Review: Richard III (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Feb 25 – Apr 1, 2017
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Peter Evans
Cast: Ivan Donato, James Evans, Sandy Gore, James Lugton, Kevin Maclsaac, Kate Mulvany, Meredith Penman, Gareth Reeves, Rose Riley, Sarah Woods
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Born ugly, Richard never understood what it is to be loved, and his story details the effect on a person when rejection is a constant and central defining experience. Coupled with what we now term privilege, his aristocratic life places him in a position of power in spite of that perpetual derision, and what results is a bitter thirst for the reciprocation of inhumanity, that knows no bounds.

It is possible to think of evil as a condition that is somehow innate, even natural to some, or as Shakespeare does in Richard III, we can conceive of evil as a manufactured and socialised phenomenon. In director Peter Evan’s rendition, the way brutality manifests, is an unambiguous process of retribution; Richard’s behaviour is depicted as being a direct consequence of the way he suffers under the mistreatment of a cruel world.

The production is adequately assembled, but there is no overstating its capacity as a showcase for the staggering talents of Kate Mulvany, who takes on the eponymous role with splendid aplomb. Mulvany’s unequivocal brilliance occupies centre stage, having us enthralled at every second, and casting a shadow over the rest of the show. All we want, is to absorb every meticulous minutiae that she serves up in each word and gesture.

It is pure genius at work, and to witness a virtuoso performance that is so exhaustively invested and incredibly rich with resonance, is the kind of theatre that broadens our understanding of what art is capable of doing. When Mulvany strips off at dramatic climax, to reveal her own scoliosis, we see the severely curved spine that she shares with Richard, and in that moment, performativity and reality conflate, for one of the most powerful visions ever brought to stage. Our reaction is appropriately visceral, but we are also made to consider how we attribute a person’s merits, or more accurately in this case, demerits, to their natural traits. If Richard is a villain because of his congenital physical condition, we must question how Mulvany’s and everybody else’s corporeality, is able to determine the people that we eventually become. We wonder about the finality of fate from the point of birth, and the extent to which our existence is written in the stars, and on the flesh.

There are other members of cast who impress, most notably Meredith Penman and Sarah Woods who deliver sensational scenes of heightened emotion, but the piece dulls significantly in the short moments when our star is offstage. Evans’ frequent use of his actors as a chorus is occasionally awkward, although the sense of vigour they create is valuable in ensuring that our attention is sustained. The set and costumes do not quite achieve the luxury and decadence that it aspires to, and the use of a small television set to convey the presence of a dumbwaiter is an inelegant solution and a continual distraction.

Visual aesthetics in this Richard III may not be a strength, but the character we have come to see, is marvellously presented. To live is to learn, and to be human, we need to understand humanity. Art shows us all the possibilities of being, so that we can find ways to negotiate better, both our environs and our selves. It is unlikely that Richard is a straightforward reflection of any one of us, but through this extraordinary rendering of a man who suffers and who retaliates, we gain insight into the nature of personal demons and recognise the way we co-exist in communities. Love can bring about things most beautiful, but its absence, is how we invite every ugliness.

www.bellshakespeare.com.au

Review: The Unknown Dancer In The Neighbourhood (Japan Foundation)

Venue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Mar 22 – 23, 2017
Playwright: Suguru Yamamoto
Director: Suguru Yamamoto
Cast: Wataru Kitao

Theatre review
The neighbourhood in question is Nagai, a small Japanese town, unremarkable and forgotten. The stories we hear are disparate, about individuals associated only by physical proximity, but each with an unmistakable sense of isolation. Suguru Yamamoto’s The Unknown Dancer In The Neighbourhood is about the loneliness of modern life, our increasing introversion as a result of technological advancements and the ever-present tensions rendered by our human need to connect.

It is a script with lots to say, and a long, meandering plot. Small narratives pique our interest, but in the absence of a more conventional approach to manufacturing drama, the 90-minute production struggles to sustain our attention. There are inventive elements to its staging methodology that make the show an artistic success in many ways, but its emotional dimensions, although intensely performed, are less affecting.

Wataru Kitao embodies a large number of characters, including a gorilla and a train, in this ambitious one-man show. A highly accomplished dancer utilising both European and Japanese disciplines, along with versatile vocal abilities, Kitao’s portrayals of all ages and genders with no reliance on costume or makeup changes, is clearly impressive. Brilliantly self-assured, his presence is a confident one that keeps audiences gratified.

The Unknown Dancer In The Neighbourhood shows us the problems of modernity but offers no solutions and does not place blame on anyone explicitly. It is a true representation of our experiences, so we know what it refers to, without requiring it to have everything spelled out. As each generation of trains move us faster and faster, we can only be carried away as the times see fit. Our humanity will offer resistance, but as history shows, people will transform along with the machines we build. The past can tell us so much of what to expect in the future, but the mystery of what is to come, will always prevail.

www.jpf.org.au

Review: The Homosexuals, Or Faggots (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Mar 17 – Apr 29, 2017
Playwright: Declan Greene
Director: Lee Lewis
Cast: Mama Alto, Simon Burke, Simon Corfield, Genevieve Lemon, Lincoln Younes
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Faggots are a kind of meatball dish, but the word is not usually used for that particular meaning. Like the n-word and the c-word, we have learned that some language has to be curbed, due to the power it exerts over the disenfranchised, who have to be protected from the cruelty that linguistic ammunition can brandish.

In Declan Greene’s important and ultra-modern work, The Homosexuals, Or Faggots, we investigate the nature of this constraint, not only in how we speak, but also in the lived experience of how we negotiate with each other’s positions in society. It is a discussion about the levels of privilege different groups of people are perceived to be inhabiting, and the layers of truth and illusion within those differentials. We think of each other as being certain types of people who exist on various hierarchical levels, but these can be misconstrued.

Warren and Kim are an inner-Sydney gay couple, both white and cis-male*. Having emerged from the systematic prejudice of homosexuals in earlier decades, they are now a part of the establishment; wealthy and entitled. Being the first generation of gays who live openly and free from persecution, their lives are self-imagined, with no prior examples to emulate. Their values have to be invented, and what constitutes a good life becomes a confusing ordeal. New to being top dog of Australian society, they are expected to be compassionate and altruistic, having tolerated insistent subjugation in previous years, but the couple is engrossed in their newfound prosperity, unable to behave in accordance with the responsibilities required of them, or are perhaps simply oblivious to their own elitism.

It is a highly intellectual exercise, dressed up in a lot of low-brow theatricality. Inspired by classic European farce, the show is rowdy, rude and ridiculous, but each of its uproarious manoeuvres is meticulously informed by the progressive politics that burns at its core. The audience relates to the work with a demanding complexity, laughing at every antic but engaging intimately with its cutting edge ideas. The action happens very quickly, and our minds are in a frenzy trying to decide right from wrong, real from false. Director Lee Lewis leaves us no room to breathe, insisting that we are swept up in the anxiety-fuelled mania, of her timely and accurate portrait of life in Sydney, 2017.

The hysterical and sweaty ensemble gives us everything. Simon Burke’s portrayal of middle-aged hedonism is as frantic as the cocaine that cushions his luxuriant existence, and although the production provides little room for nuance, his Warren is a character many of us will find familiar, convincing and unexpectedly sympathetic. His husband, Kim is preoccupied with all things academic, but much as he thinks intently about the world, he too lives on the surface. Simon Corfield’s exquisite performance of that duality is perfectly tuned, and incredible to watch. Also memorable is Genevieve Lemon as Diana, the only person on stage with a real soul. Confidently comedic, yet persuasively moving, Lemon makes us laugh and cry as she wills.

Political correctness may seem to be outmoded, but it remains a necessary protection against ignorance, wilful or otherwise. When we see idiots get voted into government, it is clear that hate is a form of currency that never stops working. The harmful things that people say, do in fact benefit those who trade in fear and stupidity. It is understandable then, that those same people would want to expand the parameters of concepts around freedom of speech. This week, our Caucasian Prime Minister is trying to make it permissible that we use racial differences to offend, insult and humiliate each other. We should never be surprised when the powerful wish to extend their dominance in the world, but when those who have benefited from the fruit of arduous social movements refuse to give back after their ascendancy, the disgust is intolerable.

*Read about cisgender at Wikipedia.

www.griffintheatre.com.au

Review: Crimes Of The Heart (Old Fitz Theatre)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Mar 15 – Apr 8, 2017
Playwright: Beth Henley
Director: Janine Watson
Cast: Caleb Alloway, Rowan Davie, Amanda Mcgregor, Laura Pike, Renae Small, Amy Usherwood
Image by Rupert Reid

Theatre review
It’s not Russia in 1900, but the three sisters in Beth Henley’s Crimes Of The Heart are similarly oppressed and emotionally tortured. Where Chekhov had expressed these pains in more sociopolitical terms, Henley’s story is specific about the patriarchy that these Magrath ladies have to operate under. They are gregarious personalities who fight hard to make lemonade out of an endless supply of lemons, but things never pan out well. They are trapped, by forces that remain invisible to them, and in their minds, they only have themselves to blame.

Completed in 1978, the play is no longer lustrous, but with our refreshed interest in feminism, its themes have again become pertinent. There are dominant men in these women’s lives who wreak havoc, but we never see them. To many women, especially those in decades past, gender inequity is rarely conspicuous. The Magraths do not for one moment realise the cause of their suffering, and like many of us, we take the blame personally, unable to perceive the wider connotations of how we exist, and the deeply problematic contexts by which we go about our daily business. Janine Watson’s direction takes the comedy to delightfully dark and twisted places for many perverse laughs, but the production’s inability to make forceful, the presence of evil fathers and husbands, is a sore point that prevents the drama and poignancy to sufficiently take hold.

The people who do appear on stage though, are effectively presented. All three sisters, Babe, Lenny and Meg are convincing, and very compelling. Renae Small in particular, is fascinating as Babe, with a subtle but wicked sense of humour that gives the show a distinctive flavour of subversiveness. Her ability to make believable the contradictory qualities of a delicate lady in trouble, but free from the torment of guilt, is truly impressive. Laura Pike demonstrates excellent authority over her depictions of emotion in the role of Lenny, and Amanda McGregor’s energetic theatricality as Meg, give Crimes Of The Heart a richness that keeps us invested in how its characters develop.

Jonathan Hindmarsh’s set design is a remarkable achievement that converts an inconvenient space into the Magrath’s evocative American home of mid-twentieth century. Along with Alexander Berlage’s lights, the actors are framed perfectly, in a manner that represents a constant reminder of the women’s unconscious captivity. Our lives are controlled by forces insidious and surreptitious, and how we experience being, will always have elements that are under the manipulation of others. We may never be able to overcome them all, but understanding systems and their machinations, is how we can begin learning to benefit from them, or to dismantle and debase them. The sisters wish for happier days, but without knowing the cause of their agony, they can only leave their hopes to the powers that be, which in this case, remain concealed and malevolent.

www.imperialartistry.ontrapages.com

Review: Lady Eats Apple (Back To Back Theatre)

Venue: Carriageworks (Eveleigh NSW), Mar 16 – 18, 2017
Director: Bruce Gladwin
Cast/Devisors: Mark Deans, Simon Laherty, Romany Latham, Brian Lipson, Sarah Mainwaring, Scott Price

Theatre review
God told Adam that “in the day that you eat from it you shall surely die,” and so it seems, when Eve decided to take a bite of the forbidden fruit, it came to pass that humans would not be immortal beings. In Lady Eats Apple, the theme of death provides impetus for a three act show, featuring on one end of the scale, the most mundane of everyday interchanges, and on the other, some very extravagant explorations into esotericism.

In life, we see death, and through death, we see the heavens. It is existentialist theatre, with Director Bruce Gladwin offering us a close look at the simplest activities of our daily life, but with the rumbles of thereafter underscoring every action. What seems inconsequential begins to take on great meaning, when we come to an appreciation of the vastness in which we operate. The work is not preachy as its title might suggest, but it requires of the viewer to think of the afterlife, and to connect that conception with the here and now.

The staging is both minimal and staggeringly beautiful, both clumsy and incredibly exquisite. Mark Cuthbertson’s powerful set design does to the viewer what places of worship aim to do; it overwhelms us, creating a sensation of awe with each of its stunning transformations. Fascinating video projections by Rhian Hinkley are a riddle that challenges us at first, but goes on to deliver disarming images of glory and transcendence.

Lady Eats Apple features a very strong cast of actors, each one confident in their parts and persuasive with their stage presences. Scott Price is particularly impressive when setting the stage in Act One, playing a godlike figure, resolute and commanding with the vision he wishes to achieve. Also memorable is Sarah Mainwaring, who moves us with a very sensitive portrayal of empathy when attempting to rescue a man struggling to gain consciousness. Mark Deans and Simon Laherty entertain us, with their charming vibrancy, and with a healthy sense of humour that they bring to their respective characters.

Death can be frightening, if our imagination leads us astray. The play reiterates the line “we will take care of you,” offering us comfort and reassurance. We can only die alone, but our time on earth should be occupied with love and laughter. The community and companionship witnessed on this stage inspires us to remember, that whatever happens later, now is the time to make the most of things.

www.backtobacktheatre.com

Review: The Laden Table (Bakehouse Theatre Company)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Mar 10 – 25, 2017
Playwrights: Nur Alam, Raya Gadir, Chris Hill, Marian Kernahan, Ruth Kliman, Yvonne Perczuk
Director: Suzanne Millar
Cast: Alex Chalwell, Doron Chester, Suz Mawer, Sarah Meacham, Mansoor Noor, Jessica Paterson, Abi Rayment, Monroe Reimers, Gigi Sawires, Geoff Sirmai, Donald Sword, Justina Ward
Image by Natasha Narula

Theatre review
A resplendent, but homely, dining table awaits, with twelve empty chairs anticipating two families and their stories about cultural displacement and historical discord. The Laden Table features Jewish and Muslim Australians, and the baggage they continue to carry after centuries of religious hostility. Their lives are in Sydney, but they exist beyond the here and now. What had happened in the past and what is yet to come, are crucial to how they act and think today.

It is a magnificent piece of writing, that interrogates, with unyielding severity, the nature of prejudice and more specifically, the way good people make enemies of each other through their religious affiliations. The Laden Table offers insight into how the layperson of the Jewish and Muslim faiths conceives of their own oppression, and how that manifests into hateful beliefs and behaviour. Structurally intricate, but with a vivid and coherent plot line, the play addresses issues of great profundity in a manner that is both elucidative and deeply affecting. It teaches some of the biggest lessons any individual could wish to learn.

The production is arresting in its poignancy, and thoroughly captivating. Director Suzanne Millar does a marvellous job of creating a work full of texture and nuance, with regular shifts in dramatic tone that secure our attention for the show’s entirety. Lighting designer Benjamin Brockman provides instinctual logic to every one of The Laden Table‘s startling scene changes, and amplifies emotional impact throughout its narrative, whether subtle or sensational. Will Newnham’s sound design adds to the carefully calibrated atmosphere, moving us between unpredictable spaces, and leaving a remarkable impression with a special moment that fuses prayers of both faiths in surprising harmony.

Stakes are high in the story, and the ensemble overwhelms us with an authentic gravitas. War is happening elsewhere but in these two Australian households, we feel the reverberations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the sense of mortal danger faced by millions is more than a bleep on the nightly news. Gigi Sawires and Geoff Sirmai are the elders, both flamboyantly engaging and unconventionally colourful with what they bring to the table. Jessica Paterson and Monroe Reimers introduce convincing depth to their characters’suffering, and Suz Mawer is a powerful presence as a modern Muslim woman, constantly having to negotiate past and future, spirituality and logic. The vulnerable complexity that Mawer portrays so well, is embodiment of what the play represents; and to expect easy answers is impracticable.

Religion does a lot of good, but the harm it causes cannot be denied. Atheists will say that the eradication of religion will solve many of the world’s problems, but that utopia will never come, even within the next few lifetimes. The way our faith is ingrained, has a tenacious permanency that endures over generations. It shapes many minds and guides many deeds, but it is never beyond reproach or provocation. God will always be there, but how we relate to them changes, and how we want them reflected in our lives, is up to us.

www.bakehousetheatrecompany.com.au

Review: A Period Piece (Glitterbomb / The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Mar 14 – 25, 2017
Playwright: Gretel Vella
Director: Carissa Licciardello
Cast: Mikaela Atallah, Hannah Cheers, Julia Christensen, Clare Hennessy, Mat Lee, Julia Robertson, James Wright
Image by Omnes Photography

Theatre review (of a preview performance)
In Gretel Vella’s A Period Piece, menstruation takes centre stage in each of its madcap episodes. Mischievous and irreverent, its collection of short skits takes a look at the absurd taboo that surrounds the subject, and its significance as a mechanism of misogyny in our daily lives. The work presents entertaining observations, and an important perspective on how society is taught to be afraid and ashamed of women’s bodies, and how that irrational aversion informs the way we have constructed sexism through the ages.

The production, directed by Carissa Licciardello, is delightfully high-spirited, with an energetic cast that zips gleefully from one comedic scene to another. A band of three musicians add even more vibrancy to the atmosphere, playing silly songs that keep us in a giddy mood, while driving home further, the show’s message of female empowerment. Set design by Nick Fry is a simple idea, but fastidiously executed to help illustrate the antiquated values we carry, with unforgivable obstinacy, in order that systems of patriarchy may be upheld.

There is a rawness to A Period Piece that is unapologetic, and very enjoyable. It is an untidy affair, but inviting and joyful, although a more philosophical approach could provide greater depth (and a more lasting impression) to its concerns. When Aristophanes dreamt up the story of Lysistrata and foregrounded the fact that a woman’s womb, and her sexuality, controls all our existence, we should have begun to see that her holding up half the sky is an understatement.

www.dasglitterbomb.com