Review: The Rasputin Affair (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Apr 1 – 30, 2017
Playwright: Kate Mulvany
Director: John Sheedy
Cast: Tom Budge, John Gaden, Hamish Michael, Zindzi Okenyo, Sean O’Shea
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Rasputin, the divisive and enigmatic figure of early 20th century Russia, remains a figure of contention in Kate Mulvany’s new play. The self-proclaimed “holy man” found himself at the centre of political upheaval through his association with the Tsar royalty, but his position as a religious leader has kept his contribution to social unrest of the time, ambiguous and mysterious. The Rasputin Affair is about the mounting outrage surrounding his rise to power, and assassination attempts led by members of the aristocracy.

A work of comedy, it lampoons archaic personality types and pokes fun at the hypocrisy of religious organisations. There are striking similarities to Molière’s Tartuffe, although the burden of history weighs heavy on Mulvany, whose efforts at providing background information detract significantly from the play’s entertainment quotient. John Sheedy’s direction is often imaginative, but even though his embellishments are delightful, the plot can seem needlessly convoluted, particularly in the first act. Staging becomes much more jaunty post-interval, as the production shifts gear and develops a broader, more appealing approach to its comedy.

Alicia Clements’ vibrant set design contributes beautifully to laughs, along with Matthew Marshall’s lights that give the imagery its finesse. It is an animated cast, particularly memorable in sequences that allow a bolder performance style. Sean O’Shea has just the right charisma, and theatrical sarcasm, for Rasputin. Dangerous, powerful and cryptic, we perceive his allure, as well as his disingenuity, and come to an understanding of the controversial qualities of the legendary character.

The separation of church and state is a familiar concept, but religious beliefs remain chronically ingrained in systems that rule our daily lives. The men who lead religious groups are never democratically elected, yet their influence on policies and ideology are resolutely tenacious. The Rasputin Affair is concerned with corruption, inspired by stories from a hundred years ago. With the inordinate amount of talk about feuding religions in our media, we must not cease to question the extent of their interference on our civil autonomy, whichever gods we have chosen to believe in.

www.ensemble.com.au

Review: The Popular Mechanicals (Wharf 2 Theatre)

Venue: Wharf 2 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Apr 6 – May 13, 2017
Playwrights: Keith Robinson, William Shakespeare, Tony Taylor
Director: Sarah Giles
Cast: Lori Bell, Julie Forsyth, Charles Mayer, Amber McMahon, Tim Overton, Rory Walker
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
When embarking upon an artistic project, possibilities could be endless, but there is almost always a view to an end result. At the theatre, a show is eventually performed for an audience, after a period of rehearsal and creative exploration. The Rude Mechanicals are a group of amateur actors from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, remembered for their comical incompetence. In The Popular Mechanicals, they take centre stage as we watch them go through the anxious, and absurd, process of preparing for their evening of entertainment for the royals. It is a work that puts focus on what happens before opening night, giving validation to all the thrills and spills that inevitably happen, while reaching for the penultimate goal. We often say that nothing is wrong in art, and The Popular Mechanicals certainly places all of its trust on that belief.

The silliness inherited from Shakespeare’s vision of the troupe is fully embraced, for a joyful show that owes a lot to clowning traditions (complete with rubber chickens). The cast goes through sequences that range from pointless and frightfully cheesy, to moments of genius hilarity that will prove unforgettable. It is all deeply amusing, even though its inconsistency can be trying. Appropriately effervescent in approach, six quirky performers take us from one ridiculous scene to another, with mischievous charm and surprising nuance. Rory Walker and Tim Overton are especially memorable, not only for the repellent bodily functions they gleefully demonstrate, but also for an unusual air of ethereality they bring to the stage.

It is natural to want to present our best sides, but nothing is more human than our foibles and blunders. The point of art is that it reflects humanity, yet we so often expect it to be perfect, when humanity is clearly anything but. In its celebration of imperfection, The Popular Mechanicals grants an opportunity for artistic expression that seems more authentic, as a representation of our experience of life, which is almost always stranger than fiction, but incontestably true.

www.statetheatrecompany.com.auwww.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Talk (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Apr 3 – May 20, 2017
Playwright: Jonathan Biggins
Director: Jonathan Biggins
Cast: Valerie Bader, Helen Christinson, Paige Gardiner, Peter Kowitz, Lucia Mastrantone, Kenneth Moraleda, Andrew Tighe, Hannah Waterman, John Waters, Ben Wood
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Journalists are losing jobs every day, while the world transitions from traditional forms of news consumption to what is termed new media. In the digital age, information comes cheap, and its dissemination no longer relies on sources of authority and legitimacy. Instead, we find ourselves obtaining news from literally anyone, with little discernment, through things like social media or any of the millions of internet web pages.

What used to be considered a revered profession, is now dissolved into commentary, opinion and hearsay, coming from people who have demonstrated nothing that earns our trust, most of which is never verified or verifiable. A lot of Jonathan Biggins’ Talk is about the well-founded anxiety surrounding this changing landscape, as well as the ever-present threat that commerce and propaganda pose to our media organisations.

Three powerful bodies are represented in the play; the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the Daily Telegraph, and a fictive mercenary radio station with its talkback star. We observe them finding their way around the case of an alleged paedophile, each one responding in their characteristic manner, with none able to report the truth. Biggins offers insight and perspective on an industry he knows well. The clarity of his deductions is valuable to how we understand the state of play today, in forces that have undeniable influence on all our lives. As a work of theatre though, the dialogue is often contrived, with a transparently didactic approach that gets in the way of its storytelling.

A lack of nuance in its depiction of archetypal personalities produces a kind of comedy that is perhaps too obvious and slightly hackneyed. Its characters are never surprising, although performances are uniformly polished and considered. Actor John Waters as the aforementioned talkback radio host John Behan, is entirely convincing, but the material at hand does not seem to encourage a depiction that is as comical and outrageous, as the real life examples he emulates.

Production design is a straightforward affair in Talk, but for what it lacks in ingenuity, it compensates with efficiency. Mark Thompson divides the stage into three static portions, to accommodate the play’s three workplaces. If their only intention is to create believable and functional spaces for action to occur, then design faculties have passed with flying colours on this occasion.

We want the news to give us access to the truth, but truth is rarely the real priority for those who give us the news. As we become increasingly sceptical of the old gatekeepers, we reach for alternate sources in hope of locating information that is more accurate and relevant, but that can lead us into echo chambers that have us shielded from reality. It is a grim scenario that Talk leaves us with, but its pessimistic resistance of digital advancements in our media is overstated. Traditional formats were never without their problems. It is tempting to think of the past as simple and wholesome, but lying crooks have existed since the dawn of time, and we will have always have to be vigilant, no matter ink or pixels.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: The Play That Goes Wrong (Roslyn Packer Theatre)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Apr 5 – 23, 2017
Playwrights: Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields
Directors: Mark Bell, Sean Turner
Cast: Darcy Brown, Adam Dunn, Luke Joslin, George Kemp, James Marlowe, Brooke Satchwell, Nick Simpson-Deeks, Tammy Weller

Theatre review
When embarking on any project, passion is a key propulsive ingredient that will make things happen, but nothing will go well if passion is the only positive quality it has going for it. A community theatre group in Cornley, UK puts on a 1920s murder mystery, with little more than the fire in their bellies. The lack of talent and skill onstage and off, generates a series of fantastic mishaps that constitutes the high energy comedy brilliance we find in The Play That Goes Wrong.

It is pure farce and slapstick, at their maximum amplification. Stories and characters are barely relevant, in this ambitious exploitation of high octane physical comedy, involving people and objects falling about constantly, in the most satisfying manner. It is an old-fashioned style of show, made new by its unusually voracious need for speed and excitement. Directors Mark Bell and Sean Turner may not be visionaries in the conventional sense, but what they brings to the stage is extraordinarily precise and wildly imagined. The laughs on offer here are ceaseless, limited only by the audience’s ability to respond with a sustained level of energy that could match the hilarity that unfolds on stage.

The charismatic cast gives an exceptionally tight performance. In the presentation of a play where everything goes wrong, nothing is allowed to falter, and the actors are simply impeccable. George Kemp and James Marlow display no limits to their capacity for silliness, proving themselves to be very endearing indeed. Brooke Satchwell and Luke Joslin impress us with their physical presence and agility, allowing their beings to flail and flounce about with great force and ingenuity, for unimaginably powerful comic effect.

Stage managed by Anneke Harrison, the production’s technical excellence is crucial to its success. The Play That Goes Wrong can be seen as a love letter to stage managers everywhere, the unsung heroes of all the great shows we have ever seen. These women and men make themselves invisible, so that we can lose ourselves in the illusion of every staged moment. We fawn over actors and the words of playwrights, but forget the operations out of sight that allow magic to happen, until they draw attention to themselves when things do go wrong. The character of the inept Cornley stage manager (played by Adam Dunn) is a hoot, but also a constant reminder of the magnificence that has to take place backstage in order that theatre can do its best.

www.theplaythatgoeswrong.com.au

Review: Hysteria (Darlinghurst Theatre Company)

Venue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Mar 31 – Apr 30, 2017
Playwright: Terry Johnson
Director: Susanna Dowling
Cast: Miranda Daughtry, Michael McStay, Wendy Strehlow, Jo Turner
Image by Robert Catto

Theatre review
Sigmund Freud is near the end of his life, and the past returns to haunt him. We all change our minds, but writers have the burden of their work set in stone. In Terry Johnson’s 1993 play Hysteria, a fictive version of Freud is made to regret his declarations about women’s rape fantasies. It seems that the legendary psychoanalyst had misrepresented experiences of his patients, turning their reality into imagination, so that his work would be better received. Johnson’s piece about the need to redress denials of rape and molestation, is a timely discussion in the current climate of renewed interest in feminism, but Hysteria is a dry, and often inelegant, work that proves to be less than captivating.

The production looks smart enough, with Anna Gardiner’s set and costume design establishing a splendid first impression. Projections of Julian Tynan’s cinematography appear later in the piece, equally delightful with the imagery it presents. It is an accomplished group of actors, each one demonstrating a good sense of presence and conviction, but chemistry is lacking, and the stories they tell never seem to fortify. We are left feeling confused and detached, unable to adequately follow its narrative or to satisfactorily engage in any of its ideas. It is a laborious exercise for the audience, trying to work out the point of the exercise, and when we eventually gain clarity, Hysteria‘s concerns fail to resonate.

Individual elements of the show all look to be at least adequate, but they coalesce to form something that is altogether disappointing. Its characters are not lifeless; Salvador Dali is written in, presumably, to further enhance the quotient of eccentricity in Freud’s colourful world, but there is little in Hysteria that excites. Art does not owe us entertainment, nor does it promise to always be meaningful. In art, there is no right and wrong, but a work can certainly fall short of the standards it sets itself.

www.darlinghursttheatre.com

Review: White Rabbit Red Rabbit (Freefall Productions)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Apr 4 – 15, 2017
Playwright: Nassim Soleimanpour
Cast: Ylaria Rogers
Image by

Theatre review
The play requires that its actor comes to the performance “blind”, not knowing anything about what lies on the pages of the playbook. It is a complete mystery to the person on stage, and also to those in the audience who are seeing Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit Red Rabbit for the first time. It is significant that the 2010 work was created when its 29-year-old author was forbidden from leaving his country Iran. The autocratic regime that he had to endure is not directly denounced in Soleimanpour’s writing, but its presence and influence on the piece, are clear.

We are made to consider how a police state operates, especially in terms of the complicity and compliance of citizens that allow inhumanity to thrive. The play shifts attention away from the way authorities intrude upon private lives, and looks instead at how the everyday person monitors and subjugates one another unconsciously, especially in cultures where freedoms are severely restricted. We are urged to think about the deficiencies in free will, and how easy it is for society to manipulate our empathy and deprive us of compassion. It wants us to see the tragedy that exists in our exploitable susceptibility to mistreating each other, and our readiness at forming habits of intolerance, hate and violence. It is to the writer’s credit that these grave and important issues are not only communicated powerfully in spite of its need to be cryptic, White Rabbit Red Rabbit is surprisingly humorous and entertaining.

Like Soleimanpour at the time of writing this script, actor Ylaria Rogers is in a position of vulnerability as she moves through the lines and instructions of every page. She submits to the text that she holds in her hands, but like those of us who have gathered to witness this unusual theatrical moment, our volition is constantly called to question. Ylaria’s obedience, and ours, come into examination, leading us to confront the nature of authority, and how it is constructed. Authority is often imagined, but even when it is real and life-threatening, the power of the masses can overthrow any dictator that sits atop. The conundrum is in our inability to perceive that collective force, and our failure to understand that the fear we experience is shared and can only manifest if we allow it to.

www.freefallproductions.com.au

Review: Ellie, Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) (The Depot Theatre)

Venue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Mar 29 – Apr 8, 2017
Playwright: Monica Zanetti
Director: Monica Zanetti
Cast: Meagan Caratti, Margi De Ferranti, Sophie Hawkshaw, Geraldine Viswanathan, Monica Zanetti

Theatre review
Ellie has developed a crush on Abbie, and is trying to figure out how best to ask her along to their year 12 formal. Having only just come out to her mother, who is, predictably, struggling to come to terms with her daughter’s sexual identity, Ellie is lucky to have the ghost of her lesbian aunt show up to help navigate new terrains. Monica Zanetti’s Ellie, Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt) introduces a new paradigm to the story of same-sex attracted girls. Not only does Ellie benefit from the guidance of role models, the play’s portrayal of lesbian and gay relationships in Australian high schools, as entirely normal and accepted, is thoroughly refreshing.

The work is elevated by Zanetti’s incorporation of LGBT political history. By placing emphasis on the hard won rights of Ellie’s community, we experience a gravity in our protagonist’s story without having to see her go through archaic narratives of homosexual agony. It is important that we make representations of LGBT youth in our art and storytelling that reflect the increasing normalisation of their place in society, while preserving their significance within conceptions of social diversity. Zanetti’s writing is sentimental but considered, innocent but sophisticated; it speaks intelligently to our young, and helps advocate for greater inclusiveness of sexual minorities.

The production is staged with minimal fuss. Little ingenuity is put into direction, and set design is overly bare, but the roles are soulfully realised. Appropriately, leading lady Sophie Hawkshaw is strongest of the cast, with a natural charm that endears Ellie to her audience from the very beginning. It is a gentle performance that feels effortless, but one that is surprisingly convincing. Hawkshaw makes us want the best for Ellie, and it is this emotional investment she elicits that keeps us engaged to the end.

www.thedepottheatre.com