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.

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.

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

Review: After The Dance (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Aug 9 – Sep 9, 2017
Playwright: Terence Rattigan
Director: Giles Gartrell-Mills
Cast: Tom Aldous, Callum Alexander, Lloyd Allison-Young, George Banders, John Michael Burdon, Sandra Campbell, Rowan Davie, Peter Flett, Matt Ford, Valentin Lang, Lauren Lloyd Williams, Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame, Alyssan Russell, Claudia Ware
Image © Bob Seary

Theatre review
It is England in the 1930s. David is fabulously wealthy, and dreadfully miserable, living a life with no aim and purpose. Terence Rattigan’s play is about a writer who has everything, including two women vying for his affections, but who remains obstinately unfulfilled. Time has not been kind to After The Dance, which feels sorely irrelevant, with its archaic, although honest, worldview. We no longer despise work, and we no longer tolerate the representation of women as accessories for the libido and vanity of men. We have thankfully moved beyond Rattigan’s depiction of a failed existence, as exemplified by his protagonist’s persistent disquiet.

Director Giles Gartrell-Mills shows us the emptiness of David’s days, through the inconsequential and foolish ways personalities in his household spend their time. There is a worthwhile discussion to be had about the overindulgence of alcohol that is perhaps the only thing in the show that retains some resonance, but we are never able to really empathise with those who appear onstage. When we see Helen and Joan fighting over David, we question his appeal, having seen only evidence of his shortcomings, and the narrative’s persuasiveness begins to suffer.

Actor George Banders faces the grim task of making David a likeable figure, and even though his attempts are doubtlessly confident, the battle seems to be ill-fated from the start. More impressive is Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame as Joan, the vivacious wife who, although rudimentarily written, is memorable for the performer’s conviction at delivering surprising complexity, and a refreshing sense of panache. Also noteworthy are Brodie Simpson’s costumes for the show’s female characters, each outfit beautifully fitted and thoughtfully assembled.

David connects with nothing, and finds himself in a painful abyss of solitude. Loneliness is universal, but as we discover in After The Dance, how we talk about it changes with time and space. We can invent endless concealments so that the plague of loneliness can be diminished, but finding true release from it, requires that the self must go through the most genuine of reflections, and the most brutal interrogation. David suffers from writer’s block, unable to find expression for what he knows to reside within, yet he looks only outward, hoping for respite to come from others. A large mirror sits in the drawing room where all the action takes place, but in spite of his vanity, David takes not one look into his own eyes.

5 Questions with George Banders and Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame

George Banders

Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame: How can today’s society relate to the text and its characters?
George Banders: The wonderful thing about this play is that it’s still so relevant. The themes of alcohol addiction, jealousy, betrayed, unrequited love are all highly relatable to modern audiences. The characters aren’t archetypes, they feel so real with their own little quirks, which makes them a joy to play.

Your character David has a few vices, do you have any?
Way too many to mention so publicly. I do however secretly enjoy big game hunting, I know it’s probably not PC these days but there’s nothing like the feeling of bagging a majestic 6 tonne male elephant. What a rush…

What is it like working with Giles Gartrell-Mills?
Terrible, the man’s a hack! He couldn’t direct traffic! But if he asks, tell him I’m really enjoying it. He has a wonderful sense of the world, and gives you the room and support you need to see what these characters are capable of, and how far we can push this play to make it thrilling. He dialogues with actors so well, and it’s always such a fun, energetic room to play in. Would work with him any day.

If you could be one character from After The Dance in real life, who would it be?
I’d be the doctor, George, just for that sweet sweet pay check, also I feel practising medicine in the 30’s was so much easier; “splitting pain in your side and jaundice? Have a Coca Cola!”

Describe the play in a Haiku.
Bottomless drinks served
Swinging naked from chandelier
Mind the balcony-

Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame

George Banders: What is the most rewarding project you’ve ever worked on and why?
Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame: Well this one time, I mâchéd the entire solar system out of found chewing gum wrappers just to top Melissa Fuller from 7B’s volcano. That’s not entirely, or at all, true. I don’t think I can pinpoint one project that is more fulfilling than the other. I think everything we take on, we do so because it’s the right fit for us at the time. Each time we walk away with more wisdom and knowledge then before. Hopefully.

What do you find is the most moving moment in After The Dance?
For a play that is all airs and graces, there are so many moving moments! But, without giving too much away, probably the ending. Although that may be for my own selfish reasons!

If the main characters in the show were cocktails what would they be?
David is a Side Car, a classic, but still a bit old and musty. Joan, a dirty Gin Martini, refined with just the right amount of salt. John doesn’t make it to cocktail stage, he’s slugged straight from the bottle. Helen is a Mimosa, equal parts sensible and fun. Peter is a Tom Collins, trying to play with the big boys, but still topped up with soda. And Julia is a Mint Julep, a harsh spirit almost too much to bear, cut often with saccharine.

Who was the first actor you saw that blew you away?
Joan Cusack in Addams Family Values, yaaass feisty husband slayer from the 90’s! Also, still know every word!

What song do you listen to, if you’re going into an intense scene, to pump you up?
Die Antwoord would be my go to a lot of the time, although if I’m after melancholy, probably some Jeff Buckley.

George Banders and Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame are appearing in After The Dance, by Terence Rattigan.
Dates: 9 August – 9 September, 2017
Venue: New Theatre

Review: Mauritius (New Theatre / Sure Foot Productions)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jul 12 – 29, 2017
Playwright: Theresa Rebeck
Director: Richard Cornally
Cast: Brett Heath, Kitty Hopwood, Peter-William Jamieson, Emma Louise, Andy Simpson
Image by Sundstrom Images

Theatre review
Jackie finds herself in possession of some highly collectable postage stamps after her mother’s death, and goes about trying to sell them for an enormous sum of money. The process is fraught with danger and dispute, as shady figures and family members get in her way. Theresa Rebeck’s Mauritius talks about greed, and the ugly behaviour that accompanies our thirst for personal gain. It is not a work with philosophical depth, but its effective take of a classic structure, provides ample opportunity for a gripping and entertaining thriller.

The production is well-rehearsed, with actors demonstrating excellent conviction. There is good energy on the stage, but a strange and awkward lack of humour tarnishes the show. Chemistry between players is present, although their focus on drama is often misplaced, during sections of the play that seem to offer favourable circumstances for comedy. Lighting and sound could help lift atmosphere, but both are severely neglected.

Kitty Hopwood is a very intense Jackie, always looking as if she is consumed by fear. Her steadfast approach reveals a part of the character that is anxious about her situation, but her scenes have a tendency to feel monotonous as a result of that unwavering artistic choice. More motivated by laughter is Peter-William Jamieson, who thankfully brings some joviality to the role of Dennis. A memorable performance is given by Brett Heath, who plays the villain of the piece Sterling, with a sense of creativity and playfulness that delivers theatricality, to this otherwise overly stiff and serious presentation.

5 Questions with Emma Louise and Andy Simpson

Emma Louise

Andy Simpson: Violence is an important part of Mauritius. It colours our characters’ motivations and experiences. Have you ever found yourself in an unexpectedly violent situation?
Emma Louise: Wow, what a question to start with!  Yes, I guess I have been witness to various violent situations.  One which immediately springs to mind was when a person I was just getting to know had just walked a friend of his down the road from my place in Darlinghurst at the time to get a cab or something.  The next thing I know I hear these awful loud guttural sounds coming from that same direction down the street. I run out to my balcony to see what’s going on, and coming up the road I see both my new friend and another huge shirtless guy circling each other, weaving in and out between parked cars and making these noises I can only describe as animalistic. It certainly wasn’t English! Both already had blood staining their faces and arms, so I knew punches had already been thrown. It honestly looked like they were going to kill each other, despite being complete strangers who had never crossed paths before. I (oh so heroically) ran into my flatmate’s room screaming for his help, and he then saves the day… going outside, placing himself in the middle of these two burly men intent on destroying each other, and calmly talking the shirtless stranger down while firmly instructing my new acquaintance to get into the house. All while I stood watching on in horror on the balcony.  Ah the random, weird, unexpected violent things that can happen at 3.30am on a Friday night in Darlo!  Happy to report that I never saw the big shirtless guy again, and am also no longer in the company of the other violent acquaintance. The lovely hero flatmate however, (another actor incidentally, who uses words instead of fists) will always be in my life.  That’s definitely the kind of company I prefer to keep!

Serena Williams was pregnant while competing at The Australian Open this year. Is it a challenge to act when you are pregnant?
Ha! A little I guess, especially as you grow bigger with each passing month – making it a harder thing to physically disguise. I will be 7 months along when this show is up, so am extra aware of my physicality… having to watch that I’m not standing like a pregnant lady, or letting the tell tale waddle slip in anywhere. Even the way you get up and down from a chair can be tricky at times. So much to monitor! But basically I’m just aiming to keep myself as rested as possible when not rehearsing/performing, as well as stretching and seeing a physio to help keep everything as limber as possible. A woman being pregnant is not a disability after all… we can do pretty much most things we would usually do – perhaps just being a bit more mindful, that’s all.

Mauritius is an intense play. Full of emotion and pain. Do you prefer this sort of work or are you a comedy gal?
Ooooh, I really like both! I’ve been super lucky I think to have had the opportunity to work across many genres. I learnt back at drama school that I had the ability to effectively tap into painful emotions – helping me dig into roles like Madame de Tourvel  (Les Liaisons Dangereuses), Paulina (The Winter’s Tale) or Olive (Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll).  But I’ve also discovered through training and practise that I have a bit of a knack for making people laugh as well – enjoying roles like Edith (The Women), Daria (We’ll Always Have Wagga) or Mum (Vernon God Little). I would hate to have to pick just one or the other to do for the rest of my life, and here’s hoping I never have to!

Have you acted in other cities around Australia, or even overseas? How does the Sydney theatre scene compare?
I actually started out acting in Canberra – back before I went to Uni, and we used to joke that the only way anyone from Canberra would get to set foot on the Canberra Theatre stage was to leave Canberra and be employed by an interstate company. There really wasn’t much around at that time, however from what I’ve read now it seems that the Canberra Theatre scene has grown somewhat, and even has an acting school of it’s own which is great. I then went to study in QLD, so have performed in both Toowoomba and Brisbane, though it has been years since being there so I can’t really give it an accurate comparison to the Sydney scene I’m afraid. Other cities I’ve performed in include Melbourne and Adelaide – which is so great to perform in at Festival time. There is such a buzz and sense of artist camaraderie at the Adelaide Fringe which I wish could bottle and bring to Sydney to have all year round!  

What do you prefer, rehearsal or performance?
Ooooh, that’s another hard one. Ultimately performance if I had to pick one, as by then I’ve done all of the work and can enjoy just giving myself over to the character each night and watching how their story affects different audiences. But playing with other actors in a rehearsal room is pure joy also! I love meeting new actors whom I’ve not worked with. I love hearing words off the page for the first time. I love making ridiculous mistakes throughout the rehearsal process all in the pursuit of truth and telling a good story.  I love being so frustrated that a scene is not working, and having a breakthrough moment where it all becomes clear. God I probably sound like a bit of a wanker, but I really do love what we do!

Andy Simpson

Emma Louise: What is Mauritius all about, and why did this play appeal to you?
At a basic level Mauritius is about stamps. Extraordinarily valuable stamps. Although saying that is a bit like saying Indiana Jones is about archaeology or Animal Farm is about farm animals. The play is about five desperate people who will go to extreme lengths to get what they want. They steal, lie, fight and intimidate, all for “two tiny slips of paper”. Mauritius has wonderful characters and pacy, muscular dialogue. I love American drama like this. It is evocative of the plays of David Mamet and Martin Scorcese’s New York movies. Truly exciting work.

Are you, or have you ever been a stamp collector? Or avid collector of anything for that matter?
I collected stamps as a child although I had completely forgotten about it until I was cast in the play. It was almost like a suppressed memory that popped back into my head. I’ve since found that my parents still have my collection in their home, safe and sound and exactly as I left it. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with it when I next visit them next year.

If you were writing a personal ad for your character (Philip), how would it read?
Companion wanted for lost man. Must love embarrassing silences and glib comebacks. Passion for retrospection and bitter recrimination a definite plus but not a deal breaker if you’re willing to put out. A willingness to excuse long, unexplained absences and poor timekeeping would be appreciated. 

How did you get this role?
Sure Foot put on auditions. There was a small problem with getting me the audition material but two hours is enough notice I reckon. Two hours to get my twins dressed, my daughter and son to Saturday morning sport (different sports of course) grab a coffee (vital), drive to Newtown, find parking, find the theatre, read the three scenes, shake hands and smile. I auditioned. I was the least bad option. Typical audition really.

What is your favourite thing to do when you’re not busy playing with us in a rehearsal room?
Softball. Playing softball. Practising playing softball. Talking about softball. And coffee.

Catch Emma Louise and Andy Simpson in Mauritius, by Theresa Rebeck.
Dates: 12 – 29 July, 2017
Venue: New Theatre