Review: Exit The King (Théâtre Excentrique)

Venue: Chippen Street Theatre (Chippendale NSW), Mar 7 – 16, 2019
Playwright: Eugène Ionesco (translated by Anna Jahjah, Kris Shalvey)
Director: Anna Jahjah
Cast: Clay Cruighton, Kirsty Jordan, Leof Kingsford-Smith, Josef Schneider, Gerry Sont, Alison Windsor
Images by Mansoor Noor

Theatre review
The king is informed that he is to die by the time the play ends. It is absurd that we are shocked by this notion, as death remains one of our only certainties. In Eugène Ionesco’s Exit The King, the protagonist is given 90 minutes to reflect on what he leaves behind, and what he is about to encounter. An exploration of existential angst, it attempts to anatomise the meaning of life, by looking closely at impending death.

Apart from Ionesco’s intentions, an alternate reading could be applied to Exit The King, whereby the monarchy is being taken down by those determined to have him vanquished. We see him being told repeatedly that his death is inevitable, and that he is no longer needed. The play has a new pertinence in our Time’s Up era, able to resonate with our thirst for stories featuring the demolition of traditional hierarchies.

Actor Kirsty Jordan plays Queen Marguerite, a strong almost ruthless personality who leads the charge in guiding the king to his demise. It is a robust performance, of great conviction, that provokes us into the formulation of hidden narratives that would make her story a more politically enticing one. Leof Kingsford-Smith is an excellent King Berenger, powerful with the vulnerability he introduces, an energetic presence capable of sustaining our interest through the production’s thick and thin. Ionesco’s densely surreal dialogue requires more detailed attention for the show to speak incisively, but director Anna Jahjah does good work with atmosphere and tone, allowing us access to poetic dimensions that appeal to parts of ourselves that are perhaps more visceral than logical.

None is immortal, yet we often carry on as though life is forever. We leave loose ends unattended at the end of every day, and we postpone pleasures to the future, believing that there will always be tomorrow. The old saying, “never go to bed angry” seems to imply that resolutions, permanent or temporary, must be reached, because there is every chance that slumber can turn eternal. If we understand that life is short, it would mean making the most of our days, and also to make the best of all our potentials, right here and right now.

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Review: I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me Of My Sleep Than Some Other Son Of A Bitch (Théâtre Excentrique)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Aug 22 – Sep 2 2017
Playwright: Rodrigo Garcia (translated by William Gregory)
Director: Anna Jahjah
Cast: Gerry Sont, Sister Ursuline
Image by Emma Lois

Theatre review
It is unlikely that one should lose sleep to something sacred. We worry about money, work, and all other things that feed the ego, but art and philosophy tend not to keep us awake at night. In fact, they can be relied on to offer the comfort that lulls us into slumber. Rodrigo Garcia’s 50-minute monologue I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me Of My Sleep Than Some Other Son Of A Bitch, is about a middle-aged man resisting the profanities of daily life that can so easily overwhelm our existence.

His two young sons, dreaming about visiting Disneyland, are the inspiration for his attempts at shifting focus onto a higher plane of consciousness. The importance of art and philosophy is all he wants to impart, and he stakes his entire life’s savings of 5,000 Euro on the exercise. Indeed, to be able to gift the best to your dearest, is worth every penny, even if all one gets in return is intangible.

The work is hugely passionate, almost hysterical in its desire to expound its anti-capitalistic ideals. Rarely overtly political, it talks little about what it rejects, choosing instead to delve fervently into its earnest and fantastical explorations, involving in part, the Prado Museum and a long cab ride. Director Anna Jahjah creates a sense of urgency appropriate to the writing, along with a whimsical optimism that helps open us up to the play’s intellectual provocations. Gerry Sont is effervescent as actor of the piece, a warm, likeable presence although not quite humorous enough for what is required. Live music by Sister Ursuline (cello and vocals) provides a romantic dimension, to the discussion of sacred versus banal, art against commerce.

The staging encompasses both the earthy and the ethereal. In being human, we are of the mundane, but also inseparable from the many greater realms that our minds allow. Social forces will insist on our compliance with regards all things pragmatic. Rules, regulations and bills will attempt to shape our lives in a certain way, but our spirit cannot be contained. As long as we understand that the capacity for imagination is real, then what we become, is beyond repression.

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Review: Beirut Adrenaline (Théâtre Excentrique)

excentriqueVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jul 27 – Aug 14, 2016
Playwrights: Jalie Barcilon, Hala Ghosn
Director: Anna Jahjah
Cast: Danielle Dona, Neveen Hanna, Mansoor Noor, Eli Saad, Sana’a Shaik, Delphine Vuagnoux
Image by Emma Lois

Theatre review
The play is set wartime, approximately thirty years ago in Beirut. We do not see politicians or armies, only civilians who attempt to live every day with as much normalcy as they can muster. Amidst constant worry and foreboding, every step they take becomes a heavy one, with repercussions that no one can be certain of. Their experience may now be considered a chapter of the past, but war is ever-present, and its unchanging complexion means that every story of survival, or otherwise, serves to help us reflect on the many dark events of our day.

The stress and anxiety from that state of emergency is portrayed well in Beirut Adrenaline, even though time and space is, in the play, often confused. Like the experience of trauma, the production opens with a sense of disoriented bewilderment, and we are forced into an inconvenient struggle to figure out each of its story’s where, when and who. It takes considerable time before we are able to form enough narrative coherence, but it is a worthwhile investment that ultimately does take us to a satisfying conclusion.

Neveen Hanna and Eli Saad play the bigger parts in the show, and are both affecting. We warm up to them slowly, but their efforts are fundamentally passionate, with an impressive sincerity especially moving at the climactic end. Mansoor Noor’s animated approach for his teenage character is delightful, and the confident demeanour he brings to the stage is refreshing and quite critical in adding a quality of exhilaration to its often sombre tone.

Although Beirut Adrenaline is rough around the edges, unable to provide a polished telling of its pessimistic tale, it does leave us with a truthful and evocative essence of those terrifying experiences. It is in our nature to want easy answers and impeccable solutions, but war is a beast that will forever resist our every grasp and restraint. The notion of world peace exists only in the phantasmagoric land of fairy tales and beauty queens. To find any progress, our existences must include the acknowledgement of suffering, especially of those we call our enemies.

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Review: 7 Days In The Life Of Simon Labrosse (Théâtre Excentrique)

theatrerexcentriqueVenue: Creative Space 99 (Darlinghurst NSW), May 18 – 29, 2016
Playwright: Carole Fréchette (translated by Kris Shalvey)
Director: Anna Jahjah
Cast: Cassady Maddox, Steve McGrath, Gerry Sont
Image by Emma Lois

Theatre review
Simon Labrosse is a talented man, but he has trouble making a living out of his many skills. He tries hard to market himself, giving out samples of the services he can provide, and although he convinces everyone of his abilities, none are willing to pay for his expertise. Labrosse is an artist of sorts; what he does is not strictly scientific, mathematical or easily commodifiable, but he has much to contribute to society. The economy, however, does not recognise his unquantifiable efforts and rejects him, judging him worthless and a burden. Carole Fréchette’s play is about the problems we face as communities of modern capitalism, unable to embrace parts of our humanity that cannot be monetised.

The production is beautifully designed, with the audience situated inside Labrosse’s home. His bed is in the middle of the space, and action takes place all around us. Our view can get obstructed at times, but the constant relocation of activity is exciting and an effective mechanism for maintaining high energy levels. Anna Jahjah’s direction is free and humorous, delivering a work that feels unrestrained and exhilarating. The short scenes are punchy and surprising, full of whimsy with lively characters each appealing in their own way. It is a tightly rehearsed cast, cohesive in style and delightfully engaging. Gerry Sont plays Labrosse, wistful but optimistic, with a pleasing vibrancy that elicits our curiosity and empathy. A greater dose of melancholy would probably give the show a little necessary gravity to have its themes resonate stronger, and for its ideas to stay in our minds longer. Supporting players Cassady Maddox and Steve McGrath create a range of eccentric personalities that make the show unpredictable and give it a consistent buoyancy, while in the process leaving excellent impressions for their versatility and comic timing.

7 Days In The Life Of Simon Labrosse is a light-hearted take of a sad situation. The privatisation of everything in Australia seems boundless, with every annual budget revealing less and less support for those of us whose talents are incongruous with the reductive demands of capitalism. Simon Labrosse shows us all that he is capable of, but he is situated inside an economy that wants him to be simpler and more ordinary so that they can provide a place for him just like everybody else’s. It is the job of capitalism to turn everything and every person into a measurable and sellable unit, and in the process, risk the removal of everything that we know to be the best of human nature. In the seven days that we meet our protagonist, he keeps on trying but does not give up his true essence; we see him fail repeatedly and wonder how he can make things work. We have a collective part to play in allowing his potentials to blossom, but we wonder if what he can give in return will cost too much.

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Review: Antigone (Théâtre Excentrique)

theatreexcentriqueVenue: PACT Theatre (Erskineville NSW), Apr 23 – May 2, 2015
Playwright: Jean Anouilh (translated by Kris Shalvey and Anna Jahjah)
Director: Anna Jahjah
Cast: Roslyn Blake, Kate Fraser, Kirsty Jordan, Aurora Kinsella, Karl Kinsella, Philippe Klaus, Neil Modra, Gerry Sont, Ellen Williams, and students from Blacktown Girls High

Theatre review
The word “wilful” is usually applied to the young, along with connotations of idealism and immaturity. We think of them as “not knowing any better” to explain away their inconvenient behaviour. The lead character in Jean Anouilh’s Antigone is all of the above, but she is also virtuous. Like us, her world is one that has too many things gone awry, yet everyone is required to stick to its rules in order that an illusory sense of order can be preserved. Anarchic activity is often classed criminal, regardless of intentions good, bad or ugly. This twenty year-old woman knows the dire consequences that await but she is fearless, and proceeds to do what she believes to be right. Anouilh’s version of the Greek tragedy is passionate, philosophical and political. It is a stirring piece of writing that provides inspiration for the way we make choices, and the way we create theatre. Its incorporation of a chorus and narrator allows for ideas to be articulated directly, while sequences of realism (beautifully preserved in this English language translation by Kris Shalvey and Anna Jahjah) puts us in scenarios that feel familiar in spite of their contextual distance.

Direction of the piece by Jahjah is energetic and suitably expressive. The use of a chorus comprising only of young girls, puts focus on the dimension of gender in the play’s arguments. All dressed in white, their innocence and purity of spirit are the physical embodiment of the text’s key motifs. Use of space is inventive and thoughtful. Characters are positioned freely within the dynamically designed space, and their movements contribute to the depiction of emotional states and of narratives unfolding. Jahjah’s work may not always be affecting, but her production is a surprisingly entertaining one.

Ellen Williams is impressive as our heroine, with a deeply authentic fury and righteousness that gives the show its poignant foundations. We share Antigone’s beliefs, and are thrilled to see her fighting with conviction and wild abandon. Williams shows glimpses of tenderness and sadness that helps us connect with her role’s humanity, but these do not surface often enough. The cast works well to keep us amused and engaged, but many of the key roles are not explored with enough complexity and nuance. Creon is Antigone’s uncle and adversary, whose strong oppositional points of view raise the stakes and add to the drama, but Neil Modra’s work, while exuberant and charmingly idiosyncratic, does not convey his character’s beliefs with sufficient clarity. The central struggle of the show then becomes unbalanced and disappointingly, weakened.

There are many things we want for our children, but courage is not always at the top of lists. We are afraid of what might result, and prefer instead for them to grow up cautious, sensible and safe. It is our responsibility after all, to be their shelter from harm. In Antigone, honour comes at a price, although glory is nowhere to be found. In a tragedy where nobody wins, the moral of the story can be ambiguous. The value of a life is usually determined by how well we live it, and how long we are able to experience it. Only in rare cases are we able to judge a life by the legacy it leaves behind.

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Review: Pope Head (Théâtre Excentrique)

r0_3_1200_678_w1200_h678_fmax[1]Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Feb 24 – Mar 6, 2015
Playwright: Garry Roost
Director: Paul Garnault
Cast: Garry Roost

Theatre review
Francis Bacon’s art is among the most revered of the twentieth century. His paintings continue to travel the world’s museums, and his following grows with each year and generation.The power of his work is immediate and compelling, often arousing visceral responses in the viewer before their intellectual, political and historical dimensions can even begin to be explored. Garry Roost’s play is a biography on Bacon that takes cues from stage conventions, as well as from Bacon’s work with its sense of abstraction and energetic expressionism.

Roost’s writing is manic and intense, with a pace and structure that presents a serious challenge to any actor. The unconfined and free-wheeling thought and speech patterns that emerge from the text is frequently incoherent, but fascinating. The words have a definite rhythm that reflects an understanding of the personality it represents, one that is unrelenting, passionate and thoroughly original. An actor usually takes to the stage in order to share narratives and ideas, but Roost is not quite a storyteller on this occasion. His performance focuses on a re-creation of Bacon’s very being that delivers, his idiosyncratic presence and unique mannerisms. We are presented with something of an apparition, accurately imitated and fabulously convincing, but also alienating and at times, puzzling. There is a difference between knowing someone through facts and figures, and gaining insight from observing a creature as it goes about its business, as though from a detached and empirical position. We learn a little about the painter from Roost’s script, but it is from his intuitive portrayal that we acquire a greater appreciation of the man whose legacy has touched many.

We rely on artists to do things differently. It is a thankless task to discover rules and then dismantle them in the public sphere. Audiences need to be disoriented and provoked, even though we prefer to be fed the same formulaic nonsense at every outing. Bacon’s paintings are at their best, upsetting and offensive, and this theatrical manifestation of Pope Head does its best to pay tribute. It is not an easy show to digest, and it is not the most amusing hour of live entertainment, but it does reinforce the memory of a great career and provides the most valuable of all creative endeavours, divine inspiration.

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Review: Leaves (Théâtre Excentrique / Emu Productions)

theatreexcentriqueVenue: King Street Theatre (Newtown NSW), Nov 18 – 29, 2014
Playwright: Steve McGrath
Director: Markus Weber
Cast: Martin Ashley Jones, Steve McGrath, Gerry Sont

Theatre review
Three men from privileged backgrounds are turning fifty, and they head out for a camping trip to commemorate the occasion. It seems that their mid-life crises have not subsided, and they struggle to find meaning and fulfillment in spite of having successful careers as a psycho therapist, a barrister, and a real estate agent. Steve McGrath’s script includes many interesting elements that keep the plot layered and unpredictable, with a peculiar sense of humour that gives it an air of whimsy. Some of the jokes are corny, and the overall structure of the play is slightly inelegant, but McGrath’s themes of time, mortality, and the quest for enlightenment are contextualised with enough creativity for Leaves to sustain interest.

Like one of the presenting companies’ names, direction of the work by Markus Weber is eccentric. The production is vibrant, often with a frenzied, almost childlike energy that translates passionately, but there is a general lack of focus that can make narrative details hard to follow. Visual design is adventurous and very colourful, but lighting cues tend to be haphazard and poorly timed (or the show might have been suffering from technical troubles on the night of review). The cast is committed, especially Gerry Sont in the role of Chas, the realtor, who drives the action with a blend of exuberance and frailty that characterises the dilemma being explored. Each actor possesses a degree of authenticity, and they manufacture a lively and noisy atmosphere, but their chemistry is not always convincing. They seem to understand their own parts well, but are detached from the others. Similarly, the play struggles to find coherence, although its philosophy does manage to come across surprisingly clear.

Growing older is no walk in the park for the men in Leaves, and perhaps for men everywhere. There is an interesting link between masculinity and the ageing process, where a shedding of exteriors becomes almost inevitable, and the exposure of weaknesses presents an unexpected challenge. Death for the fifty year-old is a conflicting concept, working as a reminder of the brevity of life, yet bringing to attention, the vulnerability of the body. The remaining years are short, but also long, and it is with a zestful maturity that one can navigate the autumn of life and turn it into days of wine and roses.

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