Review: My Urrwai (Belvoir St Theatre / Performing Lines)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jan 19 – Feb 4, 2018
Playwright: Ghenoa Gela
Director: Rachael Maza
Cast: Ghenoa Gela
Image by David Charles Collins

Theatre review
Ghenoa Gela is a Torres Strait Islander born in Rockhampton. Efforts to keep culture in her veins have always been deliberate and laborious; it is a constant battle for Indigenous Australians to resist colonisation and to retain their own identities. In My Urrwai, Gela shows us what it is like to be a woman of native heritage living in modern Australia, bringing particular focus to the unjust burden that black people have to bear, whilst existing on their own rightful lands, that white people had forcefully usurped.

Part of the tale involves a significant first visit to Gela’s extended family in the Torres Strait Islands, where she finds herself in moments of alienation, as well as extraordinary connection. My Urrwai is, among many things, a deep meditation about the need to belong, and with it, we examine the hugely important themes of displacement and repudiation as experienced by our First Nations peoples for 230 years and counting.

Formative and crucial fragments of Gela’s life are compiled intelligently, for an autobiography that feels impressively comprehensive in its scope. Even though My Urrwai does contain colourful idiosyncrasies, the earnest care with which it discusses issues of race is unmistakable, as it is probably inevitable that this one-woman show would be called upon to represent entire communities. The need for more productions featuring Torres Strait Islander voices, simply cannot be overstated.

As performer, Gela is an outstanding talent, combining years of training in stage disciplines, with an enviable presence, to produce the consummate storyteller. Her remarkably exacting and agile physicality, plus an uncanny ability to speak with great resonance, sonorous and philosophical, are the key ingredients in this wonderfully moving piece of theatre. Proving himself to be equally accomplished, is lighting designer Niklas Pajanti, whose work accurately prompts a wide range of emotional responses, from transcendent beauty to chilling terror. Director Rachael Maza’s sensitive manipulations of space, ensures that each scene is received crystal clear, whether in their inception, intent or purpose.

Unlike most plays we see on the Australian stage, My Urrwai is conscientious about acknowledging the multicultural aspect of our audiences. It understands that we do not all come from the same place, even if we do wish to identify as one. It is welcoming of all peoples, but it certainly does not subordinate those whose culture is on display. The ease with which it addresses Torres Strait Islander viewers, and its ability to establish a theatrical language that rejects white experience as the centre of all our orbits, is admirable. The process of decolonisation in how we do and think about art in Australia is a massively difficult one, but Ghenoa Gela and My Urrwai are jubilant rays of hope, undeniable in their brilliance.

www.performinglines.org.au | www.ilbijerri.com.au | www.belvoir.com.au

Review: My Name Is Jimi (Belvoir St Theatre / Queensland Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jan 5 – 21, 2018
Playwrights: Jimi Bani, Jason Klarwein
Director: Jason Klarwein
Cast: Dmitri Ahwang-Bani, Agnes Bani, Conwell Bani, Jimi Bani, Petharie Bani, Richard Bani
Image by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Jimi Bani hails from Mabuiag Island, in the near Western part of Torres Strait. His show My Name Is Jimi, is about culture and tradition, and the resolve to keep the uniqueness of his Wagadagam tribe alive and thriving in the modern age. True to form, the production features performers from his own family, across four generations, illustrating the essence and the importance of what is being relayed.

Small communities are always at risk of losing their identity. The young is seduced by external forces, through cultures of technology and consumption determined to establish a conformity, as required and dictated by Western capitalism. We see Jimi’s son Dimitri devouring the smartphone like any other youth, gradually losing touch with the real kinship that surrounds him.

Ambitiously directed by Jason Klarwein, the work is complex and detailed with its depictions. We learn not only what it is, that Jimi is keen to preserve, but also why and how these traditions have come to be of such value. Folklore and dance feature prominently, to inform and to entertain, but perhaps most importantly, as a demonstration of ancestral pride. There is exquisite humour in the piece, alongside its inherent warmth and poignancy.

Jimi Bani’s naturally commanding presence wins us over from the get-go, allowing us to empathise with his story effortlessly, even though his circumstances are admittedly far removed from many of our daily realities. Dimitri shares his father’s humour, delivering memorable moments of comedy. Agnes and Petharie are the senior women providing music, in ethereal, glamorous and dignified fashion. Conwell and Richard are Jimi’s brothers, appropriately sharing the weight of the show, as nimble sidekicks, particularly effective with their live camera work for filmic projections called upon to represent legends of the land. Especially noteworthy is Justin Harrison’s work as sound and projection designer, beautifully transcendent and crucial to the success of My Name Is Jimi.

Family can mean different things to people, but there is no denying the emotional hold it can have over each of us. Watching Jimi and his loved ones cultivate their extraordinary closeness, is reassuring, but also challenging to those who seek a radical independence in today’s climate of rationalism. It is now normal in many societies, to find definition for the self as an entity distinct from practices of the past, especially when one identifies weaknesses and problems associated with those customs. Jimi’s emphasis on language however, is noble and inspiring. Words contain so much, and they allow us to connect with histories when we choose to. Times will change, but forgetting the past, will only hamper any effort to progress. As we seek to become better, a link with earlier experiences is invaluable. Talking with those who had come before necessitates a bridge, and understanding cultures, especially one’s own, is often more rewarding than we can imagine.

www.queenslandtheatre.com.au | www.belvoir.com.au

5 Questions with David Morton and Nicholas Paine

David Morton

Nicholas Paine: What’s The Wider Earth about?
David Morton: The Wider Earth is a work of fiction drawn loosely from the historical record. It takes memories of real people, places and events and passes them through the lens of myth. Some may call it blasphemous. Others may caution that the simplicity of the tale undermines the real work of its hero. I hope it might stand as a celebration of the incredible complexity of our planet, and go some small way towards humanising the part played by those brave enough to stand against the dominant thought of their time.

What’s it like developing a new work?
Developing new work brings with it the simultaneously liberating and horrifying reality that everything is in flux, and there is nothing to fall back on. It takes a special group of people to inhabit that chaos, particularly with an opening night looming. Over the last couple of years we’ve had the honour of working with an incredible team of creatives and performers. They’ve not only deftly embraced continuous rewrites, the quirks of puppetry, and other obstacles to the process, but had an insatiable drive and passion to push the work to new heights.

Tell me about the design of the puppets.
The design for the puppets used in the show was undertaken during an intensive eight-month process. The journey of each creature began with us spending time with their real-life counterparts, sketching and taking video as studies to determine the key structures and movement qualities of the different animals and how we could best embody these in the final objects. The drawings and notes from these encounters were then turned into three- dimensional digital renderings of each creature to design the mechanisms that would allow for their controlled movements. Finally, these models were broken into cross sections that could be laid at as a plan to be laser cut into wood, paper and leather pieces.

Over the course of four months a team of fabricators assembled these pieces in the Queensland Theatre workshop. This began with slotting and gluing the main structures together to give the creatures a base form that was then further embellished using wicker. The internal mechanisms were activated with the installation of control systems similar to miniature brake cables, and handles and rods were attached. Each of the puppets was given colour using wood stain and arted with ink. Finally, each had a pair of obsidian (volcanic glass) eyes installed.

How were the puppets introduced into the show?
Similarly to the construction, incorporating the finished puppets into the work followed a series of distinct stages. The first of these involved training the ensemble in the key manipulation techniques used by the Society. These include the focus of the puppet, its breath, and its ability to give an illusion of weight and gravity. Following this, the performers were slowly introduced to the various creatures and undertook extensive research into the movement and behavioural qualities of each. When working out the choreography for each scene we first start by devising the large movements – like where on the stage the puppet travels – and as this becomes embodied by the performers more ne detail is added.

The process of bringing a puppet to life on stage takes an incredible degree of commitment and discipline; unlike an actor who spends a rehearsal period developing a character, a puppet has to first learn how to be alive before we can even start to wonder as to what its character might be. Ultimately, the process isn’t completed until the imagination of an audience turns the movement cues that we give into the illusion of life.

If you could take the show anywhere, where would it be?
The Galapagos Islands, of course!

Nicholas Paine

David Morton: Tell us more about the cast for The Wider Earth.
Nicholas Paine: The production features seven of some of the country’s finest actors and puppeteers. Together, they form the ensemble that will tell you the story. The line between actor/puppeteer is blurred. In some scenes you’ll have actors playing characters alongside puppets, and in other scenes those actors will be manipulating puppets and performing more choreographic sequences. It will certainly keep them on their toes… and hopefully you too!

What is it about Charles Darwin that inspired you to create The Wider Earth?
We were inspired to create this work when we were visiting Handspring Puppet Company in South Africa in 2013. We got talking with the Executive Producer, Basil Jones, about how Charles Darwin stopped in Cape Town on the HMS Beagle just prior to returning home to England. We were both familiar with the work of Charles Darwin but what we didn’t realise was that he was just 27 years old when he made this stop and only 22 when he left on the voyage. We thought that his journey could make a stunning coming of age story, full of exquisite creatures, and to make comment on the wonder of our planet.

Dead Puppet Society went to Brooklyn (New York City) for eight months of pre-production in the creation of The Wider Earth. How was that experience for you?
We were developing the show with St. Ann’s Warehouse for that whole period of time. The specific focus of the development program was on refining the kind of puppetry we wanted to use to tell this story. We were working with eight other companies who also work in visual theatre, which for us was a really eye-opening experience. We’ve never really collaborated or connected with any other puppet-based artists before because it’s not an overly used form in Australia. The residency resulted in a 20-minute work in progress showing. And all of those artists have gone on to further develop their work in very different arenas.

How long from page to stage?
It’s about a three-year process. By the time we open it will have been exactly three years.

If you could take the show anywhere, where would it be?
Shrewsbury, UK. Where Charles Darwin was born.

David Morton and Nicholas Paine are producers of Morton’s The Wider Earth, part of Sydney Festival.
Dates: 17 – 27 January, 2018
Venue: Sydney Opera House

5 Questions with Cristabel Sved and Dubs Yunupingu

Cristabel Sved

Dubs Yunupingu: What 5 words would you use to describe the play?
Cristabel Sved: Magical, theatrical, funny, physical, inspirational.

Do you have a favourite moment in the original book and in the play?
There are lots of brilliant moments in Lewis Carrol’s book of course. An important one for me is when Alice challenges the viewpoint and power of the Queen of Hearts. In our play this is where Alice really comes into herself and finds the courage from her adventures and her encounters with all the other wonderful, fantastical characters to stand up to this imposing authority figure.

What has been the most enjoyable part about bringing this play to life?
I’ve enjoyed so much about working on this show. It’s been great working with Mary Anne Butler, the playwright, who has done an amazing job crafting Lewis Carroll’s story for a new audience. And it’s been an absolute pleasure collaborating with our wonderful creative team and these very special young actors to bring the magic of Wonderland to the stage. Revisiting the text and the character of Alice and finding a new relevance and message for young audiences and their families has been a great journey.

What has been the most difficult part about bringing this play to life?
I think the magical things that happen in Wonderland have been our biggest challenge to bring to the stage, but it’s also been lots of fun. Alice shrinks, grows, visits the cosmos, finds herself floating in a river of her own tears, talks to mice and packs of cards…. Our production design is deliberately low tech. It relies on the theatre’s unique ability to transform ordinary objects into extraordinary things. I can’t wait for audiences to come on the journey with us. Of course, we’re asking them to help us create this magic with the powers of their imagination and this is an important theme in our play too.

If you could make any childhood book into a stage show, what would it be?
I might keep that up my sleeve for now!

Dubs Yunupingu

Cristabel Sved: What 5 words would you use to describe Alice In Wonderland?
Dubs Yunupingu: The five words I would use to describe Alice In Wonderland are magical, adventurous, fun, suspenseful and intriguing.

You play Alice. How would you describe her personality?
The way I would describe Alice’s personality is that she is a very strong girl, she is more of a tomboy in a sense that she loves playing footy and loves a good adventure. She doesn’t want to be the neat and pretty girl everyone expects her to be. All she wants to do is find her voice to be able to express herself. Through her journey in Wonderland she slowly builds up the courage to do so.

What is it you are enjoying most about doing this play?
I am enjoying telling the story and bringing Wonderland to life with my amazing work mates.

If Alice could date any current film star who do you think she would choose and why?
If there was no age limit I would say Johnny Depp because of all the amazing crazy adventures he goes on in all the awesome films he has done. He gets to express himself through so many different characters and I feel that all Alice wants to do is to be able to express herself. 

In a nutshell, how have you approached the role of Alice?
I have gone in full force, no expectations and loving every minute of it.   

Cristabel Sved directs Dubs Yunupingu in Alice In Wonderland, part of Sydney Festival.
Dates: 5 – 27 January, 2018
Venue: Riverside Theatres, Parramatta

Review: Prize Fighter (La Boite Theatre Company / Belvoir St Theatre)

laboiteVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jan 6 – 22, 2017
Playwright: Future D. Fidel
Director: Todd MacDonald
Cast: Margi Brown-Ash, Thuso Lekwape, Gideon Mzembe, Pacharo Mzembe, Zindzi Okenyo, Kenneth Ransom
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
We meet Isa as he tries to make a new life in Australia. After experiencing years of trauma in Congo, he now focuses aggression onto the fighting ring, and as he boxes his way through flashbacks of unimaginably tough times, we witness his tragic biography unfold onstage.

Prize Fighter involves a young man making sense of the world, in order that healing and a brighter future become possible. It is also about a migrant reaching out to his adopted land, asking for understanding and acceptance. Future D. Fidel’s writing is concise and simple. The play knows what it wishes to say and says it clearly, but its inability to delve deeper into our protagonist’s psychological and emotional complexities, results in a story that has a tendency to feel generic.

Direction by Todd MacDonald gives the show exciting vigour, with an athletic cast providing a beautiful sense of visual animation. Lighting design by David Walters is creative, surprising and very polished, but the production often feels distant, or perhaps elusive. Its dim dreamlike quality seems to prevent us from connecting firmly with the characters, and we struggle to connect with an intensity that would befit Isa’s plight.

We hear about humanitarian crises, on the news every day. Reports are made by people in positions of privilege, for the consumption of people with privilege. These stories affect us all, but the stakes are infinitely higher for those seeking refuge, yet their voices are rarely heard in our cacophonous landscape of upper-class broadcast culture. Prize Fighter is a rare opportunity for a first-person account, an important contribution to unceasing discussions on who are allowed to occupy this land. If the world is one, our boundaries can only be false, but humans have always been at war, and even though utopia is only imagined, life means little if we are unable to conceive of something better.

www.laboite.com.auwww.belvoir.com.au

Review: Ladies In Black (Sydney Lyric Theatre / Queensland Theatre)

ladiesinblackVenue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Jan 3 – 22, 2017
Book: Carolyn Burns
Music & Lyrics: Tim Finn (based on Madeleine St John’s novel, “The Women In Black”)
Director: Simon Phillips
Cast: Kate Cole, Carita Farrer, Bobby Fox, Natalie Gamsu, Madeleine Jones, Kathryn McIntyre, Sarah Morrison, Ellen Simpson, Greg Stone, Trisha Noble
Image by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
There is no question that the world needs more stories about women and our solidarity. Examples of how we tear each other down are aplenty, but the ways we offer love and support need to be better envisioned in art and in life, so that we may begin to subvert systems of patriarchy that rely on our disunity to thrive.

Ladies In Black features a group of “shop girls” at a Sydney department store in the 50’s, each of them consummate professionals, all of whom get on remarkably well. There however, is little else to enjoy about the musical. Thoroughly lacklustre, unable to deliver the exuberance and glamour it wishes for its characters to portray. Its humour is underwhelming, with narratives that fail to resonate, and even though Tim Finn’s songwriting could be admired for its slightly unconventional take on the musical theatre format, much of it is uninspiring and forgettable.

For a show that makes fashion one of its central interests, the production is designed with little imagination or innovation. Choreography never offers anything more than the bog-standard, and the cast rarely looks to be challenged or excited by what they have to present. Occasional appearances by Natalie Gamsu, Greg Stone and Bobby Fox as “continental migrants” introduce moments of exhilaration, but they are few and far between.

Young Lisa confronts parochial Australia in Ladies In Black. She is at a crossroads, encountering choices that stoke her passions, versus others that feel easy and normal. We observe a blandness that can take hold, and ways of living that can pale our existences into insignificance. The women go to work everyday, and in their camaraderie, attempt to find deeper meanings to their existences, but the struggle to prevent their black clothed power from fading into a repugnant beige is ever-present, and often defeated.

wwww.queenslandtheatre.com.au