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: Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Apr 29 – Jun 8, 2019
Playwright: Tennessee Williams
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Addison Bourke, Tristan Bowes, Peter Carroll, Harry Greenwood, Emily Harriss, Jye McCallum, Josh McConville, Zahra Newman, Pamela Rabe, Holly Simon, Nikki Shiels, Lila Artemise Tapper, Arie Trajcevski, Hugo Weaving, Anthony Brandon Wong, Jerra Wright-Smith
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Characters in Tennesse Williams’ Cat On A Hot Tin Roof suffer immense anguish. Regardless of where they happen to reside in the hierarchy of their social order, powerful or powerless, Maggie, Brick and Big Daddy are each unable to escape a torturous existence. A result perhaps of the family’s wealth, or maybe the American deep south in 1950s had truly been indiscriminately stifling, or life is simply unbearable no matter one’s choices and orientations; the beauty of Williams’ play is that it explains little. In its exhaustive excavations of human emotion however, we identify the truths of our beings at their deepest, but Williams leaves us to draw our own conclusions, on the causes of, and the resolutions for, all the pain that inevitably befalls us.

There is a lot that is sublime in director Kip Williams’ vision. A momentary glimpse of sitting Vice President Mike Pence on Brick’s television set, is a powerful suggestion of the play’s timelessness. Oppressive aspects of Western values, rooted in white patriarchy, is the undercurrent disquiet that drives the action. The production manifests a sense of hopelessness appropriate to the playwright’s pessimism, one that is masochistically gratifying, as is typical of classic melodrama, but also undeniably thought-provoking.

Brick and Maggie’s bedroom is sleek and modern in style, with dark colours and hard edges representing a masculine space in which Maggie’s lack of status is evident. Designed by David Fleischer, the stage is visually seductive, but arguably ineffectual with invisible doors, for a play that repeatedly involves itself with notions of intrusion. Stefan Gregory’s music takes its cues from film noir, nostalgically evocative and very pleasurable. Lights by Nick Schlieper are cold, almost menacing in their depiction of emotional torment. The many instances of fireworks in Act II are controversially manufactured, each time overwhelming our senses for several seconds, with their cacophonous, and repetitive, disruptions into Brick and Big Daddy’s long confrontation.

Actor Zahra Newman is entirely splendid as Maggie, dejected but determined, a broken woman hanging on to the little that she has, to turn a living hell into something coherent. Newman’s extraordinary instinct and artistic inventiveness, along with an uncompromising vigour, make Act I of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof a personal tour de force that has us hopelessly exhilarated. Big Daddy is masterfully performed by Hugo Weaving, who although brings to the role nothing that is unexpected, demonstrates his unparalleled stage presence and a searing conviction that absolutely captivates. The exaggerated theatricality he employs is riveting, with a psychological accuracy that allows us to perceive complicated dimensions of human nature, as we luxuriate in the sumptuousness of his delivery. Also very resonant, is Harry Greenwood as Brick, who overcomes his physical dissimilarity to the character, for a convincing portrayal of a defeated man who retreats into self-abuse. Greenwood’s approach is restrained by comparison, but he adds dynamism and texture to how the story is conveyed, on what is often a very loud stage.

Brick’s indulgence in alcoholism looks as though he is willing himself to die. Maggie on the other hand, who has much less to live for, can be seen maniacally scrambling for survival at every moment. Those are the extremes of how we can be, when facing the worst. The people in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof are all left to their own devices. Although under one roof, this is a family whose bonds are weak, with relationships built on mendacious foundations (the word “mendacity” is mentioned multiple times). Unable to locate anything honest and real, what they have can only feel empty; distracted by material riches, it is loneliness that is left unnoticed and festering. We see no love in this household, and realise that no peace or happiness could ever come their way.

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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.

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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.

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Review: Mary Stuart (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Feb 5 – Mar 2, 2019
Playwright: Kate Mulvany (after Friedrich Schiller)
Director: Lee Lewis
Cast: Fayssal Bazzi, Caroline Brazier, Simon Burke, Peter Carroll, Tony Cogin, Andrew McFarlane, Rahel Romahn, Helen Thomson, Matthew Whittet, Darcey Wilson
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Queen Elizabeth I of England must finally decide whether to sign the death warrant of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, after 19 years’ imprisonment. In Kate Mulvany’s adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s 1800 play Mary Stuart, we look at the final days of this historical feud, paying attention to political machinations, as well as the fascinating psychological processes that the two women would have had to go through, in what is clearly the most difficult and traumatising of human experiences. A highly intelligent work, Mulvany transposes the ancient story into a contemporary tale foregrounding themes that matter today, with renewed focus on the feminist implications of this conflict between powerful women.

Surprisingly funny, featuring witty dialogue that transcends the ages to connect with our everyday ears, Mulvany transforms the royals into flesh and blood individuals that we can easily relate to. With none of the pretension often associated with period pieces about European queens and kings, we are free to examine all the sublimated dynamics between Elizabeth and Mary, to come to our own conclusions about power structures, whether or not one chooses to share the playwright’s feminist lens. Mary Stuart is also effective in delivering drama, powerful in the way it conveys the palpable emotions of a woman compelled to put a loved one to death, and another who faces her own demise.

The vast auditorium is put to good use by Elizabeth Gadsby who situates the action in a suitably grand setting, palatial but austere. Lights by Paul Jackson are especially effective in the graver sections, to facilitate the sensation of mounting pressure as we move toward the inevitable. Music and sound can sometimes be too subdued, especially in the earlier more comedic scenes, but when things turn serious, Max Lyandvert is certainly on hand to heap on the tension. Costumes are a highlight, perhaps predictably, with Elizabeth’s opulent gowns really making an impact. Mel Page’s work on all the women’s looks are unequivocally remarkable.

Director Lee Lewis exercises a stylistic restraint over her stately presentation, determined not to let pomp and ceremony distract from its central concerns. Visuals can sometimes feel sparse and incommensurate with our imagination of both the queens’ worlds, but Lewis’ strength in elucidating rationale behind all manner of human behaviour, is sublime. Actor Helen Thomson is electrifying as Elizabeth, appropriately majestic and piercingly humorous, insisting that entertainment value accompanies all the intellectual stimulation that the play so doggedly provides. Thomson continually reveals layers to the queen throughout the two-hour duration, consistently unpredictable with her depictions, including moments of poignancy that are quite unexpected. Her rendering of Elizabeth as a real and authentic person, is an astounding achievement. Mary is played by Caroline Brazier, whose very deliberate portrayal of grace under pressure is as beguiling as it is intriguing. Her penultimate scene of exposure is truly arresting, as she performs an outpouring of intense and contradictory emotions that gives us a glimpse of the woman under the crown.

Women compete because our power is scarce. We are pit against one another, and we participate in these battles, rarely challenging these absurdly unjust systems and the beliefs that they perpetuate. American Professor Emerita of Sociology and Women’s Studies, Gail Dines suggests that empowerment is a false hope, for to place ourselves within patriarchal hierarchies necessitates the exploitation of many women. Liberation on the other hand, evokes a collectivism that prohibits oppression of any kind. The two queens in Mary Stuart were able to wield power of all kinds, but it is clear that their lives were never their own. Enslaved by their fathers, their states and their religions, we watch them at war, inside a living hell not of their own making, and wonder how much of our own lives are just the same.

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Review: A Cheery Soul (Sydney Theatre Company)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.sydneytheatre.com.au