Review: They Divided The Sky (Daniel Schlusser Ensemble)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jun 13 – 30, 2018
Playwright: Daniel Schlusser (from the Christa Wolf novel)
Director: Daniel Schlusser
Cast: Stephen Phillips, Nikki Shiels
Images by Patrick Boland

Theatre review
Adapted from Christa Wolf’s novel Der geteilte Himmel, Daniel Schlusser’s They Divided The Sky tells the story of Rita and Manfred, lovers in East Germany, just before the 1961 erection of the Berlin wall. Like pieces of demolished concrete scattered in the aftermath, romantic fragments constitute the play, as we wade through a recollection of events, trying to piece together truths of the past.

Politics of that era is central to the piece, but resonance is derived instead, from the personal relationship between its two characters. With mid-century German ideologies taking a backseat, we focus on the dynamics of the pair, examining the intricacies of love at a time of social unrest.

They Divided The Sky is challenging, but ultimately fulfilling, work. Schlusser’s writing and direction require of us, a deep concentration, in order that its transcendental beauty can take effect. Incisive lighting design by Amelia Lever-Davidson helps us tune in, with a degree of meditative attention, in order that we may approach the staging with a heightened sensitivity. James Paul’s sound design manipulates our emotions so that we respond accurately, on a visceral level, even when our minds are yet to figure out what it all means.

Stephen Phillips and Nikki Shiels are the wonderful actors charged with the responsibility of keeping us intrigued and invested. With an usual approach to plot structure, the play is slow to draw us in, but we are captivated from the start, by the strong presence of its cast. Individually, Phillips and Shiels are precise and cerebral with what they bring, and as a couple, their chemistry is unusually powerful. Whether subtle or intense, their energy is able to fill the stage, and in every shade of light and dark that they manufacture, we discover something special in their ephemeral theatricality.

A love is never more devastating than when it ends prematurely. In a week that has seen migrant children torn away mercilessly from their parents, we can easily imagine what it feels like to have a heart be broken, not by the object of desire, but by cruel external forces. In a world increasingly adversarial, the dreaded history of Germany in two halves serves as cautionary tale, for what could result from our appetite for strife and disunity. We can all have our own principles, but to let them get in the way of peace, is our biggest offence.

www.belvoir.com.au | www.danielschlusser.com

Review: Dresden (Bakehouse Theatre Company)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jun 15 – 30, 2018
Playwright: Justin Fleming
Director: Suzanne Millar
Cast: Thomas Campbell, Renee Lim, Yalin Ozucelik, Dorje Swallow, Jeremy Waters, Ben Wood
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Wagner’s first success was Rienzi, an opera about the rise and fall of a medieval Italian populist leader. Hitler fell in love with the work, years after Wagner’s death, and in Justin Fleming Dresden we see the unexpected and formidable ways in which art can inspire behaviour, good and bad. It also looks at Hitler as a failed artist, and proffers a chicken and egg scenario; questioning the relationship between that infamous abominable nature and his own deficiencies at artistic creation. Even though information about contemporary fascistic regimes seem to remain prominent in our consciousness, the play does not feel immediately relevant, but Fleming’s writing exceeds the story he tells. Against a backdrop monumental and historic, his words sing with an enchanting beauty, imparting observations that are succinctly constructed and very wise indeed.

Opera and a world war, give the play a sensibility that is unavailingly grand, but the small auditorium is ambitiously converted by set designer Patrick Howe to convey the sophistication associated with Wagner’s discipline, as well as the aesthetic severity of Hitler’s Germany. Benjamin Brockman’s lights are relentlessly theatrical, with incessant transformations that move us through dimensions, from miscellaneous days of yore, to those that are even more ephemeral and fantastical. Director Suzanne Millar very deftly negotiates the weaving realms of the play, taking us from real to imaginary, across terrains and timelines, for an impressively lucid telling of tales.

Yalin Ozucelik and Jeremy Waters are the leading men, both enthralling with their respective stage presences, and splendid with the dialogue that they are master of. As Wagner, Waters is spirited yet delicate, and as Hitler, Ozucelik’s depiction of cruel imbecility strikes a perfectly balanced act of dramedy. Also memorable are Dorje Swallow and Thomas Campbell, each supporting player demonstrating excellent versatility, proving themselves to be eminently watchable in any guise.

We often hear, that all publicity is good publicity. If all Hitler had wanted from his extreme brutality, was to be remembered, then the confounding actions of people in power everywhere, can begin to make sense. Most of us wish to leave behind some semblance of a legacy, no matter how minute, so that our time on earth can be seen to be of some value. Some want their names to last, but others prefer that what they had tried to generate in their own lifetime, is able to make permanent improvements into the future. Bad people exist, and as we negotiate existence around them, we must try to stop ourselves from fighting fire with fire. Good can turn into evil in the blink of an eye, when we let our guard down and start to emulate those who wish to trespass against us.

www.bakehousetheatrecompany.com.au

Review: Marjorie Prime (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jun 15 – Jul 21, 2018
Playwright: Jordan Harrison
Director: Mitchell Butel
Cast: Lucy Bell, Maggie Dence, Jake Speer, Richard Sydenham
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
Holograms are a reality, and so is artificial intelligence. Combining the two could garner extraordinary results, and in Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime, we see what happens when the memory of lost loves are calibrated through technology, and people are able to re-materialise in three dimensional pixel form. A widow speaks to her late husband, who appears to exist right before her eyes, a digital simulacra assembled from information that she provides. This is science fiction that all can relate to. Universally intriguing notions around the extension of life, is a powerful subject, but the play’s sense of drama is subdued, and its intellect seems curiously restrained.

The production is elegantly assembled, on a very fabulous set, designed by Simon Greer. Director Mitchell Butel gives us only the essentials in a remarkably low-key approach, but the text seems to offer little that is exciting, besides its initially enticing conceit. Scenes become increasingly repetitive, and we find ourselves gradually alienated from a story that struggles to progress meaningfully. Its conclusion however, is once again provocative, as it takes the plot, finally, to somewhere surprising and quite fascinating.

The show might prove underwhelming but it is a polished and professional cast that takes the stage. In the role of Jon is Richard Sydenham, whose emotions are conveyed with an admirable precision that invites us at key points, to attain truthful connection with themes being discussed in Marjorie Prime. Maggie Dence is charming and humorous as Marjorie, cleverly introducing moments of levity to prevent the piece from turning monotonously serious. Lucy Bell and Jake Speer are competent and committed to their parts, although predictable with the interpretations that they bring.

There is a heavy scepticism in the play, that relates to the synthetic portions of our high tech existence, even though it does acquiesce to the inevitable development of civilisation down the futuristic path. Technophobia should never be the default position when talking about tomorrow. We should question everything, but whenever we submit to convenient attitudes of “natural is always better,” we deprive ourselves of empirical truths. It is tempting to want things to stay the same, but the only constant, as always, is change.

www.ensemble.com.au

Review: Estelle Astaire’s Woes & Wares (Blood Moon Theatre)

Venue: Blood Moon Theatre (Potts Point NSW), Jun 13 – 16, 2018
Playwright: Bianca Seminara
Director: Bianca Seminara
Cast: Bianca Seminara

Theatre review
It is a Tupperware party, and our host is doing her best to keep us entertained. Estelle Astaire’s Woes & Wares is a one-woman show, in which a recent immigrant from New York relays the journey that had got her here. The challenges of a child living with a difficult mother, and failed love affairs of an ingenue, form an amusing biography of someone trying to come into her own. Estelle is great company, and her mother is a splendidly colourful creature, both witty and spirited, in this uncomplicated but cleverly written play, by Bianca Seminara.

For the production, Seminara serves also as actor and director, for which her abilities are evidently less accomplished. There is a charm and attractive quirkiness to the presence she brings on stage, but the lack of dynamism and drama in the performance, makes for a monotonous experience, albeit a tenaciously endearing one. Nevertheless, the hour-long show is fairly rewarding, made memorably novel by the circulation of a large number of fascinating plastic containers among the audience.

Estelle has a horrible husband, whom she tolerates in a way similar to how she had dealt with her mother. The big difference of course, is that Estelle is no longer a child, and can leave her appalling circumstances at will. Independence is essential, but to acquire the skills that will help one attain it, is always a tricky ordeal. When mothers are unable to fulfil their duty as role models, daughters often have to learn things the hard way. Estelle has yet to find her path, but we are glad to see that she is on the right track.

www.bloodmoontheatre.com

Review: The Hypochondriac (Darlinghurst Theatre Company)

Venue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Jun 9 – Jul 1, 2018
Playwright: Molière (a new version by Hilary Bell)
Director: Jo Turner
Cast: Gabriel Fancourt, Darren Gilshenan, Sophie Gregg, Emma Harvie, Lucia Mastrantone, Jamie Oxenbould, Monica Sayers
Images by Robert Catto

Theatre review
Argan is convinced that he is riddled with disease. His wife Beline, has heard it all before, and tired of waiting for his death, is now plotting to steal his entire estate without the help of sickness to deliver the goods. Molière’s The Hypochondriac is given new interpretation by Hilary Bell, who makes adjustments to the language and story for yet another generation. The essence of Molière’s farce is retained, and it proves still to be effective and very enjoyable, but a more modern sensibility is introduced, most notably in terms of its women characters, who are now full of nerve and agency.

First glimpse of the production is impressive. Designer Michael Hankin’s set is an opulent creation, gloriously lit by Verity Hampson to convey both the wealth at the centre of Argan’s story, and the traditions from which it is derived. The show however, is slow to start. Energies are subdued, and a misplaced hush pervades much of the action, even if the cast looks to be raring to go. Things do fall into place however, when an air of chaotic ruckus that so defines the genre, eventually kicks in, to replace the strange tentativeness of its beginnings.

Performer Darren Gilshenan’s marvellous comedic presence makes him the perfect candidate for Argan; he brings to the role a rare combination of precision and raw impulse, keeping us firmly on track with the plot, but always feeling as though anything could happen, as is crucial in this style of live comedy. It is a thoroughly accomplished ensemble that takes the stage, and although chemistry in-between is not yet at perfection on opening night, each player is as enthused and skilled as the next, and we find ourselves fawning over all of their colourful characterisations.

Marriage is increasingly strange a phenomenon. As we move towards ever more rational forms of existence, the fact that people hold on to that ancient practice, is quite curious. Young ones in The Hypochondriac wish to have marriage legitimise their love, whilst their older counterparts think of marriage in direct accordance with the possession of property. Love and property can exist today independent of that institution, but we cannot help returning to it, maybe for its symbolism, or maybe we are simply always in search of something to make ourselves feel better.

www.darlinghursttheatre.com

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: Saint Joan (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Jun 5 – 30, 2018
Playwright: George Bernard Shaw (additional text by Emme Hoy, Imara Savage)
Director: Imara Savage
Cast: Gareth Davies, John Gaden, Brandon McClelland, Sean O’Shea, Socratis Otto, Sarah Snook, Anthony Taufa, David Whitney, William Zappa
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Joan of Arc never even made it to her twenties. Executed at the age of nineteen, her story represents the worst of our misogyny, and in director Imara Savage’s version of George Bernard Shaw’s play, that absurd fear of powerful women is given elucidation, as we see state and religion go to great lengths to exterminate Joan, so that the threat that she poses to the patriarchy is banished. In Saint Joan, instead of the usual veneration and idolatry, a war hero is swiftly and mercilessly taken down, for the sole reason of her gender.

Men can have daring ambition and resolute faith, but in a girl, those qualities are turned into the charge of heresy. Shaw’s original vision proclaimed “no villains in the piece,” but Saint Joan is, on this occasion, thoroughly subverted, to expose the inhumanity of forces we hold in reverence, of those so much power is lavished upon. Church and government do not get off scot-free in this rendition of Joan’s legend. Their guilt in the historical episode, is brazenly exposed. Our father figures are rightfully condemned, made to own up to the brutal murder of an heroic warrior.

Full of passion, the work is powerful and gritty, made spectacularly riveting by the presence of its leading lady. Sarah Snook is an unequivocal sensation in the role, equally intense whether depicting vulnerability or majesty, marvellously incisive with the delivery of each line. She conveys meaning and emotion with admirable depth and a disarming authenticity, having us pining for her every artistic bestowment. Her interactions with the cast are replete with chemistry, and the men (all other players here are the culpable masculine) bring generous support, often brilliantly engaging in their own right.

David Fleischer’s set design is a restrained, highly sophisticated evocation of our traditional institutions, with a heavy curtain that encapsulates all that is required to express a simultaneous sense of awe and oppression. Lights by Nick Schlieper and sound by Max Lyandvert, take us through atmospheric and spatial transitions with admirable precision, manipulating our instinctual responses with great dexterity, so that our attention is focused always and only, on the exact resonating point.

Evil has a knack for hiding in plain sight. What was once a story about men being dutiful, is today revealed to be a site for the unravelling of abhorrent systems that thrive on ruthless subjugation. Where we were once entangled in the ambiguity of Joan’s assertions and behaviour, we can now depart from the doctrines that had given justification for the unforgivable persecution of a girl who had done nothing wrong. Corrupting forces will remain, but our ability to act virtuously with courage, truth and justice, is forever in ascension.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au