Review: Australia Day (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Nov 14 – Dec 16, 2017
Playwright: Jonathan Biggins
Director: Louise Fischer
Cast: Les Asmussen, Peter Eyers, Alice Livingstone, Lap Nguyen, Martin Portus, Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame
Image by Chris Lundie

Theatre review
A committee of six are planning Australia Day festivities in a country town. There are different agendas at play, but all have to engage in a game of debate and arbitration, overt and otherwise, to reach consensus. Intentions are a combination, of the community-minded and the self-serving, and through this study of a typically parochial setting, Jonathan Biggins’ Australia Day offers a look at who we are today, as communities who have to determine our identities, and assert them.

We are not a homogeneous entity, of course, and in the council chambers where much of the action takes place, we observe the operations of power, as diverse attitudes wrestle to find acknowledgement and representation. There are conservative personalities who wish for symbols of the past to be given prominence, left-wing types who want to disperse bandwidth so that all creatures great and small are covered, and also those who care little either way.

Biggins’ humour is familiar and warm, although its restraint can often seem redundant, for a comedy that concerns itself with arguments surrounding political correctness. The social commentary in Australia Day is pertinent and accurate, but the plot lacks surprise and the predictability of its characters takes us to a conclusion that feels anti-climatic and slightly banal.

The show is however, an enjoyable one. Directed by Louise Fischer, conflict between personalities is deftly portrayed, for an amusing self-deprecating look at our systems of local government. Keeping us involved, are accomplished performances by actors such as Les Asmussen who, in the role of Wally, reveals so much about the regressive elements of our society, funny but acerbic in his authenticity. Also memorable is Alice Livingstone as Maree, a representative from the Country Women’s Association, who manages to bring on the laughs in spite of a thinly penned part.

National celebrations are always problematic, and absurd. We are required to adopt narrow definitions of things and conform to ideologies that are mostly personally irrelevant. It is noble to place society before self, but as long as the collective is unable to be inclusive of everyone, improvements must always be sought. Whenever our identity markers are anything less than universal, deeper thought must be applied.

www.newtheatre.org.au

5 Questions with Lap Nguyen and Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame

Lap Nguyen

Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame: Did you bring any of your own experiences of being a foreigner in Australia to the rehearsal process?
Lap Nguyen: Yes, it certainly felt very odd playing a foreigner in an Australia Day committee and being a foreigner in Australia itself! I bought a lot of unnecessary awkwardness to the character simply because I had encountered so many of those moments but what I think I forgot about Chester is that he’s a lot more adaptable than I am. I think he handled the whole ‘fitting in’ thing a lot better than I did. Plus he’s so likeable and cute (I’m playing him by the way). 

What is the most rewarding project you’ve ever worked on and why?
It’s probably a year 10 school production I did in Vietnam hah! All My Sons by Arthur Miller. It’s rewarding in the selfish way that the audience probably didn’t get anything out of it but I learnt so much throughout the entire process. 

It was really an enlightening moment to be honest. I played Chris Keller and I was so shitty at it. I had this habit of dragging my feet back then and every line I said or when I moved, there would be this screeching noise on the floor. I would mumble my lines, forget my blocking, the whole shazam. It was horrid. The funny thing was that I actually thought I did a good job at the time! Looking back at it, the best thing I learnt is that, no matter how good you think you are, you’re probably shit. Which sounds like harsh advice but I personally take it with me on every production now. I always strive to be better than what I think I am. Sometimes it works, sometimes I end up crying myself to sleep…

Who was the first actor you saw that blew you away?
Johnny Depp. Jack Sparrow. He was infectious. The role’s gone a bit downhill now but back then, Sparrow was the jam. He was my Iron-Man back in the day! Depp did such a phenomenal job fleshing our that role, it made me realise that it doesn’t take an Oscar to make someone’s childhood. 14 years old me was hooked to the bone. 

Your character Chester has a tendency to make poorly timed jokes, has there been a time where you, Lap have done the same?
All the time. I also can’t tell jokes apparently. I find myself way too funny. I just laugh and kill the gag before it even arrives. 

An acrostic poem for Australia Day please:
Anyone
Up for
Satire
Theatre? 
Really
Amazing
Lap
In yet
Another play!

Don’t forget to
Accentuate
Your lovely actors! 

Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame

Lap Nguyen: Have you ever been involved with an Australia Day committee?
Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame: You know what, I absolutely haven’t. I actually haven’t sat on any committee. I am however from a rural country town, so I think I get the je ne sais quoi or lack there of, that comes from being part of such a small community. 

What was your last Australia Day like?
I’m not one to really celebrate Australia Day, as not all Australians see January 26 as a day of celebration, and I want to stand with them.  I would much rather change the date, so all Australians feel they can come together to celebrate what is great about this fair country of ours. 
 
My favourite Australia Day however, was spent in Pokhara, Nepal. Started the day with some vegemite & cheese on toast (!!), that was spread so thick it stung our gums, followed by tandem paragliding. Catching those sweet thermals, that sent my friends into a cold sweat, with the most magical view of the lake in front of us, and the Himalayas behind. Put it on your bucket list if you haven’t done so already!
 
What’s it like to work with the New Theatre’s Australia Day cast and team?
Working with actors that have had so much more experience than me, is truly humbling. It has been wonderful to watch their processes and see how they tackle all the elements of the script. Everyone brings such a different quality to the rehearsal process, it’s a really warm, enjoyable space. 

What was your first performance and how was it?
My first performance was as a four year old, where I played the princess in Princess Smarty Pants at my preschools Christmas production. Whilst lapping up the attention, what I didn’t like was having to give my co-star Cory, a kiss on the cheek, because boys: ick! Having said that, it did turn Prince Swashbuckle into a gigantic warty toad and meant none of the other princes wanted to marry me, so I lived happily ever after. 

What is your dream role?
I don’t know if there is just one role that is my dream role. There are many characters that I have watched over the years and been enamoured with. Mostly badass chicks that get shit done! Lagertha the kick-arse shield maiden from Vikings is one, Tanya from the film Chopper with her brilliant one liners is another. Debbie Jellinsky from The Addams Family Values! *Sigh* So much fun! 

Lap Nguyen and Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame are appearing in Australia Day, by Jonathan Biggins.
Dates: 14 November – 16 December, 2017
Venue: New Theatre

Review: Birdland (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Oct 3 – Nov 4, 2017
Playwright: Simon Stephens
Director: Anthony Skuse
Cast: Jack Angwin, Graeme McRae, Charmaine Bingwa, Leilani Loau, Louise Harding, Airlie Dodds, Matthew Cheetham
Image by Chris Lundie

Theatre review
Paul is a rock star who plays to crowds of 100,000 people. That scale of extraordinary fame and fortune, is an existence beyond the comprehension of us mere mortals. In Simon Stephens’ Birdland, we see a kind of dehumanised individual struggling to find a sense of normalcy in a world where everything is permissible and accessible, and where everything is eventually reduced to meaninglessness.

The play lifts the lid on the lustrous personalities who entertain us. We fall in love with these strangers, and envy their lifestyle, thinking that theirs is the ultimate freedom, to have every request and desire met. It is fascinating to imagine what it must be like, to not be able to want, after having consumed everything. The human compulsion to pursue that which remains unsated, is crucial in how we are able to operate from day to day. The depressed cannot get out of bed, because nothing is worthwhile. The superstar experiences something similar, when all appetite is quelled even before they appear.

Paul becomes increasingly anaesthetised, resulting in a frantic escalation of indulgence and excess. Graeme McRae is strong in the lead role, offering an interpretation that is detailed and intelligent. It is extremely demanding work, and while our compassion for Paul is carefully sustained for the entire two hours, McRae’s stamina seems to wane in the later stages. The production is quiet and sensitive, with director Anthony Skuse’s remarkable ability to provide a sense of fragility keeping us engaged, but the bareness of the stage, although visually appealing, can at times feel overly taxing on the actors, who have nothing but themselves to make each moment spark.

It is less daunting for the rest of the cast, who play a series of supporting characters orbiting Paul. Charmaine Bingwa is outstanding in Birdland. As an African escort, she is dangerously alluring, and as an English policewoman, she is deliciously unkind, but it is in the scene where she plays Paul’s father that Bingwa is most memorable. We are suddenly overwhelmed with emotion, when we see the only thing of genuine value to Paul, falling to pieces along with every other aspect of his being. It is a beautifully performed show, with each actor captivating in their passionate commitment to the craft.

It is healthy to want better for ourselves, and dreaming big is a way for us to find impetus to live with excitement and joy. A state of contentment however, must never be absent. The tension between needing more, and feeling satisfied, might seem a contradiction, but it is in finding a way to negotiate their co-existence that we can perhaps achieve emotional and psychological stability. Nobody rejects Paul, so it can only be up to him to say no.

www.newtheatre.org.au

5 Questions with Charmaine Bingwa and Graeme McRae

Charmaine Bingwa

Graeme McRae: Who’s your favourite character of the play and why?
Charmaine Bingwa: Alistair, the protagonist Paul’s father; though I’m being slightly biased as I play him. There is a simplicity to him that is so compelling. I love him as he is so representative of the generational disconnection that all too familiar in families. He also serves to remind no matter how hard we try to avoid being like our parents, elements of it are usually inescapable.

What is it like working with our director Anthony Skuse?
Firstly he is an amazing human being. He works very intuitively, has a sense of openness, yet implores exactitude and specificity as God in the detail. He is so widely read too, he’s pretty darn phenomenal.

You had a completely different career before pursuing acting. What caused this change?
I used to work in banking believe it or not! Living in Sydney, I had to balance my creative dreams with the expensive reality of this city. Slowly but surely I was guided towards acting, it almost felt like I could no longer hold my creativity in. I don’t regret it though, I learned loads and made heaps of friends! Plus, I am one of the few actors who is also a numbers girl!

If Skuse gave you a point in the show to come on and play a song on your electric guitar and sing, what would it be? I’ll do harmonies from the wings if you need.
“Paranoid Android” by Radiohead. It’s gloriously anthemic! I feel like Paul and Johnny would play Radiohead-esque music. I love how eclectic the song is, it feels like Alt Rock’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and I think the lyrics “When I am King, you will be first against the wall” strikes at the heart of the play. Gratuitous solos and definitely room for your BV’s, Graeme!

Have you ever had an experience with a personality like Paul? If so, what happened? If not, make it up.
Unfortunately, yes. My ex was a narcissist and it was the pits. They can’t see beyond themselves, lack empathy and just take and take and take. My least favourite type of humans. But you can’t take it personally as their destructive personalities are usually just mirrors to their own internal brokenness.

Graeme McRae

Charmaine Bingwa: This is the third Simon Stephens play you have worked on, what do you love about him as a writer?
Graeme McRae: It is! I love the way his plays open up as you work on them. A scene can seem pretty basic on first read because of the conversational quality of his writing but once pulled apart becomes profound. As a writer Stephens doesn’t spoon feed you, he makes you work. He asks you to find the clues in the text as to what is happening in the scene. I think this occurs because the writing is succinct, nothing is over written, the character never goes on & on about how they’re feeling. You’ll only get a fragment in what might seem a throw away line. As you can see, I’m not as succinct.

What is it like working with our director Anthony Skuse?
Skuse will always be a pleasure to work with. He has the ability to make the rehearsal room feel like home. His knowledge of art, in its many forms, is inspiring and can at times make you feel a little ignorant but is only used to allow you to see the work through a different lens. Ultimately you end up looking at a lot of art and watching a lot of art films. He’s the first to admit he doesn’t know what’s happening in a scene and so any thought or idea had in the room is allowed to be expressed and played with making the piece a true collaboration.

Birdland has many musical musings; what is your favourite song and why? And do you use music in relation to your acting craft?
I’ve been stuck on Hozier for a good while. He’s got a song called “It Will Come Back” that I think is lyrically spot on for the subject matter. I don’t think I consciously delve into other music when working on a project but it does happen. I remember working on Three Sisters last year and found myself listening to a lot of Tchaikovsky and for this it seems The Doors and Radiohead have been on constant loop in my car.

In many ways Birdland is a dissertation on money, fame and in the impact on people and society at large. What are your thoughts on that and how is it relevant today?
Ooooooo, good one. Feels like an essay question. I think the play does a great job at looking at both sides of the transaction. What happens when you start to believe in your own fame? Why do we as consumers want to own a part of a person’s life? Essentially money is just a number and fame is just a word and you need to be careful about how much you buy into any of it. Told you, far from succinct.

You play Paul, the ultimate rock god. Tell us the ways you are a rock god in your own life.
Ha! Thinking about how to answer this just makes me feel mediocre. The closest I get is busting out to Smooth 95.3 in my car. I know, I’m the coooooolest.

Charmaine Bingwa and Graeme McRae can be seen in Birdland by Simon Stephens.
Dates: 3 Oct – 4 Nov, 2017
Venue: New Theatre

Review: All Our Lesbians Are Dead (Zenowa Productions)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 16 – 19, 2017
Playwright: Natalie Krikowa
Director: Natalie Krikowa
Cast: Teneale Clifford, Stephanie Hamer, Felicity Keep, Laura Nash, Gemma Scoble

Theatre review
Only 2% of all television characters are lesbian or bisexual women, but they account for 10% of deaths. As the representation of gay women increases in our media, it seems that they are being killed off at an even higher rate. These are the alarming statistics we hear about in Natalie Krikowa’s All Our Lesbians Are Dead, a comedy that presents this wanton massacre on our TV sets, as conspiracy theory.

There are men in high places who understand that the inclusion of queer characters is advantageous to the bottom line, but are unwilling to accept the validity of queer lives. Lesbians are added to shows, to serve their purpose as profit-making commodities, but are routinely murdered to maintain the heteronormative status quo, established since the inception of television almost a century ago.

The plot involves a private investigator being hired by a couple of lesbian couch potatoes, to investigate the reasons behind these rampant TV deaths of queer women. There are scintillating data and intriguing hypotheses in Krikowa’s script, but dialogue is stilted, with unrealistic personalities constructing narratives that are rarely engaging. The cast exhibits good conviction, with actors Teneale Clifford and Gemma Scoble providing a level of proficiency that offer us moments of invigoration, in what is a very basic effort at making theatre.

Bianca says in the play, that it is better not to see yourself at all, than to see yourself dying over and over again. LGBTQI people should not have to choose between invisibility and destruction. Neither should we still be begging for legitimacy in the twenty-first century, but the truth is that our oppression persists. To see ourselves portrayed with fairness in mainstream media may or may not happen in this lifetime, but the alternative underground is where we have always thrived, and it is here that we find our voice and solidarity. Long may we reign.

www.newtheatre.org.au

Review: 5 Guys Chillin’ (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 12 – 15, 2017
Playwright: Peter Darney
Director: Patrick Howard
Cast: John Michael Burdon, Tom Christophersen, Tim De Souza, Stevie Haimes, Will Reilly

Theatre review
The idea of a drug-fuelled sex party might seem, from the outset, a titillating proposition for the adventurous, but in Peter Darney’s very shocking, but desperately truthful, 5 Guys Chillin’, “chemsex” is anything but arousing. The play is an outrageously revealing collection of verbatim disclosures from five men on the fringe, part of a gay subculture that few have investigated. Filled with taboos, this is raw and edgy theatre, replete with astonishing detail. The result is something that is best described as hardcore, and is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

Directed by the provocative Patrick Howard, who brings to his staging a corresponding boldness, we are urged to find an explanation for the extreme behaviour that these characters embrace so resolutely. The self-destruction is evident, and the urgency at which Howard presents that agonising sense of oblivious ruination, is irresistibly thought-provoking, and politically significant. Hypnotic in its nauseatingly realistic rendering of scenes that will never play out in most of our sheltered homes and imaginations, 5 Guys Chillin’ is an opportunity to gawk at how far some of us have to go, to make life bearable.

The spectacle is created by a strong cast, impressively well rehearsed, with each actor demonstrating a depth of understanding that makes us share in the material’s pertinence. John Michael Burdon plays the revolting B, fearless and memorable in his portrayal of a man with no redeeming features. These are difficult personalities to make convincing, but we believe every disgusting word that comes out of Burdon’s mouth. J is performed by Tom Christophersen who leaves a remarkable impression with excellent comic timing and a touching vulnerability. Also poignant is Tim De Souza as PJ, whose disquieting revelations are striking in their emotional authenticity.

Gay men have suffered prejudice and hate for as long as they have existed. Individuals have risen out of homophobia injured but strong, while others continue to languish in insurmountable pain. 5 Guys Chillin’ shows us some of the darkest reactions to that discrimination. We know of teenagers committing suicide as a response to their communities’ rejection of their sexual identities, and here, even though each of the gay men are able to put on a brave face, they are each living out their own private death wishes. Hate can do no good, and we must confront each occurrence with vehemence.

www.newtheatre.org.au

5 Questions with John Michael Burdon and Patrick Howard

John Michael Burdon

Patrick Howard: What about this play drew you to it and led to your auditioning for it?
John Michael Burdon: In 23 years of theatre, I have never had the opportunity (until now) to work on a truly contemporary written piece that really transforms the idea of what we expect queer theatre to be. The fact that it is a verbatim piece and is telling the stories of real people yet maintaining a certain theatricality to it is not something we see every day as an actor. And I truly do try to push my personal boundaries as an actor to find the truth of this play and my character in ways I have never done before so that’s exciting; to have the opportunity to look at a part of myself I’ve always tended to avoid in the past on stage. Plus I’ve always wanted an excuse to wear a leather harness on stage.

The ‘guy’ you’re playing, B, describes himself as an ‘instigator’, and that certainly comes to fruition in the show. How do you relate to playing this role?
My character B, is definitely the most sexually driven and sexually charged character, not only in the play, but also that I have ever performed. As a young man, I was very much the same and lived in the same world of sorts and B, for me, is who I think I would have become, had I not settled down with a partner and become a parent. It’s like playing an alternative future for me – a “what could have been” scenario had I stayed on the path I was on in my late teens / early twenties.

5 Guys Chillin’ is a bit deep-end in its content at times. Why do you think people should come and see this play, rather than avoid it?
Let’s be honest, this play is graphic. From the stories told to the language used, and the simulated sex scenes and drug use, it is quite hardcore to watch. There’s a sense of voyeurism that borders on intrusion from an audience point of view. But I would also say it’s an exercise in watching bravery on stage from a group of actors who are really trying to bring the truth to stage.  This play is set in London where this particular “scene” is a lot more common, however it is happening in Australia as well. It’s an exploration into the way gay men now connect with each other in a world of apps, instant connections, swipe rights, immediate gratification and easy access. I lived in a world of MSN Chat, gay phone lines like Manhunt & clubs and bars – but this play definitely shows us a new world in the gay community and how the men who live in it, still try to find any connection to other men that they can. 

You’re coming into this show right off the back of playing John in After The Dance at the New. What’s it been like juggling these two very different roles?
It’s been a strange experience, there’s been times when I have gone directly from a 5 Guys Chillin’ rehearsal in the rehearsal room upstairs at the New Theatre to preparing for an evening performance of After The Dance, a Rattigan play set in 1939. Jumping from one to the other has been a challenge. Having said that, the two plays and characters are so very far removed from each other, it’s easy to compartmentalise my “actor brain”. Which is a great thing, because the last thing I need is to jump on stage as John in After The Dance and start talking about the epic sex party in Berlin I went to.

I’m going to throw your question right back at you: what is the most embarrassing situation you’ve found yourself in in performance / rehearsal?
Let’s just say it involved a production of Hair, where I appeared naked on stage. I had eaten something bad the night before and…yeah…

Patrick Howard

John Michael Burdon: What has been the biggest challenge in directing 5 Guys Chillin’?
Patrick Howard: Moving past my crippling lack of self confidence, actually. This is the first time I’ve directed a play on my own in quite a number of years, and having trained and worked since with a very collaborative approach to theatre, I’ve constantly been questioning my style of developing theatrical work is effective when directing a scripted piece. But a few minutes into every rehearsal I’m so at ease, it’s all working out really well and I’m learning a lot! I also knew from the start that, given that movement and choreography are some of my weaker attributes as an artist, making the sex scenes and intimate moments on stage work was going to be a challenge. But, I trusted my strongest skills, and have a great and very generous cast, and we’ve all really come together (so to speak…)

Describe 5 Guys Chillin’ in five words.
Funny, affronting, concerning, honest, human.

What is your experience in verbatim theatre?
Before I studied theatre, I’d done an Honours thesis for my music degree which involved a lot of fieldwork, interviews, transcribing and writing and I really enjoyed that. I first took an interest in verbatim theatre when we did Paul Brown’s Aftershocks and Campion Decent’s Embers in drama school, and that was where I started to see where my interests in qualitative research and theatre could meet. I took it upon myself to make it my own private major study in drama school and developed two verbatim plays about police brutality and student politics, and a surreal ‘documentary musical’ about food and medication, which was produced as part of our graduating production. I’ve worked on quite a number of verbatim and documentary works over the past few years, including Götterdämmerung with my own company, Arrive. Devise. Repeat. I love the idea of sculpting something raw with such truth to become part of some bigger truth, and then finding a way to make that exist in space and time in and interesting way that moves an audience. 5 Guys Chillin’ is tremendously successful in this sense – the characters and drama of the work are compelling through subtext, despite being a collage of interviews. It stays fascinating from beginning to end and there’s no judgement or bias of the stories told at all.

Can you see yourself taking part in one of these parties if you were invited?
To be honest, probably not. The opportunity has been there many times, and I’ve never taken it up. Again, there’s that crippling lack of self-confidence again, but this time with reference to my body. I am very good friends with people who a part of this scene, and through them feel like I have experienced it in a way (I’ve certainly experienced helping cleaning up the aftermath of one…) and while I think the idea of it is great, I have a bit of a hesitation with putting myself in situations where I’m not in control. And obviously, with some of the drugs used in this scene, there’s some substantial risks involved, which gives me another reason to pause for thought.

What is the most embarrassing situation you’ve found yourself in in performance / rehearsal?
I tend to be a bit of a risk taker when it comes to art, so don’t easily find myself embarrassed. As an actor, directors tend to give me notes like, ‘A very bold choice, but…’ and as a director, well, we’ll see…? I think, though, some of my teenage memories probably fit the bill, when I didn’t have any self-confidence and was a terrified closeted little band geek. Having to kiss a girl when I had the lead role in the musical in year nine was a big one. I wanted the ground to eat me up whenever it came up. I remember passing a note to my romantic interest via a friend assuring her I was gay and it didn’t mean anything, but that didn’t make it any easier at all. There were some corker teste-pop notes in that show too, god, and I was singing pop/rock songs and I’m just not cool enough to pull that off at all, even now.

Patrick Howard directs John Michael Burdon in 5 Guys Chillin’ by Peter Darney.
Dates: 12 – 15 Sep, 2017
Venue: New Theatre