Review: The Lifespan Of A Fact (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Sep 20 – Oct 22, 2022
Playwrights: Gordon Farrell, Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell (based on the book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal)
Director: Paige Rattray
Cast: Gareth Davies, Sigrid Thornton, Charles Wu
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
John D’Agata writes essays, in which he seeks truth and beauty. When Jim Fingal enters the frame as a fact-checker, we discover that subjective truths do not always align with cold, hard facts. Based on the collaborative book The Lifespan of a Fact by D’Agata and Fingal, this theatrical version by Gordon Farrell, Jeremy Kareken and David Murrell, explores a concept of the artistic licence, as understood by D’Agata. In the examination of how he accesses the truth, the play encourages us to consider the very nature of truth, and what it means, when in contradiction with objective reality.

It is an intellectually stimulating work, but also entertaining, in its rendering of D’Agata and Fingal as idiosyncratic personalities, and in the excellent humour with which their incessant conflict is presented. Direction by Paige Rattray ensures that the comedy of The Lifespan of a Fact is thoroughly exteriorised, for a show that amuses at all times.

Actor Charles Wu plays the detail-oriented Fingal, with captivating verve, and astonishing precision. His rhythm and timing are beautifully measured, so that we are kept riveted, to both the funny and the serious simultaneously, of his character’s austere perspective. Gareth Davies performs the role of D’Agata with an irony so subtle and persuasive, that makes convincing, even his most extravagant declarations. Davies and Wu bring great energy to the stage, and along with their effortless charisma, this story of rivalry, between personalities and ideas, is made truly delectable.

Similarly ebullient, is Sigrid Thornton as magazine editor Emily Penrose, most effective when adding fuel to fire, in the war between ideologies. Clarinettist Maria Alfonsine lends her vaporous presence, to the discussion of real versus true, introducing live and recorded music in ways that make a strong argument for the importance of beauty, and of aesthetic pursuits in general.

Set design by Marg Horwell is remarkably appealing, in her modernist approach to the evocation of place. It straddles fantastical and authentic, yet leaving no doubt about where we are, even though we are in fact oceans away from New York and Las Vegas. Lights by Paul Jackson are designed with a pleasing simplicity, rarely drawing attention to itself, but always reliable at enhancing the storytelling.

These are precarious times. Over the last few years, we have seen people holding firm to destructive beliefs, in the face of evidence that proves the contrary. False medicines have been sold all through the pandemic, along with fraudulent information about vaccinations. Patriotic feelings were manipulated, to make the British turn against their neighbours, at the detriment of their own economy, and a similar style of nationalism was used in America, for a moment of insurrection that will continue to reverberate for years to come.

It appears truth always exists most resonantly as a subjective experience; what we can feel is often valued more highly than what we can actually see or hear. Even at his most earnest, D’Agata’s ego is apparent. If it is characteristic of humanity to be self-important, then it should come as no surprise, when the universe chooses to have us eliminated.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: A Raisin In The Sun (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Aug 27 – Oct 15, 2022
Playwright: Lorraine Hansberry
Director: Wesley Enoch
Cast: Nancy Denis, Bert LaBonté, Angela Mahlatjie, Zahra Newman, Gayle Samuels, Leinad Walker, Jacob Warner, Adolphus Waylee, Ibrahima Yade
Images by Joseph Mayers

Theatre review

It was 1959 when Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun debuted on Broadway, telling the story of a Chicago family living in poverty. Lena Younger is waiting for an insurance cheque to arrive, upon the death of her husband. Her son Walter is determined to invest that money in a liquor business, to which Lena has religious objections. The drama is constructed around the $10,000 and how this Black family had needed to lose the head of their household, before they could have a real chance at life.

Appearing between the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, Hansberry’s ground-breaking play was the first by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. With A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry also became the first African-American writer to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, so it is no exaggeration, to state that the cultural significance of the work is truly immense.

63 years on, there is little in the play that has diminished in relevance. In fact, with the exacerbation of wealth gaps everywhere, Hansberry’s observations on economic disparities, are as pertinent as they had always been. Her concerns about racial injustice, at our time of renewed vigour for social activism, retain their resonance. Hansberry’s depictions of women within patriarchal systems, were already modern and sophisticated during her times, so feminists too will have the rare pleasure of seeing intelligent and authentic women in a mid-century play, created many years before the second wave.

Director Wesley Enoch honours beautifully Hansberry’s vision, in a production that feels perfectly appropriate, in its choices to be faithful to an original text, that demonstrates itself to require little to no updating. Enoch ensures that all of the politics in A Raisin in the Sun is accentuated, whilst its humour and drama are harnessed robustly, to deliver a show that proves consistently riveting, involving characters that are as spirited as they are enchanting.

Brimming with charisma is Gayle Samuels, who plays Lena, an older woman who knows the limitations of her only son, but who also understands what he needs, to be able to hold his head high, as a Black man in the United States of America. Samuels’ is a vivacious performance, that conveys both the intensity of emotions for a person in Lena’s position, and the stoicism needed to deal with the challenging circumstances she is given. 

In the role of Walter is Bert LaBonté who brings both dignity and fallibility, to a tale of systemic oppression. Equally vulnerable and compelling, as Walter’s wife Ruth, is Zahra Newman whose determination to fortify a role that can easily be misinterpreted as subservient, is admirably judicious. Walter’s 20-year-old sister Beneatha is performed with astute ebullience, and excellent comic timing, by Angela Mahlatjie, another magnetic presence on a stage filled with marvellous actors. Supporting parts feature Nancy Denis, Leinad Walker, Jacob Warner, Adolphus Waylee and Ibrahim Yade; a cast memorable for their dedication and dazzling talent.

Designed by Mel Page, the presentation is suitably traditional in style, having us travel back decades, only to come to the realisation that so little has changed. Verity Hampson’s lights are similarly circumspect, totally devoid of gimmickry, for a taste of a classic theatre form that can still do so much for hearts and minds. Sound by Brendon Boney is subtly rendered, except during scene changes, in which we are given the opportunity to delight in music reminiscent of twentieth-century North America, the kind of which is underpinned by their African diaspora.

It is not often that we immediately think of slavery as a part of Australian colonial history, but the dispossession and displacement of Black peoples on this land, are at least as traumatic, and are certainly as consequential, as those suffered in other places. We do however, have a deficiency in our language, when discussing the nature of prejudice and violations on this land, having experienced colonisation in ways that are different from the United States, where the legacy of slavery has steered so much of discourse in their activism spaces.

It would appear that the way in which white people have pillaged this land, have over the centuries, manifested in modes of obfuscation, and that the (misguided) idea that we were not built on slavery, means that more explicit avenues of castigation, are not available to those seeking redress today. The atrocities are however utterly real, and learning from the fighters who have come before, even those overseas like Lorraine Hansberry, will always be an invaluable part of our strategies in decolonising this so-called Australia.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Aug 6 – Sep 10, 2022
Playwright: Robert Louis Stevenson (adapted by Kip Williams)
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Matthew Backer, Ewen Leslie
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
There is something very queer about Utterson’s obsession, over having to uncover the truth about Mr Hyde. In Kip Williams’ version of the 1886 novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, it is not the relationship between Jekyll and Hyde that occupies the majority of our attention. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is, on this occasion, more concerned with Utterson’s fervent investigations, showing his indefatigable determination at getting closer and closer to the mystery of Hyde. The audience watches from a vantage point of feeling as though, we already know all there is to the Jekyll and Hyde story, but new revelations in WIlliams’ adaptation emerge, that surprise us much as they do Utterson.

On stage with the actors, are large video screens, up to 6 of them at any one time. Our attention resides with the projected image for virtually all of the duration, yet the live quality of the presentation is unmistakeable. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is cinematic but also certainly theatrical. We have a visceral connection with the energy that emanates from all corners of the stage, but our eyes are kept fixated on oversized monitors that seem to be constantly floating, into all manner of configurations. David Bergman’s video design is gloriously imagined, mostly in vintage film monochrome, and although not flawlessly executed, its ambition is nothing short of breathtaking. A sequence involving staircases is particularly wondrous, able to manipulate space in the most whimsical ways, for a new theatrical experience that feels completely linked with technological ingenuity.

Kip Williams’ adaptation and direction of the piece is relentlessly vigorous in tone. At the centre of the old story, is an exploration of pharmaceuticals, and for the entire show, we too feel as though on artificial stimulants, almost manic in how we have to respond to the work. It is a rich and intense journey that Williams takes us on, as he pushes gregariously at the boundaries of the art form, but it is ultimately the reframing of meaning, that stays with the viewer. Stevenson’s writing is remembered to be about pietistic notions of good and evil, but Williams reminds us that the longevity of the tale and its famous characters, are due largely to our very basic and eternal desire, to understand the nature of truth.

The space, designed by Marg Horwell, positions us as though peering from the backlot of a film studio, with flats wheeling in and out, but facing away from the auditorium. Horwell’s costumes aim for period authenticity, and are fitted immaculately to maximise the appeal of the show’s beguiling stars. Lights by Nick Schlieper are lush and sensual, able to provide delightful imagery, whether our eyes are consumed by video, or when our sight wanders to the real activity taking place on stage. A magnificent sound design by Michael Toisuta envelopes us in tension and extravagance, of the old Hollywood kind, with a grandeur that brings a sense of elevation, to every thought that crosses the mind.

Actors Matthew Backer and Ewen Leslie are highly impressive, not only with the backbreaking technical demands of the production, but also for the sheer amount of dialogue they need to rattle off at lightning speed. Their barrage of words often amount to little more than dramatic urgency, but to see them in action is to witness a kind of superhuman power in motion. Backer plays Utterson, controlled yet desirous, with an astonishing precision to all the details that he delivers. Leslie plays Jekyll, Hyde and a host of other personalities, with wild abandon at a fabulous intensity.

Dr Jekyll understood that there is something important that needs to be unearthed from within, even though social forces keep it vehemently repressed. The original story presents its arguments in a binary way; it is good or evil, and it is all or nothing. Queering the narrative, as Williams does in this update, allows us to see the shades between black and white, and therefore approach its ideas with a greater compassion, for Jekyll and Hyde, and perhaps more importantly, for ourselves.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Top Coat (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Jun 25 – Aug 6, 2022
Playwright: Michelle Law
Director: Courtney Stewart
Cast: John Batchelor, Amber McMahon, Matty Mills, Kimie Tsukakoshi, Arisa Yura
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review

Many great stories have been told, using the fantasy of switching bodies as conceit, to help us think about what it must be like to walk in others’ shoes. In Michelle Law’s Top Coat, a nail artist and a television executive jump into each other’s bodies, so that we may explore the differences of living on this land, in terms of race, status, and opportunity. It is about the disparities that exist, between being white and not being white, in colonised Australia.

Cleverly imagined, Top Coat challenges longstanding beliefs about meritocracy, by displacing two women from completely divergent backgrounds in the other’s occupation. While it comes as no surprise that Kate fails at providing the simplest of manicures, we are shaken to a realisation that Winnie has little problems playing with the big boys of tv land, simply by looking the part and talking big. The problem of course, is that the only way for Winnie to look the part, that is to become a white person, requires that her narrative be intervened with utter fantasy. Winnie can do the job, she simply will never be allowed to.

Top Coat is entirely outrageous, so it only makes sense to have the story presented as comedy. Laughs however, are few and far between. Law’s writing is wonderfully provocative, but many of her jokes prove less than effective. Director Courtney Stewart struggles to locate a suitable tone and style of farce, resulting in a production that delivers vibrant energy, but that only infrequently lands its punchlines. The moral of the story, and its political point though, are powerfully conveyed, for a show that is ultimately more entertaining with its ideas than for its humour.

Designer James Lew provides jubilantly colourful sets that are visually exciting, but that consume inordinately long amounts of time between scenes to establish. Michael Toisuta’s music intercedes to occupy those moments of transition, keeping the atmosphere spirited, and preparing our sensibilities for what is to follow. Lights by a proficient Kate Baldwin ensure our attention is maintained on relevant portions of the expansive stage, and memorable for playful instances making full use of the play’s comical supernatural aspects.

Actor Kimie Tsukakoshi brings great exuberance to the role of Winnie, with unwavering levels of commitment that keep us firmly on side. Amber McMahon is appropriately animated as Kate, able to make believable even the most bizarre of situations.

There is perhaps no real way for any person to know what it must be like to experience the world as someone else, especially when all our lives can be so vastly different. What we are capable of doing however, is to understand the nature of injustice and disadvantage, and to believe that efforts at seeking redress, should always be an ongoing concern in our democratic lives. Where people refuse to acknowledge uneven playing fields, as well as other manifestations of prejudice, those at the losing end need to find the wherewithal to fight for what is right.

For too long, Asian-Australians and other people of colour, have conformed to notions of the model minority, only to find ourselves as permanently subjugated and silenced second-class citizens. New discussions are now ongoing, as instigated by work like Top Coat, from a younger generation that has begun to see the requirements of politeness for the weapon that it is, in preventing us from ever having things our way. Rage brings people to breaking points, and that is where rules are dismantled.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Jun 21 – Jul 16, 2022
Playwright: Anne Brontë (adapted by Emme Hoy)
Director: Jessica Arthur
Cast: Danielle Catanzariti, Remy Hii, Tara Morice, Tuuli Narkle, Ben O’Toole, Steve Rodgers, Eliza Scott, Anthony Taufa, Nikita Waldron
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
It was England in the 19th century, so when Helen Huntington suddenly returns to live in Wildfell Hall without her husband, much consternation arises. Published under the pseudonym Acton Bell in 1848, Anne Brontë’s novel The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, was an exploration of family abuse considered daring in Victorian times. This stage adaptation by Emme Hoy certainly seeks to place focus, through a contemporary lens, on the gendered disparity in the ways our societies assign power. Hoy says all the right things, in order that her play bears undeniable gravitas, but the plot although creatively structured, struggles to communicate the story with clarity, leaving its audience confused for significant durations.

Jessica Arthur’s direction of the work succeeds at imbuing modern flavours into an old story, so that we may connect more intimately with the concerns of The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, but the play’s anti-chronology is made further complicated by many of the cast having to play multiple yet somewhat similar characters. The abrupt shifts in time also prevents viewers from sufficiently engaging emotions, whether tragic or joyful. Before we can feel in meaningful ways for any part of the narrative, it pivots elsewhere, making our senses adapt to yet another different place.

Thankfully, the cast is uniformly strong, with lead actor Tuuli Narkle demonstrating impressive authenticity for the wide range of mental states that her complex character experiences. Helen is strong and weak, happy and sad, just like any real woman, and Narkle’s portrayal of all those conflicting qualities, proves to be completely convincing. Helen’s love interests are played by Remy Hii and Ben O’Toole, both highly charismatic and compelling, with Hii excelling at creating a comically adorable personality, and O’Toole shining as the contemptible antagonist. Eliza Scott is memorable in her dual roles of Mary and Millicent, able to introduce idiosyncrasy in ways that encourage audience identification. It is debatable whether Scott’s live singing is incorporated seamlessly enough, but their abilities, as actor and singer, are beyond question.

Music by composer Clemence Williams is thoroughly beautiful, and atmospheric in all the appropriate ways, able to place our sensibilities somewhere between the historical and the present, so that we may perceive Helen’s period drama from a decidedly current position. Trent Suidgeest’s lights are at their best when sultry, offering deliciously moody visions that speak on the story’s dangerous aspects. An ambitious set design by the very accomplished Elizabeth Gadsby ensures that our need for spectacle is suitably addressed, and Renée Mulder’s costumes meld theatricality with accuracy, so that Victorian values are never far from our minds.

Whether or not one regards that epoch as part of one’s own history, to live on this land, is to have to contend with the remnants of that English past. Helen’s problems, of having to survive in a man’s world and not on one’s own terms, can however be seen as commonplace and universal. Most of us come from backgrounds, where our mothers (and their mothers) have had to suffer indignity and injustice. Most of us have seen our mothers (and their mothers) struggle to live up to their fullest potentials. It is true that every new generation will inherit those abhorrent conditions, but it is also true that we are capable of learning from the past, even if our evolution can seem forever at snail’s pace.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: City Of Gold (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), May 7 – Jun 11, 2022
Playwright: Meyne Wyatt
Director: Shari Sebbens
Cast: Mathew Cooper, St John Cowcher, Simone Detourbet, Ian Michael, Myles Pollard, Trevor Ryan, Meyne Wyatt
Images by Joseph Mayers

Theatre review
Breythe is trying to establish a career for himself as an actor, but when called home to Kalgoorlie, he is reminded that there are far more important things that require his attention. In Meyne Wyatt’s City of Gold, it is that tension between one’s need for personal fulfilment, and their responsibilities to community, that drives the story.

In Breythe’s case, being an Aboriginal man, makes that juxtaposition even more pronounced. For most of us, self-preservation involves compromises, when participating in dominant systems that control resource distribution in the economy. To play with the big boys, we have to obey their rules, and if the big boys are determined to annihilate one’s community, one is destined to never be able to operate with true integrity.

To pay for his father’s funeral, Breythe has to perform in a problematic television advertisement. To help one’s community, one often has to sleep with the enemy. First Nations peoples, more than any other on this land, understand that subsistence may be permitted, but for the marginalised to thrive, not as exceptional individuals but as whole communities, is nigh on impossible. In fact, like Breythe we find ourselves in positions of pseudo betrayal, when trying to represent and advance causes. The white patriarchy will tempt us with its crumbs, and some of us will pick them up, always hoping that a difference would be made.

Wyatt’s very deep reflections on Indigenous identity are brought to scintillating life by Shari Sebbens’ passionate yet humorous direction. It is political theatre that speaks with a level of authenticity rarely seen; one which prioritises in its viewership, the same minority culture it wishes to represent. Those of us who are not its main concern, benefit from observing through that ajar door, a perspective so kindly made available, so that those of us on the outside who proclaim to be supportive, can feel closer to the nuances of their predicament. Sebbens keeps the discussion in the family, understanding that to care too much about the white gaze, does little to help unearth the truth.

Set design by Tyler Hill makes a literal statement about the outside-inside demarcation of family life, with its left-right split of the performance space. More interesting is its incorporation of hidden scrims to facilitate the depiction of supernatural dimensions, allowing us to draw important connections with the dead and the living, in City of Gold. Verity Hampson’s lights are understated, in complete service of the storytelling, while Rachael Dease’s music gives affirmation to the wide range of emotions being depicted.

As actor, Wyatt’s performance as Breythe is a searing one, filled with a righteous indignation that is satisfying both in terms of its capacity for driving home a message, and for its sheer theatricality. His chemistry with Mathew Cooper, who plays brother Mateo, is invulnerable and effortless; their tumultuous brotherly love is portrayed with great power. Simone Detourbet’s earnest interpretation of their sister Carina is tenderly moving, and Ian Michael breaks our heart as cousin Cliffhanger, beautifully elevating a smaller part to something unforgettable, with his palpably generous approach to characterisation.

The abruptness to the ending of City of Gold seems intentional in depriving us of any catharsis. It provokes us into taking a stand, leaving no room for ambiguity, in how an Australian viewer would position oneself, at the show’s conclusion. It is right, that the situation is framed as a binary one; you are either anti-racist, or you are racist at least by default. You can make contributions to improving the situation, or you can stand on the sidelines and let injustices perpetuate. Feeling bad is not enough, but there is only so much theatre can do for you.

www.bsstc.com.auwww.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Triple X (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Jan 8 – Feb 26, 2022
Playwright: Glace Chase
Director: Paige Rattray
Cast: Glace Chase, Josh McConville, Christen O’Leary, Anthony Taufa, Contessa Treffone
Images by Brett Boardman, Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Not only does Scotty have a highflying job on Wall Street, he lives in a US$3.5 million Tribeca loft, and is about to marry a Birkin-toting Kymberly. Everything looks to be peachy keen, but on the inside, he is a complete mess. The only saving grace is his secret affair with trans entertainer Dexie, but Scotty relegates the sole joy of his existence to the dark allegorical closet, afraid that the truth will destroy all.

Glace Chase’s Triple X tells an age-old story, but such is the severity of its associated taboo, that it feels like we are taking this conversation to the public domain, for the very first time. Chase’s writing is intricate and insightful, replete with splendid wit and a generosity of spirit that allows her show its wide appeal. The depth of honesty she is able to access for the play, is so confronting it feels almost self-sacrificial. The result of course, is the initiation of a big and necessary discussion, that is crucial to the well-being of trans people everywhere.

The show is given vibrant and taut direction by Paige Rattray, who makes the near three hours of Triple X feel a mere blink of an eye. The comedy is wild and raucous, yet bears an unmistakeable sense of sophistication. The deconstruction and analysis of ideas, are accomplished with admirable thoroughness. For all the irony and sarcasm dripping off of Triple X, there is thankfully no ambiguity to the important message it imparts.

Designer Renée Mulder establishes on the stage, a versatile and highly functional set that provides a wealth of possibilities, whilst making Scotty’s apartment look every bit the million dollar listing that it aims to depict. Costumes are convincingly assembled, with several of Dexie’s more flamboyant outfits demonstrating great style and humour. Light by Ben Hughes too, add colour and texture that wonderfully enhance the mood of each scene.

Chase herself plays Dexie, the scruffy warrior from clubland, and provocateur whose very presence insists the truth be out. The uncompromising authenticity that Chase brings to the role, is the lynchpin of the entire exercise. She makes us fall in love with Dexie, and respond with appropriate outrage, at the injustices that befall her. Josh McConville scintillates as Scotty, with boundless energy, both physical and emotional, to convey the frenzied discontentment that the character goes through in every waking moment.

Similarly full of vigour is Christen O’Leary, whose unforgettable performance as Deborah, proves an unequivocal highlight of the production. Captivating and irresistibly funny, yet able to bring sincerity to her work, O’Leary is truly remarkable. Anthony Taufa and Contessa Treffone both create likeable personalities, who add dynamism and complexity to the story being told. The entire cast is passionate, with an infectious earnestness that really drive home the urgency of all that is being discussed.

The main thing that Triple X says, is that although there is nothing wrong with Dexie, and that she lives her life to the fullest of her abilities, the world around her is constantly trying to pull her down. Even when she finds love unexpectedly, the embarrassing predictability of a man’s cowardice, is determined to replace pleasure with misery, joy with anguish. Of course Dexie deserves love, but more than that, she deserves dignity, and the well-founded wisdom of knowing better.

For Scotty, the affair means much more than it does to Dexie. Trans women of a certain age have seen it all before, and there will always be plenty more fish in the sea, should one choose to partake in a never-ending revolving door of fleeting romances. On the other hand, for men like Scotty who know that intimacy with a trans woman, is part of their journey to true happiness, to lose a love could easily be an irrevocable error. Those who remain cowards shall find no peace, and those who relish in bravery certainly deserve no cowards.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Death of a Salesman (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Dec 3 – 22, 2021
Playwright: Arthur Miller
Director: Paige Rattray
Cast: Callan Colley, Jacek Koman, Josh McConville, Philip Quast, Bruce Spence, Thuso Lekwape, Helen Thomson, Contessa Treffone, Kimie Tsukakoshi, Brigid Zengeni, Alan Zhu
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Willy Loman is finally waking up to the fact that so many of life’s promises are bound to amount to nothing. The 63 year-old salesman has worked hard for decades, completely invested in the American Dream, but with the impending certainty of death, comes the realisation that he had been sold a big fat lie. It is now 72 years since Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman had first appeared on Broadway. Much has changed in the ways we live, yet the play’s central ideas seem never to lose their pertinence. Capitalism continues to broaden its grip over the very values with which we navigate existence, and no matter how many times we hear Willy Loman’s story, it appears few of us can avoid his fate. Such is the control, that desire for money and status, has over so many.

In her faithful 21st century rendition, director Paige Rattray has ensured a presentation stunning in its aesthetics, with exquisite design work occupying our attention over the near three-hour duration. The legacy of Edward Hopper in particular, is referenced beautifully in its evocation of 1940’s Americana. Paul Jackson’s lights steal the show, painterly and sublimely dramatic, in their bold manifestations of every tragic scene.

David Fleischer’s set design alters proportions of the proscenium, in order that we may obtain more intimate glimpses into the small lives being explored, whilst conveying the decrepitude of the Loman world view that many of us inevitably share. Costumes by Teresa Negroponte make statements about aspiration and disappointment, as they help transport us to a nostalgia that is more disconcerting than wistful. Music and sound design by Clemence Williams is noir-tinged, almost macabre in its grand invocations of regret and broken dreams.

Aspects of the performance utilises the device of a Greek Chorus, thankfully in an understated manner, which help manufacture a sense of gloom, and to prevent the vast space from falling too frequently into an unbearable emptiness. There is however a certain lack of soulfulness in the staging. Undoubtedly we witness a lot of passion being displayed, most notably by Jacek Koman who plays an irrepressible Willy, but the ensemble is not always convincing in their efforts, to represent the spirit of a play that aims to stand up for the little guy.

As Linda, actor Helen Thomson takes every opportunity to bring levity to a dark tale, but a lack in chemistry between the Loman spouses, has a tendency to make the mother and wife character seem somewhat disconnected. Callan Colley and Josh McConville are the sons, Happy and Biff respectively, both amiable personalities, if slightly surface in their depictions of a collapsing patriarchy. McConville does however, bring the show to a satisfying crescendo, late in the piece, when Biff unravels and exposes the truths about his torment.

Willy Loman’s death is important. We will all go about our lives, finding individual ways to figure out what is true and what are lies, based on all manner of evidence and introspection, but featuring prominently in Arthur Miller’s play is the undeniable centrepiece of a person’s death. The decisions we make, the things we value, and the way we love, should never be divorced from the singular fact of certain death, yet we seem in our American Dreams to forever act as though the self is immortal. “You can’t take it with you” is a common refrain, if only we care to listen.

www.sydneytheatre.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: 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