Review: Wake In Fright (Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 11 – 15, 2020
Playwright: Declan Greene with Zahra Newman (adapted from the novel by Kenneth Cook)
Director: Declan Greene
Cast: Zahra Newman
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Included in the price of entry, are a pair of earplugs. There are some loud noises in the production that delicate members of the audience might want to shield themselves from, but symbolically, they are a sarcastic dig at our Australian propensity to shut out any discussion about race that goes too close to the bone. Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel Wake In Fright is re-framed by director Declan Greene and performer Zahra Newman, so that the classic gothic horror becomes an apparatus that exposes the anxiety of the white man on this colonised land. School teacher John is trapped in a country town, where he encounters a string of dubious characters determined to inflict degradation, using alcohol and other vices, so that he turns into one of them, over the course of a weekend.

More than a tall poppy story, this reiteration of Wake In Fright is about Western masculinity’s relentless need for destruction. The Indigenous have long disappeared from fictitious Bundanyabba, but the carnage continues, now with European settlers exerting their irrepressible barbarism onto themselves. Having once been a scary movie, this bleak tale is again given the genre treatment, with outstanding work by Verity Hampson on light and projections, alongside James Paul’s thrilling sound design and Melbourne duo friendships’ intuitive music, providing eerie and meaningful discombobulation to our experience of the show. Although not frightening in a sensorial manner that films are notoriously capable of, director Greene certainly conveys powerfully, the fearsome quality of this dark tale. Aussie larrikins gone wild are not to be toyed with.

The exceptional Newman is breathtaking in her one-woman show, unforgettable for delivering extraordinary complexity with what could have been a simple story. She has us on the edge of our seats for the show’s entirety, keeping our minds active with the many dimensions and depths that she alchemizes on stage. It is noteworthy that this version of Wake In Fright works particularly well with a woman of colour at its helm. Newman’s gender and skin are constant cues that prevent us from forgetting about the masculinity and whiteness that are central to the catastrophe unfolding.

The earbuds remain a personal choice. Many will choose to ignore the obvious, because much of the power of the status quo relies on its ability to keep us feeling debilitated. It also succeeds at misleading many into insisting that the problems with society are about deficient individuals, and not the overarching systems that govern us. It is no coincidence that the horrors that overwhelm John are imposed by people who fit a particular description. We need to learn to see patterns, and form understandings that will help us in more substantive ways, than to replace bad eggs in structures that will never accommodate good ones. The outback town in Wake In Fright is sick, but we fear the overhaul that is required, and choose instead to let it languish in perpetual revulsion.

www.malthousetheatre.com.au

Review: The Deep Blue Sea (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Feb 4 – Mar 7, 2020
Playwright: Terrence Rattigan
Director: Paige Rattray
Cast: Fayssal Bazzi, Paul Capsis, Matt Day, Vanessa Downing, Marta Dusseldorp, Charlie Garber, Brandon McClelland, Contessa Treffone
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Hester Collyer is having such a miserable time, that when we first meet her, we catch her in the process of attempting suicide. It is the 50’s in Terrence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, and therefore not surprising to find a woman unfulfilled and depressed. She may have two men vying for her attention, but no amount of romance and love, can mollify her agony. Although a natural artist, having picked up painting at a tender age, she is steered away from her talents, being a clergyman’s daughter, to focus instead on becoming a wife and mother.

We watch our protagonist invest heavily into her lover Freddie, but the relationship is unrewarding no matter how hard each party tries. Her husband William too, works hard for a reconciliation, but Hester is simply unable to find satisfaction in all his acquiescence. Director Paige Rattray understands that Hester has placed all her eggs in the wrong basket, and as we watch the story unfold, it is Rattray’s understanding of events that truly resonate, even as poor Hester herself remains in the dark about her own situation.

Rattray’s feminist intervention is represented by a clever set design by David Fleischer, which gives us alternate views of the same small apartment containing, and constraining, Hester’s tiny world; we are given two perspectives of the narrative, as though a reminder that there are parallel interpretations taking place, feminist and anti-feminist, at each step of the plot trajectory. Other design elements too are noteworthy, with Nick Schlieper’s lights surreptitious but persuasive at all times, and James Brown’s work on sound, restrained but sublime in its dramatic effect.

Actor Marta Dusseldorp gives a thrilling performance in the lead role, endlessly inventive, and courageous with each of her artistic choices. It is a spellbinding depiction of female suffering, powerful in its authenticity, but more importantly, astute with the meanings that she conveys, almost behind Hester’s back. The show is surprisingly comedic, as a result of its modern sensibility. The cast uses Rattigan’s old-fashioned melodrama to put on a show that oscillates between laughter and melancholy, a subtly camp approach that proves highly entertaining.

Paul Capsis is unforgettable as Miller, an uncompromisingly queer presence that functions as a beacon of wisdom, for Hester and for the audience. Fayssal Bazzi and Matt Day are convincing love interests, both helping to make perfect sense of the conundrum at hand. We see that it matters not, whether they are good or bad men, they simply have no bearing on a grown woman’s happiness. Also memorable is Brandon McClelland, whose straightlaced irony as Phillip Welch proves deeply amusing. Confident and perfectly pitched, McClelland delivers some of the show’s best laughs.

The Deep Blue Sea is an excellent example of how the world can destroy a person, when she plays by prescribed rules. At the end of her story, we wonder if Hester is ever going to discard those external expectations, and find a way to carve out a self-determined existence. Women are broken every day, but one wonders how many are able to resist returning to square one, even in the twenty-first century, at each attempt of revival. Bravery is not often found on the well-trodden path, and glory is reserved only for those who dare.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Feb 6 – Mar 8, 2020
Playwright: Steve Rodgers (based on a novella by Peter Goldsworthy)
Director: Darren Yap
Cast: Valerie Bader, Emma Jackson, Mark Lee, Liam Nunan, Grace Truman, Matthew Whittet
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Linda and Rick are a young couple in love, full of hope for the future, and like many who had come before, they decide to have children. In Peter Goldsworthy’s Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam (adapted for the stage by Steve Rodgers), it is that collision of optimism and the inevitable harshness of real life that comes to the fore, when a happy family of four is met with the curse of a terminal illness.

The play is predictably emotional, with Darren Yap’s direction making no apologies for the extremely sentimental tone that his production takes. Death however, may seem a more vacillating topic than the show might suggest. As we watch the Pollards go through turmoil, finding ways to deal with the impending passing of a beloved, Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam exposes the surprisingly disparate attitudes we may hold, for a completely universal experience. It becomes obvious that because we so rarely talk about death, that we almost never have opportunities to create consensus, so it only makes sense that personal beliefs can vary greatly in relation to the topic.

Characters inhabit a relentlessly dark space, and the trauma being presented feels authentic, even if one does not share in the Pollards’ persuasions about the afterlife. The cast is uniformly strong, impressive with the chemistry they harness as an ensemble, able to give a sense of elevation to some very simple personalities. Actors Liam Nunan and Grace Truman are memorable as the children, passionate and intense with their portrayals of interrupted innocence. Emma Jackson and Matthew Whittet are their parents, both full of conviction, and remarkably elegant in their approaches for this unabashedly stirring work. Valerie Bader and Mark Lee take on a range of senior roles, precise and marvellously deliberate with what they bring to the stage.

Also noteworthy is Emma Vine’s set design, offering considerable versatility and easy scene transitions, whilst remaining pleasing to the eye. Verity Hampson’s lights, along with music and sound by Max Lambert and Sean Peter, ensure that the audience is drawn into the tragedy, through tenacious engagement of our senses.

Death can be thought of as more than a mournful occurrence. In fact, some think of it as a welcome end to suffering. In the lightness of romance, Linda and Rick create new life, unafraid of all the hardship that is sure to come. In sickness, one is made to confront mortality, with fear and sadness invariably becoming part of that process. Along with having to say a long goodbye to loved ones, it is perhaps the uncertainty about what happens thereafter, that causes the greatest despair. We may differ in how we regard the nature of death, but the beauty of life that we have all witnessed, does not have to end when the lights are turned off for the last time.

www.belvoir.com.au | www.riversideparramatta.com.au/NTofP

Review: Angry Fags (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Feb 5 – Mar 7, 2020
Playwright: Topher Payne
Director: Mark G Nagle
Cast: Brynn Antony, Phoebe Fuller, Monique Kalmar, Lachie Pringle, Meg Shooter, Emily Weare, Tom Wilson
Images by Chris Lundie

Theatre review
Bennett and Cooper have had enough of homophobia. In Topher Payne’s Angry Fags, the best friends engage in increasingly reckless and violent activity, as a reaction against the gay hate they are experiencing in the “solidly red” American state of Georgia.

Characters in this revenge fantasy take their cues from extremists and terrorists in the news. We see these young men at the end of their tether, resorting to strategies that do nothing more than offer momentary amelioration to their suffering. Their desperate display of might is only capable of providing fodder for the media to sell stories, with no alteration detectable in the prejudice that their transgressions intend to vanquish.

Directed by Mark G Nagle, the comedy of Angry Fags is often effective, even if its irony can seem insufficiently pointed. Chemistry between players is lacking, but individual performances are accomplished. Actors Phoebe Fuller and Lachie Pringle bring the laughs, both memorable with their timing, inventiveness and conviction, proving themselves to be playful personalities able to bring entertainment value to any stage. Central to the story is Bennett, performed by Brynn Antony, a broody presence unable to contribute effervescence to funny portions, but engaging when things take a dark turn.

Hate needs to be met with consequence, but violence is not an instrument that minorities can wield easily. Justice is a frustrating process for those who seek it, but in these discussions that seem only to take place within inherently inequitable structures, speaking the language of power still remains the most potent force of change. It is obvious that extremist methods involving pillage and murder would never garner desirable results for queer movements in the west, but discomfort and inconvenience for the establishment, are not to be shied away from.

www.newtheatre.org.au/

Review: The Spoils (Flight Path Theatre)

Venue: Flight Path Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Jan 29 – Feb 8, 2020
Playwright: Jesse Eisenberg
Director: Ian Warwick
Cast: Rebecca Abdel-Messih, Michael Becker, Isabel Dickson, Haydan Hawkins, Kabir Singh
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Ben lives in a New York apartment, paid for by his parents. He has dropped out of college, and spends his days pretending to be a film maker; an aimless existence with no responsibilities should mean an easy life, but there is no end to the angst that he experiences. He looks to be jealous of everyone, and as a result behaves terribly to all. Jesse Eisenberg’s The Spoils is critical of over-privileged Americans, but its representations are seldom compelling, and its comedy infrequently funny.

Although not short of conviction or passion, the show struggles to deliver laughs. Directed by Ian Warwick, The Spoils becomes poignant late into Act Two, when Ben shows his true colours, and the escalating drama finally provides a sense of gravity. Actor Michael Becker is committed in the lead role, as are the rest of the cast. Isabel Dickson is particularly strong as Sarah, able to bring a valuable realism to the piece. Set design by Irma Calabrese, along with Roderick van Gelder’s lights are fairly simple in approach, but prove adequate in creating atmosphere for the staging.

There is an insidious quality to the malignity being explored in The Spoils. Ben’s racism is casual, and his misogyny jocular. Those at the receiving end of his insolence, can only turn a blind eye, or risk accusations of instigating disharmony. It has become increasingly obvious to the rest of us, that the powerful can get away with murder. We must learn to respond with intolerance when injustice is apparent, even if it means disrupting the peace.

www.flightpaththeatre.org

Review: Pomona (Kings Cross Theatre)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jan 24 – Feb 8, 2020
Playwright: Alistair McDowell
Director: Anthony Skuse
Cast: Jane Angharad, Kevin Batliwala, Amanda McGregor, Lauren Richardson, Monica Sayers, James Smithers, Dorje Swallow
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
A concrete plot of barren land sitting in the middle of the city, can only raise suspicion. It is simply unbelievable that what appears to be prime real estate is left to languish, as though millions of dollars are left unclaimed, right in front of our eyes. In Alistair McDowell’s Pomona, we are taken underground. In the absence of visible buildings, our cynicism goes into overdrive, as we watch the worst of our capitalistic impulses emerge, through a series of horrific criminal scenarios. The play imagines the most nefarious commercial activities taking place in hidden bunkers, behind closed doors. If business dealings dare be depraved in broad daylight, what more the shady dealings that happen in secret.

Pomona‘s drama involves missing persons, snuff films and more. It is not an exploitative work by any means, but that very tendency of ours to exploit, is placed under scrutiny. Director Anthony Skuse prompts questions about nature and nurture, and the origins of corruption, as we observe characters carrying out unspeakable acts. People seem to be either good or bad, but there is no denying the conditions we all have to operate under, that are in most cases, beyond repair. Lighting design by Veronique Benett is suitably gloomy, for the irrevocably pessimistic world being explored. Music by Nate Edmondson, commanding and tenacious, keeps tensions unrelenting for this foreboding representation of our dangerous lives.

The production is an engaging one, with powerful concepts and a cleverly fractured plot, conspiring to hold our attention. Actors Amanda McGregor and James Smithers depict some very big and genuine emotions, both wonderfully mesmerising with the focus they bring to the stage. Also memorable is Lauren Richardson, who has the unenviable task of inhabiting and portraying the unceasing terror of a woman escaping violence. Moments of innocence by the charming Kevin Batilwala are a delightful reprieve, while Jane Angharad, Monica Sayers and Dorje Swallow play some seriously dubious types who make us confront our own sense of morality.

In a dog eat dog world, good guys finish last. In Pomona, we may want to get rid of the baddies, but there is nothing to stop their positions being usurped by more of the same. Evil runs so much of the world, because of the way things are structured. The way we revere money and power, has allowed bad things to happen again and again. We can no longer afford to imagine that simply placing good people in harmful institutions will fix our problems. We have to move emphasis away from undesirable individuals, to a better understanding of the systems that govern our lives, and begin destroying them, as a first step to improving things for all.

www.secrethouse.com.au

Review: Songs For Nobodies (Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jan 23 – Feb 9, 2020
Playwright: Joanna Murray-Smith
Director: Simon Phillips
Cast: Bernadette Robinson

Theatre review
There are ten women in Joanna Murray-Smith’s Songs For Nobodies, a collection of five stories about famous singers and the ordinary lives they had touched. It is a series of juxtapositions, of diva and goddess, of women on stage and women from other walks of life, all being put through their paces in one form or another. Murray-Smith’s poignant humour works a charm, able to imbue each character with dignity along with a sense of the divine, not only for the celebrities, but also for the women-next-door that it depicts so lovingly. All women can be regarded with reverence, if we know to value them appropriately.

Bernadette Robinson is the extraordinary talent who introduces us to all the characters in Songs For Nobodies. When impersonating Maria Callas, Patsy Cline, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf, she is impressive not only for the likeness that she quite magically achieves, but also for the very virtuosity she displays in each of the unforgettable standards that she sings. Her portrayals of the every woman too, are commanding, whether American, English or Irish, Robinson is convincing, engaging and gloriously charming, able to elevate forgotten souls, as a reminder that all women are sometimes truly sublime.

Directed by Simon Phillips, the show is elegantly rendered, very subtle in approach, but nonetheless affecting. Orchestrations by Ian McDonald are dramatic and highly evocative, able to seize our imagination in a flash, to transport us through time and space for momentary immersions, that make us feel as though in the presence of legends. Scott Rogers’ lights too are notable, for their romantic warmth, able to take us away from the humdrum and the mundane, that we too often think of as the only reality.

Very few women ever get to see things from the top, but there is no rat race that we should feel compelled to participate in. More than the rich and famous, are the many examples of fulfilling and self-determined existences that are plain to see. Many of us will not know what it is like to influence millions, and to never have succeeded in accordance with stipulations of dominant paradigms, but in this current moment of a new understanding around centuries of relentless destruction, we should more than ever before, appreciate those we think of small people, who have had no power in our collective journey to impending extinction.

www.duetgroup.com