Review: Hamlet (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 29 – Apr 4, 2020
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Peter Evans
Cast: Jeremi Campese, Tony Cogin, Jack Crumlin, James Evans, Harriet Gordon-Anderson, James Lugton, Jane Mahady, Lisa McCune, Robert Menzies, Aanisa Vylet, Sophie Wilde
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Having very recently lost his father, the young prince is understandably grief-stricken. Hamlet obsesses over his mother’s quick remarriage to the new King Claudius, almost as a form of distraction, but when the ghost of the dead king arrives to reveal that it was his own brother Claudius who had killed him, Hamlet becomes overwhelmed with fury. More than a revenge story, Shakespeare’s Hamlet examines the meaning of death, from the vantage point of a man obsessed with bereavement.

It is a handsome production, with Benjamin Cisterne’s lights giving a glamorous finish to the staging, and designer Anna Tregloan’s 1960’s costumes adding a sense of whimsy. Tregloan’s cyclorama depicts a beautiful Danish snowscape, but an awkward house-shaped frame sits centre stage, doing little more than to confuse with its lack of purpose. Video projections by Laura Turner helps us empathise with Hamlet’s tragic circumstances, as does Max Lyandvert’s restrained music compositions.

Director Peter Evans’ conservative style may not deliver anything unexpected, but his rendition is likely to appeal to fans of Shakespeare who favour a more conventional approach. Actor Harriet Gordon-Anderson is insufficiently charismatic as the lead, but displays clear dedication to her craft. What she offers as the Danish prince is not always convincing, due in part to her slight stature, although there is no questioning her conviction and focus for the role. The two problematic women in Hamlet, Gertrude and Ophelia, are played by Lisa McCune and Sophie Wilde respectively, both performers able to convey a certain level of power and integrity, in spite of Shakespeare’s intentions to portray them as useless. Robert Menzies leaves a strong impression as Polonius, animated and entertaining as the court’s chief counsellor.

In the twenty-first century, it is easy to take issue with the representation of women in Shakespeare’s work. We are far less likely to accept as reasonable, the extremely unbalanced way in which gender is expressed in his oeuvre. The current trend of placing women actors in key male roles does, to some extent, soften the blow of insults to half of humankind, but the strategy is rarely if ever, able to comprehensively address the gender problem that figures so centrally in all of Shakespeare’s narratives.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au

5 Questions with Jeremi Campese and Aanisa Vylet

Jeremi Campese

Aanisa Vylet: Hey Jeremi, what excites you the most about this production of Hamlet?
Jeremi Campese: Harriet’s performance first and foremost. But also, Peter’s vision of nostalgia incorporates projections of memories (shot on a period-appropriate Super 8mm camera!!). Placing the past in such clear view gives the present a REALLY moving poignancy at particular moments. I won’t say too much else about the projections, but they’re beautiful and work with Hamlet constantly trying to look back and remember/grieve for his father. The same for Ophelia too!

I understand that you have worked previously with Bell Shakespeare as part of their Players Education program, what was the process like and how has it contributed to your approach during rehearsals?
It was a total joy. Especially performing at regional schools: you’re often their only form of live Shakespeare (and sometimes of live performance) so they were super generous in their excitement and willingness to learn. Of course, there are down days and tough audiences — hormonal 14 years olds at 9am? Thank u next. The whole tour has just made me far more confident in myself as an actor and with the Shakespearean text. But most importantly, no audience can intimidate you after performing to some of those teenagers!

Can you tell us a little bit about your character Rosencrantz and his buddy Guildenstern?
Ros and Guil are school-friends of Hamlet’s. They probably haven’t seen him in a couple years since uni began, but the King and Queen call them after Hamlet’s behaviour becomes strange to find out what’s wrong. It’s a very fun dynamic because they’re constantly having to choose between their childhood friend and the authority of the Court.

Something that I very much respect about your practice is that you are self taught. Do you have any advice for younger actors who wish to pursue a similar path?
Acting is an applied discipline, so it’s only natural that best way to learn is just on the job. So, my advice would just be to keep yourself busy with work. If you don’t have a show lined up, go to auditions; if you don’t have auditions lined up, do workshops (ATYP run fantastic ones for e.g.); if you don’t have workshops lined up, read/learn monologues (contemporary, Shakespearean, classical). If you keep your actor-brain working whenever you can, you’ll always be improving. But also, don’t totally throw away drama school as an option: take those auditions and opportunities seriously.

Which character do you have a secret crush on in Hamlet?
WOW what a question. Maybe Gertrude. I truly think her and Claudius love each other dearly: and Lisa McCune (who’s playing her) and I agree, she was definitely a party animal when she was younger!

Aanisa Vylet

Jeremi Campese: What excites you most about this production of Hamlet?
Witnessing Harriet Gordon Anderson play Hamlet and seeing Peter Evans’ vision for the work unfold. What excites me the most about this endeavour is both Harriet and Peter’s commitment to drawing out Hamlet’s humanity. It is the first time I have witnessed Hamlet being played by a woman and I hope it is not the last.

The Mousetrap is a huge plot point in the play, and Shakespeare builds up to it a fair bit. Without giving too much away, what’s your vision for it in this show?
Hmmm…. Our collective vision is a melange of John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Russian Absurdist Theatre, Ballet, Greek Tragedy & Comical Historical Pastoral Theatre.

Much of your work has been on contemporary and your own, new work (The Girl/The Woman was amazing). How have you found working on a classic text with such a long history of performance and study?
I will let you all in on a little secret – as a high school student I was terrified of Shakespeare. I am also an advocate of creating new work (as I truly believe we are the Shakespeare’s of our times). So… when I auditioned for this production I decidedly went in as my true self, with my truth and my interpretation of the text. I was deeply impressed with the collaborative approach of the Company. I felt at home as an artist and I quickly realised that we were creating a new play from an old story and I could still bring my artistry to it and I could learn quite a lot from the process.

I still believe we need to continue to create new stories that reflect the cultural sensibility of our times but I have also realised these stories have their place too. I believe the text, the world within these plays inspires audiences and speaks to the humanity in many people. The fears of “not knowing enough”, “not being articulate enough” or “stuffing it up” have calmed down due to these realizations, the help of generous cast members and an incredibly supportive company. And in terms of dealing with a text that has had such a long performance history… well… for me every text is up to interpretation.

Who’s your favourite character in the play?
Hamlet. Hands down. The first play I had ever seen was Bell Shakespeare’s Hamlet, directed by John Bell. I was in year 10. I related to Hamlet so much… I could not understand why. All I knew was that I couldn’t shake the feeling that something hidden within me was laid bare on stage.

QUICK! The Aanisa Vylet biopic is being made: who do you want playing you?
A chorus of women of colour speaking in voice.

Jeremi Campese and Aanisa Vylet can be seen in Hamlet, by Bell Shakespeare.
Dates: 29 Feb – 4 Apr, 2020
Venue: Sydney Opera House

Review: No Pay? No Way! (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 10 – Apr 4, 2020
Playwright: Dario Fo (adapted by Marieke Hardy)
Director: Sarah Giles
Cast: Glenn Hazeldine, Rahel Romahn, Helen Thomson, Aaron Tsindos, Catherine Văn-Davies
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Margherita was only lending Antonia a hand with her groceries, when it was discovered that none of the goods had been paid for, and because the authorities are now on the hunt for all the women who had robbed a supermarket, Margherita inadvertently finds herself pretending to be pregnant, with bags of food hiding under her coat. Dario Fo’s No Pay? No Way! is concerned with the working class in 70’s Italy, and their awakening to the fact that the bourgeoisie has been taking advantage of them for far too long, and that it is finally time to revolt.

The absurdist comedy is adapted by Marieke Hardy, who bridges gaps of time and space, for a magnificent new version that makes the story feel pertinent and surprisingly urgent. In her process of language conversion, Hardy shines a light on 21st century Australian neo-liberalism, to create a rousing work that has us questioning the state of our economy. Director Sarah Giles’ rendering of the play is relentlessly energetic, for scenes of hilarity that tickle us from start to end. Although the laughs are incessant, hearty and thoroughly enjoyable, not one moment goes by that lets us forget the politics being discussed. Giles is as cutting as she is funny, and her production is satisfying beyond the entertainment value that it obviously offers.

A glorious set design by Charles Davis facilitates the raucous activity of characters, whilst providing evocative visual cues that relate to the sociopolitical climate being interrogated. Davis’ costumes too, help to depict a world that is distant yet resonant, allowing us to peer into somewhere far away but achieving an intimate understanding about who these people are. Lights by Paul Jackson are extravagantly designed, to create an inexhaustible sense of dynamism for the staging; his work adds powerful amplification to both comic and dramatic qualities of the play, cleverly creating imagery that keeps us invested, no matter where the story chooses to wander.

Five extraordinary talents take the stage, with Helen Thomson’s performance as Antonia setting the tone, through a sophisticated blend of dazzling slapstick and fierce intelligence. Catherine Văn-Davies adds strong commentary to her interpretation of the slightly ditsy Margherita, bringing meaningful elevation to the role, as she executes some seriously boisterous manoeuvres that has us howling. Playing the husbands are Glenn Hazeldine and Rahel Romahn, who display impressive skill not only in their impeccable timing, but also laudable in terms of the narrative depth they convey for these battlers. Aaron Tsindos is unforgettable in all of his quirky roles, wonderfully precise and confident in the wild artistic choices he invests for each of his distinct and very delightful manifestations.

When all the delicious humour comes to a crashing halt at the show’s conclusion, we face the stark reality of what the farce is all about. Dario Fo’s Marxist influences sing beautifully, and painfully, as we confront the increasingly lamentable problems of our society. Demonstrations and rallies are gradually increasing in potency on Australian streets, but truly radical action still seems unimaginable. We are unable to concede to the desperation that has become permanent in our lives, always choosing to believe that the way things are can be improved, instead of daring to completely do away with the old, so that we can be in search of something new. We fool ourselves into thinking that necessary evils are worth the good that we do possess, never allowing idealism to take us somewhere better. We are given crumbs and are expected to be content with our lot. Unlike Antonia and Margherita, who arrive at the last straw of their exploitation, we carry on hating so much of what surrounds us, believing that this is as good as it gets.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Wake In Fright (Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 11 – 15, 2020
Playwright: Declan Greene with Zahra Newman (adapted from the novel by Kenneth Cook)
Director: Declan Greene
Cast: Zahra Newman
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Included in the price of entry, are a pair of earplugs. There are some loud noises in the production that delicate members of the audience might want to shield themselves from, but symbolically, they are a sarcastic dig at our Australian propensity to shut out any discussion about race that goes too close to the bone. Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel Wake In Fright is re-framed by director Declan Greene and performer Zahra Newman, so that the classic gothic horror becomes an apparatus that exposes the anxiety of the white man on this colonised land. School teacher John is trapped in a country town, where he encounters a string of dubious characters determined to inflict degradation, using alcohol and other vices, so that he turns into one of them, over the course of a weekend.

More than a tall poppy story, this reiteration of Wake In Fright is about Western masculinity’s relentless need for destruction. The Indigenous have long disappeared from fictitious Bundanyabba, but the carnage continues, now with European settlers exerting their irrepressible barbarism onto themselves. Having once been a scary movie, this bleak tale is again given the genre treatment, with outstanding work by Verity Hampson on light and projections, alongside James Paul’s thrilling sound design and Melbourne duo friendships’ intuitive music, providing eerie and meaningful discombobulation to our experience of the show. Although not frightening in a sensorial manner that films are notoriously capable of, director Greene certainly conveys powerfully, the fearsome quality of this dark tale. Aussie larrikins gone wild are not to be toyed with.

The exceptional Newman is breathtaking in her one-woman show, unforgettable for delivering extraordinary complexity with what could have been a simple story. She has us on the edge of our seats for the show’s entirety, keeping our minds active with the many dimensions and depths that she alchemizes on stage. It is noteworthy that this version of Wake In Fright works particularly well with a woman of colour at its helm. Newman’s gender and skin are constant cues that prevent us from forgetting about the masculinity and whiteness that are central to the catastrophe unfolding.

The earbuds remain a personal choice. Many will choose to ignore the obvious, because much of the power of the status quo relies on its ability to keep us feeling debilitated. It also succeeds at misleading many into insisting that the problems with society are about deficient individuals, and not the overarching systems that govern us. It is no coincidence that the horrors that overwhelm John are imposed by people who fit a particular description. We need to learn to see patterns, and form understandings that will help us in more substantive ways, than to replace bad eggs in structures that will never accommodate good ones. The outback town in Wake In Fright is sick, but we fear the overhaul that is required, and choose instead to let it languish in perpetual revulsion.

www.malthousetheatre.com.au

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 McDonald 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. Scott Rogers’ 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: 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: Così (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Nov 1 – Dec 14, 2019
Playwright: Louis Nowra
Director: Sarah Goodes
Cast: Gabriel Fancourt, Esther Hannaford, Glenn Hazeldine, Bessie Holland, Sean Keenan, Robert Menzies, Rahel Romahn, Katherine Tonkin, George Zhao
Images by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
Theatre director Lewis finds himself at a mental asylum, not as a patient, but as a facilitator for a one-night-only staging of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, starring clients of the home. This is 1972, many years before deinstitutionalisation had begun, and the personalities Lewis meets are varied in capacities, but uniformly charming. Louis Nowra’s Così is a 1992 comedy with a premise that remains intriguing, but much of its humour has lost its lustre. We have learned to regard mental illness with a diminished sense of alienation, and characters in the play have lost their sense of otherness accordingly, causing many of its jokes to feel archaic.

The production is directed by Sarah Goodes, who does extensive work to reflect a modern sensibility in her iteration of Così. While it does provide an updated sense of cultural appropriateness, with a renewed perspective of people with mental health challenges, we discover that there is little at its heart that truly resonates for today’s audiences. Nevertheless, it is a smartly designed show, with Dale Ferguson’s set and Jonathon Oxlade’s costumes providing a valuable sense of playfulness. Lights by Niklas Pajanti, along with Chris Williams’ music, keep the action jaunty and energised.

Actor Sean Keenan is convincing as the unassuming and somewhat meek Lewis, a sturdy presence who lets his colourful counterparts occupy our attention. Unofficial ringmaster Roy is played by Robert Menzies, who is powerful in the role, and effective in having us invest in his passions for Mozart and classical opera. Bessie Holland is unforgettable as the brassy Cherry, impressive in her ability to deliver big laughs, even with Nowra’s dubious dialogue. Similarly charismatic is Rahel Romahn, consistently and effortlessly funny as Doug the pyromaniac, setting the stage alight at every appearance.

In Così fan tutte, people pretend to be somebody else to discover truths about themselves. Così too, features playacting, with patients of the asylum masquerading as characters in an opera, as though on a recess from their real lives. Individuals can come to new understandings of themselves, when they experience distance from their own existences. Art allows us to step out, and observe the world from a different perspective, which is an immense benefit for all of us who forget the diminutiveness of being, and the inanity of any ego.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au | www.mtc.com.au