Review: Atlantis (Subtlenuance Theatre)

subtlenuanceVenue: Kings Cross Theatre Kings Cross NSW), Sep 6 – 10, 2016
Playwright: Paul Gilchrist
Director: Kit Bennett
Cast: Sylvia Keays, Antony Talia, Madeleine Withington

Theatre review
A meaningful existence can only ever be understood from a position of subjective experience. In Paul Gilchrist’s Atlantis, things may contain inherent value, but it is up to us to bring interpretation to them, and we have a choice in how we read the world and how we immerse ourselves in the inevitable living of it. We all rely on tall tales to get us through each day and night, calling them mythologies, religion, science or mathematics, for it is intrinsically human to want to make sense of things. Our consciousness must be shaped, but what form it may take is subject to the mind’s plasticity, and in Atlanits, Gilchrist demonstrates a kind of self-determining fate that results from the stories we create for ourselves.

Of course, the play’s events can only happen in a place like Australia where a vast majority of us are rich and free. It is Gilchrist’s point, to make the best of our privilege. We are in a position to dream big, and to disregard cultural restrictions and social fears, so that we can have better lives, and do good for the world, in ways that are perhaps original and trailblazing. If we followed every rule, our evolution will never take momentous leaps forward. Anomalous advancements require people who dare be radical; whether Mahatma Gandhi or Elizabeth I, it is always the maverick who establishes a legacy.

Atlanits is a soulful work, full of spirit, but with its feet planted firmly on the ground. Its words take hold of our imagination, and argue convincingly for perspectives that are only optimistic and inspiring. Actor Antony Talia does a splendid job of helping us navigate between reality and idealism, with his remarkably engaging presence and an impressive commitment to authenticity. There is excellent humour written into early sections of the play, but they are unfortunately lost in the production’s overly square focus on the deeper lessons, that could probably be left until later in the piece.

The work is staged with poignancy in mind, but more adventurous exploration of physicality would drive its message more effectively. Attention is placed on Gilchrist’s beautiful words, but our other senses need to be manipulated more for a richer theatre, as we commune to share space and ideas. It might be an exaggeration to say that “if you build it, they will come,” but magic must start somewhere, and it never comes from fear.

www.subtlenuance.com

Review: Shut Up And Drive (Subtlenuance Theatre)

subtlenuanceVenue: Kings Cross Theatre Kings Cross NSW), Apr 9 – 23, 2016
Playwright: Paul Gilchrist, Daniela Giorgi
Director: Paul Gilchrist
Cast: Kit Bennett, Bonnie Kellett, Sam Glissan, Sonya Kerr, Jordie MacKinnon, Maddy McWilliam, Tom Nauta, Robert Roworth, Eli Saad, Michael Smith

Theatre review
It is hard to care for the environment. Lives in developed countries have grown to depend on an exploitation of our planet that now requires much more than giving up aerosol cans and recycling newspapers to offer reparation. Paul Gilchrist and Daniela Giorgi’s Shut Up And Drive talks about our love/hate relationship and dependence on cars, examining the extent at which we have allowed the automobile to become indispensable. It looks at the way we blind ourselves to its negative impact, so that we may indulge in a sordid affair with the metal beast.

Gilchrist and Giorgi’s writing is about social and environmental responsibility, but it comes from a place of generosity that acknowledges human fallibility. It points out the things that we do wrong, but it is forgiving of our actions. It shows us how we can be better custodians of earth, but the choice is ours to make. Shut Up And Drive is often funny, and sometimes touching. Its intents are serious, and can sometimes fall into a didactic tone, but its short scenes and colourful characters ensure that the play always has a sense of intrigue and enjoyment. At every step, the plot provides something to think about, but is also consistently amusing.

Gilchrist does excellent work as director for the show’s many intimate scenes. He establishes strong chemistry between players, and brings a delightful variation in tone between moments to keep us attentive. Liam O’Keefe’s lights make a significant contribution in achieving those atmospheric transitions with great efficacy and minimal fuss.

Actors Tom Nauta and Eli Saad partner up for two memorable sequences that employ their individual and divergent comedic styles. Nauta’s ostentation and Saad’s wryness meet like hot oil and water for riveting and combustible results. Also very funny is Sam Glissan, a quirky individual with an idiosyncratic approach to performance that tickles all the funny bones. On the other end of the spectrum is Kit Bennett who leaves a remarkable impression with her sensitive portrayal of loss and regret. Her work is delicate and understated but disarmingly captivating, with an intense emotional power.

When we talk about environmentalism, conservation and sustainability, we are in fact talking about the future. Shut Up And Drive has a caring heart, and does its best to connect with our conscience. It makes us question how we feel about all this degradation, and presents a test of our selfishness. The car represents comfort, convenience and luxury, but it is also undoubtedly harmful on many levels. Life’s decisions are full of complications, but often, we actually do know right from wrong.

www.subtlenuance.com

Review: The Poor Kitchen (Subtlenuance / The Old 505 Theatre)

subtlenuanceVenue: Old 505 Theatre @ 5 Eliza St (Newtown NSW), Feb 2 – 6, 2016
Playwright: Daniela Giorgi
Director: Paul Gilchrist
Cast: Mark Langham, Samantha Meisner, Katrina Rautenberg, Randa Sayed, Benjamin Winckle

Theatre review (of a preview performance)
Elle inherits a farm in Italy, so she flies there with plans to sell up and return with cash for a piece of the Sydney property market. To our Australian sensibilities, the proposition is straightforward, but what Elle experiences is a set of unforeseen and complicated circumstances involving a foreign culture, to which she is intrinsically entwined, by blood and history. Modern life for most of us holds a strange and contradictory duality. We identify with the place and culture that we immediately belong, but are aware also of ties to other faraway places. We think of ourselves as one thing, but are really much more internationally connected than we care to admit. Geographical boundaries are real, but also arbitrary. This is an inconvenient and problematic truth that challenges our inevitably parochial ways of living, one that confronts how we think about migration, ecology and politics, all topics that The Poor Kitchen is keen to tackle. It shatters the “us and them” oppositions set up to justify our capitalism, so we keep it under wraps, choosing to subscribe instead to nationalistic notions of being that our small minds find manageable.

Daniela Giorgi’s script is both thoughtful and insightful. Its narrative can be structured more engagingly, but its attempts at bringing big ideas into a realm of domesticity, and hence intelligibility, are successful. There are colourful characters that keep us entertained, and even though performances are of a good standard, chemistry between actors is sometimes lacking, causing the show to lose tension at various points. Randa Sayed is thoroughly charming as Anna, with an energy and dynamism that light up the stage each time she makes an appearance. In the role of Carlo is Benjamin Winckle, who impresses with a consistent and precise approach in his creation of what is perhaps the most convincing character in the production. Leading lady Katrina Rautenberg is strong when emotions gets intense, but is less effective in portraying the more light-hearted parts of Elle. We take some time to warm up to her, so the events surrounding our protagonist can feel slightly distanced in earlier scenes.

The production’s minimal design is appropriate for the rustic quality it depicts, but sections that take us through dramatic shifts in time require greater atmospheric support from the team of creatives. Paul Gilchrist’s direction makes excellent use of space, and he often finds the best to showcase in each performer, allowing individuals to find their own captivating moments and to deliver a certain level of depth from each personality. The story of The Poor Kitchen is an interesting one, but in its resistance of conventional melodrama, our emotions are kept in check. It is true that family matters can easily cause aggravation, and soap operas all over the world exploit that indulgence, but level-headedness is probably the only means to rid us of those heartaches, so that we may begin to see the bigger picture.

www.subtlenuance.comwww.venue505.com/theatre

Review: All The Difference (Subtlenuance Theatre)

subtlenuanceVenue: Old 505 Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Sep 22 – 26, 2015
Playwright: Paul Gilchrist
Director: Paul Gilchrist
Cast: Kathryn Schuback

Theatre review
We go about our daily business making small decisions at every juncture, and every now and again, we come to key moments that require a choice be made that might alter the course of life significantly. In the Western world, we are accustomed to thinking that our own destinies lie within our own hands, that we are the masters of our own circumstances. In Paul Gilchrist’s All The Difference, we see Felicity (or Flick) before key events are about to occur, and participate in the thought and emotional processes that take place at those critical times. We examine the quality of chance, the extent of control, and the fallout of decision. Provocative questions are raised about the way we conceive of our part in the progression of time, the futility of our ego, and the sometimes unknowable relationship between choice and result. Gilchrist’s script is reminiscent of “choose your own adventure” books, with Flick asking her audience to vote yes or no, when difficult situations arise. Not every consequence is a profound one, but when helping to answer her major life questions, we certainly share the nervous thrill that Flick experiences.

Kathryn Schuback’s performance of the monologue is emotionally charged and often heavy with melancholy. There is an admirable fortitude that shines through when presenting the darker sides of the story, but the show needs greater exuberance, especially in its early sections, to match the playfulness of its format, and to guide us into familiarity with Flick. The work is tightly paced and holds our attention well, but more philosophical portions of the text requires stronger emphasis, so that our thoughts can process their complexity more satisfyingly.

There are two attitudes that can be taken when it comes to the idea of “choice”. If we think that “choice” is a fallacy, and that we are but a tiny speck in the scheme of things, a scheme that proceeds at its own will, then we can free ourselves of the infinite shackles that make life unbearable. If we think that “choice” is the most innate of our qualities in being human, then we are empowered to do good at every opportunity. Chances are that the truth vacillates in the spaces between.

www.subtlenuance.com

Review: And Now To Bed (Subtlenuance Theatre)

subtlenuanceVenue: Kings Cross Hotel (Kings Cross NSW), Mar 11 – 22, 2015
Playwrights: Con Nats, Donna Abela, Mark Langham, Sarah Carradine, Margaret Davis, Melissa Lee Speyer, Katie Pollock
Director: Paul Gilchrist
Cast: Paul Armstrong, Shauntelle Benjamin, Erica Brennan, Richard Cornally, Jennie Dibley, Edric Hong, Eleanor Stankiewicz

Theatre review
Sex can reveal all of a person, but awareness of its machinations and psychological implications for any individual is rarely a thorough one. We let our sexualities be, because, contrary to Freudian theories, knowing too much can sometimes be destructive, as pleasures can fade away when they come under excessive scrutiny. Also, it is in our nature to guard our privacies, and self-preservation dictates that we rarely articulate what it is that turns us on. And Now To Bed features seven actors performing their own biographies. Each is teamed up with a writer who creates a text out of their understanding of each subject and their sexual lives. The actor-writer relationship should be an intimate one, but there is no telling how secrets are handled in this process. There are vivid moments, but much of the writing is coy. We cannot be sure if it is the subject or the author who maintains a sense of non-disclosure, but talking about sex requires that we are frank about things, or the purpose is defeated. There is beautiful writing to be found in every segment, but those who choose to be obscure or abstract do not leave the same impression as the ones who confront us more directly. Like in sex, art is at its most meaningful when people connect.

Shauntelle Benjamin and Donna Abela’s partnership is a powerful one. Their explicit depiction of sex acts exposes not only the brutality many people are capable of, but also the quality of masochism that resides in many of our experiences. Benjamin’s enthusiasm for the stage reflects the workings of libido, and its ferocious honesty. Her portrayal highlights the uniqueness that resides in each person, with an idiosyncrasy that rejects notions of simple and universal understandings of sexuality. Jennie Dibley and Margaret Davis create a romantic narrative that traverses decades. Dibley’s maturity in attitude brings to her not unusual story, an unorthodox emotional dimension that encompasses forgiveness and kindness, in place of melancholic drama. We observe the healing quality of time, and a surprising purity that can come with age. Even though there seems a deliberate rejection of angst and sorrow in Dibley’s work, she remains a delightful actor with an endearing and captivating authenticity.

Direction is provided by Paul Gilchrist who is faithful to each of the pieces, allowing his collaborative artists divergent contexts that are required for their individualistic modes of expression. Consequently, the program is colourful in tone, and pluralistic in its approach to the theme of discussion. Gilchrist’s sensitivity to the material can be seen in the confident cast of actors who all bring a warm earnestness to what they are willing to share. The production is eighty minutes long, with segments that would appeal to different tastes, but there is a somewhat bizarre lack of erotic energy indicating an exploration of sex that is a lot about the head, and very little about the body. Talking about sex in public is difficult, for very good reason. Our reluctance to go in too deep is understandable, for only a select few would see the appeal of such vulnerable divulgences, and fortunately for us, they tend to be artists.

www.subtlenuance.com

5 Questions with Shauntelle Benjamin

shauntellebenjaminWhat is your favourite swear word?
That word starting with ‘C’ that most people don’t like. Women need to start reclaiming it.

What are you wearing?
Awkwardly, a uniform that says I work with kids. And a psychology text book casually under one arm.

What is love?
Baby don’t hurt me? Ok, maybe a little.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
The Book Of Mormon or Matilda. They both get all my stars. Delightfully written, and fantastically executed pieces of work.

Is your new show going to be any good?
I’m aiming for The Book Of Mormon seriousness with Matilda clarity. It’s going to be wonderful.

Shauntelle Benjamin is appearing in And Now To Bed, from Subtlenuance Theatre.
Show dates: 11 – 22 Mar, 2015
Show venue: Kings Cross Hotel

Review: Joan, Again (Subtlenuance / Sydney Independent Theatre Company)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Aug 5 – 23, 2014
Playwright: Paul Gilchrist
Director: Paul Gilchrist
Cast: Kit Bennett, Jamie Collette, Ted Crosby, Kitty Hopwood, Lynden Jones, Sylvia Keays, Bonnie Kellett, David Kirkham, Helen Tonkin
Images by Katy Green Loughrey, Liam O’Keefe, Daniela Giorgi

Theatre review (originally published at Auditorium Magazine)
Paul Gilchrist’s new script is deeply philosophical. It asks many big questions, all of which affects our lives, but most do not come easily into daily discourse. These are themes that can be difficult to communicate, for despite their universality, the diversity in beliefs often means that unexpected conflict may result. Also, these concepts of truth, religion, spirituality, death, identity, gender, kinship, time, and so forth, are constantly shifting and elusive, and therefore impossible to resolve. Conversation without resolution or agreement is always a challenge in polite society, which means that many of these piquant parts of life are left to the likes of academics and artists to explore at depth. Indeed, it is a responsibility of art to think about these matters, and to present to us, perspectives that may challenge our own.

Through the landscape of war, and the appearance of a woman claiming to be Joan of Arc ten years after her famed execution, Gilchrist’s play asks political, social and personal questions and unpacks modern day attitudes about, well, everything. The script is always loaded with meaning, and while it might be difficult to discover the author’s own beliefs in every line, we are consistently provoked to react with our own judgment and ideology. Not much happens in the story, but our intellect is exhausted by its end. The strength of the writing is in its ability to expose the incoherence and injustices of our world, without obvious agenda or tiresome pontification. Gilchrist’s work has many delightfully sharp lines that need to be revisited if only to commit to memory, but more significantly, it is concentrated with analysis and poignancy that speak volumes of truth that its characters struggle to navigate.

Gilchrist’s direction creates a dynamic theatre with distinct and colourful personalities that keep us fascinated. Moments of comedy and drama are executed with precision, so that the show varies regularly in tone, and is kept at a comfortable pace. Acting as both playwright and director allows a very specific interpretation of the text, but it also raises issues for performance. There is a lack of organic energy in the piece, and chemistry between players is laboured. The cast does not always find a mode of articulation that feels genuine. When interpretations are reproduced from preconceived ideas instead of more fundamental and experiential processes, characters are less unconvincing and their stories can become difficult to decipher. Gilchrist’s direction also needs to have greater confidence and commitment in his comedy that is too often underplayed, which is a shame as there is potential for much bigger laughs in his writing. By the same token, the profundity of his script needs greater emphasis as they can be quite elaborate. A writer mulls over their work over long periods, and to condense that vision into two or three hours for an audience that arrives with only a blank slate, requires a very fresh pair of eyes. Gilchrist expresses himself marvelously but one wonders if an intermediary would provide more effective elucidation.

Kit Bennett plays Therese, a young woman of very few words who suffers from the indignity of being tagged the “village idiot”. Her performance is remembered for a level of authenticity that her colleagues do not manage. Bennett encourages intrigue and empathy, forming a connection with the audience that is strangely persistent. She speaks little but her presence is always strong and her reactions meticulous. One wonders if it is the lack of lines that provides her the freedom to create something that is more personal and with more truth as an actor. Gilchrist has crafted a brilliantly complex role with Therese. She is surprising, almost disarmingly so, but her contradictions actually feel very realistic.

Joan is central to much of the narrative, and Sylvia Keays brings to it an ambiguous zen-like quality that works interestingly on levels of narrative and philosophy but we are left craving for a deeper understanding of her character’s psychology and motivations. Keays is at her most compelling when soliloquising, showing an excellent affiliation with the writing and themes. There is a defiance that seems slightly mild but her lack of aggression makes for a more textured and unanticipated experience of the character. Also charming is Lynden Jones whose subtle yet biting portrayal of Cardinal Theobald grabs our attention at every appearance. The irony in his lines could be performed more extravagantly but the creepy hypocrisy that seeps through Jones’ every pore is sickeningly irresistible.

Helen Tonkin as Isabelle, delivers a memorable and moving speech about lives lost at war. The play’s antiwar sentiment is strong. It discusses the damage worn by societies as a result of combat, and the meanings we derive from manufacturing war heroes. In honouring the dead and those who return victorious, we face the inevitably of assigning glory to destruction, but responding with an antithetical passivity and apathy is unwise. The pursuit of peace may be the greatest vocation of humankind, and the quest for it may never appear within easy reach, but there simply is no responsibility more noble, and no undertaking more necessary than the attainment of justice and fairness for all.

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