Review: Wil & Grace (Rogue Projects)

Venue: FringeHQ (Newtown NSW), Nov 24 – Dec 4, 2021
Playwright: Madeleine Withington
Director: Erica Lovell
Cast: Suz Mawer, Joshua Shediak, Madeleine Withington
Images by Noni Carroll

Theatre review
Grace is having a hard time. Things are not going well in her personal and professional spheres, so having a big boozy night at home with flatmate Varya, is an understandable and much needed distraction. The two discover on the internet, a spell that can raise the dead, and because Grace is a theatre nerd, she chooses to bring William Shakespeare back to life. Next morning, they wake up to a drunk Brit in the living room, and Grace fixates on him being the Bard resurrected.

Wil and Grace, like its sitcom namesake, features a silly plot and unrestrained performances, to deliver light-hearted laughs in its efforts to entertain. Underpinning all the frivolity and impracticable narrative,  however are certain truths about the human experience. Written by Madeleine Withington, the play can be seen as a tribute to a television genre that has touched lives all over the world, with notable hints of unassailable honesty that help us connect fantasy with reality. Something is bothering Grace, and the more she indulges in the bizarre notion that Shakespeare lives in her home, the more we wish to discover her truth.

The show is involving and funny, and director Erica Lovell’s ability to build nuance into the outlandish premise, extends Wil and Grace beyond the single joke that precipitates all the action. Ambitious music by Chrysoulla Markoulli contradicts the sitcom style of presentation, choosing instead to offer glimpses of what is actually going on, inside Grace’s hidden inner world. Jasmin Borsovszky lights the stage with commendable dynamism, bringing much needed variation to the imagery that we see.

Withington performs the part of Grace, sensitive in her portrayal of a troubled individual. Suz Mawer is rambunctious as Varya, wonderfully confident in her embodiment of the role’s flamboyant comedy. The pivotal character of the English visitor, is played by Joshua Shediak whose easy charm and wide-eyed earnestness, helps us invest in the improbable fantasy.

It is never clearer than in 2021, that humans engage, routinely and habitually, in delusions. A businessman who repeatedly asserts his narcissism, is elected President by millions who interpret his greed as charity. Throngs march the streets to fight for the right, to catch a disease and spread it to the vulnerable, in the name of autonomy. Grace insists that a dead man has returned, and sleeps on her couch every night. We are a disturbed populace. We are also optimistic in our interminable belief that brighter days are ahead, although that optimism often seems no different from delusion.

www.rogueprojects.com.au

Review: Three Fat Virgins Unassembled (Kings Cross Theatre)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Nov 24 – Dec 4, 2021
Playwright: Ovidia Yu
Director: Tiffany Wong
Cast: Denise Chan, Sabrina Chan D’Angelo, Happy Feraren, Caroline George
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
In Ovidia Yu’s 1992 play, characters are referred to as virgins, mostly because they have been stripped of their sexuality, conceptually de-sexed, in a Confucian society that sternly refuses individuals of their idiosyncratic potentialities. The stories of Three Fat Virgins Unassembled take place in Singapore where women, like those of the West, are divided into madonnas and whores, except in this Eastern colonial city, the notion of women being sexually permissive or simply sexually autonomous, is so unthinkable and preposterous, that they are almost always reduced and relegated to a singular celibate stereotype.

By inference therefore, Singaporean women can often be thought of as beings without agency. The same restrictions that curb sexual expression, are extended to all other aspects of identity. Socially, economically and politically, they can only ever place nation and family before self, becoming cogs in the machine that serve a larger purpose, with no space left for personal fulfilment. Deviations are stringently prohibited.

Yu calls these women fat, because their lives are bound to a certain mode of passivity, as a result of the tight limitations they face in virtually every moment of existence. They become versions of “ladies who lunch”, gorging on high tea and consumerism, always with their mouths stuffed with food that function not as nourishment, but as silencing devices. Like fetishistic “feeders”, Singapore systematically fattens up their women, so that they may lose agility, consequently unable to escape their master, and his instruments of oppression.

Directed by Tiffany Wong, this Sydney production preserves all the humour and poignancy of the 29 year-old original. Wong does wonderfully to bridge cultural and temporal distances, so that we may perceive the relative foreignness of a play that comes from another time and place, yet apply its ideas to contemporary Australian experiences. Also noteworthy is Esther Zhong’s costume designs, blending hard and soft aspects of femininity, for beautiful representations of modern Asian women. A set by Sarah Amin addresses effectively, the frequent scene transitions of Three Fat Virgins Unassembled, as well as providing tongue-in-cheek visual cues to the “exotic” nature of staging such a work in colonised Australia.

Four very committed and charismatic actors play these fat virgins, and their antagonists, with splendid aplomb.  Denise Chan, Sabrina Chan D’Angelo, Happy Feraren and Caroline George are all funny women, able to convey both comedic and tragic aspects of the storytelling. The gravity they bring to the stage, often with an undeniable sense of melancholy, emphasises the point being made, but the ubiquitous air of irony the team is able to harness, gives their show its subversive and very pleasurable theatricality.

Women everywhere, it seems, are all humans, united by a very particular form of oppression. So much of our lives exist in relation to patriarchies, that rob us of our agency, our desire, our sovereignty. Those patriarchies may on occasion appear to celebrate and elevate us, but what they are championing, are  invariably only qualities of their determination. Moreover in their endorsement of particular females, it is clear that their habit of picking one above the rest, is a reinforcement of their modus operandi; through which we learn that we will forever feel comparatively inadequate, and that we are to be divided and separated, if we are to be properly handled.

Singaporean patriarchy is always shrouded in a deceptive benevolence. It talks about duty, framing its impositions in familial and communal terms, whether wistfully or staunchly, and it will deny any attempt to redefine the status quo; the powerful will never concede. One hopes that three decades on, conditions would have improved since the initial conception of Three Fat Virgins Unassembled, but the work’s resonances remain, and everything still looks convincing, real and truthful.

www.slantedtheatre.com

Review: The Boomkak Panto (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Nov 20 – Dec 23, 2021
Playwright: Virginia Gay
Director: Richard Carroll, Virginia Gay
Cast: Deborah Galanos, Virginia Gay, Rob Johnson, Billy McPherson, Hamed Sadeghi, Mary Soudi, Zoe Terakes, Toby Truslove
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
The show begins with a big city property developer descending upon the Australian country town of Boomkak, threatening to alter the way of life forever, in that archetypal sleepy village. Residents join forces, thinking that raising funds from staging a pantomime, would help them fight the evil mogul. Things make little sense in The Boomkak Panto, but the creators make no bones about finding inspiration from traditional children’s entertainment. Their presentation is loud and joyous, an appropriate awakening from 18 months of a pandemic induced slumber. It is celebratory in tone, and certainly feels quite frivolous to start, but Act 2 takes a more meaningful, if abrupt turn, to discussions about immigration and colonisation, along with gender and sexual politics.

One of the characters, Zoe is in the process of coming out as non-binary, and their storyline becomes increasingly prominent, over the course. It is commendable that The Boomkak Panto chooses to deviate from its initial frothiness, to involve itself in important social discussions, but one wonders if a more cohesive approach could have been found, for an improved sense of harmony for the show’s various trajectories.

Writer Virginia Gay’s jokes are plentiful, ranging from corny to genuinely hilarious. A handful of songs by Eddie Perfect give the production a touch of class, although its use of classic pop tunes are no less effective. The clash between earnestness and irony in The Boomkak Panto can make for an awkward  theatrical experience, but is also necessary, in its explorations of white identity in this day and age. Whiteness is thankfully self-aware on this stage, but is also evidently unable to relinquish its persistent dominance. 

Directed by Richard Carroll and by Gay herself, the work offers great amusement, with energy levels sustained at an admirable height throughout the duration of 2.5 hours. Visually captivating, with sets and costumes by Michael Hankin, and lights by Jasmine Rizk giving us lots of bedazzling colour and movement. Zara Stanton’s musical direction, along with Kellie-Anne Kimber’s sound design, combine to deliver a rich auditory experience. Hamed Sadeghi’s live accompaniment on Persian instruments is a notable highlight, valuable in providing a “countercultural” dimension to what is deemed classic Australian music.

The aforementioned Zoe is played by Zoe Terakes, who brings impressive presence, and an enjoyable air of recalcitrance to their performance. Virginia Gay is very strong as Alison, especially in two big scenes where she occupies centre stage, memorable for her remarkable ebullience. Stealing the show is Rob Johnson who, as the central (property developer) villain and as local idiot Butch, uses toxic masculinity in its various guises to generate unremitting laughter. Johnson’s timing and sense of mischief, are an absolute joy.

In the pantomime world, everything is old and predictable. Young minds are shaped in traditional ways, to make sense of the world in accordance with the values of previous generations. In Boomkak, storytellers are trying to flip the script, not to cause havoc, but to make things right. We have made a habit out of marginalising one another, constantly finding ways to denigrate some, so that others might reap advantages. It is unclear if we can ever reach a point of true justice and fairness, but it is in that unrelenting pursuit , in that active search and insistence on doing better, that we can find ways to live with integrity. 

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Julius Caesar (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Nov 15 – Dec 23, 2021
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Geraldine Hakewill, Ewen Leslie, Zahra Newman
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
When the Roman leader is assassinated in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, it is the very nature of democracy that comes into question. Two millennia after the fateful incident, we are still pondering, and living, the delusive meanings of democracy in our political realities. The men in Shakespeare’s play continue to bear a certain ambiguity in terms of their being good or bad, right or wrong. Fortunately for audiences of Kip Williams’ modern day adaptation, it is the all too familiar malevolence of 21st century communications technology that takes a lot of the unequivocal blame.

Mobile phones and social media, in addition to traditional news platforms, are the convenient new villains in this regeneration of the old classic. Video monitors occupy centre stage with an aggressive dominance, and actors are virtually never without their phones, always with camera on, pointing at themselves and at one another. We have to consume the play in ways that are similar, to how we consume the daily news about politics. Devices and screens overwhelm our senses, so that whatever is live and actually material, becomes secondary to digital transmissions.

We struggle to distinguish, the important from the distracting, and the truth from fake news. Williams’ direction makes the unrelenting noise that is so pervasive in our media habits, a central feature of his theatrical presentation, and the more he indulges in histrionics, the more we are seduced by all the frenzy. The story escalates along with our gleeful enjoyment of sequences that become increasingly hideous, and we begin to wonder if all the heartache and bloodshed, can only exist because of our audienceship. Our passive attention is made to take responsibility, in this salient reminder that under capitalism, the consumer is king.

David Bergman’s work on video design is humorous, detailed and dynamic. The abundant cultural references made therein, form a subtext for this version of Julius Caesar that not only updates the tale for contemporary sensibilities, it reframes the discussion about democracy to include technology and capitalism, so that the discourse feels urgent and strikingly intimate. Correspondingly, Stefan Gregory’s music and sound design takes charge of our nerve centres, in order that we can only respond to the series of egregious events, with appropriate revulsion. Also noteworthy are Elizabeth Gadsby’s set and costume design, offering efficient and unpretentious solutions to an otherwise complex staging. Lights by Amelia Lever-Davidson too are unobtrusive, yet satisfyingly dramatic in its various manifestations.

The three stellar actors called upon to play all the roles, are undeniably sublime. Geraldine Hakewill, Ewen Leslie and Zahra Newman impress with their thorough familiarity with the material, but it is their ability to engender an air of unpredictability that keeps us enthralled. It is live theatre in which everything is planned to the most minute, yet we experience it as though everything is coming from visceral impulses of each moment. Each performer is independently magnetic and powerful, but as a singular unit, they deliver a theatrical experience remarkably bold in its inventiveness, and thrilling in its capacity to make the story feel so immediate and involving.

The camera’s omnipresence strip the characters in Julius Caesar of their sincerity. Aware of being on screen at all times, their every word and deed can only appear performative, if not completely devoid of authenticity. It comes as a surprise then, that some of us still believe in our leaders, even when they are unabashedly hamming it up for our screens, shamelessly spouting nonsensical hyperbole and harmful rhetoric. The effectiveness with which media personalities (politicians and others) can use capitalism and technology to manipulate our sense of truth, to their advantage, is now a foregone conclusion. The end of the production is grim, as though proclaiming that resistance is futile, a statement only a scant few would dare refute.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Merrily We Roll Along (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), 21 Oct – 27 Nov, 2021
Book: George Furth
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Dean Bryant
Cast: Andrew Coshan, Georgina Hopson, Evan Lever, Vidya Makan, Elise McCann, Ainsley Melham, Tiarne Sue Yek, Aaron Tsindos
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
The story begins in 1976 and with each scene, we are moved back further in time, eventually to 1957. This 2021 Hayes Theatre staging of Stephen Sondheim’s 1981 musical “Merrily We Roll Along” is a nostalgic delight, as we look back to simpler times of the previous century, taking the opportunity to relish in a tale about the loss of innocence, that seems little more than quaint by what we are used to today.

Young people from that bygone era, like those of our current times, were deeply embroiled in socio-economic upheaval. However, it is evident from George Furth’s book (on which Sondheim’s musical was based), that critical events in 1960’s America, such as the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam, were able to be conveniently swept aside, in favour of a brand of sentimental reminiscence intent on making life seem so insular, in its wilful naivete.

We are made to examine the friendship between three white artistic types, whose lot in life were dependant only on luck and on the ruggedness of the individual. Their narratives are exempt from being tainted by their proximity to power, and their complicity in social structures that are manifestly unjust. It is perhaps a relief that this form of storytelling, is no longer quite as widely condoned in today’s, shall we say, more politically conscious climate. Black lives always did matter, but how we think and talk about those associated issues seem, thankfully, to have irrevocably changed.

On the other hand, many do continue to enjoy the escapism of the theatrical arts. These increasingly trying times, have made us  feel an irresistible need to seek momentary refuge, in things that are less god damned serious, and in the world of musical theatre, there is perhaps nothing better than to resort to the great songs of Sondheim. They always bear a sense of repetitive familiarity, yet reliably refreshing; toe-tappers that will prove uplifting even at times of awesome pessimism, and because they were written so long ago, we can let ourselves off the hook, for indulging in something that is so completely devoid of wokeness.

Musical direction for the production is brilliantly harnessed by Andrew Worboys, who knows exactly how to make everything shine and sparkle, for a welcome return to communal entertainment after many months of sustained isolation. In the many instances when one becomes painfully aware of the unbearable flimsiness of the characters in “Merrily We Roll Along”, there is always Worboys’ omnipotent work to return to, for something to properly sink our teeth into.

Direction is provided by Dean Bryant, who adds stylish embellishment whenever possible, including clever incorporation of Dave Bergman’s video projections that widen our experience of time and space in the intimate auditorium. Set design by Jeremy Allen is wonderfully chic, as are Melanie Liertz’s costumes, and Veronique Bennett’s beautiful golden lights transport us somewhere decidedly cosier and softer, than the harsh realities of the outside world. It is noteworthy that Bryant’s ability to fabricate a sense of gravity for the staging is remarkable, considering the often banal quality of what is actually being explored.

Performer Ainsley Melham is sensational in the role of Charley Kringas, bringing incredible precision and unexpected complexity to a personality who can otherwise easily be thought of as prosaic. Elise McCann sings every note with clarity and gusto, and as Mary Flynn, McCann is memorably feisty, in a show that has problems allowing enough depth into any of its women characters. Playing Franklin Shepard is Andrew Coshan, who although demonstrates commitment, has a tendency to come across too ordinary and somewhat immaterial, for someone who is meant to occupy the very centre of the story. Supporting players are generally excellent, with Georgina Hopson and Vidya Makan particularly endearing with the effortless comedy they deliver at every turn.

It is true, that we cannot make a better future, without knowing the past. It is also true, that to live in the past, is detrimental to efforts for meaningful progress. The reverse chronology of “Merrily We Roll Along” shows us the history of old friends, so that we can see the value in redemption, along with the importance of embracing humility as a guiding principle in relationships. Sorry seems to be the hardest word, but as proven time and again, it sure pays dividends.

www.hayestheatre.com.au

Review: Follow Me Home (ATYP)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jun 16 – Jul 3, 2021
Playwright: Lewis Treston
Director: Fraser Corfield
Cast: Laneikka Denne, Jasper Lee-Lindsay, Sofia Nolan, Thomas Weatherall
Images by Tracey Schramm

Theatre review
Lewis Treston’s Follow Me Home is comprised of anecdotes, from young Australians who have experienced homelessness. Although unified by a central theme, the stories are varied and surprising, able to reveal to viewers, the pervasive ignorance that surrounds these issues. To see the way people are treated as though discarded, especially at a tender age, is to interrogate our values as a community. Treston’s writing is incisive, and wonderfully dynamic. His dialogue sparkles and pops, to draw us in, and to keep our emotions invested.

The production is directed by Fraser Corfield, who exercises great restraint in stylistic terms, placing emphasis entirely on the quality of performance by a remarkable group of actors. It is worth noting however, that lighting design by Martin Kinnane contributes significantly to the tone of storytelling, and to the ways we respond to the play. Hugh Clark’s video projections provide a dimension of documentary authenticity, that helps us connect the onstage drama, with real world conditions just outside of the auditorium.

The ensemble radiates an unbridled enthusiasm, with four tremendously likeable actors taking on a wide range of roles, in disparate scenes that share a common urgency. Thomas Weatherall brings splendid detail to his characters, and a conspicuous intelligence that allows the narratives he presents, to be perfectly mapped out for our delectation. Sofia Nolan demonstrates great capacity for nuance, blending meaningful subtlety into the playful theatricality she unleashes for each of her personalities. Laneikka Denne is memorable for her earnest renderings, and Jasper Lee-Lindsay’s interior truthfulness proves captivating, in a showcase of some extraordinarily talented performers.

We need to acknowledge that there is something so deficient in our culture, that to have individuals languishing and suffering on the streets, is a normalised expectation. A new-born baby abandoned in a public restroom will cause an uproar, but when people grow past some arbitrary age, we are happy to completely renounce responsibility over their well-being. Each of us understands the fragile nature of life, and we know exactly what it feels like to need help, but rarely are we ready and willing to offer assistance. That frame of mind, is at the very core of our nation’s problems.

www.atyp.com.au

Review: Grand Horizons (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Jun 7 – Jul 3, 2021
Playwright: Bess Wohl
Director: Jessica Arthur
Cast: John Bell, Linda Cropper, Vanessa Downing, James Majoos, Johnny Nasser, Zindzi Okenyo, Guy Simon
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Nancy has asked for a divorce. Instead of congratulating her on daring to reach for happier days in the twilight years, her adult sons desperately try to change her mind, determined to keep her tethered to a life that she clearly deems unsatisfactory. At the centre of Bess Wohl’s Grand Horizons is Nancy and Bill’s 50-year marriage, offering a framework through which our basic values as individuals and as collectives, are interrogated. The very idea that a person’s efforts to end a bad relationship, are met with despair, is a clear indication of our capacity to be so distorted in the ways we conceive of existence.

It is a surreptitiously philosophical work, accomplished with a wonderful sense of humour, and often with a subversive streak. Wohl diminishes the persuasiveness of her own arguments however, by rendering the family’s wealth invisible in her discussions about female independence. The desire to lead us to a pleasing conclusion too, can feel somewhat of a cop out, but the play is undeniably enjoyable, full of wit and whimsy that makes for a hilarious and thought-provoking experience.

Nancy’s big beige sterile house, is an ironic picture of middle-class mediocrity and boredom. Production designer Renée Mulder delivers a comedic conflation, of aspiration and of depression, in her interpretation of boomer suburban resplendence. Lights by Verity Hampson and sound by Clemence Williams are subtly resolved, to honour all the clever ideas and the incessant jokes, that make Grand Horizons quite the unforgettable experience.

Certainly memorable is actor Linda Cropper, who brings extraordinary complexity, along with brilliant timing, to the role of Nancy. It is a remarkably intelligent performance, conveying great integrity for the older woman who finally realises that she deserves better. Also highly entertaining is Guy Simon as Brian, the gay son, who has a difficult time extricating his own identity from his parents’ parting of ways. Simon plays the flamboyant drama teacher with a dazzling theatricality, keeping the laughter sustained for as long as he remains on stage.

It is a strong cast overall, but supporting player James Majoos is exceptional in his single appearance, as the carefree Tommy, incredibly extravagant in approach, for one of the play’s more outrageous scenes. Director Jessica Arthur proves herself a formidable creator of comedy; her strategies vary from delicate to bold, demonstrating an adventurous creative spirit, and a serious commitment to tickling her audience.

We place far too much emphasis on the length of relationships, and invest far too little into understanding what makes a good one. Elizabeth Taylor married and divorced eight times, because she knew when she had become unhappy, and made sure to improve conditions whenever necessary. For that, she was routinely ridiculed and insulted. On the other hand, people like Nancy who tolerate untold decades of misery, are revered solely for the longevity of their unions, with the actual experience of those years and years, seemingly irrelevant. Few things are worth greater celebration, than when a woman finds the courage to walk away from a failed marriage. The danger and humiliation that she has to contend with, is a price that she is willing to pay, for the promise of a better life.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Come From Away (Capitol Theatre)

Venue: Capitol Theatre (Sydney NSW), Jun 3 – Aug 22, 2021
Book, Music & Lyrics: Irene Sankoff, David Hein
Director: Christopher Ashley
Cast: Zoe Gertz, Sharriese Hamilton, Douglas Hansell, Kolby Kindle, Phillip Lowe, Simon Maiden, Sarah Morrison, Emma Powell, Katrina Retallick, Kellie Rode, Ash Roussety, Gene Weygandt

Theatre review
At the moment the disaster of September 11, 2001 occurred, hundreds of aeroplanes were mid-air across the Americas, thrust into utter chaos. Thousands of passengers had to be diverted as a result of the terrorist attack, to safer harbours, including the island of Newfoundland, at the outer east of Canada. The musical Come From Away comprises a collection of anecdotes from the five days, during which international strangers were welcomed by country folk into their homes, at a historic time.

Written by David Hein and Irene Sankoff, the material is warm and witty, offering a way for us to look back at a traumatic event, without having to engage directly with its immense darkness. Instead, it is the overwhelming goodness of ordinary people that comes to the fore. Directed by Christopher Ashley, the show eschews the usual manipulative cheesiness of the musical format, trusting in our collective memory of that fateful day, to transport us to a space of deep emotion and great empathy.

The staging feels deceptively simple, but in the absence of predictably flamboyant manoeuvres, thoughtful details are introduced instead, notably by Kelly Devine’s choreography, for a theatrical experience that is surprisingly sensitive in its rendering, to achieve an authentic expression of the human need for connection. Howell Binkley’s lights too, are memorable for delicately shifting us from nuance to nuance, never overly dramatic, but always precise in how they convey mood and tone for each scene.

The ensemble cast is brilliantly cohesive. Each performer is given plentiful opportunity to shine as individuals, but it is their tightness as a group that makes their presentation feel bulletproof. All are required to play multiple characters, and for the audience to discover every personality to be a likeable one, is truly remarkable. Similarly, musicians in the productions are no less than awe inspiring. Their work is spirited and exhilarating, incredibly rousing in this story about humans at their best, at a time of crisis.

Come From Away emerges from a horrific incident, yet we find it to be full of light and hope. In some ways, there is a sense that twenty years ago, even in the midst of tragedy, we knew clearly the distinction between right and wrong, good and bad. With the passage of time however, it may seem that an erosion of innocence has accelerated, probably through the Trump years, where seeing the worst of people is no longer a shock, but almost a matter of course. Fortunately though, the good people of Newfoundland do not seem fictitious; they only seem very far away.

www.comefromaway.com.au

Review: The Cherry Orchard (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 29 – Jun 27, 2021
Playwright: Anton Chekhov (adapted by Eamon Flack)
Director: Eamon Flack
Cast: Peter Carroll, Priscilla Doueihy, Nadie Kammallaweera, Kirsty Marillier, Lucia Mastrantone, Mandela Mathia, Sarah Meacham, Josh Price, Pamela Rabe, Keith Robinson, Jack Scott, Charles Wu
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
The Russian aristocracy as we had known them, were no longer to be, in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Members of Ranevskaya’s household scramble around, filled with anxiety at the prospect of the old world’s demise, completely at a loss as to what to expect of the future, and how to continue existing as the inevitable begins to set in.

In director Eamon Flack’s 2021 version, the power transitions that occur in The Cherry Orchard are represented not only by the idealism of our young. An unmistakeable racial dimension is introduced, with the emergence of the middle classes expressed as a parallel dialogue, about the changing status of Australia’s people of colour.

It is a valiant attempt by Flack to breathe new life into the play. Aside from successfully locating a contemporary resonance for the old tale, he replaces early twentieth century naturalistic styles with a theatrical exuberance, that makes the show more appealing to today’s compromised attention spans. The freshly sharpened farcical tone is enjoyable, as are its efforts at broadening the scope of Chekhov’s work, to be inclusive of the marginalised, such as the LGBT community, and people living with disabilities.

Actor Mandela Mathia is captivating as Lopahkin, the businessman with a recent background of peasantry. Now riding on the wave of new money rising, the Black man is confident but still humble, which Mathia portrays with admirable exactitude. It is a precise and varied performance, from one who proves as likeable as he is compelling. The old white guards are exemplified in The Cherry Orchard by Ranevskaya, slothful and ignorant, but nonetheless well-intentioned. Played by Pamela Rabe, the role is appropriately comical, with an air of deteriorating glamour that becomes progressively fragile.

Funniest in the ensemble include Lucia Mastrantone, unforgettable as the kooky governess Charlotta, and full of mischief as she invents one trick after another. Charles Wu takes a more understated approach, but is no less hilarious as the incredulously suave Yasha, complete with perfectly timed hip thrusts, almost convincing us that it might be possible to bring sexy back to Chekhov.

Set design by Romanie Harper is surprisingly stark, but its clean lines and minimal approach deliver an elegant, if slightly nondescript vista. Harper’s costumes are more imaginatively rendered, with each character’s appearance distinctly and eccentrically conceived. Lights by Nick Schlieper provide a warmth that keeps us reminded of the notion of home, that is fundamentally embedded within this narrative about power and property. Stefan Gregory’s use of eclectic music styles bring valuable energy to the work, whilst establishing a sense of indeterminacy to time and place, that allows us to connect with The Cherry Orchard in personal ways.

A little more than a century after the completion of Chekhov’s final play, we find ourselves back at a point of disgraceful wealth disparity. What may have been a hopeful forecast of a new way of life, can now be seen to be overly optimistic. There is no doubt that things have improved on many fronts, but the inordinate concentration of wealth today at the top end of town, reveals the failure of efforts to redistribute wealth, and to alleviate poverty. People might no longer wish to call themselves aristocrats and peasants, but all we have to do, is to look at all the numbers, that never lie.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: The 7 Stages Of Grieving (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), May 21 – Jun 19, 2021
Playwrights: Wesley Enoch, Deborah Mailman
Director: Shari Sebbens
Cast: Elaine Crombie
Images by Joseph Mayers

Theatre review
In popular understandings of psychological processes, there are well-known stages of grief, that relate to loss and anguish. Less commonly spoken of, are the sorrowful experiences of our Indigenous, that stem from over two centuries of colonisation. In The 7 Stages of Grieving by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman, a veil is lifted with great generosity, on the burdens of Blackness in this country.

A one-woman play in which the soul of a people is laid bare, The 7 Stages of Grieving offers a valuable opportunity to obtain a condensed overview of challenges faced by our First Nations. Although living in divergent communities, these marginalised voices are given a unified focus, in order that we may cultivate an appropriate attitude and response, for the critical improvements needed for Black lives on this land.

The storyteller takes us through seven phases of Aboriginal history, namely Dreaming, Invasion, Genocide, Protection, Assimilation, Self-Determination, and Reconciliation. Performed by Elaine Crombie who takes on the daunting challenge of representing an entire non-monolithic culture, we see her indomitable and joyful spirit shine through, even as she makes her way through one catastrophic anecdote after another. Crombie resists being defined by adversity; demonstrating that it is in fact a combination of defiance and resilience, that is truly formative.

Directed by Shari Sebbens, the show is memorable for both its gravity and its levity, juxtaposing hardship with humour, to deliver what are arguably the most important messages of our time. Set design by Elizabeth Gadsby (inspired by the work of Megan Cope) too, contrasts shimmering surfaces against earthy shrines, to communicate a sense of struggle in those who fight harder than most to survive. Verity Hampson’s lights and video projections, offer impressive visual variety, while Steve Francis’ work on music and sound, take our minds to ethereal places, as though creating a momentary paradigm shift, in this communal sharing of theatrical magic.

At the show’s conclusion, we are spared the indignity of walking away with little more than melancholy or worse, resignation. The artists urge us to take action, even prescribing “The 7 Actions of Healing” to assist in transforming what is normally a passive audience, into an activated one. Indeed, there is always a danger that the hard work of minority communities, is consumed as a kind of perverse entertainment, or a vehicle to raise awareness at best, but nothing besides.

The labour of presenting one’s trauma, to those directly and indirectly responsible, is rarely received with any comparable urgency. 26 years after the first staging of The 7 Stages of Grieving, we can now take this time to acknowledge the advancements that have and have not been made, since 1995. Whatever we decide is the current state of affairs, it is hard to deny that the room to improve, remains infinitely vast.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au