Review: Antony And Cleopatra (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Mar 3 – Apr 7, 2018
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Peter Evans
Cast: Johnny Carr, Ray Chong Nee, Joseph Del Re, Lucy Goleby, Catherine McClements, Ursula Mills, Zindzi Okenyo, Gareth Reeves, Steve Rodgers, Jo Turner, Janine Watson
Image by Heidrun Löhr

Theatre review
In Shakespeare’s version of the historical drama, we see Antony of Rome trying to sort out the world’s problems, while his lover Cleopatra of Egypt attends to matters of the heart. A story of two of the world’s legendary leaders is twisted askew in Antony And Cleopatra, and we observe how much the idea of a female ruler was disturbing to the English mind. Under Shakespeare’s depiction, the woman’s decisions are made around the feelings she carries for her beau, but the man is allowed to get on with business as usual, burdened by much more than a love affair.

The production is beautifully presented. Anna Cordingley’s simple solution for set design conveys stately glamour with little fuss or ostentation, and her costumes achieve a remarkable level of sophistication, crucial in making the royal characters convincing. Lights by Benjamin Cisterne are similarly attractive, especially impressive when displaying bold choices, although many instances of unintended glare from a reflective backdrop, are more than a little distracting. Director Peter Evans does well in manufacturing a visually captivating piece of theatre; his work with abstract physical movement is particularly effective, but the classic tragedy struggles to find any genuine sense of poignancy on this stage.

Cleopatra is played by Catherine McClements, who brings good humour to the piece, cleverly subverting much of Shakespeare’s inanely “feminised” dialogue. The actor is a powerful presence, and we submit to her queenly preeminence with little effort. Johnny Carr is an intense Antony, charming in his conviction, but a strange interpretation of the role’s final moments, sets the scene for an anticlimactic conclusion to the play. An absence of chemistry between the two leads, further diminishes the potential for greater piquancy in this ancient romance. Moments of drama can however, be found in scenes that feature supporting actor Lucy Goleby, who introduces both vigour and nuance to her depictions, of Pompey and Scarrus, adding excitement and significant tension to the show. Also memorable is the luminescent Zindzi Okenyo, sensuous and strong as Egypt’s maid of honour Charmian.

The women are languid in Antony And Cleopatra. Seductive and emotional, and despite visible attempts to elevate status and meanings around them, Cleopatra’s romantic fixation keeps the story firmly in a sphere of gender inequality. We wish for relationships to help us be better people, who will do better things, but what we see happen between these protagonists is quite the opposite. Love is a destructive and retrogressive force, causing people to lose their minds and weaken their fortitude. Just four years before the play’s first staging, Elizabeth I of England ended her reign, remaining to her last breath, The Virgin Queen, if not for anything true about what men can do to a woman, then certainly for what men can write about women.

Review: Top Girls (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 12 – Mar 24, 2018
Playwright: Caryl Churchill
Director: Imara Savage
Cast: Paula Arundell, Kate Box, Michelle Lim Davidson, Claire Lovering, Heather Mitchell, Helen Thomson, Contessa Treffone
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls exposes our discomfort with stories that talk of societal problems, without the service of convenient villains. We have a hard time thinking about structures that have proven themselves unacceptable, without being able to place blame on individuals or archetypes. Churchill encourages us instead, to examine the ways in which those systems insist on our acquiescence at every turn, making us complicit some or all of the time, often keeping us ignorant of our participation in the damage being caused.

Angie has two role models at home, each representing dichotomous extremes of how we perceive the economy, society and our womanhood. It is Thatcher’s Britain in 1982, and the world seems to have split into simple distinctions of certain people deserving privilege, and others who are not. Angie thinks that emulating her aunt, Marlene, would deliver a more rewarding life, but what she sees, is only the surface of how things operate. She buys into the notion that success looks a certain way, and to attain it, one only needs to take certain steps of action. Churchill exposes, through Angie’s naivety, and in extremely subtle ways, the lies that are sold to us, and that we perpetuate every day.

Director Imara Savage’s faithful presentation of Churchill’s feminist declarations, keeps Top Girls as unconventional as ever. Its non-linearity and contradictory complexities seem to make for a show that is eternally refreshing. It confronts how we discuss gender, through a sustained reliance on symbolism over declarative language, for a more accurate depiction of the insidious nature of capitalistic corruption and deprivation. David Fleischer’s functional, unobtrusive set design allows little distraction from the important matters at hand.

The production succeeds in using what is in many ways a difficult text, to create a captivating work of theatre. The intellectual stimulation it provides, is challenging and unrelenting, but ultimately gratifying. Even though statements in the plot are made with a sense of ambiguity, our interpretations are never permitted to diverge from its political position. Actor Kate Box is particularly effective as Angie’s mother, Joyce, a woman defined by failure, who Box argues for, with great dignity and zeal.

It is a very impressive ensemble that takes the stage, featuring more than a few moments of brilliance from each performer. The luminous Helen Thomson brings excellent irony to Marlene’s fragile image of the woman who has it all, assisted wonderfully by Renée Mulder’s incisive costume designs and Lauren A. Proietti’s humorous wigs. Claire Lovering and Heather Mitchell are both memorably acerbic with their comedy, while Paula Arundell and Michelle Lim Davidson bring nuanced gravitas to the complicated souls that they inhabit. The youthful innocence of Angie is astutely portrayed by Contessa Treffone who proves herself a compelling presence, simultaneously measured and effervescent.

2018 is an exciting time to embrace feminism, but as long as opposition forces exist, implementing acts of feminism will always be difficult. To identify, attack and destroy unjust structures that are pervasive and normalised, is a task unspeakably enormous. To take on the interrogation and diminishment of things believed to be incontrovertibly true, is thankless to say the least, but of course, the best of us will persist. Tolerating subjugation may be easier for many, but for others, the compromise to integrity is unbearable.

Review: Green Day’s American Idiot (Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jan 11 – 14, 2018
Music: Green Day
Lyrics: Billie Joe Armstrong
Book: Billie Joe Armstrong, Michael Mayer
Director: Craig Ilot
Cast: Kaylah Attard, Kyla Bartholemeusz, Erin Clare, Connor Crawford, Linden Furnell, Phil Jamieson, Alex Jeans, Nicholas Kyriacou, Vidya Makan, Phoenix Mendoza, Phoebe Panaretos, Christopher Scalzo, Maxwell Simon, Ashleigh Taylor, Kuki Tipoki
Image by Ken Leanfore

Theatre review
Comprising songs by American punk rock band Green Day, American Idiot is a musical, or a rock opera to be slightly more precise, that showcases the band’s unquestionably popular songwriting talents. Billie Joe Armstrong, Tré Cool and Mike Dirnt are Gen X’ers who have found an audience with their brash but commercial sound, and like many successful music artists today, exploring a jukebox musical with their pre-existing catalogue is now par for the course.

While it is somewhat refreshing to have the punk genre incorporated into this almost always contrived genre of show, a stronger book is required for American Idiot to speak to those who are less than fanatic about the band’s oeuvre. We see characters go through the semblance of a plot, but glean no detail from any of their stories. Cheesy choreography and unimaginative use of projections, cause the show to further alienate.

The adaptation of music is however, fairly effective, with dramatic arrangements helping to sustain interest. It is a committed cast of varying abilities, most memorable of whom is Linden Furnell in the central role of Johnny, exquisitely confident in his multidisciplinary approach to the production’s quite exacting requirements. His effortless blend of rock and broadway, along with a physical agility, provide us with a sense of impressive polish and professionalism. Much less comfortable on the musical stage is Phil Jamieson, who although exhibits good presence from his years as a rock musician, is visibly disoriented in this switch in performance style.

It is certainly one for the fans, but there is no reason for the bar not being raised higher. There is excellent energy and poignant intent in each of the songs being sung in American Idiot, and when presented appropriately, there is plentiful opportunity for a wider crowd to connect. The talent here is evident, but greater diligence is necessary for a show that could speak to more, with better clarity and at a more affecting depth.

5 Questions with David Morton and Nicholas Paine

David Morton

Nicholas Paine: What’s The Wider Earth about?
David Morton: The Wider Earth is a work of fiction drawn loosely from the historical record. It takes memories of real people, places and events and passes them through the lens of myth. Some may call it blasphemous. Others may caution that the simplicity of the tale undermines the real work of its hero. I hope it might stand as a celebration of the incredible complexity of our planet, and go some small way towards humanising the part played by those brave enough to stand against the dominant thought of their time.

What’s it like developing a new work?
Developing new work brings with it the simultaneously liberating and horrifying reality that everything is in flux, and there is nothing to fall back on. It takes a special group of people to inhabit that chaos, particularly with an opening night looming. Over the last couple of years we’ve had the honour of working with an incredible team of creatives and performers. They’ve not only deftly embraced continuous rewrites, the quirks of puppetry, and other obstacles to the process, but had an insatiable drive and passion to push the work to new heights.

Tell me about the design of the puppets.
The design for the puppets used in the show was undertaken during an intensive eight-month process. The journey of each creature began with us spending time with their real-life counterparts, sketching and taking video as studies to determine the key structures and movement qualities of the different animals and how we could best embody these in the final objects. The drawings and notes from these encounters were then turned into three- dimensional digital renderings of each creature to design the mechanisms that would allow for their controlled movements. Finally, these models were broken into cross sections that could be laid at as a plan to be laser cut into wood, paper and leather pieces.

Over the course of four months a team of fabricators assembled these pieces in the Queensland Theatre workshop. This began with slotting and gluing the main structures together to give the creatures a base form that was then further embellished using wicker. The internal mechanisms were activated with the installation of control systems similar to miniature brake cables, and handles and rods were attached. Each of the puppets was given colour using wood stain and arted with ink. Finally, each had a pair of obsidian (volcanic glass) eyes installed.

How were the puppets introduced into the show?
Similarly to the construction, incorporating the finished puppets into the work followed a series of distinct stages. The first of these involved training the ensemble in the key manipulation techniques used by the Society. These include the focus of the puppet, its breath, and its ability to give an illusion of weight and gravity. Following this, the performers were slowly introduced to the various creatures and undertook extensive research into the movement and behavioural qualities of each. When working out the choreography for each scene we first start by devising the large movements – like where on the stage the puppet travels – and as this becomes embodied by the performers more ne detail is added.

The process of bringing a puppet to life on stage takes an incredible degree of commitment and discipline; unlike an actor who spends a rehearsal period developing a character, a puppet has to first learn how to be alive before we can even start to wonder as to what its character might be. Ultimately, the process isn’t completed until the imagination of an audience turns the movement cues that we give into the illusion of life.

If you could take the show anywhere, where would it be?
The Galapagos Islands, of course!

Nicholas Paine

David Morton: Tell us more about the cast for The Wider Earth.
Nicholas Paine: The production features seven of some of the country’s finest actors and puppeteers. Together, they form the ensemble that will tell you the story. The line between actor/puppeteer is blurred. In some scenes you’ll have actors playing characters alongside puppets, and in other scenes those actors will be manipulating puppets and performing more choreographic sequences. It will certainly keep them on their toes… and hopefully you too!

What is it about Charles Darwin that inspired you to create The Wider Earth?
We were inspired to create this work when we were visiting Handspring Puppet Company in South Africa in 2013. We got talking with the Executive Producer, Basil Jones, about how Charles Darwin stopped in Cape Town on the HMS Beagle just prior to returning home to England. We were both familiar with the work of Charles Darwin but what we didn’t realise was that he was just 27 years old when he made this stop and only 22 when he left on the voyage. We thought that his journey could make a stunning coming of age story, full of exquisite creatures, and to make comment on the wonder of our planet.

Dead Puppet Society went to Brooklyn (New York City) for eight months of pre-production in the creation of The Wider Earth. How was that experience for you?
We were developing the show with St. Ann’s Warehouse for that whole period of time. The specific focus of the development program was on refining the kind of puppetry we wanted to use to tell this story. We were working with eight other companies who also work in visual theatre, which for us was a really eye-opening experience. We’ve never really collaborated or connected with any other puppet-based artists before because it’s not an overly used form in Australia. The residency resulted in a 20-minute work in progress showing. And all of those artists have gone on to further develop their work in very different arenas.

How long from page to stage?
It’s about a three-year process. By the time we open it will have been exactly three years.

If you could take the show anywhere, where would it be?
Shrewsbury, UK. Where Charles Darwin was born.

David Morton and Nicholas Paine are producers of Morton’s The Wider Earth, part of Sydney Festival.
Dates: 17 – 27 January, 2018
Venue: Sydney Opera House

Review: Three Sisters (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Nov 6 – Dec 16, 2017
Playwright: Anton Chekhov (adapted by Andrew Upton)
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Alison Bell, Peter Carroll, Callan Colley, Miranda Daughtry, Harry Greenwood, Melita Jurisic, Brandon McClelland, Eryn Jean Norvill, Rahel Romahn, Chris Ryan, Nikki Shiels, Mark Leonard Winter, Anthony Brandon Wong, Charles Wu
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
The existential angst in Chekhov’s Three Sisters is timeless; the need to understand what we are here for, and how we can find happiness, are fundamentally human and eternal. Once again, we see Olga, Irina, Masha and all their friends babble on for three hours, about how hard it is to do life. Andrew Upton’s adaptation gives the play a slight refresh, but it is a predictably faithful rendering that takes on the burden of the original’s dreariness, as it ruminates on the tedium of the bourgeoisie.

As is characteristic of director Kip Williams’ style, the show is presented with remarkable polish and an impressive elegance. Alice Babidge’s set design establishes an inescapable air of glamour for the production’s minimalist aesthetic, while Nick Schlieper’s delicate lights bring sumptuous beauty to proceedings. Music by The Sweats and sound by Nate Edmondson help us locate the contemporary relevance in Chekhov’s story, whilst retaining its intrinsic sense of Russian austerity.

It comes as no surprise that this is yet another dry and dreary rendition of Three Sisters. For all the reverence associate with the play, it is at its core, a work about the lifelessness of the privileged. The point is its stasis, that nothing happens for years, and that these women are mysteriously incapable of taking meaningful action.

Williams is inventive in the first half, introducing energy wherever possible, but the depressive quality of the text proves insurmountable. Although some of the flourishes can be distracting and excessive, there is no denying our appreciation for the effort put into injecting animation and comedy, derived from the sheer desire to see some theatricality.

Actor Miranda Daughtry is memorable as Irina, with explosive emotions that are both captivating and genuine. The cast understandably adopts an extravagantly declarative approach to performance, but Daughtry’s way of connecting with her audience is particularly truthful. Alison Bell’s droll humour as Olga shines a light on the often neglected irony in Chekhov’s writing, and Eryn Jean Norvill’s exaggerated comedy as Masha is similarly delightful. We are glad to be spared too much bleakness, but it is arguable if these interpretations are effective, in helping us absorb the philosophies in Chekhov and Upton’s writing.

There always seems to be a Chekhov play on a stage in Australia somewhere. We are so much like the sisters, understanding the concept of progress but unable to extricate ourselves from the old and deficient. We may not be able to create anything without being informed by tradition, but this Three Sisters draws attention to the parts of us that refuse to move on, that are rigid in their worship of a conceptual “home”, undeviating from sacred points of origin. These parts of us that are backward and regressive must be interrogated, if not demolished.

Review: The Merchant Of Venice (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 25 – Apr 1, 2017
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Anne-Louise Sarks
Cast: Mitchell Butel, Catherine Davies, Eugene Glifedder, Felicity McKay, Shiv Palekar, Damien Strouthos, Anthony Taufa, Jessica Tovey, Jo Turner, Jacob Warner
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
It is clear that Shakespeare wrote The Merchant Of Venice for an antisemitic audience. When we revisit the play today, there are choices to be made in its interpretation, to appropriately address its inherent prejudices. If it was indeed Shakespeare’s intention to shame and vilify Jewish people, contemporary productions must take the radical decision of going against the playwright’s will, or risk making statements that are completely unacceptable in our modern day.

Director Anne-Louise Sarks shifts the discussion from being an indictment on Jews, to one that chastises both Christianity and Judaism, effectively turning all the characters in The Merchant Of Venice uniformly into villains, and deftly solving the problem of Shakespeare’s racism. It is a thoroughly enjoyable staging, with commendable proficiency in all aspects, but it is the dialogue between Sarks and Shakespeare that is most engaging.

In imposing contemporary sensibilities onto the piece, Sarks lets us observe an evolution that has taken place over four centuries, and gives us the opportunity for repudiation and rectification. There is no better reason to remount classics, than using them to distance ourselves from the traditions and cultures they represent.

In acts of subversion, symbols of power, along with their gatekeepers and revered masters, are often implicated in the creation of something progressive and new. If we are to do Shakespeare endlessly, we must not permit the repetition of mistakes, even if it means changing the very essence of what is being said.

The role of Antonio the pious Christian, is carefully modified in this iteration to provide new meaning. Actor Jo Turner plays him unforgivable and contemptible, so that we too, want his pound of flesh. Shylock is performed by Mitchell Butel with excellent nuance, providing an image of vulnerable humanity, coupled with a vengeful ferocity, to make comprehensible the character’s temperament and intentions. It is an excellent cast, inventive and entertaining in all their contributions, for a show as amusing as it is intelligent.

In 2017, it is no longer tolerable to express any form of racial discrimination, but religion has itself become susceptible to scrutiny. In our refusal to abide by Shakespeare’s sanctimonious depiction of Christianity through the denigration of Jews, how we think about The Merchant Of Venice must go through transformation. What our gods represent must be allowed to move with the times, even if it means to disregard those who insist on adhering to unreasoning traditions.

Review: Miracle City (Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Oct 12 – 29, 2017
Books & Lyrics: Nick Enright
Music & Concept: Max Lambert
Director: Darren Yap
Cast: Missy Higgins, Josie Lane, Lara Mulcahy, Gus Murray, Liam Nunan, Anthony Phelan, Kelly Rode, Jessica Vickers
Image by Branco Gaica

Theatre review
The Truswells are American televangelists who make commerce out of religion, by commodifying faith and targeting herds of desperate souls. They put on a weekly TV show, promising inspiration, redemption and salvation, in exchange for cash from their loyal viewers. Behind the scenes however, the family is going broke, as they try unsuccessfully to fulfil ambitions of expanding their operations.

Miracle City depicts an absurd slice of life, but the production is rarely funny. The plot trudges along, offering no surprises and only few instances of amusement. In the absence of humour, we search instead for poignancy, which disappointingly and quite bewilderingly, never arrives. It is fortunate then, that the show features excellent singing and a pleasing score of Christian gospel music.

The cast works hard, with leading lady Kellie Rode bringing a valuable sense of vibrancy and polish to the show. Gus Murray cuts an imposing figure as Reverend Truswell, but it is a portrayal that seems insufficiently sinister in this tale of crushed dreams and broken morals. A trio of choristers provide some stunning powerhouse vocals that lift the mood, thankfully, at very regular intervals. Missy Higgins, Josie Lane and Lara Mulcahy play subsidiary characters, but their voices are the highlight of a musical that is otherwise strangely passionless.

We pay businesses to satisfy our needs, but we want them to be transparent in our dealings. Religion can give a lot to individuals, but the magic that they perform, often relies on obfuscation and mystery. We need to be in touch with the sacred, but we do not wish for access to the venerable be contingent on trade. Those who peddle in the divine, are therefore deceptive and hypocritical, whether on trash TV or in our more hallowed institutions.