Review: Così (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Nov 1 – Dec 14, 2019
Playwright: Louis Nowra
Director: Sarah Goodes
Cast: Gabriel Fancourt, Esther Hannaford, Glenn Hazeldine, Bessie Holland, Sean Keenan, Robert Menzies, Rahel Romahn, Katherine Tonkin, George Zhao
Images by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
Theatre director Lewis finds himself at a mental asylum, not as a patient, but as a facilitator for a one-night-only staging of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, starring clients of the home. This is 1972, many years before deinstitutionalisation had begun, and the personalities Lewis meets are varied in capacities, but uniformly charming. Louis Nowra’s Così is a 1992 comedy with a premise that remains intriguing, but much of its humour has lost its lustre. We have learned to regard mental illness with a diminished sense of alienation, and characters in the play have lost their sense of otherness accordingly, causing many of its jokes to feel archaic.

The production is directed by Sarah Goodes, who does extensive work to reflect a modern sensibility in her iteration of Così. While it does provide an updated sense of cultural appropriateness, with a renewed perspective of people with mental health challenges, we discover that there is little at its heart that truly resonates for today’s audiences. Nevertheless, it is a smartly designed show, with Dale Ferguson’s set and Jonathon Oxlade’s costumes providing a valuable sense of playfulness. Lights by Niklas Pajanti, along with Chris Williams’ music, keep the action jaunty and energised.

Actor Sean Keenan is convincing as the unassuming and somewhat meek Lewis, a sturdy presence who lets his colourful counterparts occupy our attention. Unofficial ringmaster Roy is played by Robert Menzies, who is powerful in the role, and effective in having us invest in his passions for Mozart and classical opera. Bessie Holland is unforgettable as the brassy Cherry, impressive in her ability to deliver big laughs, even with Nowra’s dubious dialogue. Similarly charismatic is Rahel Romahn, consistently and effortlessly funny as Doug the pyromaniac, setting the stage alight at every appearance.

In Così fan tutte, people pretend to be somebody else to discover truths about themselves. Così too, features playacting, with patients of the asylum masquerading as characters in an opera, as though on a recess from their real lives. Individuals can come to new understandings of themselves, when they experience distance from their own existences. Art allows us to step out, and observe the world from a different perspective, which is an immense benefit for all of us who forget the diminutiveness of being, and the inanity of any ego.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au | www.mtc.com.au

Review: White Pearl (National Theatre of Parramatta)

Venue: Riverside Theatres (Parramatta NSW), Oct 24 – Nov 9, 2019
Playwright: Anchuli Felicia King
Director: Priscilla Jackman
Cast: Deborah An, Mayu Iwasaki, Matthew Pearce, Vaishnavi Suryaprakash, Merlynn Tong, Catherine Văn-Davies, Shirong Wu
Images by Phil Erbacher
Theatre review
A cosmetics company specialising in skin whitening creams, wakes up in hot water, when one of its ads appears online prematurely and quickly goes viral, as a result of its shockingly racist content. The Clearday headquarters in Singapore instantly turns into a war room, with executives desperately scrambling for damage control. All six of them are Asian women, from various parts of the world, each with a different experience of race and its associated politics. In Anchuli Felicia King’s White Pearl, we see the group devolve into a belligerent mess of conflicting principles, unable to sustain an alliance forged initially by very dubious ethics.

It is a sensational piece of writing, thoroughly researched and passionately rendered. White Pearl throws us into a cauldron of frenzied chaos, but each line of dialogue is crafted with immense precision, for an insightful examination not only of capitalism and racism, but also of the classism and sexism that govern so much of how these characters operate. The play’s unravelling of corporate culture, engenders a caustic sense of humour that keeps us on edge, for a wildly funny theatrical ride that never releases us from its moral interrogations.

Director Priscilla Jackman keeps dramatic intensity at fever pitch for the entire duration, establishing an unrelenting awareness in our consciousness reminding us that the stakes are very high indeed, not only in the fiction that we encounter, but also the real life implications of this timely tale about our social responsibilities as groups and individuals. Sound design by Michael Toisuta and Me-Lee Hay amplifies the women’s stress levels, to fill the auditorium with shuddersome atmospheric pressure. Jeremy Allen’s production design and Damien Cooper’s lights are nimbly manufactured, to keep the storytelling moving at lightning speed. The playwright’s own video projections feature social media comments relating to the offending incident, ranging from amusing to appalling, working as a device that constantly widens the story’s context, so that each viewer can remain personally connected with the narrative. Dramaturg Courtney Stewart does remarkable work that allows the play to consistently resonant with accuracy.

Seven actors form a formidable ensemble to deliver an intelligent and highly entertaining show, that reveals many truths about who we are today. Priya Singh, the British Indian founder of the company is portrayed by the phenomenal Vaishanavi Suryaprakash, whose extraordinary range enables an endlessly textured study of a woman in deep trouble. It is a powerful performance that exposes the human and structural problems of the modern business world. Also very affecting is Deborah An, who plays Korean scientist Soo Jin Park, bringing incredible nuance and emotional gravity to the depiction of a very dire situation. Merlynn Tong (as Sunny Lee) and Shirong Wu (as Xiao Chen) are unforgettable for providing the biggest laughs, both immaculate with their comic timing, and wonderfully idiosyncratic with their respective interpretations of ethnically Chinese women, the former from Singapore, and the latter China.

Catherine Văn-Davies plays Built Suttikul, a fabulously wealthy, American-educated Thai national, with imposing confidence and a vigorous physicality that defies any underestimation of the ladies in White Pearl. Her sensitive choices for a sex scene brings surprising elevation to the character, and highlights the persistent impossibly of retaining integrity in the pursuit of commercial supremacy. Her French ex-lover Marcel Benoit too, becomes unexpectedly complex, as performed by a self-possessed Matthew Pearce. New addition to the “Clearday family”, Japanese recruit Ruki Minami is perfectly balanced between naivety and wisdom by Mayu Iwasaki, for a personality that demonstrates the limits of human integrity, in the stupefying face of money and power.

Clearday sells products nobody needs, that could very well be harmful. The people who comprise the company, expend all their energy on questionable activities, so that they may one day feel like a leader of the pack. This is the narrative not only of White Pearl, but also of many a conventional life in the modern world. Money and power are blinding, they shape our values so that we make compromises to morality, in the promise of a glory that rarely comes to fruition. We disregard justice, to uphold racist, sexist and classist ideals every day, in hope that the system would reward us with all that it professes, but in fact, as we see in the play, no one will emerge truly victorious.

www.riversideparramatta.com.au/NTofP | www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: The Real Thing (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Sep 9 – Oct 26, 2019
Playwright: Tom Stoppard
Director: Simon Phillips
Cast: Johnny Carr, Charlie Garber, Rachel Gordon, Geraldine Hakewill, Shiv Palekar, Julia Robertson, Dorje Swallow
Images by Lisa Tomasetti
Theatre review
Henry has an excellent relationship with words and philosophy, which is just as well, being a successful playwright much like his creator Tom Stoppard. In The Real Thing however, we discover that his cerebral talents do not extend to matters of the heart. It is that very human conundrum we deal with in Stoppard’s extraordinarily rigorous piece of writing, that it is one thing to be able to know so deeply all that can be intellectualised, yet be unable to have much control over how one loves. People in the play are smart. Their understanding of the world is astute and penetrating, and their talk is very highbrow, but when we observe the way their feelings are being enacted, it seems there is no escaping the fools that we ultimately are.

Couples in The Real Thing wrestle with issues of fidelity. They cheat, they are suspicious, they are apologetic, and they fail repeatedly. They struggle with the need to be faithful, often engaging in discussions about the meaning of love and monogamy, but what they say have little bearing on how they feel. A constant discord exists between logic and emotions, prompting us to wonder if there can be more than one real thing in the human experience, if what we think and how we act are so often not in concurrence.

Director Simon Phillips brings remarkable clarity not only to these immediate themes, but also to the many tangential musings that make The Real Thing memorable. The density of the text is translated on stage by Phillips into a luxuriant tapestry of inspiring observations emerging from Stoppard’s brilliant mind. In the role of Henry is the sensational Johnny Carr, bringing a startling truthfulness to dialogue that could very easily be turned, under the wrong hands, highfalutin and empty. The actor’s presence and timing have us captivated, as we find ourselves enraptured, deeply invested in the many meaningful discussions that provide the foundation, for an admittedly bourgeois narrative. Geraldine Hakewill too, is engaging as Annie, a strong counterpoint in the story, effortlessly convincing with the complexity she portrays, whether playing subject or object in this tale about affection and attraction.

Production designer Charles Davis delivers a spectacular set, wonderfully imagined for the revolve stage, to facilitate poetic parallels between words and visions. His costumes are quiet but effective, able to bridge the time disparity inherent in reviving a 37-year-old work. Lights by Nick Schlieper are correspondingly sophisticated, always pleasing with the imagery he manufactures, and exacting in the way he shifts our impulsive responses from scene to scene.

It is likely that one can arrive at the conclusion that realities are multitudinous, yet there is something in our nature that cannot resist the idea that there could be a singular essence to things, that there is a fundamental truth in how we regard the world. It is as though a key exists, that life is only ever experienced as a sort of mystery that requires solving. Henry’s racing thoughts are incessant, and luckily for us, always beautifully articulated, yet we only ever see him carry on like a fool for love, as though knowledge can never live up to its promise of having the answer to everything.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Avalanche: A Love Story (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Aug 29 – Sep 14, 2019
Playwright: Julia Leigh
Director: Anne-Louise Sarks
Cast: Maxine Peake (with Jethro Jensen, Amy Wahhab)
Images by The Other Richard

Theatre review
Humans have an inexhaustible capacity for obsession. As individuals, we see the world in infinitely different ways, and each of us has our own private passions that can easily be seen as meaningless or bizarre by others. What is of fundamental importance to one, can be interpreted as totally nonsensical by another, yet we all cling on to these idiosyncrasies, often letting them consume and define us.

In the case of Julia Leigh’s Avalanche: A Love Story, an unnamed protagonist spends years absolutely absorbed by the notion of having to bear a child, and subjects herself to expensive and traumatising IVF treatments in hope of falling pregnant. She sacrifices relationships and a prestigious career in film making, to devote all her energies and resources, into the seemingly uncontrollable urge to have a baby. The play comprises scene after scene of one woman’s deep disappointments, and her inability to extricate herself from a suffering that only ever looks to be self-imposed. We watch in amazement, her persistence with this pipe dream, but certainly not all of us will be able to muster up the empathy that the playwright is intent on appealing to.

At best, the show is an honest and painful examination of experiences many have shared, but at its worst, Avalanche: A Love Story is a melodramatic and highly indulgent study of rich people’s problems, manifestly unaware of the way it opens itself to ridicule. The very skilful Anne-Louise Sarks brings, as director, an atmospheric intensity that almost has us forgetting, that the story requires our emotions invest in a kind of torment that can only befall the privileged.

There is no question that the production is adroitly assembled. Everything is considered, purposeful and remarkably polished, with not a hair out of place. Marg Horwell’s spectacular set design is unforgettable. Lizzie Powell’s lights and Stefan Gregory’s sounds are incredibly delicate in their rendering of a woman’s very genuine struggles. The contentious nature of this subject matter notwithstanding, the creative forces have no doubt accomplished a work of theatre replete with technical brilliance.

Maxine Peake too, is precise and inspired as performer of this 75 minute monologue. She holds our attention throughout, and convinces even the most sceptical, of the profound sorrow being expressed on stage. Her efforts are detailed and sensitive, always aiming to communicate at a level of uncompromising accuracy.

It is unlikely that Avalanche: A Love Story can preach beyond those already converted. The character’s anguish is undeniable, but the more that we delve into that narrative of grief, the more we question her choices. A woman can make any choice she so desires, but whether her need for sympathy as a result can ever be satisfied, is quite another matter.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

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: Lord Of The Flies (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Jul 23 – Aug 24, 2019
Playwright: William Golding (adapted by Nigel Williams)
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Joseph Althouse, Justin Amankwah, Nyx Calder, Yerin Ha, Daniel Monks, Mark Paguio, Rahel Romahn, Eliza Scanlen, Contessa Treffone, Nikita Waldron, Mia Wasikowska
Images by Zan Wimberley

Theatre review
The boys are sent away from war, but their plane crashes and they land on an uninhabited island, having to fend for themselves, using instinct, along with their memories of civilisation. In Nigel Williams’ stage adaptation of William Golding’s Lord Of The Flies, the question of nature versus nurture once again comes to the fore. Jack is the unequivocal villain of the piece, a horrific specimen of mankind, hell-bent on causing death and destruction. His quick ascent to position of warlord tempts us to interpret the child’s evil tendencies as learned behaviour, although there is no denying the parts of ourselves that seem naturally drawn to causing harm.

The pessimistic tale is given a modern staging by director Kip Williams, who brings new dimensions to Golding’s concerns of 1954. Where many had in the past regarded Lord Of The Flies as a work about being human, Williams’ vision allows us to interrogate the text from perspectives of culture and gender, that had been routinely neglected. The diversity of cast (but alas, not of creatives) inspires discussions about whiteness and masculinity, as we ponder on the meanings of women playing boys, and of people of colour playing the colonials. Indeed, the production rarely lets us look away from the Brechtian artifice of its presentation, always consciously involving itself with a stylised design aesthetic that never tries to fool us with attempts at naturalism. The experience becomes one of theatre as commentary, rather than art as representation.

Instead of manufacturing a landscape of delusive vegetation, set design by Elizabeth Gadsby exposes the stage’s bare bones, for a chilling Brutalist effect, that establishes from the outset an appetite for subversion. Intensive work on lights by Alexander Berlage may lack restraint, but is undoubtedly spectacular with its many bold manoeuvres. James Brown’s sound design guides us through the story’s legendary descent into savagery, particularly impressive when it operates in conjunction with actors at their most dramatic and vivid.

There are moments when stagecraft overwhelms, but the ensemble proves nonetheless to be engaging, with Daniel Monks especially memorable in the role of Roger. Vile, vicious and thrilling in his depiction of a boy’s darkest inclinations, Monks delivers moments that are quite genuinely terrifying, and enormously powerful in what he has to say about our capacity for cruelty. The purest one is played by Rahel Romahn, who gives us a Piggy that is completely adorable, and in his nuanced demonstration of what virtue looks and sounds like, the actor ensures that all the show’s arguments can only be won by the good side. As the democratically elected leader of the pack, Mia Wasikowska is a passionate Ralph, but the actor tends to be too subtle in approach for the vast and cacophonous stage. Much more persuasive is Contessa Treffone as the big bad Jack, made resonant by Treffone’s intricate mimicry of masculine voice and gesture, for a portrait of male toxicity at its most despicable.

It is easy to get lost in discussions about how the boys have turned out so awfully, but more worthwhile is to find ways we can improve, or indeed reverse, this dreadful state we are in. Whether a result of genetics or of social conditioning, the characters in Lord Of The Flies are broken, and while one can choose to take a fatalistic reading of the text, the show certainly encourages a more hopeful interpretation. Boys will be boys, if we accept the status quo. Racism will remain a component of our structures, if we persist with them. Golding suggests that an intrusion is necessary for the lost ones to be rescued, but to sit and wait, is no solution for those who proclaim to be young and free.

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