Review: Banging Denmark (Sydney Theatre Company)

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: The Torrents (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jul 18 – Aug 24, 2019
Playwright: Oriel Gray
Director: Clare Watson
Cast: Emily Rose Brennan, Luke Carroll, Tony Cogin, Gareth Davies, Rob Johnson, Geoff Kelso, Sam Longley, Celia Pacquola, Steve Rodgers
Images by Philip Gostelow

Theatre review
Jenny Milford has barely begun working in a news room, but is already being threatened with the sack. It is the end of the nineteenth century, and the old white men of Koolgalla’s local newspaper simply cannot imagine a woman working with them. In the meantime, agriculture in Koolgalla is at a crossroads, with old interests having to give way to advancements, or the population will have to face extinction. The Torrents was written by Oriel Gray around 1955, and although its themes are undoubtedly pertinent, it comes as no surprise that this is only the play’s second staging in over half a century. Its plot structure is awkward, its dialogue dry, and its narrative too simple.

Director Clare Watson adds to Gray’s work a lot of ornamentation, and the show becomes, fortunately, of satisfactory quality. It is an elegantly designed production, not particularly inventive with any of its renderings, but certainly accomplished with what it sets out to achieve.

Actor Celia Pacquola is spirited in the leading role, able to introduce a modern sense of sass for Jenny to remain likeable. Although crucial to the story, the character often feels insufficiently dominant in the scheme of things, with many sequences seeming to keep her excluded. The play’s title refers to Rufus Torrent, editor of the paper, and his son Ben. The former played by a sturdy, dignified Tony Cogin, and the latter, a kooky Gareth Davies, whose impulsive comedy adds a reliable and welcome invigoration to proceedings.

It is evident that all performers in The Torrents invest in an attempt to fortify their show. There is good effervescent energy, and an admirable precision to their rhythms as an ensemble, and although the staging is ultimately underwhelming, polish of this standard is always impressive.

Like the residents of Koolgalla, we need something radical to wake us up to our impending destruction. It may be narcissism, or simply fear, that keeps us from accepting the truth of ecological and technological disasters that are already in motion. It was not until the old boys club in The Torrents were able to let the first woman in, that significant change was able to begin.

The powerful is almost always conservative. Those at the top are habituated into thinking that they must protect the existing, and are thus unable to conceive of big transformations that would make things better. They keep doing things the old way, to try and reinforce the security they imagine themselves enjoying. They manufacture a supremacy, to be protected at all costs, unwilling to recognise that it is not mother nature who will be obedient, but us, who must abide by nature’s laws.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au | www.bsstc.com.au

Review: Playlist (PYT Fairfield)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), May 16 – 19, 2019
Director: Karen Therese
Cast: Mara Knezevic, Tasha O’Brien, Neda Taha, May Tran, Ebube Uba
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Five young women from Western Sydney take the stage, talking about themselves, driving home the point that their stories are not only valid, they are essential, should we wish to examine our lives as egalitarian Australians. For too long, these voices have been subsumed. Not white enough, not middle class enough, and not masculine enough, they have long been relegated to secondary importance in the way our national identity is construed and represented. This is not about a faded mythology; Ned Kelly, Don Bradman and Crocodile Dundee they are not. In Playlist, we encounter a devised work of theatre, that offers a refreshing and pertinent reflection of who we are, in the here and now. It is about creating a new vision of a future that addresses the social imbalances, and injustices, that have plagued us since European settlement. In Playlist, we see ourselves learning to become unapologetic women, more spice than sugar, able to occupy any space we deem appropriate.

The personalities bond through music and dance. It is a cultural discussion that requires each to talk about heritage. With roots in various continents, they gather to connect with traditions that are unfamiliar, and find commonality in popular music, alongside their shared experience of misogyny. Their bodies contain a multitude of meanings, and in Playlist, intersectionality is explicitly discussed, in words and in movement, to interrogate who we are as women, so that we may form progressive and propulsive intentions, to get us, collectively, somewhere better.

Larissa McGowan’s work as choreographer is invaluable in making the show dynamic and entertaining. She allows the expression of spirit to occur powerfully within structures that look disciplined but that feel simultaneously organic. Director Karen Therese does marvellously to bring cohesion to a diverse group of performers, with disparate styles and individual principles. An inspiring sisterhood is established through the harnessing of both similarity and difference, effective in conveying the possibilities that could arise from unions of this nature.

An extraordinarily well-rehearsed cast takes us through an entirely unpretentious theatrical exploration of a modern feminism, one that is useful today, for all Australians. They are humorous, but also disarmingly earnest with their propositions. There is great honesty on this stage, and as a consequence, we regard all they say with open hearts and minds. An immense energy pervades, physical and soulful, aided by a team of designers that join in on the conspiracy of a political presentation. Lights by Verity Hampson, and sound by Gail Priest and Jasmine Guffond ensure that Playlist makes its point every time, whether it chooses to hit us hard or to persuade gently. Also noteworthy are costumes and set by Zanny Berg, whose contemporary simplicity proves effective in helping us elicit a sense of visual resonance, to reach a deeper understanding of the nuances on display.

As migrant women of colour, we have learned to compromise our true essence, in efforts to survive a system that has us positioned low on its hierarchy of priorities. We have had to set aside our authenticity, in order that we can turn ourselves nonthreatening, and be deemed tolerable by the mainstream. In our maturity, we discover that these sacrifices have paid few dividends, so when Playlist stakes its claim on a self-determined womanhood, we can only respond with joy. These artists show us who they are, and in their revelations, we find answers to our own conundrums.

www.pyt.com.au

Review: Mosquitoes (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Apr 8 – May 18, 2019
Playwright: Lucy Kirkwood
Director: Jessica Arthur
Cast: Annie Byron, Jason Chong, Mandy McElhinney, Jacqueline McKenzie, Angela Nica Sullen, Louis Seguier, Nikita Waldron, Charles Wu
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
The two sisters could not be more different. Alice is a high-achieving scientist, and Jenny is an anti-vaxxer; it would seem that all the brains had gone to one sibling, leaving the other quite the imbecile by comparison. Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitoes sets up a dynamic that tempts us to think in binary terms, but guides us away from forming false equivalences in our estimation of its characters. Although we see good and bad, smart and stupid, the play is able to convince us that people are people, that to determine some life as more valuable than others, would always be tenuous and quite indecent.

After one very big mistake, Jenny’s messy life appears to be going resolutely downhill. The reverberations of her self-destruction are felt by Alice, whose own existence begins to unravel, perhaps as a result of her sister’s chaotic proximity. Playwright Kirkwood sets the family drama against a backdrop of science and nature, with Alice’s career in physics providing context for us to ruminate on both the separateness and inseparable-ness of things. We isolate things to understand them, but forget their indissolubility in the bigger scheme. Our minds are able to conceive of distinct particles, but none exists in absolute detachment. Families are made of individuals, who are at once autonomous and conjoined.

Mosquitoes‘ small domestic scenes are not an easy fit on this vast stage, and although production designer Elizabeth Gadsby and lighting designer Nick Shlieper do not always succeed at containing and concentrating our vision, there is an alluring quality in the elegance that they do achieve. Some very big acting by Annie Byron, Louis Seguier and Charles Wu in supporting roles, are risky choices that prove helpful, and satisfying, in getting us involved. Director Jessica Arthur brings excellent amplification to personal emotions for the characters we meet, but her show is insufficiently provocative, able to communicate effectively only on surface levels. We want more insight into our contemporary times, and more philosophy in general, from a piece of writing that seems to promise so much intellectual rigour.

Jenny is played by Mandy McElhinney, whose humour is a striking feature, full of confidence and impressive verve. Jacqueline McKenzie’s Alice is appropriately high-strung, with an admirable intensity, although slightly one-note in her approach. Their work is assisted by James Brown’s music and sound design, who does marvellous work when tensions are rising, but is occasionally deflating, when in contradiction with the comedy being presented by the cast.

When we find Alice at the end of her tether, rationality turns her ironically monstrous, almost fascistic in attitude, as she tries to put order back into life. At that moment, the shiny appeal of her intelligence and sophistication, reveals something inhumane, and we begin to perceive Jenny’s prior weaknesses with disarming empathy. It is a magical instance of equalisation that transpires, if only in our irresistible urge to place judgement. At these times of extraordinary factiousness, there is perhaps no greater need than the urgency to look for similarities in between. In our efforts to make things better, we identify problems, and relegate them to imagined groups of others, and forget the ultimately inextricable culpability of the self. It is easy to think of the cosmos as one, but to prevent it from falling to pieces, in this day and age, looks to be impossible.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

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 – Mar 30, 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