Review: Dark Vanilla Jungle (Mad March Hare Theatre Company)

madmarchVenue: Old 505 Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Sep 1 -12, 2015
Playwright: Philip Ridley
Directors: Fiona Hallenan-Barker & Emma Louise
Cast: Claudia Barrie
Image by Daina Marie Photography

Theatre review
Finding a way to accurately articulate the problems that our societies face is never easy. We can come up with convenient sound bites that attempt to encapsulate what it is that we mean, but we risk trivialising issues through the abstractions that inevitably come with semantic abbreviations. Philip Ridley’s Dark Vanilla Jungle does the opposite. In his deeply harrowing one-woman play, teenager Andrea is the lightning rod at which our failures as a modern community converge. In its oppressive 90 minute duration, we are presented a life experienced through endless days of horror, none of which are due to any fault of Andrea’s own. Her innocence is the target of every evil that walks the planet, while all that is good lays comatose and unable to provide any protection. The story is about sexism, capitalism and poverty, the disintegration of community, and the dissolution of humanity that is occurring in our contemporary lives. It is raw, unflinchingly cruel, and devastating, but it is important.

Under the direction of Fiona Hallenan-Barker and Emma Louise, the production becomes an exercise in the depiction of pain. We are an audience numbed by the 24-hour news cycle, calloused by images of dead children appearing alongside idiot billionaires running for office. The need to communicate trauma is urgent in Dark Vanilla Jungle, and its persistence overwhelms our natural impulse to evade its barrage of very dark emotions. The long script is subtly broken up into sections presented with astute tonal variations that keep us engaged, and the gradual revelations in its narrative are handled with a finesse that provide just enough shock value so that their gravity is communicated without being unduly sensationalist or distracting. The use of a clear plastic curtain separating us from the action builds a sentimental and cerebral distance that may encourage more analysis in the viewing experience, but the sacrifice in terms of an opportunity for more emotional involvement is perhaps too great. The show is an undeniably intense one, but the plot structure requires greater care in its second half to sustain its power. After some unbelievably harsh details are divulged, the play falls into a disappointing slump, which it eventually does recover from, but the flaw is an apparent one in an otherwise extremely accomplished rendition of a very difficult text.

Claudia Barrie’s astounding performance as Andrea impresses with a savage depth that is rarely encountered. Her fearlessness in embodying such a degree of gruesome atrocity gives us nowhere to hide, and we can only respond with compassion. The earthly complexity she manufactures, together with the portrayal of her character’s fundamental pureness, gives Andrea a palpable authenticity that we connect closely and immediately with. We are angered by her torment and wish to protect her, and this instinct makes us examine stories like hers, and other injustices of our world, with renewed resolve and passion. Even in the darkest winters of the Antarctica, flowers are poised to bloom. Life is resilient beyond our conception, but our neglect of the disadvantaged is a transgression that needs to be rescinded at this moment.

5 Questions with Fiona Hallenan-Barker and Benjamin Brockman

Fiona Hallenan-Barker

Fiona Hallenan-Barker

Benjamin Brockman: Tell me a bit about yourself?
Fiona Hallenan-Barker: My name is Fiona and I’m a theatre-holic… I am a freelance theatre director, part-time theatre programmer, graduate of Theatre Nepean and Victorian College of Arts, dramaturg, producer, teacher, photographer, arts advocate, wife to a classical archaeologist and co-owner of a cavoodle named Kubrick.

How did you come to be here?
I had worked with Mad March Hare a couple of years ago on fantastic project at The Old 505 Theatre called Still by Jane Bodie. My co-director Emma Louise and I have worked together many times before; the latest was when I directed Philip Ridley’s Piranha Heights for the Spare Room. Ridley is a brilliant writer and a very generous artist. Meeting him in London, seeing his work there and talking about his aesthetic, I became an even bigger fan. He has a tremendous body of work: The Pitchfork Disney, The Fastest Clock in the Universe, Vincent River, Mercury Fur, Radiant Vermin, Shivered and so many more plays and films. His kids’ books are tremendous too. So, of course I jumped at the chance to come on-board this beautiful, one-woman show.

In every show that you have done is there a reoccurring item, why?
Oh, the bed thing. Yes, I always seem to work with beds – I also never work with black-outs or clocks on stage (for obvious reasons). Beds are fantastic to work with as they are so meaningful in a range of contexts from domestic, to clinical, to public anonymous spaces. Of the 20 or so productions I have directed, only one or two haven’t had a bed; in the laboratory with actors they provide a safe area for violent, physical exploration as well. When Emma and I started delving into Dark Vanilla Jungle, one of the first things we talked about was having a bed; so, yes, we can guarantee that it will feature in this production too.

If you could pick one song that would form the soundtrack of your life, what would it be, and why?
That’s a good one, like most theatre makers my soundtrack to life is very much about the music used in each show, so it’s a very eclectic mix. In Dark Vanilla Jungle Philip Ridley wrote the lyrics to a beautiful song by Dreamskin Candle called Ladybird Fist. It is a beautiful, gentle Laura Marling-esque type melody with some amazing lyrics that are pure Ridley:

My lovers hands hold me close at night.
….His warm embrace fills my dark with light.
…But I have seen his fist sometimes and that fist is speckled in red
For red is the colour of love he said
Now kiss my ladybird fist, sweet love…

Have a listen on iTunes. Or – even better – come along to the show.

On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being the lowest 10 being the highest) how awesomely easy are you to work with?
Obviously a 10 out of 10, hang on, we haven’t even gone into tech week yet so maybe a 7 at this point. But my dog did eat your shoes in one of our design meetings so that’s at least an 8. Okay, how about 10 out of 10 for the overall project. You know Ben, we have the potential to go all the way to 11 if you will reconsider a revolve, live animals, and some pyro….

Benjamin Brockman

Benjamin Brockman

Fiona Hallenan-Barker: As one of Sydney’s most prolific designers, what have you been working on recently?
Benjamin Brockman: Prolific? Ha, in other words ‘a whore’! To answer this question I had to look at my website ( shameless plug) and I counted that so far I have done 17 shows this year and so it is hard to remember what was when. But recently I lit Great Island at 107 Project on 24 hours’ notice; that was a blast (when in doubt add strobe lights). I then lit Detroit at Darlinghurst Theatre Company which I really enjoyed as I got to play with projection as a light source. Finally, Space Cats about a week ago was a showing of a new cabaret/musical about sexually depraved cats from outer space. Coming up I have The Aliens at the Old Fitz (August), Dark Vanilla Jungle and a tour of Vampire Lesbians Of Sodom to Melbourne.

What is your signature item (and no, it can’t be a gel colour)
What! I can’t pick a colour? Well if I could pick a colour it would be Lee 139 which is Primary Green. I am notorious for trying to sneak green into my shows whereever I can. But since I cannot pick a colour, I have to say I am a really big user and collector of gobos – which are a mixture of metal or glass discs that go in to lights to create texture or images with light. Not many can understand my love of gobos but they just add some much texture to light, giving a heightened sense of movement and a really easy way to give a sense of location. You have an outside scene? Just add cloud gobos!

How do you translate yours and the creative team’s vision of the play into the physical space in Philip Ridley’s world?
This is a hard one. When reading a play often I come up with one image that speaks to me the most and through discussion with other people it helps me to develop the ideas. We then settle on something after hours of arguing and scrunched up paper. I am much better when taking about ideas with others because it helps me to come up with new ones and I also like working with people and directors who are open to discussion from all departments rather than being dictated to on what someone wants. If you have more than one brilliant mind in the room – use them. That then leads to references and then it is just a case of starting to research and start sourcing materials to fill the design that we have come up with. Within budget, of course.

Favourite line from Dark Vanilla Jungle and why?
Page 15 “Where am I now?…The light is so bright. I… I am laying on something cold.” Basically this line inspired me to come up with the design we have created.

What is your Concert of Shame? (ie are you going to shock us all by revealing you have seen Justin Bieber live three times?)
I am a religious watcher of Dance Moms. Each week I tune in to watch little girls get yelled at by Abby Lee Miller – and I love it! I have no shame…

Fiona Hallenan-Barker and Benjamin Brockman’s next show is Dark Vanilla Jungle by Philip Ridley, presenting as part of Sydney Fringe 2015.
Dates: 1 – 12 Sep, 2015
Venue: The Old 505 Theatre

Review: Shivered (Mad March Hare Theatre Company)

madmarchVenue: PACT Theatre (Erskineville NSW), May 7 – 30, 2015
Playwright: Philip Ridley
Director: Claudia Barrie
Cast: Josh Anderson, Joseph Del Re, Rhonda Doyl, Libby Fleming, Andrew Johnston, Brendan Miles, Liam Nunan

Theatre review
Illusory contours “are perceived where there is no physical luminance, colour or texture difference,” referring to our ability to see things that are not actually there. In the case of Philip Ridley’s Shivered, we form narratives and create meanings from a series of scenes that do not immediately relate to each other, almost as though in a state of delusion. Our human nature is explored not only in the stories being told, but also in the way the audience is encouraged to makes sense of all that is put on stage. Looking at our propensity to interpret events in a way that never strays far from “cause and effect”, it is an examination of logic, which the play suggests is sometimes insufficient, and indeed, futile. Ridley’s work deals with many of the worst things in life, and makes us wonder if we can ever think of our darkest moments as inevitable, and the ethical implications of being embroiled in disappointments and disasters that we do not have direct control over.

These are big philosophical considerations, but individual scenes are melodramatic, almost operatic, in nature. Director Claudia Barrie invests heavily into that duality of intellect and emotion, with a fierce dedication to her stagecraft, and her work here is effective on both those levels. We get caught up in intense family drama not unlike those favoured by tabloid journalism, but the work is unrelenting in placing us at a conceptual distance so that we are always analysing the catastrophic consequences from an abstract perspective, in addition to experiencing the anguish that is being performed. The text is an edgy one, and Barrie takes great care in having Ridley’s words articulated with excellent clarity, but with all the taboo subjects involved, the production often feels tame in its expression when compared to the controversies being discussed.

Light and set design by Benjamin Brockman delivers a sophisticated space that is able to portray abstraction or realism as required, sometimes simultaneously. It accommodates the haphazard timeline of the plot beautifully, and the starkness of his aesthetic matches the brutality of Ridley’s writing very well, but at over two hours, scene transitions become repetitive and predictable later in the piece. The economy of technology Brockman experiments with, though slightly restrictive, is a success story that signals a significant evolution in lighting for Sydney stages.

The cast is detailed and powerful. Every character in the show touches us, despite the outrageous contexts we find them in. Libby Fleming alternates between quite campy humour and palpable rawness, for an enthralling performance that is as fascinating as it is moving. Her impressive ability to portray depths of despair provides a solid core of empathy that keep us anxiously attentive. The connection Fleming establishes with her sons in the play is the crucial ingredient that secures the gravity for its various threads of turmoil. Also wonderfully engaging is Liam Nunan whose presentational style effervesces with extravagance, but with a surprisingly convincing focus that keeps us engaged. Josh Anderson plays the damaged young Ryan with quiet sensitivity, but the threatening intensity he produces teeters close to eruption, and we are fascinated by the complexity he consistently works into his role.

There are horrors around us, and they are by nature absurd, for if they were fathomable, they would also be preventable. Humanity necessitates that we make sense of things, but life often insists on defying logic to demonstrate its dominance over humans. Life is hard, but we are resilient. All the characters in Shivered struggle, and their persistence with survival means that in order to overcome, they have to figure things out, whether possible or not. No one in the play gives up, and that is the moral of the story.

Review: A Moment On The Lips (Mad March Hare Theatre Company / Sydney Independent Theatre Company)

madmarchhareVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Mar 4 – 22, 2014
Playwright: Jonathan Gavin
Director: Mackenzie Steele
Actors: Beth Aubrey, Sarah Aubrey, Claudia Barrie, Lucy Goleby, Sonya Kerr, Ainslie McGlynn, Sabryna Te’o
Image by Katy Green Loughrey

Theatre review
A Moment On The Lips is a play about the relationships between seven women in Sydney. Entangled as spouses, lovers, friends and sisters, they navigate a multitude of complex discordances, all of which are familiar and reflective of our personal lives. Jonathan Gavin’s script interweaves issues from personal and social spaces, with themes like ethnic and sexuality discrimination, converging with family and professional lives.

It is a tricky work to direct. The play seems to be about “first world problems”, so while we relate to the emotions being portrayed, there is a lack of gravity that makes the characters’ circumstances seem somewhat trivial. Mackenzie Steele succeeds in extracting passionate performances from his cast, and some of the tearful and emotional moments are excellent viewing, but the action always seems a little detached. The scenes are short, resulting in a fast-paced show that is entertaining and thoroughly engaging, but this also presents a challenge for creating depth in scenarios and personalities, making empathy difficult to establish.

Sabryna Te’o’s naturalistic portrayal as Bridget is a stand out in the cast. Her performance is a reactive one, which allows her to connect well with the other women. The importance of an actor who emphasises listening over speaking is demonstrated well here. The quality of understated authenticity Te’o brings to her role is refreshing. Ainslie McGlynn is a very funny actor. Her comic ability is truly excellent, giving a jolt of excitement whenever she appears to light up the stage as Anne. Her interpretation of mental illness is well handled. MGlynn loves to entertain, but takes care to give her character a sense of dignity through her multiple break downs. Lucy Goleby as Rowena is memorable in a scene where she confronts her homophobic sister. It is the single most powerful moment in the show, and a real visceral treat.

We are reminded several times, that “it is the little things”. The play wants us to realise not just the importance of relationships but also the subtleties within them. The things we say to each other may seem fleeting, but the words that sit a moment on our lips have effects that last beyond any intention. The destruction that comes from thoughtlessness can often be unpredictably severe. Relationships are hard, but it only takes a little care to turn love into a thing of nourishment.

5 Questions with Ainslie McGlynn

ainsliemcglynnWhat is your favourite swear word?
Darn 😉

What are you wearing?
Leopard print pants and a black singlet.

What is love?
Life force.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
Privates On Parade. 4 fabulous stars.

Is your new show going to be any good?
You’re kidding me?




Ainslie McGlynn is appearing in A Moment On The Lips, with Mad March Hare Theatre Company.
Show dates: 25 Mar – 12 Apr, 2014
Show venue: The Old Fitzroy Hotel

5 Questions with Lucy Goleby

lucygolebyWhat is your favourite swear word?
Probably douchebag. Not sure if it’s really a swear word, but it’s my go-to in times of annoyance!

What are you wearing?
Yoga gear, Lululemon tights and top, and a jumper I stole from my boyfriend.

What is love?
Love is like a colour. It’s impossible to describe but you know it when you see it.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
The last show I saw was Cosi at La Boite in Brisbane, directed by David Berthold. Cosi is such a fabulous and fun play, and the cast was great. 4/5 stars!

Is your new show going to be any good?
Well, I reckon it is, but I don’t like telling people what to think, so come along and decide for yourself!

Lucy Goleby is appearing in A Moment On The Lips, with Mad March Hare Theatre Company.
Show dates: 25 Mar – 12 Apr, 2014
Show venue: The Old Fitzroy Hotel

5 Questions with Sonya Kerr

sonyakerrWhat is your favourite swear word?
Bollocks. It’s fabulous to say, can be used for a variety of circumstances and you can add extra words to it to make it a positive i.e. the dog’s bollocks.

What are you wearing?
A Superman t-shirt, jeans and combat boots. Coz that’s how I roll!

What is love?
Baby don’t hurt me….sorry. Seriously though, love is sharing the last glass of wine.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
Technically, the last I saw was actually on – and it was Private Lives. 5 stars. (is that cheating?)

Is your new show going to be any good?
It’s going to be the dog’s bollocks!!

Sonya Kerr is appearing in A Moment On The Lips, with Mad March Hare Theatre Company.
Show dates: 25 Mar – 12 Apr, 2014
Show venue: The Old Fitzroy Hotel