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

Review: Much Ado About Nothing (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Oct 22 – Nov 24, 2019
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: James Evans
Cast: Vivienne Awosoga, Danny Ball, Marissa Bennett, Mandy Bishop, Will McDonald, Zindzi Okenyo, Suzanne Pereira, Duncan Ragg, Paul Reichstein, David Whitney
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It is the classic story of misunderstandings, and the bumpy road that lovers must take, before arriving at happily ever after. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing features endless witty repartee, between idiosyncratic characters who seem to specialise only in matters of the heart. Romance takes centre stage, in an old-fashioned world that wants us to believe that nothing is more valuable than a monogamous heterosexual union.

Although rarely inventive, the production, directed by James Evans, is a joyful one, with a sense of playfulness that helps us get through the inevitable return of a perennial favourite. In the role of Benedick is an irrepressible Duncan Ragg, genuinely hilarious with his robust comedy, cleverly conceived and perfectly executed. Zindzi Okenyo plays a sophisticated Beatrice, memorable for an understated approach that works to reduce the cheese factor in Shakespeare’s play.

Hero is given emotional authenticity by Vivienne Awosoga whose efforts at instilling strength makes palatable the damsel in distress, and her gullible husband-to-be Claudio is depicted by a vibrant Will McDonald, who leaves a remarkable impression with his creative and energetic presence. Demonstrating that it is often Shakespeare’s male roles that truly shine, Mandy Bishop steals the limelight as Dogberry and Balthasar, incisive and effortlessly funny with all that she brings to the stage.

It is true, that we spend inordinate amounts of time and attention on romantic love. We seek a satisfaction unique to that experience, determined to find someone to fill an emptiness that cannot be otherwise occupied. There are things much more logical, and much more within an individual’s control, yet we stray from the possibilities of real achievement, to pursue that which is in many ways narrow and selfish. It seems that being human, we are capable of immense knowledge, but wisdom does not always mean that we act in the best interests of our species.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au

Review: Natives Go Wild (Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Oct 22 – 27, 2019
Playwright: Rhoda Roberts
Music: Damian Robinson
Director: Chelsea McGuffin
Cast: Waangenga Blanco, Mika Haka, Beau James, Josephine Mailisi, ‘SistaNative’ Seini Taumoepeau, Samuela Taukave aka Skillz
Images by Anna Kucera

Theatre review
There is probably nothing more objectifying than being part of the display at a human zoo. To be placed in that position can of course be an entirely voluntary enterprise, but in the 19th century, it is likely that circumstances at fairs and carnivals were less than dignified, with the acquisition and misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples for the pleasure of gawking colonials, forming a crucial feature of the circus industry.

Rhoda Roberts’ Natives Go Wild is critical of that tradition of humiliation, of a West obsessed with exoticism, depriving people of colour their agency. In this show however, identities are reclaimed, and tables are turned, as Indigenous performers from various Antipodean regions, take charge of their narratives, telling us precisely what we need to know, about who they are and what they do.

It is a glamorous production, featuring excellent work by designers Mark Howett (set and lights) and Tim Chappel (costumes). Original songs and music by Damian Robinson are full of inspiration, contributing a sense of transcendental elevation to the staging, with singer Seini SistaNative Taumoepeau bringing remarkable soul to these refreshing compositions. Director Chelsea McGuffin is charged with the responsibility of assembling disparate elements into a cohesive whole, for a vaudeville style of presentation that asks all the right questions.

Ringmaster Mika Haka is high camp personified, but in an acerbic and confrontational style, never letting us easily off the hook. Waangenga Blanco and Samuela Skillz Taukave are mesmerising dancers, both portraying a series of legendary Indigenous figures from circus history. Aerial artist and contortionist Josephine Mailisi conveys true beauty with a physicality full of strength and discipline. The interminably charming clown Beau James delivers some of the funniest and most moving sequences, proving himself a real star we cannot get enough of.

Some might argue that colonisation has improved lives, but there is no question that the inherent cruelty of Western values, has had negative impacts on Indigenous communities that remain significant today. The persistent inability of white people to prioritise Indigenous voices have meant that their needs are consistently ignored, and their wisdom disregarded. Even as we watch the world crumble under instruments of white supremacy, it refuses to cede power, tenaciously holding on to reins that have failed economies and the environment. Unless the next stage of our collective evolution is to better incorporate those who have demonstrated actual skills of survival, the future can only be bleak.

www.sydneyoperahouse.com

Review: Hair (Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Oct 3 – 6, 2019
Book & Lyrics: James Rado, Gerome Ragni
Music: Galt MacDermot
Director: Cameron Menzies
Cast: Stefanie Caccamo, Angelique Cassimatis, Emma Hawthorne, Luke Jarvis, Joe Kalou, Julian Kuo, Louis Lucente, Matthew Manahan, Sun Park, Paulini, Keshia Paulse, Callan Purcell, Monique Salle, Hugh Sheridan, Prinnie Stevens, Harris M. Turner,
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Hair debuted 1967, in the middle of the anti-Vietnam war movement. An icon of the peace-loving hippie counterculture era, the musical contains many anti-establishment elements that remain its defining feature, including the incorporation of profanity, illicit drugs, and nudity. It is the story of a New York City bohemian tribe, culminating in tensions that bring strain to the group when it is discovered that a member, Claude is being conscripted.

Act One is an exuberant cornucopia, of mischievously colourful expressions pertaining to ideals and identities of the flower power generation. Director Cameron Menzies and choreographer Amy Campbell manufacture a joyful visit to an optimistic past, enjoyable not only for its nostalgic value but also for an innocence, that proves so moving in the current bitter climate. Act Two turns serious, with the narrative shifting more firmly onto the Vietnam war, but sound engineering, although beautifully optimised for the cast’s vocalisations, does little to enhance diction in the reverb of the auditorium. Without clear enough access to dialogue and lyrics, the drama is unable to resonate. Lighting by Paul Lim on the other hand, is innovative and exciting, and together with James Browne’s spirited work on costumes, the production is a delight for the eyes.

A marvellous ensemble, full of conviction and vigour, gives us a cohesive gang of personalities, remarkably convincing in their depiction of an adopted family affair, powerful with the warmth they emanate. Matthew Manahan is a charming presence as Claude, commendable for the complexity he brings to the role. An imposing Harris M. Turner is the show’s unequivocal scene-stealer, equally impressive whether singing or dancing as Hud, the militant black rights activist. The astonishing Paulini sings some very big notes, reliably bringing the house down at each appearance. The group’s alpha male Berger is played by a tremendously likeable Hugh Sheridan, whose vivacity knows no bounds, even if completely unbelievable as a high school student.

When psychologist and LSD advocate Timothy Leary said half a century ago, to “turn on, tune in, drop out”, many were persuaded by his statement of subversion, and sought an alternative to socioeconomic and political systems that had revealed themselves to be oppressive and unjust. It seems all these years later, we are once again at a breaking point. A new generation, fuelled by the same disillusionment, is now trying to find new answers to old questions. Bell bottoms and patchouli may no longer be en vogue, but we still want peace, equity and a restorative love for mother earth, and with any luck, our efforts will have a permanent impact this time round.

www.sydneyoperahouse.com

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