Review: 1984 (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Jun 28 – Jul 22, 2017
Playwrights: Robert Icke, Duncan Macmillan (based on the George Orwell novel)
Directors: Robert Icke, Duncan Macmillan
Cast: Molly Barwick, Paul Blackwell, Tom Conroy, Terence Crawford, Coco Jack Gillies, Ursula Mills, Renato Musolino, Guy O’Grady, Yalin Ozucelik, Fiona Press
Image by Shane Reid

Theatre review
People often look back at calamitous histories, and are grateful that they had emerged unscathed. In Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s version of 1984, dystopia is not only an imagined future, but also a tragic past that its characters are happy to have left behind. When the worst is over, we think that life returns to a state of healthy normalcy. We choose to believe that those who had committed atrocities are wiped away, and all is good in the world again.

In our need to survive, memory has to become elastic. Self-preservation necessitates that we forget the painful, and in the case of 1984, forgive the unforgivable. Facts are erased, so that ideologies can dominate. The play portrays a simultaneous past and future, but its concern is firmly on the now. It believes in an essential sense of truth, along with the human tendency to obfuscate those truths, in order that power may be won and lost.

With obvious parallels with current political events, it is tempting to say that Orwell’s story is more pertinent today than ever before, but societies have never been pure. Certainly, technology does play an important part in how we control one another, but long before the discovery of electricity, men had sought to suppress thought and expression, with the sole intention of gaining influence and authority. Using lies as apparatus and methodology, devious personalities have risen to positions of leadership, while the rest of us are turned complicit, through acquiescence, obedience and silent surrender.

It is a sleek production, conceived and executed with an admirable sophistication. Orwell’s philosophical interests are powerfully presented, translated from book to stage effectively, though not always with great clarity. The protagonist Winston’s existence is a confused one, and on certain levels, we are accordingly, perhaps appropriately, bewildered. Its messages are unambiguous, however, with all of 1984‘s prominent themes and ideas, articulated emphatically, with conspicuous relevance and urgency.

Chloe Lamford’s scenic design transforms Orwell’s original futuristic outlook into a retrogressive frame of reference; after all, we are now looking at the world 33 years ago. Lights by Natasha Chivers and sound design by Tom Gibbons, play integral roles in the brutal depiction of ruthless tyranny. The assault on our senses is indeed severe, with aggressive noises and strobes unrelenting in trying to seize our nerves and inflict terror.

Actor Tom Conroy has the unenviable task of performing Wilson’s extended suffering, including a lengthy scene featuring quite gruesome physical torture. His work is painfully convincing, and the vulnerability he brings to the role, insists that we are affected by all his adversities. Terence Crawford turns up the drama as the frighteningly menacing O’Brien. His operatic approach to the enigmatic personality seduces us, keeps us on edge and captivated, as the play’s savagery escalates.

The deep pessimism of 1984 demands a strong response. It aims to provoke us into radical thought, if not radical action, with its revelations about a world ruled by evil. We think about governments, religions and corporations, the insidious ways in which they impact upon our lives, how they encroach upon our liberties, and the deficiencies of our resistance. Survival requires degrees of submission, but within any submission, the spirit of defiance can always be found, whether minuscule or vigorous, to spark a change that could pivot the course of history, one can only hope, for the better. |

Review: The Popular Mechanicals (Wharf 2 Theatre)

Venue: Wharf 2 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Apr 6 – May 13, 2017
Playwrights: Keith Robinson, William Shakespeare, Tony Taylor
Director: Sarah Giles
Cast: Lori Bell, Julie Forsyth, Charles Mayer, Amber McMahon, Tim Overton, Rory Walker
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
When embarking upon an artistic project, possibilities could be endless, but there is almost always a view to an end result. At the theatre, a show is eventually performed for an audience, after a period of rehearsal and creative exploration. The Rude Mechanicals are a group of amateur actors from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, remembered for their comical incompetence. In The Popular Mechanicals, they take centre stage as we watch them go through the anxious, and absurd, process of preparing for their evening of entertainment for the royals. It is a work that puts focus on what happens before opening night, giving validation to all the thrills and spills that inevitably happen, while reaching for the penultimate goal. We often say that nothing is wrong in art, and The Popular Mechanicals certainly places all of its trust on that belief.

The silliness inherited from Shakespeare’s vision of the troupe is fully embraced, for a joyful show that owes a lot to clowning traditions (complete with rubber chickens). The cast goes through sequences that range from pointless and frightfully cheesy, to moments of genius hilarity that will prove unforgettable. It is all deeply amusing, even though its inconsistency can be trying. Appropriately effervescent in approach, six quirky performers take us from one ridiculous scene to another, with mischievous charm and surprising nuance. Rory Walker and Tim Overton are especially memorable, not only for the repellent bodily functions they gleefully demonstrate, but also for an unusual air of ethereality they bring to the stage.

It is natural to want to present our best sides, but nothing is more human than our foibles and blunders. The point of art is that it reflects humanity, yet we so often expect it to be perfect, when humanity is clearly anything but. In its celebration of imperfection, The Popular Mechanicals grants an opportunity for artistic expression that seems more authentic, as a representation of our experience of life, which is almost always stranger than fiction, but incontestably true.

Review: The Events (Belvoir St Theatre)

belvoirstVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 12 – Jun 12, 2016
Playwright: David Greig
Director: Clare Watson
Cast: Johnny Carr, Catherine McClements, Pitt Street Singers, Wycliffe Singers
Image by Luke Cowling

Theatre review
There are probably no issues more pressing than those pertaining to immigration, terrorism and mass shootings. Trying to make sense of these realities has become an everyday fixation in many of our lives, and David Greig’s The Events is a timely and sensitive expression of those concerns. Claire is a priest and choir leader whose life and faith is shattered by a traumatic incident that transforms the complexion of all that she knows. Fractured and struggling to find coherence, Greg’s writing is a reflection of the protagonist’s state of being. The play is not an easy ride, but it provides valuable insight for all of us who are part of this contemporary and complicated discussion on nationhood and security.

The play’s structure lends itself to intrigue and tension, which director Clare Watson manufactures well, but its restrained emotional dimension prevents the show from creating the same resonances that we have come to expect when dealing with its themes. There is no shortage of television coverage on these matters, and they are almost without exception, full of cheap sentimentality and irrational fear, which The Events does not replicate, but what it delivers instead can feel underwhelming and uncomfortably tepid. Perhaps its intention is to guide viewership to a more cognitive response for its deliberations, which is a challenging task that it accomplishes at varying degrees.

Catherine McClements is impressive with the thorough authenticity she introduces to the stage, and the ease with which she is able to convey the magnitude and intricacy of Claire’s psychological condition. The aforementioned disinclination for melodrama is disappointing, but understandable. The actor tells the story well, and we learn all there is to know about her character and the circumstances, even if we are not engaged on a more emotive level. Johnny Carr plays a variety of roles opposite the leading lady, engrossing but not always distinct (probably a comment on Claire’s disillusionment with the world), with an energetic approach that we rely on for a propulsive sense of momentum.

Claire has the strength to move forward but she needs time. When disasters strike, we can try to forge ahead in blindness but the scars and stains they leave behind do not disappear without effort. In The Events, we are urged, in times of trouble, to humanise individuals when all our instincts want is for perpetrators of violence to become demonised. It is a story about forgiveness, the truth of its emancipatory effects and the difficulty of its embrace. The problems we face are hard, they may even be thought of as insurmountable, but life persists in spite of it all and we must negotiate its good and its evil the best we know how.

Review: Machu Picchu (Sydney Theatre Company / State Theatre Company Of South Australia)

STCVenue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Mar 3 – Apr 9, 2016
Playwright: Sue Smith
Director: Geordie Brookman
Cast: Elena Carapetis, Darren Gilshenan, Luke Joslin, Annabel Matheson, Lisa McCune, Renato Musolino
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
What we understand mid-life crises to be, seems relevant only to the privileged. Gabby and Paul are a middle class couple, both independently established and intelligent, reaching a point in time where their mortality suddenly comes into focus. Machu Picchu is about their reassessment of priorities and values, and although the threat of death is thankfully more than an abstract construct in Sue Smith’s play, the problems they face can often feel hyperbolic. Their struggles are honest, but also indulgent. Where others have had to just keep calm and carry on, Smith’s characters have the luxury of excessive rumination, which in turns disallows much drama or comedy to transpire. There are opportunities for philosophy, but those tend to be subsumed by domestic situations that prevent intriguing ideas from developing with satisfactory depth. Although emotionally distancing, the text has an enjoyable and innovative plot structure that reveals flair in the way its non-chronological timeline is formed. Scenes unfold unpredictably to keep us attentive, with surprising elements appearing at regular intervals for added variety.

We never quite warm to the characters in Machu Picchu. Director Geordie Brookman maintains an understated tone to proceedings, which gives an air of sophistication but also detracts from the story’s gravity. Gabby and Paul’s catastrophic state is comprehensible, but only intellectually so. The fears and trauma that they experience do not connect beyond the cerebral, and the work’s inability to encourage greater empathy gives the impression that its concerns are probably less meaningful than it wishes to be. Dramatic tension never becomes taut enough for us to feel strongly about the characters’ woes, and themes surrounding relationships and ageing, although earnestly portrayed, are not presented with sufficient ingenuity. The only people who are surprised by the effects of time seem to be on stage, and they add little to our own understanding of those ravages.

Lisa McCune’s performance as Gabby is focused and intense. There are many moments of authenticity in her depictions of disappointment, frustration and anguish, and her energetic approach helps sustain interest in her narrative, which can at times be lacklustre. The role of Paul is tackled by Darren Gilshenan who introduces an instinctive levity to the production. Gilshenan is a charming actor with tongue always firmly in cheek, but who proves capable of more serious material with this character’s adversity. It is not an entirely convincing coupling of actors, but the pair finds good rhythm with dialogue and together create imagery evocative of a bourgeois Australian identity that many will find familiar.

Clichés persist for their truth. Life is about the journey, not the destination. The Machu Picchu in Peru represents an ideal that exists in Gabby and Paul’s imagination, a place they have never experienced but that they believe to be special. In our lives, we often long for what we have yet to encounter, thinking that salvation lies therein. It is human to dream, but how much of dreams we allow to interfere with reality, is deeply personal, and determines the shape of each individual’s existence. It is ultimately inconsequential whether the protagonists get themselves to the location of their aspirations. What they are able to create and discover in their time before that fateful day is of great value, if they choose to recognise it as such. |

Review: Mortido (Belvoir St Theatre)

belvoirVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Nov 7 – Dec 23, 2015
Playwright: Angela Betzien
Director: Leticia Cáceres
Cast: Toby Challenor, Tom Conroy, Colin Friels, Louisa Mignone, Renato Musolino, David Valencia
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
At the centre of Angela Betzien’s Mortido, is a wretched life. Jimmy is a soft and kind soul, misguided by family and exploited by every person he trusts. Emerging into adulthood from a background of poverty and addiction, the only barometer he possesses for a better life is a need for acceptance, along with our definitive measure of success, money. Without the support of anyone who has Jimmy’s own interests at heart, and with no education to speak of, his fate is sealed, and doomed. The story is a dark one about the underbelly of Sydney, and how our affluence is built upon the perpetuation of an underclass, kept aspirational and concurrently ignorant.

Betzien’s script is highly ambitious and vast in scope. It encompasses themes of family, money and addiction, set against historical contexts, to explore attitudes and machinations of our current sociopolitical environment. The play looks at our problems with narcotics and poverty from micro and macro perspectives, refusing to diminish their complex enormity for convenient storytelling. What results is a piece of writing that is detailed and intricate, but also challenging, for audiences and theatre makers alike.

Director Leticia Cáceres does well at providing the production with tension and intrigue, but the plot’s clarity suffers from that tautness of pace. In its second half especially, too much is revealed too quickly, and our minds struggle to process every poignancy. Each revelation is an important one that contributes, not only to our appreciation of each character’s circumstances, but also to our understanding of the real world. Many of the story’s elements will resonate deeply if given the chance, but the show seems to rush quickly past and we are left wondering if we had learned everything that is worth knowing.

Nevertheless, Mortido is gripping, and very exciting, with each scene holding surprises, frequently overwhelming with its keen portrayal of brutality, both physical and psychological. Composer The Sweats and Sound Designer Nate Edmondson do exceptional work with their manipulations of atmosphere. The production relies heavily on its sounds to control our responses, and the precision at which it guides our emotions through every sequence and transition is remarkable. A disappointing contrast does occasionally occur however, when it takes a back seat, leaving the actors to their own devices, and we begin to feel the emptiness of space.

There is plenty of impressive acting to be found, including the very young but very compelling Toby Challenor, whose immovable focus on each task in every appearance, belies his tender age. Colin Friels plays several disparate characters, displaying a good level of versatility and enthusiasm, but is probably most effective as Detective Grubbe and El Carnicero. The star’s presence is undeniable and the intensity he brings to the stage has an effortless drama that is absolutely captivating. The central character Jimmy is performed by Tom Conroy with a faultless vulnerability. For all of Jimmy’s regrettable mistakes, we are always on his side, hurting for his every adversity and hoping that a twist of fate appears. Conroy excels in the role, successfully depicting Jimmy’s personal difficulties as well as the social connotations of a problematic life. We understand the responsibilities that are due young people like Jimmy, and realise how we have failed those who share his disadvantage. Also noteworthy is David Valencia as the enigmatic Spanish-speaking El Gallito, memorable for his simultaneous delivery of danger and ethereality, and an aggressive sex appeal that electrifies the stage.

The title of the work refers to our human tendencies toward self-destruction. It is a discussion about weakness, and along with that, we encounter ideas surrounding ethics, responsibility and social harmony. Mortido is a cautionary tale about the seduction of death, and the perils involved when allowing lives to be less than honourable. It confronts the inequity that exists in our wealthy cities, and our complicity in maintaining that damaging status quo. We can always identify good from bad, but we do not always make the right decisions.

Review: Kryptonite (Sydney Theatre Company)

sydneytheatrecoVenue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Sep 11 – Oct 18, 2014
Playwright: Sue Smith
Director: Geordie Brookman
Cast: Ursula Mills, Tim Walter
Image by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
Through an international love story, Sue Smith’s Kryptonite examines the relationship between the personal realm and our wider circumstances. When Lian first met Dylan at an Australian University in pre-Tiananmen 1989, she was a new immigrant from China and Dylan had looked every bit the quintessential middle class Australian preoccupied with surfing and student protests. Over the years, Lian returns to Dylan for a series of brief but dramatic encounters, and by 2014, they are almost entirely different people, and we question if the countries from which they emerge, have evolved correspondingly, into virtually unrecognisable entities.

Freedom, idealism and innocence are put through the wringer in Smith’s play, in which we witness the ravages of time on the beauty of youth. Growing old is a tragedy, but not because of the inevitable deterioration of flesh. It is what happens to the heart and soul as time wears on, not just for each person, but also for the worlds in which we dwell. We cannot travel back in time, and our nations will never revert to a purer state. Indeed, the past is painted as though through rose-coloured glasses, but it is a persuasive picture that Smith creates. In Kryptonite, the loss of our innocence is certain, and sad. Smith’s work is emotional and powerful, with a perspective of our recent histories that feels accurate and is deeply perceptive.

The character Lian is particularly well-written, with an authenticity in speech and sense of humour that is quite outstanding. Performed by the brilliantly astute Ursula Mills, the role becomes thoroughly familiar, even though realistic Chinese women are rarely seen on our stages. She is surprisingly funny, and her motivations in each sequence are concise, keeping us engaged with her storytelling in a plot that can be a little convoluted at times. Mills is required to speak and sing in Chinese languages over the course of the show, but proficiency is lacking although her conviction remains strong. There is an oversimplification in some of Lian’s darker moments, but the actor never fails to bring a delicious fire to the drama when required. Also captivating is Tim Walter who is yin to Mills’ yang. Chemistry between the two are not quite exceptional, but they find a harmonious balance that brings great elucidation to the play’s themes and concepts. Walter’s work is thoughtful and confident, but the lightness in his presence, while delightful for the younger Dylan, is a hindrance in several of his graver moments. His depiction of a jaded politician in his late forties is not entirely convincing, but as a young man confused and enchanted by the object of his affections, Walter is charmingly captivating.

Geordie Brookman’s direction retains the challenging nature of the plot’s non-chronological timeline, but provides a good sense of clarity to the narrative. He succeeds in manufacturing a believable romance out of a complex framework of dramatic shifts in time and spaces, but some of the script’s political details are subsumed by his emphasis on pace and rhythms. The show is an enjoyable one. Its scenes are dynamic and unpredictable, always introducing fresh elements to ensure a gripping experience. Design aspects are not greatly ambitious, but they help tell the story with efficiency and elegance.

Kryptonite talks about how we have changed as nations of people, but its views of China are more exacting than how it sees its own country. The Australian play shows the evolution of a foreign land through its distinct junctures of transformation, but it is less brutal with its self-reflection. Yet again, we find meaning through the definition of an other, but this time, we move focus from our perverse European obsession to a place closer to home. China is a significant trading partner, with an astronomical rise in recent times that sees its influence spread across the world, not only in monetary terms, but also cultural and social. The first officially recorded Chinese migrant arrived in 1818 and today, Australians with Asian heritage number at 2.4 million. While we still seem to avoid it like a comic hero avoids a mythical adversary, the importance of finding a way to articulate that experience and relationship is impossible to overstate.

Vere (Faith) (Sydney Theatre Company)

Photo by Matt NettheimVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Nov 6 – Dec 7, 2013
Playwright: John Doyle
Director: Sarah Goodes
Actors: Paul Blackwell, Matilda Bailey, Matthew Gregan, Ksenja Logos, Rebecca Massey, Geoff Morrell, Yalin Ozucelik

Theatre review
This is a story about a highly regarded physicist, Vere, who falls victim to Parkinson’s disease. Vere has built a life based on science and intellect, but is now faced with the cruel obliteration of his mental capacities by dementia. John Doyle’s play explores the remains of a life, as its subject goes through a metamorphosis so exhaustive and fundamental. In Vere’s disintegration, we see the curious way in which memory functions, and from it, we gain an appreciation of what is immortal and invaluable. Themes of love, relationships, religion, work, mortality, and the transience of life itself, are meaningfully woven along with humour and pathos to create a show that is simultaneously entertaining and profound.

The first half is set in a university before Vere’s disorder takes effect, and the second, at his home when it is in full swing. The show speaks at first to our minds, with exuberant and witty repartee among cerebral academics, then to our hearts, as family dynamics come into play with decidedly greater sentimentality. It is as though Vere’s illness can wipe out the contents and function of the brain, but the soul is unbreakable and eternal. Director Sarah Goode’s work is quiet, and not particularly showy, but her hand is a confident one. She understands the strengths of the script, and ensures those strengths shine through with minimal intrusion.

Design elements are excellent, if a little conservative. The production is demanding of the actors, who (aside from the lead) each play two sets of characters, and they rise to the challenge beautifully. Geoff Morrell’s flamboyant style ensures that his characters are memorable, and his vivacity is a welcome addition to any event. Rebecca Massey portrays an unintelligent character with brilliant irony and meticulous timing. She delivers many laughs with a camp sensibility but is careful to retain a level of realism and believability.

Paul Blackwell’s performance is sublime. His presence is remarkable and the audience falls for his Vere from the very first words. He fascinates us, and we are completely enthralled, like putty in his hands. Blackwell’s biggest success is the ability to elicit great empathy while depicting a very sick man with utmost dignity. Through him, we see the humour in our fragility, but that frailty he depicts is also deeply touching. Blackwell, and Vere, guide us through a poignant meditation on growing old, on lost love, and on death, and we conclude at a place that is, surprisingly, not very frightening at all.