Review: My Name Is Jimi (Belvoir St Theatre / Queensland Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jan 5 – 21, 2018
Playwrights: Jimi Bani, Jason Klarwein
Director: Jason Klarwein
Cast: Dmitri Ahwang-Bani, Agnes Bani, Conwell Bani, Jimi Bani, Petharie Bani, Richard Bani
Image by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Jimi Bani hails from Mabuiag Island, in the near Western part of Torres Strait. His show My Name Is Jimi, is about culture and tradition, and the resolve to keep the uniqueness of his Wagadagam tribe alive and thriving in the modern age. True to form, the production features performers from his own family, across four generations, illustrating the essence and the importance of what is being relayed.

Small communities are always at risk of losing their identity. The young is seduced by external forces, through cultures of technology and consumption determined to establish a conformity, as required and dictated by Western capitalism. We see Jimi’s son Dimitri devouring the smartphone like any other youth, gradually losing touch with the real kinship that surrounds him.

Ambitiously directed by Jason Klarwein, the work is complex and detailed with its depictions. We learn not only what it is, that Jimi is keen to preserve, but also why and how these traditions have come to be of such value. Folklore and dance feature prominently, to inform and to entertain, but perhaps most importantly, as a demonstration of ancestral pride. There is exquisite humour in the piece, alongside its inherent warmth and poignancy.

Jimi Bani’s naturally commanding presence wins us over from the get-go, allowing us to empathise with his story effortlessly, even though his circumstances are admittedly far removed from many of our daily realities. Dimitri shares his father’s humour, delivering memorable moments of comedy. Agnes and Petharie are the senior women providing music, in ethereal, glamorous and dignified fashion. Conwell and Richard are Jimi’s brothers, appropriately sharing the weight of the show, as nimble sidekicks, particularly effective with their live camera work for filmic projections called upon to represent legends of the land. Especially noteworthy is Justin Harrison’s work as sound and projection designer, beautifully transcendent and crucial to the success of My Name Is Jimi.

Family can mean different things to people, but there is no denying the emotional hold it can have over each of us. Watching Jimi and his loved ones cultivate their extraordinary closeness, is reassuring, but also challenging to those who seek a radical independence in today’s climate of rationalism. It is now normal in many societies, to find definition for the self as an entity distinct from practices of the past, especially when one identifies weaknesses and problems associated with those customs. Jimi’s emphasis on language however, is noble and inspiring. Words contain so much, and they allow us to connect with histories when we choose to. Times will change, but forgetting the past, will only hamper any effort to progress. As we seek to become better, a link with earlier experiences is invaluable. Talking with those who had come before necessitates a bridge, and understanding cultures, especially one’s own, is often more rewarding than we can imagine.

www.queenslandtheatre.com.au | www.belvoir.com.au

5 Questions with David Morton and Nicholas Paine

David Morton

Nicholas Paine: What’s The Wider Earth about?
David Morton: The Wider Earth is a work of fiction drawn loosely from the historical record. It takes memories of real people, places and events and passes them through the lens of myth. Some may call it blasphemous. Others may caution that the simplicity of the tale undermines the real work of its hero. I hope it might stand as a celebration of the incredible complexity of our planet, and go some small way towards humanising the part played by those brave enough to stand against the dominant thought of their time.

What’s it like developing a new work?
Developing new work brings with it the simultaneously liberating and horrifying reality that everything is in flux, and there is nothing to fall back on. It takes a special group of people to inhabit that chaos, particularly with an opening night looming. Over the last couple of years we’ve had the honour of working with an incredible team of creatives and performers. They’ve not only deftly embraced continuous rewrites, the quirks of puppetry, and other obstacles to the process, but had an insatiable drive and passion to push the work to new heights.

Tell me about the design of the puppets.
The design for the puppets used in the show was undertaken during an intensive eight-month process. The journey of each creature began with us spending time with their real-life counterparts, sketching and taking video as studies to determine the key structures and movement qualities of the different animals and how we could best embody these in the final objects. The drawings and notes from these encounters were then turned into three- dimensional digital renderings of each creature to design the mechanisms that would allow for their controlled movements. Finally, these models were broken into cross sections that could be laid at as a plan to be laser cut into wood, paper and leather pieces.

Over the course of four months a team of fabricators assembled these pieces in the Queensland Theatre workshop. This began with slotting and gluing the main structures together to give the creatures a base form that was then further embellished using wicker. The internal mechanisms were activated with the installation of control systems similar to miniature brake cables, and handles and rods were attached. Each of the puppets was given colour using wood stain and arted with ink. Finally, each had a pair of obsidian (volcanic glass) eyes installed.

How were the puppets introduced into the show?
Similarly to the construction, incorporating the finished puppets into the work followed a series of distinct stages. The first of these involved training the ensemble in the key manipulation techniques used by the Society. These include the focus of the puppet, its breath, and its ability to give an illusion of weight and gravity. Following this, the performers were slowly introduced to the various creatures and undertook extensive research into the movement and behavioural qualities of each. When working out the choreography for each scene we first start by devising the large movements – like where on the stage the puppet travels – and as this becomes embodied by the performers more ne detail is added.

The process of bringing a puppet to life on stage takes an incredible degree of commitment and discipline; unlike an actor who spends a rehearsal period developing a character, a puppet has to first learn how to be alive before we can even start to wonder as to what its character might be. Ultimately, the process isn’t completed until the imagination of an audience turns the movement cues that we give into the illusion of life.

If you could take the show anywhere, where would it be?
The Galapagos Islands, of course!

Nicholas Paine

David Morton: Tell us more about the cast for The Wider Earth.
Nicholas Paine: The production features seven of some of the country’s finest actors and puppeteers. Together, they form the ensemble that will tell you the story. The line between actor/puppeteer is blurred. In some scenes you’ll have actors playing characters alongside puppets, and in other scenes those actors will be manipulating puppets and performing more choreographic sequences. It will certainly keep them on their toes… and hopefully you too!

What is it about Charles Darwin that inspired you to create The Wider Earth?
We were inspired to create this work when we were visiting Handspring Puppet Company in South Africa in 2013. We got talking with the Executive Producer, Basil Jones, about how Charles Darwin stopped in Cape Town on the HMS Beagle just prior to returning home to England. We were both familiar with the work of Charles Darwin but what we didn’t realise was that he was just 27 years old when he made this stop and only 22 when he left on the voyage. We thought that his journey could make a stunning coming of age story, full of exquisite creatures, and to make comment on the wonder of our planet.

Dead Puppet Society went to Brooklyn (New York City) for eight months of pre-production in the creation of The Wider Earth. How was that experience for you?
We were developing the show with St. Ann’s Warehouse for that whole period of time. The specific focus of the development program was on refining the kind of puppetry we wanted to use to tell this story. We were working with eight other companies who also work in visual theatre, which for us was a really eye-opening experience. We’ve never really collaborated or connected with any other puppet-based artists before because it’s not an overly used form in Australia. The residency resulted in a 20-minute work in progress showing. And all of those artists have gone on to further develop their work in very different arenas.

How long from page to stage?
It’s about a three-year process. By the time we open it will have been exactly three years.

If you could take the show anywhere, where would it be?
Shrewsbury, UK. Where Charles Darwin was born.

David Morton and Nicholas Paine are producers of Morton’s The Wider Earth, part of Sydney Festival.
Dates: 17 – 27 January, 2018
Venue: Sydney Opera House

Review: Rice (Griffin Theatre Company / Queensland Theatre)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jul 21 – Aug 26, 2017
Playwright: Michele Lee
Director: Lee Lewis
Cast: Kristy Best, Hsiao-Ling Tang
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Yvette cleans Nisha’s office, but it is not the company employing them, that brings them together. Both are Asian-Australian women, and although their personal concerns and interests are miles apart, there is something intrinsic about being ethnic minorities, and of being “the fairer sex”, that makes it easy for them to bond. In Michele Lee’s Rice, we encounter two distinct and fascinating personalities; people we see everyday in our cities, but who rarely make an appearance in the stories we tell in the arts and media. They are regular people, as all our surface pretences portray us to be, but Nisha and Yvette have revelations that are rich enough for any stage or screen.

The two women are imagined with beautiful detail by their playwright. We learn about their worlds, their problems and the way they negotiate life at every turn. Through these keen observations, Lee is able to offer an accurate reflection of how many of us are, in today’s Australia. These ideas however, do not necessarily combine readily for great drama or comedy. The play begins very slowly, with excessive focus on Nisha’s tiresome corporate career, which she pursues with admirable ferocity and little humour. When we discover Yvette’s difficulties at home, the narrative suddenly tightens, but our focus is made to disperse, in Rice‘s ambitions for a more complex structure of storytelling.

We watch Nisha and Yvette go through an emotional time, but we are rarely moved. There is much to cover, and we are rushed through every scene and every possible piquancy. Actors Kristy Best and Hsiao-Ling Tang are the model of conviction, both unshakeable and glorious in their confidence. Best in particular is extraordinarily energetic, especially impressive when playing subsidiary roles, but there is a sense that the actors are compensating for a piece of writing that can otherwise feel muted and underwhelming. We are engaged with the show, usually because the performances are so intense.

The women are an unlikely pairing, and the trust they have for each other is reassuring, though surprising. Against the oppressive power wielded by white men, that attempts to destroy all that they hold dear, Nisha and Yvette find a friendship that offers support and strength. The disparities that exist between them, in the illusory shape of social status, education, wealth and sophistication, are dissolved by a patriarchy that is determined to leave them stripped of all but the perceived weakness of being feminine and coloured. We see them forming an alliance through those very qualities of disparagement, and we await retaliation.

www.griffintheatre.com,au

5 Questions with Kristy Best and Hsiao-Ling Tang

Kristy Best

Hsiao-Ling Tang: What role do you see yourself playing in 5 years time?
Kristy Best: I see myself in a comedy that I’ve written for myself, after all, that’s probably the only way you can play the kind of roles of want to play!

You’ve used cats before as your animal influence for particular characters, what animal best describes you?
I would say I’m a dog, and then I figured that there may just be an online quiz that determines your animal, and hey presto there is, it agrees, I’m a dog. Obviously a dog that googles everything.

Whats your fave meal that prepares you before a show?
In Brisbane we discovered that a beetroot salad and vegan chocolate cake did the trick, right Hsiao-Ling? In Sydney, now that I’m home, it’s most definitely sushi. Anything light but filling really.

Which iconic male character, in film or stage would you like to play?
Gordon Gekko in Wall Street. I’m not too sure with theatre, I’ve always wanted to be a part of an all-female Glengarry Glen Ross. I think that would be fun. It’s obvious I prefer the flawed types.

Next project?
I have more hosting for Nickelodeon coming up and I’m hoping I will get the chance to do more comedy in the new year, I’d really love that.

Hsiao-Ling Tang

Kristy Best: What has been your favourite role in your career and why?
Hsiao-Ling Tang: I loved playing Pearl in Single Asian Female earlier this year. She not only was a strong three-dimensional female diverse character but she had real heart, a real story and she’s funny. Comedy is a joy to do plus I got to sing as well. That role had it all.

If you could play any kind of character, who would you play?
I’ve always wanted to play a villain. I don’t get cast as a baddy. I think they’re fun to play and more interesting in their intentions.

If you weren’t acting, what would you be doing?
Well, I’m doing it now as well as acting. I’m a mummy of two beautiful girls. Also travelling and eating my way around the world. I’m a massive foodie.

What would you like to see more of in the Australian theatre scene?
That’s easy, women and diversity. I think its happening more and there’s much more discussion about the issues so its in the theatre-makers consciousness, but we have a long way to go.

What’s the funniest thing that has ever happened to you on stage?
End of a long schools tour, we had a trunk on wheels that we stood in as a ship. We stacked it, nearly fell out then got the giggles and took a while to recover.

Kristy Best and Hsiao-Ling Tang are appearing in Rice, by Michele Lee.
Dates: 21 July – 26 August, 2017
Venue: SBW Stables Theatre

Review: Ladies In Black (Sydney Lyric Theatre / Queensland Theatre)

ladiesinblackVenue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Jan 3 – 22, 2017
Book: Carolyn Burns
Music & Lyrics: Tim Finn (based on Madeleine St John’s novel, “The Women In Black”)
Director: Simon Phillips
Cast: Kate Cole, Carita Farrer, Bobby Fox, Natalie Gamsu, Madeleine Jones, Kathryn McIntyre, Sarah Morrison, Ellen Simpson, Greg Stone, Trisha Noble
Image by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
There is no question that the world needs more stories about women and our solidarity. Examples of how we tear each other down are aplenty, but the ways we offer love and support need to be better envisioned in art and in life, so that we may begin to subvert systems of patriarchy that rely on our disunity to thrive.

Ladies In Black features a group of “shop girls” at a Sydney department store in the 50’s, each of them consummate professionals, all of whom get on remarkably well. There however, is little else to enjoy about the musical. Thoroughly lacklustre, unable to deliver the exuberance and glamour it wishes for its characters to portray. Its humour is underwhelming, with narratives that fail to resonate, and even though Tim Finn’s songwriting could be admired for its slightly unconventional take on the musical theatre format, much of it is uninspiring and forgettable.

For a show that makes fashion one of its central interests, the production is designed with little imagination or innovation. Choreography never offers anything more than the bog-standard, and the cast rarely looks to be challenged or excited by what they have to present. Occasional appearances by Natalie Gamsu, Greg Stone and Bobby Fox as “continental migrants” introduce moments of exhilaration, but they are few and far between.

Young Lisa confronts parochial Australia in Ladies In Black. She is at a crossroads, encountering choices that stoke her passions, versus others that feel easy and normal. We observe a blandness that can take hold, and ways of living that can pale our existences into insignificance. The women go to work everyday, and in their camaraderie, attempt to find deeper meanings to their existences, but the struggle to prevent their black clothed power from fading into a repugnant beige is ever-present, and often defeated.

wwww.queenslandtheatre.com.au