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.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Sensitive Guys (Cross Pollinate Productions)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Apr 30 – May 11, 2019
Playwright: MJ Kaufman
Director: Blazey Best
Cast: Natasha Cheng, Nancy Denis, Alex Malone, Shell McKenzie, Samm Ward
Images by Clare Hawley
Theatre review
We meet two small groups of students at an American college. One is a Men’s Peer Education Group, and the other a Survivor Support Group comprised of women victims of sexual assault. MJ Kaufman’s 2018 play Sensitive Guys looks at young men grappling with sexual politics, at a time when boundaries seem to be shifting, as the traditionally subjugated learn to push back against injustices of many kinds. In the story are what we might term woke men, but we discover that thoughts and actions do not necessarily correspond, for those who claim to know better. There is excellent humour in Kaufman’s writing, and although didactic in nature, its clarity of intention makes for a political work that feels immediate and digestible.

It is a passionate production, cohesively designed by an efficacious team of creatives, to facilitate a simple depiction of contemporary concerns. Directed by Blazey Best, the show offers an accurate representation of our hopes and anxieties as they stand today, in relation to the development of discussions around sexual misconduct. The show is a consolidation and reiteration of recent ideas from the Twitterverse, no longer fresh but still pertinent. An excellent ensemble of five actors deliver a well-rehearsed performance, earnest but also comical, able to keep us amused as they take on the responsibility of expounding some valuable lessons.

The young men in Sensitive Guys have much to unlearn; their understanding of sex and gender is revealed to be more damaging than they had ever imagined. There is a pleasure in watching bad boys flagellate themselves on stage. We want to see them punished, as well as see them become better people. The moral of this story is incredibly basic, but the truth is that we keep imparting to our children, old values that are harmful to many and beneficial to few. How we teach masculinity and femininity must come under scrutiny, as do our reasons for insisting on those binaries.

www.crosspollinate.com.au

Review: Pygmalion (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Apr 23 – May 25, 2019
Playwright: George Bernard Shaw
Director: Deborah Mulhall
Cast: Colleen Cook, Steve Corner, Tiffany Hoy, Lisa Kelly, Emilia Kriketos, Natasha McDonald, Mark Norton, Robert Snars, Shan-Ree Tan, Sean Taylor, Vitas Varnas, Emma Wright, Tricia Youlden
Images by Bob Seary

Theatre review
The most gratifying aspect of Eliza Doolittle’s story is her refusal to be content with a life of misery, no matter what form it takes. Whether an impoverished flower girl, or a faux aristocrat, she is compelled to break free of shackles, as soon as she identifies an opportunity to do so. George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion talks about independence, and dares to place a feminine figure at the centre of speculations, in a work that tries to unpack the implications of class in British society, along with twentieth century notions of personal autonomy. Having coincided with the suffragette movement of the 1910’s, Pygmalion can be seen as a remnant of early feminism, with a female lead determined to discover the conditions for freedom, even if the playwright does put her through an unyielding series of torturous circumstances.

It is a wordy script, that Deborah Mulhall tries to overcome as director, by injecting speed and energy into its rendering. There are no indulgent pauses and few languid moments of sentimentality, resulting in a show full of vim and vigour. Intellectual complexities are occasionally compromised, in the absence of space for meaningful rumination, but the production holds our attention adequately for the duration, perhaps trusting that we would attain some degree of poignancy in the hours thereafter. Mulhall’s steampunk costumes, although well executed, are a curious addition, for a narrative not of any science-fiction or fantasy genre. Tom Bannerman’s remarkable set design is stylish, and cleverly conceived to facilitate dynamic stage action.

Actor Emma Wright is a strong Eliza, playful but firm in her interpretation of the classic role. Technically accomplished, yet an instinctual presence and emotionally rich, Wright’s modern approach is a wonderfully refreshing take of that familiar persona. An impassioned Steve Corner elevates the Henry Higgins character, to someone much more vulnerable than is conventionally depicted, for unexpected layers to the story that prove highly rewarding. Colonel Pickering is less surprising, but nonetheless effectively portrayed by Shan-Ree Tan, who impresses with one of the more sturdy performances from its supporting cast.

At the end, we understand that Eliza wants to be her own person, unbeholden to anyone. We also realise that in England a hundred years ago, spaces for women to thrive independently are not yet widely established. Eliza’s fate was not an optimistic one. With the passage of time, we certainly feel more able to operate in accordance with our individual sovereign wishes. Women are gainfully employed like never before, in areas of work unimaginable a century ago, and access continues to widen as we persist with the dismantlement of barriers. Progress is undeniable. If only we would stop our prejudice and judgement on women who look and sound different.

www.newtheatre.org.au

Review: Frida Kahlo: Viva La Vida (Théâtre Excentrique / The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Apr 23 – May 4, 2019
Playwright: Humberto Robles (adapted by Gaël Le Cornec and Luis Benkard)
Director: Anna Jahjah
Cast: Kate Bookallil
Images by Mansoor Noor

Theatre review
Frida Kahlo contracted polio at six, and at eighteen, a traffic accident further injured her body, causing a lifetime of excruciating pain, that would inform all of her work and legacy. In Humberto Robles’ one-woman play Frida Kahlo: Viva La Vida, we see Kahlo trapped at home, alone with her thoughts and the constant state of torture that her body must endure. She talks about art, love, business and politics, offering an opportunity for her legions of admirers to feel as though at close quarters with the Mexican icon.

Performed by Kate Bookallil, whose jovial presence imbues the show with warmth, insisting that audiences regard Kahlo’s story with only open hearts. Her exuberance conveys a lightness to the character that has a tendency to ameliorate some of Kahlo’s struggles, but we engage with her nonetheless, always caring about our protagonist, and hang on to every word she says. Director Anna Jahjah’s spirited approach makes for a playful show, appropriately colourful, especially with its visual manifestations. There could be greater tonal shifts, for a more segmented presentation to help us better absorb the text, but Frida Kahlo: Viva La Vida‘s strong statements about resilience and perseverance, bears an appeal that is universal.

Kahlo’s defiance is inspiring, powerful, and beautifully transcendent. We see her fighting to the death, and understand the depths of our individual capacities for hardship. Life is not fair. Although Kahlo did experience success late in life, she never had the privilege to see with her own eyes, the extent to which her work has reached, and touched, women everywhere. Our collective admiration would have empowered her in ways we can only imagine. We are all queens, when we raise each other up, and stay connected in mutual succour. If we are determined to leave no one behind, what we can achieve will truly be unprecedented.

www.theatrexcentrique.com

Review: Ajax (Burning House / The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Apr 23 – May 4, 2019
Playwright: Sophocles (adapted by Jonothan Graffam, Robert Johnson)
Director: Robert Johnson
Cast: Leikny Middleton, Chad O’Brien, Seton Pollock, Michelle Robertson
Images by Mansoor Noor

Theatre review
When we meet Ajax, the revered warrior is in a state of disillusion, confused not only by bloodshed from endless battles, but also by the futility of his ambitions. Jonothan Graffam and Robert Johnson’s adaptation of Ajax attempts to reinstate relevance, in transporting Sophocles’s story by millennia to the present day. Its spirit is still in that conspicuous style of the classic Greek tragedy, but its brevity can cause a deficiency, as we try to construct meaningful narratives from its abbreviations.

Director Robert Johnson does good work with atmosphere; there is a certain level of sophistication to how the production looks and sounds, perhaps as a result of the simplicity evident in his approach. A very substantial portion of the show consists of monologues by the eponym, and on this occasion, Seton Pollock plays Ajax, covered in blood, and in a lot of anguish. It is a performance that begins with meters in the red, and stays there the whole time. His conviction is admirable, but that unwavering delivery of hyper intensity, quickly turns alienating.

Mythology sends our women and men to war. When our young go seeking glory, it is our stories that determine where they choose to find it. So much of myth making today, is about defending ourselves from those who want to corrupt and destroy our hitherto unsullied way of life. Our refusal to understand those who are conveniently classed other, and our insistence on seeing ourselves as being inculpable and above reproach, are the fundamentals on which we build national identity, and the justification for many lives lost. It is certain that defence is necessary, for evil is real, but peace must be found in many more ways that through the sacrifice of our brave souls.

www.burninghousetheatre.com

Review: Rabbit Hole (Chippen Street Theatre)

Venue: Chippen Street Theatre (Chippendale NSW), Apr 18 – 27, 2019
Playwright: David Lindsay-Abaire
Director: Christie Koppe
Cast: Alison Chambers, Rachel Giddens, Peter-William Jamieson, Imogen Morgan, Sam Wallace

Images by Benjamin Ryan
Theatre review
We meet Becca and Howie just months after the death of their small child. It is disconcerting that Becca seems unable to mourn her loss in a predictable way, and we wonder how her strategy of avoidance is going to pan out. David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole talks about the complex nature of grief, and the different things people have to do, in response to trauma. Positioned next to her husband’s more obvious approach, Becca looks frighteningly detached, refusing to speak of her pain, and only occasionally able to acknowledge the calamity that had befallen her home.

It is an energetic show, with a good amount of dramatic intensity, established by director Christie Koppe, to keep us engaged. Imogen Morgan portrays Becca as an animated personality but also, appropriately, emotionally stunted. The coldness of her exterior is articulated well by Morgan, but the true depths of Becca’s sorrow is often missing as a result. Her denial of her own suffering, is a fundamental ingredient of the story, but when the audience loses contact with that sense of torment, the show accordingly loses its sense of authenticity.

Howie the husband is played by Peter-William Jamieson, who delivers a convincing interpretation of bereavement inside his personal suburban living hell. The charming Alison Chambers is a genuine presence that makes everything she does for Becca’s mother, Nat, seem natural and believable. Rachel Giddens and Sam Wallace are compelling performers, both able to secure our attention whenever their supporting parts take centre stage.

Theatre about trauma is mesmerising. We gawk at people and their suffering, hoping to find salvation for our own unresolved troubles, even if only via a distant proxy. There is something liberating about Rabbit Hole‘s contrasting representations of the mourning experience. We are individuals who navigate the world in different ways, absorbing shocks as we go along, trying to stay in one piece until the inevitable end. It is naive to want to leave this existence unscathed, but to start each morning hopeful for a good day, whatever that may look like, must surely be a reasonable expectation, no matter one’s circumstances.

www.chippenstreet.com | www.facebook.com/RabbitHole2019

Review: Alice In Slasherland (Last One Standing Theatre Company)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Apr 18 – May 11, 2019
Playwright: Qui Nguyen
Director: Rachel Kerry
Cast: Justin Amankwah, Jack Angwin, Josh McElroy, Bardiya McKinnon, Mia Morrissey, Laura Murphy, Stella Ye
Images by Robert Catto

Theatre review
Lewis is a regular American teenager, who finds his town suddenly overwhelmed by Lucifer and other spirits of the underworld. With people being slaughtered everywhere, Lewis and his friends have to fight their way to survival. Qui Nguyen’s Alice In Slasherland bears all the hallmarks of a B-grade horror flick; an outlandish storyline, predictable characters and lots of blood and gore, along with a very healthy dose of kitsch and bad taste humour that makes the show more than a little tongue-in-cheek in its references to genre.

The production is messy, but also intentionally trashy. Like every low-budget movie ever made, we can identify all the flaws in this staging of Alice In Slasherland, but its imperfections do not preclude us from enjoying the silly fun that it so passionately delivers. Director Rachel Kerry’s vision for the staging is wonderfully vivid, but her ideas are almost never executed to perfection. The cast is remarkable for being able to embrace the clumsiness of their show, to convey a sense of humour that quite miraculously, works with, or perhaps against, the many technical improficiencies. Alice In Slasherland‘s horror aspects do almost nothing for us, but its comedy is certainly a joy.

Actor Bardiya McKinnonis is a spirited Lewis, appropriately over-the-top with the terror that he depicts. The eponymous Alice is played by Stella Ye, who meets the physical demands of the supernatural being, with a persuasive and dynamic athleticism. Lucifer is a vampy creature, as interpreted by Laura Murphy, whose capacity for camp seems to know no bounds. Her musical theatre abilities prove refreshing in a show that cares little about polish. Justin Amankwah is puppeteer for Edgar the bear, barely two feet tall, but huge in personality, thanks to Amankwah’s beautiful animation and extraordinary voice work.

Depending on one’s own tastes, there is a kind of self-deprecating humour to Alice In Slasherland that can be highly amusing. We vacillate between laughing at it, and laughing with it, trusting that none is expected to take any of this seriously. Over the coming weeks, the production will no doubt lose some of its raw edge, but as long as we can all be encouraged to remain playful for the duration, it would mean a job well done.

www.lastonestandingtheatreco.com | www.redlineproductions.com.au