Review: Grand Horizons (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Jun 7 – Jul 3, 2021
Playwright: Bess Wohl
Director: Jessica Arthur
Cast: John Bell, Linda Cropper, Vanessa Downing, James Majoos, Johnny Nasser, Zindzi Okenyo, Guy Simon
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Nancy has asked for a divorce. Instead of congratulating her on daring to reach for happier days in the twilight years, her adult sons desperately try to change her mind, determined to keep her tethered to a life that she clearly deems unsatisfactory. At the centre of Bess Wohl’s Grand Horizons is Nancy and Bill’s 50-year marriage, offering a framework through which our basic values as individuals and as collectives, are interrogated. The very idea that a person’s efforts to end a bad relationship, are met with despair, is a clear indication of our capacity to be so distorted in the ways we conceive of existence.

It is a surreptitiously philosophical work, accomplished with a wonderful sense of humour, and often with a subversive streak. Wohl diminishes the persuasiveness of her own arguments however, by rendering the family’s wealth invisible in her discussions about female independence. The desire to lead us to a pleasing conclusion too, can feel somewhat of a cop out, but the play is undeniably enjoyable, full of wit and whimsy that makes for a hilarious and thought-provoking experience.

Nancy’s big beige sterile house, is an ironic picture of middle-class mediocrity and boredom. Production designer Renée Mulder delivers a comedic conflation, of aspiration and of depression, in her interpretation of boomer suburban resplendence. Lights by Verity Hampson and sound by Clemence Williams are subtly resolved, to honour all the clever ideas and the incessant jokes, that make Grand Horizons quite the unforgettable experience.

Certainly memorable is actor Linda Cropper, who brings extraordinary complexity, along with brilliant timing, to the role of Nancy. It is a remarkably intelligent performance, conveying great integrity for the older woman who finally realises that she deserves better. Also highly entertaining is Guy Simon as Brian, the gay son, who has a difficult time extricating his own identity from his parents’ parting of ways. Simon plays the flamboyant drama teacher with a dazzling theatricality, keeping the laughter sustained for as long as he remains on stage.

It is a strong cast overall, but supporting player James Majoos is exceptional in his single appearance, as the carefree Tommy, incredibly extravagant in approach, for one of the play’s more outrageous scenes. Director Jessica Arthur proves herself a formidable creator of comedy; her strategies vary from delicate to bold, demonstrating an adventurous creative spirit, and a serious commitment to tickling her audience.

We place far too much emphasis on the length of relationships, and invest far too little into understanding what makes a good one. Elizabeth Taylor married and divorced eight times, because she knew when she had become unhappy, and made sure to improve conditions whenever necessary. For that, she was routinely ridiculed and insulted. On the other hand, people like Nancy who tolerate untold decades of misery, are revered solely for the longevity of their unions, with the actual experience of those years and years, seemingly irrelevant. Few things are worth greater celebration, than when a woman finds the courage to walk away from a failed marriage. The danger and humiliation that she has to contend with, is a price that she is willing to pay, for the promise of a better life.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Fun Home (Sydney Theatre Company / Melbourne Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Apr 27 – May 29, 2021
Book and Lyrics: Lisa Kron (based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel)
Music: Jeanine Tesori
Director: Dean Bryant
Cast: Gilbert Bradman, Ryan Gonzalez, Emily Havea, Mia Honeysett, Lucy Maunder, Jensen Mazza, Maggie McKenna, Adam Murphy, Marina Prior
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
In the American musical Fun Home, based on the autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, we observe the cartoonist hard at work on her drafting table, looking back at memories of her difficult father. Bruce was a baby boomer, and like many queer people of that generation, never came to terms with being gay. Even as Alison began to come out as lesbian, his personal anguish never diminished, struggling even to offer support to his own daughter at a time when she had needed him most.

Clearly intended to be an emotional theatrical experience, the show’s reliance on an unlikeable character is risky, and even though the music is predictably and relentlessly sentimental, it is doubtful if audiences could ever feel the full impact of the hardship that this family had gone through. Alison goes to considerable lengths to find forgiveness and understanding for her father, but it is arguable if the musical provides sufficiently for us to respond with deep compassion, or even to care enough for these characters, to be able to invest adequately into their story.

The staging is a polished one, with Alicia Clements’ design facilitating efficaciously, the need for frequent oscillations of time and space. Matt Scott’s lights are beautiful, especially when depicting illusory moments during which we see characters suspended in the undefined abyss of Alison’s imagination. Director Dean Bryant introduces an excellent sense of pizzazz to the production, making sure that we are entertained to the fullest of the show’s potential. He ensures that the story is told with clarity, including the unsavoury revelations relating to Bruce’s life.

We see Alison at three periods of maturity, from childhood and her college years, to the grown woman she is today. Child star Mia Honeysett is fantastic as Small Alison, wonderfully nuanced and authentic, in her portrayal of a child navigating complicated family dynamics, as well as her own blossoming homosexuality. Medium Alison is performed by Maggie McKenna whose singing voice proves a divine pleasure, and Lucy Maunder is captivating as Big Alison, bringing a palpable tenderness that underpins the show. The striking Adam Murphy does his best to honestly depict Bruce, warts and all, but it is Marina Prior who leaves a strong impression playing his wife Helen. When she finally breaks her silence and delivers a faultless solo number, Prior’s technical prowess brings momentary elevation to the production, inviting us to luxuriate in the sheer genius of her singing.

It should come as no surprise that humans are sometimes much more troubling, than a 100-minute Broadway musical can accommodate. The formulaic nature of these creations, requires a form of storytelling that follows many rules, and we discover that truth can sometimes become its nemesis. Bruce’s sexual encounters with underaged boys, is not forgivable, especially in this space of commercial theatre. Fun Home requires us to regard Bruce’s past sins with generosity, the way his daughter has to, in order that our emotions may become engaged in accordance with the traditional peaks and valleys of a conventional musical. Bruce’s transgressions however, are much too severe, at least for the old-fashion song-and-dance format.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Appropriate (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Mar 15 – Apr 10, 2021
Playwright: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Director: Wesley Enoch
Cast: Lucy Bell, Joel Bishop, Johnny Carr, James Fraser, Brenna Harding, Ella Jacob, Mandy McElhinney, Robbi Morgan, Sam Worthington
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Three siblings return, after the death of their father, to their Arkansas family home, in anticipation of the estate’s imminent sale. They are an unhappy bunch, and like many classics of stage and screen from the United States, these white Americans squabble and weep in each other’s presence, putting on display interpersonal conflicts and psychological trauma, as though resolution could eventually be found through performative acts of catharsis. In Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate however, characters ignore the most serious problems underpinning their very existence, unable to acknowledge fundamental faults that are more about a legacy relating to their Confederate history, than they are about individual infirmity.

Jacob-Jenkins draws a link between a sick society, and private lives constantly in search of emancipation. We are familiar with the idea that personal anguish compels us to seek remedies, but we rarely think about addressing wider contexts (in the case of Appropriate, both societal and familial), as being crucial in efforts to achieve a sense of well-being, or peace. This is especially true for those in positions of privilege. Jacob-Jenkins’ play features an all-white family, none of whom accept that the racism propagated by their forebears, has anything to do with their disquiet, much less be attentive to the racism that they continue to reinforce in their own daily lives.

This political statement, although a hugely consequential one, is made almost surreptitiously. The characters sweep these things under the carpet, and in the absence of an outside world that includes people of colour, none of what the play wishes to say, is presented explicitly. Director Wesley Enoch too, does not bring abundant emphasis to these matters, trusting instead that the message will resonate for those who want to hear it. Positioning the show as a somewhat conventional family drama however, means that Appropriate is not always satisfying. The reliance on a sense of realism, in efforts to make the narrative engrossing, has a tendency to reduce the drama to something slightly pedestrian. The play is much more than rich people fighting and being upset about their parochial concerns, but we are only provided glimpses of the real stakes that are actually involved.

An unevenness in the cast is largely responsible, for the production not conveying as much nuance and depth as required. Sam Worthington demonstrates good focus and intention, but an unfortunate lack in control over his voice and physicality in the role of Bo, makes for a confused, and confusing, performance that leaves us cold. Doing most of the heavy lifting is Mandy McElhinney, who shines brightly as resentful sister Toni, able to inject exuberance and irony into the dark comedy. Johnny Carr plays the intriguingly ambiguous Franz, proving himself a captivating actor, if a little too convincing as the reformed sex offender.

Work on design aspects is accomplished in general, with the closing minutes showcasing a dilapidating house, without actors, leaving a particularly strong impression. Set by Elizabeth Gadsby, lights by Trent Suidgeest, and sound by Steve Francis, combine to create the production’s most striking moments. We witness the house literally falling into disrepair, ravaged by time and by ghosts. We watch the spectacle unfold, and without words, hear the important questions ring through the chilly air. What had been left unsaid, is finally unleashed, but one wonders if this obtuse conclusion, although beautiful, is enough to drive home the moral of the story.

Observing white people in places like American and Australia, deny their racism, is nothing new for people of colour. It is always someone else at fault, and it is always a problem too big to fix today. There is always disowning of liability, and there is always a diminishment of responsibility. They routinely try to make everything vanish into thin air, as though out of sight, out of mind. They are terrified of being labelled racists, but every day prolong and extend the effects of racism. They say they did not create the system, but refuse to acknowledge that they are often its sole beneficiaries. The people in Appropriate will say that the worst is behind us, but what we see before our eyes, is a tragedy that rages on, only in hushed tones.

www.sydneytheatre.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: Wonnangatta (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Sep 21 – Oct 31, 2020
Playwright: Angus Cerini
Director: Jessica Arthur
Cast: Wayne Blair, Hugo Weaving
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
We see in Angus Cerini’s Wonnangatta, two men in various states of distress, coming to grips with the murder of a friend. The story takes place in the remote Victorian Alps, one century ago, inevitably taking the familiar tone of the Australian gothic fable. Our obsession with the landscape, and the nature of our mateship, come to the fore as the characters wrestle with isolation, despair and terror. Cerini’s writing is remarkably visceral in quality, allowing for ample manifestations of mood in the theatrical form to activate various aspects of our imagination.

Production design by Jacob Nash is sparse but highly evocative, featuring a structure reminiscent of a meandering cliff, that works in conjunction with Nick Schlieper’s lights to convincingly shepherd us into the abyss of Wonnangatta‘s haunting realms. Music and sound by Stefan Gregory provide valuable demarcations that shift our perceptions of time, in accordance with the men’s increasing bewilderment.

Actors Wayne Blair and Hugo Weaving bring undeniable charisma and gravity to the experience, although multiple blunders with collisions of their dialogue prove distracting. Director Jessica Arthur introduces a gradual crescendo to tension levels that sustains our interest, and it becomes evident that the performance is at its most enjoyable when the duo invests in the kinetic poeticism of the writing. An emphasis on the narrative’s linearity can however, work against the strengths of the show. We want to indulge in the despondent beauty of its netherworld, but often find ourselves trying to pay attention to details that detract from its more ephemeral pleasures.

Stories about our forefathers tend to involve hardship, and in 2020, that resonance is certainly apparent. There is a constant sense of foreboding in Wonnangatta that relates so directly to our lives today, as though fear, misery and anxiety are the most fundamental features of our humanity. We are reminded that survival is what we have to do. For decades, many have lived with lofty ideals, thinking that the meaning of life relates to so much more, than keeping alive to welcome the morning. It is a humbling moment, one most of us could do well to appreciate.

www.sydneytheatre.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: Anthem (Roslyn Packer Theatre)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Jan 15 – 19, 2020
Playwrights: Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas, Irine Vela
Director: Susie Dee
Cast: Maude Davey, Reef Ireland, Ruci Kaisila, Thuso Lekwape, Amanda Ma, Maria Mercedes, Tony Nikolakopoulos, Eryn Jean Norvill, Sahil Saluja, Osamah Sami, Eva Seymour, Carly Sheppard, Jenny M. Thomas, Dan Witton
Images by Victor Frankovski

Theatre review
Much of the action takes place in train carriages around the Greater Melbourne area, where more than anywhere else, an accurate cross section can be obtained of who Australians are today. Rich and poor have to sit together, as do black, brown and white, along with young and old. When extricated from our respective communities, classes and silos, we are forced to look at the real differences that define us, probably more so than the similarities that we like to imagine give meaning to our national identity. In Anthem, it is the very nature of discrepancies, of wealth, power and all that might constitute a person’s cultural capital, that are exposed and very powerfully discussed.

On a land that remains unceded by its Indigenous who make up only an estimated 3.3% of the current population, it is absurd that the rest of us should experience privilege of any description. Director Susie Dee does a splendid job of articulating, not only that injustice, but also the harmful collective delusion driving this nation, that some of us deserve more than others. Anthem makes it clear that no one here can legitimately possess more than others; for as long as Indigenous peoples are marginalised and unable to exercise rights of ownership, the rest of us can only ever be holders of dubious property and position.

The politics of the piece is made saliently resonant by Dee, who imbues every vignette of Anthem with accuracy and urgency, accompanied by a strident level of realism that defies us to ignore the problems residing in the very foundation of our Australian existences. An extraordinary cast keeps us mesmerised for the entirety of these 150 passionate minutes. Tremendously well-rehearsed and unbelievably cohesive, their performance represents some of the most gripping theatre one could ever hope to see. Actor Carly Sheppard is unforgettable, giving voice to Black Australia, able to portray humour alongside a virtuous fury, to make an important and conclusive statement about Indigenous rights.

Ruci Kaisila, Jenny M. Thomas and Dan Witton provide live music over the duration, sensational in their manipulation of atmosphere and emotions, through the very accomplished works of composer and sound designer Irine Vela. Set and costumes by Marg Horwell are intelligently executed, able to convey a sense of veracity for characters and situations, whilst offering theatrical dynamism to our experience of the show. Paul Jackson’s lights too, bring animation to the stage, and is valuable in establishing tone for every nuanced moment of this sensitively rendered play.

As Australians, we have grown accustomed to tolerating inequalities in our social order. It has become acceptable that the rich get richer, at the expense of the poor, who can obviously only get poorer as a result. Marginalised communities, most notably Indigenous peoples, are routinely subjugated and muzzled, as our structures continue to privilege voices that adhere to conditions stipulated by white patriarchy. We have learned to think of the downtrodden as deserving of their lack of position in society. Even when we find ourselves oppressed by those with money and power, we take on the blame in accordance with the conditioning enforced by those at the top. It is no wonder then that James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time is invoked in both the prologue and epilogue of Anthem. The only solution is a revolution, if only enough of us can see beyond the lies.

www.performinglines.org.au

Review: The Beauty Queen Of Leenane (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Nov 18 – Dec 21, 2019
Playwright: Martin McDonagh
Director: Paige Rattray
Cast: Noni Hazlehurst, Hamish Michael, Shiv Palekar, Yael Stone
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Maureen is full of resentment, because she has to live at home to care for her incapacitated and very demanding mother Mag. After a passionate night with Pato however, Maureen starts to think of a brighter future, and in Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen Of Leenane, we wonder how much of destiny is indeed predetermined, as our protagonist navigates what appears to be a new shift in luck.

The play is savage in its depictions of hard lives. Maureen and Mag are Irish women of the lower classes, and fending for themselves is nigh on impossible, as made abundantly clear in this painful story, about the compounding disadvantage of living with disability and poverty, as well as the structural sexism that functions as a major component keeping them at the bottom of the pile. McDonagh’s comedy is of the darkest variety, becoming pitch black as we approach its end.

It is a magnificently accomplished production that director Paige Rattray has assembled. Humour and drama are balanced exquisitely against dread and revulsion, for an entirely mesmerising experience at the theatre. Production design by Renée Mulder offers sensational rendering of the Folan’s home, both inside and out, for a vision of unimaginable decrepitude, reminiscent of the stuff nightmares are made of. The Beauty Queen Of Leenane is a masterpiece in the style of the modern Gothic horror; although devoid of supernatural elements, its atmosphere is unmistakably ominous.

Stunning performances by all four actors have us absolutely riveted. Maureen is played by Yael Stone who dances on a knife’s edge, in an intoxicating portrayal of a woman at the end of her tether, having us on the edge of our seats, with the psychological thrill of witnessing someone on the brink of losing her mind. Our perception of mother Mag oscillates precariously between humour and terror, as the fantastic Noni Hazlehurst masterfully manipulates her role to offer us immense entertainment.

Shiv Palekar has us amazed with his exceptional comic timing, as the puerile and very laddish neighbour Ray, able to deliver huge laughs with every one of his precise and intuitively executed punchlines. Maureen’s object of affection Pato too is a funny character, made tender and surprisingly earnest by Hamish Michael, who brings valuable sentimentality to the often brutal narrative.

Maureen’s world is a horrible existence, one that she has been taught to never leave. Poverty keeps people in their place. It works as a form of indoctrination that hopes to make large numbers feel a sense of acceptance of their stations, so that they can remain exploited for generations, if not for eternity. The two women are stuck at home, languishing and never daring to move beyond the familiar. They will not be rescued, but the rules are there ready to be broken, if only they were to choose defiance.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Avalanche: A Love Story (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Aug 29 – Sep 14, 2019
Playwright: Julia Leigh
Director: Anne-Louise Sarks
Cast: Maxine Peake (with Jethro Jensen, Amy Wahhab)
Images by The Other Richard

Theatre review
Humans have an inexhaustible capacity for obsession. As individuals, we see the world in infinitely different ways, and each of us has our own private passions that can easily be seen as meaningless or bizarre by others. What is of fundamental importance to one, can be interpreted as totally nonsensical by another, yet we all cling on to these idiosyncrasies, often letting them consume and define us.

In the case of Julia Leigh’s Avalanche: A Love Story, an unnamed protagonist spends years absolutely absorbed by the notion of having to bear a child, and subjects herself to expensive and traumatising IVF treatments in hope of falling pregnant. She sacrifices relationships and a prestigious career in film making, to devote all her energies and resources, into the seemingly uncontrollable urge to have a baby. The play comprises scene after scene of one woman’s deep disappointments, and her inability to extricate herself from a suffering that only ever looks to be self-imposed. We watch in amazement, her persistence with this pipe dream, but certainly not all of us will be able to muster up the empathy that the playwright is intent on appealing to.

At best, the show is an honest and painful examination of experiences many have shared, but at its worst, Avalanche: A Love Story is a melodramatic and highly indulgent study of rich people’s problems, manifestly unaware of the way it opens itself to ridicule. The very skilful Anne-Louise Sarks brings, as director, an atmospheric intensity that almost has us forgetting, that the story requires our emotions invest in a kind of torment that can only befall the privileged.

There is no question that the production is adroitly assembled. Everything is considered, purposeful and remarkably polished, with not a hair out of place. Marg Horwell’s spectacular set design is unforgettable. Lizzie Powell’s lights and Stefan Gregory’s sounds are incredibly delicate in their rendering of a woman’s very genuine struggles. The contentious nature of this subject matter notwithstanding, the creative forces have no doubt accomplished a work of theatre replete with technical brilliance.

Maxine Peake too, is precise and inspired as performer of this 75 minute monologue. She holds our attention throughout, and convinces even the most sceptical, of the profound sorrow being expressed on stage. Her efforts are detailed and sensitive, always aiming to communicate at a level of uncompromising accuracy.

It is unlikely that Avalanche: A Love Story can preach beyond those already converted. The character’s anguish is undeniable, but the more that we delve into that narrative of grief, the more we question her choices. A woman can make any choice she so desires, but whether her need for sympathy as a result can ever be satisfied, is quite another matter.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Lord Of The Flies (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Jul 23 – Aug 24, 2019
Playwright: William Golding (adapted by Nigel Williams)
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Joseph Althouse, Justin Amankwah, Nyx Calder, Yerin Ha, Daniel Monks, Mark Paguio, Rahel Romahn, Eliza Scanlen, Contessa Treffone, Nikita Waldron, Mia Wasikowska
Images by Zan Wimberley

Theatre review
The boys are sent away from war, but their plane crashes and they land on an uninhabited island, having to fend for themselves, using instinct, along with their memories of civilisation. In Nigel Williams’ stage adaptation of William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies, the question of nature versus nurture once again comes to the fore. Jack is the unequivocal villain of the piece, a horrific specimen of mankind, hell-bent on causing death and destruction. His quick ascent to position of warlord tempts us to interpret the child’s evil tendencies as learned behaviour, although there is no denying the parts of ourselves that seem naturally drawn to causing harm.

The pessimistic tale is given a modern staging by director Kip Williams, who brings new dimensions to Golding’s concerns of 1954. Where many had in the past regarded Lord Of The Flies as a work about being human, Williams’ vision allows us to interrogate the text from perspectives of culture and gender, that had been routinely neglected. The diversity of cast (but alas, not of creatives) inspires discussions about whiteness and masculinity, as we ponder on the meanings of women playing boys, and of people of colour playing the colonials. Indeed, the production rarely lets us look away from the Brechtian artifice of its presentation, always consciously involving itself with a stylised design aesthetic that never tries to fool us with attempts at naturalism. The experience becomes one of theatre as commentary, rather than art as representation.

Instead of manufacturing a landscape of delusive vegetation, set design by Elizabeth Gadsby exposes the stage’s bare bones, for a chilling Brutalist effect, that establishes from the outset an appetite for subversion. Intensive work on lights by Alexander Berlage may lack restraint, but is undoubtedly spectacular with its many bold manoeuvres. James Brown’s sound design guides us through the story’s legendary descent into savagery, particularly impressive when it operates in conjunction with actors at their most dramatic and vivid.

There are moments when stagecraft overwhelms, but the ensemble proves nonetheless to be engaging, with Daniel Monks especially memorable in the role of Roger. Vile, vicious and thrilling in his depiction of a boy’s darkest inclinations, Monks delivers moments that are quite genuinely terrifying, and enormously powerful in what he has to say about our capacity for cruelty. The purest one is played by Rahel Romahn, who gives us a Piggy that is completely adorable, and in his nuanced demonstration of what virtue looks and sounds like, the actor ensures that all the show’s arguments can only be won by the good side. As the democratically elected leader of the pack, Mia Wasikowska is a passionate Ralph, but the actor tends to be too subtle in approach for the vast and cacophonous stage. Much more persuasive is Contessa Treffone as the big bad Jack, made resonant by Treffone’s intricate mimicry of masculine voice and gesture, for a portrait of male toxicity at its most despicable.

It is easy to get lost in discussions about how the boys have turned out so awfully, but more worthwhile is to find ways we can improve, or indeed reverse, this dreadful state we are in. Whether a result of genetics or of social conditioning, the characters in Lord Of The Flies are broken, and while one can choose to take a fatalistic reading of the text, the show certainly encourages a more hopeful interpretation. Boys will be boys, if we accept the status quo. Racism will remain a component of our structures, if we persist with them. Golding suggests that an intrusion is necessary for the lost ones to be rescued, but to sit and wait, is no solution for those who proclaim to be young and free.

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