Review: Dinner (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Sep 11 – Oct 28, 2017
Playwright: Moira Buffini
Director: Imara Savage
Cast: Caroline Brazier, Brandon Burke, Claire Lovering, Rebecca Massey, Aleks Mikić, Sean O’Shea, Bruce Spence
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Paige is throwing a pretentious dinner party, for people she dislikes. Moira Buffini’s takedown of the English upper class, Dinner, begins promisingly enough, with pathetic women and impotent men tearing into each other, to expose the ignorant indulgences of those at the top, who seem to have things much easier for no good reason. Touches of surrealism give the play an enjoyable whimsy, but we quickly discover its plot and dialogue to be unoriginal, almost generic in its castigation of the rich. Characters with a depraved sense of entitlement, all in broken relationships, engaging in hateful exchanges over an expensive meal; none of it ever ceases to feel a tad too familiar.

The action takes place in a glorious dining room (designed by Elizabeth Gadsby), behind a big glass window. Either the great unwashed has to be kept at bay, or the theatre patrons need to be protected from some big mess that is poised to take place on stage. Three words, “fuck things up”, are given grand emphasis several times in the course of the production, but the wait for radical activity proves fruitless. Director Imara Savage makes several obtuse gestures in her staging, attempting to introduce the idea of subversion to her work, but it all feels much too polite, and they fall regrettably flat.

Caroline Brazier gives a polished performance as Paige, and although we can certainly see the disquiet and the deceptive fragile glamour of the lady of the house, we never really come to an understanding of the source of her immense toxicity, which underpins the entire narrative of Dinner. Aleks Mikić plays Mike, the outsider who stumbles in, representing the working class, in a juxtaposition of the privileged against the concept of an everyman. In spite of the actor’s strange and unexplained use of a posh accent, the enigmatic qualities created for his persona, makes him one of the more intriguing aspects of this production.

There are laughs to be had, and valuable concepts to chew on, but Dinner needs a lot more spice if its ambitions are to be fulfilled. Social inequity is a problem of great severity, especially troubling in the Trump age, and when we decide to challenge the imbalance of wealth, any hint of the perfunctory would risk the exercise turning inadequate and hypocritical. It is never sufficient that artists are well-meaning. We rely on them to tell the truth in a way that the truth may have an effect on how we think and live, and when the message is hard to digest, their arguments need to find a way to make themselves persuasive. A gentle simmer might be an easy way to broach the subject, but it rarely manages to get the job done.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Djuki Mala (Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jun 13 – 18, 2017
Director: Joshua Bond
Choreographers: Nikki Ashby, Joshua Bond, Lionel Garawirrtja
Cast: Wakara Gondarra, Baykali Ganambarr, Watjarr Garmu, Didiwarr Yunupingu
Image by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Hailing from north-eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, Djuki Mala comprises a group of Aboriginal men who showcase their proud Yolngu culture through traditional and contemporary dance. Between the live action, video projections featuring interviews with the dancers and their maternal figures, provide background information that help us contextualise the lives being showcased on stage.

As the show progresses, significant influences from American culture, from Michael Jackson to Gene Kelly, become markedly present. Westernisation is a facet that insists on being incorporated into every Australian existence, but the purity of Yolngu heritage remains, even at the dance’s more colonised moments. Joy will persist, regardless of our oppressors’ intentions and efforts.

Whether the segments are choreographed to be quiet or rambunctious, this magnetic cast of five, bring a sense of celebratory spiritedness to all that they present. It is an enthusiasm that is tremendously infectious, and never fading. The greatest beauty of Djuki Mala lies in the luminous optimism of the people being represented, and the resilience that we witness. Successful Indigenous lives are evidence of a resistance that is ongoing and untameable, and these carefree dancers demonstrate that the best revenge is a life well lived.

www.djukimala.com

Review: Talk (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Apr 3 – May 20, 2017
Playwright: Jonathan Biggins
Director: Jonathan Biggins
Cast: Valerie Bader, Helen Christinson, Paige Gardiner, Peter Kowitz, Lucia Mastrantone, Kenneth Moraleda, Andrew Tighe, Hannah Waterman, John Waters, Ben Wood
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Journalists are losing jobs every day, while the world transitions from traditional forms of news consumption to what is termed new media. In the digital age, information comes cheap, and its dissemination no longer relies on sources of authority and legitimacy. Instead, we find ourselves obtaining news from literally anyone, with little discernment, through things like social media or any of the millions of internet web pages.

What used to be considered a revered profession, is now dissolved into commentary, opinion and hearsay, coming from people who have demonstrated nothing that earns our trust, most of which is never verified or verifiable. A lot of Jonathan Biggins’ Talk is about the well-founded anxiety surrounding this changing landscape, as well as the ever-present threat that commerce and propaganda pose to our media organisations.

Three powerful bodies are represented in the play; the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the Daily Telegraph, and a fictive mercenary radio station with its talkback star. We observe them finding their way around the case of an alleged paedophile, each one responding in their characteristic manner, with none able to report the truth. Biggins offers insight and perspective on an industry he knows well. The clarity of his deductions is valuable to how we understand the state of play today, in forces that have undeniable influence on all our lives. As a work of theatre though, the dialogue is often contrived, with a transparently didactic approach that gets in the way of its storytelling.

A lack of nuance in its depiction of archetypal personalities produces a kind of comedy that is perhaps too obvious and slightly hackneyed. Its characters are never surprising, although performances are uniformly polished and considered. Actor John Waters as the aforementioned talkback radio host John Behan, is entirely convincing, but the material at hand does not seem to encourage a depiction that is as comical and outrageous, as the real life examples he emulates.

Production design is a straightforward affair in Talk, but for what it lacks in ingenuity, it compensates with efficiency. Mark Thompson divides the stage into three static portions, to accommodate the play’s three workplaces. If their only intention is to create believable and functional spaces for action to occur, then design faculties have passed with flying colours on this occasion.

We want the news to give us access to the truth, but truth is rarely the real priority for those who give us the news. As we become increasingly sceptical of the old gatekeepers, we reach for alternate sources in hope of locating information that is more accurate and relevant, but that can lead us into echo chambers that have us shielded from reality. It is a grim scenario that Talk leaves us with, but its pessimistic resistance of digital advancements in our media is overstated. Traditional formats were never without their problems. It is tempting to think of the past as simple and wholesome, but lying crooks have existed since the dawn of time, and we will have always have to be vigilant, no matter ink or pixels.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Richard III (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 25 – Apr 1, 2017
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Peter Evans
Cast: Ivan Donato, James Evans, Sandy Gore, James Lugton, Kevin Maclsaac, Kate Mulvany, Meredith Penman, Gareth Reeves, Rose Riley, Sarah Woods
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Born ugly, Richard never understood what it is to be loved, and his story details the effect on a person when rejection is a constant and central defining experience. Coupled with what we now term privilege, his aristocratic life places him in a position of power in spite of that perpetual derision, and what results is a bitter thirst for the reciprocation of inhumanity, that knows no bounds.

It is possible to think of evil as a condition that is somehow innate, even natural to some, or as Shakespeare does in Richard III, we can conceive of evil as a manufactured and socialised phenomenon. In director Peter Evan’s rendition, the way brutality manifests, is an unambiguous process of retribution; Richard’s behaviour is depicted as being a direct consequence of the way he suffers under the mistreatment of a cruel world.

The production is adequately assembled, but there is no overstating its capacity as a showcase for the staggering talents of Kate Mulvany, who takes on the eponymous role with splendid aplomb. Mulvany’s unequivocal brilliance occupies centre stage, having us enthralled at every second, and casting a shadow over the rest of the show. All we want, is to absorb every meticulous minutiae that she serves up in each word and gesture.

It is pure genius at work, and to witness a virtuoso performance that is so exhaustively invested and incredibly rich with resonance, is the kind of theatre that broadens our understanding of what art is capable of doing. When Mulvany strips off at dramatic climax, to reveal her own scoliosis, we see the severely curved spine that she shares with Richard, and in that moment, performativity and reality conflate, for one of the most powerful visions ever brought to stage. Our reaction is appropriately visceral, but we are also made to consider how we attribute a person’s merits, or more accurately in this case, demerits, to their natural traits. If Richard is a villain because of his congenital physical condition, we must question how Mulvany’s and everybody else’s corporeality, is able to determine the people that we eventually become. We wonder about the finality of fate from the point of birth, and the extent to which our existence is written in the stars, and on the flesh.

There are other members of cast who impress, most notably Meredith Penman and Sarah Woods who deliver sensational scenes of heightened emotion, but the piece dulls significantly in the short moments when our star is offstage. Evans’ frequent use of his actors as a chorus is occasionally awkward, although the sense of vigour they create is valuable in ensuring that our attention is sustained. The set and costumes do not quite achieve the luxury and decadence that it aspires to, and the use of a small television set to convey the presence of a dumbwaiter is an inelegant solution and a continual distraction.

Visual aesthetics in this Richard III may not be a strength, but the character we have come to see, is marvellously presented. To live is to learn, and to be human, we need to understand humanity. Art shows us all the possibilities of being, so that we can find ways to negotiate better, both our environs and our selves. It is unlikely that Richard is a straightforward reflection of any one of us, but through this extraordinary rendering of a man who suffers and who retaliates, we gain insight into the nature of personal demons and recognise the way we co-exist in communities. Love can bring about things most beautiful, but its absence, is how we invite every ugliness.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au

Review: Away (Sydney Theatre Company)

stcVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 18 – Mar 25, 2017
Playwright: Michael Gow
Director: Matthew Lutton
Cast: Marco Chiappi, Julia Davis, Wadih Dona, Glenn Hazeldine, Natasha Herbert, Heather Mitchell, Liam Nunan, Naomi Rukavina
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
It all happens in the summer of 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated in the USA, and the black power salute of the Mexico City Olympics stuns the world. Meanwhile in Australia, baby boomers come of age in a country of stability and abundance. Michael Gow’s Away is about life on this land, half a century ago. Three families, connected through high school, go through their private experiences of grief, at a time when all should have been peachy keen.

It is arguable whether their personal dramas are able to find relevance, two generations later, with today’s audiences. We exist in what seems like a completely different time, and even though we comprehend the human struggles and relationship pressures in Gow’s writing, their concerns seem far removed from our daily realities. There are allusions to issues of racial disharmony in Away that feels more current of its themes, but much of the piece hinges on anxieties of a bygone era. The Vietnam War and Gone With The Wind have long been surpassed as symbols of cultural significance.

Director Matthew Lutton chooses wisely, to hone in instead on the more theatrical, almost operatic qualities of the play, amplifying its non-naturalistic portions for a production that thrills with its flamboyance and episodic surrealness. The most memorable moments involve wildly imagined spectacle, usually without dialogue, prompting us to wonder if the text is but a conduit for Lutton’s prime interest in the visceral possibilities of the art form. Act IV commences with the most breathtaking of set transformations; a 10 second sequence stunning in its beauty, and flabbergasting with its technical proficiency, proving set designer Dale Ferguson and lighting designer Paul Jackson to be the real stars of the night.

Also stellar however, is the cast of eight, each one beautifully delicate in their interpretations of roles, and enchanting with the chemistry they formulate as an ensemble. Heather Mitchell is particularly mesmerising as Gwen, the angry unfulfilled mother, resentful of everything and everyone within earshot. Mitchell brings her performance close to caricature hysteria, but always ensuring that we understand Gwen’s small world of perpetual catastrophe. The other inconvenient female of Away is Coral, isolated and traumatised, played by Natasha Herbert who brings classic tragic glamour to the part, keeping us engaged in her painful journey, while providing entertainment value with her confidently expressive portrayal. These are two wonderful characters who give the show its exuberance, but they represent a kind of gender depiction that is thoroughly unbalanced and outmoded. The women are crazy and the men, sturdy. The women are a handful and the men have to pick up the pieces. This dichotomous construct is tired and dangerous.

There is noteworthy and substantial reinvention that takes place in this production of Away, demonstrating its undeniable need for an update. We are attached to works like this not just for its inherent artistic merit, but also because of commerce, nostalgia, and cultural sentiment. We must always move on when making art, but when we wish to look back, we must only do so without fear of being adventurous and radical.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: A Flea In Her Ear (Sydney Theatre Company)

stcVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Oct 31 – Dec 17, 2016
Playwright: Georges Feydeau (adaptation by Andrew Upton)
Director: Simon Phillips
Cast: Helen Christinson, Harriet Dyer, Leon Ford, Harry Greenwood, Sean O’Shea, Kelly Paterniti, Justin Smith, Tim Walter, David Woods
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Raymonde Chandebise has doubts of her husband’s fidelity, as Victor Emmanuel is suddenly unable to perform in bed (he blames a disappointing night at the theatre). Putting his devotion to the test, Raymonde sends a letter from an anonymous admirer requesting Victor Emmanuel meet for a tryst at a sleazy hotel, thereby initiating a series of humorous mishaps and high jinks in Georges Feydeau’s 1907 A Flea In Her Ear. The classic farce is relentless in its comedic endeavours, unafraid to traverse the most juvenile and absurd for a good laugh. There is little that can now be seen as refreshing in Feydeau’s play, but its complex construction of topsy-turvied identities, intentions and narratives is masterfully imagined. Andrew Upton’s adaptation is an energetic update, although surprisingly restrained with its bawdy material. Opportunity for more biting commentary on the nature of hypocrisy in our lives is relinquished, for a work that relishes in endless frivolity and mirth, brilliantly shaped to deliver laughter in its every line.

The production comes in a very particular style of presentation that feels deeply old-fashioned, but is, in the same breath, a genre of theatre that remains highly effective. Simon Phillips demonstrates his genius at directing an astonishingly specific and vigorous show, where each moment of stage time seems to be crowded with a host of precisely located nuance, along with sounds and gestures all meticulously configured to a tee. The performers are in perpetual dynamic motion, whether a twitch of the head or somersaulting across the floor, every movement is calculated to provide punctuation to jokes that may or may not be very good on their own. The show is a furious, heady tickling of the funny bone that demands its audience respond with laughter, and we often find ourselves obliging, dumbfounded by its power.

A very enthusiastic cast challenges us to meet their feverish folly with corresponding glee. An air of overwhelming silliness pervades the auditorium, and only the most seriously jaded could leave unscathed. Raymonde is played by Harriet Dyer, strikingly confident and natural in how she is able to turn all the ridiculous goings on to her advantage. With immaculate timing and an extraordinarily agile voice, she is a stand out in a sea of raucous talent, trouncing other players who come armed with bigger costumes and even bigger acting. Other memorable performers include Justin Smith and David Woods, both playing dual roles, chopping and changing between characters at lightning speed to show off their unfathomable theatrical athleticism, and comic versatility. Smith’s campy playfulness as Carlos and August, is especially charming and a clear highlight, of a production that helps us rediscover the magic that happens when our artists are allowed to exhibit the very best of their abilities. Sometimes, the menu may not wish to serve up anything of great originality or intellect, but its familiar, comforting offerings can prove a delightful sanctuary, and the kind of entertaining reprieve that we all inevitably, find ourselves needing.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Othello (Bell Shakespeare)

bellshakespeareVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Oct 25 – Dec 4, 2016
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Peter Evans
Cast: Ray Chong Nee, Joanna Downing, Alice Keohavong, Edmund Lembke-Hogan, James Lugton, Huw McKinnon, Elizabeth Nabben, Yalin Ozucelik, Michael Wahr
Image by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
As the saying goes, “well behaved women seldom make history”. Desdemona and Emilia are slaughtered by their respective husbands after displaying only wifely devotion, as well as prudent decorum to all and sundry in Othello. It is not a battle of the sexes in the play, for there is nothing that resembles a level playing field, but an examination of tyrannical brutality against women, and the treatment of women, in art and in society, as mere objects and possessions. Toxic masculinity is the villain, and it resides in every one of the play’s male characters. Jealousy and egotism are their driving force, and great drama certainly does ensue, along with observations on some of our ugliest traits as human beings.

It is a remarkably well-rehearsed production, with director Peter Evans’ innovative ideas keeping things fresh and relevant for contemporary audiences. Imagery is often beautifully manufactured; Evans’ efforts at adding visual resonance to Shakespeare’s text is admirable, especially noteworthy in Cassio’s “party scene”, involving strobe lights and levitating cask wine bladders. Lighting design by Paul Jackson is thoroughly adventurous, and relied upon heavily for scene transitions and atmospheric transformations, in the presence of a very minimal set, consisting little more than a big wheely table that is manoeuvred around the stage for a large portion of the show, breathtaking when effective, but unbelievably jarring when at its worst.

The cast is polished and energetic, but the show suffers from portrayals of very big emotions that are not necessarily persuasive. Ray Chong Nee is a stately and handsome Othello, perfect in his depiction of the character’s noble qualities, and enthralling as a romantic figure in the early sequences, but Othello’s descent into darker barbaric emotions is significantly less convincing. Bad guy Iago is powerfully performed by Yalin Ozucelik, charismatic and full of conviction, in a role that gives the plot its strongest propulsive vigour. Although slightly lacking in texture, the actor’s work remains captivating, with a delicious Machiavellianism that makes for excellent entertainment.

It is reported that one woman is killed by her partner every week in Australia. When the women are slain at the bitter end, our attention is drawn squarely onto the behaviour of the perpetrators. We begin to wonder if much has changed over the last four centuries, and are disturbed by the thought that the lowest of our nature continues to persist through aeons of civilisation. Shakespeare’s Othello, is a man’s story for men. It is a tragedy with logic and consequences, where a black man is used, in a highly prejudiced manner, to demonstrate that primordial impulses can lead to catastrophe. Our salvation can lie only in the understanding of our destructive nature, and in every effort to restrain and reshape those instincts. If we choose to improve, life becomes better, but where we take the cowardly alternative, there can only be loss.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au