Review: The Miser (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Mar 2 – Apr 6, 2019
Playwright: Molière (a new version by Justin Fleming)
Director: Peter Evans
Cast: John Bell, Michelle Doake, Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Elizabeth Nabben, Sean O’Shea, Jamie Oxenbould, Russell Smith, Damien Strouthos, Jessica Tovey
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Harpagon is the most miserly man you can imagine. He wants to marry off his daughter to a rich noble who has offered to waive the customary dowry, and is himself eager to marry a young woman who seems likely to be a frugal wife. Justin Fleming’s new version of Molière’s The Miser is a faithful adaptation that inflicts little disruption on the 350 year-old work, but the application of contemporary Australian lexicon refreshes it for a newly immediate experience. That we remain accustom to patriarchal structures, with mediocre men still ruling the roost in much of our daily lives, means that the very old play retains resonance. We relate to Molière’s iconoclastic spirit, but a sense of resignation pervades the play, for which our modern sensibilities should not be content with.

Designer Anna Tregloan offers a simple setting that conveys both Harpagon’s wealth and meanness, but it is her costumes that really impress. Flamboyant, colourful and unexpectedly trendy, every character is attired with an admirable level of taste and irony, perfectly coordinated to create a memorable visual vibrancy. Music by Max Lyandvert is charming, able to lure us into the story with a seductive power not unlike the irresistible magnetism of money. Peter Evans’ direction of the piece is less fanciful, with a straightforward approach that relies heavily on what each performer brings to the table.

John Bell is a convincing Harpagon, effortless in his portrayal of a very unlikable personality. More energetic members of cast leave a stronger impression, with Michelle Doake delivering the biggest laughs as Frosine, a matchmaker of sorts, demonstrating extraordinary aptitude for the classic farce genre. Damien Strouthos plays the son Cléante, deftly transforming the powerless offspring into a force of comedy, through bold physical explorations that delight, by virtue of their inventive quirkiness.

The problem with misers is that nobody seems to benefit from their obsession with hoarding. Those guilty are themselves constantly miserable, overwhelmed with an anxiety that accompanies the belief that nothing is ever enough. Everybody else is subsequently deprived of resources that are withdrawn from productivity, unable to gain necessary access for the general advancement of society. Harpagon puts his money in a cash box, allowing no one to do anything with it. What was once highly valued, is converted into dead objects. To have money means being able to do what the heart desires and what the brain can conceive. It can buy meaningless things, but it can also facilitate the betterment of countless lives. Misunderstanding the nature of money and the mismanagement of it, is responsible for so much of our ills and those who have lots of it have so much to answer for.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au

Review: How To Rule The World (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 11 – 30 Mar, 2019
Playwright: Nakkiah Lui
Director: Paige Rattray
Cast: Gareth Davies, Vanessa Downing, Michelle Lim Davidson, Nakkiah Lui, Hamish Michael, Rhys Muldoon, Anthony Taufa
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
In Nakkiah Lui’s How To Rule The World, the government is trying to pass the Sovereign Territory Bill, a thinly-disguised piece of legislation that further advances the white supremacy cause that is already too much a part of our social fabric. Canberra insiders Vic, Zaza and Chris, are people of colour, all absolutely fed up with the state of affairs. They join forces to install a political puppet, by hiring a white male actor as a shoo-in for the senate, who will subsequently hold the balance of power required to kill off the offending bill.

It is a passionate work, piercingly funny, with an ambitious scope that even at over two-and-a-half hours, can at times feel hurried with its plot. As a result, we may not always understand with great detail, why the people do the things they do, but we nonetheless have an excellent time watching them being unequivocally hilarious. Directed by Paige Rattray, the show is exuberant, but laden with irony, and thoroughly modern in its dissection of power distribution in Australia, making no bones about the white patriarchy that corrupts our country from the inside out.

Lui herself plays Vic, a character central to the play’s advocating of a national treaty that will recognise and institute Indigenous rights, for the past and future. It is a performance memorable for its vulnerable authenticity, effortless at delivering a poignancy that stays with us, long after the laughter has subsided. Michelle Lim Davidson and Anthony Taufa are Zaza and Chris respectively, both endearing and vibrant personalities who ensure that we are always rooting for the right people. The three make a cohesive team, independently effective, but powerful as a singular entity.

The stooge is played by Hamish Michael, who breathes exciting life into an otherwise rudimentary character. His Tommy Ryan is a painfully accurate portrayal of the suits we see everyday on TV; vacuous, desperate and bizarrely comedic. The Prime Minister is a suitably deplorable man, as interpreted by Rhys Muldoon, who shines especially when his true colours are revealed in the latter half, as the going gets tough for the man on top. Gareth Davies appears in a very large assortment of roles, each of them wonderfully imagined and executed with stunning perfection, to earn the biggest laughs of the night. Also in multiple parts is Vanessa Downing, who although creates less of an impact, proves herself a dependable and unwavering source of support for the show’s louder types.

Set design is functional, and appropriately dreary in Marg Horwell’s depiction of our halls of parliament. The decision to do without set changes is a contentious one, considering the play’s frequent location changes, but to keep the action economically contained, encourages its scenes to flow quickly for the audience to remain exhilarated. Lights by Emma Valente are cleverly and efficiently rendered to shift time and space, with little noticeable fuss. Valente’s video projections include an instance of encircling sharks in the PM’s office that is particularly delightful. Paul Mac and Steve Francis provide sound and music, further perking up the proceedings, consistently reliable in their addition to the production’s humour.

We like thinking that the Western societies in which we dwell are democratic, but we also accept that there are people who want to rule the world, and we habitually acquiesce to those desires. At all our election days, each of us casts a vote, feeling as though we are an indispensable part of the most integral of processes, then we walk away letting the powerful carry on with business as usual. They climb their way up, as though determined to leave us behind. When we notice that the interests of those who have made it to the upper echelons are no longer in accordance with our concerns, we become exasperated. Injustices are felt only at the bottom, yet we wait for those on top to lead the change.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Man With The Iron Neck (Legs On The Wall)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jan 23 – 26, 2019 | Dunstan Playhouse (Adelaide Festival Centre, South Australia), Mar 8 – 11, 2019
Playwright: Ursula Yovich
Directors: Josh Bond, Gavin Robbins
Cast: Caleena Sansbury, Kyle Shilling, Tibian Wyles, Ursula Yovich
Images by Victor Frankowski

Theatre review
Named after Aloys Peters, a 1930s German stunt performer “who hangs himself and lives to tell the tale,” Ursula Yovich’s play Man With The Iron Neck addresses the issue of suicide among our Indigenous youth. Bear is an aspiring and talented footballer, about to go places, but there are demons that haunt and that threaten to hold him back from all his hopes and dreams. Having grown up with the pain of his father’s abandonment, Bear’s interminable suffering although not immediately evident, reveals itself to be palpable and immutably deep. Yovich’s writing is gentle but deliberate, a moving exploration into a contemporary problem borne out of inter-generational trauma.

Masculinity too, is a resonant theme in Man With The Iron Neck, as we examine a young man’s development in a household without male role models. Bear is required to adhere to traditional notions of his gender, but what is available for emulation, is tainted with tragedy. A substantial amount of physical theatre is introduced by directors Josh Bond and Gavin Robbins, to illustrate Bear’s narrative of late teen maleness, notably involving aerial acrobatics that prove mesmerising. Gratifying work on sound design by Michael Toisuta and Jed Silver, is crucial in the production’s ability to transport us between realms surreal and realist. Performer Kyle Shilling is an engaging presence in the lead role, with an admirable athletic confidence that assists with the show’s dynamism.

Bear’s story is evidence that serious effort into undoing undesirable effects of colonialism, has to take place in tandem with processes of private healing. It is the confluence of both social and personal strategies that is required for our young, especially those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds, to be able to move toward brighter futures. We have to learn to talk about our lives as groups and as individuals, to ensure that no one is left behind. It is abundantly clear that our Indigenous youth are routinely neglected; there are reports that seven Aboriginal child suicides have taken place in less than four weeks of January, 2019. As a wider Australian community, we remain unwilling to contribute to solutions, choosing to indulge in delusions that the problem is isolated and removed from our non-black daily realities. We all bear the duty of care for these lives, and our failure is not only shameful, it is reprehensible.

www.legsonthewall.com.au

Review: A Cheery Soul (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Nov 5 – Dec 15, 2018
Playwright: Patrick White
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Emma Harvie, Anita Hegh, Jay James-Moody, Brandon McClelland, Tara Morice, Sarah Peirse, Monica Sayers, Shari Sebbens, Nikki Shiels, Bruce Spence, Anthony Taufa
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Miss Docker is an inconvenient older lady. Living in the suburbs, her presence is a constant source of irritation to all and sundry, even though she goes out of her trying way to be a useful member of community. Possessing neither great discernible talent, nor satisfactory social skills, her good intentions prove inadequate, and having gone past an ascribed use-by date, exclusion is her daily reality.

Critical of the Australian middle classes, Patrick White’s A Cheery Soul takes aim at our parochial values, and that strange sense of fear resulting from our insecure colonial identity, one that corrupts the way we are with one another. Additionally, the play is a study of how women are devalued, through its depictions of a character who has failed to fulfil her destiny of wife and mother, in a society determined to disallow her from deviating from its narrow definitions of womanhood.

White’s signature incorporation of poetry and abstraction have a tendency to dilute the drama in his narratives, and although director Kip Williams does well to introduce a generous and robust scale of theatricality that is quite dazzling, the show oscillates regularly between entertaining and challenging, for an experience that feels, ultimately, not much more than moderately rewarding. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that live video is an inventive and memorable device here, with Williams and set designer Elizabeth Gadsby demonstrating an admirable meeting of the minds for a very effective use of the medium.

Actor Sarah Peirse brings a charming and familiar eccentricity to Docker that conveys a valuable realism for the piece, but it is arguable if the protagonist is on this occasion, sufficiently appealing for us to be firmly engaged with the plot. Reverend Wakeman is played by Brandon McClelland, whose flamboyant approach offers wonderful moments of intensity that add texture to a persistently sad story. Ensemble work is strong in the production, with sequences featuring the cast performing as a haunting chorus especially beautiful.

When scared little people make up the majority, it is the imaginative and the adventurous who are ostracised. Still in our psyche, an outpost of the old British Empire, we remain consumed by anxiety, always thinking ourselves deficient, desperate to be as good as everyone else in faraway fantasised Europe. We behave as though neglected and orphaned, consequently responding by always choosing to embrace the ordinary, in a constant state of keeping up with the Joneses, and irrational in our fear of all things different and unexpected. There is little value in living by replicating, even though it gives an impression of social cohesion, conformity holds us back from progress and deprives us of compassion. In A Cheery Soul we see that to love thy neighbour can be easy, if only we learned to step of our own way.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Julius Caesar (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Oct 23 – Nov 25, 2018
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: James Evans
Cast: Jemwel Danao, Maryanne Fonceca, Ghenoa Gela, Neveen Hanna, Emily Havea, James Lugton, Kenneth Ransom, Nick Simpson-Deeks, Russell Smith, Sara Zwangobani
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Some things never change, and Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar could just as well be a story about Canberra in 2018. A controversial leader gets knifed, and all hell breaks loose, in this tale of a mutiny that does not go quite as planned. Cassius and Brutus conspire to have their leader extinguished, in order that a better system of government can be installed, but after Caesar’s death, they find themselves quite inadvertently shot in the foot. This is the story of Malcolm Turnbull, of Tony Abbott, of Julia Gillard, and of Kevin Rudd; a tradition of the Australian government that seems a recent phenomenon, but is in fact centuries old. Even after the chief takes a brutal fall, discontent among the ranks refuses to dissipate, and the process of elimination keeps repeating.

An appropriately modern tone is injected by director James Evans, who assembles for the production, a satisfyingly cinematic look and feel. Music by Nate Edmondson is particularly noteworthy. Luscious, bold and flamboyantly epic, sound proves itself this staging’s most reliable element, whenever we begin searching for explanations to the goings on.

Actor Kenneth Ransom is an unusual Caesar, statuesque but with a subdued presence. Cassius and Brutus are played by Nick Simpson-Deeks and James Lugton respectively, both delivering entertaining and rich characterisations, as well as impressing us with their marvellous ability at harnessing chemistry. In the role of Mark Antony is Sara Zwangobani who all but steals the show in Act III, when her disarming luminosity is given opportunity to occupy centre stage. The actor is intense and authentic, with a visceral power in her performance as the Roman leader that truly dominates.

A healthy democracy requires that we go the polls every few years to cast a ballot on who we wish to have representing us. This does not happen every time the tide changes or every moment we feel disillusioned by those whom we had given office. It is certainly not dependent on how private media companies and other interests wish to exercise their influence. There will always be people who think they know better than the populace, and seek to subvert our electoral rights. We can only hope that those who reject the universal rights all citizens are equally entitled to, like Cassius and Brutus, will in real life, suffer every consequence of their corruption.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au

Review: Evita (Opera Australia / Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), from Sep 13 – Nov 3, 2018
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics: Tim Rice
Director: Hal Prince
Cast: Tina Arena, Michael Falzon, Kurt Kansley, Paulo Szot, Alexis van Maanen
Images by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
Eva Perón’s legend is one regarding power, at all cost. Charting the meteoric rise of the historical figure from humble beginnings, the musical Evita features a narrator, a character based on the guerrilla leader and famed revolutionary Che Guevara, who takes us through the story of the Argentinian First Lady, from a critical, but widely shared, standpoint. Our female protagonist is not deprived of a voice however. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s show is often a feud of perspectives, reflective of opposing attitudes pertaining to the controversial personality. It is also often a battle of the sexes that happens on stage, as we see a woman defending herself in the masculine world of politics, and we grapple with the uncomfortable coupling of misogyny and the less than honourable conduct of our heroine.

The production is a faithful recreation of the West End and Broadway original from the late 1970’s, directed by Hal Prince, with a notable addition of the Oscar-winning song “You Must Love Me”, from the 1996 Alan Parker film. Surprisingly fast-paced, the show leaves it to us to formulate more extensive interpretations of Perón’s life and times, but it certainly gives us plenty to chew on. “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” is one of the most well-known Broadway hits, and to have the lyrics “and as for fortune, and as for fame, I never invited them in,” performed in resplendent bejewelled dress (designed by Timothy O’Brien), reveals a complexity to the character that is perhaps impossible to encapsulate in any single theatrical work.

Tina Arena proves herself an unequivocal superstar in the title role, vocally flawless for a splendid rendition of some very famously challenging tunes. She brings an electrifying passion to the stage, creating a feisty character who remains endearing, even when her actions turn dubious. It is tremendously satisfying to see one of Australia’s biggest talents take on a challenge of this magnitude, and emerge victorious. Che is played by Kurt Kansley, a charming presence, but whose diction as the South American can at times, be frustrating to decipher. Paulo Szot is an excellent President Juan Perón, impressive in all aspects, and very alluring, making the entire stint look a mere walk in the park.

The Peróns were loved because they had acted perfectly their part in the public eye. We see them here, in private, absorbed in vanity, hardly ever sparing a thought for their hungry millions. It is a familiar image of politicians, of individuals more concerned with their own careers than the actual responsibilities they have sworn to undertake. Observing the masses of Eva Perón’s devotees, we are warned of being blind to the poor behaviour of those we elect into positions of authority and prestige. The space we allow for leaders to carry out work for the common good, reside behind heavy curtains that form limits to our democracy. They may assume the appearance of kings and lords, but never to be forgotten, is the servitude that they owe.

www.evitathemusical.com.au

Review: Accidental Death Of An Anarchist (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Sep 10 – Oct 27, 2018
Playwright: Dario Fo (adapted by Francis Greenslade & Sarah Giles)
Director: Sarah Giles
Cast: Caroline Brazier, Julie Forsyth, Bessie Holland, Annie Maynard, Amber McMahon, Susie Youssef
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
It is all over the news that an anarchist had fallen to his death from a Milan police station. The official word claims it a suicide, but there are suspicions of foul play. For Accidental Death Of An Anarchist, Dario Fo took inspiration from an actual incident of 1969, and inserted a Maniac into his 1970 imagination of events following the controversy, essentially accusing authorities of murder and corruption. It was a spectacularly clumsy cover up that required questioning, and Fo’s play has proven itself a timeless piece of writing that can always be relied on to help civilians weather any political storm. It reminds us that we are pawns in the game of the powerful, and that we have to endeavour to see beyond the wool that is constantly being pulled over our eyes.

This new adaptation by Francis Greenslade and Sarah Giles is a refresh, but a faithful one that retains the extravagantly farcical spirit of its original. Dialogue is given a stylistic update, but time, place and characters are left unmarred. Giles’ direction of the work is raucous, vigorously so, for a very broad comedy that might take some getting used to, but laughs are certainly to be had.

An all-female cast is charged with the joyful task of lampooning men in power, with Amber McMahon occupying the central role, exhibiting extraordinary verve and inventiveness as the irrepressible Maniac. Julie Forsyth is genuinely hilarious as Inspector Bertozzo, distilling masculinity to its ugliest components, for a cutting study in physicality and speech that conspires flawlessly with her remarkable theatrical timing. Also delivering uproarious hijinks is Bessie Holland, whose Inspector Pisani is a breathtaking invention of caricature at its finest, astute and acerbic in her observations of repugnant boys club behaviour.

The media landscape feeds us endless morsels of information that fight for our attention and outrage. An unexplained death today, is replaced by a racial slur tomorrow; even with the best intentions, we are unable to decipher the truth, much less find the wherewithal to contest the wrongs of the world. Those in power understand this, so they disseminate frivolous scandals that seem so important in the moment, and absorb all our time and bandwidth, until there is no way we can hold them to account.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au