Review: Black Ties (Ilbijerri Theatre Company / Te Rēhia Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Town Hall (Sydney NSW), Jan 10 – 18, 2020
Playwright: John Harvey, Tainui Tukiwaho
Director: Rachael Maza, Tainui Tukiwaho
Cast: Brendan Boney, Jack Charles, Mark Coles Smith, Mayella Dewis, Lana Garland, Laughton Kora, Tawhirangi Macpherson, Lisa Maza, Tuakoi Ohia, Brady Peeti, Tainui Tukiwaho, Dalara Williams, Dion Williams
Images by Luke Currie-Richardson

Theatre review
Love is in the air, but Hera is a Māori woman and Kane an Aboriginal man, each with strong connections to their respective families and lands. When the pair decide to marry, the place at which they choose to settle down, becomes a matter of serious contention for all their kin. As colonised peoples, Hera and Kane’s relations take with utmost seriousness, the manner in which their roots are to be planted. Each group is determined to maintain its own bloodline, and from the many conflicts that soon arise, it would appear that love may not conquer all so easily.

Black Ties by John Harvey and Tainui Tukiwaho tackles meaningful subjects, but does so with glorious humour. The play is endlessly amusing, impressive in its ability to balance serious with silly, for an experience that is at once poignant and hilarious. Directed by Rachel Maza and Tukiwaho, the production has a tendency to feel somewhat haphazard, but the enormity of its ambition is truly remarkable. Jacob Nash’s set design is a huge undertaking that thrills us with its capacity to surprise, effectively assisted by James Henry’s video projections that move us quickly between New Zealand and Melbourne. Live music by Brendon Boney, Mayella Dewis and Laughton Kora is consistently delightful, and a real highlight of the presentation.

Performers Mark Coles Smith and Tuakoi Ohia are the adoring couple, both very likeable, and appropriately wholesome in their depiction of the young innocents. Scene stealers include Jack Charles and Brady Peeti, who bring exquisite timing and captivating presences to this staging. Lana Garland and Lisa Maza play maternal roles, each one as strong and commanding as the other. Playwright and director Tukiwaho proves himself a compelling comic, delivering a great number of laughs as Hera’s oafish father.

We can hold firm to our cultural identities, but there must always be room for evolution and compromise. Thinking about our ancestors as monolithic is unhelpful and probably inaccurate. Allowing ourselves to progress with the times, in a manner decided upon by ourselves, and not by colonisers, is a realistic way of retaining valuable aspects of our heritage. Our only option is to adapt, and to trust in the fact that after centuries of diasporas and imperialism, we are still here.

www.ilbijerri.com.au | www.terehiatheatre.com

Review: Counting & Cracking (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Town Hall (Sydney NSW), Jan 11 – Feb 2, 2019 | Ridley Centre (Adelaide Showgrounds, South Australia) Mar 2 – 9, 2019
Playwright: S. Shakthidharan
Director: Eamon Flack
Cast: Prakash Belawadi, Nicholas Brown, Jay Emmanuel, Rarriwuy Hick, Antonythasan Jesuthasan, Nadie Kammallaweera, Ahi Karunaharan, Monica Kumar, Gandhi MacIntyre, Shiv Palekar, Monroe Reimers, Hazem Shammas, Nipuni Sharada, Vaishnavi Suryaprakash, Rajan Velu, Sukania Venugopal
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
It was 1983 when Radha first came to Australia, escaping persecution in Sri Lanka during the racial riots of Black July. With her husband killed in the midst of unrest, Radha was left with no choice but to flee alone and pregnant, arriving in Sydney to put down new roots in a foreign land. S. Shakthidharan’s Counting & Cracking is a very big play, ambitious and benevolent, rhapsodic in its attempts to uncover the whole truth about a woman, observed as a maternal figure from the playwright’s vantage point. Shakthidharan’s work is warm and witty, generous in its seismic attempts to explain everything, taking us through half a century of untold stories to reach an understanding about the people we are today.

It is often a gripping production, directed by Eamon Flack who renders marvellously the play’s more domestic and romantic scenes. Relationships are beautifully cultivated, between powerful characters, with a convincing sentimentality that encourages the audience to invest deeply, our attention and our emotions, right from the very beginning. Political dimensions are communicated less lucidly, but we are able to gather sufficient information for the narrative drive to maintain interest.

Designer Dale Ferguson’s transformation of Sydney Town Hall’s colonial interior, into a festively radiant Sri Lankan space of congregation and celebration, is a sight to behold. Majestic and monumental, it embraces our bodies and psyches, holding us firmly inside its milieu, to have us luxuriate in all its extravagant expressions. Contrastingly, acoustics are a sore point for the production, with sound engineering unable to overcome the echoey vastness of the old building, thus resulting in occasional dissipation of dialogue. There are however auditory delights to be had, in the form of Stefan Gregory’s score, performed live by a trio of musicians (Kranthi Kiran Mudigonda, Janakan Raj and Venkhatesh Sritharan) whose expert accompaniment provides us with unparalleled sensuality and soulfulness.

Actors Nadie Kammallaweera and Vaishnavi Suryaprakash share the lead role, both captivating and extremely likeable, allowing us to fall under Radha’s spell for the show’s entire duration. Their combined dynamism gives Counting & Cracking complexity and authenticity, and we find ourselves moved by a tale that is at once unique, yet spiritually universal. Sukania Venugopal is memorable as Aacha, the vivacious matriarch who brings colour and effervescence to the stage with every exhilarating entrance. Radha’s son Siddhartha provides the cultural anchor for this Australian story, performed by a very compelling Shiv Palekar, whose luminous confidence proves to be as impressive as it is alluring.

It is always demanded of migrants that we prove our worth. Counting & Cracking is in some ways an exercise in showing the establishment that we contribute at least as much as the others; it makes a statement about our Australianness, arguing against incessant lies about immigration being nothing but a burden on this society. More valuable is the play’s reclamation of identity, in its insistence that the portrayal of Australian lives must include histories and origins that are routinely excluded and denied. As humans, we must always strive for unity, but cohesion must bear the unequivocal acceptance of difference, hard as it may be.

www.belvoir.com.au | www.co-curious.com