more accessible reading and indeed, a very entertaining night at the theatre. Upton’s interpretation of Beckett’s words encourages his audience to reflect upon existentialist themes, such as death, memory, isolation, time, and of course, life itself. One would argue that Beckett’s script might be legendary, but when in the wrong hands, those themes easily become muddled and obtuse, In this case however, his ideas are intriguing and thought-provoking. There is still a sense of abstraction in Upton’s version of events, but the show provides excellent inspiration for a good intellectual work out.

The star studded cast does a great job of luring huge numbers of punters into the theatre, and they do more than their fair share of pleasing the crowds. Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh are truly brilliant. Their genius fills the auditorium, and we are privileged to witness their craft in motion. Of course, having such a rich text to play with does provide them with a solid platform on which to showcase the depth of their abilities, but they are both able to bring out so much life and meaning from it, and the level of poignancy they create in a single show is a remarkable achievement. Roxburgh is a surprisingly funny performer. His comic timing is impressive, and the laughter he creates prevents the show from developing overly dark. Weaving has the uncanny ability to make every utterance sound profound, and his use of silence and stillness to drive a point through is simply masterful.

Sydney Theatre Company’s Waiting For Godot is a hit. As a theatrical production, it entertains and inspires; and as a work of art, it challenges and confounds. It gives you a guiding hand to hold on to, but will not give away all its secrets and mysteries. It strikes the balance between accessibility and wonderment, and leaves us with a better, more open (and thinking) mind.