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.

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.

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.

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Sydney Theatre Company)

stcVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Sep 12 – Oct 22, 2016
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Paula Arundell, Matthew Backer, Rob Collins, Honey Debelle, Emma Harvie, Jay James-Moody, Brandon McClelland, Josh McConville, Robert Menzies, Susan Prior, Rose Riley, Rahel Romahn, Bruce Spence
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Characters get up to a lot of mischief in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but what can be construed as humorous, can also be seen as menacing. The play features deception, sabotage, humiliation and misogyny, subversively, and surreptitiously, framed within a category of conventional comedy, leaving the depths of its darkness unacknowledged. One of Western theatre’s most well-known pieces, it is often regarded as light and frothy, fun for the whole family, with themes of romance and fantasy taken to their greatest extremes for hours of harmless entertainment.

Centuries on, it can be argued that much of Shakespeare’s comedy is no longer funny. Some insist that everything Shakespeare had penned can stand the test of time, but others will hold a more objective attitude. Kip Williams looks at the text with modern eyes, judging it with today’s values, and in exposing all that is archaic in the piece, creates something imaginative, powerful and irreverently spectacular. Turning A Midsummer Night’s Dream into a twisted nightmare, it is suddenly mesmerising. Williams’ concept might seem basic, but his detailed execution of a macabre and provocative utopia/dystopia is as sensitive as it is scandalous. Consistently fascinating, and frankly eye-opening, this is some of the most astonishing and iconoclastic theatre, full of spirit; adventurous, brave and ostentatious.

Actor Paula Arundell is unforgettable as Titania, queen of the fairies, via Donatella Versace. Regal, austere and decadent, her creation is strikingly sensual, full of danger and drama, compelling and beguiling in every moment. Arundell attacks her role with a fierce solemnity, resolutely playing against the comedy that we have become used to, in order that a fresh theatricality may be delivered; poetic, surreal, and irrevocably powerful. Also deadly serious are all the production’s design aspects. Chris Williams’ music and Nate Edmondson’s sound design hold us firmly in their dictatorial insistence for dramatic tension, and Alice Babidge’s costumes dare us to look away from the grotesque glamour reminiscent of Leigh Bowery and Cindy Sherman’s brutal legacies.

On stage is a morbid world, resplendently manufactured to satisfy our need for an art that is carnal, wild and audacious. It must be noted however, that the show closes with an abruptness that betrays its fundamental and delicious sophistication. The final transition from a scene of brilliant black humour to its concluding gravitas occurs with surprising carelessness, leaving us disoriented and prematurely awoken from what had been a deeply luscious reverie. Nevertheless, what is achieved here is an instance of magic rarely witnessed, and unlikely to be seen very soon again. Wonderful for its uniqueness, and its gutsy approach to the most time-honoured of classics, this is excellent theatre that reminds us how good it is to be alive, at a time when the ephemeral art form can thrive so brilliantly, and we are here to catch it.

5 Questions with Helen Dallimore and Lucy Durack

Helen Dallimore

Helen Dallimore

Lucy Durack: What did you enjoy most about playing Glinda in the original London production of Wicked and do you ever miss it?
Helen Dallimore: Going on stage in front of two thousand people a night, in a show you know they will love, in a role you love to play. It doesn’t get much better than that.

If the Sydney Symphony Orchestra let you sing one non-witch related song, any song in the universe, just for fun, in a karaoke-with-a-symphony-orchestra kind of way, what would it be?
Actually, we are doing my number one karaoke song in the show! What are the chances? I won’t ruin the surprise…

Of all the iconic witches out there, who is your favourite and why?
I love Elphaba. She’s so strong, yet vulnerable and fierce and loving. A brilliant role model for aspiring witches.

If you were given the option of flying or travelling by bubble as your preferred mode of transport in real life, what would you choose?
Look, the bubble has that element of theatricality about it, which to a showgirl is very appealing. But sometimes you just want to pop down to Coles in your trackies and not necessarily have to put on the whole crown and gown scenario. It’s a lot of pressure. Flying allows for a more casual look, you can dress it up or down – it’s a bit more versatile.

Do you think you might bring some of those amazing tube cakes you are so famous for making to rehearsals? Asking for a friend.
Ah yes, the caneles. Tell your “friend” I think I can rustle some up. Don’t forget to remind her about the bespoke gowns we have to fit into though.

Lucy Durack

Lucy Durack

Helen Dallimore: What is the difference in your process as a performer when approaching a concert rather than role in a show?
Lucy Durack: Preparing for a role in a show for me means getting in the head of that character, figuring out their voice, their walk, what they want, how they go about getting (or not getting) what they want and mapping out their character arc within the story of the show whilst trying to make it all as truthful as possible. In a concert, while you are sort of playing a heightened version of yourself, you also have to ask those questions and figure out those thoughts separately for each song as often the songs are all sung by different characters and then work out how to put them all together in the one show. On top of that, seeing as you are being a version of yourself, it’s about figuring out the ratio of how much ‘you’ you bring to the piece and how much ‘character’ from wherever the song is originally from and that will most probably differ from song to song. For both a concert and a show, I like to start by learning all my words and harmonies as much as possible before the first rehearsal so I can really play in the rehearsal room, in the hope that the playing helps me find some of the answers to the above questions that I haven’t figured out yet.

Do you have a bucket list role that you haven’t yet played?
It would be very lovely to voice some awesome character in a Disney Pixar film or any great animated film, if it was a musical that would be a bonus.

Who is your idol and why?
Ok, there are a few. My mum and dad are in so many ways, they are great, fun, hard working people that always keep our family and our family values at the core of everything they do. Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope are also great influences in my life, they work so hard and make intelligent, hilarious, uplifting, poignant television and films that I love and they manage to always do everything with such kindness and humour. They never make anyone working with them feel excluded and have a real focus on gender equality. I have never met Amy Poehler or Tina Fey but they are also my idols, they are so funny, smart and seem to be people with their heart in the right place. If I could have a dinner party with all 6 people that would be really, really awesome.

If you were a real witch, what would be your signature spell?
I would love to have a spell to be able to make people feel peaceful, happy and contented, not in a ‘block your feelings’ way but to speed up times of depression, anxiety, grief and sadness to get to that lovely fulfilling feeling where you have worked through it all and come out the other side and can appreciate life and laugh about things again.

Who do you think would win in a fight between the four of us witches?
It depends what it was over, if was over the last salted caramel macaroon in the world, I think it would play out like this: Amanda would be a contender, she only has to think about arm muscles to get them, but I feel she would tire of the idea fastest, just get bored with it and really she prefers savoury food. Physically Jemma is probably the strongest, she runs many kilometres a day and she has a sporting mentality, but I feel she is too peaceful and again, has less of a sweet tooth and an iron will to stay that way. I think you Helen, have the core and inner strength as well as unequalled old fashioned gumption to really seal the deal but I possibly have the strongest sweet tooth of all so it would be down to the two of us. I think Amanda and Jemma would have gone home by now and you and I would have decided not to fight but rather share the last macaron whilst getting our nails done and dreaming up a fun new show for us all to star in.

Helen Dallimore and Lucy Durack can both be seen in Witches, with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
Dates: 15 – 16 July, 2016
Venue: Sydney Opera House

Review: Hot Brown Honey (Sydney Opera House)

hotbrownhoneyVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jun 22 – 26, 2016
Creators: Kim “Busty Beatz” Bowers, Lisa Fa’alafi
Original concept: Candy Bowers, Kim ‘Busty Beatz’ Bowers, Lisa Fa’alafi
Director: Lisa Fa’alafi
Cast: Kim “Busty Beatz” Bowers, Juanita Duncan, Lisa Fa’alafi, Ofa Fotu​, Materharere Hope “Hope One” Haami, Crystal Stacey
Image by Dylan Evans

Theatre review
Six women take to the stage in a sensational update of the cabaret format, to confront big political issues of the day, and to entertain in the most spectacularly decadent ways possible. The women’s mantra is to “stand up and make noise”, and although deadly serious with their message, Hot Brown Honey‘s sense of humour is always an underlying and critical presence that keeps us engrossed even when the going gets tough. At the intersection of racism, sexism, homophobia and body fascism, the stars create theatrical representations that are crucial to our nation’s discussions about justice and equity as applied to women of colour in particular. On a relentlessly vibrant and glamorous stage, we see stories that allow identification, but also confrontational statements that speak directly to those of us in positions of privilege. If live theatre’s most valuable feature is its dimension of danger that comes from the unpredictability of conscious individuals sharing space, then Hot Brown Honey is a triumph of magnificent proportions.

These women are powerful, emotional and aggressive, each with blinding talents gloriously showcased in sequences that aim to simultaneously seduce and repulse, with the formidable MC Busty Beatz bringing harmony and cohesion to the night. The programme features some of the most jaw-dropping beat-boxing ever to be heard (by Hope One) and massive notes from Ofa Fotu’s classic torch songs interpreted with acerbic irony, against a backdrop of musical production irresistible from start to finish, comprising mainly of hip hop, soul and funk influences. There are subversive stripteases, same-sex orientated twerking, mesmerising bridal aerial silk acrobatics, all passionately imbued with social commentary to deliver a show memorable for being uniquely dignified and progressive. Hot Brown Honey is wild and vivid in its expression of feminine disobedience and unapologetic with its pointed perspectives on cultural colonisation, giving voice to an under-represented but large segment of our population, and reshaping the way we think about identities for the purpose of empowering every darker skinned woman and girl.

Where power imbalances exist, politeness serves to deepen those inequities. When we let sleeping dogs lie, our problems become further fortified. The six ladies of Hot Brown Honey will disrupt and antagonise, using their bodies, minds and spirit to create pandemonium where a faulty establishment resides, but they have also made room for conversation, and participation therein is not exclusive. The subjects broached here are difficult ones, which means that many of us will try to avoid them, but this is a Pandora’s box that we desperately need, and some very loud noises have initiated the process. We can run but we cannot hide, from this yet another new wave of feminism, and the tenacious efforts currently under way for a paradigm shift.

Review: Our: Land People Stories (Bangarra Dance Theatre)

bangarraVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jun 16 – Jul 9, 2016
Choreographers: Stephen Page, Daniel Riley, Beau Dean Riley-Smith, Jasmin Sheppard
Cast: Waangenga Blanco, Deborah Brown, Luke Currie-Richardson, Tyrel Dulvarie, Tara Gower, Rikka Hamaguchi, Elma Kris, Yolanda Lowatta, Rikki Mason, Leonard Mickelo, Daniel Riley, Beau Dean Riley-Smith, Tara Robertson, Nicole Sabatino, Jasmin Sheppard, Kaine Sultan-Babij, Glory Tuohy-Daniell
Image by Wendell Teodoro

Theatre review
Three separate works are featured in Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Our: Land People Stories, each with a distinct flavour but unified by discipline, culture and history. Independently striking in style, they tell different stories of the Indigenous experience through the medium of dance at its most progressive and adventurous. Sumptuously designed by the formidable trio of Matt Cox (lights), Jennifer Irwin (costumes) and Jacob Nash (sets), the production is a feast for the eyes, brilliantly polished, with a level of sophistication that any theatre company would be envious of.

Jasmin Sheppard’s Macq is an analysis of the 1816 massacre of D’harawal people at Appin, 75km south of Sydney, and Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s complicity in the incident. It is an expression of British imperialism, specific to the carnage of two hundred years ago, but also serves as representation of the ongoing invasion of Aboriginal land and peoples that our society struggles to rectify. Imagery of death, sorrowfully depicted, provides the piece with an intense poignancy, and Daniel Riley’s performance as the governor amplifies its question of humanity by bringing an unexpected complexity to the tale.

Miyagan is about kinship, inspired by the cultural heritage of the Wiradjuri nation, of which its choreographers Daniel Riley and Beau Dean Riley-Smith belong. Mythology is given redefinition. Through this new manifestation, age-old stories are offered new life, and we see current generations relating to those ancient themes and ideas from a time and space that is real and personal. The dancers experience those narratives in their flesh and in their minds, and the audience shares in their ephemeral theatrical inhabitation of the Wiradjuri ethos. Also remarkable is music by Paul Mac, sensitively blending traditional with contemporary sounds, for a perfect accompaniment to an exciting movement vocabulary that contains more than a hint of hip hop.

Nyapanyapa Yunupingu is one of Aboriginal art’s biggest stars, and her story is put to dance in Stephen Page’s Nyapanyapa. Inspired by her paintings and set to oral stories thoughtfully incorporated into the soundtrack of the 44 minute epic, we are presented a work about the wondrous relationship between woman and nature, as observed through the life of the respected Yolngu elder from the Gumatj clan of North East Arnhem Land. Dancer Elma Kris is deeply endearing in the lead role, full of vital spirituality and an irresistible stage presence. The ensemble’s cohesiveness and their unity of message are a hallmark of the company, and luminously apparent in the piece.

In Australia, we rely on Indigenous cultures to give our art its soul. There is nothing that can replace history and age when we wish for art to be rich in essence and meaning, and it is people like those in the Bangarra company who are uniquely able to bring to materiality something bigger than economics, politics and even science. Theirs is a philosophy that is beyond the constraints of time, and speaks only with truth and depth. What they put on stage is sacred, but how the audience chooses to interpret is an important part of that equation, and it is that very act of listening that is crucial to the path of our collective civilisation.