Review: The Bleeding Tree (Wharf 1 Theatre)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Mar 9 – Apr 8, 2017
Playwright: Angus Cerini
Director: Lee Lewis
Cast: Paula Arundell, Airlie Dodds, Shari Sebbens
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
A man has been killed by his wife and two daughters, shot deliberately in cold blood and left to die. It is rural Australia, so there is no hiding the disappearance of a person, or the circumstances surrounding the savage incident. Angus Cerini’s The Bleeding Tree confronts the rules of society, exposing the inadequacies of how we live as communities and how we forsake the weak. The dead man had been violently abusive, but the women in his home were never offered sufficient help to escape his brutality. As neighbours begin to discover their actions, we are surprised to see their acceptance of the episode.

Cerini’s writing is dangerous, deep and devastatingly beautiful. It operates at the precipice of morality, for a play that uses the audience’s imagination and reasoning, to deliver remarkable thrills, on levels that are emotional as well as intellectual. It is a story that rarely gets told. Family violence is commonplace, and is slowly being removed from secrecy, but we are are still learning how to talk about it. The Bleeding Tree is a new kind of parable that admonishes the guilty so that repugnant behaviour is seen unequivocally as such. The death of the patriarch does not occur in grey areas, and we are challenged to look at the remains of the monster and consider what is right and wrong, in a reality that does not allow time to be reversed. We do not exist in coulda, shoulda, woulda, and in The Bleeding Tree, we cannot have our cake and eat it too, if justice is to be served.

It is an extraordinarily sophisticated production, directed by Lee Lewis whose take on the Australian Gothic is as refreshing as it is visceral. Exquisitely designed to transport us to its nightmarish parabolic outback, the theatrical space is consummately considered. Renée Mulder’s set, Verity Hampson’s lights and Steve Toulmin’s music, all conspire to bring us into their psychological wilderness, where good and bad have swapped places, and we must shift our beliefs accordingly. The trio of actors deliver an astonishing performance, with a cohesion in energy, style and objective, giving polish and confidence to a production that delivers gripping drama and convincing proclamations. Paula Arundell is exceptional as Mother, with a complexity in her presence that conveys both vulnerability and strength, helping us understand the precariousness, along with the inevitability of what happens. It is a quiet approach, but the power that we connect with is fabulously palpable.

Women are often trapped in systems that fail us, and we are taught to tolerate the denial of what should only be just and fair. The women in The Bleeding Tree were caught within a familial patriarchy, as well as a greater social one, that required of them their prolonged and painful subservience. When it eventually became clear that sitting around and waiting for situations to improve was a fruitless exercise, they found the only way out was to take radical action. Every day everywhere, people are kept down by power structures that benefit from their oppression, but when those at the bottom realise the truth of their condition, their compliance will be seen in a new light, and change can begin to take place.

www.griffintheatre.com.auwww.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Chimerica (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Feb 28 – Apr 1, 2016
Playwright: Lucy Kirkwood
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Matthew Backer, Gabrielle Chan, Jason Chong, Tony Cogin, Geraldine Hakewill, Brent Hill, Rebecca Massey, Monica Sayers, Mark Leonard Winter, Anthony Brandon Wong, Charles Wu, Jenny Wu
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Massacres, no matter how catastrophic, can get forgotten. Unlike the 9/11 attacks that we memorialise everyday, fuelled partially by economic imperatives of the USA, incidents such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests have faded away with time, and in this particular case, with rigorous effort on the part of Chinese officials.

The arresting image of a man standing in front of battle tanks however, still packs a punch, and 27 years after the event, it remains in circulation as one of the most influential and famous photographs ever taken. The enigma of Tank Man leaves many questions unanswered. It is an irrefutable document of an historical moment, but nothing of that moment (or the moments leading up to, and thereafter) has ever been explained.

Playwright Lucy Kirkwood’s imagination goes wild in Chimerica. It is 2012, and we meet a fictive photographer, Joe, who had famously captured the shocking moment at Tiananmen Square. He is now on a tenacious search for Tank Man, determined to uncover the truth, and through his escapades, we explore China as it stands today, or at least, are offered a Western conception of China’s current state of affairs. It is predictably precarious, for an American writer to offer critical assessment of the Chinese experience, but Kirkwood brings balance to her piece by portraying American institutions with a comparable level of disparagement; they are as bad as each other, perhaps.

The narrative of Chimerica is thoroughly enjoyable, a thriller that manages to grip right from the start, and that delivers a formidable jaw-dropper at its end. In this production however, details and personalities in the fairly complex story can become confusing. Direction by Kip Williams establishes a tautness in pace and atmosphere that makes for enthralling viewing, aided by Nick Schlieper’s very clever and diligent lighting design, but uneven acting for the main roles prevents the show from reaching its greatest potential.

Mark Leonard Winter is convincing as Joe the photographic journalist, but the emotional dimensions to his depictions often feel too vague and distant. The other lead character Zhang Lin is played by Jason Chong, who delivers several captivating scenes of poignancy, but the actor struggles to overcome the role’s quality of mystery, and he too is unable to help the audience connect at a more satisfying depth. Scene-stealer Charles Wu sparkles the brightest in two smaller parts. As Benny, he is refreshing, lively and charming, and as young Zhang, Wu is authentic and engaging. Also notable are the twenty performers who make up the ensemble, all impressive with their physical discipline, all in command of their excellent, and crucial, collective presence.

The song Long De Chuan Ren (Descendants of the Dragon) is a recurring sonic motif, introduced by sound designer The Sweats with wonderful inventiveness and cultural sensitivity, to orchestrate a representation of Chinese culture and its people, throughout the play. The song likens China to a dragon, a creature to be feared and revered, and it is true that iron fists have always ruled the nation, throughout different centuries, dynasties and governments, but the country is no stranger to revolutions. Whether or not we think of our governing mechanisms as democratic, systems of oppression will always attempt to ambush and exploit how we live, and it is up to the masses to find a way to resist, and to overturn the forces that wish to breach each and every one of our human rights.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Away (Sydney Theatre Company)

stcVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 18 – Mar 25, 2017
Playwright: Michael Gow
Director: Matthew Lutton
Cast: Marco Chiappi, Julia Davis, Wadih Dona, Glenn Hazeldine, Natasha Herbert, Heather Mitchell, Liam Nunan, Naomi Rukavina
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
It all happens in the summer of 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated in the USA, and the black power salute of the Mexico City Olympics stuns the world. Meanwhile in Australia, baby boomers come of age in a country of stability and abundance. Michael Gow’s Away is about life on this land, half a century ago. Three families, connected through high school, go through their private experiences of grief, at a time when all should have been peachy keen.

It is arguable whether their personal dramas are able to find relevance, two generations later, with today’s audiences. We exist in what seems like a completely different time, and even though we comprehend the human struggles and relationship pressures in Gow’s writing, their concerns seem far removed from our daily realities. There are allusions to issues of racial disharmony in Away that feels more current of its themes, but much of the piece hinges on anxieties of a bygone era. The Vietnam War and Gone With The Wind have long been surpassed as symbols of cultural significance.

Director Matthew Lutton chooses wisely, to hone in instead on the more theatrical, almost operatic qualities of the play, amplifying its non-naturalistic portions for a production that thrills with its flamboyance and episodic surrealness. The most memorable moments involve wildly imagined spectacle, usually without dialogue, prompting us to wonder if the text is but a conduit for Lutton’s prime interest in the visceral possibilities of the art form. Act IV commences with the most breathtaking of set transformations; a 10 second sequence stunning in its beauty, and flabbergasting with its technical proficiency, proving set designer Dale Ferguson and lighting designer Paul Jackson to be the real stars of the night.

Also stellar however, is the cast of eight, each one beautifully delicate in their interpretations of roles, and enchanting with the chemistry they formulate as an ensemble. Heather Mitchell is particularly mesmerising as Gwen, the angry unfulfilled mother, resentful of everything and everyone within earshot. Mitchell brings her performance close to caricature hysteria, but always ensuring that we understand Gwen’s small world of perpetual catastrophe. The other inconvenient female of Away is Coral, isolated and traumatised, played by Natasha Herbert who brings classic tragic glamour to the part, keeping us engaged in her painful journey, while providing entertainment value with her confidently expressive portrayal. These are two wonderful characters who give the show its exuberance, but they represent a kind of gender depiction that is thoroughly unbalanced and outmoded. The women are crazy and the men, sturdy. The women are a handful and the men have to pick up the pieces. This dichotomous construct is tired and dangerous.

There is noteworthy and substantial reinvention that takes place in this production of Away, demonstrating its undeniable need for an update. We are attached to works like this not just for its inherent artistic merit, but also because of commerce, nostalgia, and cultural sentiment. We must always move on when making art, but when we wish to look back, we must only do so without fear of being adventurous and radical.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: The Testament Of Mary (Sydney Theatre Company)

stcVenue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Jan 13 – Feb 25, 2017
Playwright: Colm Tóibín
Director: Imara Savage
Cast: Alison Whyte
Image by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
The stage is cordoned off by red velvet rope. Exquisite marble tiles form the floor and walls of an exhibition space, or perhaps a place of worship, and an awe-inspiring statue of the Virgin Mary is positioned atop a small flight of steps. Elizabeth Gadsby’s design establishes a vision familiar to many; the flawless icon, silent with endless depths of compassion and love.

Colm Tóibín’s The Testament Of Mary begins with the effigy disintegrating. Porcelain dissolves into flesh, opulence into earthiness. Mary emerges a real woman, speaking to us directly of her memories of Jesus’ last days on earth. The agony of a mother having lost her son is palpable in the theatre, but it is Mary’s vehemence to talk that captures our attention. A woman’s perspective is often slighted, even if it belongs to the one who had given Him life.

The play’s most satisfying moments involve hints of sacrilege, but it holds few surprises for those who have only a cursory knowledge of, or interest in, the story of Christ. Australians are 61% Christian, so the relevance of Tóibín’s piece, which comes with little exposition of background, is not necessarily a definitive one. Individuals with greater personal investment into this theology would, without question, benefit more from its alternate interpretation of events, and there certainly are many whose fundamental beliefs will be challenged here.

It is a subdued production, with actor Alison Whyte demonstrating consummate professionalism in her approach; honest, reflective and present. Opportunities for a more baroque style of performance are eschewed to portray something simpler and altogether more realistic. Theatricality comes courtesy of lighting designer Emma Valentine’s knack for precise punctuation and accentuation, but the show feels overly polite, emotionally curtailed, and subsequently evasive, as we attempt to find connection with its intentions and meanings.

Faith only exists where there is doubt. Questioning the veracity of our religious convictions can seem dangerous, but is ultimately the only way to affirm truths that we hold dear. There are perhaps no more absorbing ways to enter into a discussion that to talk about religion, so we expect a play of this nature to be controversial, scandalous, even explosive, but when it falls short, the disappointment is hard to mask.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Speed-The-Plow (Sydney Theatre Company)

stcVenue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Nov 8 – Dec 17, 2016
Playwright: David Mamet
Director: Andrew Upton
Cast: Rose Byrne, Damon Herriman, Lachy Hulme
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
It is the simple story of a man caught between good and evil, one that never seems to get old. It is the eternal experience of us all, no matter where or when in the annals of history we find ourselves. Bob is a Hollywood executive who has to choose between art and commerce, and in David Mamet’s Speed-The-Plow, that relationship is a strictly dichotomous one. Art is good, commerce is bad, and like the devil and angel who take up traditional residence on either sides of our minds, Bob finds himself caught in a tug-of-war between Karen and Charlie, each one neatly representing each side of the argument.

This basic premise is stretched out to fill a 90-minute play, but it feels deficient, lacking in depth despite its thorough expositions on money, work and benevolence. Andrew Upton’s direction gives the show an engaging sense of momentum, but Mamet’s words are only occasionally resonant, almost as if philosophy is sacrificed in the effervescence and tempo of the presentation. We enjoy the dynamics between characters, and are titillated by the suspicious duplicity that may or may not colour their intentions, but ultimately, the audience is left with nothing fresh or inspiring, even though a barrage of noisy ideas seem to be thrown about on stage ad nauseam. Design by David Fleischer does well in providing a visual focus ensuring that the small play does not get lost on a very large stage, but the overly minimal set in Act Two seems awkward for both players and slightly confusing for the audience.

Damon Herriman has a powerful start in the role of Bob, every bit the eighties corporate monster and womaniser, but is unable to sustain our interest as the character transforms. The play allows the secondary personalities to overwhelm Bob, while keeping narrative focus on his predicament. Even though the actor’s conviction is clear to see, it seems that there is little in the text that lets our leading man remain arresting after Act One. Karen is played by Rose Byrne, who brings surprising complexity, along with excellent comic timing and intellectual acuity to the production. Her interpretation of the ingénue is by far the most exciting element of the show, requiring us to pay close attention to all her purposeful nuances, while challenging prejudices as they pertain to female ambition, in this world of cutthroat business wretchedness. Charlie is a stereotypical entertainment desperado, performed by the imposing Lachy Hulme, who luxuriates in every opportunity for heightened tough guy drama.

Mamet’s writing has no room for grey areas. Our protagonist can only choose between good and evil, art and power. Their inability to recognise the realistic possibilities of negotiating between polarities, detracts from how we are able to identify with the story. We all live between black and white, having to make decisions that are never completely ideal, but most of us are able to find points of balance that are at least momentarily satisfactory. We all want our cake and eat it too, but it is this constant shifting of circumstances and choices that gives each day its corporeal vibrancy.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: A Flea In Her Ear (Sydney Theatre Company)

stcVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Oct 31 – Dec 17, 2016
Playwright: Georges Feydeau (adaptation by Andrew Upton)
Director: Simon Phillips
Cast: Helen Christinson, Harriet Dyer, Leon Ford, Harry Greenwood, Sean O’Shea, Kelly Paterniti, Justin Smith, Tim Walter, David Woods
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Raymonde Chandebise has doubts of her husband’s fidelity, as Victor Emmanuel is suddenly unable to perform in bed (he blames a disappointing night at the theatre). Putting his devotion to the test, Raymonde sends a letter from an anonymous admirer requesting Victor Emmanuel meet for a tryst at a sleazy hotel, thereby initiating a series of humorous mishaps and high jinks in Georges Feydeau’s 1907 A Flea In Her Ear. The classic farce is relentless in its comedic endeavours, unafraid to traverse the most juvenile and absurd for a good laugh. There is little that can now be seen as refreshing in Feydeau’s play, but its complex construction of topsy-turvied identities, intentions and narratives is masterfully imagined. Andrew Upton’s adaptation is an energetic update, although surprisingly restrained with its bawdy material. Opportunity for more biting commentary on the nature of hypocrisy in our lives is relinquished, for a work that relishes in endless frivolity and mirth, brilliantly shaped to deliver laughter in its every line.

The production comes in a very particular style of presentation that feels deeply old-fashioned, but is, in the same breath, a genre of theatre that remains highly effective. Simon Phillips demonstrates his genius at directing an astonishingly specific and vigorous show, where each moment of stage time seems to be crowded with a host of precisely located nuance, along with sounds and gestures all meticulously configured to a tee. The performers are in perpetual dynamic motion, whether a twitch of the head or somersaulting across the floor, every movement is calculated to provide punctuation to jokes that may or may not be very good on their own. The show is a furious, heady tickling of the funny bone that demands its audience respond with laughter, and we often find ourselves obliging, dumbfounded by its power.

A very enthusiastic cast challenges us to meet their feverish folly with corresponding glee. An air of overwhelming silliness pervades the auditorium, and only the most seriously jaded could leave unscathed. Raymonde is played by Harriet Dyer, strikingly confident and natural in how she is able to turn all the ridiculous goings on to her advantage. With immaculate timing and an extraordinarily agile voice, she is a stand out in a sea of raucous talent, trouncing other players who come armed with bigger costumes and even bigger acting. Other memorable performers include Justin Smith and David Woods, both playing dual roles, chopping and changing between characters at lightning speed to show off their unfathomable theatrical athleticism, and comic versatility. Smith’s campy playfulness as Carlos and August, is especially charming and a clear highlight, of a production that helps us rediscover the magic that happens when our artists are allowed to exhibit the very best of their abilities. Sometimes, the menu may not wish to serve up anything of great originality or intellect, but its familiar, comforting offerings can prove a delightful sanctuary, and the kind of entertaining reprieve that we all inevitably, find ourselves needing.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Sydney Theatre Company)

stcVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Sep 12 – Oct 22, 2016
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Paula Arundell, Matthew Backer, Rob Collins, Honey Debelle, Emma Harvie, Jay James-Moody, Brandon McClelland, Josh McConville, Robert Menzies, Susan Prior, Rose Riley, Rahel Romahn, Bruce Spence
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Characters get up to a lot of mischief in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but what can be construed as humorous, can also be seen as menacing. The play features deception, sabotage, humiliation and misogyny, subversively, and surreptitiously, framed within a category of conventional comedy, leaving the depths of its darkness unacknowledged. One of Western theatre’s most well-known pieces, it is often regarded as light and frothy, fun for the whole family, with themes of romance and fantasy taken to their greatest extremes for hours of harmless entertainment.

Centuries on, it can be argued that much of Shakespeare’s comedy is no longer funny. Some insist that everything Shakespeare had penned can stand the test of time, but others will hold a more objective attitude. Kip Williams looks at the text with modern eyes, judging it with today’s values, and in exposing all that is archaic in the piece, creates something imaginative, powerful and irreverently spectacular. Turning A Midsummer Night’s Dream into a twisted nightmare, it is suddenly mesmerising. Williams’ concept might seem basic, but his detailed execution of a macabre and provocative utopia/dystopia is as sensitive as it is scandalous. Consistently fascinating, and frankly eye-opening, this is some of the most astonishing and iconoclastic theatre, full of spirit; adventurous, brave and ostentatious.

Actor Paula Arundell is unforgettable as Titania, queen of the fairies, via Donatella Versace. Regal, austere and decadent, her creation is strikingly sensual, full of danger and drama, compelling and beguiling in every moment. Arundell attacks her role with a fierce solemnity, resolutely playing against the comedy that we have become used to, in order that a fresh theatricality may be delivered; poetic, surreal, and irrevocably powerful. Also deadly serious are all the production’s design aspects. Chris Williams’ music and Nate Edmondson’s sound design hold us firmly in their dictatorial insistence for dramatic tension, and Alice Babidge’s costumes dare us to look away from the grotesque glamour reminiscent of Leigh Bowery and Cindy Sherman’s brutal legacies.

On stage is a morbid world, resplendently manufactured to satisfy our need for an art that is carnal, wild and audacious. It must be noted however, that the show closes with an abruptness that betrays its fundamental and delicious sophistication. The final transition from a scene of brilliant black humour to its concluding gravitas occurs with surprising carelessness, leaving us disoriented and prematurely awoken from what had been a deeply luscious reverie. Nevertheless, what is achieved here is an instance of magic rarely witnessed, and unlikely to be seen very soon again. Wonderful for its uniqueness, and its gutsy approach to the most time-honoured of classics, this is excellent theatre that reminds us how good it is to be alive, at a time when the ephemeral art form can thrive so brilliantly, and we are here to catch it.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au