Review: Lethal Indifference (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Feb 17 – Mar 10, 2018
Playwright: Anna Barnes
Director: Jessica Arthur
Cast: Emily Barclay
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Reema is an Indian bride, brought to Melbourne to be starved, bashed and raped by her new husband Ajay. We know this, because a white woman is onstage telling us the harrowing story. The intention in Anna Barnes’ Lethal Indifference is good, of course, as it shines a light on domestic violence, one of Australia’s biggest problems. The one-woman show however, affords no space to any of its Indian characters, only an unnamed protagonist who works as a media representative of an anti-violence organisation, struggling to cope with the weight of her vocation.

To place a white person at the centre of Reema’s story is deeply problematic. The removal of already underrepresented ethnic minorities from our theatres is reprehensible, especially when their stories are at the core of what is being discussed. If it were a woman of colour who takes to the stage, this issue might well be dissipated. It is noteworthy that in fact, there is no reason at all that requires our storyteller to be white, if we wish to examine the production from this perspective.

Also, Lethal Indifference unwittingly presents domestic violence as an “ethnic” problem, with its heavy reliance on Reema and Ajay, where we know for a fact that domestic violence occurs indiscriminately in all types of households. To single out a racial minority to facilitate this discussion, instead of having the unnamed woman “tidy up her own backyard” so to speak, using instead, stories of white families, is objectionable.

The heavily pregnant Emily Barclay stars, with suitable charm, leaving us feeling as bad for her character as we do the true victims of domestic violence. Barclay’s portrayal of second-hand “vicarious” trauma almost succeeds in stealing the thunder from Rameen, the invisible character who has clearly paid the much greater price for Lethal Indifference‘s melodrama.

It is a polished piece of theatre, with Mel Page’s ominous set design drawing us into the dark world that is being evoked, providing stark gravity to the space that is being explored. Director Jessica Arthur creates sufficient variation within the long monologue, to sustain our attention and interest. The production’s seeming ignorance about its own racial problem, is astonishing, considering the surface sophistication that it so proudly exhibits.

When we talk about women’s problems, we need also be sensitive to other forms of subjugation and persecution that people suffer in our communities. It is not a matter of white women’s problems being less worthy of analysis than those borne by women of colour, but in the process of discussing any prejudice and injustice from a context of Australian whiteness, we must fight for the voices of ethnic minorities to be duly represented. The disappearance of Reema from this production, one that boasts an all-white stable of cast and creatives, reveals so much about our failures in Australian art and society.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Strangers In Between (Seymour Centre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Feb 14 – Mar 2, 2018
Playwright: Tommy Murphy
Director: Daniel Lammin
Cast: Simon Burke, Wil King, Guy Simon
Image by Sarah Walker

Theatre review
Not everyone is lucky enough to have families who offer affection and support. For many LGBTQI people, the system of kinship is often a manufactured one, relying on families that we have chosen for ourselves rather than the ones we were born into. The prejudices that continue to divide us, are very alive in Tommy Murphy’s Strangers In Between, a story that takes place in the early years of this new century. Shane has left the country town of Goulburn, for the bright lights, and acceptance, of the broadminded city folk in Sydney. The teenager runs from the systematic bigotry of home, in search of a community he hopes would be welcoming. Queer children will always be birthed by straight parents, so the threat of domestic conflict will perhaps never completely diminish, therefore Murphy’s tale of belonging can be thought of as a timeless one.

Actor Wil King is dramatic, but convincing, in the role of Shane. Delivering both theatricality and nuance, King is as compelling as he is sensitive, for a depiction of innocence that is unexpectedly moving. His intensity can occasionally prove overbearing, but there is no denying the trenchant perspectives he brings to the stage. The middle-aged gay man Peter, is played by the delightful Simon Burke, who creates a camp and compassionate personality many will find endearingly familiar. It is a delicate performance that combines a cool exterior with a warm heart, to accurately portray a Darlinghurst “scene queen” type. Also very accomplished is Guy Simon, who impresses in his dual roles of Will and Ben, characters as different as night and day, but both equally authentic with all that they convey. Director Daniel Lammin does exceptional work in bringing the play to life. His minimal approach ensures that the bonds that form between the men, are depicted with clarity and profundity, so that the audience is transported to a space of reflection and appreciation for the communities that we are part of.

The LGBTQI rights movement has delivered significant change to perceptions and acceptance, but the more freedoms we attain, the less likely we seem to want to attach ourselves to ideas of community. The Darlinghurst in Strangers In Between, from just thirteen years ago, has now lost its vibrancy. What was once a tight-knit locale, is now dispersed and aloof. The queer city slickers today are powerful and entitled, protected by advancements in attitudes and legislation. We no longer hold on to each other for dear life. In the past, young ones like Shane were able to fall into the nurturing arms of Oxford Street, but what happens today and hereafter, looks to be ever less optimistic.

www.dontbedown.net | www.fortyfivedownstairs.com

Review: Joan (Seymour Centre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Feb 16 – 18, 2018
Playwright: Lucy J Skilbeck
Director: Lucy J Skilbeck
Cast: Lucy Jane Parkinson
Image by Robert Day

Theatre review
When they burned Joan of Arc to death at the age of 19, it was punishment for the charge of heresy, of dressing in men’s clothes. In Lucy J Skilbeck’s Joan, we acknowledge the warrior as a queer figure, finally indulging in the highly probable idea that the hero was in fact transgender. For those whose gender identities are never a complicated matter, this might seem a little like making mountains out of molehills, but for many LGBTQI individuals, Joan’s story of persecution is one that needs to be recognised for what it is.

In Skilbeck’s revised account of events, we sometimes see Joan as a lesbian in love with Saint Catherine, sometimes a drag king, but mostly we are encouraged, finally, to regard Joan as a person unable to comply with age-old rules of gender. The masculine armour was not merely an instrument of practicality for the fighter. We now know those struggles to be commonplace, that trans people exist everywhere, and that we always were. The restoration of queer and trans perspectives in our legends and histories is crucial to the way we think about ourselves, and represents an urgent demand that society validates all our contributions to the world; past, present and future.

Lucy Jane Parkinson showcases a wealth of talents, as performer of the one-person show. A captivating presence, versatile and confident in their effortless vacillation between goofy and sentimental, Parkinson presents a character determined to steal our hearts one way or another. Their ability to maintain a personal connection with all of the audience, for the show’s entire duration, is a stunning feat, achieved through an intense sense of vulnerability and a precise, exhaustive familiarity with the work.

Joan of Arc’s legend was always about gender, yet for centuries, that story was told with a major obfuscation at its very core. When society refuses trans people the freedom to be ourselves, by misgendering us, and by forcing us to adhere to its narrow definitions of gender, that cruelty and injustice will invariably have reverberations beyond the immediate, and the damage caused is always greater than any of us would be ready to admit. This is why reinstating Joan’s truth in our historical memory, for the benefit of LGBTQI generations hereafter, is important. The meaning of gender is little more than the imposition of restrictions, to manufacture a system of control over individuals. It benefits few, yet virtually all of us participate in its fictions. We can dream to demolish these beliefs, but before we reach that point of enlightenment, all these rules have to be loosened, if only to salvage what is left of our humanity.

www.milkpresents.com

Review: Single Asian Female (Belvoir St Theatre / La Boite Theatre Company)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Feb 16 – Mar 23, 2018
Playwright: Michelle Law
Director: Claire Christian
Cast: Emily Burton, Lucy Heffernan, Patrick Jhanur, Alex Lee, Courtney Stewart, Hsiao-Ling Tang
Image by Dan Boud

Theatre review
Social status in Australia is ordered, always with the married white man at the top. Michelle Law’s Single Asian Female is therefore quite instinctively, a play about the experience of being deemed inadequate, in at least three different ways. The lead characters have to contend with the notion that their marital status, ethnicity and gender are problems, in a story about perfectly normal, or more accurately, complete people who can never quite be good enough. Pearl and her two daughters try to get on with life, but they face challenges every day for being unmarried, for being women, for being “ethnic”. Fortunately, the Wong ladies are talented, resourceful and resilient, so we see them coping well, or perhaps it is their sense of humour that keeps them afloat.

It may be a narrative that is concerned with adversity, but the show is joyful, and laugh-out-loud funny from start to end. The portrayal of family dynamics in Single Asian Female is lovingly crafted, to elicit warm and fuzzy feelings that we cannot help but luxuriate in. Director Claire Christian introduces passion and playfulness into every scene, with gloriously snappy exchanges that are as entertaining as they are convincing. Effective and lively use of space, on designer Moe Assaad’s colourful set, makes two-and-a-half hours go by in a flash.

Brought to vibrant life by a group of extraordinarily charming and confident actors, Single Asian Female features excellent performances and some blistering chemistry that is unequivocally enthralling. Hsiao-Ling Tang is very animated as Pearl, not particularly naturalistic in approach, but a consummate storyteller, remarkably powerful and authentic with all that she brings to the stage. The sisters are played by Alex Lee and Courtney Stewart, both exquisitely detailed and ingeniously creative, delivering some of the most riveting characters of Australian theatre in recent years. Supporting roles too are beautifully concocted. Emily Burton is effortlessly and persistently hilarious, Lucy Heffernan embodies obnoxious types worryingly well, and Patrick Jhanur invents an alluring new masculinity with beguiling quantities of sweetness. This formidable cast of six is likely the best company one could have on any given night.

Unlike Europe, we are but a stone’s throw away from Asia, yet our cultural and national identities are stubbornly thought of as Western. We conveniently disregard Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, and similarly, people of colour with migrant histories are routinely relegated to a lower class. Rightful owners of this land are indisputable, but the way privilege is organised and distributed in this country clearly still favours, in very aggressive fashion, its colonisers. All the people in Single Asian Female are, regardless of colour, as Australian as one another, but the playing field on which we all have to exist, needs to even out.

www.belvoir.com.au | www.laboite.com.au

Review: Top Girls (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 12 – Mar 24, 2018
Playwright: Caryl Churchill
Director: Imara Savage
Cast: Paula Arundell, Kate Box, Michelle Lim Davidson, Claire Lovering, Heather Mitchell, Helen Thomson, Contessa Treffone
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls exposes our discomfort with stories that talk of societal problems, without the service of convenient villains. We have a hard time thinking about structures that have proven themselves unacceptable, without being able to place blame on individuals or archetypes. Churchill encourages us instead, to examine the ways in which those systems insist on our acquiescence at every turn, making us complicit some or all of the time, often keeping us ignorant of our participation in the damage being caused.

Angie has two role models at home, each representing dichotomous extremes of how we perceive the economy, society and our womanhood. It is Thatcher’s Britain in 1982, and the world seems to have split into simple distinctions of certain people deserving privilege, and others who are not. Angie thinks that emulating her aunt, Marlene, would deliver a more rewarding life, but what she sees, is only the surface of how things operate. She buys into the notion that success looks a certain way, and to attain it, one only needs to take certain steps of action. Churchill exposes, through Angie’s naivety, and in extremely subtle ways, the lies that are sold to us, and that we perpetuate every day.

Director Imara Savage’s faithful presentation of Churchill’s feminist declarations, keeps Top Girls as unconventional as ever. Its non-linearity and contradictory complexities seem to make for a show that is eternally refreshing. It confronts how we discuss gender, through a sustained reliance on symbolism over declarative language, for a more accurate depiction of the insidious nature of capitalistic corruption and deprivation. David Fleischer’s functional, unobtrusive set design allows little distraction from the important matters at hand.

The production succeeds in using what is in many ways a difficult text, to create a captivating work of theatre. The intellectual stimulation it provides, is challenging and unrelenting, but ultimately gratifying. Even though statements in the plot are made with a sense of ambiguity, our interpretations are never permitted to diverge from its political position. Actor Kate Box is particularly effective as Angie’s mother, Joyce, a woman defined by failure, who Box argues for, with great dignity and zeal.

It is a very impressive ensemble that takes the stage, featuring more than a few moments of brilliance from each performer. The luminous Helen Thomson brings excellent irony to Marlene’s fragile image of the woman who has it all, assisted wonderfully by Renée Mulder’s incisive costume designs and Lauren A. Proietti’s humorous wigs. Claire Lovering and Heather Mitchell are both memorably acerbic with their comedy, while Paula Arundell and Michelle Lim Davidson bring nuanced gravitas to the complicated souls that they inhabit. The youthful innocence of Angie is astutely portrayed by Contessa Treffone who proves herself a compelling presence, simultaneously measured and effervescent.

2018 is an exciting time to embrace feminism, but as long as opposition forces exist, implementing acts of feminism will always be difficult. To identify, attack and destroy unjust structures that are pervasive and normalised, is a task unspeakably enormous. To take on the interrogation and diminishment of things believed to be incontrovertibly true, is thankless to say the least, but of course, the best of us will persist. Tolerating subjugation may be easier for many, but for others, the compromise to integrity is unbearable.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Mamma Mia! (Capitol Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 11 – May 6, 2018
Music and Lyrics: Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, Stig Anderson
Book: Catherine Johnson (originally conceived by Judy Craymer)
Director: Gary Young
Cast: Josef Ber, Jessica Di Costa, Alicia Gardiner, Alex Gibson-Giorgio, Sam Hooper, Phillip Lowe, Stephen Mahy, Sarah Morrison, Natalie O’Donnell, Monique Sallé, Ian Stenlake, Jayde Westaby
Image by James D. Morgan

Theatre review
The Mamma Mia! musical is approaching twenty years old, and although not particularly advanced in age, the work could benefit from a major refresh. The downside from having success on such a major scale, is the show’s inability to provide any surprises to a crowd waiting to be entertained. It delivers what it promises, and nothing else.

Every facet of this production feels no more than adequate, with safe artistic choices evident in every corner. In spite of all the predictability, it is unlikely that anyone would leave disappointed, although a hint of underwhelm might linger afterwards. The familiarity of Mamma Mia! is perhaps comforting, for those who come to the theatre seeking something slightly old-fashioned.

It is a well-rehearsed cast, uniform in skill and likeability. Leading ladies Sarah Morrison and Natalie O’Donnell are charming enough as the immortal mother-daughter pairing, both bringing a nice glowing warmth to the stage. There is accomplished but unremarkable singing by all, but the funnier performers make good use of comedic moments to leave an impression. Alicia Gardiner and Jayde Westaby are fun, flirty and glamorous as middle age besties who unleash a sense of vibrancy onto the sleepy town of Kalokairi. Ian Stenlake, Phillip Lowe and Josef Ber are suitably handsome and mischievous, playing the three potential fathers just how we have come to expect.

A wonderful thing about Mamma Mia! is the positive light in which all its characters are portrayed. There are no villains, no rivalries, and no one has to face punishment in order that its story of happily ever after can proceed. It is a perfect picture of the sisterhood, with good men providing colour and support; a strangely rare occurrence on any stage. No wonder it refuses to go away.

www.mammamiathemusical.com.au

Review: Love, Me (The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Feb 13 – 17, 2018
Playwright: Joseph Brown
Director: Joseph Brown
Cast: Danny Ball, Oliver Crump, Enya Daly, Ariadne Sgouros, Annie Stafford
Image by Jasmin Simmons

Theatre review
Christmas is by any definition, a special day for Australians. It is imperative for many to convene with those who are closest, but with closeness comes a level of trust that seems to allow a certain irregular level of liberty in how we communicate. Fighting at festive seasons is almost de rigueur. We let loose on those we love, knowing that forgiveness is assured. Joseph Brown’s Love, Me sees a group of young adults celebrate Christmas, for the first time, without parents and immediate family. It is their chosen family that has now become priority, even if the way they connect might suggest otherwise.

The five Millennials are, true to form, capable individuals yet to find their footing. Without ambition or responsibilities, their emotions take precedence over pragmatic concerns. The characters in Love, Me, like most of our young, spend too much time and energy seeking affirmation, from friends and lovers, constantly hungry for gratification from vanity. They do little for others, obsessed only with trying to find people that could make themselves feel complete. The playwright captures those experiences and perspectives well, and his dialogue is crafted skillfully, although a more critical or ironic approach would give the work a broader appeal.

There is a peculiar lack of energy to the staging, with much of the portrayals kept too interior and quiet. The actors work hard to present authenticity, but the show requires greater power in the nuances they try to articulate. More memorable are Danny Ball and Ariadne Sgouros who offer exuberance, both to be commended for their gregarious approach to storytelling.

“If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else,” the drag icon RuPaul often says. It is completely natural that we seek to be loved, but that desire seems only to operate as a force that projects externally. There is an undeniable feeling of emptiness that compels us to look for fulfilment by others, yet evidence shows that the truer, more enduring form of contentment has to be derived independently. What happens thereafter, can only be delightful.

www.old505theatre.com