Review: The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia? (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Mar 2 – Apr 1, 2023
Playwright: Edward Albee
Director: Mitchell Butel
Cast: Yazeed Daher, Claudia Karvan, Nathan Page, Mark Saturno
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Martin is obsessed with a goat; the attraction may very well be romantic, but when he tells his wife Stevie about the affair, Martin leaves no room for doubt about the sexual nature of his indiscretions. The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? is Edward Albee’s comedic masterpiece from 2000, notable for a conceit that most would choose to think of as absurd, for to take the play at face value, is unquestionably a real affront to our middle-class sensibilities.

Director Mitchell Butel toys with those precarious boundaries, by injecting a thorough realism into the staging, so that we laugh not only at the preposterous goings on, but also at the deeply uncomfortable disruptions to the bourgeoisie, that Albee so gleefully manufactures. Butel’s ability to make everything believable, gives the show a dangerous edge, so that for 100 minutes, the stakes feel incredibly high, even as the humour of the work makes its presence unmistakably known.

Actor Nathan Page is an astonishing Martin, bringing a hugely surprising measure of emotional truth, to this deliciously ridiculous tale. His expressions of devastation are not to earn our compassion, but to give depth of meaning to our experience of the show, as we laugh heartily at the catastrophe as it develops, with increasing peculiarity. Page’s unexpected fluctuations in tone and intensity, reflect a creative and courageous approach, that proves a perfect match for the play’s subversive humour.

Stevie is played by Claudia Karvan, who indulges in finding for her storytelling, all the authenticity that would make the audience perceive, the intricacies of a marriage in a state of shock. The ebullient Yazeed Daher charms as the couple’s son Billy (pun intended, one would suppose), and Mark Saturno calms our nerves as the normie of the piece, providing a more conventional response to the whole goat affair, although not without substantial hilarity through his excellent comic timing.

The production is a smart looking one, with Jeremy Allen’s set and Ailsa Paterson’s costumes delivering everything that is visually pleasant, of affluent, restrained whiteness. Lights by Nigel Levings, along with sound and music by Andrew Howard, are appropriately minimal in their enhancements of a play, that needs little aesthetic embellishment.

Things can always change in an unforeseen moment. We have learned from the moment of birth, that life has a way of dispensing upon us, one interruption after another, yet we keep on insisting on searching for stability, normalcy and calm. Martin and Stevie bolster their lives with all the comfort and certainty, that wealth seems to guarantee, but we are reminded that things will always descend, upon that which seems the most harmonious and indefectible, as though with the sole intention of wreaking havoc. To exist, is to be rendered defenceless, try as we may, to subsist in the delusion, that we can reach for something like nirvana, on this endlessly farcical plane. |

Review: Girls & Boys (Seymour Centre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Jan 5 – 15, 2023
Playwright: Dennis Kelly
Director: Mitchell Butel
Cast: Justine Clarke
Images by Sam Roberts

Theatre review

The play is at first incredibly banal, with a woman beginning to tell her life story, with no hint of how her experiences may be of any significance or consequence, to anyone but herself. For almost an hour, the unnamed character in Dennis Kelly’s Girls & Boys tries to beguile her audience with mildly amusing tales of love, family and career, only to come across strangely oblivious to the increasingly ordinariness of what she is sharing. A bombshell is dropped however, in the middle of the show, and everything changes drastically.

Kelly’s writing does not begin at the point of trauma, choosing instead to take an inordinate length of time to set the stage, in order to convey a sense of everyday mundanity, before unleashing its drama of catastrophic proportions. It is arguable if the phenomenon of normative domesticity requires such intricate definition, but there is no questioning the theatrical efficacy of the tension and agony that subsequently surfaces. Girls & Boys takes a while to get to its point, but what it wishes to say about gender is certainly valuable.

Mitchell Butel’s direction of the piece is unremittingly sensitive, able to create resonance in every moment, whether they be simple or vivid. For almost two hours, our attention is held entirely captive, even when nothing particularly substantial seems to be happening. Set design by Ailsa Paterson is colourful and curvaceous, helpful in keeping our eyes animated and engaged. Lights by Nigel Levings and sound by Andrew Howard, are elegantly, and sparingly, utilised to manipulate atmosphere, for a show that speaks in nuance.

Performer Justine Clarke is flawless in this one-woman show, so impressively enamouring with her talent, dedication and skill, that we almost disregard the big messages of the show itself. Clarke’s work is thorough and deep, yet it never feels laboured, and along with an exceptional charm, we find ourselves completely absorbed, in everything she wishes to impart.

What Girls & Boys says about gender, is worth repeating, and has certainly been said time and time again. The woman in the play, would have heard those messages of admonishment many times, before encountering the devastating events that will eventually shape her entire life. We can tell each other everything about these profound truths, yet it seems it is in our nature, to only learn from first-hand experience, these hardest lessons of life. |

Review: Chalkface (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Sep 15 – Oct 29, 2022
Playwright: Angela Betzien
Director: Jessica Arthur
Cast: Ezra Juanta, Catherine McClements, Michelle Ny, Nathan O’Keefe, Susan Prior, Stephanie Somerville
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Pat has been teaching for far too long, at West Vale Primary, a government school severely deprived of resources. Everything seems to be falling apart, not least of all its teaching staff. Pat’s palpable cynicism stands in stark contrast, against newcomer Anna, who turns up first day of term, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, to join the decidedly jaded team. In Angela Betzien’s Chalkface, we look at the public education system, and the people who do all the heavy lifting to keep it running.

Betzien’s keen observations are presented with cutting humour, for a work that delivers many laughs, based on our own refusal to do better for so many teachers and children. It is satisfying satire that inspires debates on our values, especially as they relate to resource allocation, thereby interrogating our priorities as a nation. Direction by Jessica Arthur leans on the writing’s acerbic qualities, for a production that appeals with its gentle irreverence. The comedy manifests in a style of theatricality that is unquestionably bold and mischievous, but the show is ultimately, and unsurprisingly, highly respectful of the teaching profession.

Chalkface features six characters, all of whom are made endearing by Arthur’s thoughtful approach to the depiction of humanity, in the midst of a lot of amusing hullabaloo. Actor Catherine McClements is wonderfully entertaining as the astringent Pat, turning middle-aged grumpiness into something altogether more playful and charming. Her portrayal of the burnt out civil servant drives home a salient point, about our failure to take care of those, who do some of our most important and hard work. Stephanie Somerville does an admirable job, of preventing the idealistic young woman from ever becoming nauseating, with an understated sassiness and confidence, that makes Anna a persuasive presence.

Ezra Juanta and Susan Prior deliver a couple of madcap performances, as Steve and Denise respectively, both with exaggerated eccentricities that enrichen and enliven the storytelling. Similarly outlandish are Michelle Ny and Nathan O’Keefe, who play the slightly villainous members of administrative staff Cheryl and Douglas, bringing unyielding flamboyancy to a relentlessly exuberant presentation.

Ailsa Paterson’s set and costume designs offer appropriately comedic renderings of that scrappy world, with an unmistakable sense of disintegration, for the staff room and for the people who occupy it. Lights by Mark Shelton, and music by Jessica Dunn are utilised most vivaciously between scene changes, taking the opportunity to further uplift our spirits.

It goes without saying, that we should always strive to do better for our children. It is incredible however, to witness the extent to which some are willing to sacrifice, in the belief of doing what is right for future generations. There is nothing at all controversial, in saying that our teachers are the bedrock of society, but to suggest that those who contribute the most within our education system, should receive commensurate remuneration, seems to be eternally contentious. |

Review: Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (State Theatre Company South Australia)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jan 13 – 23, 2022
Playwright: Edward Albee
Director: Margaret Harvey
Cast: Jimi Bani, Rashidi Edward, Juanita Navas-Nguyen, Susan Prior
Images by Yaya Stempler

Theatre review
Martha and George are always fighting. The perpetuality of their battles seems to point to a certain masochism that resides at the centre of their marriage, and we discover that perhaps their endless struggle for power, forms the very foundation of their life together. As viewers on the sidelines, we gladly ride that momentum of conflict, knowing that things simply will never get better for the couple, in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Set in the world of academia, in the New England region of the USA, Albee’s discussions about power, pertain to a kind that is particularly white. Director Margaret Harvey’s decision to cast Black men in the roles of the duelling academics George and Nick, brings greater focus to the whiteness that is being interrogated. The futility of these two men trying to climb the social and professional ladders, within a system built upon the exclusion of people like them, are made mournfully clear by the darkness of their skin.

Although never lacking in energy, the production suffers from a shortage of precision, in the way Albee’s often rambling dialogue is presented. The writing’s abstract qualities has a tendency to become overly ambiguous on this stage, making the experience feel at times, somewhat hollow.

Ailsa Paterson’s set design is an elegant update that provides the story with a present day context, but a strangely domineering centrepiece that makes reference to the white practice of pilfering historical artefacts is, although well-meaning, an unnecessary distraction. Lights by Nigel Levings are effectively chilling, in the cold white box of Martha and George’s home. Sound design by Andrew Howard is sparse, but memorable for its use of drums to rouse tensions.

Actor Susan Prior is suitably nebulous as the heavily intoxicated Martha. Jimi Bani’s bouts of anger as George dials up the drama, but a characteristic cynicism seems to be missing. Nick is played by Rashidi Edward who brings great intensity, and his counterpart Honey is thankfully given some backbone by Juanita Navas-Nguyen.

Martha’s father never appears in the play, but he holds absolute power over the people that we meet. Just like the white patriarchy on this land, it is never the ones who benefit most that do the dirty work, but all the foot soldiers who fight amongst themselves, thinking they are advancing their personal ambitions, when in fact are only serving the purposes of those on top. We are given crumbs, that are designed to gaslight us into believing, that the rules of engagement are fair. That we persist with these rules, is as strange as Martha and George persisting with their marriage.

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.