Review: Songs For Nobodies (Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jan 23 – Feb 9, 2020
Playwright: Joanna Murray-Smith
Director: Simon Phillips
Cast: Bernadette Robinson

Theatre review
There are ten women in Joanna Murray-Smith’s Songs For Nobodies, a collection of five stories about famous singers and the ordinary lives they had touched. It is a series of juxtapositions, of diva and goddess, of women on stage and women from other walks of life, all being put through their paces in one form or another. Murray-Smith’s poignant humour works a charm, able to imbue each character with dignity along with a sense of the divine, not only for the celebrities, but also for the women-next-door that it depicts so lovingly. All women can be regarded with reverence, if we know to value them appropriately.

Bernadette Robinson is the extraordinary talent who introduces us to all the characters in Songs For Nobodies. When impersonating Maria Callas, Patsy Cline, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf, she is impressive not only for the likeness that she quite magically achieves, but also for the very virtuosity she displays in each of the unforgettable standards that she sings. Her portrayals of the every woman too, are commanding, whether American, English or Irish, Robinson is convincing, engaging and gloriously charming, able to elevate forgotten souls, as a reminder that all women are sometimes truly sublime.

Directed by Simon Phillips, the show is elegantly rendered, very subtle in approach, but nonetheless affecting. Orchestrations by Ian MacDonald are dramatic and highly evocative, able to seize our imagination in a flash, to transport us through time and space for momentary immersions, that make us feel as though in the presence of legends. Malcolm Rippeth’s lights too are notable,
for their romantic warmth, able to take us away from the humdrum and the mundane, that we too often think of as the only reality.

Very few women ever get to see things from the top, but there is no rat race that we should feel compelled to participate in. More than the rich and famous, are the many examples of fulfilling and self-determined existences that are plain to see. Many of us will not know what it is like to influence millions, and to never have succeeded in accordance with stipulations of dominant paradigms, but in this current moment of a new understanding around centuries of relentless destruction, we should more than ever before, appreciate those we think of small people, who have had no power in our collective journey to impending extinction.

www.duetgroup.com

Review: The Visitors (Moogahlin Performing Arts)

Venue: Carriageworks (Eveleigh NSW), Jan 22 – 26, 2020
Playwright: Jane Harrison
Director: Frederick Copperwaite
Cast: John Blair, Damion Hunter, Colin Kinchela, Nathan Leslie, Leroy Parsons, Glenn Shea, Kerri Simpson
Images by Jamie James

Theatre review
Seven men gather on the shore of Gadigal land, debating whether to welcome or to repel those arriving on ships from overseas. It is 1788, but in Jane Harrison’s The Visitors, these Aboriginal leaders are dressed in three-piece suits, and they speak an English that sounds more like characters from Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men, than even any of us would today. Indeed, Harrison’s writing assumes not only the style of classic white theatre, its narrative structure is modelled after the conceit of that 1954 play, involving a council being disrupted by the doubts of a single cautiously deliberative soul.

As though purposefully addressing a Western audience, The Visitors pulls out all the stops so that there is no mistaking the Aboriginal work’s intent to question and to confront. With both content and form shaped in a way that is unequivocally understandable to colonisers, we watch these Indigenous characters painstakingly discuss an appropriate response for what they had imagined to be temporary entrants. Their compassionate struggle with the matter is only made more moving, by the enormity of the fallout that remains unbeknownst to them, that is to become the daily lived experience of all their descendants.

Directed by Frederick Copperwaite, the staging is as polished as it is passionate, with important arguments delivered in ways that are precise and affecting. Visually satisfying, with Lisa Mimmochi’s exacting set and costumes, along with Chloe Ogilvie’s elegant lights, providing a sense of sophisticated dynamism to the story. Sound design by Phil Downing, with additional music by Tim Gray, too are instrumental in transporting us deep into the psyche of rightful land owners past and present.

The ensemble is marvellously cohesive, unwavering in their dedication to this powerful tale. John Blair and Glenn Shea are particularly memorable for their exquisite timing, both performers turning on the charm, having us absolutely captivated by their effortless humour. An impressive gravity is contributed by Leroy Parsons, very convincing and engrossing as Walter, the brave one who dares go against the tide. The show is brought to an intense conclusion by Damion Hunter’s disarming soliloquy as Gordon, who in the crucial moment reveals emotions that are just as raw today as they were at the dawn of this catastrophe.

It may seem that our Indigenous are always meeting us halfway. In The Visitors, they dress and speak like their oppressors, almost like a last-ditch attempt to get people hearing. Characters in the play fail to understand why the whites feel the need to steal; that basic question so many continue to evade today. Colonisation in Australia has been a ruthless project ongoing for over two centuries, and its pace only ever gets more ferocious. One of the men in the play expresses bewilderment at the felling of just one tree in the hands of the whites. Little did he know the true depth of destruction that was to come.

www.moogahlin.org

Review: Bran Nue Dae (Opera Australia)

Venue: Riverside Theatres (Parramatta NSW), Jan 15 – Feb 1, 2020
Book: Jimmy Chi
Music and lyrics: Jimmy Chi, Kuckles
Director: Andrew Ross
Cast: Czack (Ses) Bero, Marcus Corowa, Adi Cox, Ernie Dingo, Damar Isherwood, Taj Jamieson, Tehya Jamieson, Teresa Moore, Andrew Moran, Tuuli Narkle, Callan Purcell, Bojesse Pigram, Ngaire Pigram, Tai Savage, Danielle Sibosado
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Bran Nue Dae is the semi-autobiographical story of Aboriginal music star Jimmy Chi, who as a teenager in the 1960’s, hitchhiked from his mission school back home to Broome. A musical of the coming-of-age variety, the work features splendid songs written some thirty years ago by Chi and his band Kuckles, now beautifully nostalgic and sentimental, with strong country and soul influences that move us evocatively to the Western Australia outback.

Musical direction by Patrick bin Amat and Michael Mavromatis provide an emotional dimension to the show, effective in conveying a sense of the Australian bush, and of Indigenous cultures through their sensitive arrangement of each and every tune. Directed by Andrew Ross, the comedy is a sleek one, but insufficiently humorous, often lacking in the energy required to fill the large auditorium.

Performer Ernie Dingo leaves a strong impression, with an easy charm and confidence as Uncle Tadpole that sustains our interest. Protagonist Willie is played by an equally likeable Marcus Corowa, who lights up the stage with his vocal cords whenever they get a workout. The ensemble is a nimble uplifting group, with the four women proving particularly memorable, when singing their bright and resonant choruses.

Being the very first Aboriginal musical, Bran Nue Dae is undoubtedly significant in theatrical history. What is more important however, are the subsequent shows that should follow, but examples are scarce. Of course, Indigenous peoples continue to practise other art forms that are culturally specific, and the wider community must always provide support when invited to, although the dream remains, where Western institutions can be much more inclusive, that more Indigenous participation can be seen in what has become this nation’s dominant platforms. The fact that our black sisters and brothers continue to be missing from so much of our cultural activity, is a seismic problem that we cannot afford to take lightly.

www.brannuedaemusical.com.au

Review: Night Parade Of One Hundred Goblins (Clockfire Theatre Company)

Venue: Art Gallery of NSW (Sydney NSW), Jan 16 – 25, 2020
Director: Emily Ayoub, Arisa Yura
Cast: Madeline Baghurst, Ryuichi Fujimura, Alicia Gonzalez, Masae Ikegawa, Emily Ayoub, Arisa Yura

Theatre review
Based on the illustrations of Toriyama Sekien (1712–1788) and Itaya Hiroharu (1831-82), the Japanese folklore of 百鬼夜行 Hyakki Yagyō is brought to fantastic life for a 21st century audience, in a modern iteration entitled Night Parade Of One Hundred Goblins. A long runway is formed, so that the stage action reads like a scroll, commencing with performers racing past us, a succession of curious entities travelling across time and space, to share ancient stories from a supernatural realm.

It is a thoroughly physical work, informed by traditions of dance, mime and clowning, featuring a cast of five taking on a variety of characters, each one stranger than the other. They are alternately comical, frightening and dramatic, but always intriguing, and certainly inventive with their bodily faculties. Dialogue is kept to a minimum, so we rely almost entirely on visual communication, although music does play an inordinately big part of the exercise.

Masae Ikegawa creates her music live, a thrilling feature that works magically with the echoes of the hall, to take us away from the mundane, as it thrusts our imagination into something altogether more mysterious and instinctual. Recorded sounds by Ben Pierpoint are an electronic counterpoint that keeps sensibilities within this modernity, complete with thumping beats that make sense of the dance, for bodies we see on stage, as well as the rhythmic pulsations we experience inside our seated selves.

Lights by Martin Kinnane are colourful and very dynamic, able to spirit us away from the interiors of a concrete jungle to somewhere far more mythical and magical. Tobhiyah Stone Feller does brilliantly as designer, with unforgettable work on costumes and makeup that deliver extraordinary whimsy and quite unexpected beauty.

Directed by Emily Ayoub and Arisa Yura, the presentation is a marvellous feast for the eyes, a clever blend of theatrical disciplines that playfully entertains, whilst challenging our artistic literacy. There is much that Night Parade Of One Hundred Goblins can offer to teach, but probably more significantly in terms of how we read its stories, rather than the stories themselves.

www.clockfiretheatre.com

Review: Anthem (Roslyn Packer Theatre)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Jan 15 – 19, 2020
Playwrights: Andrew Bovell, Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas, Irine Vela
Director: Susie Dee
Cast: Maude Davey, Reef Ireland, Ruci Kaisila, Thuso Lekwape, Amanda Ma, Maria Mercedes, Tony Nikolakopoulos, Eryn Jean Norvill, Sahil Saluja, Osamah Sami, Eva Seymour, Carly Sheppard, Jenny M. Thomas, Dan Witton
Images by Victor Frankovski

Theatre review
Much of the action takes place in train carriages around the Greater Melbourne area, where more than anywhere else, an accurate cross section can be obtained of who Australians are today. Rich and poor have to sit together, as do black, brown and white, along with young and old. When extricated from our respective communities, classes and silos, we are forced to look at the real differences that define us, probably more so than the similarities that we like to imagine give meaning to our national identity. In Anthem, it is the very nature of discrepancies, of wealth, power and all that might constitute a person’s cultural capital, that are exposed and very powerfully discussed.

On a land that remains unceded by its Indigenous who make up only an estimated 3.3% of the current population, it is absurd that the rest of us should experience privilege of any description. Director Susie Dee does a splendid job of articulating, not only that injustice, but also the harmful collective delusion driving this nation, that some of us deserve more than others. Anthem makes it clear that no one here can legitimately possess more than others; for as long as Indigenous peoples are marginalised and unable to exercise rights of ownership, the rest of us can only ever be holders of dubious property and position.

The politics of the piece is made saliently resonant by Dee, who imbues every vignette of Anthem with accuracy and urgency, accompanied by a strident level of realism that defies us to ignore the problems residing in the very foundation of our Australian existences. An extraordinary cast keeps us mesmerised for the entirety of these 150 passionate minutes. Tremendously well-rehearsed and unbelievably cohesive, their performance represents some of the most gripping theatre one could ever hope to see. Actor Carly Sheppard is unforgettable, giving voice to Black Australia, able to portray humour alongside a virtuous fury, to make an important and conclusive statement about Indigenous rights.

Ruci Kaisila, Jenny M. Thomas and Dan Witton provide live music over the duration, sensational in their manipulation of atmosphere and emotions, through the very accomplished works of composer and sound designer Irine Vela. Set and costumes by Marg Horwell are intelligently executed, able to convey a sense of veracity for characters and situations, whilst offering theatrical dynamism to our experience of the show. Paul Jackson’s lights too, bring animation to the stage, and is valuable in establishing tone for every nuanced moment of this sensitively rendered play.

As Australians, we have grown accustomed to tolerating inequalities in our social order. It has become acceptable that the rich get richer, at the expense of the poor, who can obviously only get poorer as a result. Marginalised communities, most notably Indigenous peoples, are routinely subjugated and muzzled, as our structures continue to privilege voices that adhere to conditions stipulated by white patriarchy. We have learned to think of the downtrodden as deserving of their lack of position in society. Even when we find ourselves oppressed by those with money and power, we take on the blame in accordance with the conditioning enforced by those at the top. It is no wonder then that James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time is invoked in both the prologue and epilogue of Anthem. The only solution is a revolution, if only enough of us can see beyond the lies.

www.performinglines.org.au

Review: Six (Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jan 4 – Mar 5, 2020
Creators: Toby Marlow, Lucy Moss
Directors: Jamie Armitage, Lucy Moss
Cast: Kiana Daniele, Kala Gare, Loren Hunter, Vidya Makan, Courtney Monsma, Chloé Zuel
Images by James D. Morgan
Theatre review
King Henry VIII of England is famous for having had six wives, and each of those women are in turn remembered only for her short reign as queen, having to share that position with many others. To tell the story of quick successions between the years 1509 and 1547, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss create a work of musical theatre, by having the queens form a pop group in the tradition of the Spice Girls; each member bears a distinct personality type, but are collectively a cohesive whole. The show takes the form of a pop concert, comprising solo numbers during which each individual provides an account of her instalment in the narrative arc, and two group songs bookending those episodes.

Cleverly conceived, but insufficiently witty, Six feels to be squarely targeting a teenage crowd, complete with a multitude of bleeped out expletives. Composition and arrangement of music is undoubtedly joyful, and completely scintillating, and like most pop concerts, Six relies on a connection of instincts, rather than appealing to our analytical capacities. At just 75 minutes, many stones are left unturned, but the show is probably satisfying enough for those seeking light entertainment without a lot of nuance and complexity.

The six Australian performers present an imaginary girl group so dynamic and technically proficient, one can hardly recall ever seeing the real thing anywhere near this level of expertise. Kiana Daniele and Chloé Zuel are sassiest of the bunch, with presences so strong, one often wishes that the staging focuses only on their two characters, Cleves and Aragon. Funny ladies Kala Gare and Courtney Monsma bring on the laughs, as Boleyn and Howard, both with splendid timing offering a sense of much needed theatricality to proceedings. Big sentimental ballads are sung by Loren Hunter and Vidya Makan, memorable for knocking our socks off with some truly remarkable vocal acrobatics.

Six tries to offer an opportunity for the queens to reclaim power, even if they seem destined to remain in their king’s shadow. It is now the dawn of 2020, and the Duchess of Sussex has announced intention to “step back” from responsibilities as a senior royal. This comes after persistent abuse by the English press since announcement of her ascendance in 2017. It can be interpreted that Meghan Markle is in fact taking charge of her personal destiny in the most daring and radical way. We have all operated within systems not of our own choosing, but few of us have been willing to cut our losses, and go where our integrity tells us. For women, this is the difference between yesterday and today. It might be true that we continue to find ourselves inadvertently falling into situations that we recognise to be unjust, but for many of us, to disengage is now a realistic option.

www.sixthemusical.com | www.sydneyoperahouse.com

Review: Lady Tabouli (National Theatre of Parramatta)

Venue: Riverside Theatres (Parramatta NSW), Jan 9 – 18, 2020
Playwright: James Elazzi
Director: Dino Dimitriadis
Cast: Nisrine Amine, Deborah Galanos, Antony Makhlouf, Johnny Nasser
Images by Robert Catto

Theatre review
Danny is compliant and cheerful, as he lends a hand to his sister Josephine, who is causing a frenzy at home, preparing for her son’s christening. They are modern day Lebanese-Australians, very much a part of mainstream contemporary life, but not without their own traditions, as is common amongst minority groups. In James Elazzi’s Lady Tabouli, we celebrate the uniqueness of that cultural heritage, but together with everything good that contributes to the diverse tapestry defining our experience of identity on this land, comes a regressiveness determined to oppress the same people who wish to preserve those values.

As the hour draws close for the big event, in the midst of a lot of spirited hullabaloo, Danny decides to come out of the closet. The incongruity of sensibilities in Lady Tabouli, of a man revealing his true self whilst his family attempts to enact the most symbolic of ceremonies, forces us to acknowledge the complexities of our multiculturalism, especially in terms of LGBTQI issues, and how Australia must look beyond legislation to address the prejudice inherent in so much of our cultural practice. Gayness may no longer be illegal, but in so much of Australian society, gay people continue to be shunned.

Elazzi’s writing is powerful and passionate. Its incisive honesty provides an urgency that grips us, having us invested in the family’s story, regardless of where we stand in relation to its arguments. An abrupt conclusion however, suggests that more could be explored, even if we do appreciate the ambiguity pertaining to Danny’s subsequent developments. Directed by Dino Dimitriadis, the work is mesmerising when emotions run high. Early scenes are appropriately manic, but its humour never really takes flight. When things turn serious is when the magic happens. There is a depth to the way its characters and narrative are presented that absolutely captivates, alongside a sorrow that sings with disarming authenticity, of rejection and of loss.

That melancholy is exhaustively manufactured by the formidable partnership of Benjamin Brockman’s lights and Ben Pierpoint’s sounds, both elements hellbent on having our emotions respond with intense empathy. The show begins in the kitchen, depicted by production designer Jonathan Hindmarsh with middle class respectability, prosperous but ordinary, that transforms into the proverbial good room, where a more idiosyncratic notion of selfhood can be expressed.

Actor Antony Makhlouf is a compelling Danny, accurate in his portrayal of frustrated despondency, for a young man caught between two worlds. His mother is played by Deborah Galanos, a big presence bringing resonance to themes of piety and control, in a story about emancipation and freedom. Josephine the overbearing sister, is made scintillating by an exuberant Nisrine Amine, and Johnny Nasser is wonderfully nuanced in dual roles, adding intriguing texture to the show.

We have always tried to exercise control over nature, whether using commerce as a form of logic to plunder earthly resources, or to obliterate the most beautiful of human connections in the name of religion. We constantly position ourselves above, interpreting our variety of intelligence as solution for what we deem to be chaos in the world. More than ever before, we can see clearly that rather than being able to achieve order, what we do best is destruction. In pessimistic times, it is hard to talk about growth and progress, but our capacity for evil becomes painfully comprehensible.

www.riversideparramatta.com.au/NTofP