Review: Sexual Misconduct Of The Middle Classes (Belvoir St Theatre / Melbourne Theatre Company)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jun 2 – Jul 10, 2022
Playwright: Hannah Moscovitch
Directors: Petra Kalive
Cast: Dan Spielman, Izabella Yena
Images by Jaimi Joy

Theatre review
Jon is a successful writer who refers to himself in the third person. He is also a university lecturer, who has an affair with a student half his age, in Hannah Moscovitch’s Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes. Written in 2020, there was only ever one way this story about sex and power could go. The play may be painfully predictable, but the truth is that we are fortunate to live at a time, when boundaries concerning such matters are clearly demarcated. No trigger warnings are issued, because on this occasion they are never necessary.

There is little about Moscovitch’s work that is dangerous. We have had these discussions many times, and our decisions are firmly drawn, so we feel the play trudging along completely predictably, toward that very foregone conclusion. One would struggle to identify anything further that Moscovitch is able to add, to our now immovable and non-negotiable attitudes with regard sex at our workplaces and public institutions. The subject matter could have provided fertile ground for subversive or provocative humour, but as its title suggests, it is all terribly middle class in attitude.

Petra Kalive’s direction of the piece is arguably too earnest, perhaps too careful, in fear of being misunderstood. Its efforts to reassure us that there is never any intended affront, results in a work of theatre that is overly polite and safe. The tone of the staging is commendable for taking into account more delicate sensibilities that are likely to be present in the audience, but the consequence is a show that does not advance discourse, and one that poses no challenge to our intellect.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, design aspects are all elegantly rendered. Marg Howell’s set and costumes focus our sense of awareness, on just the right strata of people we are looking at. Rachel Burke’s lights offer accurate calibration for every subtle shift in atmosphere. Sound design by Darius Kedros is sensitive and unobtrusive, generously wishing for us to hear little more than the play’s dialogue.

Actor Dan Spielman does marvellously to hold our attention, whilst playing an irredeemably repugnant character. His conviction only makes us more disgusted, which is of course an appropriate response, although there is no denying the tedium of encountering such a one-dimensioned villain. Izabella Yena as Annie, does her best work between the lines, able to convey the complicated amalgamation of emotions, as a young woman who learns over time, that her consent was not consent at all.

One of the main problems with the middle classes, is their unwavering trust of authority. For most of Sexual Misconduct, the audience seems to be positioned so that our concern resides with the choices that Jon makes; it seems to want us to urge him to do better, at every stage of the narrative. The middle classes have such a love of power, as reflected in all their aspirations to attain power, they deny that transparently sinister quality of power that makes it so seductive.

The point of it, is to evade accountability. The point of power, is so you can do whatever you want, especially behind closed doors. To expect people in positions of power to do better is naive, and frankly, in this day and age, stupid. For the audience to wish that Jon discovers his conscience, is to bury our heads in the sand. It is not the individuals in broken systems (or indeed systems designed to fail our democracies), who need to do better. It is the fact that people are granted such power, in that young women like Annie are taught to regard men like Jon with such reverence, that is the problem.

Review: Fun Home (Sydney Theatre Company / Melbourne Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Apr 27 – May 29, 2021
Book and Lyrics: Lisa Kron (based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel)
Music: Jeanine Tesori
Director: Dean Bryant
Cast: Gilbert Bradman, Ryan Gonzalez, Emily Havea, Mia Honeysett, Lucy Maunder, Jensen Mazza, Maggie McKenna, Adam Murphy, Marina Prior
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
In the American musical Fun Home, based on the autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, we observe the cartoonist hard at work on her drafting table, looking back at memories of her difficult father. Bruce was a baby boomer, and like many queer people of that generation, never came to terms with being gay. Even as Alison began to come out as lesbian, his personal anguish never diminished, struggling even to offer support to his own daughter at a time when she had needed him most.

Clearly intended to be an emotional theatrical experience, the show’s reliance on an unlikeable character is risky, and even though the music is predictably and relentlessly sentimental, it is doubtful if audiences could ever feel the full impact of the hardship that this family had gone through. Alison goes to considerable lengths to find forgiveness and understanding for her father, but it is arguable if the musical provides sufficiently for us to respond with deep compassion, or even to care enough for these characters, to be able to invest adequately into their story.

The staging is a polished one, with Alicia Clements’ design facilitating efficaciously, the need for frequent oscillations of time and space. Matt Scott’s lights are beautiful, especially when depicting illusory moments during which we see characters suspended in the undefined abyss of Alison’s imagination. Director Dean Bryant introduces an excellent sense of pizzazz to the production, making sure that we are entertained to the fullest of the show’s potential. He ensures that the story is told with clarity, including the unsavoury revelations relating to Bruce’s life.

We see Alison at three periods of maturity, from childhood and her college years, to the grown woman she is today. Child star Mia Honeysett is fantastic as Small Alison, wonderfully nuanced and authentic, in her portrayal of a child navigating complicated family dynamics, as well as her own blossoming homosexuality. Medium Alison is performed by Maggie McKenna whose singing voice proves a divine pleasure, and Lucy Maunder is captivating as Big Alison, bringing a palpable tenderness that underpins the show. The striking Adam Murphy does his best to honestly depict Bruce, warts and all, but it is Marina Prior who leaves a strong impression playing his wife Helen. When she finally breaks her silence and delivers a faultless solo number, Prior’s technical prowess brings momentary elevation to the production, inviting us to luxuriate in the sheer genius of her singing.

It should come as no surprise that humans are sometimes much more troubling, than a 100-minute Broadway musical can accommodate. The formulaic nature of these creations, requires a form of storytelling that follows many rules, and we discover that truth can sometimes become its nemesis. Bruce’s sexual encounters with underaged boys, is not forgivable, especially in this space of commercial theatre. Fun Home requires us to regard Bruce’s past sins with generosity, the way his daughter has to, in order that our emotions may become engaged in accordance with the traditional peaks and valleys of a conventional musical. Bruce’s transgressions however, are much too severe, at least for the old-fashion song-and-dance format.

Review: Così (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Nov 1 – Dec 14, 2019
Playwright: Louis Nowra
Director: Sarah Goodes
Cast: Gabriel Fancourt, Esther Hannaford, Glenn Hazeldine, Bessie Holland, Sean Keenan, Robert Menzies, Rahel Romahn, Katherine Tonkin, George Zhao
Images by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
Theatre director Lewis finds himself at a mental asylum, not as a patient, but as a facilitator for a one-night-only staging of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, starring clients of the home. This is 1972, many years before deinstitutionalisation had begun, and the personalities Lewis meets are varied in capacities, but uniformly charming. Louis Nowra’s Così is a 1992 comedy with a premise that remains intriguing, but much of its humour has lost its lustre. We have learned to regard mental illness with a diminished sense of alienation, and characters in the play have lost their sense of otherness accordingly, causing many of its jokes to feel archaic.

The production is directed by Sarah Goodes, who does extensive work to reflect a modern sensibility in her iteration of Così. While it does provide an updated sense of cultural appropriateness, with a renewed perspective of people with mental health challenges, we discover that there is little at its heart that truly resonates for today’s audiences. Nevertheless, it is a smartly designed show, with Dale Ferguson’s set and Jonathon Oxlade’s costumes providing a valuable sense of playfulness. Lights by Niklas Pajanti, along with Chris Williams’ music, keep the action jaunty and energised.

Actor Sean Keenan is convincing as the unassuming and somewhat meek Lewis, a sturdy presence who lets his colourful counterparts occupy our attention. Unofficial ringmaster Roy is played by Robert Menzies, who is powerful in the role, and effective in having us invest in his passions for Mozart and classical opera. Bessie Holland is unforgettable as the brassy Cherry, impressive in her ability to deliver big laughs, even with Nowra’s dubious dialogue. Similarly charismatic is Rahel Romahn, consistently and effortlessly funny as Doug the pyromaniac, setting the stage alight at every appearance.

In Così fan tutte, people pretend to be somebody else to discover truths about themselves. Così too, features playacting, with patients of the asylum masquerading as characters in an opera, as though on a recess from their real lives. Individuals can come to new understandings of themselves, when they experience distance from their own existences. Art allows us to step out, and observe the world from a different perspective, which is an immense benefit for all of us who forget the diminutiveness of being, and the inanity of any ego. |

Review: The Children (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Mar 29 – May 19, 2018
Playwright: Lucy Kirkwood
Director: Sarah Goodes
Cast: Sarah Peirse, Pamela Rabe, William Zappa
Image by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children imagines what it would be like, if an all-consuming ecological disaster were to strike today. Instead of the pandemonium surrounding earthquakes and tsunamis, we see an aftermath involving three scientists who are partly responsible for the catastrophe. It is a story about technology, concerned with the way inhabitants of the developed world are failing to find harmony with our greater environment. Hazel, Robin and Rose are retirees approaching seventy years of age, but their work in nuclear power is an enduring legacy that has wreaked havoc to all of humankind.

The play takes on some of the most important themes of our times, not only in its bold discussions of climate change, but also with its ultramodern perspectives on ageing and death. Explored with remarkable sophistication, Kirkwood’s ideas are edgy but truthful, often confrontational in their dissection of responsibility and attribution of blame, as they pertain to the current state of our planet. Diligently crafted to provoke thought and to elicit benevolent responses, The Children tackles pressing issues with intelligence and splendid inventiveness. It is a gripping work, surprisingly entertaining, but is ultimately most valuable for its political statements.

Set inside a humble cottage (designed with minimal fuss by Elizabeth Gadsby), the action begins deceptively mundane as its three characters skirt the issue, trying to be cordial company, before a sense of security arrives that will allow floodgates to open. Everything feels precarious, even before the audience is let in on the severity of their situation. Director Sarah Goodes teases with an exquisite balance of the austere, banal and lighthearted aspects of the story. Tensions ebb and flow, but we are mesmerised, captivated by the extraordinary stakes of the fictional tale, and how they feel so immediately, and terrifyingly, applicable to our real lives.

Actor Pamela Rabe plays Hazel, a woman straining under delusions, surviving on a despairing combination of determination and feeble crutches. It is a wonderfully humorous performance, dark and sensitive, cleverly conveying the fragility of existence under the mercy of indomitable forces. Rose, performed by Sarah Peirse, appears out of the blue, complete with bleeding nose, to shake us into reality. A charismatic and powerful mouthpiece for the play’s central ideology, Peirse is eminently compelling and deeply persuasive. Robin is the thorn among the roses, entrusted with the plot’s more sentimental sections. William Zappa brings authenticity and warmth, and occasional levity, to what is essentially a caustic evaluation of our nature.

Our experts work ceaselessly to extend our lives, to have us live longer and more voraciously than ever before. We keep finding greater ways to devour the world, to satisfy an insatiable and ever-escalating list of wants, in a narcissistic experience that forever thinks of human as supreme. We plunder remorseless, even when faced with irrefutable evidence of our self-destruction, as though carnage can only be accepted as inevitable, and we persist in a race that feels too far gone to accommodate any idea of reversion. In The Children, characters figure out the best way to live by weighing between options of death. We can only bear witness to their calamity and hope to do better. |

Review: Death And The Maiden (Sydney Theatre Company / Melbourne Theatre Company)

sydneytheatrecoVenue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Aug 28 – Oct 17, 2015
Playwright: Ariel Dorfman
Director: Leticia Cáceres
Cast: Eugene Gilfedder, Steve Mouzakis, Susie Porter
Image by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
Paulina resides in the space of terror. Captured, tortured, and raped; not only have the fractures in her world endured 15 years since the devastating event, her thirst for revenge is becoming an increasingly uncontrollable force that drives her to the extremities of Ariel Dorfman’s Death And The Maiden. Paulina was blindfolded during her ordeal but remembers the voice of her rapist, and during a chance encounter one night, she identifies a kindly, mild-mannered man Roberto to be the perpetrator, and proceeds to keep him captive in her home. Stripped and tied to a chair, Roberto is threatened by Paulina’s revolver and her accusations, but maintains his innocence. Paulina fluctuates between demanding a confession and wanting his life, but we are never sure if Roberto is in fact the right man. Dorfman’s work is dramatic and tense, with an undeniable political emphasis. Inspired by Chile’s progression from totalitarianism to democracy in the 1980’s, difficult questions about finding justice for victims of the state are explored. In an Australian context, the most direct association one could make would involve the continuing mistreatment of our Indigenous communities, but there are no obvious adaptations in the production that attempt to find a more specific point of relevance for its audience.

Scenic and lighting design by Nick Schilieper reduces the space and concentrates the action efficiently onto a small stage, so that nothing distracts us from the show’s intimate sequences. The leanness of its appearance however, conveys only a monotonously cold atmosphere. Correspondingly, Leticia Cáceres’ work as director seems to pay fastidious attention only to performances by its three players. The production feels insufficiently ambitious in scope, eschewing a bolder use of space that could have assisted us in relating to the unfolding plot better, by depicting either the oppressiveness of Paulina’s home and mental state, or a wider and more identifiable political and social environment. Composer and sound designer The Sweats excels in his control over atmosphere and scene transitions. He introduces a sophistication, along with a sense of drama to a staging that is often too minimalist in its overall style.

Leading lady Susie Porter presents a likeable and convincing Paulina. Porter’s cerebral portrayal gives integrity to the story being told, and her gracious presence keeps us firmly on her character’s side, but her performance is ultimately a tepid one that lacks a certain operatic quality required for the production to engage more powerfully. Porter’s interpretation is one steeped in depression, where a more dynamic madness would allow the narrative’s controversial aspects greater potency, and therefore elicit a more robust response from its audience. The actor’s work comes across psychologically accurate and very thoughtful, but the Latin American text asks for a fire that may only exist beyond rationality, which itself (being rational or not) is after all, one of its chief concerns. In the role of Paulina’s husband Gerardo, is Steve Mouzakis, who takes every opportunity to raise temperatures in the theatre. It is a smaller part but one that moves through different emotional phases, and the performer brings a spirited passion to each of them, reflecting an impressive conviction that viewers can no doubt appreciate. Eugene Gilfedder makes an interesting villain of Roberto. Probably not quite as charismatic as Porter, and therefore tilting the adversarial balance slightly off between duelling characters, but nonetheless an intriguing personality. He keeps us guessing, which is central to the play’s effectiveness, and provides fine tension at its concluding moments.

Death And The Maiden contains poignant moments of philosophy and drama, but at 25 years old, its resonances require translation. We are certainly no strangers to concepts of political upheaval, war and terror, but what we view to be tangible threats have changed. In spite of the production’s success at achieving a good level of believability, the play feels distant. We are reminded that our concerns have evolved, and although we often consider our civilisations to have improved, the fact remains that the things that haunt us never go away; they only take the form of something else. The fears in the play are different from ours today, but the vulnerabilities we share are interminable, and it is that darkness that Paulina needs to release with indomitable fury. |

Review: Jumpy (Sydney Theatre Company / Melbourne Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Mar 26 – May 16, 2015
Playwright: April De Angelis
Director: Pamela Rabe
Cast: Laurence Boxhall, Caroline Brazier, John Lloyd Fillingham, Brenna Harding, Tariro Mavondo, Marina Prior, David Tredinnick, Jane Turner, Dylan Watson
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
With each scene of Jumpy, pieces of furniture travel across the stage on castor wheels, moving past its protagonist Hilary. She is fifty of age, her only daughter Tilly has turned sixteen and is beginning her own sex life, and we meet them at a time when Hilary has come to realise that a period of stasis is coming to an end. Like the set that keeps rolling past, life seems to have left her behind while she dutifully plays the role of mother and wife. April De Angelis’ script is concerned with women who had grown up with second-wave feminism, particularly those from the era marked by the legacies of Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem and Helen Reddy. Idealism and militancy fades or perhaps evolves into a modernity that bears little resemblance to the dreams that were birthed, like Hilary, half a century ago. Tilly is in some ways, a disappointment for her mother. De Angelis is critical as well, of the young woman’s need to build her identity around the male gaze. She allows many of her decisions to be determined by a need for the affections of men, and the dissatisfaction she derives from those behaviour evade her self-awareness. Hilary is confounded, and we all wonder how it has come to be that a generation can grow so contrary to its parental intentions. The text does not however, go so far as to say that child-bearing is pointless (although there is a tendency to characterise some parents as being selfish and afraid of loneliness), but we are certainly encouraged to assess the choices Hilary had made for herself.

The context is simple, with a sense of the everyday found in all aspects of its plot. Characters and events are familiar, but De Angelis’ ironic humour is omnipresent. Her comedy depicts middle class existence with a healthy cynicism, and is indeed, thoroughly entertaining. Each personality’s flaws are exposed shamelessly, but the writer’s compassionate approach prevents anyone from turning into clowns or villains. In fact, we identify with all of them, and find most to be very charming. Pamela Rabe’s direction is nuanced and gentle, with no big political proclamations and few dramatic gestures. Relationships are established convincingly, and every narrative is delivered clearly to make us care, and to keep us engaged.

Star of the show, Jane Turner’s outstanding ability and likeability as one of Australia’s top comic performers is well utilised in the production. We are always on her side, and we laugh whenever she wants us to. Turner’s trademark vaudevillian style of performance keeps her at some distance from her role, but there is enough authenticity and commitment in her portrayal to keep things believable. Reasons for the production not being transposed to an Australian context is unclear, but Turner’s British accent is less than satisfactory. It is an unnatural and overly posh affectation that can be uncomfortable to hear, and slightly inappropriate for the story being told. Other cast members are more adept speech-wise, and every supporting character is colourfully performed and memorable. Hilary’s best friend Frances is played by Marina Prior whose captivating vibrancy and self-deprecating humour keep the show buoyant. The contrast, and similarities, between the two middle-aged women are fascinating to observe, and their friendship is deeply meaningful, even though other relationships are given greater weight in the text. Also impressive is Tariro Mavondo’s performance as Lyndsey, the sixteen year-old new mother who treads the fine line between ignorance and purity, spouting pearls of wisdom when least expected. A heart of gold can be tricky to inhabit, but the actor’s effortless charisma turns her character’s innocence into a thing of beauty, and poses a challenge to the way we think about teen moms.

The production is a hugely enjoyable one that keeps our attention firmly under its control. There is a mildness in tone that reflects the theme of maturation, but it finds ways to amuse us from start to end. Its message arrives in the form of questions, but it leaves answers ambiguous. Middle class lives are full of anxiety, and Jumpy shows that the state of peacefulness does not emerge spontaneously with age and happiness does not necessarily materialise upon the fulfilment of duties of one’s choosing. The show does not hold the key to peace and happiness, but it provides inspiration, or at least a reminder, that it is never too late. |

Review: Once (The Gordon Frost Organisation / Melbourne Theatre Company)

Venue: Princess Theatre (Melbourne VIC), from Oct 1, 2014
Playwright: Enda Walsh (based on film by John Carney)
Music & Lyrics: Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová
Director: John Tiffany
Cast: Tom Parsons, Madeleine Jones, Anton Berezin, Ben Brown, Gerard Carroll, Colin Dean, Brent Hill, Keegan Joyce, Amy Lehpamer, Jane Patterson, Greg Stone, Susan-ann Walker,
Images by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
Once is probably not the first musical that makes understatement its central intention, but it is certainly the most celebrated of the kind. Enda Walsh’s quietly sentimental work is not ambitious in a conventional sense. There are no stunning set changes or breathtaking costumes, nobody dies and no predictable resurrections occur. Instead, it is determined to find poignancy and emotional resonance through story, characters and songs. There is a distinct and appealing simplicity to Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s musical compositions that make an impact in the absence of ostentatious spectacle, and Walsh’s ability to create affable yet colourful personalities make for a show that is powerfully endearing.

Direction by John Tiffany is sensitive to the melancholic sensibilities of the work, although the presentation of a large scale production in muted tones is sometimes clearly challenging, especially in the few, but important, scenes where music acquiesces to dialogue. An inordinate amount of versatility is required of the performers, including the ability to play instruments (accompaniment is provided by the cast itself) and in the case of leading man Tom Parsons who is a highly impressive vocalist, but a less compelling actor, several crucial sequences of emotional gravity tend to feel weaker when he communicates without the aid of music. His counterpart Madeleine Jones is more evenly talented, and she executes comedic aspects with an elegant flair. Tiffany handles lighthearted moments brilliantly, allowing an intimate connection with its audience that elevates the musical to something quite visceral, and spiritual.

The humorous role of Billy is played by Colin Dean who has the kind of eclipsing presence that wins our hearts with minimum effort. His authenticity is compelling to watch, and the confidence he displays gives his work an uplifting quality. Also memorable is Amy Lehpamer as the fiery Czech, Reza. Lehpamer is a quadruple threat who inspires with proficiencies in singing, dancing, acting and on the violin. Her comic timing is a marvel, and even though the supporting role is a small one, the vibrant performer finds opportunities to steal the limelight with delightful results.

The production is finely balanced, relying heavily on the shifting elements of live performance on each night to make the experience rewarding, leaving little room for complacency. The silences in the show mean that imperfections can become glaring, even if they are few and far between. Choreography by Steven Hoggett is effective and beautiful at times, but also awkward and overdone in certain numbers. The cast moves well, but when gestures become elaborate, the performers tend to appear uncomfortable. The story of Once talks about art and aspiration, dreams and conviction, and the way life can be designed by one’s own imagination. It swims against the tide with an unusual determinedness and audacity, to create something original, moving and thoroughly surprising.

The Crucible (Melbourne Theatre Company)

Melbourne Theatre CompanyVenue: Southbank Theatre (Southbank VIC), Jun 22 – Aug 3, 2013
Playwright: Arthur Miller
Director: Sam Strong
Actors: David Wenham, Brian Lipson, Sarah Ogden, Anita Hegh

Theatre review
David Wenham headlines this production of The Crucible, and predictably garners widespread attention and brings good numbers into the theatre. He is adequate in the role of John Proctor, but is subsumed by the size of the stage and hall, and also by some of the more “theatrical” in the cast. Wenham is perhaps more suited for a more naturalistic setting, and on filmic close ups, but this staging of an outlandish tale in a large auditorium seems not to be the best showcase of his talents.

There are efforts in the set and lighting design to visually shrink the stage into small rooms, but while effective in that regard, the actors performances sometimes become overly subtle for the size of this production’s audiences. Sections seem to drag on while characters have intimate exchanges that are unable to reach out beyond the first few rows. The pivotal scene towards the end of the play where the Proctors discuss their mortality lacks the dramatics and gravity necessary at such a crucial point of the tale.

Accordingly, it is the more vivid performances that shine. Brian Lipson plays Judge Thomas Danforth, and Sarah Ogden, the Proctors’ maid Mary Warren stand out and are thoroughly engaging and entertaining. In comparison, it becomes clear that they possess a style that is necessary for the language of the writing, and also for the space in which this production takes place. None of the actors are weak, but this production seem to demand a level of heightened drama that eludes many of today’s performers.

Interestingly, Arthur Miller’s text remains relevant. Its warnings of the power ascribed to the “loud minority” in our societies resonate, especially within the context of religious extremism. It also discusses the dangerous culture of “wowserism” and that too, applies easily to contemporary society. An interesting coincidence occurs with a line from Danforth,  “But witchcraft is ipso facto, on its face and by its nature, an invisible crime, is it not?”, drawing an irresistible parallel to an Australian political leader’s use of the same term “invisible” last week to describe (and diminish) carbon emissions in the debate about climate change. Great plays may age, but they no doubt hold great lessons for any generation, and it is for the theatre makers to bring forth these learnings.