Review: Bran Nue Dae (Opera Australia)

Venue: Riverside Theatres (Parramatta NSW), Jan 15 – Feb 1, 2020
Book: Jimmy Chi
Music and lyrics: Jimmy Chi, Kuckles
Director: Andrew Ross
Cast: Czack (Ses) Bero, Marcus Corowa, Adi Cox, Ernie Dingo, Damar Isherwood, Taj Jamieson, Tehya Jamieson, Teresa Moore, Andrew Moran, Tuuli Narkle, Callan Purcell, Bojesse Pigram, Ngaire Pigram, Tai Savage, Danielle Sibosado
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Bran Nue Dae is the semi-autobiographical story of Aboriginal music star Jimmy Chi, who as a teenager in the 1960’s, hitchhiked from his mission school back home to Broome. A musical of the coming-of-age variety, the work features splendid songs written some thirty years ago by Chi and his band Kuckles, now beautifully nostalgic and sentimental, with strong country and soul influences that move us evocatively to the Western Australia outback.

Musical direction by Patrick bin Amat and Michael Mavromatis provide an emotional dimension to the show, effective in conveying a sense of the Australian bush, and of Indigenous cultures through their sensitive arrangement of each and every tune. Directed by Andrew Ross, the comedy is a sleek one, but insufficiently humorous, often lacking in the energy required to fill the large auditorium.

Performer Ernie Dingo leaves a strong impression, with an easy charm and confidence as Uncle Tadpole that sustains our interest. Protagonist Willie is played by an equally likeable Marcus Corowa, who lights up the stage with his vocal cords whenever they get a workout. The ensemble is a nimble uplifting group, with the four women proving particularly memorable, when singing their bright and resonant choruses.

Being the very first Aboriginal musical, Bran Nue Dae is undoubtedly significant in theatrical history. What is more important however, are the subsequent shows that should follow, but examples are scarce. Of course, Indigenous peoples continue to practise other art forms that are culturally specific, and the wider community must always provide support when invited to, although the dream remains, where Western institutions can be much more inclusive, that more Indigenous participation can be seen in what has become this nation’s dominant platforms. The fact that our black sisters and brothers continue to be missing from so much of our cultural activity, is a seismic problem that we cannot afford to take lightly.

www.brannuedaemusical.com.au

Review: Lady Tabouli (National Theatre of Parramatta)

Venue: Riverside Theatres (Parramatta NSW), Jan 9 – 18, 2020
Playwright: James Elazzi
Director: Dino Dimitriadis
Cast: Nisrine Amine, Deborah Galanos, Antony Makhlouf, Johnny Nasser
Images by Robert Catto

Theatre review
Danny is compliant and cheerful, as he lends a hand to his sister Josephine, who is causing a frenzy at home, preparing for her son’s christening. They are modern day Lebanese-Australians, very much a part of mainstream contemporary life, but not without their own traditions, as is common amongst minority groups. In James Elazzi’s Lady Tabouli, we celebrate the uniqueness of that cultural heritage, but together with everything good that contributes to the diverse tapestry defining our experience of identity on this land, comes a regressiveness determined to oppress the same people who wish to preserve those values.

As the hour draws close for the big event, in the midst of a lot of spirited hullabaloo, Danny decides to come out of the closet. The incongruity of sensibilities in Lady Tabouli, of a man revealing his true self whilst his family attempts to enact the most symbolic of ceremonies, forces us to acknowledge the complexities of our multiculturalism, especially in terms of LGBTQI issues, and how Australia must look beyond legislation to address the prejudice inherent in so much of our cultural practice. Gayness may no longer be illegal, but in so much of Australian society, gay people continue to be shunned.

Elazzi’s writing is powerful and passionate. Its incisive honesty provides an urgency that grips us, having us invested in the family’s story, regardless of where we stand in relation to its arguments. An abrupt conclusion however, suggests that more could be explored, even if we do appreciate the ambiguity pertaining to Danny’s subsequent developments. Directed by Dino Dimitriadis, the work is mesmerising when emotions run high. Early scenes are appropriately manic, but its humour never really takes flight. When things turn serious is when the magic happens. There is a depth to the way its characters and narrative are presented that absolutely captivates, alongside a sorrow that sings with disarming authenticity, of rejection and of loss.

That melancholy is exhaustively manufactured by the formidable partnership of Benjamin Brockman’s lights and Ben Pierpoint’s sounds, both elements hellbent on having our emotions respond with intense empathy. The show begins in the kitchen, depicted by production designer Jonathan Hindmarsh with middle class respectability, prosperous but ordinary, that transforms into the proverbial good room, where a more idiosyncratic notion of selfhood can be expressed.

Actor Antony Makhlouf is a compelling Danny, accurate in his portrayal of frustrated despondency, for a young man caught between two worlds. His mother is played by Deborah Galanos, a big presence bringing resonance to themes of piety and control, in a story about emancipation and freedom. Josephine the overbearing sister, is made scintillating by an exuberant Nisrine Amine, and Johnny Nasser is wonderfully nuanced in dual roles, adding intriguing texture to the show.

We have always tried to exercise control over nature, whether using commerce as a form of logic to plunder earthly resources, or to obliterate the most beautiful of human connections in the name of religion. We constantly position ourselves above, interpreting our variety of intelligence as solution for what we deem to be chaos in the world. More than ever before, we can see clearly that rather than being able to achieve order, what we do best is destruction. In pessimistic times, it is hard to talk about growth and progress, but our capacity for evil becomes painfully comprehensible.

www.riversideparramatta.com.au/NTofP

5 Questions with Nisrine Amine and Antony Makhlouf

Nisrine Amine

Antony Makhlouf: You play Josephine in Lady Tabouli, how would you describe her?
Nisrine Amine: She’s a handful. Lol. She is a strong woman, with a hard set of beliefs. Quite stubborn. But with a deep faith and loyalty to family. She is almost like the burghul (wheat) in a bowl of tabouli – a little hard on the teeth yet necessary for the salad to come together. She’s quite different to characters I’ve played in the past; not immediately likeable but you definitely grow to understand her as the play goes on. And that’s the main thing with characters on stage – not that we like them but that we can understand them.

Who is Lady Tabouli?
In the first iteration of the play (at Griffin Theatre as part of Batch Festival), Lady Tabouli was very clearly Danny’s alter ego; she was a vibrant and free sense of self that he was so desperately wanting, but struggling, to become. In this new version of the play, I think she is more elusive than that – she is up to individual interpretation and maybe sits somewhere between convention and progression? Shackles and freedom? She is the clash of culture and individuality; group identity and personal truth. Maybe I’ll have a better answer for you once she comes to life in January.

What are your thoughts on the “other” Lebanese salad, fattoush?
Oooo, I am a big fan. I like a good ‘crunch’ in my food. And we all know a good fattoush has some serious bread crunch game happening. So I think I might take a bowl of that over tabouli. Oh no, I have blasphemed. Alas.

Who’s your favourite character in the play?
I dunno but (director) Dino’s is ‘the heat’. (You’ll know when you watch).

So you’re directing James Elazzi’s Son of Byblos for Belvoir 25A next year. What are you looking forward to the most about this experience?
All of it! It’s going to be surreal moving ‘behind the scenes’ for one of James’ works (all of my connections with his work up to now has been as ‘actor’). There’s definitely going to be (self-imposed) pressure to continue Dino’s great directing work on a piece of Elazzi writing, but I’m up for the challenge. The main thing I’m looking forward to, in all honesty, is working with my actors. I am soooo eager to get into that rehearsal room and start building character and relationships. And to help lead the actors to beautiful and truthful moments.

Antony Makhlouf

Nisrine Amine: How similar are you and your character of Danny?
Antony Makhlouf: The similarities of Danny and I is that we’re both Australian-Lebanese men who need to balance two separate cultures. Despite the tug-of-war effect this can have at times, I love sitting within two cultures for it provides me with an insight into two worlds. This has broadened my outlook and enriched my understanding of people. I like to think I’ve created a hybrid culture of my own. Whereas with Danny, his circumstance does not afford him the space to do the same. Instead he needs to be ruthless in his pursuit of self-determination. This is where our similarities end.

What’s your favourite part about the rehearsal process?
I love those moments when you crack the scene open and the words on the page, that you’ve been reading for a while, come to a new and bigger meaning.

What mark are you hoping this play will make on the Sydney theatre scene?
Foremost, I hope Lady Tabouli draws in the people that it depicts. Don’t get me wrong, the play is open to all audiences, however there are members of the community that will see themselves on the stage and benefit from that experience. In Lady Tabouli’s preliminary version at Griffin Theatre’s Batch Festival, a large chunk of our audiences were just that, and the response was real and overwhelming. There is something very special and powerful about this work. It transcends the theatre and offers a release I believe certain marginalised communities are craving to experience. Thus, and with all respect, I am more interested in talking and affecting those people, above anything else.

What’s the key to the perfect bowl of tabouli?
You should probably ask my mum that one. But, I do love tabouli that is a day old – the flavours really settle in by then. Refrigerate overnight and then eat it with warm Lebanese bread.

Where to from here?
After Lady Tabouli, I finish filming season four of Get Arty. I also want to get cracking on creating a new collection of art prints. And I hope to continue to develop and grow as a performer, so a short course overseas somewhere is on the cards.

Nisrine Amine and Antony Makhlouf can be seen in Lady Tabouli by James Elazzi.
Dates: 9 – 18 Jan, 2020
Venue: Riverside

Review: White Pearl (National Theatre of Parramatta)

Venue: Riverside Theatres (Parramatta NSW), Oct 24 – Nov 9, 2019
Playwright: Anchuli Felicia King
Director: Priscilla Jackman
Cast: Deborah An, Mayu Iwasaki, Matthew Pearce, Vaishnavi Suryaprakash, Merlynn Tong, Catherine Văn-Davies, Shirong Wu
Images by Phil Erbacher
Theatre review
A cosmetics company specialising in skin whitening creams, wakes up in hot water, when one of its ads appears online prematurely and quickly goes viral, as a result of its shockingly racist content. The Clearday headquarters in Singapore instantly turns into a war room, with executives desperately scrambling for damage control. All six of them are Asian women, from various parts of the world, each with a different experience of race and its associated politics. In Anchuli Felicia King’s White Pearl, we see the group devolve into a belligerent mess of conflicting principles, unable to sustain an alliance forged initially by very dubious ethics.

It is a sensational piece of writing, thoroughly researched and passionately rendered. White Pearl throws us into a cauldron of frenzied chaos, but each line of dialogue is crafted with immense precision, for an insightful examination not only of capitalism and racism, but also of the classism and sexism that govern so much of how these characters operate. The play’s unravelling of corporate culture, engenders a caustic sense of humour that keeps us on edge, for a wildly funny theatrical ride that never releases us from its moral interrogations.

Director Priscilla Jackman keeps dramatic intensity at fever pitch for the entire duration, establishing an unrelenting awareness in our consciousness reminding us that the stakes are very high indeed, not only in the fiction that we encounter, but also the real life implications of this timely tale about our social responsibilities as groups and individuals. Sound design by Michael Toisuta and Me-Lee Hay amplifies the women’s stress levels, to fill the auditorium with shuddersome atmospheric pressure. Jeremy Allen’s production design and Damien Cooper’s lights are nimbly manufactured, to keep the storytelling moving at lightning speed. The playwright’s own video projections feature social media comments relating to the offending incident, ranging from amusing to appalling, working as a device that constantly widens the story’s context, so that each viewer can remain personally connected with the narrative. Dramaturg Courtney Stewart does remarkable work that allows the play to consistently resonant with accuracy.

Seven actors form a formidable ensemble to deliver an intelligent and highly entertaining show, that reveals many truths about who we are today. Priya Singh, the British Indian founder of the company is portrayed by the phenomenal Vaishanavi Suryaprakash, whose extraordinary range enables an endlessly textured study of a woman in deep trouble. It is a powerful performance that exposes the human and structural problems of the modern business world. Also very affecting is Deborah An, who plays Korean scientist Soo Jin Park, bringing incredible nuance and emotional gravity to the depiction of a very dire situation. Merlynn Tong (as Sunny Lee) and Shirong Wu (as Xiao Chen) are unforgettable for providing the biggest laughs, both immaculate with their comic timing, and wonderfully idiosyncratic with their respective interpretations of ethnically Chinese women, the former from Singapore, and the latter China.

Catherine Văn-Davies plays Built Suttikul, a fabulously wealthy, American-educated Thai national, with imposing confidence and a vigorous physicality that defies any underestimation of the ladies in White Pearl. Her sensitive choices for a sex scene brings surprising elevation to the character, and highlights the persistent impossibly of retaining integrity in the pursuit of commercial supremacy. Her French ex-lover Marcel Benoit too, becomes unexpectedly complex, as performed by a self-possessed Matthew Pearce. New addition to the “Clearday family”, Japanese recruit Ruki Minami is perfectly balanced between naivety and wisdom by Mayu Iwasaki, for a personality that demonstrates the limits of human integrity, in the stupefying face of money and power.

Clearday sells products nobody needs, that could very well be harmful. The people who comprise the company, expend all their energy on questionable activities, so that they may one day feel like a leader of the pack. This is the narrative not only of White Pearl, but also of many a conventional life in the modern world. Money and power are blinding, they shape our values so that we make compromises to morality, in the promise of a glory that rarely comes to fruition. We disregard justice, to uphold racist, sexist and classist ideals every day, in hope that the system would reward us with all that it professes, but in fact, as we see in the play, no one will emerge truly victorious.

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

Review: Since Ali Died (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jan 8 – 19, 2019
Playwright: Omar Musa
Director: Anthea Williams
Cast: Omar Musa (with guest vocalist Sarah Corry)
Images by Robert Catto
Theatre review
Omar Musa imagines himself travelling down a river with Muhammad Ali, both men outsiders, connected by experiences of ostracism. Musa’s Since Ali Died provides insight into how people of colour survive the dogged exclusions of white society. Through poetry, prose and hip hop phraseology, Musa’s extraordinary writing provides access to intense and complex emotions, that relate to a sense of displacement, in an Australia struggling to think of itself as anything other than an illegitimate monolith. It is a work about home, but on how it can disown you, presented in a theatrical context that sees a remarkable talent confront an audience comprising adversaries and allies, all of us relevant and implicated.

As performer, Musa is charisma personified. We are won over effortlessly, by a stage presence naturally confident yet vulnerable, one that showcases an honesty that many will find utterly disarming. Masculinity is portrayed in a delicate light, with director Anthea Williams carefully preventing any sense of alienation that could arise from the motivating fury of Musa’s expressions. It is an exercise in compassion that results, an occasion that welcomes all, one that encourages us to think about the parts we play, as individuals and as collectives, in Musa’s personal stories.

Melancholic and incredibly moving, Since Ali Died is a timely meditation on contemporary Australian life, an undeniable summation of all our unique challenges, whether spiritual, social or political. Black and brown people endure discrimination by white structures that lay fake claim to this land, just as Muslims are relegated impudently, to a status of religious inferiority. Omar Musa’s very body and soul, right before our eyes, is evidence of those injustices that insidiously constitute our harmful way of life. He is thriving, but he suffers. In his music, simultaneously celebratory and indignant, we are able to understand the strength that is required of people like Musa. It is dark but uplifting, refusing to give in to destruction. His energy is ample and indomitable, and although painful to see it expended on coping mechanism, there is plenty left for orchestrating a change.

www.griffintheatre.com.au | www.riversideparramatta.com.au

5 Questions with Cristabel Sved and Dubs Yunupingu

Cristabel Sved

Dubs Yunupingu: What 5 words would you use to describe the play?
Cristabel Sved: Magical, theatrical, funny, physical, inspirational.

Do you have a favourite moment in the original book and in the play?
There are lots of brilliant moments in Lewis Carrol’s book of course. An important one for me is when Alice challenges the viewpoint and power of the Queen of Hearts. In our play this is where Alice really comes into herself and finds the courage from her adventures and her encounters with all the other wonderful, fantastical characters to stand up to this imposing authority figure.

What has been the most enjoyable part about bringing this play to life?
I’ve enjoyed so much about working on this show. It’s been great working with Mary Anne Butler, the playwright, who has done an amazing job crafting Lewis Carroll’s story for a new audience. And it’s been an absolute pleasure collaborating with our wonderful creative team and these very special young actors to bring the magic of Wonderland to the stage. Revisiting the text and the character of Alice and finding a new relevance and message for young audiences and their families has been a great journey.

What has been the most difficult part about bringing this play to life?
I think the magical things that happen in Wonderland have been our biggest challenge to bring to the stage, but it’s also been lots of fun. Alice shrinks, grows, visits the cosmos, finds herself floating in a river of her own tears, talks to mice and packs of cards…. Our production design is deliberately low tech. It relies on the theatre’s unique ability to transform ordinary objects into extraordinary things. I can’t wait for audiences to come on the journey with us. Of course, we’re asking them to help us create this magic with the powers of their imagination and this is an important theme in our play too.

If you could make any childhood book into a stage show, what would it be?
I might keep that up my sleeve for now!

Dubs Yunupingu

Cristabel Sved: What 5 words would you use to describe Alice In Wonderland?
Dubs Yunupingu: The five words I would use to describe Alice In Wonderland are magical, adventurous, fun, suspenseful and intriguing.

You play Alice. How would you describe her personality?
The way I would describe Alice’s personality is that she is a very strong girl, she is more of a tomboy in a sense that she loves playing footy and loves a good adventure. She doesn’t want to be the neat and pretty girl everyone expects her to be. All she wants to do is find her voice to be able to express herself. Through her journey in Wonderland she slowly builds up the courage to do so.

What is it you are enjoying most about doing this play?
I am enjoying telling the story and bringing Wonderland to life with my amazing work mates.

If Alice could date any current film star who do you think she would choose and why?
If there was no age limit I would say Johnny Depp because of all the amazing crazy adventures he goes on in all the awesome films he has done. He gets to express himself through so many different characters and I feel that all Alice wants to do is to be able to express herself. 

In a nutshell, how have you approached the role of Alice?
I have gone in full force, no expectations and loving every minute of it.   

Cristabel Sved directs Dubs Yunupingu in Alice In Wonderland, part of Sydney Festival.
Dates: 5 – 27 January, 2018
Venue: Riverside Theatres, Parramatta

Review: PUNCTURE (Legs On The Wall / Form Dance Projects / Vox – Sydney Philharmonia Choirs)

Venue: Riverside Theatre (Parramatta NSW), Jan 21 – 25, 2015
Director: Patrick Nolan
Choreographer: Kathryn Puie
Composer: Stefan Gregory
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Dancers are at the forefront in the exploration of theatrical space. Without the burden of words and narratives, they open up senses to what the physical presence of things and bodies can do on a stage, and how we communicate between persons, to create meaning where little or none had existed before. Puncture features a great number of people, some are dancers, and the others singers, introduced as though emerging from the audience, and we are encouraged to identify with them, and to read their performance as though what they present have come from us, even if we feel secure in our seats with temporary passivity. The mix of characters features a beautifully diverse range of ages and ethnicities that reflect the breadth of human experience, and of Australian life. The vocalists in particular, are almost a visual copy of the viewing crowd, and efforts at incorporating them into the dance, provide some of the more emotional moments of the piece.

Patrick Nolan and Kathryn Puie have created in Puncture, something that is a little less self-conscious, and a little more accessible than what we have come to expect of modern dance. They investigate the notion of inclusiveness to address the art of performance, as well as the consumption side of show business. It is a noble ambition to blur the lines of where the show starts and where it ends, but redefining audienceship is a difficult exercise. While not always successful, the ideology of breaking barriers provides strong impetus that shapes the show into something that feels adventurous and earnest. We are at our most engaged when the cast tackles the unconventional. The incorporation of rigging (executed behind the scenes by Jon Blake and Felix Kerdijk) to lift bodies 4 metres away from the ground, the soprano on an aerial hoop, and the tender interchanges between choristers and dancers; we are kept fascinated and entertained.

The 22-strong choir is led by Music Director Elizabeth Scott and Composer Stefan Gregory, with accompaniment on piano by Luke Byrne and on percussion by Bree Van Reyk. The marriage between what we hear and see is wonderfully cohesive, with the music at its most successful when it ventures into the avant garde. Even at its most daring, all the sounds are elegantly resolved, except when words like “hello” and “love” are used, disrupting the abstract beauty that wishes to be experienced in personal ways. It is noteworthy that there are many intriguing personalities in the choir, who could have been featured more heavily in the work’s choreography. Trained dancers tend to lose their individualities in the very discipline they invest in, and the juxtaposition provided on this occasion with non-dancers on the same stage is a main feature. Getting the singers to do more with their bodies is probably challenging, but it is precisely the idea of redefinition that would be elevated further, and the meanings that one draws from Puncture can therefore be more powerful.

Many in the show are dedicated and accomplished dancers, but this is not a piece about athleticism or superhuman faculties. It is an expression of how we live, feel and breathe as individuals and as collectives. Its themes are not always clear, but it articulates its concerns with sensitivity and focus. These artists intend to show us something important in their inimitable ways, and if we think that everything important can be put into words, then they have proven us wrong.

www.legsonthewall.com.au / www.form.org.au / www.sydneyphilharmonia.com