Review: Trade (Hurrah Hurrah / The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Apr 4 – 15, 2017
Director: Alison Bennett
Cast/Devisers: Alison Bennett, Dymphna Carew, Alicia Gonzalez, Mathias Olofsson, Melissa Hume
Image by Maria Hansson

Theatre review
Corporations exist to make money for its stakeholders, that much is clear. Everything else they claim to do, are undertakings that must be taken with a pinch of salt. In Trade, we examine the nature of these organisations, and their perennial pretensions around social responsibility. If the point of their existence is to maximise profit, we must always hold a sceptical attitude toward their altruistic proclamations. It is a culture that defines itself by taking more than it gives, so our interactions with businesses should always be cautious, and if their people are anything like the vile characters in Trade‘s fictitious world, then the state of our affairs is very grim indeed.

The piece looks exaggerated, but what it communicates feels absolutely real. Its theatrical language is inventive, absurd and hyperbolic; the story is told with faces and bodies in a completely anti-naturalistic way, and through its performance art approach, we discover a surprising accuracy in its grotesque portrayal of greed and megalomania.

Alison Bennett’s direction is spectacularly entertaining while maintaining a raw unconventionality. In the absence of a complex narrative, details are located instead, in all the deliberate gestures of the five flamboyant players, each one presenting their own version of the unhinged corporate cannibal. Elaborate sequences involving an energetic ensemble and its strange movement vocabulary, keeps us fascinated and thoroughly amused. Their cohesiveness is deeply impressive, and the most persuasive element of the show.

It is a strong message that Trade wishes to impart, but for all its passionate assertions, what we do eventually leave with, is a simple and unoriginal idea about the darker sides of humanity. Also less satisfying, is the deficiency in commitment to visual design of the production. The audience’s eyes are thoroughly engaged in this dance of anthropological ugliness, but little is on offer when our sight shifts beyond the performers.

It is easy to want to participate in life with the principle of “eat or be eaten”. We can think of our capitalism as being fundamentally and inevitably cruel, and then allow ourselves to do harm unto others, to keep from falling prey to those who run faster. The fear of not succeeding can be overwhelming, and the voracious appetite for an unending more, is a force that few of us can hide from, but surely there must exist something more generous and compassionate, if not entirely more blissful, in a way of life that is abundantly honest and, dare we say, pure.

www.hurrahhurrah.com.au

Review: Fallen (Sport For Jove Theatre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Apr 6 – 22, 2017
Playwright: Seanna van Helten
Director: Penny Harpham
Cast: Lucy Goleby, Megan Holloway, Chantelle Jamieson, Abbie-lee Lewis, Moreblessing Maturure, Rebecca Montalti, Eloise Winestock
Image by Marnya Rothe

Theatre review
It is 19th century England, and the women in Seanna van Helten’s Fallen are told what to wear, how to act, and which to think. The story takes place in a kind of halfway house, where women who have transgressed morality are banished, to be put through a process of rehabilitation. There is a Victorian severity to these characters’ lives, but what the play demonstrates more relevantly, is how those archaic ways retain control over us today; we still insist on telling women how they should look and behave.

Van Helten’s writing is subtle, a quiet mystery with depths of emotion and meaning, discoverable under surfaces of restrained tumult. The six women of Fallen reveal little, but an authenticity is nonetheless present. The work is challenging to perform. Actors are required to imagine all that is hiding between the lines, and the bolder they are at manifesting the unsaid, the more effective their show becomes. It is a likeable ensemble, but not always powerful enough to overcome the cryptic nature of the writing. Lucy Goleby is matron of the house, a staunch, stern character who is depicted with a greater sense of definition than the rest. We rely on Goleby to bring the drama, which she does often, especially when she taps into the eerie, slightly gothic quality that the piece lends itself to.

The production has a mild temperament, almost timid in its expressions. At its best, Fallen is haunting and transcendent, but the show can quickly turn tepid and consequently lose connection with its audience. We wonder what the women had done to have them condemned, and who they truly are, but our interest seems to swell and wane, through different junctures of the plot. There are moments of design brilliance to relish; Raya Slavin’s music and Sian James-Holland’s lights are attractive, even though inconsistencies in atmosphere add to the show’s issues with dramatic tension. We see all the potential on this stage, and wish for greater impact, with more audacious approaches.

The women in Fallen have no choice but to be compliant. Our world today is significantly different, with much more liberated attitudes than before, yet we submit everyday, to fears of stepping out of line, whether or not repercussions are real. We alter our own behaviour to conform and to appease, and expect the same of other women. Well-behaved women seldom make history, but it is not only for the momentous that we should dare to be ourselves. It is what happens in our regular day-to-day that requires us to be vigilant over the power that we own and that we should never be fearful of.

www.sportforjove.com.au

Review: The Rasputin Affair (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Apr 1 – 30, 2017
Playwright: Kate Mulvany
Director: John Sheedy
Cast: Tom Budge, John Gaden, Hamish Michael, Zindzi Okenyo, Sean O’Shea
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Rasputin, the divisive and enigmatic figure of early 20th century Russia, remains a figure of contention in Kate Mulvany’s new play. The self-proclaimed “holy man” found himself at the centre of political upheaval through his association with the Tsar royalty, but his position as a religious leader has kept his contribution to social unrest of the time, ambiguous and mysterious. The Rasputin Affair is about the mounting outrage surrounding his rise to power, and assassination attempts led by members of the aristocracy.

A work of comedy, it lampoons archaic personality types and pokes fun at the hypocrisy of religious organisations. There are striking similarities to Molière’s Tartuffe, although the burden of history weighs heavy on Mulvany, whose efforts at providing background information detract significantly from the play’s entertainment quotient. John Sheedy’s direction is often imaginative, but even though his embellishments are delightful, the plot can seem needlessly convoluted, particularly in the first act. Staging becomes much more jaunty post-interval, as the production shifts gear and develops a broader, more appealing approach to its comedy.

Alicia Clements’ vibrant set design contributes beautifully to laughs, along with Matthew Marshall’s lights that give the imagery its finesse. It is an animated cast, particularly memorable in sequences that allow a bolder performance style. Sean O’Shea has just the right charisma, and theatrical sarcasm, for Rasputin. Dangerous, powerful and cryptic, we perceive his allure, as well as his disingenuity, and come to an understanding of the controversial qualities of the legendary character.

The separation of church and state is a familiar concept, but religious beliefs remain chronically ingrained in systems that rule our daily lives. The men who lead religious groups are never democratically elected, yet their influence on policies and ideology are resolutely tenacious. The Rasputin Affair is concerned with corruption, inspired by stories from a hundred years ago. With the inordinate amount of talk about feuding religions in our media, we must not cease to question the extent of their interference on our civil autonomy, whichever gods we have chosen to believe in.

www.ensemble.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 Play That Goes Wrong (Roslyn Packer Theatre)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Apr 5 – 23, 2017
Playwrights: Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields
Directors: Mark Bell, Sean Turner
Cast: Darcy Brown, Adam Dunn, Luke Joslin, George Kemp, James Marlowe, Brooke Satchwell, Nick Simpson-Deeks, Tammy Weller

Theatre review
When embarking on any project, passion is a key propulsive ingredient that will make things happen, but nothing will go well if passion is the only positive quality it has going for it. A community theatre group in Cornley, UK puts on a 1920s murder mystery, with little more than the fire in their bellies. The lack of talent and skill onstage and off, generates a series of fantastic mishaps that constitutes the high energy comedy brilliance we find in The Play That Goes Wrong.

It is pure farce and slapstick, at their maximum amplification. Stories and characters are barely relevant, in this ambitious exploitation of high octane physical comedy, involving people and objects falling about constantly, in the most satisfying manner. It is an old-fashioned style of show, made new by its unusually voracious need for speed and excitement. Directors Mark Bell and Sean Turner may not be visionaries in the conventional sense, but what they brings to the stage is extraordinarily precise and wildly imagined. The laughs on offer here are ceaseless, limited only by the audience’s ability to respond with a sustained level of energy that could match the hilarity that unfolds on stage.

The charismatic cast gives an exceptionally tight performance. In the presentation of a play where everything goes wrong, nothing is allowed to falter, and the actors are simply impeccable. George Kemp and James Marlow display no limits to their capacity for silliness, proving themselves to be very endearing indeed. Brooke Satchwell and Luke Joslin impress us with their physical presence and agility, allowing their beings to flail and flounce about with great force and ingenuity, for unimaginably powerful comic effect.

Stage managed by Anneke Harrison, the production’s technical excellence is crucial to its success. The Play That Goes Wrong can be seen as a love letter to stage managers everywhere, the unsung heroes of all the great shows we have ever seen. These women and men make themselves invisible, so that we can lose ourselves in the illusion of every staged moment. We fawn over actors and the words of playwrights, but forget the operations out of sight that allow magic to happen, until they draw attention to themselves when things do go wrong. The character of the inept Cornley stage manager (played by Adam Dunn) is a hoot, but also a constant reminder of the magnificence that has to take place backstage in order that theatre can do its best.

www.theplaythatgoeswrong.com.au

Review: Hysteria (Darlinghurst Theatre Company)

Venue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Mar 31 – Apr 30, 2017
Playwright: Terry Johnson
Director: Susanna Dowling
Cast: Miranda Daughtry, Michael McStay, Wendy Strehlow, Jo Turner
Image by Robert Catto

Theatre review
Sigmund Freud is near the end of his life, and the past returns to haunt him. We all change our minds, but writers have the burden of their work set in stone. In Terry Johnson’s 1993 play Hysteria, a fictive version of Freud is made to regret his declarations about women’s rape fantasies. It seems that the legendary psychoanalyst had misrepresented experiences of his patients, turning their reality into imagination, so that his work would be better received. Johnson’s piece about the need to redress denials of rape and molestation, is a timely discussion in the current climate of renewed interest in feminism, but Hysteria is a dry, and often inelegant, work that proves to be less than captivating.

The production looks smart enough, with Anna Gardiner’s set and costume design establishing a splendid first impression. Projections of Julian Tynan’s cinematography appear later in the piece, equally delightful with the imagery it presents. It is an accomplished group of actors, each one demonstrating a good sense of presence and conviction, but chemistry is lacking, and the stories they tell never seem to fortify. We are left feeling confused and detached, unable to adequately follow its narrative or to satisfactorily engage in any of its ideas. It is a laborious exercise for the audience, trying to work out the point of the exercise, and when we eventually gain clarity, Hysteria‘s concerns fail to resonate.

Individual elements of the show all look to be at least adequate, but they coalesce to form something that is altogether disappointing. Its characters are not lifeless; Salvador Dali is written in, presumably, to further enhance the quotient of eccentricity in Freud’s colourful world, but there is little in Hysteria that excites. Art does not owe us entertainment, nor does it promise to always be meaningful. In art, there is no right and wrong, but a work can certainly fall short of the standards it sets itself.

www.darlinghursttheatre.com