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

Review: Black Ties (Ilbijerri Theatre Company / Te Rēhia Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Town Hall (Sydney NSW), Jan 10 – 18, 2020
Playwright: John Harvey, Tainui Tukiwaho
Director: Rachael Maza, Tainui Tukiwaho
Cast: Brendan Boney, Jack Charles, Mark Coles Smith, Mayella Dewis, Lana Garland, Laughton Kora, Tawhirangi Macpherson, Lisa Maza, Tuakoi Ohia, Brady Peeti, Tainui Tukiwaho, Dalara Williams, Dion Williams
Images by Luke Currie-Richardson

Theatre review
Love is in the air, but Hera is a Māori woman and Kane an Aboriginal man, each with strong connections to their respective families and lands. When the pair decide to marry, the place at which they choose to settle down, becomes a matter of serious contention for all their kin. As colonised peoples, Hera and Kane’s relations take with utmost seriousness, the manner in which their roots are to be planted. Each group is determined to maintain its own bloodline, and from the many conflicts that soon arise, it would appear that love may not conquer all so easily.

Black Ties by John Harvey and Tainui Tukiwaho tackles meaningful subjects, but does so with glorious humour. The play is endlessly amusing, impressive in its ability to balance serious with silly, for an experience that is at once poignant and hilarious. Directed by Rachel Maza and Tukiwaho, the production has a tendency to feel somewhat haphazard, but the enormity of its ambition is truly remarkable. Jacob Nash’s set design is a huge undertaking that thrills us with its capacity to surprise, effectively assisted by James Henry’s video projections that move us quickly between New Zealand and Melbourne. Live music by Brendon Boney, Mayella Dewis and Laughton Kora is consistently delightful, and a real highlight of the presentation.

Performers Mark Coles Smith and Tuakoi Ohia are the adoring couple, both very likeable, and appropriately wholesome in their depiction of the young innocents. Scene stealers include Jack Charles and Brady Peeti, who bring exquisite timing and captivating presences to this staging. Lana Garland and Lisa Maza play maternal roles, each one as strong and commanding as the other. Playwright and director Tukiwaho proves himself a compelling comic, delivering a great number of laughs as Hera’s oafish father.

We can hold firm to our cultural identities, but there must always be room for evolution and compromise. Thinking about our ancestors as monolithic is unhelpful and probably inaccurate. Allowing ourselves to progress with the times, in a manner decided upon by ourselves, and not by colonisers, is a realistic way of retaining valuable aspects of our heritage. Our only option is to adapt, and to trust in the fact that after centuries of diasporas and imperialism, we are still here.

www.ilbijerri.com.au | www.terehiatheatre.com

Review: Black Cockatoo (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jan 4 – Feb 8, 2020 | Riverside Theatres (Parramatta NSW), Feb 18 – 22, 2020
Playwright: Geoffrey Atherden
Director: Wesley Enoch
Cast: Joseph Althouse, Luke Carroll, Chenoa Deemal, Aaron McGrath, Colin Smith, Dubs Yunupingu
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
When Johnny ‘Unaarrimin’ Mullagh went to England in 1868 as part of Australia’s ‘First XI’, he probably never expected to become our first international cricket star. A century and a half later, his descendants probably never expected that the legend would today be so easily forgotten. Black Cockatoo by Geoffrey Atherden reintroduces the historical figure as a true Indigenous trailblazer, an Aboriginal example of black excellence that the white patriarchy of our sporting arenas seems so determined to wipe away from memory. The play has a tendency to feel overly wholesome, as though sanitised for public consumption, but its importance as cultural emblem cannot be understated.

Directed by Wesley Enoch, the show is a sincere and tender proclamation, paying tribute to Indigenous identities past and present. The complexity of black experiences as colonised peoples, is meaningfully, albeit politely, portrayed in Black Cockatoo. We see our protagonist in a state of conflict, able to recognise his privilege as star on the field, but never ignorant of injustices that befall himself and those he considers his community.

Set design by Richard Roberts establishes elegance for the production’s overall visual aesthetic, but requires greater versatility to help us imagine dramatic shifts in time and place. Lights by Trent Suidgeest and music by Steve Francis are sensitively rendered, both proving effective in conveying poignancy for the piece.

Actor Aaron McGrath is full of charm as Mullagh, dignified and beautifully nuanced in his depiction of a true blue hero. Black Cockatoo‘s narrative does not offer very much that is emotional or surprising, but McGrath makes us fall for the central character effortlessly. In the role of Lady Bardwell is the noteworthy Chenoa Deemal, who brings to the stage an august presence. Also impressive is Colin Smith as coach of the team, remarkably convincing as an ethically dubious Charles Lawrence.

Our Indigenous continue to have to navigate the absurdity of being seen as exotic on their own land. The ‘First XI’ went to England to play cricket, but often found themselves perceived as a circus act, a curiosity that robbed them of their humanity, a persisting strategy that provides legitimacy to mistreatment at the hands of colonisers. We need to hear the voices of minorities, because an understanding of their autonomy is fundamental to the betterment of all our lives. We no longer want our stories told by others. We want the right to talk about ourselves, whether or not the others are willing to listen.

www.ensemble.com.au

5 Questions with Nisrine Amine and Antony Makhlouf

Nisrine Amine

Antony Makhlouf: You play Josephine in Lady Tabouli, how would you describe her?
Nisrine Amine: She’s a handful. Lol. She is a strong woman, with a hard set of beliefs. Quite stubborn. But with a deep faith and loyalty to family. She is almost like the burghul (wheat) in a bowl of tabouli – a little hard on the teeth yet necessary for the salad to come together. She’s quite different to characters I’ve played in the past; not immediately likeable but you definitely grow to understand her as the play goes on. And that’s the main thing with characters on stage – not that we like them but that we can understand them.

Who is Lady Tabouli?
In the first iteration of the play (at Griffin Theatre as part of Batch Festival), Lady Tabouli was very clearly Danny’s alter ego; she was a vibrant and free sense of self that he was so desperately wanting, but struggling, to become. In this new version of the play, I think she is more elusive than that – she is up to individual interpretation and maybe sits somewhere between convention and progression? Shackles and freedom? She is the clash of culture and individuality; group identity and personal truth. Maybe I’ll have a better answer for you once she comes to life in January.

What are your thoughts on the “other” Lebanese salad, fattoush?
Oooo, I am a big fan. I like a good ‘crunch’ in my food. And we all know a good fattoush has some serious bread crunch game happening. So I think I might take a bowl of that over tabouli. Oh no, I have blasphemed. Alas.

Who’s your favourite character in the play?
I dunno but (director) Dino’s is ‘the heat’. (You’ll know when you watch).

So you’re directing James Elazzi’s Son of Byblos for Belvoir 25A next year. What are you looking forward to the most about this experience?
All of it! It’s going to be surreal moving ‘behind the scenes’ for one of James’ works (all of my connections with his work up to now has been as ‘actor’). There’s definitely going to be (self-imposed) pressure to continue Dino’s great directing work on a piece of Elazzi writing, but I’m up for the challenge. The main thing I’m looking forward to, in all honesty, is working with my actors. I am soooo eager to get into that rehearsal room and start building character and relationships. And to help lead the actors to beautiful and truthful moments.

Antony Makhlouf

Nisrine Amine: How similar are you and your character of Danny?
Antony Makhlouf: The similarities of Danny and I is that we’re both Australian-Lebanese men who need to balance two separate cultures. Despite the tug-of-war effect this can have at times, I love sitting within two cultures for it provides me with an insight into two worlds. This has broadened my outlook and enriched my understanding of people. I like to think I’ve created a hybrid culture of my own. Whereas with Danny, his circumstance does not afford him the space to do the same. Instead he needs to be ruthless in his pursuit of self-determination. This is where our similarities end.

What’s your favourite part about the rehearsal process?
I love those moments when you crack the scene open and the words on the page, that you’ve been reading for a while, come to a new and bigger meaning.

What mark are you hoping this play will make on the Sydney theatre scene?
Foremost, I hope Lady Tabouli draws in the people that it depicts. Don’t get me wrong, the play is open to all audiences, however there are members of the community that will see themselves on the stage and benefit from that experience. In Lady Tabouli’s preliminary version at Griffin Theatre’s Batch Festival, a large chunk of our audiences were just that, and the response was real and overwhelming. There is something very special and powerful about this work. It transcends the theatre and offers a release I believe certain marginalised communities are craving to experience. Thus, and with all respect, I am more interested in talking and affecting those people, above anything else.

What’s the key to the perfect bowl of tabouli?
You should probably ask my mum that one. But, I do love tabouli that is a day old – the flavours really settle in by then. Refrigerate overnight and then eat it with warm Lebanese bread.

Where to from here?
After Lady Tabouli, I finish filming season four of Get Arty. I also want to get cracking on creating a new collection of art prints. And I hope to continue to develop and grow as a performer, so a short course overseas somewhere is on the cards.

Nisrine Amine and Antony Makhlouf can be seen in Lady Tabouli by James Elazzi.
Dates: 9 – 18 Jan, 2020
Venue: Riverside

Review: The Iliad Out Loud (Sport For Jove Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jan 23 – 27, 2019
Playwright: William Zappa
Director: William Zappa
Cast: Blazey Best, Heather Mitchell, Socratis Otto, William Zappa
Images by Lisa Tomasetti, Jamie Williams

Theatre review
Homer’s ancient poem is adapted and abridged in William Zappa’s The Iliad Out Loud, first for radio, and now for the stage. This iteration of the epic stretches across three parts, each three hours long, presented by four actors and two musicians, in the form of a staged reading. It takes after what is believed to have happened in 8th century BC, when the original was performed, to be heard and not read. Zappa’s text can easily be repackaged as a novel, and often we wonder if that would have been a better format, especially during the very many drawn out battling sequences, which require only visualisation and no analysis on our part.

This condensation of events would likely be more rewarding for those who are already fans of the story. A thrilling ride for some can prove an ordeal for others, as the production routinely rushes past character development to cover significant occurrences. Without sufficient background understanding of personalities, we struggle to resonate with their trials and tribulations in all the warfare, that Zappa so exhaustively conveys.

Michael Askill and Hamed Sadehi are musicians and stars of the show, a two-man band that makes a real art form of their accompaniment. In the absence of more conventional theatrical imagery, Askill and Sadehi pull out all the stops to stoke our imagination, adding infinite colour to the pages of words being dispensed. Lighting by Matt Cox too, is inspired, with a series of elegant transformations to illumination, helping guide us through states of emotion.

Zappa is an outstanding reader, full of dynamism on his stage, holding our attention with extraordinary ease, effortless in sharing his immense enthusiasm for a seminal work of his heritage. It is a confident cast that travels with us on this journey, impressive in their detailed familiarity with every twist and turn of the 9 hours.

The warring men blame their behaviour alternately, on one woman Helen, or on the gods Zeus and his ilk. Their inability to face their own culpability in all the conflict, feels an accurate reflection of every war in every era. It may not be true that women are never in favour of such brutality, but it is certain that none of these atrocities can ever be perpetrated without men. All the war heroes in Iliad can be thought of as good guys, and our continual inclination to excuse them of the horrors that they choose to enact, reveals, at least in part, why we remain in a perpetual cycle of bloodshed.

www.sportforjove.com.au

Review: Man With The Iron Neck (Legs On The Wall)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jan 23 – 26, 2019 | Dunstan Playhouse (Adelaide Festival Centre, South Australia), Mar 8 – 11, 2019
Playwright: Ursula Yovich
Directors: Josh Bond, Gavin Robbins
Cast: Caleena Sansbury, Kyle Shilling, Tibian Wyles, Ursula Yovich
Images by Victor Frankowski

Theatre review
Named after Aloys Peters, a 1930s German stunt performer “who hangs himself and lives to tell the tale,” Ursula Yovich’s play Man With The Iron Neck addresses the issue of suicide among our Indigenous youth. Bear is an aspiring and talented footballer, about to go places, but there are demons that haunt and that threaten to hold him back from all his hopes and dreams. Having grown up with the pain of his father’s abandonment, Bear’s interminable suffering although not immediately evident, reveals itself to be palpable and immutably deep. Yovich’s writing is gentle but deliberate, a moving exploration into a contemporary problem borne out of inter-generational trauma.

Masculinity too, is a resonant theme in Man With The Iron Neck, as we examine a young man’s development in a household without male role models. Bear is required to adhere to traditional notions of his gender, but what is available for emulation, is tainted with tragedy. A substantial amount of physical theatre is introduced by directors Josh Bond and Gavin Robbins, to illustrate Bear’s narrative of late teen maleness, notably involving aerial acrobatics that prove mesmerising. Gratifying work on sound design by Michael Toisuta and Jed Silver, is crucial in the production’s ability to transport us between realms surreal and realist. Performer Kyle Shilling is an engaging presence in the lead role, with an admirable athletic confidence that assists with the show’s dynamism.

Bear’s story is evidence that serious effort into undoing undesirable effects of colonialism, has to take place in tandem with processes of private healing. It is the confluence of both social and personal strategies that is required for our young, especially those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds, to be able to move toward brighter futures. We have to learn to talk about our lives as groups and as individuals, to ensure that no one is left behind. It is abundantly clear that our Indigenous youth are routinely neglected; there are reports that seven Aboriginal child suicides have taken place in less than four weeks of January, 2019. As a wider Australian community, we remain unwilling to contribute to solutions, choosing to indulge in delusions that the problem is isolated and removed from our non-black daily realities. We all bear the duty of care for these lives, and our failure is not only shameful, it is reprehensible.

www.legsonthewall.com.au

Review: The Weekend (Moogahlin Performing Arts)

Venue: Carriageworks (Eveleigh NSW), Jan 18 – 23, 2019
Playwright: Henrietta Baird
Director: Liza-Mare Syron
Cast: Shakira Clanton
Images by Jamie James

Theatre review
Lara is trying to do the right thing, by working hard in Cairns, trusting that her partner is taking care of their children back home in Sydney. When one of her sons phones up to notify her of their father’s disappearance, Lara takes the first plane home to save the day. The real drama happens after her kids are fed, when she is compelled to go looking for Simon, even though it is not the first time that he makes an unexplained exit from his responsibilities.

Henrietta Baird’s The Weekend is a one-woman action-packed comedy, that sees our heroine brave the enigmatic public housing towers of Redfern, to encounter the lower classes of her Indigenous community, and the harrowing socio-economic challenges that they face. Baird’s writing is full of thrills, brimming with keenly observed humour, and a modern attitude that boldly pushes Australian playwriting into exciting new realms.

Actor Shakira Clanton takes on all ten characters in the play, each one vibrant and richly manifested. Her mischievous approach is deeply delightful, as she turns us into putty in her hands, taking us through every peak and trough of this amazing journey. It is an unforgettable experience, to see and hear hidden facets of our beloved city, to vicariously revel in Lara’s extraordinary weekend of discoveries. Clanton’s is a performance replete with artistic detail, endlessly intricate and dynamic, thoroughly enjoyable.

Directed by Liza-Mare Syron, the show is often edge-of-your-seat exhilarating, and pure unadulterated fun. Supported by a marvellous team of creatives, including lighting designer Karen Norris, and composers Nick Wales and Rhyan Clapham (Dobby), it is a smart production that provides just enough embellishment, so that we can luxuriate in The Weekend‘s colourful dialogue and personalities, to enjoy the best storytelling that the theatrical arts can facilitate.

Much of The Weekend is about the problems that we inherit. When our behaviour is disappointing, or when we simply find ourselves to be lacking in some way, and we try to reason with these dysfunctions, it is necessary that we go back in time, in order that we can locate explanations for deficiencies. For Lara, Australia’s history of colonisation informs a substantial portion of her misadventures, and on a personal level, archaic notions of womanhood too, are crucial to how she had been able to tolerate mistreatment. When we arrive at an understanding of our baggage, tangible and intangible, is when the hard work has to truly begin.

www.moogahlin.org