Review: Cleansed (Montague Basement)

Venue: PACT Centre for Emerging Artists (Erskineville NSW), Sep 20 – 23, 2017
Playwright: Sarah Kane
Director: Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Cast: Sam Brewer, Lucy Burke, Alex Chalwell, Kurt Pimblett, Jem Rowe, Michaela Savina, Annie Stafford
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Tinker is a figure of authority at a hospital, and the sadist antagonist in Sarah Kane’s Cleansed. She is all-powerful, able to wield any form of torture she pleases. The patients are trapped, unjustly and unexplained, subject to a range of inhumane violations, in scenes of terror that constitute the savagery of Kane’s play. Also prominent are instances of nudity and sexual activity, that accompany pervasive themes of gender and sexuality, all presented as the main agents of instigation, for the brutality that we see. Everyone in Cleansed is being punished for their sex, and we wonder if the hospital functions as an allegory for the wider world.

Director Saro Lusty-Cavallari’s gore is heightened and viscerally affecting. His show recalls films from horror and exploitation genres, but the effect of shock here, is thought-provoking and never meaningless. Long scene changes prevent our anxiety from ever reaching a boiling point. Our minds are given space to work for clarity, during these moments of emotional release, but an opportunity for a more thrilling experience that could result from the manufacture of a truly suffocating atmosphere, is sacrificed. Live video projections are incorporated for an adventurous commentary on current states of technological voyeurism, and are used along with bold approaches to light and sound, to enhance dramatic qualities of the production.

The provocative material is brought to life by an impressive cast of actors with great conviction and nerve. The very scary Tinker needs a bigger, more foreboding presence, but Annie Stafford’s restraint allows our imagination to explore freely into the psyche that is at work here. Jem Rowe is outstanding as Robin; the fear and desperation he portrays seems thoroughly authentic, and the spectacle he creates around his role is brilliantly captivating. Sam Brewer and Alex Chalwell play gay lovers, memorable for the poignancy of their relationship and the remarkable intensity at which they tell that story.

There is no underestimating how much we control each other with sex. The essentially social nature of our genders and sexualities, have opened us up to evaluation and persecution from all corners. The fear of being labelled deviants, and the understanding of that consequence, are indicative of attempts to keep us adhering to an intolerable straight and narrow. Even Tinker is herself consumed by her self-diagnosed perversion, and proceeds to exercise her hypocrisy in the most destructive ways possible. Consenting adults are frightening. They can threaten the very fabric of a society that lives by rules that are arbitrary, cruel and profoundly wrong.

www.montaguebasement.com

5 Questions with Kurt Pimblett and Annie Stafford

Kurt Pimblett

Annie Stafford: In Cleansed, your character is a ghost for the majority of the show, do you have a favourite ghost story or have you ever had a run-in with a ghost?
Kurt Pimblett: Yeah, me and my cousins and sister saw a lot of ghosts growing up. One of them was the ghost of our dog who’d been run over the year before, which was nice. I think my favourite ghost story though is that Paul Jennings one where a boy falls down a well and there’s a ghost down there who steals all your clothes and escapes and then you become the naked ghost trapped in the well. I feel like that’s the kind of weird ghost thing Graham would do.

When you first read the stage directions “dance of love”, what dance moves came into your head?
Two things, simultaneously. One of them was this incredibly beautiful and emotive sequence that was immediately recognisable as a dance of love – no-one would ever put any other name to it. The other was the bit from High School Musical where those two kids do a weird interpretive dance to audition for the winter musical and get told they should have therapy. I hope that what we’ve ended up with is a happy medium between the two.

Now this is a classic question, in the Hollywood film version of this play, who would you want to play Graham and why?
Harry Styles. No explanation necessary.

What did you find the hardest when approaching this text? Because let’s be honest, its pretty damn out there.
With Cleansed, Sarah Kane has been quite kind with the dialogue and emotional journeys of most characters. Everything that’s happening makes sense, the logic isn’t hard to access, and it feels natural to embody and put into action. Cleansed is a huge practical challenge though, and a lot of thought has gone into realising her incredible stage directions. A lot of them seem a bit impossible, but what I found most confronting in rehearsal was the things that aren’t impossible. The things that you can totally just go and do, but wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, if you weren’t in this play. Another thing I found difficult was rationalising Graham’s relationship with Grace, in conjunction with Graham’s relationship with Tinker. I very much approached the text thinking that Graham was always right and was totally a good guy (which is a useful perspective to keep in mind as an actor), so I was pretty shaken when it started to dawn on me that sometimes his choices aren’t the most upstanding.

You’re stuck on a desert island with only one other cast member from Cleansed, who would you want it to be? And why?
Okay. I would want it to be someone whose sense of humour gelled well with mine, so that it doesn’t get boring, but also so that when I start making off-colour panic-jokes they don’t get weirded out. Are we trying to escape the island? Because then I would also want someone who’d be determined and upbeat enough to help me make a billion different palm tree boat prototypes. Also probably someone with a nice grounding in facts because on a desert island my skills probably wouldn’t extend far beyond writing poems about the ocean and I’d need someone to tell me what’s okay to eat and where snakes live so I can avoid them. There’s also a high chance that I’d get so restless and desperate for entertainment that I’d stop listening to them about which berries are poisonous and start to provoke the snakes just for something to do, so it would be great if the person could talk me down from doing things like that. Look, this is a tall order, so Cleansed cast, if any of you feel like you can adequately fill this role, hit me up.

Annie Stafford

Kurt Pimblett: Tinker has a lot of power but (arguably) questionable morals. What kind of life advice would she give? If she wrote a self-help book what would it be called?
Annie Stafford: I sincerely hope no one ever asks Tinker for advice let alone reads her self help book. How the heck did she get that book deal?! That aside, I think her incredibly deep and sage life advice would be “Get shit done. Shut shit down”. To be completely honest, that’s been my own motto for the past 2 years. But in a very absurdist way it applies to Tinker. She’s pretty proactive, getting things done. And if she’s not about something or it isn’t worth her time, she shuts it down. It’s title? “I’m not responsible.”

Shoot, shag, marry: Cleansed. Go. And try not to shag or kill anyone you’ve already shagged and killed.
Oh well that narrows it down, you’ve literally left me with 3 characters. I think I’d…Tinker would marry Woman. But they’d have to travel to make that happen, cheers Australian Government for that one. Who would have thought you’d be living the dream in a Sarah Kane play. Political moment over. Shag Carl just to add insult to injury, and oh so much injury poor ol’ Carl. And I guess kill Robin. That’s actually quite hard when you take out of it everyone I’ve already killed and shagged. I mean Tinker has already killed and shagged, don’t want to get too method over here.

It is a tricky text – is there anything that you read and thought would be difficult but turned out not to be? Anything that went the opposite?
I actually thought the sex scene between the Woman and Tinker would be really hard, maybe not simply to choreograph, which it wasn’t, but my ability to do it. To be naked in a rehearsal room in such close proximity to someone else, without the tricks of the trade you get in screen. But the process of it was so smooth, and after a while it just makes sense. After sitting in the play for so long and sitting with Tinker and her journey, that moment is so necessary and normal and just feels right-thus I felt so ready to do it when it came to that time. And the opposite? Figuring out Tinker. She’s a tough cookie. So close to performances and I’m still working her out. Which I like actually, she keeps surprising me.

What’s your favourite Sarah Kane’s Cleansed stage direction?
But there are so many excellent ones!!! Can I do a top 3? Well, I’m going to anyway.
1. “Carl tries to pick up his hands – he can’t, he has no hands.”
I’ve decided against giving 3, I want there to be some element of surprise for the audience. But I’ve definitely given you an absolute gem. Sarah Kane is actually hilarious.

Lastly, in a direct theft from the dude from Inside The Actors Studio, if heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates? Answer as both yourself and Tinker.
Before I say, I want these answers to be read in the voice of Morgan Freeman. For some very unknown reason, that’s what my idea of God sounds like. As Annie I would like to hear “Hey mate, good work, here’s a beer”. It would preferable be a VB, taste of the old country. As Tinker, I think she will hear “You don’t even go here!” but I reckon she’d like to hear “You did what you had to do for love”.

Kurt Pimblett and Annie Stafford are appearing in Sarah Kane’s Cleansed, part of the Sydney Fringe Festival 2017.
Dates: 19 – 23 September, 2017
Venue: PACT

Review: All Our Lesbians Are Dead (Zenowa Productions)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 16 – 19, 2017
Playwright: Natalie Krikowa
Director: Natalie Krikowa
Cast: Teneale Clifford, Stephanie Hamer, Felicity Keep, Laura Nash, Gemma Scoble

Theatre review
Only 2% of all television characters are lesbian or bisexual women, but they account for 10% of deaths. As the representation of gay women increases in our media, it seems that they are being killed off at an even higher rate. These are the alarming statistics we hear about in Natalie Krikowa’s All Our Lesbians Are Dead, a comedy that presents this wanton massacre on our TV sets, as conspiracy theory.

There are men in high places who understand that the inclusion of queer characters is advantageous to the bottom line, but are unwilling to accept the validity of queer lives. Lesbians are added to shows, to serve their purpose as profit-making commodities, but are routinely murdered to maintain the heteronormative status quo, established since the inception of television almost a century ago.

The plot involves a private investigator being hired by a couple of lesbian couch potatoes, to investigate the reasons behind these rampant TV deaths of queer women. There are scintillating data and intriguing hypotheses in Krikowa’s script, but dialogue is stilted, with unrealistic personalities constructing narratives that are rarely engaging. The cast exhibits good conviction, with actors Teneale Clifford and Gemma Scoble providing a level of proficiency that offer us moments of invigoration, in what is a very basic effort at making theatre.

Bianca says in the play, that it is better not to see yourself at all, than to see yourself dying over and over again. LGBTQI people should not have to choose between invisibility and destruction. Neither should we still be begging for legitimacy in the twenty-first century, but the truth is that our oppression persists. To see ourselves portrayed with fairness in mainstream media may or may not happen in this lifetime, but the alternative underground is where we have always thrived, and it is here that we find our voice and solidarity. Long may we reign.

www.newtheatre.org.au

Review: 5 Guys Chillin’ (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 12 – 15, 2017
Playwright: Peter Darney
Director: Patrick Howard
Cast: John Michael Burdon, Tom Christophersen, Tim De Souza, Stevie Haimes, Will Reilly

Theatre review
The idea of a drug-fuelled sex party might seem, from the outset, a titillating proposition for the adventurous, but in Peter Darney’s very shocking, but desperately truthful, 5 Guys Chillin’, “chemsex” is anything but arousing. The play is an outrageously revealing collection of verbatim disclosures from five men on the fringe, part of a gay subculture that few have investigated. Filled with taboos, this is raw and edgy theatre, replete with astonishing detail. The result is something that is best described as hardcore, and is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

Directed by the provocative Patrick Howard, who brings to his staging a corresponding boldness, we are urged to find an explanation for the extreme behaviour that these characters embrace so resolutely. The self-destruction is evident, and the urgency at which Howard presents that agonising sense of oblivious ruination, is irresistibly thought-provoking, and politically significant. Hypnotic in its nauseatingly realistic rendering of scenes that will never play out in most of our sheltered homes and imaginations, 5 Guys Chillin’ is an opportunity to gawk at how far some of us have to go, to make life bearable.

The spectacle is created by a strong cast, impressively well rehearsed, with each actor demonstrating a depth of understanding that makes us share in the material’s pertinence. John Michael Burdon plays the revolting B, fearless and memorable in his portrayal of a man with no redeeming features. These are difficult personalities to make convincing, but we believe every disgusting word that comes out of Burdon’s mouth. J is performed by Tom Christophersen who leaves a remarkable impression with excellent comic timing and a touching vulnerability. Also poignant is Tim De Souza as PJ, whose disquieting revelations are striking in their emotional authenticity.

Gay men have suffered prejudice and hate for as long as they have existed. Individuals have risen out of homophobia injured but strong, while others continue to languish in insurmountable pain. 5 Guys Chillin’ shows us some of the darkest reactions to that discrimination. We know of teenagers committing suicide as a response to their communities’ rejection of their sexual identities, and here, even though each of the gay men are able to put on a brave face, they are each living out their own private death wishes. Hate can do no good, and we must confront each occurrence with vehemence.

www.newtheatre.org.au

5 Questions with John Michael Burdon and Patrick Howard

John Michael Burdon

Patrick Howard: What about this play drew you to it and led to your auditioning for it?
John Michael Burdon: In 23 years of theatre, I have never had the opportunity (until now) to work on a truly contemporary written piece that really transforms the idea of what we expect queer theatre to be. The fact that it is a verbatim piece and is telling the stories of real people yet maintaining a certain theatricality to it is not something we see every day as an actor. And I truly do try to push my personal boundaries as an actor to find the truth of this play and my character in ways I have never done before so that’s exciting; to have the opportunity to look at a part of myself I’ve always tended to avoid in the past on stage. Plus I’ve always wanted an excuse to wear a leather harness on stage.

The ‘guy’ you’re playing, B, describes himself as an ‘instigator’, and that certainly comes to fruition in the show. How do you relate to playing this role?
My character B, is definitely the most sexually driven and sexually charged character, not only in the play, but also that I have ever performed. As a young man, I was very much the same and lived in the same world of sorts and B, for me, is who I think I would have become, had I not settled down with a partner and become a parent. It’s like playing an alternative future for me – a “what could have been” scenario had I stayed on the path I was on in my late teens / early twenties.

5 Guys Chillin’ is a bit deep-end in its content at times. Why do you think people should come and see this play, rather than avoid it?
Let’s be honest, this play is graphic. From the stories told to the language used, and the simulated sex scenes and drug use, it is quite hardcore to watch. There’s a sense of voyeurism that borders on intrusion from an audience point of view. But I would also say it’s an exercise in watching bravery on stage from a group of actors who are really trying to bring the truth to stage.  This play is set in London where this particular “scene” is a lot more common, however it is happening in Australia as well. It’s an exploration into the way gay men now connect with each other in a world of apps, instant connections, swipe rights, immediate gratification and easy access. I lived in a world of MSN Chat, gay phone lines like Manhunt & clubs and bars – but this play definitely shows us a new world in the gay community and how the men who live in it, still try to find any connection to other men that they can. 

You’re coming into this show right off the back of playing John in After The Dance at the New. What’s it been like juggling these two very different roles?
It’s been a strange experience, there’s been times when I have gone directly from a 5 Guys Chillin’ rehearsal in the rehearsal room upstairs at the New Theatre to preparing for an evening performance of After The Dance, a Rattigan play set in 1939. Jumping from one to the other has been a challenge. Having said that, the two plays and characters are so very far removed from each other, it’s easy to compartmentalise my “actor brain”. Which is a great thing, because the last thing I need is to jump on stage as John in After The Dance and start talking about the epic sex party in Berlin I went to.

I’m going to throw your question right back at you: what is the most embarrassing situation you’ve found yourself in in performance / rehearsal?
Let’s just say it involved a production of Hair, where I appeared naked on stage. I had eaten something bad the night before and…yeah…

Patrick Howard

John Michael Burdon: What has been the biggest challenge in directing 5 Guys Chillin’?
Patrick Howard: Moving past my crippling lack of self confidence, actually. This is the first time I’ve directed a play on my own in quite a number of years, and having trained and worked since with a very collaborative approach to theatre, I’ve constantly been questioning my style of developing theatrical work is effective when directing a scripted piece. But a few minutes into every rehearsal I’m so at ease, it’s all working out really well and I’m learning a lot! I also knew from the start that, given that movement and choreography are some of my weaker attributes as an artist, making the sex scenes and intimate moments on stage work was going to be a challenge. But, I trusted my strongest skills, and have a great and very generous cast, and we’ve all really come together (so to speak…)

Describe 5 Guys Chillin’ in five words.
Funny, affronting, concerning, honest, human.

What is your experience in verbatim theatre?
Before I studied theatre, I’d done an Honours thesis for my music degree which involved a lot of fieldwork, interviews, transcribing and writing and I really enjoyed that. I first took an interest in verbatim theatre when we did Paul Brown’s Aftershocks and Campion Decent’s Embers in drama school, and that was where I started to see where my interests in qualitative research and theatre could meet. I took it upon myself to make it my own private major study in drama school and developed two verbatim plays about police brutality and student politics, and a surreal ‘documentary musical’ about food and medication, which was produced as part of our graduating production. I’ve worked on quite a number of verbatim and documentary works over the past few years, including Götterdämmerung with my own company, Arrive. Devise. Repeat. I love the idea of sculpting something raw with such truth to become part of some bigger truth, and then finding a way to make that exist in space and time in and interesting way that moves an audience. 5 Guys Chillin’ is tremendously successful in this sense – the characters and drama of the work are compelling through subtext, despite being a collage of interviews. It stays fascinating from beginning to end and there’s no judgement or bias of the stories told at all.

Can you see yourself taking part in one of these parties if you were invited?
To be honest, probably not. The opportunity has been there many times, and I’ve never taken it up. Again, there’s that crippling lack of self-confidence again, but this time with reference to my body. I am very good friends with people who a part of this scene, and through them feel like I have experienced it in a way (I’ve certainly experienced helping cleaning up the aftermath of one…) and while I think the idea of it is great, I have a bit of a hesitation with putting myself in situations where I’m not in control. And obviously, with some of the drugs used in this scene, there’s some substantial risks involved, which gives me another reason to pause for thought.

What is the most embarrassing situation you’ve found yourself in in performance / rehearsal?
I tend to be a bit of a risk taker when it comes to art, so don’t easily find myself embarrassed. As an actor, directors tend to give me notes like, ‘A very bold choice, but…’ and as a director, well, we’ll see…? I think, though, some of my teenage memories probably fit the bill, when I didn’t have any self-confidence and was a terrified closeted little band geek. Having to kiss a girl when I had the lead role in the musical in year nine was a big one. I wanted the ground to eat me up whenever it came up. I remember passing a note to my romantic interest via a friend assuring her I was gay and it didn’t mean anything, but that didn’t make it any easier at all. There were some corker teste-pop notes in that show too, god, and I was singing pop/rock songs and I’m just not cool enough to pull that off at all, even now.

Patrick Howard directs John Michael Burdon in 5 Guys Chillin’ by Peter Darney.
Dates: 12 – 15 Sep, 2017
Venue: New Theatre

Review: Undertaking (Sydney Fringe Festival)

Venue: HPG Festival Hub (Erskineville NSW), Sep 6 – 30, 2017
Playwrights: Duncan Maurice, Sharon Zeeman
Director: Duncan Maurice
Cast: Rizcel Gagawanan, Jasper Garner Gore, Moreblessing Maturure, Benjamin Wang, Sharon Zeeman

Theatre review
In a very large disused office, an audience gathers to solve the mystery of 11 murders. There are clues littered everywhere, and we roam around using mobile phones as torches, with suspicious characters in our midst who may or may not be part of the show that we have come to see. Over the course of an hour, drama unfolds, with the cast revealing itself, in their highly unorthodox presentation of a contrastingly conventional serial killer story.

Duncan Maurice and Sharon Zeeman’s Undertaking works with the enveloping of space around bodies, which is the essential nature of the theatrical art form. Strangers congregate, awaiting time and space to transform in the hands of collaborating artists, who have constructed a plan, to orchestrate a process of communication above the mundane. In Maurice and Zeeman’s vision, passivity is the ruin of both art and life. To be a participant of their staging, our spectatorship extends beyond the mind. A kinetic response is required of us, but how much we are willing to give, always remains a personal choice.

The journey fluctuates between moments of bustling activity, and creepy stillness. Some of us are compelled to make things happen, while others are content to wait for the next bout of drama. The wandering group consists of personalities who engage ardently in the investigative process, as well as those who observe quietly; we choose our own adventure. The show is most effective when actors are in close proximity, but the space is large and we are too often left to our own devices. Musical director David Herrero creates an omnipresent soundscape that assists in keeping us involved, especially potent when tensions escalate in the closing minutes. Actor Benjamin Wang is memorable for his terrifying depiction of a man on the brink of death.

Undertaking is a spirited work that takes seriously, its artistic responsibility to inspire its viewer. It is democratic and political, and even if the immediate narrative in the “whodunnit” genre can seem perfunctory, the experience is unforgettable. Whenever the making of art falls into repetitive predictability, we must call for a new challenge. Immersive theatre is just the way to tackle the tedious obedience, that has today become so pervasive.

www.mongrelmouth.com

Review: What I’ll Never Say (Sydney Fringe Festival)

Venue: Erskineville Town Hall (Erskineville NSW), Sep 6 – 9, 2017
Playwright: Stuart Englund
Director: Dan Graham
Cast: Stuart Englund

Theatre review
We often think of politicians as liars. We wish for them to be persons of extraordinary integrity, but believe them to be quite the opposite. Stuart Englund’s What I’ll Never Say is a monologue featuring a Member of Parliament talking, unsurprisingly, about himself. The piece is not particularly revelatory, containing nothing controversial, but its depiction of a man trying to shed a persona, in order that we may get to a sense of truth, is refreshing. Plot and pace are calibrated well for the piece, and we find ourselves able to remain attentive even when the anecdotes lose lustre.

Performed by Englund himself, who is not an actor by any stretch of the imagination, we struggle to glean every detail of the narrative. His presence is relentlessly droll, but a sincerity allows broad strokes to be painted, that give us adequate information and impressions of the personality being portrayed. Englund reads the entire show from sheets of paper on a rostrum, so even though we hear every word clearly, meanings are not always communicated with palpability. If a piece is written for the stage, an appropriate skill set is required to have it come to life, and on this occasion, the right person has not been elected for the job.

The things we read on the news are often stranger than fiction. Our political figures are larger than life, and the tales spun around these personalities can seem nothing short of fantastical. What I’ll Never Say is restrained, almost subdued by comparison, but it feels truthful in what it has to say about our leaders. It is in our culture as Australians to be anti-authority, and in its efforts to humanise the protagonist, we are encouraged to see the ordinariness of those who hold office. It is the intention of the work that individuals will be inspired to embrace politics, and have an increased awareness of insidious power structures that surround us. There can never be enough good people working in the public service, if only to undo the damage caused by the unscrupulous.

www.facebook.com/WhatIllNeverSay