5 Questions with Tessa James and Alex Packard

Tessa James

Alex Packard: The character you play in Blackrock, Rachel, has been accepted to study at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry – what animal form would her Patronus Charm be?
Tessa James: Cheetah.

Looking at Blackrock, what has been your favourite part of the process so far?
Being able to explore the text for such a long period of time, to be able to constantly challenge myself whilst discovering my character Rachel and being inspire by the cast.

We see a lot of the characters in Blackrock trying to suppress or ignore certain memories… What is your earliest memory you can recall?
Performing in front of my family in the lounge room and making them pay 20c for a performance 🙂

You’ve got one song stuck in your head, all day, everyday, for the rest of your life. What song do you choose?
Summer of 69 by Bryan Adams at the moment.

You’re walking alone through a forest at night, what are you most afraid of: ghosts, monsters or aliens?
Aliens… definitely.

Alex Packard

Tessa James: If you could work with any actor and director, who would it be?
Alex Packard: I really like the work that Scott Graham does with his theatre company, Frantic Assembly. It’s always very clever and imaginative, the kind of stuff that makes you say under your breath “wish I had thought of that” – it would be a delight to be directed by him. As for an actor, I could sneeze in the same postcode as Mark Rylance and die happy, so I choose him.

What are you most afraid of?
I’d like to answer with something profound, like ‘fear itself’, but I’m going to have to go with: getting into trouble. I’m not very good at handling it. I was one of those kids who would crumble at the thought of getting caught out by a teacher. Even now that I am (ahem) all grown up I still recognise it in myself – the other day there was a patch of fresh-looking concrete out the front of my house and I impulsively bent down to touch it to see if it was wet and got yelled at by a tradie watching over it (fair enough, I was about to mess with her construction). It took me the better part of an hour to get over the shame of being caught out.

If Beyonce offered to do a private dance class with you – which song would you choose (of hers) to dance to?
Last time I had a private dance class with Beyonce she said that I didn’t really need any more classes – she had “taught me all she knows”. But, ah… lets be honest, I would butcher any of her songs. So lets go with Single Ladies, cause I know that at the very least I am capable of flipping my left hand around.

If you could invite any 5 people, dead or alive, to a dinner party who would those 5 people be?
You mean aside from the wonderful cast and crew of Blackrock, right?? Ah, I’m generally more of an observer than a contributor when it comes to conversations involving more than a few people, so I’m going to cut it down to three: I’d go with William Shakespeare, Cormac McCarthy and Sharon Jones.

What is your least favourite word?
whiteboWhatever is the first word spoken on the radio when my alarm goes off in the morning. Hate that word.

Tessa James and Alex Packard can be seen in Blackrock by Nick Enright.
Dates: 9 – 25 Mar, 2017
Venue: Seymour Centre

Review: The Trouble With Harry (Siren Theatre Co)

sirentheatrecoVenue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Feb 16 – Mar 3, 2017
Playwright: Lachlan Philpott
Director: Kate Gaul
Cast: Thomas Campbell, Bobbie-Jean Henning, Jodie Le Vesconte, Niki Owen, Jane Phegan, Jonas Thomson
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
In there somewhere, is a true story. Harry Crawford was a transgender man who lived in Sydney a century ago, and when he fell foul of the law, was forced to present as female in public. Stories of the oppressed are systematically sublimated by dominant forces that demand not just acquiescence in behaviour, but also censorship of histories. Lachlan Philpott’s The Trouble With Harry goes in search of a fascinating figure from our cultural past, to create a new collective memory that is as significant to our lives today as it should have been yesterday.

It is a modern piece of writing on the subject. We are still focused on the persisting struggles of trans people, but Philpott does not put us through the exasperating process of “understanding why”. The trans person is not required to defend his position, or explain his existence, and this is radical. We only see the persecution and injustices that befall Harry, and that is more than enough for our protagonist to connect with his audience’s humanity.

The sophistication of the script is reflected in the production’s look and sound, with an exceedingly elegant team of designers bringing to the space, a serene beauty that evokes an appropriate grandness of emotion and meaning, so as to correspond to Harry’s extraordinary experiences. Matt Cox’s work on lights is particularly laudable, for an unmistakable quality of transcendence that permeates the show.

The same sophistication is missing however, in the casting of a female actor as the leading man. One could easily imagine Harry turning in his grave at the very idea. The play’s structure too is damaged by the cat being let out of the bag, far too early in the plot. We need to see what Harry’s neighbours see, in order that the cruelty and absurdity of his troubles can be revealed with greater poignancy, and accuracy. (More on this “theatrical misgendering” of trans characters in my piece last year on Belvoir’s Back At The Dojo.)

Nonetheless, performances are uniformly accomplished in The Trouble With Harry. Jodie Le Vesconte is a soulful Harry, convincingly strong and silent, with an impressive sense of depth to his inarticulate suffering. A mesmerising couple, with Jane Phegan as his Annie, their mutual affection feels completely genuine, and a crucial point of success for the production. Director Kate Gaul’s confident, understated approach gives us a very smart show, with a lot of integrity injected into her depiction of one of society’s most misunderstood. There is a real beauty in Gaul’s theatricality, but dramatic tension for the piece is inconsistent and occasionally underwhelming. We want the tragedy to play out in a more predictable way, but the staging resists that convention and its associated clichés.

There is a delicate balance in our society that involves the constant negotiation between cohesion and individuality. We want to feel safe in our communities, so we are compelled to make endless assumptions about our neighbours, and how much they are just like us. We want other people to conform, because if we are to follow the rules unquestionably, we will ensure that others must do the same. Gender, it can be argued, is nothing but a long list of requirements made of us that contain virtually no inherent logic. Harry was a man with a quirk, and a man with no quirks, is no human at all.


Review: The Screwtape Letters (Clock & Spiel Productions)

clockspielVenue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Nov 22 – Dec 10, 2016
Playwright: C.S. Lewis (adapted by Hailey McQueen)
Director: Hailey McQueen
Cast: Yannick Lawry, George Zhao
Image by John Leung

Theatre review
Based on the novel by C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters follows the correspondences of senior demon, Screwtape, as he mentors his nephew Wormwood, who is learning the ropes of the devil’s business from his evil uncle. There is a “patient” in question, a case study if you will, and the heat is on, to lead him to temptation, and away from God. Contrary to popular belief that immorality is easy, the troublemakers have a difficult time, and we are challenged by notions of good and evil as they relate to our impulses and tendencies.

Having been adapted directly from Lewis’ writing, the play demonstrates that the efficacy of words is reliant on the context within which they are presented. At the theatre, we are not able to glance back at previous sentences, or look away to let meanings merge with imagination at a pace of the reader’s choosing. Words that had been designed for one purpose, might not necessarily translate conveniently for another, and in The Screwtape Letters, the challenge of adapting a novel for the stage, is bravely taken on by Hailey McQueen who also doubles as director. Although unable to repurpose the text entirely satisfactorily, McQueen delivers a charming show that holds appeal for those of us with a wicked streak .

It is a beautifully designed production, with Isabella Andronos’ set and costumes providing appropriate sharpness of style to Screwtape’s world of decadent luxury. Chris Page’s elegant lighting helps us move through scene transitions effectively, and his careful calibration of mood changes keeps us visually fascinated. Music and sound design by Adam Jones is very impressive. Much of how the audience responds and what it feels for The Screwtape Letters is controlled by Jones, who significantly elevates this theatrical experience with admirable precision and creativity. Actors Yannick Lawry and George Zhao are a well-rehearsed duo that puts on a presentation with professional polish. Zhao’s comic physical inventiveness is especially memorable. The two men are warm, likeable personalities, but we wish to see something much darker and menacing. We want the fiction to take us to a place unthinkably taboo, somewhere so close to hell that we can only react with the extremities of either being frightened away or helplessly seduced in, but Screwtape seems too much of a gentleman to afford us that pleasure.


5 Questions with Yannick Lawry and George Zhao

Yannick Lawry

Yannick Lawry

George Zhao: Sum up the character of Screwtape in 5 words or less.
Yannick Lawry: Mad, bad, dangerous to know…

CS Lewis doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to saying what he believes about the world. Playing the character of Screwtape, what is the most confronting thing you say in your personal opinion?
I think one idea Lewis presents is that we, as human beings, are not the ones in ultimate control or our circumstances. That’s massively confronting to many of us (me included!) One line that makes me think every time I utter it is when Screwtape talks about a ‘patient’ he recently captured by distracting him all the time and the patient’s words as he arrive in Screwtape’s kingdom are: “I now see that I spent most of my life doing neither what I ought nor what I liked”. A line that often comes into my head when I’m mindlessly flicking through the news feed on my phone..

You have about 75 mins of dialogue to learn for this show. How on earth did you manage that?
Um.. well, I don’t mind the sound of my own voice so I record each letter and listen to it back again and again until it sticks. Fortunately, Lewis’s train of thoughts and arguments follow nice, logical lines so they’re easy to map out and don’t take too long to sink in!

You’ve done a heap of theatre in London and Sydney but if you could replay any of your past performances which one would it be?
One of the first roles I played in London was Hamlet. He’s such an existentially-challenged brat; but I love the journey he goes on and the range he gives an actor to play in. Being in my late-30s, I probably need to get onto it quickly if I want to give him another shot!

It’s my round, what are you drinking?
If it’s cocktail hour and your budget will stretch to it, a Negroni. Otherwise a VB is just fine, thanks!

George Zhao

George Zhao

Yannick Lawry: Sum up your show, The Screwtape Letters, for us in 5 words or less!
George Zhao: Who’s pulling the strings, then?

What are the habits of a successful actor in your opinion?
Good question! In my humble opinion, they are:
– Knowing what success means to you personally and striving to achieve it.
– Constantly improving on your skill sets and on yourself.
– Allowing yourself time to rest .
– Most importantly, you need to genuinely love to those around you. I really can’t stress enough how much of an impact that has on people!

In The Screwtape Letters, you play a demon and the human “patient” – how do you separate out the two characters when playing them so close together?
I like to flow into the characters via physicality, once i move into the character a certain way, the voice, objectives and history of that character follow.

So, you recently filmed the second season of the awesome SBS series The Family Law – any gems from behind the scenes that you can share with us?
I’m actually still in the process of filming it while I write this! I’ve been incredibly blessed to work with all the people on this production, they are all incredibly loving and willing to help those around them without a second thought, and the catering is AMAZING! As the cast, we have this set of dances which are hilarious when we all do them together. I started a dance in front of the camera during a break in the scene last week, being silly and whatnot, and as I turned around i saw that the *entire* family were behind me doing the dance as well. I’m really hoping the camera was rolling, would be hilarious to watch that back!

You’re touring this show to Melbourne and Canberra after Sydney – where (and why!) are your favourite hangouts in those cities?
Can you believe, I’ve never ever been to Melbourne. So I’m open to suggestions! And the last time I was in Canberra was when I was a kid. So this tour will be significant for me in a whole bunch of ways.

Yannick Lawry and George Zhao will be appearing in The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.
Dates: 22 Nov – 10 Dec, 2016
Venue: Seymour Centre

Review: Next Fall (Seymour Centre)

boyslikemeVenue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Oct 26 – Nov 19, 2016
Playwright: Geoffrey Nauffts
Director: Andy Leonard
Cast: Cormac Costello, Mark Dessaix, Alex Ewan, Victoria Greiner, Mary Anne Halpin, Darrin Redgate

Theatre review
Luke is a gay man who believes in God and all that his church teaches. The contradictions that exist between his religion and his sex life are complex, but Luke is able to create enough justification for himself to negotiate and tolerate those intense personal discords. When he falls in love with the agnostic Adam, things become destabilised and the couple has to confront not only their spiritual incompatibility, but also the problem of Luke’s refusal to come out to his parents.

Geoffrey Nauffts’ Next Fall is a romantic tragicomedy that deals with the issue of familial and internal oppression that can often figure in unconventional or non-traditional relationships. In Luke’s case, it is about the homophobia he endures from his family, as well as his own internalised hatred that come into focus, and we observe that the ones who suffer the most, are the lovebirds themselves, while Luke’s church and parents are blissfully oblivious to the damage they cause.

The writing is charming, with excellent comedy and an honest melancholy intermingling for a play that takes aim directly, at the heart. It is surprisingly old fashioned, with little that would prevent it from being re-contextualised from 2009 to, say, 1978, revealing that while thoroughly enjoyable, the work offers nothing that has not already been said many times before. Society’s snail-paced advancement for queer movements around the world is truly disappointing.

Andy Leonard proves himself to be an earnest director, whose straightforward approach tells the story with clarity and an effective sentimentality. Actors in the piece are similarly impassioned. Alex Ewan’s naturalistic style provides Luke with a convincing innocence that helps us make sense of his predicament. Adam is played by Darrin Redgate who entertains with effective comedy and authentic emotions. Mary Anne Halpin and Cormac Costello, as Luke’s flamboyant parents, are probably the most impressive of the cast. Both are theatrical yet warm with their presence, executing precise and nuanced interpretations of their parts that give the show an excellent sense of texture and credibility.

People like us, in places that are free and rich, must take responsibility for our own happiness. Luke thinks that he is answerable to a higher power, but what the facts disclose, is that the only one who jeopardises his relationship with Adam, is himself. Of course, this is a glaring reality that everyone but Luke is able to see, and what the play indicates, is that each of us has individual crosses to bear that are not unlike those on stage. We can tell the characters in the show, with no difficulty at all, what their lives would have needed, but when it comes to our own existences, nothing is quite as simple.


Review: Antigone (Sport For Jove Theatre)

sportforjoveVenue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Oct 6 – 22, 2016
Playwright: Sophocles (adapted by Damien Ryan)
Directors: Terry Karabelas, Damien Ryan
Cast: Andrea Demetriades, Anna Volska, Deborah Galanos, Elijah Williams, Fiona Press, Janine Watson, Joseph Del Re, Louisa Mignone, Marie Kamara, Thomas Royce-Hampton, William Zappa
Image by Marnya Rothe

Theatre review
In Damien Ryan’s adaptation of Antigone, a single word ‘terrorism’ leads the charge in transforming the ancient text into a story for our times. Language and its accompanying sensibilities are disarmingly modern in the suddenly new play, and we are compelled to engage with its ideas in a thoroughly contemporary manner. It makes us think about the inconvenient evolution of democracy in the age of social media, and the frightening consequences of vacuous personalities running for office. We confront the demonisation and scapegoating of people who have been turned into the public enemy du jour, and examine the eternal dilemma of making sacrifices for the greater good. Almost like a time capsule of culture as it stands, with many of today’s concerns contained in a tale from ages past.

The production encourages our minds to build associations between the unfolding story with our immediate realities, delivering resonances that can feel disparate and divergent, but direction of the work (by Ryan and Terry Karabelas) maintains a dramatic focus with its emphasis on characters and atmosphere. The use of percussive instruments provide tremendous manipulation to mood, and to meaning; Thomas Royce-Hampton’s ability to create just the right sounds at every crucial moment of tension is one of the show’s strokes of genius. The chorus is effectively utilised to steer our moral compasses, along with our emotions, for a theatrical experience that captivates our senses and intellect. It must be noted that there is an elegance and often very delightful approach to the chorus’ stylistic work that brings surprising texture to the show. Visual design is beautifully considered and confidently executed, with Matt Cox’s lights and Melanie Liertz’s set, impressive from the very start.

It is an appealing cast, fortified by excellent chemistry and timing, exuberantly alive for the entire duration. Andrea Demetriades is an earthy Antigone, restrained and almost minimalist in performance style, but consistently believable. More could be made of her crises, that will allow the actor greater space to showcase her abilities, and for us to feel closer to the plight of Thebes’ people. Courage, determination and strength of will are Antigone’s dominant qualities, but they are often left offstage. We witness the aftermath of her heroic deeds, but not the very moments of bravery that are central to how we know her to be. When Antigone defies the demands of community and the state’s decree, she is moved by conscience and love. Through her actions, we arrive at an absolute truth, discovering something fundamental to human experience. She urges us to persist with what we know to be right, and her tender age teaches us to be suspicious of grown-up notions of shades of grey. How a person chooses to live in the real world, becomes that person’s own reality. Antigone is dead at 15, but her life held only pure and good.


Review: Letters To Lindy (Seymour Centre)

merrigongVenue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Sep 2 – 10, 2016
Playwright: Alana Valentine
Director: Darren Yap
Cast: Jeanette Cronin, Glenn Hazeldine, Phillip Hinton, Jane Phegan
Image by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
There was always something impenetrable about Lindy Chamberlain. Without performing appropriately the role of a distraught mother losing her child, many Australians found her coolness disarming. Alana Valentine’s Letters To Lindy too, does not reveal enough of the protagonist’s inner world. A substantial portion of the show is absorbed in recounting events that are already familiar, and although it does provide glimpses into Chamberlain’s deeper thoughts, the play’s structure although earnest, does not quite deliver a poignancy that lives up to its central, harrowing incident. The mother retains a sense of detachment from her public, and we once again struggle to connect.

Jeanette Cronin is star of the show, impressively dynamic in her approach, with surprising interpretations that prevent Chamberlain’s story from turning cliché. Director Darren Yap pitches the performance at a level suitable to the vast auditorium, encouraging actors to bring a vigour to the stage that keeps us attentive. Of the supporting cast, Glenn Hazeldine is particularly charming in a wide ranging suite of personalities, colourfully portraying each character with a delightful, and thoughtful, sensitivity.

We have no right to demand that Lindy Chamberlain acts out a part to fit a narrative that pleases us. In fact, she is to be commended for going against the grain of stereotype, especially in this new era of pervasive and obsessive media scrutiny, to insist on presenting a face of authenticity. As a theatrical work however, Letters To Lindy needs to fulfil our need for something more engaging, and more moving, in its drama.

The cruelty that societies are so ready to dispense on individuals, especially those in the public eye, have to be kept in check, yet we keep creating opportunities for those injustices to be amplified. It seems our need to witch hunt does not cease, even when we already know better.