Review: The Apologists (Unlikely Productions)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jan 20 – 31, 2021
Playwrights: Lucinda Burnett (New Universe), Cordelia O’Neill (Seven, The Sweetest Hour), Iskandar Sharazuddin (Excuses)
Director: Jane Moriarty
Cast: Gabrielle Scawthorn
Images by Steve Gregson

Theatre review
Comprised of three monologues, each one utilising the concept of an apology as starting point, the appropriately titled The Apologists deals not only with personal turmoil that accompanies any event that necessitates an admission of guilt, but also the public aspects to which these difficult situations pertain.

In Iskandar Sharazuddin’s Excuses, it is the Chief Executive of the UK’s National Health Service, who takes a very public tumble. Cordelia O’Neill’s Seven, The Sweetest Hour involves a social media influencer whose self-obsession leads to an innocent victim paying the ultimate price. New Universe by Lucinda Burnett talks about the revelations of an NGO overlooking sexual abuse taking place where aid is meant to be implemented.

Although relatively short in length, each of the pieces are intricately conceived, and exhaustively explored. They involve high stakes and familiar situations, delving deep into characters beyond the pithy news headlines their stories would no doubt inspire, on millions of mobile scrolls.

The incomparable Gabrielle Scawthorn performs three separate roles, eschewing all things superficial, so that we can access the heart of each matter expeditiously. The unambiguity of her delivery style, ensures that our immersion into these narratives are gripping and powerful. Scawthorn’s ability to elicit empathy for the personalities we meet, is quite extraordinary, and a welcome antidote for these times of pervasive and succumbing apathy.

Jane Moriarty’s direction is crisp and concise, always able to locate a purpose, and drive home a point for each moment of the show. Lights by Saul Valiunas and sound by Rob Donnelly-Jackson, offer uncomplicated solutions to enhance dramatic effect at crucial junctures, of this otherwise barebones presentation.

It is easy to say sorry, and get away with it. We see organisations, big and small, express remorse over countless things on countless occasions, but rarely do we see any structural changes that will ensure improvements. Too often we chastise individuals, wanting them to be served their just desserts, but in the process, we neglect the machinations of systems that have facilitated these misdeeds. History is then allowed to keep repeating, which reduces apologies to being essentially meaningless.

www.unlikelyproductions.co.uk

Review: Dorr-e Dari: A Poetic Crash Course In The Language Of Love (PYT Fairfield)

Venue: Carriageworks (Eveleigh NSW), Jan 20 – 24, 2021
Director: Paul Dwyer
Cast: Mahdi Mohammadi, Bibi Goul Mossavi, Jawad Yaqoubi
Images by Anna Kucera

Theatre review
In Dorr-e Dari, the aspect of Sydney we call a cultural melting pot, comes to life, as artists with roots in Kabul, Tehran and Quetta collaborate to present a work based on Persian poetry. Subtitled “A Poetic Crash Course in the Language of Love” we are treated to philosophical perspectives on affairs of the heart, not restricted to the romantic, but relevant to all tender parts of humanity. Many of the words are foreign, but the sentiments of Dorr-e Dari feel to be wholly universal.

On stage for the entirety, a trio of artists Mahdi Mohammadi, Bibi Goul Mossavi and Jawad Yaqoubi present a bilingual show that often deals with tradition, but tailored to a modern Australian sensibility. With an English-speaking audience in mind, they find ways to cross bridges, and formulate translations, so that through these ancient writings, a new cohesion can be forged, especially between tribes that seem, on the surface, to be incompatible. It appears that to locate commonalities in the details of how our emotions work, is to create a sense of peace in how we experience and understand the world. For a work about love, it is indeed the nature of our shared existence on this one land that becomes fundamental.

Directed by Paul Dwyer, the show is unexpectedly beautiful in its somewhat fragmented form. Sequences can be naturalistic or theatrical, conversational or ceremonial, spiritual or didactical; there are dance sequences, comedic anecdotes, and videophone footage (live and pre-recorded), Dorr-e Dari is unconstrained in the ways it wishes to communicate. The tone is however, pleasantly cohesive, with all three performers proving to be highly likeable, and very welcoming presences, even if slightly unseasoned by conventional standards.

As we become used to the notion of having to bring diversity to all our social and professional endeavours, we gain a new appreciation for a post-assimilation world, where cultures of colonisation should no longer dominate our conversations. It is of great significance that Dorr-e Dari commences with a welcome to country by Indigenous elder, Aunty Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor (who also contributes her own love poem). As a people with roots from all over the planet, the only point of convergence for Australians, should we ever feel the need to have only one, must always have a First Nations emphasis. This is the most rational, and the most just, way for us to advance as a nation. The future of Australia needs to provide dignity for all, not only for the most barbaric.

www.pyt.com.au

Review: Maureen: Harbinger Of Death (Seymour Centre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Jan 15 – 23, 2021
Playwright: Jonny Hawkins
Director: Nell Ranney
Cast: Jonny Hawkins
Images by Yaya Stempler

Theatre review
In the prologue, we learn that some of Jonny Hawkins’ best friends are old ladies. It is a somewhat strange declaration to make, but the truth is that very few young Australians, can say that they spend much time at all with the elderly. As a colonised nation, we routinely ignore the old. Youth is money, and money is everything, in this Western style civilisation we all have to live. Thank heavens then, that Hawkins has created a play that shifts our focus, making us look intently at a woman in her glorious eighties. Maureen: Harbinger Of Death may not be an entirely true story, but none of it ever feels less than real.

This one-person show involves Hawkins themself performing as Maureen, sat permanently in a chair, never tiring of a nice, long chat. Her advanced years lead her to believe that she has the ability to foreshadow the death of friends, for she has seen them depart one by one. The writing is witty, extremely warm and often very poignant. Direction by Nell Ranney is extraordinarily elegant, for an appropriately restrained production featuring a larger than life character. Lights by Nick Schlieper and sound design by Steve Toulmin, are quietly resolved but always just right. Isabel Hudson’s work on set and costume is delicately considered, and a visual delight.

As performer, Hawkins is remarkable. They inhabit and convey wonderfully, the luminous essence of Maureen, a woman any audience will find instantly loveable. Their generosity of spirit offers a bridge, one that invites us to regard the octogenarian in the same way. Hawkins’ sharp comedic sense ensures that we are riveted, and the ease with which they command the stage, is quite a marvel to observe.

Maureen: Harbinger Of Death is a dignified portrait, of a person otherwise overlooked and forgotten. All of us are valuable cogs of the same machine, yet only a few at the top are ever celebrated. Our way of life requires that each must give till it hurts, but how we are rewarded for the same pain, is certainly unequal and unjust. So many are chewed up and spat out; so many are given use-by dates, and mercilessly abandoned thereafter. By contrast, many of our minority cultures revere the elderly. If only we knew to make better choices.

www.nellranney.com.au

Review: Sunshine Super Girl (Performing Lines)

Venue: Sydney Town Hall (Sydney NSW), Jan 8 – 17, 2021
Playwright: Andrea James
Director: Andrea James
Cast: Luke Carroll, Jax Compton, Tuuli Narkle, Katina Olsen, Kyle Shilling
Images by Yaya Stempler

Theatre review
Living legend Evonne Goolagong ruled tennis through the 1970s, a remarkable feat by anyone’s standards, but her successes as a young Aboriginal woman can never be underemphasised. Systemic forces put in place through all these years of colonisation, means that any instances of excellence by the Indigenous population of our land, represents a defiant tenacity, whether or not the individual chooses to identify along political lines. In Andrea James’ Sunshine Super Girl, our heroine thinks of herself as apolitical, however there is no mistaking her achievements as anything but an immense source of pride and inspiration for Australians of all stripes.

Written and directed by James, the work is a captivating study of not just the sporting icon, but also the environment in which all Indigenous women have to endure. Sunshine Super Girl‘s discussions of gender and race, although handled with a lightness of touch, does not shy away from the hard realities that women of colour deal with every day and everywhere. The actual narrative of Goolagong’s glory years is uncomplicated and rarely overtly dramatic, but James’ meticulous direction, along with marvelous choreography by Katina Olsen and Vicki Van Hout, work in collaboration to deliver a rich and soulful creation, that many will find genuinely moving.

There is a tender sincerity to the production that makes its 90-minute duration a terrific experience. Music and sound by Gail Priest are intricate and sensitive, while lights by Karen Norris and projections by Mic Gruchy help us reach emotional depths beyond that which dialogue can provide. Set and costumes by Romanie Harper and Melanie Liertz convey contextual information with great efficiency, able to manufacture a sophisticated aesthetic that is elegant, authentic and very pleasing to the eye.

Leading lady Tuuli Narkle is a charismatic and truthful presence, who impresses with the thoroughness of her reflections, and the precision with which she executes her creative ideas. As a young Goolagong, Narkle is confident, nuanced and simply brilliant. The supporting cast comprises Luke Carroll, Jax Compton, Katina Olsen, Kyle Shilling, a formidable team beautifully cohesive at every turn, yet each performer is able to demonstrate distinct strengths that appeal to the audience in varied ways.

The importance of success stories and role models for minority communities, are often overlooked. Without sufficient examples of accomplishments by people like us, it is easy to think that everything is out of reach. On the other hand, these extraordinary personalities draw attention to the irregularity of people like us making it big. We must place attention on structural mechanisms that are hindrances for particular groups. This often means that dominant cultures have to consciously cede power, before parity can ever have a chance to be attained. Not many of us can be Evonne Goolagong, and we should not have to be exceptional in order to walk this earth with joy and dignity.

www.performinglines.org.au

Review: The Last Season (Force Majeure)

Venue: Carriageworks (Eveleigh NSW), Jan 6 – 10, 2021
Director: Danielle Micich
Cast: Paul Capsis, Olwen Fouéré, Pamela Rabe, Isabel Bantog, Owen Beckman-Scott, Luka Brett-Hall, Maddie Brett-Hall, Imala Cush, Niamh Cush, Nicholas Edwards, Ember Henninger, Piper Kemp, Poppy McKinnon, Julia Piazza, Tallulah Pickard, Louis Ting
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Thirteen young creatures are hatched at the beginning of The Last Season, and we follow them through their first year, witnessing transformations alongside as they progress through the months commencing in Summer. The first three sections of the 4-part show feature a central character, a mature personality juxtaposing against these tender entities. Presented in a non-narrative format, it suggests ideas of legacy and progeniture, placing focus on past/future and parent/child, to ask fundamental questions about our very existence.

Directed by Danielle Micich, The Last Season is an ambitious work. Marg Howell’s set and costumes, Damien Cooper’s lights, and Kelly Ryall’s music, all conspire to create something that indicates an unmissable sense of the epic; the themes under investigation certainly are of that grandiose scale. Transcendental in its tone and feel, the production however never really moves us to the sublime. Its abstraction places us in a cerebral state, yet what it wishes to say, seems to remain in the pedestrian.

Although insufficiently inventive, The Last Season‘s experimental nature is to be lauded. The youthful ensemble is full of intensity and concentration, with every member displaying admirable generosity in their commitment to the art form. Senior performers bring colourful variation, each one distinct and memorable. Paul Capsis is especially powerful, with the poignant humour and sincerity that they are able to introduce to the piece. Olwen Fouéré’s extraordinary style and energy provide a remarkable sense of elevation, and Pamela Rabe’s august theatricality establishes a necessary gravity that keeps us attentive.

With each generation, we wonder if it is just history repeating, or if a new frontier is being forged. Life is a mystery, but we know for sure that there will always be individuals who refuse to toe the line, and new innovators who will create something never before seen. Conformity is death, so it is fortunate that living amongst us, are those who will ensure that our extinction is kept at bay, for a little while longer.

www.forcemajeure.com.au

Review: My Brilliant Career (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Dec 5, 2020 – Jan 31, 2021
Playwright: Kendall Feaver (based on the novel by Miles Franklin)
Director: Kate Champion
Cast: Blazey Best, Jason Chong, Tom Conroy, Emma Harvie, Tracy Mann, Nikki Shiels, Guy Simon
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
The play begins with Sybylla making unapologetic pronouncements, declaring that this is all going to be about herself. Miles Franklin’s 1901 novel My Brilliant Career, features a feisty woman in a man’s world, and although the story takes place during what we now acknowledge as being the first wave of feminism, Sybylla seems terribly alone in her defiance. In the Australian outback, the teenager dreams of an existence beyond marriage and child-bearing, and for some inexplicable yet gratifying reason, we discover that unlike all the other women in her life, Sybylla finds the hubris to see things through.

The old-fashioned tale is rejuvenated by playwright Kendall Feaver, who manufactures engaging scenes for her stage version. Although frustratingly conservative in style and vision, it is nevertheless a compelling portrait of a radical young woman from our fabled past. Kate Champion directs with excellent humour, buoyed by an infectious and irrepressible sense of playfulness. Production design by Robert Cousins is restrained, but effective in helping us keep focus on characters and relationships. Occasional dazzling manoeuvres by lighting designer Amelia Lever-Davidson, deliver an enjoyable theatricality, as do composer Chrysoulla Markoulli and sound designer Steve Francis, who prove themselves cheeky collaborators with the whimsy that they so cleverly inject.

Actor Nikki Shiels too is adept at playing with irony, as she successfully bridges the many decades, between the original conception of the protagonist and our modern times, with a memorable sass and confidence. Shiels’ passion fills the space, allowing us to connect with the uplifting and spirited qualities of Sybylla. It is a strong supporting cast that we encounter, with a notable Guy Simon, whose romantic rendition of a love interest is effortlessly convincing and quite splendid, and Tracy Mann who steals the show with all of her roles, each one considered and arresting.

My Brilliant Career offers nothing new, yet the resonances it provides, are disarmingly powerful. After all these years, we can still recognise that so many Australian women face the same problems, as though we are stuck in the 19th Century. We still talk about how we can “have it all”, and we still think it extraordinary and audacious that a whole story can be told about our hopes and dreams. Of course, in many ways, we have progressed, and feminism has improved many things, but there must be something about us that is trapped in the past, when we notice Sybylla’s story striking a chord.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: The Picture Of Dorian Gray (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Nov 25 – Dec 19, 2020
Playwright: Kip Williams (adapted from the Oscar Wilde novel)
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Eryn Jean Norvill
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Self-preservation is in our human nature, but when it manifests in forms of narcissism, we have to wonder if that urge of vanity, is in fact paradoxically self-destructive. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray tells the story of a man so taken by his own beauty, he sells his soul in order to forever retain it. That juxtaposition of soul and beauty sets up a dichotomy, that makes us consider the inextricability of one with the other. If the soul is essentially good, Wilde wants us to think that beauty is ultimately impossible, in those who are fundamentally bad. His narrative is compelling, although the evidence in our real lives, may prove those beliefs less convincing.

Kip Williams’ ultra modern version places on the stage, front and centre, screens that display digitalised imagery, most of which can be thought of as selfies of Wilde’s nineteenth century characters, seeming to represent something more tangible than the flimsy yet seductive pixels we encounter in cinematic style. It is a thrilling production, fast-paced and very attractive, able to hold us captive with stunning sights and sounds, inventive from start to finish. Appropriate for our culture, one that has been taken over by mobile devices, and that the show so fervently interrogates, causing the viewer to oscillate between suspecting that it might all be slightly facile, and thinking that maybe there is something to be said about existence in 2020, as we obsess over all things pertaining to facades. In some ways, one could go away thinking that Williams has proven Wilde wrong.

It is the surface that we find glorious in Williams’ vision, with Marg Horwell’s work as designer, and Nick Schlieper’s lights providing an endless stream of breathtaking moments, along with David Bergman’s very sophisticated and thoughtful video work, bringing Australian theatre into a futuristic new era. Clemence Williams too, excels with sound and music, especially memorable when her approach turns baroque, and we feel aroused by the surprising dimensions she is able to build for our senses. Stage Manager Minka Stevens, along with all the crew, must be congratulated for their valiant and expert fulfillment of an exceptionally complex undertaking.

Actor Eryn Jean Norvill plays Dorian Gray and all the other 25 roles. It is the tallest of orders, not only having to switch between personalities at lightning speed for the entire two-hour duration, but also for the extreme demands of an impossibly technical show, involving multiple cameras, and interactions with pre-recorded footage. Norvill’s spirit is indomitable, but we wonder if any human is able to meet every requirement of this merciless challenge.

There is no question that our lives are turning increasingly digital. Some of us might still hang on to ideas that our analogue selves will always be ultimately more genuine, but forces that want us to relinquish remaining parts that are private and physical, are winning every battle. As we transform into pixels and data, at the insistence of those capitalistic entities, we begin to learn that the digital is no longer merely a representation of something else. Images on a screen are becoming more real than what we see without devices as conduit. Also not forgetting, that we are marching towards a time, when the only images we see are either digital or dreams. No one will ever get to Dorian Gray’s flesh, only the evidence of his being, in computerised forms. There is a narcissism in our resistance to this future. We want to believe in our supremacy over technology, as we had believed in our supremacy over nature and other species. Humans seem never to learn that the world is not about us.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Rules For Living (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Nov 2 – Dec 19, 2020
Playwright: Sam Holcroft
Director: Susanna Dowling
Cast: Ella Jacob, Keegan Joyce, Amber McMahon, Hazem Shammas, Bruce Spence, Sonia Todd, Nikita Waldron
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
It is Christmas lunch at Francis’ home in the affluent North Shore. He is a successful lawyer, and both his sons are desperately trying to follow in his footsteps, although their authentic passions lie clearly in other fields. A lot of Sam Holcroft’s Rules For Living talks about the conflict between who we are, and who we are expected to be. It is about the standards set by society, by family, friends and lovers, that have very little to do with what one needs for a satisfying existence, and everything to do with obedience, and for keeping up with the joneses. An examination of middle class mirage is plat du jour, as served up by this predictable comedy, giving us nothing edgy or indeed revelatory.

Actor Sonia Todd plays Edith, mother to the boys, especially effective when bringing emphasis to the irony of narcissistic anguish in people who have it all. Everything is too stressful in her perfect world, where not a hair is allowed to be out of place. Todd offers an accurate sense of bourgeois uptight-ness, that is valuable in our understanding of early twenty-first century Western civilisation, even though the noisy ensemble piece does ultimately prevent anything meaningful or profound to be properly conveyed.

Directed by Susanna Dowling, the show is consistently energetic, but bewilderingly unfunny. The performers work extraordinarily hard to entertain, but none seems to have located any significant humour in the piece, that they so laboriously bring to the stage. Their approaches range from realist to absurdist, all of which miss the mark, although it can often appear that there is little in the writing that is inherently amusing. Design aspects are elegant and polished, but conservatively rendered, for a production that looks, sounds and feels like the hundred Christmas comedies that have come before, always unthreatening, but banal at best.

As we try to survive a living hell comprised of Trumpism and COVID-19, telling stories about vicious family dynamics in 2020, proves to be an exercise that feels little more than a slightly quaint distraction from real life. What might have been important theatre in 2015, when Rules For Living had made its international premiere, now lacks pertinence in a vastly transformed world. There are much bigger fish to fry, and art needs to keep up.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Enemies Of Grooviness Eat Shit (Performing Lines)

Venue: The Red Rattler Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Oct 26 – Nov 5, 2020
Creator: Emma Maye Gibson
Cast: Betty Grumble
Images by Joseph Mayers

Theatre review
Understanding the power of love does not make one impervious to violence. To love thy neighbour, is a notion that should never have exceptions, but it seems our humanity has a habit of setting limits when it comes to generosity. The title of Betty Grumble’s latest outing, Enemies Of Grooviness Eat Shit feigns a sense of aggression, but its tongue-in-cheekness is evident. At the heart of Grumble’s show is a response to sexual violence, although it must be said that the artist resists constraints of any sort, leading to a nature of work that is stridently post-dramatic and non-linear, eluding categorisations at every juncture. The beauty of it is how one can bring interpretations of all kinds, no matter the viewer’s point of departure, and Grumble’s robust presence emanates a visceral power that rigorously provokes thought, even as our senses are consumed by her outrageous manoeuvres.

The character we come into contact with can be seen as a love warrior, oxymoronic but completely appropriate for our times of division. As North Americans march to their voting stations this week, we see a nation fighting for its survival, even though they may look more to be fighting one another. In truth, no fight is devoid of love. Humanity has been tied to death and destruction since the dawn of time, but all our transgressions are executed in the name of love, no matter how gruesome or savage. Even the Nazis say they kill for the love of their race. In Enemies Of Grooviness Eat Shit we confront the concept that hate seems always to be bred from love, yet if one is to be truly loving, ideas of revenge and justice will only turn painful and messy.

Grumble wrestles with herself and the world, as she tries to make things right. It is essentially a one-person show, but our star is constantly invoking others, most notably and with great veneration the artists Candy Royale and Annie Sprinkle, always naming collaborators and inspiring figures, as she takes charge of our communion. It is a deep understanding that for the world to be better, there can be no room for narcissism. We might only be able to speak one at a time, but efforts must find unity.

Grumble’s theatrical language prevents fissures resulting in us and them, so to talk about enemies, and to tell them to eat shit, always takes the attack back to the self. The violence if not turned inward, is certainly shared. In Grumble’s universe, Gaia and Karma are fundamental to how things are understood, and how things should be carried out. She offers a spiritual experience, but one that is devoid of naivety. If there are solutions, they can be found in guiding principles that the show teaches, not very much in words, but through the sensual and visual manifestations of what she puts her body through for our benefit.

Grumble may not have solved the world’s problems with her show, but she succeeds in introducing a moment of transcendence into each of our lives, and because to meet this artist is unequivocally unforgettable, the messages that she imparts will stick. Returning to spaces less sacred, less sublime, a part of us can sense the lingering presence of what had been witnessed, and we know that if everyone can get in touch with the Betty Grumble within, things will be all right.

www.performinglines.org.a

Review: Superheroes (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Sep 25 – Oct 31, 2020
Playwright: Mark Rogers
Director: Shari Sebbens
Cast: Gemma Bird Matheson, Claire Lovering, Aleks Mikic
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Superheroes by Mark Rogers tells the stories of two women at opposite ends of the world; Jana is near Sarajevo, and Emily is near Sydney. Their lives are different as can be, but on this one stage, we cannot help but draw parallels, such is the nature of being human. We create meaning from things we observe, and make distinct each personality whom we encounter, focussing quite naturally on how they are separate, but in this strange juxtaposition of experiences within Rogers’ text, we are additionally compelled to find ways to see ourselves as a unified species. We examine microcosms in war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina and a more privileged Australia, finding ways to understand the people that we are, wondering if vastly different environments mean that we are necessarily disparate, or essentially one and the same.

Rogers’ scintillating writing is brought to life by Shari Sebbens’ dynamic and vigorous direction. The show brims with passion, offering emotional intensity from start to end. Claire Lovering is exquisite as Jana, delivering a deeply considered and precise portrayal, of a woman unable to emerge from the trauma and conflict that has shaped her community. It is an unequivocally profound performance by Lovering. Emily is played by Gemma Bird Matheson, memorable for her exuberance and an enjoyable sense of rawness she introduces to the production. It is an extremely likeable presence that she brings. Aleks Mikic takes on separate roles as male counterparts to the leads, succeeding on both counts, with his uncanny ability to convey authenticity whilst dispensing generous measures of natural charm.

Also noteworthy is lighting design by Verity Hampson, efficient yet refined as it helps us navigate movements in time. Production designer Renée Mulder exercises restrained elegance for her work on costumes and set. David Bergman’s sound and music are dramatic but unobtrusive, surreptitiously manipulating our emotional responses as the plot unfolds.

Even in the most ordinary of lives, courage is paramount. Even the most cowardly, have known moments of bravery in order that they may survive. In these challenging times of 2020, we are startled to realise the strength and resilience each can possess. The most noble of us however, have the capacity not only to stay afloat, but to keep making the best choices for the sake of all, when self-preservation seems the order of the day.

www.griffintheatre.com.au