Review: The Play That Goes Wrong (Roslyn Packer Theatre)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Apr 5 – 23, 2017
Playwrights: Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields
Directors: Mark Bell, Sean Turner
Cast: Darcy Brown, Adam Dunn, Luke Joslin, George Kemp, James Marlowe, Brooke Satchwell, Nick Simpson-Deeks, Tammy Weller

Theatre review
When embarking on any project, passion is a key propulsive ingredient that will make things happen, but nothing will go well if passion is the only positive quality it has going for it. A community theatre group in Cornley, UK puts on a 1920s murder mystery, with little more than the fire in their bellies. The lack of talent and skill onstage and off, generates a series of fantastic mishaps that constitutes the high energy comedy brilliance we find in The Play That Goes Wrong.

It is pure farce and slapstick, at their maximum amplification. Stories and characters are barely relevant, in this ambitious exploitation of high octane physical comedy, involving people and objects falling about constantly, in the most satisfying manner. It is an old-fashioned style of show, made new by its unusually voracious need for speed and excitement. Directors Mark Bell and Sean Turner may not be visionaries in the conventional sense, but what they brings to the stage is extraordinarily precise and wildly imagined. The laughs on offer here are ceaseless, limited only by the audience’s ability to respond with a sustained level of energy that could match the hilarity that unfolds on stage.

The charismatic cast gives an exceptionally tight performance. In the presentation of a play where everything goes wrong, nothing is allowed to falter, and the actors are simply impeccable. George Kemp and James Marlow display no limits to their capacity for silliness, proving themselves to be very endearing indeed. Brooke Satchwell and Luke Joslin impress us with their physical presence and agility, allowing their beings to flail and flounce about with great force and ingenuity, for unimaginably powerful comic effect.

Stage managed by Anneke Harrison, the production’s technical excellence is crucial to its success. The Play That Goes Wrong can be seen as a love letter to stage managers everywhere, the unsung heroes of all the great shows we have ever seen. These women and men make themselves invisible, so that we can lose ourselves in the illusion of every staged moment. We fawn over actors and the words of playwrights, but forget the operations out of sight that allow magic to happen, until they draw attention to themselves when things do go wrong. The character of the inept Cornley stage manager (played by Adam Dunn) is a hoot, but also a constant reminder of the magnificence that has to take place backstage in order that theatre can do its best.

Review: Chimerica (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Feb 28 – Apr 1, 2017
Playwright: Lucy Kirkwood
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Matthew Backer, Gabrielle Chan, Jason Chong, Tony Cogin, Geraldine Hakewill, Brent Hill, Rebecca Massey, Monica Sayers, Mark Leonard Winter, Anthony Brandon Wong, Charles Wu, Jenny Wu
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Massacres, no matter how catastrophic, can get forgotten. Unlike the 9/11 attacks that we memorialise everyday, fuelled partially by economic imperatives of the USA, incidents such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests have faded away with time, and in this particular case, with rigorous effort on the part of Chinese officials.

The arresting image of a man standing in front of battle tanks however, still packs a punch, and 27 years after the event, it remains in circulation as one of the most influential and famous photographs ever taken. The enigma of Tank Man leaves many questions unanswered. It is an irrefutable document of an historical moment, but nothing of that moment (or the moments leading up to, and thereafter) has ever been explained.

Playwright Lucy Kirkwood’s imagination goes wild in Chimerica. It is 2012, and we meet a fictive photographer, Joe, who had famously captured the shocking moment at Tiananmen Square. He is now on a tenacious search for Tank Man, determined to uncover the truth, and through his escapades, we explore China as it stands today, or at least, are offered a Western conception of China’s current state of affairs. It is predictably precarious, for an American writer to offer critical assessment of the Chinese experience, but Kirkwood brings balance to her piece by portraying American institutions with a comparable level of disparagement; they are as bad as each other, perhaps.

The narrative of Chimerica is thoroughly enjoyable, a thriller that manages to grip right from the start, and that delivers a formidable jaw-dropper at its end. In this production however, details and personalities in the fairly complex story can become confusing. Direction by Kip Williams establishes a tautness in pace and atmosphere that makes for enthralling viewing, aided by Nick Schlieper’s very clever and diligent lighting design, but uneven acting for the main roles prevents the show from reaching its greatest potential.

Mark Leonard Winter is convincing as Joe the photographic journalist, but the emotional dimensions to his depictions often feel too vague and distant. The other lead character Zhang Lin is played by Jason Chong, who delivers several captivating scenes of poignancy, but the actor struggles to overcome the role’s quality of mystery, and he too is unable to help the audience connect at a more satisfying depth. Scene-stealer Charles Wu sparkles the brightest in two smaller parts. As Benny, he is refreshing, lively and charming, and as young Zhang, Wu is authentic and engaging. Also notable are the twenty performers who make up the ensemble, all impressive with their physical discipline, all in command of their excellent, and crucial, collective presence.

The song Long De Chuan Ren (Descendants of the Dragon) is a recurring sonic motif, introduced by sound designer The Sweats with wonderful inventiveness and cultural sensitivity, to orchestrate a representation of Chinese culture and its people, throughout the play. The song likens China to a dragon, a creature to be feared and revered, and it is true that iron fists have always ruled the nation, throughout different centuries, dynasties and governments, but the country is no stranger to revolutions. Whether or not we think of our governing mechanisms as democratic, systems of oppression will always attempt to ambush and exploit how we live, and it is up to the masses to find a way to resist, and to overturn the forces that wish to breach each and every one of our human rights.

Review: Speed-The-Plow (Sydney Theatre Company)

stcVenue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Nov 8 – Dec 17, 2016
Playwright: David Mamet
Director: Andrew Upton
Cast: Rose Byrne, Damon Herriman, Lachy Hulme
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
It is the simple story of a man caught between good and evil, one that never seems to get old. It is the eternal experience of us all, no matter where or when in the annals of history we find ourselves. Bob is a Hollywood executive who has to choose between art and commerce, and in David Mamet’s Speed-The-Plow, that relationship is a strictly dichotomous one. Art is good, commerce is bad, and like the devil and angel who take up traditional residence on either sides of our minds, Bob finds himself caught in a tug-of-war between Karen and Charlie, each one neatly representing each side of the argument.

This basic premise is stretched out to fill a 90-minute play, but it feels deficient, lacking in depth despite its thorough expositions on money, work and benevolence. Andrew Upton’s direction gives the show an engaging sense of momentum, but Mamet’s words are only occasionally resonant, almost as if philosophy is sacrificed in the effervescence and tempo of the presentation. We enjoy the dynamics between characters, and are titillated by the suspicious duplicity that may or may not colour their intentions, but ultimately, the audience is left with nothing fresh or inspiring, even though a barrage of noisy ideas seem to be thrown about on stage ad nauseam. Design by David Fleischer does well in providing a visual focus ensuring that the small play does not get lost on a very large stage, but the overly minimal set in Act Two seems awkward for both players and slightly confusing for the audience.

Damon Herriman has a powerful start in the role of Bob, every bit the eighties corporate monster and womaniser, but is unable to sustain our interest as the character transforms. The play allows the secondary personalities to overwhelm Bob, while keeping narrative focus on his predicament. Even though the actor’s conviction is clear to see, it seems that there is little in the text that lets our leading man remain arresting after Act One. Karen is played by Rose Byrne, who brings surprising complexity, along with excellent comic timing and intellectual acuity to the production. Her interpretation of the ingénue is by far the most exciting element of the show, requiring us to pay close attention to all her purposeful nuances, while challenging prejudices as they pertain to female ambition, in this world of cutthroat business wretchedness. Charlie is a stereotypical entertainment desperado, performed by the imposing Lachy Hulme, who luxuriates in every opportunity for heightened tough guy drama.

Mamet’s writing has no room for grey areas. Our protagonist can only choose between good and evil, art and power. Their inability to recognise the realistic possibilities of negotiating between polarities, detracts from how we are able to identify with the story. We all live between black and white, having to make decisions that are never completely ideal, but most of us are able to find points of balance that are at least momentarily satisfactory. We all want our cake and eat it too, but it is this constant shifting of circumstances and choices that gives each day its corporeal vibrancy.

Review: All My Sons (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Jun 4 – Jul 9, 2016
Playwright: Arthur Miller
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Anita Hegh, John Howard, Bert LaBonte, John Leary, Josh McConville, Robyn Nevin, Eryn Jean Norvill, Jack Ruwald, Chris Ryan, Contessa Treffone
Images by Zan Wimberley

Theatre review
Joe Keller’s wealth is a result of monumental sacrifice. Arthur Miller’s All My Sons is about the cost of money, and the naivety that can come with human greed. Joe makes the decision to choose financial success over a clear conscience, thinking that his riches will be able to shield him from the damage that he causes. There is a willing ignorance at play in Joe’s story that many of us understand. We think that the pluses that come with money are powerful enough to contain the inevitable minuses, and it is that misguided optimism that brings about a series of calamitous consequences to Joe’s family and his neighbours.

It is intoxicating drama and a powerful moral that allows the play to maintain its resonance through the decades. Miller’s interrogation of the American dream (now international), along with themes of money, family and war, have not faded with time in their impact, in fact, our engagement with the ideas in All My Sons seem to be more intimate than ever. Soldiers once sent off to war in blazes of glory, are now seen as individuals we need to protect at all costs. Ideologies once used to justify deaths in battle, are now tainted with commerce, corruption and oil. Great riches from hard work have now exposed themselves to be hollow corporations trading in fraud. These very contemporary concerns are paired with classic melodramatic storytelling, for a masterpiece that still packs a wallop in 2016.

Kip Williams’ direction keeps focus on the play’s essence. Almost minimal in style, our attention is not to stray from its characters and dialogue. There are no bells and whistles to fill the vast auditorium, just a family drama that gets increasingly turbulent. Personalities are clearly defined, and relationships are dynamically formed. Williams sets the pace of the production at lightning speed to help ensure that tension is sustained, and that the audience remain engrossed. The intriguing qualities of Miller’s plot are perfectly engineered to keep us hooked on the story, but the venue’s size makes it a challenge communicating emotional intensity without performers having to perform at the extremes of their sentimental capacities. We follow every interchange that happens on stage, but our feelings become involved only when scenes become passionate.

The more energetic of the cast leave a greater impression. Chris Ryan’s ability to portray heightened agony gives the production its gravity, and the actor’s remarkably lucid depiction of his character Chris Keller’s loss of innocence, provides a soulfulness to the production, especially effective at its moving conclusion. Eryn Jean Norvill plays Ann Deever with great charm and an authentic complexity that adds surprising texture to the show. Norvill’s vocal and physical emulation of 1940’s American style is a delight, as is the vibrancy of her stage presence. In the role of Joe Keller is John Howard, imposing and confident, every bit the patriarch of the tale, but seems to fluctuate with concentration levels. Although powerful and nuanced, the actor has a tendency to be subsumed when action becomes frantic on stage. Young actor Jack Ruwald is memorable as Bert, lively and with a genuine sense of impulsiveness that is deeply endearing.

We cannot expect friends and family to be perfect, because every human is flawed. People will make mistakes, but how we forge ahead with them is the basis of how we live each day. The Kellers survive on love and lies, but the two prove to be ultimately incompatible. Where there is love, truth must triumph, but the ugliness that surfaces stands every chance of dissolving what we hold precious. All My Sons might be about family, marriage, betrayal and deception, but it is fundamentally a cautionary tale of greed’s destructive nature. Forgiveness and understanding can mend many wounds in our relationships, but the scars that are left behind are permanent and inescapable. Joe’s abominable sin cannot be undone, and its repercussions are tragic and endless.

Review: King Charles III (Almeida Theatre)

stcVenue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Mar 31 – Apr 30, 2016
Playwright: Mike Bartlett
Director: Rupert Goold, Whitney Mosery
Cast: Jennifer Bryden, Richard Glaves, Dominic Jephcott, Geoffrey Lumb, Lucy Phelps, Carolyn Pickles, Robert Powell, Ben Righton, Giles Taylor, Tim Treloar, Beatrice Walker, Paul Westwood, Emily Swain, Emily-Celine Thomson, Ryan Whittle, Karl Wilson
Image by Richard Hubert-Smith

Theatre review
Many consider the monarchy to be an archaic and irrelevant institution. It is constantly under scrutiny and criticism, mostly for the notion that it bleeds the economy of money without seeming to contribute anything concrete. In Mike Bartlett’s imagined near future, Prince Charles finally ascends the throne, and we are presented with the astonishing circumstance of the new king exerting his right to influence governance of the United Kingdom. The silent figurehead decides to act according to his conscience, and opposes the passage of a new law by parliament, which results in unadulterated pandemonium and excellent drama. Bartlett’s story about the most famous family in the world is part Shakespearean, part tabloid influenced. The high and low brow concoction speaks to our perceptions about the royals; we think of them as enigmatic, grand and otherworldly, but also as gossip fodder, with petty concerns that our curiosity feels entitled to.

The show begins with exquisite humour, then develops increasingly heavy, ultimately ending in great pessimism similar to many cautioning fables about governments and democracy. Even though energy levels drop significantly as the plot turns serious, both its comedic and dramatic aspects are effectively conveyed. We are gripped by its fast moving scenes, each one short and scintillating, as though on steroids courtesy of prime-time TV. Its familiar personalities are seen just the way we expect them to be, but with additional dimensions that provide surprises to the startling narratives that unfold. Bartlett’s dialogue is endlessly amusing in its juxtaposition of contemporary speech with Shakespearean conventions, which the cast delivers with impressive skill and fluency.

Richard Glaves is a memorable Prince Harry, endearing and vulnerable just the way many would wish him to be. Humour in the production is extremely contained, but Glaves is able to find a sense of mischief within the restraints, consistently depicting emotional authenticity while asserting the entertaining qualities of his role. Charles is played by Robert Powell, imposing and noble, utterly believable as King. His portrayal bears little cosmetic resemblance to the character we see regularly on the news, but is full of nuance and texture. Even though appropriately stoic and stiff upper lipped, Powell brings complexity and psychological accuracy to the piece, replete with humane ambiguities that challenge our moralistic judgements. We find our opinions about Charles constantly shifting as we gain an increasingly deeper understanding of his nature and intentions.

We look for bad guys in the play, but there are no convenient answers. Democracy is what we value most in the collective entity we term society, and its machinations are evaluated in King Charles III in a theatrical but honest way. There are many Australians passionate about turning our country into a republic, and the play certainly pleads a strong argument for that case. Our democracy may be flawed but it is what we hold dear. In the play, Charles is a good man, and could well be a great leader, but he is not appointed by the people and further, unprotected by our legal and political processes. Civilisations need to work towards greater transparency, so that our progress may reach closer to democratic ideals, but the monarchy, by definition, contravenes those principles we revere in the highest regard. This story seems a wild one, but it resonates strongly and we believe its outrageous scenarios to be plausible, implying that there are dangers in our current systems, which although underestimated and overlooked, are in fact gravely threatening.

Review: Golem (1927 Productions)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Mar 16 – 26, 2016
Playwright: Suzanne Andrade
Director: Suzanne Andrade
Film, Animation & Design: Paul Barritt
Music: Lillian Henley
Cast: Esme Appleton, Will Close, Lillian Henley, Rose Robinson, Shamira Turner
Images by Bernhard Müller

Theatre review
It is in the nature of cities around the world to be obsessed with progress. Some economies are determined to find opportunities in international markets to bring communities out of poverty, while others are simply caught up in capitalism’s readiness to encourage and facilitate greed. Whether intentions are noble or otherwise, all of us in developing and industrialised countries are on a fast train to a future shaped almost exclusively by concepts of financial and technological advancement. Suzanne Andrade’s Golem is not only about the fear of being left behind, it is also interested in the involuntary embroilment that we often find ourselves, fuelled by the voracious appetite of today’s way of the world, with its monetisation of virtually everything and the impossibility of detaching oneself from these increasingly sinister systems of economy. Andrade’s work leaves no room for doubt about damage that results from the insatiable process of consumption. Disguised as machines of betterment, we participate and contribute to a never-ending order of perpetual buying, one with increasingly bigger promises at every step of the way.

The show combines the projection of an animated film, with live actors and musicians. It is a unique aesthetic, thoroughly idiosyncratic with a wide appeal that many would find delightful. The performance involves a high level of precision and technical sophistication (ironic considering its critique of technology), for a captivating experience that is as satisfying as its themes are troubling. A sense of wonder pervades the production, with a child-like tone that would speak to audiences young and old. Its message is grave, but also simple. It spells out what we secretly know to be true, but prefer to leave uncovered for we fear its inevitability and know not to act against it. Reality does not allow us to turn back the hands of time, but on stage, Golem is able to do just that. With brilliant imagination and refined wizardry, the show takes us to an earlier period of our industrialisation, and charts the path of our irreversible progress. We recognise all its allegories, and respond with appreciation, to the way it voices our apprehensions about modern life.

No one truly knows how to tame that monster within. We see it do its dirty work, and acknowledge our complicities. Some of us remain aware of its every pitfall, while others choose to turn a blind eye. Golem offers no alternatives or solutions to the civilisation it disparages, and its nostalgic longing for an innocent past seems futile. The result is either a melancholy that finds no emancipation, or the embrace of a certainty that is not all light. Tales of pessimism do their part in reminding us of the oft forgotten dark sides of being, if only to turn us into more compassionate people, but we have to make the best of what we do have, and even though far from perfect, it is easy to recognise the elements that are good in the way we live today.

Review: The Secret River (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Feb 1 – 20, 2016
Playwright: Kate Grenville (based on the novel by Andrew Bovell)
Director: Neil Armfield
Cast: Georgia Adamson, Joshua Brennan, Toby Challenor, Shaka Cook, Nathaniel Dean, Frances Djulibing, Jennifer Hagan, Isaac Hayward, Trevor Jamieson, Heath Jelovic, Ningali Lawford-Wolf, Madeleine Madden, Colin Moody, Jeremiah Mundine, Wesley Patten, Kelton Pell, Richard Piper, Rory Potter, James Slee, Bruce Spence, Matthew Sunderland
Images by Heidrun Löhr

Theatre review
It is one thing to know about the usurpation of Australian land by the British two centuries ago, but quite another to see it happen before one’s own eyes. Brutal and tragic events register in our minds only as deeply as human sensitivity can allow. Our natural tendency to evade pain also means an involuntary ability to shelter our frail sentiments from the true depth of atrocities that we become aware of. We can think of this inadequacy in our comprehension as an explanation for the deficiency of empathy relating to the plight of Aboriginal Australia, and it is also the ease at which our minds can resort to delusion that their suffering can so often be hidden from us in plain sight.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River is a story all Australians know. It is about early British settlement and the swift displacement of Aboriginal communities as a result of our convict history. What is valuable in Grenville’s vision, is the depth and detail of personal experiences from those old chronicles that we find difficult to face. Her play is a confrontation that insists we witness in vividness, the misjustice, betrayal and horrific bloodshed that had befallen our Aboriginal peoples, on which many of our lives today are built upon. Through her marvellous storytelling and palpable characters, concepts are turned into reality and pain is shared.

The show is heavy and heartbreaking, but also remarkably compelling. At no point is the audience in doubt about the end that is to come, but we are nonetheless captivated by the story that unfolds. Director Neil Armfield sets a reverent tone and at a deliberate pace, embarks upon a presentation that takes its responsibilities in education and activism seriously. The Secret River is exemplary as an exercise of using theatre for social progress, through the art of gentle persuasion so that its message can be accepted by many. Armfield strikes a fine balance of portraying the barbarism inflicted upon the nation’s First Peoples while relaying a dramatic narrative with great warmth and credibility, so that even the most misanthropic of us will remain engaged.

Nathaniel Dean and Georgia Adamson play the Thornhills, who begin their frontier lives on the Hawkesbury River in 1813 as farmers claiming land without authorisation by its rightful owners. The actors are vibrant, charismatic and precise in their approach, with a fierce honesty that keeps us simultaneously endeared and repelled. It is tricky business creating villainous protagonists, but the duo’s very fine work shines light on their flawed humanity with a complexity that disallows us from writing them off too conveniently. A cast of Indigenous performers brilliantly depicts the local community that falls victim to the Thornhills’ rapacious enterprise. They do not speak English, but all that they feel and desire is conveyed with clarity and enthralling charm. Ningali Lawford-Wolf provides with great beauty, an important matriarchal omnipresence that represents the origins of our land, and a compassion that informs the way we respond to the events that unfold before her, and our, eyes. The role of Ngalamalum is played by Trevor Jamieson, whose humour and capacity for powerful emotion leaves an indelible impression. His work in the epilogue especially, is quite a thing to behold, and certainly one of the most moving moments to be seen on any stage.

There is a simplicity to the production, crucial and closely linked to its essential gravity, with design elements thoroughly refined in order to maintain a sense of directness in its depictions. The show seems understated, but there is no denying the sophistication and thoughtfulness involved in creating its very specific aesthetic of earthiness and urgency. Musical Director Isaac Hayward is positioned downstage left providing accompaniment for the entire duration, orchestrating the way we feel in each scene and meticulously controlling atmosphere along with the very involved lighting design of Mark Howett. Stephen Curtis’ elegant set is a basic and unchanging one, so Howett’s lights are called upon to establish the play’s many transitions of time and space, which he manages with unassailable flair.

At its most extreme and idealistic, political theatre wishes to create uprisings and revolutions. It is arguable if any work had ever achieved that purpose, but what we can hope for, is for individuals to find inspiration, and for our culture to move towards something better, as a result of a collective awakening brought on by a show like The Secret River. When we sit in an auditorium and feel the same passions, we must realise the strength of our will and what it is capable of. We may not know what the next step should be, but the common trajectory of our feelings is undeniable, and we must hold on to the belief that justice, truth and democracy will eventually prevail.