Review: High Performance Packaging Tape (Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Sep 18 – 22, 2019
Collaborating Artists: Phil Downing, Mickie Quick, Lee Wilson, Mirabelle Wouters
Cast: Lee Wilson
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
The man assembles a whole lot of household and industrial items, including plastic chairs, oversized balloons, rubber bands, cardboard boxes, and an endless supply of packaging tape. Using them like big boys toys, he performs a series of daredevil type stunts, usually with gravity as his opposition, almost like a circus act. Except Lee Wilson is dealing entirely with physics in High Performance Packaging Tape, leaving nothing to chance, and therefore unlike the circus, we are not fearful of things going wrong. No one is at risk of plunging to their deaths, and certainly no lions are hanging around waiting to maul him to death.

In the absence of danger, our attention is then free to shift towards intellectual aspects of this physical work. We wonder what it is that compels man to place obstacles before himself, as Wilson does incessantly in his show. Questions about gender, ethnicity and therefore social advantages, begin to arise. We wonder if privilege means that a person would tend to create challenges for the self, if challenges are not already present. In 2019, if we are no longer interested in what a white man has to say about the way Australian life is experienced, it appears that we leave him to his own devices, and he goes to prove his worth by exploring his existence in spaces that seem devoid of politics, in cultural frameworks he is able to determine for himself, that can disregard all the urgent discussions being had in the real world.

It is arguable if audiences can be as easily persuaded. Some might be able to invest in the statements being made about the body, as entirely apolitical objects, scientific and subject only to natural laws of matter and energy. The rest of us will struggle to extricate our corporeality from the implications of daily stresses, unable to relate to this ethereal vacuum, where suffering and injustice are so conveniently shut out.

Within this world of childlike play, where the creators make up their own rules, the production is faultless, and very sleek, with what it sets out to achieve. The humour is sophisticated, and the stunts are original. Wilson’s nonchalant composure is a cool juxtaposition against the dramatic intensity of the visual presentations. Auditory effects are remarkably inventive, involving digital manipulations of live sounds that heighten tensions in the auditorium. High Performance Packaging Tape is quite unlike anything one has seen before, an escape from realities that not all can bear.

www.branchnebula.com

Review: The Irresistible (Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Sep 11 – 15, 2019
Playwrights: Ariadne Daff, Zoe Pepper, Tim Watts
Director: Zoe Pepper
Cast: Ariadne Daff, Tim Watts
Images by Rémi Chauvin, Dan Grant

Theatre review
April wants to give her sister Bridget a break from motherhood, so little Cassie comes to stay. We soon discover that the child is not only a handful, she is in fact bizarre. The Irresistible too is often a strange exercise, with two actors playing a range of characters, behind translucent screens blurring our vision, and microphones altering their voices as if to say that it matters not, which actor is assuming which role.

The action is episodic, involving disparate narratives that our minds will insist on assembling a coherent picture out of, but the greatest pleasure in The Irresistible is to luxuriate in the extraordinarily imaginative approaches being applied to each theatrical moment. The magic is not in the stories themselves, but in how those stories are used to subvert our expectations, and therefore deal with what we consider to be normal in art and life. Director Zoe Pepper seems to imply that when we encounter the opposite of normal, an interrogation into who we truly are, comes to the fore. It is hard for humans to properly see ourselves, until a catalyst is introduced to turn us weird, and to force a deviation from the ordinary.

Performed by Ariadne Daff and Tim Watts, the simple text becomes springboard for experimentation, with their irrepressible desire to always manufacture something surprising, resulting in an experience that has us utterly mesmerised. The pair is outrageously inventive, both spirited in the kookiest way possible, and impossibly precise in their delivery of a technically demanding work. Sound by Phil Downing and music by Ash Gibson Greig are astonishing in their ambition and scope, daring to surpass other elements to become the most important and effective design aspects of the production. Jonathon Oxlade’s set and Richard Vabre’s lights manipulate our attention so that we cannot look away, keeping our sight intrigued and hopelessly engrossed for the entire duration.

The character Christian finds himself seduced by the performance of adult entertainer Neve, and responds by trying to dominate and consume her. At the theatre, we can never be sure how power dynamics can manifest themselves. Being capitalist, we enter with the subliminal notion that if someone is going to be the boss, the paying audience must surely be in charge. Art however, cannot let itself be subject only to market forces and the taste of the masses. It is responsible for moving discussions forward, to find advancements for our civilisation. For our society to progress, it seems artists are the only ones left willing to take the lead. We need the shock of the new, and The Irresistible is an excellent case in point.

www.sideponyproductions.com.au | www.thelastgreathunt.com

Review: The Real Thing (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Sep 9 – Oct 26, 2019
Playwright: Tom Stoppard
Director: Simon Phillips
Cast: Johnny Carr, Charlie Garber, Rachel Gordon, Geraldine Hakewill, Shiv Palekar, Julia Robertson, Dorje Swallow
Images by Lisa Tomasetti
Theatre review
Henry has an excellent relationship with words and philosophy, which is just as well, being a successful playwright much like his creator Tom Stoppard. In The Real Thing however, we discover that his cerebral talents do not extend to matters of the heart. It is that very human conundrum we deal with in Stoppard’s extraordinarily rigorous piece of writing, that it is one thing to be able to know so deeply all that can be intellectualised, yet be unable to have much control over how one loves. People in the play are smart. Their understanding of the world is astute and penetrating, and their talk is very highbrow, but when we observe the way their feelings are being enacted, it seems there is no escaping the fools that we ultimately are.

Couples in The Real Thing wrestle with issues of fidelity. They cheat, they are suspicious, they are apologetic, and they fail repeatedly. They struggle with the need to be faithful, often engaging in discussions about the meaning of love and monogamy, but what they say have little bearing on how they feel. A constant discord exists between logic and emotions, prompting us to wonder if there can be more than one real thing in the human experience, if what we think and how we act are so often not in concurrence.

Director Simon Phillips brings remarkable clarity not only to these immediate themes, but also to the many tangential musings that make The Real Thing memorable. The density of the text is translated on stage by Phillips into a luxuriant tapestry of inspiring observations emerging from Stoppard’s brilliant mind. In the role of Henry is the sensational Johnny Carr, bringing a startling truthfulness to dialogue that could very easily be turned, under the wrong hands, highfalutin and empty. The actor’s presence and timing have us captivated, as we find ourselves enraptured, deeply invested in the many meaningful discussions that provide the foundation, for an admittedly bourgeois narrative. Geraldine Hakewill too, is engaging as Annie, a strong counterpoint in the story, effortlessly convincing with the complexity she portrays, whether playing subject or object in this tale about affection and attraction.

Production designer Charles Davis delivers a spectacular set, wonderfully imagined for the revolve stage, to facilitate poetic parallels between words and visions. His costumes are quiet but effective, able to bridge the time disparity inherent in reviving a 37-year-old work. Lights by Nick Schlieper are correspondingly sophisticated, always pleasing with the imagery he manufactures, and exacting in the way he shifts our impulsive responses from scene to scene.

It is likely that one can arrive at the conclusion that realities are multitudinous, yet there is something in our nature that cannot resist the idea that there could be a singular essence to things, that there is a fundamental truth in how we regard the world. It is as though a key exists, that life is only ever experienced as a sort of mystery that requires solving. Henry’s racing thoughts are incessant, and luckily for us, always beautifully articulated, yet we only ever see him carry on like a fool for love, as though knowledge can never live up to its promise of having the answer to everything.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

5 Questions with Tariro Mavondo and Jayna Patel

Tariro Mavondo

Jayna Patel: Do you have any pre-show rituals or routines?
Tariro Mavondo: Yes I do. My rituals usually differ depending on what the role I’m playing requires, for instance if it is a highly physical role I will do an intensive physical as well as vocal warm up. I always do a 15-30 min movement yogic sequence to get me into my body and out of my head as well as a set of personal affirmations and 10-15 min breathing meditation. A ritual for a while now has been to brush my teeth before every show to cleanse the day and enter the theatrical space of imagination, possibilities and wonder. I’m partial to candles, dim lights and soft music in my dressing room  and maybe one or two hard hitting tracks too.

If you were to recast the play with celebrities, who would you cast as who?
In line with Adena’s casting because I think she nailed it I would cast Frances McDormand in the principal role of Titus, Vanessa Williams as Tamora, Danai Gurira as Aaron, Peter Dinklage as Saturninus, Travis Fimmel as Bassianus/Marcus double, and I’d still cast Jayna, Tony and Grace because y’all stars in my eyes!

If you had the chance to have dinner with William Shakespeare, what would you ask him?
I’m interested in the theory of Emilia Bassano a black woman who was one of the first professional females writer’s in Elizabethan England having wrote his plays and the theory of her being the dark lady he refer to in his sonnets so I’d probably ask him about that. I’d also put on my best hip hop artists and ask him if he digs it because my guess is he’d be really into it!

Your purple hair for this show is so bold and beautiful! Is there anything you wouldn’t do to your hair for a show?
Thank you! Yeah I’m loving the vibrancy and vitality of wearing purple hair. I have done many things to my hair for the screen and stage there really isn’t anything I wouldn’t do I don’t think. Although my preference is keep it as natural looking as possible and not wear wigs that are closer to European hair if the character doesn’t require that. Black hair has a complete politic of its own and reclaiming the nappy kinky coil look when I can is important to me.

What’s your favourite kind of pie? (excluding Chiron & Demetrius flavour)
I don’t eat very much meat so I’d probably pick a sweet dessert pie – anything with apple. Apple and rhubarb or blueberry. Apple pie is probably my favourite winter dessert I’m also largely dairy free but cream on my apple pie is a must, haha definitely my guilty pleasure!

Jayna Patel

Tariro Mavondo: What has been your favourite part of making Titus Andronicus? And why? 
Jayna Patel: I love Adena’s style of theatre making because it is a collaborative process, and as a young person who often has no say in what goes on to the stage (and sometimes in life!) it’s really refreshing and empowering to have been able to contribute.

You often wear cool political t-shirts and musical theatre t-shirts, what’s your favourite? And why? 
My favourite t-shirt says ‘anti-colonial, anti- capitalist, for climate justice’ because I’m a climate activist who’s frankly quite scared for the future of the planet given the current environmental and political situation – I love being able to express my views & send an important message using what I wear! 

What drew you to wanting to work on Titus?
It’s a pretty funny story actually. Before I was sent this offer I had no idea what Titus Andronicus was, in fact I wasn’t too fond of any Shakespeare at the time! But my mum came to me and said “oh hey, there’s this Shakespeare play thing going on, and they want a 15 year old to audition, do you wanna give it a go?” and i said “sure why not!” So I hear that I actually got in and I’m stoked, and then my dad says “isn’t that Shakespeare’s most violent play?” and the excitement began there…

As your first main stage gig at the Opera House how are you feeling? And how are you managing the school load as well?
The first day we got into the venue, I was buzzing with excitement/nerves and I haven’t stopped! I cannot wait to hit the stage with this amazing team of artist and creatives. And as for school work… uh, let’s just say hopefully none of my teachers are reading this article!

Catch Tariro Mavondo and Jayna Patel in Titus Andronicus, by William Shakespeare.
Dates: 27 Aug – 22 Sep, 2019
Venue: Sydney Opera House

Review: Titus Andronicus (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Aug 27 – Sep 27, 2019
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Adena Jacobs
Cast: Melita Jurisic, Tariro Mavondo, Jane Montgomery Griffiths, Jayna Patel, Josh Price, Tony Ray Ray, Daniel Schlusser, Grace Truman, Catherine Văn-Davies
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
War is said to have ended, but the violence of man bears a momentum that cannot be halted. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus involves bloody revenge between feuding parties, a cyclical phenomenon too powerful it seems, for any single human to defy. More than a fixation on murder, the play draws us into its morbid, almost fetishistic preoccupation with rape, amputation, infanticide and cannibalism. It is that pornographic quality that makes Titus Andronicus one of Shakespeare’s least celebrated work, but exploiting this weakness, it appears, can deliver surprising results.

Under Adena Jacobs’ direction, this ultramodern staging removes all the charade of having to relay a narrative, choosing instead to delve right into the dark obsessions that Shakespeare had rightly identified to be a seductive force behind his storytelling. A tale about kings and queens is constructed to mask the titillation derived from the representation of destruction, blood and gore. Jacobs’ show rids itself of pretence, in order that we may come in direct confrontation with some of our ugliest realities. We have to decide what is pleasurable and what is objectionable, acknowledge the disturbing overlaps, and perhaps most importantly, evaluate our peculiar attraction to horror. If we can understand the appeal of witnessing the grotesque in our art, there must surely be correlations with real world harm that can be identified and demystified.

Flamboyantly macabre, Jacobs’ version of Titus Andronicus is avant-garde theatre at its most enthralling. Every scene a spectacle, as intriguing as they are outrageous. Shakespeare’s characters are portrayed to be as bizarre as they truly are, and in ridding the wolf of sheep’s clothing, we get closer to the essence of these people and of our shared inglorious humanity. Designer Eugyeene Teh does extraordinary work with sets, props and costumes, exhilarating with the freedom he expresses through the manifestation of some very wild visions. Video projections are a crucial element of the production, and Verity Hampson’s ability to seamlessly incorporate live and pre-recorded material with everything else that is demanded of our senses, makes for a series of multimedia juxtapositions that prove to be thoroughly, and unusually, satisfying. Sound design by Max Lyandvert forms a direct link with our nervous system, able to control our visceral responses with tremendous detail, in accordance with the shifting tensions being dramatically rendered.

An entirely splendid cast of performers, each one daring, inventive and spirited, present an experimental venture the degree of which is rarely seen on the big stages in Sydney. Playing Titus is Jane Montgomery Griffiths, whose unfailing emotional intensity provides a dependable anchor for us to navigate the feverishly chaotic action. The maternal quality she brings to the role prevents us from conveniently dismissing violence as par for the course in this story about warriors. Instead, we are compelled to connect with the moral dimensions that accompany each brutal thought and deed. Young actor Grace Truman leaves a marvellous impression with her conviction and focus, demonstrating herself to be an irresistible presence at the tender age of fifteen. Some of the show’s more extreme moments of performative transgression come from a radiant Catherine Văn-Davies, who uses her body to make statements about defilement in a way that is simultaneously vulnerable and defiant. In a piece that talks about people going too far, the inspired Văn-Davies certainly pushes the envelope in terms of what we have come to expect, of artistic establishments that tend to be obstinately conservative.

Amongst all the gruesome atrocities of Titus Andronicus, is something that feels like a transcendent beauty. It is clear that carnage has an alluring power; there is a part of us that loves the dark, that our capacity for cruelty, whether sadistic or masochistic, is undeniable. As audience, we are caught between knowing what is right, and wanting to see the worst. Artists are on hand to engage our imagination, sometimes for a discussion, and sometimes for catharsis. On this occasion, what we witness often seems strange, but its immense resonance demands that we look deeper, so that we find points of recognition within, that we come face to face with aspects of the self that are too hideous to address.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au

Review: West Side Story (Opera Australia)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), from Aug 16 – Oct 6, 2019
Book: Arthur Laurents
Music: Leonard Bernstein
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Jerome Robbins
Cast: Christian Ambesi, Matthew Antonucci, Daniel Assetta, Molly Bugeja, Olivia Carniato, Nicholas Collins, Nikki Croker, Paul Dawber, Angelica Di Clemente, Sarah Dimas, Amba Fewster, Anthony Garcia, Sebastien Golenko, Keanu Gonzalez, Paul Hanlon, Zoe Ioannou, Brady Kitchingham, Ariana Mazzeo, Noah Mullins, Natasha O’Hehir, Nathan Pavey, Sophie Salvesani, Berynn Schwerdt, Ritchie Singer, Taylah Small, Joshua Taylor, Blake Tuke, Dean Vince, Lyndon Watts, Daniel Wijngaarden, Jason Yang-Westland, Chloé Zuel
Images by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
It is now 62 years, since the world was first introduced to the Jets and the Sharks, rival gangs from West Side Story, Bernstein and Sondheim’s landmark musical. Its relevance today is startling, as we find the United States in the throes of shocking immigration policies, determined to demonise those hailing from Latin America. The authentic darkness of the piece prevents it from dating, from its experimental musical styles to its thematic explorations into racial vilification, its resonances are timeless, even if the narrative seems to relate specifically to a distant time and space.

The production is highly polished, with director and choreographer Jerome Robbins’ original vision faithfully presented. Design elements no longer feel inventive by today’s standards, but the air of sophistication being conjured is unequivocal.

A tale about white supremacy, West Side Story features a group of white boys called the Jets, who spend their days taunting the Puerto Rican Sharks. Lyndon Watts is an imposing Bernardo, powerful and precise as leader of the Sharks. His nemesis Riff is played by Noah Mullins, a very peculiar casting choice given the performer’s glaringly bookish quality. Leading lady Sophie Salvesani is a suitably wholesome Maria, although rarely inspiring with her renditions of some extremely well-known songs. Daniel Assetta may not deliver a flawless Tony, but we are kept engaged by his likeable presence and surprisingly dulcet tones. The one real star on this stage is Chloé Zuel, whose Anita takes us through every gamut of emotion, impressive from beginning to end, as the proverbial triple threat.

Policing authorities in West Side Story fail to recognise the inherent power imbalance at play, as they attempt to handle the situation as though the feuding parties are equal in strength, unable to identify the victims they should protect. Minorities are routinely subjugated, when a level playing field exists only in our imagination. It is easy to place blame on the juvenile delinquents, who act out these objectionable impulses, but the problems are systemic, deeply entrenched in how we think and how we do things. The cure needs to target the root of the problem, and that will never be less than radical.

www.westsidestory.com.au

Review: Banging Denmark (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jul 26 – Aug 24, 2019
Playwright: Van Badham
Director: Jessica Arthur
Cast: Michelle Lim Davidson, Patrick Jhanur, Amber McMahon, TJ Power, Megan Wilding
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
It is very 2019 to have in a comedy, an online feminist warrior meet a leader of digital misogynistic communities, but as we see in Van Badham’s Banging Denmark, that is exactly the kind of story we need right now. Jake has run out of easy conquests, and is now setting his sights on a Danish librarian, a woman from an enlightened future impervious to his seedy charms. The quickest way to achieve cut-through, he figures, would be to enlist the help of Ishtar, whom he knows to be struggling with poverty, having just sued her through defamation law for every penny. If Ishtar is authority of all things feminist, she would clearly be the one to get Jake into a raging feminist’s pants.

Badham’s writing is keenly observed and very biting. It pours scorn on those who are deserving of insult, for an intensely contemporary experience that appeals to our very à la mode, adversarial tendencies. The work feels original in its scope and structure, a tremendously entertaining tale that proves unpredictable, rich with imagination yet entirely plausible. It bears all the characteristics of a romantic-comedy, only to subvert the narrative time and again, for a meaningful agitation of our nonsensical desires.

Designed by Renée Mulder, the backdrop is an imposing conglomeration of speakers, a visual delight that doubles perhaps, as a symbolic gesture pointing to our all talking, no listening culture. Director Jessica Arthur introduces just enough acerbity so that her show connects with an easy humour, whilst retaining the valuable intentions of the piece. Although consistently stimulating, the production never gets too intellectually demanding. There is a cheekiness to Banging Denmark that many will find entertaining, and with an emphasis on story over ideology, it demonstrates a prudent need to prevent itself from alienating any of its audience.

Actor Amber McMahon is full of exuberance as the irrepressible Ishtar, delivering a thoroughly enjoyable performance that is as funny as it is intelligent. In the role of Jake is TJ Power, deeply impressive with the dynamic range he brings to the staging, remarkably confident in presence, able to turn a hateful character into something believable, salvageable and human. Three supporting players, Michelle Lim Davidson, Patrick Jhanur and Megan Wilding, offer a variety of textures that make the experience a surprisingly expansive one, that urges us to think beyond the lazy binary.

If Banging Denmark‘s happy ending leaves one unsatisfied, one should probably reflect on their appetite for discord and destruction. We live in such disharmony, largely because of our own design. We have found ways to argue and fight, committed to making things better in accordance with personal perspectives, but we keep moving further and further away from all fabled notions of peace. Addiction to technology is real, and with that it seems, we have become addicted to disunity; happier to wrestle with aggression and rivalries, than to find ways for friendly co-existence. This is an age with unprecedented, and unlimited, capacity for speaking, but it can often look like no one is listening.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au