Review: The Serpent’s Teeth (Kings Cross Theatre)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Nov 9 – 24, 2018
Playwright: Daniel Keene
Director: Kristine Landon-Smith
Cast: Danny Ball, Bernadette Fam, Phoebe Grainer, Nicholas Hasemann, Lisa Huyhn, Badaidilaga Maftuh-Flynn, Steven Menteith, Jillian Nguyen, Angela Sullen, Jens Radda, Joseph Raggatt, Saleh Saqqaf, Chloe Schwank, Louis Segeuir, Ross Sharp
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
The two very distinct halves of Daniel Keene’s The Serpent’s Teeth, contrast the repercussions of war and violence, as characterised by their distance from actual conflict. The play begins close to the action, and later takes us away from the borders, for a sensitive examination of human responses to trauma. Appropriately fractured, the writing bears an inherent chaos that understands our impulse to create cohesion out of disorder. We form narratives out of the rubble, to see both the familiar and the unfamiliar, although it is arguable if much of it proves to be satisfying.

In a small space that effectively magnifies creative intentions, the large cast of fifteen endeavour to represent the complexities and diversity of war-time experiences, by conveying nuanced portrayals usually absent from mainstream reportage of disaster and strife. Director Kristine Landon-Smith elicits contemplative performances from her actors, for a show though not always engaging, is dignified in its determination to maintain a restrained, rather than sensationalist, approach. Rare dramatic outbursts therefore become memorable, with Phoebe Grainer and Jillian Nguyen particularly strong in their theatrical moments, offering us a taste of something slightly indulgent, and therefore emotionally accessible.

All the people in The Serpent’s Teeth are acutely affected by wars taking place, whether in their own backyards or in foreign lands. The rest of us, although implicated in our nation’s battles, are often ignorant of those operations. It is this very ignorance that allows atrocities to be carried out on our behalf; we are culpable but are either blissfully unaware, or simply intimidated and turned helpless in the face of its enormity. Stories about war are careful to avoid its glorification, so the message is always unambiguous and predictable, yet our shared acknowledgement about these ravages, seem to do nothing to make this world a better place.

www.hbrcreatives.com.au

5 Questions with Phoebe Grainer and Jill Nguyen

Phoebe Grainer

Jill Nguyen: What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind as an artist, actor, writer? How do you want to be remembered?
Phoebe Grainer: I don’t care for words like legacy or how I want to be remembered. I want to live my life creating work and doing things that are meaningful, that I am empowering and uplifting my mob, the Kuku Djungan people and other Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.

What was the first play that captivated you and in some way defined you?
When I was in high school up in Broome, I went and seen a rehearsal of a play called Jandamarra. I’m not sure how I found out about it or even if I was allowed to go watch but I was there. Jandamarra is a legend of the the Bunuba people up that way, he is a warrior and a leader who defends his country, his mob. When I saw this rehearsal, all Aboriginal cast, talking language. It was beautiful. I had never seen anything like it. I just remember thinking wow, I want to do that.

What’s been the biggest learning lesson so far in your journey with The Serpent’s Teeth?
I think it’s been a reminder of how hard you need to work for things you want to do.

Favourite pre, during and post rehearsal snacks?
I have been eating so much Thai fried rice and chicken nuggets!

As an Indigenous Australian artist, what advice can you give for the next generation of young Indigenous people who want to pursue creative dreams?
Speak to the old people, Elders, your grandparents and parents. Culture is important and we need to keep it strong. Always know why you do the things you do, creatively, professionally and in everyday life, give back to your community. Critically think about the world. Know that you can do the things that you want to do.

Jill Nguyen

Phoebe Grainer: What was your experience like growing up as a Vietnamese-Australian woman in Melbourne?
Jill Nguyen: As a kid, I never felt that different to anyone else. The inner west of Melbourne where I grew up was super diverse, which was wonderful. Asian, black, white, everyone. It wasn’t until I went to university at 18, that I was quite shocked by how little some people knew about Asians in general. I did do Arts at Melbourne Uni, which was pretty white. I’ve experienced racism of all kinds, ranging from subtle to downright overt, and it’s only made me more resilient. In saying that, I am so lucky to have grown up in Melbourne. It’s my home.

How did you get into acting?
After 3 years of higher education, working full time at the bank and travelling overseas for a year and having my soul crushed in between, I came to my senses and decided to follow my dream. I started taking acting classes 2 years ago and I haven’t looked back since! I just jumped into the deep end and worked really, really, really hard to get myself out there. It doesn’t happen overnight.

Who did you look up to on your journey to becoming an actor?
Honestly, I didn’t have too many Asian females to look up to, but I always loved Marilyn Monroe a lot. In recent years, I have felt really empowered by Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh and Gemma Chan, all power houses in their own right. They light my fire.

Has the Vietnamese-Australian community reacted to your work, if so how? And how has the wider Australian community reacted to your work?
I guess my journey has just begun in some ways and I’m really excited for Viets all over the world to see my work. I was recently cast in Justin Kurzel’s True History Of The Kelly Gang, as Molly Kane. I act alongside Nicholas Hoult, George McKay and Thomasin McKenzie. I’m hoping a young and impressionable Vietnamese girl sees me in this feature and somehow has the confidence to follow her dreams too.

What does it mean for you to be a woman of colour in the arts?
It means everything to me. When people say things like “oh race doesn’t matter”, I feel an invisible slap in the face. Well, of course it matters. My heritage is Vietnamese, Chinese. I’m not going to run away from that. People of colour have been historically marginalised, purely based on the colour of their skin. I think my presence and contribution to the arts in film or theatre is political in its’ own right. I won’t stop creating, fighting and hustling. For so long, the realm of the art world and film, in the western world has been exclusively white, male dominated and right now, is the best time to change it up, completely. I feel a sense of solidarity with other women of colour artists too.

Phoebe Grainer and Jill Nguyen can be seen in The Serpent’s Teeth by Daniel Keene.
Dates: 9 – 24 Nov, 2018
Venue: Kings Cross Theatre

Review: Two Hearts (The Anchor Theatre Company)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Oct 19 – Nov 3, 2018
Playwright: Laura Lethlean
Director: Jessica Arthur
Cast: Phoebe Grainer, Damon Manns, Eliza Scott
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Girl meets boy at an inner-city house party, and they quickly fall in love. What follows is predictable, in an inevitable way perhaps, with things between the young couple taking shape like all the romantic narratives before, as though human connections can never stray far from established repetitious forms. In Laura Lethlean’s Two Hearts, love and sex are an exhilarating phenomenon, yet simultaneously, nauseatingly benign, except for the inclusion of a mysterious figure roaming the periphery, occasionally interjecting for gentle disruptions to the very ordinary story.

Tranquil and delicate, director Jessica Arthur’s approach makes for a show distinctively ethereal in tone, with an endearing cast helping to sustain our interest. Leading lady Eliza Scott’s playful exuberance and impressive lack of pretension, are valuable components to her engaging presence. Damon Manns brings outstanding ingenuity to his role, cleverly creating unexpected dimensions, to elevate a character that could otherwise be awkwardly pedestrian. The tricky part of the hallucinatory third-wheel is played by Phoebe Grainer, whose quiet concentration and honest impulses, provide an elegant solution to the play’s surreal aspects.

Two Hearts is in some ways a work about regret, a painful state of being, involving intense emotions that refuse to dissipate. We are held hostage, suspended in time but heavy with irreconcilable memories, partially paralysed and acutely embittered. It endures, because we fear the duplication of those grave mistakes, unable to trust that lessons have been learned. To let go of regret, is a simple idea, but being human is seldom a convenient exercise; the journey between inspiration and fruition is almost never the straightest and shortest distance between two points. We can only try to visualise the destination, and try to move ourselves in the right direction. Success may or may not come to pass, but stagnation is the only failure we must avoid.

www.facebook.com/AnchorTheatre

Review: Yen (New Ghosts Theatre Company)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Sep 27 – Oct 13, 2018
Playwright: Anna Jordan
Director: Lucy Clements
Cast: Jeremi Campese, Meg Clarke, Ryan Hodson, Hayley Pearl
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Brothers Bobbie and Hench are young teenagers, left to fend for themselves with only media screens and addicts as role models. Maggie is their desperately incompetent single mother, having lost both her sons’ fathers to early deaths, in this world of substance abuse and poverty. A neighbour Jennifer enters their life as a ray of hope, but in Anna Jordan’s Yen, our capacity for optimism is put to the test, as we interrogate the nature of social change and its delusory qualities, in this hyperrealist depiction of inter-generational disadvantage.

Situated in the dingiest corners of an English council estate, where the boys disintegrate in the most spectacular fashion, we observe their loss of innocence, and in its place, all the evidence of imminent wasted lives. Jordan’s writing is undeniably moving, but also marvellously thrilling. Yen is a showcase that consolidates the many deficiencies of our communities, with pointed critiques that never feel excessively didactic.

It is very gripping drama, and under the astute direction of Lucy Clements, entertaining and immensely involving. Clements has us breathless for the show’s two-hour entirety, as the story takes us through universal themes of family, love, sex, violence and redemption. Visually compelling, the production is meticulously designed by Ester Karuso-Thurn (set and costumes) and Louise Mason (lights) who deliver a surprising range of spatial transformations within restrictive confines of the stifling context. Sound by Chrysoulla Markoulli is impressively exacting, in all its manipulations of atmosphere. There is remarkable sensitivity from all disciplines, that allows its audience to engage at exceptional depth.

The staging features four fantastic actors, each one convincing and enthralling in their respective parts. 14-year-old Bobbie is played by the very industrious Jeremi Campese, whose extremely detailed approach offers up an interminably fascinating study of troubling juvenility. His extraordinary vitality insists on our compassion, even when the going gets tough. Hayley Pearl’s portrayal of the neglectful mother, has us angered and heartbroken. It is a controversial character uncompromisingly presented, by a very sharp and daring performer. Meg Clarke and Ryan Hodson are the not-so-sweet sixteens, both authentic, and tremendously revelatory of the adolescent experience, through their beautifully naturalistic renderings of Jennifer and Hench. The coupling of vulnerability and aggression in all these interpretations, are a joy to behold, as well as being meaningfully confronting.

In Yen, we see our structural failures take place within spaces that are personal and isolated. We come to an understanding that the only way for individual lives to flourish, is for the environments in which they exist to actively promote that betterment. Little can be achieved, when we leave the needy to their own devices. We chastise and condemn those who suffer, unwilling to see our complicity in people’s inability to grow, choosing only to attribute blame to their otherness. Good lives cannot exist in isolation; it takes a village to raise a child, and to lavish care on most everything else.

www.newghoststheatre.com

5 Questions with Jeremi Campese and Meg Clarke

Jeremi Campese

Meg Clarke: If you could be any animal what would it be and why?
Jeremi Campese: My dog, Bobbie (genuinely his name). I guess domestic dogs in general; who wouldn’t? Everything’s covered: food, water, food, love, bed, cuddles, exercise and cuddles.

What would you like the audience to take away and learn from Yen?
Without insisting that the audience feel a certain way, it’d be great if they feel conflicted, particularly about the boys. They’re endearing in so many ways, but are the exact opposite in others; so I hope people will find themselves wanting to appreciate all their nuances. How our society raises boys is at the heart of the play, and I’d really like audiences to see that the way we meet them isn’t just on account of their choices, but is far more comprehensive than that. It’s a result of broader social perceptions of sex, women, and violence that they’ve internalised so quickly.

As a man do you feel any differently about men in society after this play? And what have you learnt about your own masculinity?
Certainly boys. In playing someone like Bobbie and researching boys in these contexts, you see how malleable and easily influenced they are by their circumstances. With the wrong role models and the wrong exposure, awful things happen. For me, I’m only 20. I’m still developing, learning and growing. So much of this play (apart from being an incredible piece of theatre) has been both cautionary tale and one of the most profound exercises in empathy.

What is your favourite sound and most hated noise?
Favourite sound is probably Cynthia Erivo singing. That woman’s vocal chords were crafted by angels. But my most hated noise is definitely my alarm clock… it is cruel; full of sound and fury.

What’s your favourite line in Yen?
So many to choose from! Anna is so good at bringing lines back throughout the show in different contexts. The one I think she does best is, “Family’s important, don’t you think?”

Meg Clarke

Jeremi Campese: What’s your biggest guilty pleasure?
Meg Clarke: It’s very hard to think of the biggest because I feel like I have a lot. Like any well adjusted 20 something year old, I’ve wasted many hours eating sloppy food in my bed and re-watching Gossip Girl and The O.C. probably about 16 times now (and that includes season 4 after Marissa dies… embarrassing but true). Sometimes I truly believe that the Black Eyed Peas are the most underrated musical phenomenon of all time and I really get into watching hours of YouTube footage of people falling over and injuring themselves in bike accidents… that last one really makes me sound sinister.

What was your reaction when you first read Yen?
It was a bit of an emotional roller coaster to be honest. I laughed my way through the first half, I cried somewhere in the middle and by the end felt incredibly ill. I also felt a very overwhelming desire to play the character of Hench, but now I can’t imagine anyone but the beautiful Ryan Hodson in that role. Halfway through the first page I knew I wanted to be a part of the production. I think it’s such an important piece of writing to be showing in the current climate and the content hits really close to home for me. I thought ‘thank god someone wrote a play about this!’ But I don’t want to give too much away! To be honest, the only apprehension I had on my first read was “how on earth do you do a Welsh accent?!” 

What do you love most about Anna Jordan’s writing?
Anna’s writing is so incredibly nuanced and delicate. It’s hyper realistic. I love how honest it is, no frills! Which makes it so much easier as an actor because every time you’re in doubt about your intention or how your character is feeling, the answers are all right there in the script. I’m also impressed by how well she can write completely from the inner truth of four very different people. 

Who is Jenny in 3 words?
Number 1: Empath (most empathetic person I know) 
Number 2: Fierce (I want to say fearless, but nobody really is) 
Number 3: Un-prejudiced 

What’s your favourite smell?
Jeremi’s mums cooking, haha. But also Basil, basil is ultimate smell joy. If it was socially acceptable to walk around with basil shoved up your nose, I’d be the face of that movement. In fact when Yen closes… 

Jeremi Campese and Meg Clarke can be seen in Yen by Anna Jordan.
Dates: 27 Sep – 13 Oct, 2018
Venue: Kings Cross Theatre

Review: Ironbound (An Assorted Few)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Aug 31 – Sep 15, 2018
Playwright: Martyna Majok
Director: Alastair Clark
Cast: Abe Mitchell, Ryan Morgan, Gabrielle Scawthorn, Benedict Wall
Images by Jasmin Simmons

Theatre review
We see Darja at different periods of her life, but whether she is in her twenties, thirties or forties, poverty remains the central defining feature of her misfortunes. Scenes in Martyna Majok’s Ironbound take place at a New Jersey bus stop, where Darja is always hoping to go somewhere, but never does. Between working two jobs, and relying on a series of men for help, her situation refuses to improve, no matter how much she tries.

Majok’s play presents the American Dream as a lie, arguing against the notion that hard work alone is the key to salvation. Darja is a female Polish immigrant, thoroughly disadvantaged, and seen by society to be no more than a worker ant. She has only her hopes and dreams to cling to, unaware that those who have sold her those aspirations, are also the very ones who stand to benefit greatest from her destitution. All she does is work for the man, and all the man wants, is to keep things unchanged.

Even though socially pertinent, Ironbound is not necessarily a story with universal appeal. It dispenses valuable information, but is also inevitably dreary. Director Alastair Clark has the unenviable task of making entertainment from experiences of poverty, which is difficult as well as being morally precarious, but he negotiates those lines well, for an engaging show that always has its heart in the right place.

Leading a very strong cast is Gabrielle Scawthorn, immensely authentic in the role of Darja, with a portrayal of desperation that is deeply thought-provoking. We do respond to her story with a level of pity, but it is ultimately the wider questions being raised that stay with us thereafter. Benedict Wall brings a surprising complexity to love interest Tommy, facilitating profound contemplation about the meaning of love, in this age of advanced capitalism. Darja’s first husband Maks is played by Abe Mitchell, an endearing presence with a wonderfully dynamic approach, signalling the end of innocence in the Western world. The young and privileged Vic is brought to exuberant life by Ryan Morgan, charming and humorous, in his depictions of our systemic injustices.

We want Darja’s suffering to end, but Ironbound refuses to sugar-coat any of its truths. She fights tooth and nail for a good life, but the world is determined to keep her down. It is a story about people who never stood a chance, and the lies we are fed to sustain the inhumane status quo of our calamitous inequities. Education and knowledge, and therefore art, can help set us free, that is true, but it is unlikely that the likes of Darja will ever get to see a work of theatre like this.

www.facebook.com/anassortedfew

Review: You Got Older (Mad March Hare Theatre Company)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jul 13 – Aug 4, 2018
Playwright: Clare Barron
Director: Claudia Barrie
Cast: Alex Beauman, Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Ainslie McGlynn, Sarah Meacham, Gareth Rickards, Steve Rodgers, Cody Ross
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Mae has come home, to care for her father as he undergoes cancer treatment. Clare Barron’s You Got Older is a look at that moment, of suddenly becoming keenly aware of one’s parents’ mortality. In every process of healing, of trying to make someone better, is the salient reminder that life is fragile. Mae is strong for her father, but in the privacy of her own thoughts, anxiety and grief manifest in fantasies of sexual masochism. Role playing is after all, how we are able to get through most of our days.

The subject matter may be heavy, but like the resilience of our human spirit, the show is determined to keep buoyant and optimistic. Director Claudia Barrie brings excellent humour to the production. Although not exactly lighthearted, we are surprised by the delight and joy that the play brings, through its very enjoyable and richly authentic explorations of love and family dynamics. There is no angsty drama here, only a father and his beloved children grappling with the pain of inevitable separation.

A very solid cast takes us through this universal tale. Harriet Gordon-Anderson is entirely convincing as Mae, with all her contradictions and vulnerabilities, but the actor is particularly successful at conveying a strength that is neither heroic nor exceptional, but that is nonetheless profound in its representation of the good that we are capable of. The paternal character is played by a confidently understated Steve Rodgers, who introduces just enough pathos to have us engaged, leaving us grateful that no emotional blackmailing takes place in this presentation. Contributing to the somewhat unexpected elegance of You Got Older are its supporting actors, each one charming and funny, and as a group, perfectly timed and wonderfully captivating.

When someone close is suffering ill health, those on the sidelines might be left feeling helpless, but we also understand that fundamental to the patient’s well-being, is the spiritual care and support we are required to provide. In times of hardship, fear can easily overwhelm, but courage often appears, allowing love to do its job.

www.madmarchtheatreco.com