Review: Black Is The New White (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), May 5 – Jun 17, 2017
Playwright: Nakkiah Lui
Director: Paige Rattray
Cast: James Bell, Kylie Bracknell [Kaarljilba Kaardn], Tony Briggs, Luke Carroll, Vanessa Downing, Geoff Morrell, Melodie Reynolds-Diarra, Shari Sebbens, Anthony Taufa
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Charlotte worries about being too white, or to be more accurate, she carries shame about her life not being black enough. The blood in her veins is Aboriginal, but having been born into great privilege, she can only observe, what she considers an authentic black experience, from afar. In Nakkiah Lui’s Black Is The New White, we visit a wealthy black home, through what could be the whitest of storytelling genres possible, the Christmas family comedy.

The show is very funny. Indeed, the jokes do at times, sit on a level of superficiality characteristic of the format, but Lui’s relentless need to interrogate the state of Aboriginal politics allows her show to speak in any tone it wishes, while always retaining a gravity that justifies the exercise, along with providing an extraordinary level of intellectual involvement that keeps us firmly engaged. The work has a specificity that feels completely of the moment; its language, its concerns and its ideas are thoroughly modern. It articulates what we are thinking, but have hitherto been unable to discuss with great fluency. It allows the convoluted disarray of contemporary Aboriginal perspectives surrounding issues of colonialism, be magnificently displayed in all its unresolved vexations. The play is an important timestamp that chronicles the discontent inherent in today’s social dynamics, and a fantastic piece of entertainment with a surprisingly wide appeal.

Paige Rattray demonstrates excellent flair for the sardonic with Black Is The New White. Very pointed observations are made agreeable, and dark subject matter is turned satirical; we are all compelled to have a sense of humour, at Rattray’s insistence. Big conversations between its characters about Australian morality are finely gauged, so that we receive the full impact of what each person is saying. We analyse their upper-middle class lives as their stories unfold before us, but cannot escape shades of complicity, while we inevitably recognise ourselves in so much of the blistering dialogue.

A spectacular cast of nine is fiercely present, determined to enthral and educate. Each vibrant actor offers up a personality that is detailed and authentic, and we get to know them with extraordinary familiarity. Not all are picture perfect and several prove themselves to be quite nasty people, but we fall head over heels nonetheless. They are all very charming.

Charlotte is played by Shari Sebbens, a performer especially effective when things gets politically combative. The conviction she brings is impressive, leaving no room to doubt her very edifying intentions and desires. Melodie Reynolds-Diarra is commanding in her maternal role, incisive with her humour, but adoringly warm as leader of her pack. Remarkably elegant, she delivers some of the play’s biggest laughs with what looks to be little effort. The narrative’s pivotal parts of duelling fathers, are played mischievously by Tony Briggs and Geoff Morrell, both imaginative and effervescently confident with what they introduce to the stage. Their bickering is hilarious, and the actors’ chemistry as an unexpected pairing, is a highlight.

Set design is brilliantly conceived by Renee Mulder, who establishes five separate performance spaces within the interiors of a very glamorous house. Aesthetically refined and superbly functional (without relying on moving parts), it presents comfortable aspects to all seats in the auditorium, although decoration and costumes could benefit from a bolder, more adventurous style.

There are many ways to talk about race and Indigenous experiences, and in Black Is The New White, we find several of them co-existing. The joy of being able to partake in its pluralist approach to these difficult matters, makes the play uniquely refreshing. The people we meet have differing views, but they are all likeable. As audience, we are then given permission to agree with contradictory points of view, or at least, are encouraged to take moments to appreciate what our adversaries value. It is a messy affair at the Gibson household (complete with an epic food fight), and although the stories all conclude nicely, à la Hollywood (and Bollywood), the issues that had been brought up do not diminish. Money can solve many problems, as we witness at this spirited Christmas gathering, but it is how we move our rich resources around that will bring about the improvements we desperately need.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: The Popular Mechanicals (Wharf 2 Theatre)

Venue: Wharf 2 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Apr 6 – May 13, 2017
Playwrights: Keith Robinson, William Shakespeare, Tony Taylor
Director: Sarah Giles
Cast: Lori Bell, Julie Forsyth, Charles Mayer, Amber McMahon, Tim Overton, Rory Walker
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
When embarking upon an artistic project, possibilities could be endless, but there is almost always a view to an end result. At the theatre, a show is eventually performed for an audience, after a period of rehearsal and creative exploration. The Rude Mechanicals are a group of amateur actors from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, remembered for their comical incompetence. In The Popular Mechanicals, they take centre stage as we watch them go through the anxious, and absurd, process of preparing for their evening of entertainment for the royals. It is a work that puts focus on what happens before opening night, giving validation to all the thrills and spills that inevitably happen, while reaching for the penultimate goal. We often say that nothing is wrong in art, and The Popular Mechanicals certainly places all of its trust on that belief.

The silliness inherited from Shakespeare’s vision of the troupe is fully embraced, for a joyful show that owes a lot to clowning traditions (complete with rubber chickens). The cast goes through sequences that range from pointless and frightfully cheesy, to moments of genius hilarity that will prove unforgettable. It is all deeply amusing, even though its inconsistency can be trying. Appropriately effervescent in approach, six quirky performers take us from one ridiculous scene to another, with mischievous charm and surprising nuance. Rory Walker and Tim Overton are especially memorable, not only for the repellent bodily functions they gleefully demonstrate, but also for an unusual air of ethereality they bring to the stage.

It is natural to want to present our best sides, but nothing is more human than our foibles and blunders. The point of art is that it reflects humanity, yet we so often expect it to be perfect, when humanity is clearly anything but. In its celebration of imperfection, The Popular Mechanicals grants an opportunity for artistic expression that seems more authentic, as a representation of our experience of life, which is almost always stranger than fiction, but incontestably true.

www.statetheatrecompany.com.auwww.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Talk (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Apr 3 – May 20, 2017
Playwright: Jonathan Biggins
Director: Jonathan Biggins
Cast: Valerie Bader, Helen Christinson, Paige Gardiner, Peter Kowitz, Lucia Mastrantone, Kenneth Moraleda, Andrew Tighe, Hannah Waterman, John Waters, Ben Wood
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Journalists are losing jobs every day, while the world transitions from traditional forms of news consumption to what is termed new media. In the digital age, information comes cheap, and its dissemination no longer relies on sources of authority and legitimacy. Instead, we find ourselves obtaining news from literally anyone, with little discernment, through things like social media or any of the millions of internet web pages.

What used to be considered a revered profession, is now dissolved into commentary, opinion and hearsay, coming from people who have demonstrated nothing that earns our trust, most of which is never verified or verifiable. A lot of Jonathan Biggins’ Talk is about the well-founded anxiety surrounding this changing landscape, as well as the ever-present threat that commerce and propaganda pose to our media organisations.

Three powerful bodies are represented in the play; the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the Daily Telegraph, and a fictive mercenary radio station with its talkback star. We observe them finding their way around the case of an alleged paedophile, each one responding in their characteristic manner, with none able to report the truth. Biggins offers insight and perspective on an industry he knows well. The clarity of his deductions is valuable to how we understand the state of play today, in forces that have undeniable influence on all our lives. As a work of theatre though, the dialogue is often contrived, with a transparently didactic approach that gets in the way of its storytelling.

A lack of nuance in its depiction of archetypal personalities produces a kind of comedy that is perhaps too obvious and slightly hackneyed. Its characters are never surprising, although performances are uniformly polished and considered. Actor John Waters as the aforementioned talkback radio host John Behan, is entirely convincing, but the material at hand does not seem to encourage a depiction that is as comical and outrageous, as the real life examples he emulates.

Production design is a straightforward affair in Talk, but for what it lacks in ingenuity, it compensates with efficiency. Mark Thompson divides the stage into three static portions, to accommodate the play’s three workplaces. If their only intention is to create believable and functional spaces for action to occur, then design faculties have passed with flying colours on this occasion.

We want the news to give us access to the truth, but truth is rarely the real priority for those who give us the news. As we become increasingly sceptical of the old gatekeepers, we reach for alternate sources in hope of locating information that is more accurate and relevant, but that can lead us into echo chambers that have us shielded from reality. It is a grim scenario that Talk leaves us with, but its pessimistic resistance of digital advancements in our media is overstated. Traditional formats were never without their problems. It is tempting to think of the past as simple and wholesome, but lying crooks have existed since the dawn of time, and we will have always have to be vigilant, no matter ink or pixels.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

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, 2017
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