Review: Bliss (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jun 9 – Jul 15, 2018
Playwright: Peter Carey (adapted for the stage by Tom Wright)
Director: Matthew Lutton
Cast: Marco Chiappi, Mark Coles Smith, Will McDonald, Amber McMahon, Charlotte Nicdao, Susan Prior, Anna Samson, Toby Truslove
Images by Pia Johnson

Theatre review
Harry Joy escapes a narrow death, but in the return to consciousness, he is no longer the same. Peter Carey’s 1981 novel Bliss is the story of an archetypal ad man, exemplary only in the mediocrity that he embodies, coming to the realisation that the hell he endures is in fact present in the here and now, and not a figment about a foreboded afterlife. Tom Wright’s adaptation for the stage is appropriately surreal, as Joy begins to see the absurdity of the world that he inhabits. Scenes are whimsically comedic, with a flamboyant sense of neurosis that makes for amusing theatre, but its tale of redemption feels surprisingly distant. The central concerns in Bliss remain relevant, but 37 years is a long while for us to retain meaningful identification with its plot and people.

Although little of the content has been updated for our times, director Matthew Lutton’s stylistic choices are undeniably au courant, inventive and imaginative. Sprightly, with a little acerbity, it is an energetic production, spouting clever ideas at every turn. The moral of its story can seem too basic, and obvious, but the show’s structural complexities keep us attentive. Marg Horwell’s set is a simple concept that proves highly effective in shifting dimensions, thereby conveying time and space in a dynamic manner. Paul Jackson’s big, blunt lighting transformations give us lots of delicious drama, and Stefan Gregory’s music has a quirky edge that is delightfully unpredictable.

Actor Toby Truslove is a credible leading man, especially persuasive in moments of melancholy. His quiet but confident interpretation of the play’s humour, brings a subtlety that offers refreshing juxtaposition against a lot of theatrical commotion. As Bettina Joy, Amber McMahon’s rigorous elucidations are as illuminating as they are entertaining. The performer is to be admired for the integrity she is able to introduce, to a character who is destroyed for daring to follow her bliss. Marco Chiappi and Susan Prior are memorable for the boldness of their satire, both personalities radiant and irresistibly funny on this stage.

There can never be enough stories warning us about the single-minded pursuit of money. The seductive powers of materialism seem to grow ever so exponentially, no matter how much we are told of its dangers. The all-or-nothing propositions of Bliss however, give it a quality of the parable, the kind that conclude with unrealistic resolutions that will struggle to deliver inspiration. It is easy to say that the root of all evil is money, but much harder to find an alternate undertaking, when one is deeply entrenched in the deceptive glory of gold.

www.belvoir.com.au | www.malthousetheatre.com.au

Review: Going Down (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 2 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Mar 23 – May 5, 2018
Playwright: Michele Lee
Director: Leticia Cáceres
Cast: Paul Blenheim, Catherine Davies, Josh Price, Naomi Rukavina, Jenny Wu
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
After the publication of her first book, young author Natalie finds herself at a crisis of authenticity. What she had thought to be a good representation of her life and times, has turned out a commercial disappointment. In the search for success, she embarks on a process of self-redefinition. Michele Lee’s Going Down is a tricky story to tell. The play begins at a point where we have to watch our protagonist cave in, to societal pressures that are determined to tell her that she is inadequate. Early scenes feature a confident woman being attacked for not producing a commercially viable product in her autobiography, and although she does offer some resistance, the premise of Going Down is that society wears Natalie down, transforming her from self-assured to self-doubting. Although we discover that society is ultimately right in its estimation of Natalie, as her story does lead to a conclusion of greater fulfilment, it remains a matter of contention that a young woman’s self belief should be defeated by market forces and community.

The spirit of the writing however, is undeniably vibrant, and the production is accordingly energetic and colourful. Set and costumes by The Sisters Hayes, along with lights by Sian James-Holland, are humorous and playful, completely delightful in their interpretation of the world inhabited by a youthful Melbournite. Much of the show’s comedy is reliant on visual cues, and the creatives are certainly excellent in this regard. Music too, is incisively formulated to reflect the culture being represented. Composer and sound designer The Sweats does marvellously to tell us precisely who these characters are, and in the process keeps us invigorated and entertained.

The extraordinary Catherine Davies plays Natalie, feisty yet vulnerable, for a character memorable for her passionate full throttle approach to living life. We are convinced by all that the actor offers, whether portraying juvenile antics or deep awakenings, her performance of the role is utterly perfect. The supporting cast is also effective and very funny. They play a big range of personalities, many of whom are weird and whacky, and thoroughly amusing. Director Leticia Cáceres has put together an inventive show, charming in its quirkiness. Her ability to infuse each moment of Going Down with layers of meaning, keeps us engaged, with both our instinctual and intellectual capacities.

It is difficult however, to find Natalie’s story entirely satisfying. Maybe being an ethnic minority does prevent one from being unfettered and wholly buoyant. Natalie is not a white woman, and the play questions if she can ever write a book that is blind to race. We wonder if she can ever put race aside, or if she will forever be talking about her Asian heritage. This is an honest conundrum, one that is worthy of considerable analysis. Natalie must be regarded as autonomous, for she is a grown woman, but our relentless expectations of her as one of the tribe must influence her conceptions of autonomy. The matter is a troubling one, and it awaits further exploration.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: The Homosexuals, Or Faggots (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Mar 17 – Apr 29, 2017
Playwright: Declan Greene
Director: Lee Lewis
Cast: Mama Alto, Simon Burke, Simon Corfield, Genevieve Lemon, Lincoln Younes
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Faggots are a kind of meatball dish, but the word is not usually used for that particular meaning. Like the n-word and the c-word, we have learned that some language has to be curbed, due to the power it exerts over the disenfranchised, who have to be protected from the cruelty that linguistic ammunition can brandish.

In Declan Greene’s important and ultra-modern work, The Homosexuals, Or Faggots, we investigate the nature of this constraint, not only in how we speak, but also in the lived experience of how we negotiate with each other’s positions in society. It is a discussion about the levels of privilege different groups of people are perceived to be inhabiting, and the layers of truth and illusion within those differentials. We think of each other as being certain types of people who exist on various hierarchical levels, but these can be misconstrued.

Warren and Kim are an inner-Sydney gay couple, both white and cis-male*. Having emerged from the systematic prejudice of homosexuals in earlier decades, they are now a part of the establishment; wealthy and entitled. Being the first generation of gays who live openly and free from persecution, their lives are self-imagined, with no prior examples to emulate. Their values have to be invented, and what constitutes a good life becomes a confusing ordeal. New to being top dog of Australian society, they are expected to be compassionate and altruistic, having tolerated insistent subjugation in previous years, but the couple is engrossed in their newfound prosperity, unable to behave in accordance with the responsibilities required of them, or are perhaps simply oblivious to their own elitism.

It is a highly intellectual exercise, dressed up in a lot of low-brow theatricality. Inspired by classic European farce, the show is rowdy, rude and ridiculous, but each of its uproarious manoeuvres is meticulously informed by the progressive politics that burns at its core. The audience relates to the work with a demanding complexity, laughing at every antic but engaging intimately with its cutting edge ideas. The action happens very quickly, and our minds are in a frenzy trying to decide right from wrong, real from false. Director Lee Lewis leaves us no room to breathe, insisting that we are swept up in the anxiety-fuelled mania, of her timely and accurate portrait of life in Sydney, 2017.

The hysterical and sweaty ensemble gives us everything. Simon Burke’s portrayal of middle-aged hedonism is as frantic as the cocaine that cushions his luxuriant existence, and although the production provides little room for nuance, his Warren is a character many of us will find familiar, convincing and unexpectedly sympathetic. His husband, Kim is preoccupied with all things academic, but much as he thinks intently about the world, he too lives on the surface. Simon Corfield’s exquisite performance of that duality is perfectly tuned, and incredible to watch. Also memorable is Genevieve Lemon as Diana, the only person on stage with a real soul. Confidently comedic, yet persuasively moving, Lemon makes us laugh and cry as she wills.

Political correctness may seem to be outmoded, but it remains a necessary protection against ignorance, wilful or otherwise. When we see idiots get voted into government, it is clear that hate is a form of currency that never stops working. The harmful things that people say, do in fact benefit those who trade in fear and stupidity. It is understandable then, that those same people would want to expand the parameters of concepts around freedom of speech. This week, our Caucasian Prime Minister is trying to make it permissible that we use racial differences to offend, insult and humiliate each other. We should never be surprised when the powerful wish to extend their dominance in the world, but when those who have benefited from the fruit of arduous social movements refuse to give back after their ascendancy, the disgust is intolerable.

*Read about cisgender at Wikipedia.

www.griffintheatre.com.au

Review: The Events (Belvoir St Theatre)

belvoirstVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 12 – Jun 12, 2016
Playwright: David Greig
Director: Clare Watson
Cast: Johnny Carr, Catherine McClements, Pitt Street Singers, Wycliffe Singers
Image by Luke Cowling

Theatre review
There are probably no issues more pressing than those pertaining to immigration, terrorism and mass shootings. Trying to make sense of these realities has become an everyday fixation in many of our lives, and David Greig’s The Events is a timely and sensitive expression of those concerns. Claire is a priest and choir leader whose life and faith is shattered by a traumatic incident that transforms the complexion of all that she knows. Fractured and struggling to find coherence, Greg’s writing is a reflection of the protagonist’s state of being. The play is not an easy ride, but it provides valuable insight for all of us who are part of this contemporary and complicated discussion on nationhood and security.

The play’s structure lends itself to intrigue and tension, which director Clare Watson manufactures well, but its restrained emotional dimension prevents the show from creating the same resonances that we have come to expect when dealing with its themes. There is no shortage of television coverage on these matters, and they are almost without exception, full of cheap sentimentality and irrational fear, which The Events does not replicate, but what it delivers instead can feel underwhelming and uncomfortably tepid. Perhaps its intention is to guide viewership to a more cognitive response for its deliberations, which is a challenging task that it accomplishes at varying degrees.

Catherine McClements is impressive with the thorough authenticity she introduces to the stage, and the ease with which she is able to convey the magnitude and intricacy of Claire’s psychological condition. The aforementioned disinclination for melodrama is disappointing, but understandable. The actor tells the story well, and we learn all there is to know about her character and the circumstances, even if we are not engaged on a more emotive level. Johnny Carr plays a variety of roles opposite the leading lady, engrossing but not always distinct (probably a comment on Claire’s disillusionment with the world), with an energetic approach that we rely on for a propulsive sense of momentum.

Claire has the strength to move forward but she needs time. When disasters strike, we can try to forge ahead in blindness but the scars and stains they leave behind do not disappear without effort. In The Events, we are urged, in times of trouble, to humanise individuals when all our instincts want is for perpetrators of violence to become demonised. It is a story about forgiveness, the truth of its emancipatory effects and the difficulty of its embrace. The problems we face are hard, they may even be thought of as insurmountable, but life persists in spite of it all and we must negotiate its good and its evil the best we know how.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Love And Information (Sydney Theatre Company / Malthouse Theatre)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Jul 9 – Aug 15, 2015
Playwright: Caryl Churchill
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Marco Chiappi, Glenn Hazeldine, Anita Hegh, Zahra Newman, Anthony Taufa, Ursula Yovich, Alison Whyte, Harry Greenwood
Images by Pia Johnson

Theatre review
Caryl Churchill’s Love And Information is a 90 minute play, composed entirely of very short sequences that look to be extracts from a wide range of stories running the gamut of genres in conventional theatre. Each independent bite-sized piece, not matter how small, provides enough for us to make sense of events taking place in the moment, but the scenes do no immediately relate to one another. Except, it is human nature to make meaning regardless of what is being scrutinised, and we form voluntary interpretations about the things we see. In the case of Churchill’s very fascinating work, we are seduced into intellectual overdrive, almost like reading a mystery, piecing together clues that may or may not be, to find a consolidation of significance. A great work of art is one that helps its viewer see a true picture of themselves, and their place within a social universe. The moral of Churchill’s stories is a fluid one, and we take from them what is intimate to us as individuals, and as such, it can be seen that the writer has used abstraction to successfully facilitate a kind of self-awareness in the viewer’s sense of being and identity.

The work makes a statement about contemporary times, and our environment of obsessive information technology. If modernity is sick, attention deficit disorder would be one of its chief ailments. We are incessantly seeking out information from all sources, like an addict with no ability of discernment. We find out small bits about everything, with no regard for relevance, and certainly no capacity for any depth. As our social and physical spaces become increasingly congested, our attention is compelled to be dispersed into a multitude of directions, all of the time, and this might be a case of “resistance is futile”, as we cannot be sure if we have any choice in the matter, or if indeed, we are able to withdraw into any alternatives. The play talks about choices, especially the lack thereof, and toys with the concept of hiding as a solution, but it is clear that we are what we are.

Director Kip Williams gives us all that we wish from a stage production, in spite of a missing story. The production is emotionally appealing, as it carefully emulates the sentimental journey of a narrative-driven plot, with all its intrigue, comedy, surprises and poignancies. Williams makes us respond accordingly even though there are no characters to follow. The thoroughly experimental nature of the work is no impediment at all to a satisfying experience for any audience with even just a minutiae of sophistication. Additionally, the work’s cerebral aspects might be unusually dynamic, but they are accessible to most. The production is an engaging one that inspires questions at every step of the way, and we read it at any level of competency that suits us personally.

Lighting designer Paul Jackson gives each distinct chapter and verse, a personality and beauty that captivate us, while assisting our subconscious to understand all that is being conveyed. Our visual attention is masterfully controlled so that we are kept firmly within the unusual plot trajectories that unfurl. Music and sound by The Sweats are a key feature that binds each aspect of the production to present a surprisingly coherent whole. The soundscape dictates the pace of the piece from beginning to end, and tells us quite directly how to respond at all times in our participation just outside the stage’s fourth wall. The technical proficiencies of Love And Information is extraordinary. There is nothing else that calls for as many scene and character changes, with what must be over one or two hundred entrances and exits, all flawlessly executed with an unbelievable fluency and grace. Stage Manager Lisa Osborn’s abilities are truly remarkable.

Also proficient is the diverse cast of eight, every one unique in appearance and style, yet tightly unified in the vision they aim to concoct and the energy they bring to the stage. The accuracy required of them both in terms of the technical and the artistic are simply unbelievable and they deliver with astounding dexterity. Predictably, the funnier actors leave a greater impression, and while Glenn Hazeldine’s comedy is only allowed flashes of brilliance in a play with lightning speed transitions, the actor never misses with any of his punchlines no matter how subtle. Anita Hegh too, is memorable for creating laughter at will, and her effortless charm is one that grabs hold of our attention and convinces us of everything being communicated. The play has philosophy seeping through every pore, and Ursula Yovich gives them a sublime gravity, whether the topic be death or infidelity.

A distillation of the theatregoing experience would probably reveal two fundamental elements; entertainment and meaning. When art is challenging, it helps us discover new things and prevents our existences from turning empty, but entertainment is always the easier ticket to purchase. While not mutually exclusive, they rarely meet as equals. In Love And Information, the two come as an explosive package. Philosophically and intellectually enthralling, it is similarly exciting and joyful from a perspective of pure amusement. There are better sources of fun and frivolity of course, but here is a rare and monumental leap in the evolution of the theatrical arts. If this is experimental, the real event that it paves way for, will be nothing less than revolutionary.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au | www.malthousetheatre.com.au

Review: The Government Inspector (Belvoir St Theatre / Malthouse Theatre)

rsz_12941006184_c9638e943c_bVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Mar 27 – May 18, 2014
Playwrights: Simon Stone, Emily Barclay (inspired by Nikolai Gogol)
Songs: Stefan Gregory
Director: Simon Stone
Actors: Fayssal Bazzi, Mitchell Butel, Gareth Davies, Robert Menzies, Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill, Greg Stone
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review (originally published at auditoriummag.com)
First published in 1836, Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector has long been considered a masterpiece in comedy, farce, and political criticism. This co-production by Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre and Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre takes inspiration from Gogol’s work, but strays as far as is imaginable with drastically transformed contexts and characters, while retaining certain thematic and structural features of the original.

Simon Stone writes and directs this new version, continuing his passion for adapting and modernising eminent classics of the stage. Fresh from last year’s successful, and bloody, re-telling of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, he once again presents an interpretation that is radical and completely surprising. This production is a “last minute” replacement for The Philadelphia Story by Philip Barry and Ellen Barry, which had been removed from its programmed slot due to unforeseen copyright issues. It is unclear how much time was available for Stone and his team to rehearse and workshop their take on The Government Inspector, but the volume of ideas and creativity it contains, more than lives up to the famed hilarity of its inceptive roots.

Adding to the theme of mistaken identities, Stone’s show takes on a layer of complexity by embracing and incorporating the experience of losing one script and gaining another. The actors play out a farce that represents their predicament, and uses the opportunity to create a work about the artistic process. Their creation comes out of their anxiety, and a need to satisfy the paying audience, so what results is a piece of theatre that is thoroughly crowd pleasing, and relentless in its pursuit of laughter.

Stone’s courage and edginess as an artist translates curiously well in this madcap comedy format. Popular culture and theatre references are utilised to great effect, but it is Stone’s liberal amount of sarcasm and irony that gives the production an air of intelligence and pointed sophistication. It is a very fine line between silliness and stupidity, but we are never lured into any realm of coarseness or vulgarity. The show plays for laughs but it doggedly rejects cheap ones.

Performances are excellent. The cast of seven might not be uniform in ability and experience, but the ensemble they have created is impressively even. The chemistry between all is stunning, and a tremendous highlight. Eryn Jean Norvill delights with a subtle approach that demonstrates preparedness and confidence. The character she creates is a familiar one, but instead of placing too much emphasis on becoming convincing, Norvill brings with her a sense of knowing, always applying a level of commentary to her actor and character selves. Her attempted defiance against a moment of sexism in the “play within a play”, is poignant and pitch perfect. Zahra Newman is the only actor with two roles, including Dolores de la Cruz, a janitor who delivers some of the biggest laughs by lampooning the thespians. In one of the show’s few political moments, the actors discuss Newman’s ethnicity being an element that provides unfair advantage in the casting process, and it is a pleasure watching her turn an uncomfortable taboo subject into something quite memorable and meaningful.

Gareth Davies is a show-stealer for the duration in which he plays a version of the misidentified inspector. More than any other in the cast, Davies’ execution of the production’s improvisational tone is most credible and exciting. The frantic energy is particularly raw and unhinged when Davies takes focus of the plot. Greg Stone’s exuberant charisma and zeal for self-deprecation quickly endears him to the crowd. His thorough grasp of the material at hand is reflected in his outstanding comic timing. A simple throwaway line about obtaining a job in an office is transformed into a biting joke about the state of the arts in Australia.

Design aspects are fairly basic, but the introduction of a revolving stage that essentially removes the need for extra time to facilitate set changes, and speeds up entrances and exits, makes for a very fast paced, dynamic affair that keeps the audience attentive, and the atmosphere persistently buoyant. No time is wasted between scenes, and we are kept laughing from beginning to end.

There is an extended musical portion in the show that could have felt extraneous, but its insertion is handled with great wit, and we not only forgive its inclusion, we actually find ourselves at new dizzying heights of outrageous comedy. The Government Inspector by Simon Stone and co-writer Emily Barclay, is an exceptionally funny show, but it cannot be denied that the political resonances in Gogol’s writing have all but disappeared. Of course, theatre does not have to be political in order to be valid or indeed meritorious, but radical adaptations of classics will always be controversial, especially when a key feature that has made something legendary is left behind.

www.belvoir.com.au

www.malthousetheatre.com.au

This Is Beautiful (The Public Studio)

The Public StudioVenue: Tower Theatre at Malthouse (Southbank VIC), Jul 19 – Aug 3, 2013
Playwright: Ming-Zhu Hii
Director: Ming-Zhu Hii
Actors: Jing-Xuan Chan, Pier Carthew, Terry Yeboah

Theatre review
Expecting experimental work in any art form to entertain is usually a lost cause, and performance art pieces are rarely crowd-pleasers. This Is Beautiful is composed of three performers spouting endless existentialist questions about the arbitrariness of life’s big meanings. There is no obvious context, and clearly no narrative for which to situate these characters and their constant inquisitions. The small amount of movement and facial expressions they produce seem to be guided by those big questions, giving the impression that the entire 50-minute piece is about one idea.

These questions are not frivolous ones, in fact, one could argue that they are fundamental and relevant to all lives. Only problem is, you would either have already thought about them a thousand times and are quite happy to leave them behind, or they are simply of no interest to you and a night at the theatre would take a lot more than three strangers’ declarations to change your mind.

A big element of this production is the video that plays throughout, which adds dimension to the activity in the space. They provide an interesting abstraction to the repetitive themes, and are visually captivating in their own right, providing variation and colour to the austerity of what is unfolding in the flesh.

It is interesting to note that the three performers are of different ethnicities, and that it takes an experimental work of this nature for this multi-cultural amalgamation to materialise onstage. They make a beautiful picture together, creating a landscape of purity and unison. It also conjures up the notion that this combination of skin colours seems to face constant resistance in mainstream Australian narrative-based storytelling, in theatre or otherwise.

www.thepublicstudio.net