Review: Madiba (State Theatre)

Venue: State Theatre (Sydney NSW), Nov 1 – 18, 2018
Book: Jean-Pierre Hadida, Alicia Sebrien
Author & Composer: Jean-Pierre Hadida
Additional Material: Lunik Grio, Emmanuelle Sebrien
Directors: Pierre-Yves Duchesne, Dennis Watkins
Cast: Courtney Bell, Barry Conrad, David Denis, Blake Erickson, Perci Moeketsi, Ruva Ngwenya, Tim ‘Timomatic’ Omaji, Madeline Perrone, Tarisai Vushe
Images by Serge Thomann

Theatre review
Known as Father of the Nation, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela served 27 years in prison, for activities opposing apartheid. In the musical Madiba, we see his personal struggles, and the inspiration he had provided, and continues to provide, for racial reconciliation in the region and around the world. Mandela’s heroic aura is unwavering as the centrepiece of a production that unfortunately, never quite lives up to the man’s eminence.

The writing manages to establish coherence for a timeline that stretches fifty years, but it is insufficiently rousing, for themes that one expects to be much more intrinsically emotional. The minimalist approach to visual design proves a challenge for the large stage, with lights that get absorbed by heavy curtains before adequate illumination can be provided to performers.

It is however, an excellent cast that presents the musical, with Perci Moeketsi effortlessly convincing as Mandela, an affable presence who reminds us of the warm personality so often seen in the media. Brilliant dancing by David Denis, Tim ‘Timomatic’ Omaji and a very spirited ensemble, has us thoroughly mesmerised. Barry Conrad, Ruva Ngwenya and Tarisai Vushe thrill us with their singing, making full use of the opportunity to showcase their extraordinary vocal talents.

When Noah emerged from his ark after the great flood, a rainbow of peace appeared in the sky, signifying a new beginning. The dream of a rainbow nation in post-apartheid South Africa, is a vision about inclusivity, for a future in which black and white are no longer divided. Now five years after Mandela’s passing, white supremacy can be seen trying again to rear its ugly head, everywhere from Europe and America, to Africa and Australia. The project of decolonisation is a huge undertaking, an extremely difficult exercise that often seems doomed to failure, but forces determined to defeat fascism can never be crushed. We remember the sacrifices made by Mandela and his country, and the progress they were able to attain under onerous circumstances, and use them as motivation, for all the battles that lie ahead.

Review: Georgy Girl (State Theatre)

georgygirlVenue: State Theatre (Sydney NSW), Apr 2 – May 15, 2016
Book: Patrick Edgeworth
Music & Lyrics: The Seekers and others
Director: Gary Young
Cast: Sophie Carter, Pippa Grandison, Phillip Lowe, Mike McLeish, Adam Murphy, Ian Stenlake, Glaston Toft, Stephen Wheat
Image by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
Over 50 years of The Seekers’ history is charted in Georgy Girl. Predictably, all their hits are included in the musical, but very unexpectedly, virtually no sentimental dramatisation of events is found. It is a quiet story about unassuming personalities who happen to have achieved greatness is their careers. There is little in terms of narrative to get excited about, and the show is almost completely devoid of dramatic tension, but for fans of the band’s music, nostalgia abounds.

An excellent cast plays the famous musicians, and although they engage in little acting, their interpretations of classics more than fit the bill. Pippa Grandison heads the group, and in the role of Judith Durham, she impresses with a rich and powerful voice, effortlessly recalling the glory days of the Australian icon. Playing Durham’s husband Ron Edgeworth is the charismatic and flamboyant Adam Murphy who single-handedly introduces a sense of theatricality to the show. His charm offensive is a highlight, and probably the only memorable element for an admittedly small number of audience members who are less familiar with The Seekers.

The production is polished and professional, but it appears that little of the budget is spent on set design. The very rudimentary and underwhelming stage is a clear let down for those who have grown accustom to highly complex and sophisticated stagecraft that is now par for the course in events of this genre. Georgy Girl is minimal, subdued, and plain, qualities to be loved in folk musicians but hardly the characteristics we expect of a Broadway style musical extravaganza.

Review: The Embroidery Girl (China Wuxi Performing Arts Group)

embroiderygirl2Venue: State Theatre (Sydney NSW), Feb 18 – 19, 2014
Choreographer: Zhang Jiwen
Music: Zou Hang
Dancers: Zhang Yashu, Tang Chenglong, Liu Xin, Mi Xia

Theatre review
The Embroidery Girl is a balletic work that encompasses traditional Chinese forms of performance, along with a narrative based on a fable set at the end of the Qing dynasty in the 1910s. While its basic premise is a tragic love story, there is a pervasive and fundamental theme of freedom that provides a solemn resonance that grounds the production. The work does not consciously present itself as a Westernised theatrical form. Instead, we see a show that is thoroughly Chinese, but with a sense of evolution that is shaded by international influences. The work reflects the opening up of societies in China to external cultures, but without an urgency to lose their own.

The company’s style is operatic. The performers on stage do not sing, but there is a strong emphasis on portraying emotional intensity, not just with physicality but also with their faces. To Australian eyes, these are highly exaggerated expressions and do take a little getting used to. The production features four principal dancers, all of whom are charismatic and technically proficient. Leading lady Zhang Yashu is heart and soul of the show, and plays the tortured Xiu Niang whose predicaments are illustrated with rich and dynamic choreography over the 90 minute program. Zhang’s work is precise and powerful, with a luminescence that not only lights up the majestic State Theatre, but also supremely commanding. The ensemble is relegated to playing slightly more than scenery when supporting Zhang. The images she creates with her body and spirit, are sublimely beautiful.

Visual design is accomplished. Lighting is especially thoughtful, giving the show mood, romance and emotion, as well as efficiently and cleverly depicting time and spacial transitions. Costumes are not always elegant but they are effective at providing context and assist greatly with characterisations. Music is expertly created and performed but sadly, not live. Choreography is particularly strong in partner work where lyricism is blended with sharp, abrupt movement for a modern twist. Sections tend to be short, which makes the show feel energetic and exciting.

The Embroidery Girl is grand and fascinating. For Western audiences, its cultural difference possesses an exoticism that reads as colourful and distinctive. Beyond the allure of the unfamiliar, we relate to the universal themes of romantic love, and the pursuit of personal emancipation. Aristotle wrote that the purpose of tragedy is to evoke a wonder born of pity and fear, the result of which is cathartic. Xiu Niang receives very little of what she desires, but Zhang Yashu’s dance for us is inspiring and uplifting.