Review: Triple X (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Jan 8 – Feb 26, 2022
Playwright: Glace Chase
Director: Paige Rattray
Cast: Glace Chase, Josh McConville, Christen O’Leary, Anthony Taufa, Contessa Treffone
Images by Brett Boardman, Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Not only does Scotty have a highflying job on Wall Street, he lives in a US$3.5 million Tribeca loft, and is about to marry a Birkin-toting Kymberly. Everything looks to be peachy keen, but on the inside, he is a complete mess. The only saving grace is his secret affair with trans entertainer Dexie, but Scotty relegates the sole joy of his existence to the dark allegorical closet, afraid that the truth will destroy all.

Glace Chase’s Triple X tells an age-old story, but such is the severity of its associated taboo, that it feels like we are taking this conversation to the public domain, for the very first time. Chase’s writing is intricate and insightful, replete with splendid wit and a generosity of spirit that allows her show its wide appeal. The depth of honesty she is able to access for the play, is so confronting it feels almost self-sacrificial. The result of course, is the initiation of a big and necessary discussion, that is crucial to the well-being of trans people everywhere.

The show is given vibrant and taut direction by Paige Rattray, who makes the near three hours of Triple X feel a mere blink of an eye. The comedy is wild and raucous, yet bears an unmistakeable sense of sophistication. The deconstruction and analysis of ideas, are accomplished with admirable thoroughness. For all the irony and sarcasm dripping off of Triple X, there is thankfully no ambiguity to the important message it imparts.

Designer Renée Mulder establishes on the stage, a versatile and highly functional set that provides a wealth of possibilities, whilst making Scotty’s apartment look every bit the million dollar listing that it aims to depict. Costumes are convincingly assembled, with several of Dexie’s more flamboyant outfits demonstrating great style and humour. Light by Ben Hughes too, add colour and texture that wonderfully enhance the mood of each scene.

Chase herself plays Dexie, the scruffy warrior from clubland, and provocateur whose very presence insists the truth be out. The uncompromising authenticity that Chase brings to the role, is the lynchpin of the entire exercise. She makes us fall in love with Dexie, and respond with appropriate outrage, at the injustices that befall her. Josh McConville scintillates as Scotty, with boundless energy, both physical and emotional, to convey the frenzied discontentment that the character goes through in every waking moment.

Similarly full of vigour is Christen O’Leary, whose unforgettable performance as Deborah, proves an unequivocal highlight of the production. Captivating and irresistibly funny, yet able to bring sincerity to her work, O’Leary is truly remarkable. Anthony Taufa and Contessa Treffone both create likeable personalities, who add dynamism and complexity to the story being told. The entire cast is passionate, with an infectious earnestness that really drive home the urgency of all that is being discussed.

The main thing that Triple X says, is that although there is nothing wrong with Dexie, and that she lives her life to the fullest of her abilities, the world around her is constantly trying to pull her down. Even when she finds love unexpectedly, the embarrassing predictability of a man’s cowardice, is determined to replace pleasure with misery, joy with anguish. Of course Dexie deserves love, but more than that, she deserves dignity, and the well-founded wisdom of knowing better.

For Scotty, the affair means much more than it does to Dexie. Trans women of a certain age have seen it all before, and there will always be plenty more fish in the sea, should one choose to partake in a never-ending revolving door of fleeting romances. On the other hand, for men like Scotty who know that intimacy with a trans woman, is part of their journey to true happiness, to lose a love could easily be an irrevocable error. Those who remain cowards shall find no peace, and those who relish in bravery certainly deserve no cowards.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Death of a Salesman (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Dec 3 – 22, 2021
Playwright: Arthur Miller
Director: Paige Rattray
Cast: Callan Colley, Jacek Koman, Josh McConville, Philip Quast, Bruce Spence, Thuso Lekwape, Helen Thomson, Contessa Treffone, Kimie Tsukakoshi, Brigid Zengeni, Alan Zhu
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Willy Loman is finally waking up to the fact that so many of life’s promises are bound to amount to nothing. The 63 year-old salesman has worked hard for decades, completely invested in the American Dream, but with the impending certainty of death, comes the realisation that he had been sold a big fat lie. It is now 72 years since Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman had first appeared on Broadway. Much has changed in the ways we live, yet the play’s central ideas seem never to lose their pertinence. Capitalism continues to broaden its grip over the very values with which we navigate existence, and no matter how many times we hear Willy Loman’s story, it appears few of us can avoid his fate. Such is the control, that desire for money and status, has over so many.

In her faithful 21st century rendition, director Paige Rattray has ensured a presentation stunning in its aesthetics, with exquisite design work occupying our attention over the near three-hour duration. The legacy of Edward Hopper in particular, is referenced beautifully in its evocation of 1940’s Americana. Paul Jackson’s lights steal the show, painterly and sublimely dramatic, in their bold manifestations of every tragic scene.

David Fleischer’s set design alters proportions of the proscenium, in order that we may obtain more intimate glimpses into the small lives being explored, whilst conveying the decrepitude of the Loman world view that many of us inevitably share. Costumes by Teresa Negroponte make statements about aspiration and disappointment, as they help transport us to a nostalgia that is more disconcerting than wistful. Music and sound design by Clemence Williams is noir-tinged, almost macabre in its grand invocations of regret and broken dreams.

Aspects of the performance utilises the device of a Greek Chorus, thankfully in an understated manner, which help manufacture a sense of gloom, and to prevent the vast space from falling too frequently into an unbearable emptiness. There is however a certain lack of soulfulness in the staging. Undoubtedly we witness a lot of passion being displayed, most notably by Jacek Koman who plays an irrepressible Willy, but the ensemble is not always convincing in their efforts, to represent the spirit of a play that aims to stand up for the little guy.

As Linda, actor Helen Thomson takes every opportunity to bring levity to a dark tale, but a lack in chemistry between the Loman spouses, has a tendency to make the mother and wife character seem somewhat disconnected. Callan Colley and Josh McConville are the sons, Happy and Biff respectively, both amiable personalities, if slightly surface in their depictions of a collapsing patriarchy. McConville does however, bring the show to a satisfying crescendo, late in the piece, when Biff unravels and exposes the truths about his torment.

Willy Loman’s death is important. We will all go about our lives, finding individual ways to figure out what is true and what are lies, based on all manner of evidence and introspection, but featuring prominently in Arthur Miller’s play is the undeniable centrepiece of a person’s death. The decisions we make, the things we value, and the way we love, should never be divorced from the singular fact of certain death, yet we seem in our American Dreams to forever act as though the self is immortal. “You can’t take it with you” is a common refrain, if only we care to listen.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Julius Caesar (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Nov 15 – Dec 23, 2021
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Geraldine Hakewill, Ewen Leslie, Zahra Newman
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
When the Roman leader is assassinated in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, it is the very nature of democracy that comes into question. Two millennia after the fateful incident, we are still pondering, and living, the delusive meanings of democracy in our political realities. The men in Shakespeare’s play continue to bear a certain ambiguity in terms of their being good or bad, right or wrong. Fortunately for audiences of Kip Williams’ modern day adaptation, it is the all too familiar malevolence of 21st century communications technology that takes a lot of the unequivocal blame.

Mobile phones and social media, in addition to traditional news platforms, are the convenient new villains in this regeneration of the old classic. Video monitors occupy centre stage with an aggressive dominance, and actors are virtually never without their phones, always with camera on, pointing at themselves and at one another. We have to consume the play in ways that are similar, to how we consume the daily news about politics. Devices and screens overwhelm our senses, so that whatever is live and actually material, becomes secondary to digital transmissions.

We struggle to distinguish, the important from the distracting, and the truth from fake news. Williams’ direction makes the unrelenting noise that is so pervasive in our media habits, a central feature of his theatrical presentation, and the more he indulges in histrionics, the more we are seduced by all the frenzy. The story escalates along with our gleeful enjoyment of sequences that become increasingly hideous, and we begin to wonder if all the heartache and bloodshed, can only exist because of our audienceship. Our passive attention is made to take responsibility, in this salient reminder that under capitalism, the consumer is king.

David Bergman’s work on video design is humorous, detailed and dynamic. The abundant cultural references made therein, form a subtext for this version of Julius Caesar that not only updates the tale for contemporary sensibilities, it reframes the discussion about democracy to include technology and capitalism, so that the discourse feels urgent and strikingly intimate. Correspondingly, Stefan Gregory’s music and sound design takes charge of our nerve centres, in order that we can only respond to the series of egregious events, with appropriate revulsion. Also noteworthy are Elizabeth Gadsby’s set and costume design, offering efficient and unpretentious solutions to an otherwise complex staging. Lights by Amelia Lever-Davidson too are unobtrusive, yet satisfyingly dramatic in its various manifestations.

The three stellar actors called upon to play all the roles, are undeniably sublime. Geraldine Hakewill, Ewen Leslie and Zahra Newman impress with their thorough familiarity with the material, but it is their ability to engender an air of unpredictability that keeps us enthralled. It is live theatre in which everything is planned to the most minute, yet we experience it as though everything is coming from visceral impulses of each moment. Each performer is independently magnetic and powerful, but as a singular unit, they deliver a theatrical experience remarkably bold in its inventiveness, and thrilling in its capacity to make the story feel so immediate and involving.

The camera’s omnipresence strip the characters in Julius Caesar of their sincerity. Aware of being on screen at all times, their every word and deed can only appear performative, if not completely devoid of authenticity. It comes as a surprise then, that some of us still believe in our leaders, even when they are unabashedly hamming it up for our screens, shamelessly spouting nonsensical hyperbole and harmful rhetoric. The effectiveness with which media personalities (politicians and others) can use capitalism and technology to manipulate our sense of truth, to their advantage, is now a foregone conclusion. The end of the production is grim, as though proclaiming that resistance is futile, a statement only a scant few would dare refute.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Grand Horizons (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Jun 7 – Jul 3, 2021
Playwright: Bess Wohl
Director: Jessica Arthur
Cast: John Bell, Linda Cropper, Vanessa Downing, James Majoos, Johnny Nasser, Zindzi Okenyo, Guy Simon
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Nancy has asked for a divorce. Instead of congratulating her on daring to reach for happier days in the twilight years, her adult sons desperately try to change her mind, determined to keep her tethered to a life that she clearly deems unsatisfactory. At the centre of Bess Wohl’s Grand Horizons is Nancy and Bill’s 50-year marriage, offering a framework through which our basic values as individuals and as collectives, are interrogated. The very idea that a person’s efforts to end a bad relationship, are met with despair, is a clear indication of our capacity to be so distorted in the ways we conceive of existence.

It is a surreptitiously philosophical work, accomplished with a wonderful sense of humour, and often with a subversive streak. Wohl diminishes the persuasiveness of her own arguments however, by rendering the family’s wealth invisible in her discussions about female independence. The desire to lead us to a pleasing conclusion too, can feel somewhat of a cop out, but the play is undeniably enjoyable, full of wit and whimsy that makes for a hilarious and thought-provoking experience.

Nancy’s big beige sterile house, is an ironic picture of middle-class mediocrity and boredom. Production designer Renée Mulder delivers a comedic conflation, of aspiration and of depression, in her interpretation of boomer suburban resplendence. Lights by Verity Hampson and sound by Clemence Williams are subtly resolved, to honour all the clever ideas and the incessant jokes, that make Grand Horizons quite the unforgettable experience.

Certainly memorable is actor Linda Cropper, who brings extraordinary complexity, along with brilliant timing, to the role of Nancy. It is a remarkably intelligent performance, conveying great integrity for the older woman who finally realises that she deserves better. Also highly entertaining is Guy Simon as Brian, the gay son, who has a difficult time extricating his own identity from his parents’ parting of ways. Simon plays the flamboyant drama teacher with a dazzling theatricality, keeping the laughter sustained for as long as he remains on stage.

It is a strong cast overall, but supporting player James Majoos is exceptional in his single appearance, as the carefree Tommy, incredibly extravagant in approach, for one of the play’s more outrageous scenes. Director Jessica Arthur proves herself a formidable creator of comedy; her strategies vary from delicate to bold, demonstrating an adventurous creative spirit, and a serious commitment to tickling her audience.

We place far too much emphasis on the length of relationships, and invest far too little into understanding what makes a good one. Elizabeth Taylor married and divorced eight times, because she knew when she had become unhappy, and made sure to improve conditions whenever necessary. For that, she was routinely ridiculed and insulted. On the other hand, people like Nancy who tolerate untold decades of misery, are revered solely for the longevity of their unions, with the actual experience of those years and years, seemingly irrelevant. Few things are worth greater celebration, than when a woman finds the courage to walk away from a failed marriage. The danger and humiliation that she has to contend with, is a price that she is willing to pay, for the promise of a better life.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: The 7 Stages Of Grieving (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), May 21 – Jun 19, 2021
Playwrights: Wesley Enoch, Deborah Mailman
Director: Shari Sebbens
Cast: Elaine Crombie
Images by Joseph Mayers

Theatre review
In popular understandings of psychological processes, there are well-known stages of grief, that relate to loss and anguish. Less commonly spoken of, are the sorrowful experiences of our Indigenous, that stem from over two centuries of colonisation. In The 7 Stages of Grieving by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman, a veil is lifted with great generosity, on the burdens of Blackness in this country.

A one-woman play in which the soul of a people is laid bare, The 7 Stages of Grieving offers a valuable opportunity to obtain a condensed overview of challenges faced by our First Nations. Although living in divergent communities, these marginalised voices are given a unified focus, in order that we may cultivate an appropriate attitude and response, for the critical improvements needed for Black lives on this land.

The storyteller takes us through seven phases of Aboriginal history, namely Dreaming, Invasion, Genocide, Protection, Assimilation, Self-Determination, and Reconciliation. Performed by Elaine Crombie who takes on the daunting challenge of representing an entire non-monolithic culture, we see her indomitable and joyful spirit shine through, even as she makes her way through one catastrophic anecdote after another. Crombie resists being defined by adversity; demonstrating that it is in fact a combination of defiance and resilience, that is truly formative.

Directed by Shari Sebbens, the show is memorable for both its gravity and its levity, juxtaposing hardship with humour, to deliver what are arguably the most important messages of our time. Set design by Elizabeth Gadsby (inspired by the work of Megan Cope) too, contrasts shimmering surfaces against earthy shrines, to communicate a sense of struggle in those who fight harder than most to survive. Verity Hampson’s lights and video projections, offer impressive visual variety, while Steve Francis’ work on music and sound, take our minds to ethereal places, as though creating a momentary paradigm shift, in this communal sharing of theatrical magic.

At the show’s conclusion, we are spared the indignity of walking away with little more than melancholy or worse, resignation. The artists urge us to take action, even prescribing “The 7 Actions of Healing” to assist in transforming what is normally a passive audience, into an activated one. Indeed, there is always a danger that the hard work of minority communities, is consumed as a kind of perverse entertainment, or a vehicle to raise awareness at best, but nothing besides.

The labour of presenting one’s trauma, to those directly and indirectly responsible, is rarely received with any comparable urgency. 26 years after the first staging of The 7 Stages of Grieving, we can now take this time to acknowledge the advancements that have and have not been made, since 1995. Whatever we decide is the current state of affairs, it is hard to deny that the room to improve, remains infinitely vast.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Fun Home (Sydney Theatre Company / Melbourne Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Apr 27 – May 29, 2021
Book and Lyrics: Lisa Kron (based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel)
Music: Jeanine Tesori
Director: Dean Bryant
Cast: Gilbert Bradman, Ryan Gonzalez, Emily Havea, Mia Honeysett, Lucy Maunder, Jensen Mazza, Maggie McKenna, Adam Murphy, Marina Prior
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
In the American musical Fun Home, based on the autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, we observe the cartoonist hard at work on her drafting table, looking back at memories of her difficult father. Bruce was a baby boomer, and like many queer people of that generation, never came to terms with being gay. Even as Alison began to come out as lesbian, his personal anguish never diminished, struggling even to offer support to his own daughter at a time when she had needed him most.

Clearly intended to be an emotional theatrical experience, the show’s reliance on an unlikeable character is risky, and even though the music is predictably and relentlessly sentimental, it is doubtful if audiences could ever feel the full impact of the hardship that this family had gone through. Alison goes to considerable lengths to find forgiveness and understanding for her father, but it is arguable if the musical provides sufficiently for us to respond with deep compassion, or even to care enough for these characters, to be able to invest adequately into their story.

The staging is a polished one, with Alicia Clements’ design facilitating efficaciously, the need for frequent oscillations of time and space. Matt Scott’s lights are beautiful, especially when depicting illusory moments during which we see characters suspended in the undefined abyss of Alison’s imagination. Director Dean Bryant introduces an excellent sense of pizzazz to the production, making sure that we are entertained to the fullest of the show’s potential. He ensures that the story is told with clarity, including the unsavoury revelations relating to Bruce’s life.

We see Alison at three periods of maturity, from childhood and her college years, to the grown woman she is today. Child star Mia Honeysett is fantastic as Small Alison, wonderfully nuanced and authentic, in her portrayal of a child navigating complicated family dynamics, as well as her own blossoming homosexuality. Medium Alison is performed by Maggie McKenna whose singing voice proves a divine pleasure, and Lucy Maunder is captivating as Big Alison, bringing a palpable tenderness that underpins the show. The striking Adam Murphy does his best to honestly depict Bruce, warts and all, but it is Marina Prior who leaves a strong impression playing his wife Helen. When she finally breaks her silence and delivers a faultless solo number, Prior’s technical prowess brings momentary elevation to the production, inviting us to luxuriate in the sheer genius of her singing.

It should come as no surprise that humans are sometimes much more troubling, than a 100-minute Broadway musical can accommodate. The formulaic nature of these creations, requires a form of storytelling that follows many rules, and we discover that truth can sometimes become its nemesis. Bruce’s sexual encounters with underaged boys, is not forgivable, especially in this space of commercial theatre. Fun Home requires us to regard Bruce’s past sins with generosity, the way his daughter has to, in order that our emotions may become engaged in accordance with the traditional peaks and valleys of a conventional musical. Bruce’s transgressions however, are much too severe, at least for the old-fashion song-and-dance format.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Appropriate (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Mar 15 – Apr 10, 2021
Playwright: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Director: Wesley Enoch
Cast: Lucy Bell, Joel Bishop, Johnny Carr, James Fraser, Brenna Harding, Ella Jacob, Mandy McElhinney, Robbi Morgan, Sam Worthington
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Three siblings return, after the death of their father, to their Arkansas family home, in anticipation of the estate’s imminent sale. They are an unhappy bunch, and like many classics of stage and screen from the United States, these white Americans squabble and weep in each other’s presence, putting on display interpersonal conflicts and psychological trauma, as though resolution could eventually be found through performative acts of catharsis. In Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate however, characters ignore the most serious problems underpinning their very existence, unable to acknowledge fundamental faults that are more about a legacy relating to their Confederate history, than they are about individual infirmity.

Jacob-Jenkins draws a link between a sick society, and private lives constantly in search of emancipation. We are familiar with the idea that personal anguish compels us to seek remedies, but we rarely think about addressing wider contexts (in the case of Appropriate, both societal and familial), as being crucial in efforts to achieve a sense of well-being, or peace. This is especially true for those in positions of privilege. Jacob-Jenkins’ play features an all-white family, none of whom accept that the racism propagated by their forebears, has anything to do with their disquiet, much less be attentive to the racism that they continue to reinforce in their own daily lives.

This political statement, although a hugely consequential one, is made almost surreptitiously. The characters sweep these things under the carpet, and in the absence of an outside world that includes people of colour, none of what the play wishes to say, is presented explicitly. Director Wesley Enoch too, does not bring abundant emphasis to these matters, trusting instead that the message will resonate for those who want to hear it. Positioning the show as a somewhat conventional family drama however, means that Appropriate is not always satisfying. The reliance on a sense of realism, in efforts to make the narrative engrossing, has a tendency to reduce the drama to something slightly pedestrian. The play is much more than rich people fighting and being upset about their parochial concerns, but we are only provided glimpses of the real stakes that are actually involved.

An unevenness in the cast is largely responsible, for the production not conveying as much nuance and depth as required. Sam Worthington demonstrates good focus and intention, but an unfortunate lack in control over his voice and physicality in the role of Bo, makes for a confused, and confusing, performance that leaves us cold. Doing most of the heavy lifting is Mandy McElhinney, who shines brightly as resentful sister Toni, able to inject exuberance and irony into the dark comedy. Johnny Carr plays the intriguingly ambiguous Franz, proving himself a captivating actor, if a little too convincing as the reformed sex offender.

Work on design aspects is accomplished in general, with the closing minutes showcasing a dilapidating house, without actors, leaving a particularly strong impression. Set by Elizabeth Gadsby, lights by Trent Suidgeest, and sound by Steve Francis, combine to create the production’s most striking moments. We witness the house literally falling into disrepair, ravaged by time and by ghosts. We watch the spectacle unfold, and without words, hear the important questions ring through the chilly air. What had been left unsaid, is finally unleashed, but one wonders if this obtuse conclusion, although beautiful, is enough to drive home the moral of the story.

Observing white people in places like American and Australia, deny their racism, is nothing new for people of colour. It is always someone else at fault, and it is always a problem too big to fix today. There is always disowning of liability, and there is always a diminishment of responsibility. They routinely try to make everything vanish into thin air, as though out of sight, out of mind. They are terrified of being labelled racists, but every day prolong and extend the effects of racism. They say they did not create the system, but refuse to acknowledge that they are often its sole beneficiaries. The people in Appropriate will say that the worst is behind us, but what we see before our eyes, is a tragedy that rages on, only in hushed tones.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Playing Beatie Bow (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Feb 22 – May 1, 2021
Playwright: Kate Mulvany (based on the novel by Ruth Park)
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Tony Cogin, Lena Cruz, Claire Lovering, Heather Mitchell, Sofia Nolan, Rory O’Keeffe, Guy Simon, Catherine Văn-Davies, Ryan Yeates
Images by Daniel Boud
Theatre review
Two Sydney girls connect across centuries, through supernatural means, leaving indelible marks upon one another’s destinies. In Kate Mulvany’s brand new revision of Ruth Park’s 1980 novel Playing Beatie Bow, teenager Abigail wormholes from 2021 to 1873, meeting young Beatie Bow and her migrant Scottish family, in a story that broaches the sensitive subject of our colonial history. It also touches upon themes of female solidarity, of matrilineality, and on the nature of love, for places and for people, in a three-hour long epic that is as expansive as it is adventurous.

Abigail and Beatie are able to time travel, because they were born spaewives, ready to transcend physical realms of earthly existence. Mulvany as writer too, ventures beyond the obvious, so that the audience is never allowed to linger in the mundane. With Playing Beatie Bow, she insists that we look under every surface, to reach for a deeper appreciation and understanding about the people we like to think we are. The action takes place at The Rocks, where our history is especially rich, and where its cultural influence is particularly far reaching. To excavate at that location, is to uncover the gems, and the dross, that shape our Australian identities.

Direction by Kip Williams takes care to address both the issues, of who we are and who we ought to be. His work is honest, but also highly aspirational. It provides so much that is warm and fuzzy, through the nostalgia of the piece, and the saccharine sweetness of the relationships being depicted. The notion that we are good people, is reinforced through the classic, if slightly hackneyed, salt-of-the-earth tone of the staging. Concurrent though, is the refreshing incorporation of Aboriginal and Asian perspectives, that prove fundamental in encouraging a reimagination of community. The inclusion of people of colour within this context of an “Australian classic” addresses the exclusionary strategies, that have informed the ways we have been permitted, and not permitted, to conceive of ourselves, over centuries of white imperialism. Williams’ reformation of our collective attitude, is somewhat surreptitious but undoubtedly political.

David Fleischer’s set design takes full advantage of a very deep stage (at the extravagantly renovated Wharf Theatres), utilising configurations of sparseness to communicate elements of time and distance, that are central to a story that has us frequently thrust into moments of magical abyss. Lights by Nick Schlieper are appropriately ethereal, reliably transporting us through one translucent apparitional scene after another. Renée Mulder’s costumes provide great assistance, so that characters are convincing from the get-go. Music by Clemence Williams and Matthew Doyle, are sentimental and beautiful, and along with David Bergman’s restrained sound design, provide us with meditative spaces so that our thoughts and emotions can be activated, in the audience’s pursuit of interpretation and introspection.

A remarkable warmth emanates from the cast; they seem to be saying that this tale is for all of us, and that we are in this together. Catherine Văn-Davies is powerful as Abigail, an urgent and compelling presence whose sense of precision, keeps us attentive to all the valuable dimensions of what we discover to be a surprisingly complex exercise. Văn-Davies brings an authentic earthiness that anchors the production in a place that feels universal and meaningful, even when its flights of fancy take us far away from reality. It is often a deeply moving performance, one that tethers us to humanity, of the self and of others.

Guy Simon is unforgettable in his various roles, but as Johnny Whites, his controlled delivery of an Indigenous man whose daughters have been stolen by the crown, is utterly devastating. Heather Mitchell is a sheer delight as two vastly different matriarchs, both wonderfully comical, yet profound with what they convey. The precocious Beatie is played by Sofia Nolan, with excellent timing and a formidable exuberance. The show requires of its actors, a high level of technical proficiency, but they are unrelenting with the heart and soul of the piece, and as a result, the audience cannot help but be thoroughly affected.

We need to know our origins, in order that our destinations can be properly mapped out. We have for the longest time, misunderstood our past, and therefore so many have to suffer painful consequences. This is a task that has no room for delusions. We can no longer pretend to be wholly benevolent. People need to own up to their mistakes, make reparations, and correct our pathways. Travelling back in time to face the demons is hard, but for the brave, it is the only way forward.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: The Picture Of Dorian Gray (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Nov 25 – Dec 19, 2020
Playwright: Kip Williams (adapted from the Oscar Wilde novel)
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Eryn Jean Norvill
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Self-preservation is in our human nature, but when it manifests in forms of narcissism, we have to wonder if that urge of vanity, is in fact paradoxically self-destructive. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray tells the story of a man so taken by his own beauty, he sells his soul in order to forever retain it. That juxtaposition of soul and beauty sets up a dichotomy, that makes us consider the inextricability of one with the other. If the soul is essentially good, Wilde wants us to think that beauty is ultimately impossible, in those who are fundamentally bad. His narrative is compelling, although the evidence in our real lives, may prove those beliefs less convincing.

Kip Williams’ ultra modern version places on the stage, front and centre, screens that display digitalised imagery, most of which can be thought of as selfies of Wilde’s nineteenth century characters, seeming to represent something more tangible than the flimsy yet seductive pixels we encounter in cinematic style. It is a thrilling production, fast-paced and very attractive, able to hold us captive with stunning sights and sounds, inventive from start to finish. Appropriate for our culture, one that has been taken over by mobile devices, and that the show so fervently interrogates, causing the viewer to oscillate between suspecting that it might all be slightly facile, and thinking that maybe there is something to be said about existence in 2020, as we obsess over all things pertaining to facades. In some ways, one could go away thinking that Williams has proven Wilde wrong.

It is the surface that we find glorious in Williams’ vision, with Marg Horwell’s work as designer, and Nick Schlieper’s lights providing an endless stream of breathtaking moments, along with David Bergman’s very sophisticated and thoughtful video work, bringing Australian theatre into a futuristic new era. Clemence Williams too, excels with sound and music, especially memorable when her approach turns baroque, and we feel aroused by the surprising dimensions she is able to build for our senses. Stage Manager Minka Stevens, along with all the crew, must be congratulated for their valiant and expert fulfillment of an exceptionally complex undertaking.

Actor Eryn Jean Norvill plays Dorian Gray and all the other 25 roles. It is the tallest of orders, not only having to switch between personalities at lightning speed for the entire two-hour duration, but also for the extreme demands of an impossibly technical show, involving multiple cameras, and interactions with pre-recorded footage. Norvill’s spirit is indomitable, but we wonder if any human is able to meet every requirement of this merciless challenge.

There is no question that our lives are turning increasingly digital. Some of us might still hang on to ideas that our analogue selves will always be ultimately more genuine, but forces that want us to relinquish remaining parts that are private and physical, are winning every battle. As we transform into pixels and data, at the insistence of those capitalistic entities, we begin to learn that the digital is no longer merely a representation of something else. Images on a screen are becoming more real than what we see without devices as conduit. Also not forgetting, that we are marching towards a time, when the only images we see are either digital or dreams. No one will ever get to Dorian Gray’s flesh, only the evidence of his being, in computerised forms. There is a narcissism in our resistance to this future. We want to believe in our supremacy over technology, as we had believed in our supremacy over nature and other species. Humans seem never to learn that the world is not about us.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Rules For Living (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Nov 2 – Dec 19, 2020
Playwright: Sam Holcroft
Director: Susanna Dowling
Cast: Ella Jacob, Keegan Joyce, Amber McMahon, Hazem Shammas, Bruce Spence, Sonia Todd, Nikita Waldron
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
It is Christmas lunch at Francis’ home in the affluent North Shore. He is a successful lawyer, and both his sons are desperately trying to follow in his footsteps, although their authentic passions lie clearly in other fields. A lot of Sam Holcroft’s Rules For Living talks about the conflict between who we are, and who we are expected to be. It is about the standards set by society, by family, friends and lovers, that have very little to do with what one needs for a satisfying existence, and everything to do with obedience, and for keeping up with the joneses. An examination of middle class mirage is plat du jour, as served up by this predictable comedy, giving us nothing edgy or indeed revelatory.

Actor Sonia Todd plays Edith, mother to the boys, especially effective when bringing emphasis to the irony of narcissistic anguish in people who have it all. Everything is too stressful in her perfect world, where not a hair is allowed to be out of place. Todd offers an accurate sense of bourgeois uptight-ness, that is valuable in our understanding of early twenty-first century Western civilisation, even though the noisy ensemble piece does ultimately prevent anything meaningful or profound to be properly conveyed.

Directed by Susanna Dowling, the show is consistently energetic, but bewilderingly unfunny. The performers work extraordinarily hard to entertain, but none seems to have located any significant humour in the piece, that they so laboriously bring to the stage. Their approaches range from realist to absurdist, all of which miss the mark, although it can often appear that there is little in the writing that is inherently amusing. Design aspects are elegant and polished, but conservatively rendered, for a production that looks, sounds and feels like the hundred Christmas comedies that have come before, always unthreatening, but banal at best.

As we try to survive a living hell comprised of Trumpism and COVID-19, telling stories about vicious family dynamics in 2020, proves to be an exercise that feels little more than a slightly quaint distraction from real life. What might have been important theatre in 2015, when Rules For Living had made its international premiere, now lacks pertinence in a vastly transformed world. There are much bigger fish to fry, and art needs to keep up.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au