Review: The Bleeding Tree (Wharf 1 Theatre)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Mar 9 – Apr 8, 2017
Playwright: Angus Cerini
Director: Lee Lewis
Cast: Paula Arundell, Airlie Dodds, Shari Sebbens
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
A man has been killed by his wife and two daughters, shot deliberately in cold blood and left to die. It is rural Australia, so there is no hiding the disappearance of a person, or the circumstances surrounding the savage incident. Angus Cerini’s The Bleeding Tree confronts the rules of society, exposing the inadequacies of how we live as communities and how we forsake the weak. The dead man had been violently abusive, but the women in his home were never offered sufficient help to escape his brutality. As neighbours begin to discover their actions, we are surprised to see their acceptance of the episode.

Cerini’s writing is dangerous, deep and devastatingly beautiful. It operates at the precipice of morality, for a play that uses the audience’s imagination and reasoning, to deliver remarkable thrills, on levels that are emotional as well as intellectual. It is a story that rarely gets told. Family violence is commonplace, and is slowly being removed from secrecy, but we are are still learning how to talk about it. The Bleeding Tree is a new kind of parable that admonishes the guilty so that repugnant behaviour is seen unequivocally as such. The death of the patriarch does not occur in grey areas, and we are challenged to look at the remains of the monster and consider what is right and wrong, in a reality that does not allow time to be reversed. We do not exist in coulda, shoulda, woulda, and in The Bleeding Tree, we cannot have our cake and eat it too, if justice is to be served.

It is an extraordinarily sophisticated production, directed by Lee Lewis whose take on the Australian Gothic is as refreshing as it is visceral. Exquisitely designed to transport us to its nightmarish parabolic outback, the theatrical space is consummately considered. Renée Mulder’s set, Verity Hampson’s lights and Steve Toulmin’s music, all conspire to bring us into their psychological wilderness, where good and bad have swapped places, and we must shift our beliefs accordingly. The trio of actors deliver an astonishing performance, with a cohesion in energy, style and objective, giving polish and confidence to a production that delivers gripping drama and convincing proclamations. Paula Arundell is exceptional as Mother, with a complexity in her presence that conveys both vulnerability and strength, helping us understand the precariousness, along with the inevitability of what happens. It is a quiet approach, but the power that we connect with is fabulously palpable.

Women are often trapped in systems that fail us, and we are taught to tolerate the denial of what should only be just and fair. The women in The Bleeding Tree were caught within a familial patriarchy, as well as a greater social one, that required of them their prolonged and painful subservience. When it eventually became clear that sitting around and waiting for situations to improve was a fruitless exercise, they found the only way out was to take radical action. Every day everywhere, people are kept down by power structures that benefit from their oppression, but when those at the bottom realise the truth of their condition, their compliance will be seen in a new light, and change can begin to take place.

www.griffintheatre.com.auwww.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Chimerica (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Feb 28 – Apr 1, 2016
Playwright: Lucy Kirkwood
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Matthew Backer, Gabrielle Chan, Jason Chong, Tony Cogin, Geraldine Hakewill, Brent Hill, Rebecca Massey, Monica Sayers, Mark Leonard Winter, Anthony Brandon Wong, Charles Wu, Jenny Wu
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Massacres, no matter how catastrophic, can get forgotten. Unlike the 9/11 attacks that we memorialise everyday, fuelled partially by economic imperatives of the USA, incidents such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests have faded away with time, and in this particular case, with rigorous effort on the part of Chinese officials.

The arresting image of a man standing in front of battle tanks however, still packs a punch, and 27 years after the event, it remains in circulation as one of the most influential and famous photographs ever taken. The enigma of Tank Man leaves many questions unanswered. It is an irrefutable document of an historical moment, but nothing of that moment (or the moments leading up to, and thereafter) has ever been explained.

Playwright Lucy Kirkwood’s imagination goes wild in Chimerica. It is 2012, and we meet a fictive photographer, Joe, who had famously captured the shocking moment at Tiananmen Square. He is now on a tenacious search for Tank Man, determined to uncover the truth, and through his escapades, we explore China as it stands today, or at least, are offered a Western conception of China’s current state of affairs. It is predictably precarious, for an American writer to offer critical assessment of the Chinese experience, but Kirkwood brings balance to her piece by portraying American institutions with a comparable level of disparagement; they are as bad as each other, perhaps.

The narrative of Chimerica is thoroughly enjoyable, a thriller that manages to grip right from the start, and that delivers a formidable jaw-dropper at its end. In this production however, details and personalities in the fairly complex story can become confusing. Direction by Kip Williams establishes a tautness in pace and atmosphere that makes for enthralling viewing, aided by Nick Schlieper’s very clever and diligent lighting design, but uneven acting for the main roles prevents the show from reaching its greatest potential.

Mark Leonard Winter is convincing as Joe the photographic journalist, but the emotional dimensions to his depictions often feel too vague and distant. The other lead character Zhang Lin is played by Jason Chong, who delivers several captivating scenes of poignancy, but the actor struggles to overcome the role’s quality of mystery, and he too is unable to help the audience connect at a more satisfying depth. Scene-stealer Charles Wu sparkles the brightest in two smaller parts. As Benny, he is refreshing, lively and charming, and as young Zhang, Wu is authentic and engaging. Also notable are the twenty performers who make up the ensemble, all impressive with their physical discipline, all in command of their excellent, and crucial, collective presence.

The song Long De Chuan Ren (Descendants of the Dragon) is a recurring sonic motif, introduced by sound designer The Sweats with wonderful inventiveness and cultural sensitivity, to orchestrate a representation of Chinese culture and its people, throughout the play. The song likens China to a dragon, a creature to be feared and revered, and it is true that iron fists have always ruled the nation, throughout different centuries, dynasties and governments, but the country is no stranger to revolutions. Whether or not we think of our governing mechanisms as democratic, systems of oppression will always attempt to ambush and exploit how we live, and it is up to the masses to find a way to resist, and to overturn the forces that wish to breach each and every one of our human rights.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: The Testament Of Mary (Sydney Theatre Company)

stcVenue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Jan 13 – Feb 25, 2017
Playwright: Colm Tóibín
Director: Imara Savage
Cast: Alison Whyte
Image by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
The stage is cordoned off by red velvet rope. Exquisite marble tiles form the floor and walls of an exhibition space, or perhaps a place of worship, and an awe-inspiring statue of the Virgin Mary is positioned atop a small flight of steps. Elizabeth Gadsby’s design establishes a vision familiar to many; the flawless icon, silent with endless depths of compassion and love.

Colm Tóibín’s The Testament Of Mary begins with the effigy disintegrating. Porcelain dissolves into flesh, opulence into earthiness. Mary emerges a real woman, speaking to us directly of her memories of Jesus’ last days on earth. The agony of a mother having lost her son is palpable in the theatre, but it is Mary’s vehemence to talk that captures our attention. A woman’s perspective is often slighted, even if it belongs to the one who had given Him life.

The play’s most satisfying moments involve hints of sacrilege, but it holds few surprises for those who have only a cursory knowledge of, or interest in, the story of Christ. Australians are 61% Christian, so the relevance of Tóibín’s piece, which comes with little exposition of background, is not necessarily a definitive one. Individuals with greater personal investment into this theology would, without question, benefit more from its alternate interpretation of events, and there certainly are many whose fundamental beliefs will be challenged here.

It is a subdued production, with actor Alison Whyte demonstrating consummate professionalism in her approach; honest, reflective and present. Opportunities for a more baroque style of performance are eschewed to portray something simpler and altogether more realistic. Theatricality comes courtesy of lighting designer Emma Valentine’s knack for precise punctuation and accentuation, but the show feels overly polite, emotionally curtailed, and subsequently evasive, as we attempt to find connection with its intentions and meanings.

Faith only exists where there is doubt. Questioning the veracity of our religious convictions can seem dangerous, but is ultimately the only way to affirm truths that we hold dear. There are perhaps no more absorbing ways to enter into a discussion that to talk about religion, so we expect a play of this nature to be controversial, scandalous, even explosive, but when it falls short, the disappointment is hard to mask.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Speed-The-Plow (Sydney Theatre Company)

stcVenue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Nov 8 – Dec 17, 2016
Playwright: David Mamet
Director: Andrew Upton
Cast: Rose Byrne, Damon Herriman, Lachy Hulme
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
It is the simple story of a man caught between good and evil, one that never seems to get old. It is the eternal experience of us all, no matter where or when in the annals of history we find ourselves. Bob is a Hollywood executive who has to choose between art and commerce, and in David Mamet’s Speed-The-Plow, that relationship is a strictly dichotomous one. Art is good, commerce is bad, and like the devil and angel who take up traditional residence on either sides of our minds, Bob finds himself caught in a tug-of-war between Karen and Charlie, each one neatly representing each side of the argument.

This basic premise is stretched out to fill a 90-minute play, but it feels deficient, lacking in depth despite its thorough expositions on money, work and benevolence. Andrew Upton’s direction gives the show an engaging sense of momentum, but Mamet’s words are only occasionally resonant, almost as if philosophy is sacrificed in the effervescence and tempo of the presentation. We enjoy the dynamics between characters, and are titillated by the suspicious duplicity that may or may not colour their intentions, but ultimately, the audience is left with nothing fresh or inspiring, even though a barrage of noisy ideas seem to be thrown about on stage ad nauseam. Design by David Fleischer does well in providing a visual focus ensuring that the small play does not get lost on a very large stage, but the overly minimal set in Act Two seems awkward for both players and slightly confusing for the audience.

Damon Herriman has a powerful start in the role of Bob, every bit the eighties corporate monster and womaniser, but is unable to sustain our interest as the character transforms. The play allows the secondary personalities to overwhelm Bob, while keeping narrative focus on his predicament. Even though the actor’s conviction is clear to see, it seems that there is little in the text that lets our leading man remain arresting after Act One. Karen is played by Rose Byrne, who brings surprising complexity, along with excellent comic timing and intellectual acuity to the production. Her interpretation of the ingénue is by far the most exciting element of the show, requiring us to pay close attention to all her purposeful nuances, while challenging prejudices as they pertain to female ambition, in this world of cutthroat business wretchedness. Charlie is a stereotypical entertainment desperado, performed by the imposing Lachy Hulme, who luxuriates in every opportunity for heightened tough guy drama.

Mamet’s writing has no room for grey areas. Our protagonist can only choose between good and evil, art and power. Their inability to recognise the realistic possibilities of negotiating between polarities, detracts from how we are able to identify with the story. We all live between black and white, having to make decisions that are never completely ideal, but most of us are able to find points of balance that are at least momentarily satisfactory. We all want our cake and eat it too, but it is this constant shifting of circumstances and choices that gives each day its corporeal vibrancy.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: The Hanging (Sydney Theatre Company)

stcVenue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Jul 28 – Sep 10, 2016
Playwright: Angela Betzien
Director: Sarah Goodes
Cast: Luke Carroll, Ashleigh Cummings, Genevieve Lemon
Image by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
When a girl becomes a woman, her body changes and her mind expands. The world’s ugly sides begin to reveal themselves, and she is disoriented, trying to understand her new place in the bigger scheme of things. She may choose to subsist in delusion, pretending that her guardians can shield all evils, or she can test the waters in a life fraught with danger, seduced by its honesty and the knowledge of its inevitability.

In Angela Betzien’s The Hanging, three 14-year-old girls vanish from their private school privilege, and the nation is gripped. We make assumptions based on beliefs about innocence, and create visions of their victimhood. When one of them returns, the mystery deepens and all is not what it seems. Inspired by Joan Lindsay’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, the 1967 novel is also an actual presence in the play that characters refer to. We are reminded of how we had reacted to the older story, and wonder if the way we think about girls, their desires and their strength, are trapped in fictive and romantic idealism.

Betzien’s plot structure makes for an intriguing experience, with fragments of potent curiosities scattered through its dialogue, intimating but not divulging what the three girls try to hide. It is enthralling theatre, made even more sensational by its subtle incorporation of many au courant social and political concerns. Its ideas are progressive and plentiful, and they elevate the play from its mystery genre to something altogether more important and affecting.

Having adopted Lindsay’s Australian Gothic aesthetic, the production is viscerally haunting in a familiar way, similar to the book and its famous film adaptation, but also sensitively updated to its contemporary context for a more evolved portrayal of femininity, and its encircling issues. Director Sarah Goodes brings a strong sense of import to the themes of the story, whilst pursuing dramatic tension for the very fascinating narrative. A stronger ambience of danger and sexuality could make the show even darker and more powerful, but Goodes’ work is undoubtedly enchanting. We are invested in the riddles of The Hanging right from the start, and she makes us hunger for each revelation that she delivers in perfect time, every one of them satisfying.

Restrained but intense performances by Luke Carroll, Ashleigh Cummings and Genevieve Lemon bring to the stage a distinct flavour, partly a conventional, almost soap opera approach using common archetypes, coupled with a confident embrace of a more silent and poetic approach to acting. Lemon is particularly memorable in the role of Corrossi, sharp and abrasive, with surprising emotional range, interpreting beautifully, the being of a middle age modern woman, and the perspectives of a high school teacher who has seen legions of girls blossom and decay.

Society is disparaging of femininity, and underestimates the young. When Ava, Hannah and Iris disappear, they expose our beliefs and expectations, along with the prejudicial ways we think about adolescent girls. The Hanging questions the way we nurture and offer guidance, confronting us with difficult truths about the instability of human volition, freedom and fortitude, especially volatile in the teenage years. In an effort to find a real understanding of how we are, the reflections we see in the play are necessarily pessimistic. It refuses denial of the bad inherent in what we do and think, making us acknowledge the less than perfect aspects of our nature. There are masochistic pleasures discoverable in its gloomy expressions, but for those less morbidly-inclined, its important lessons although disturbing, are relevant to one and all.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: All My Sons (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Jun 4 – Jul 9, 2016
Playwright: Arthur Miller
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Anita Hegh, John Howard, Bert LaBonte, John Leary, Josh McConville, Robyn Nevin, Eryn Jean Norvill, Jack Ruwald, Chris Ryan, Contessa Treffone
Images by Zan Wimberley

Theatre review
Joe Keller’s wealth is a result of monumental sacrifice. Arthur Miller’s All My Sons is about the cost of money, and the naivety that can come with human greed. Joe makes the decision to choose financial success over a clear conscience, thinking that his riches will be able to shield him from the damage that he causes. There is a willing ignorance at play in Joe’s story that many of us understand. We think that the pluses that come with money are powerful enough to contain the inevitable minuses, and it is that misguided optimism that brings about a series of calamitous consequences to Joe’s family and his neighbours.

It is intoxicating drama and a powerful moral that allows the play to maintain its resonance through the decades. Miller’s interrogation of the American dream (now international), along with themes of money, family and war, have not faded with time in their impact, in fact, our engagement with the ideas in All My Sons seem to be more intimate than ever. Soldiers once sent off to war in blazes of glory, are now seen as individuals we need to protect at all costs. Ideologies once used to justify deaths in battle, are now tainted with commerce, corruption and oil. Great riches from hard work have now exposed themselves to be hollow corporations trading in fraud. These very contemporary concerns are paired with classic melodramatic storytelling, for a masterpiece that still packs a wallop in 2016.

Kip Williams’ direction keeps focus on the play’s essence. Almost minimal in style, our attention is not to stray from its characters and dialogue. There are no bells and whistles to fill the vast auditorium, just a family drama that gets increasingly turbulent. Personalities are clearly defined, and relationships are dynamically formed. Williams sets the pace of the production at lightning speed to help ensure that tension is sustained, and that the audience remain engrossed. The intriguing qualities of Miller’s plot are perfectly engineered to keep us hooked on the story, but the venue’s size makes it a challenge communicating emotional intensity without performers having to perform at the extremes of their sentimental capacities. We follow every interchange that happens on stage, but our feelings become involved only when scenes become passionate.

The more energetic of the cast leave a greater impression. Chris Ryan’s ability to portray heightened agony gives the production its gravity, and the actor’s remarkably lucid depiction of his character Chris Keller’s loss of innocence, provides a soulfulness to the production, especially effective at its moving conclusion. Eryn Jean Norvill plays Ann Deever with great charm and an authentic complexity that adds surprising texture to the show. Norvill’s vocal and physical emulation of 1940’s American style is a delight, as is the vibrancy of her stage presence. In the role of Joe Keller is John Howard, imposing and confident, every bit the patriarch of the tale, but seems to fluctuate with concentration levels. Although powerful and nuanced, the actor has a tendency to be subsumed when action becomes frantic on stage. Young actor Jack Ruwald is memorable as Bert, lively and with a genuine sense of impulsiveness that is deeply endearing.

We cannot expect friends and family to be perfect, because every human is flawed. People will make mistakes, but how we forge ahead with them is the basis of how we live each day. The Kellers survive on love and lies, but the two prove to be ultimately incompatible. Where there is love, truth must triumph, but the ugliness that surfaces stands every chance of dissolving what we hold precious. All My Sons might be about family, marriage, betrayal and deception, but it is fundamentally a cautionary tale of greed’s destructive nature. Forgiveness and understanding can mend many wounds in our relationships, but the scars that are left behind are permanent and inescapable. Joe’s abominable sin cannot be undone, and its repercussions are tragic and endless.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Disgraced (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Apr 16 – Jun 4, 2016
Playwright: Ayad Akhtar
Director: Sarah Goodes
Cast: Paula Arundell, Glenn Hazeldine, Sachin Joab, Shiv Palekar, Sophie Ross
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
We can all agree that everything is not quite coming up roses in the world today, with terrorists blowing up cities everywhere, and people waging war against one another, all in the name of race and religion. There is no denying that at the root of these catastrophes is hate. Hate that comes in a manner of guises and a range of justifications, but ultimately it all boils down to the simple truth that people are prejudiced and destructive. This is difficult to hear, because life is impossible without believing that humanity is good, so we embrace hope with a kind of blind naivety and evade the truth in order that we may get out of bed and be happy.

Ayad Akhtar demolishes those delusions with Disgraced, in which racist hate is served up plain as day. The characters are intelligent, successful and glamorous, tailor-made so that they are irresistible to bourgeois theatregoers, but their ugly sides emerge, increasingly aggressive over time, and we find ourselves in a state of violation, caused by this transgressive mix of seduction and repulsion. It is at the point where we become intimate with protagonist Amir and the people around him that we see their racism. We are unable to dismiss them because we had already submitted trust, having decided that they are good people, so our minds are in conflict, made to juggle the puzzle pieces that refuse to form an easy picture. In that process of confusion, we reach for a new depth of understanding about our nature and how hate resides in our beings, and how it manifests. In the face of Akhtar’s explicit honesty, we are presented a challenge of interpretation. We recognise the reality of the situation, but we have no convenient way of dealing with the information. The big mess of life is truer than the circumscribed narratives we use to arrange our thoughts, and in this play, that chaos is allowed to rear its ugly head, without a false sense of resolution to contain our anxieties. Bad things happen because there are people with hate in their hearts. Getting to know them is important, but not having anywhere to go thereafter is the conundrum.

It is a stunning and explosive script that drops bombs at regular intervals to unnerve, to disarm and most of all, to confront. It is a response to the undeniable horrors around us that involves no sugar-coating, and no rose-tinted glasses. It is a brutal piece of writing, made only more powerful by its ability to tell us the worst while it secures our unwavering attention. Sarah Goodes’ direction delivers that brutality with a blunt but measured force. Her ability to communicate details no matter how subtle, makes this staging an enriching and enlightening experience. She draws attention to nuances that are missed in our daily interaction with the subject matter, dismantling our habit of two-minute sound bites and 140 character tweets, in exchange for a more thorough study on the state of our world.

Amir is among the most important characters to have appeared in recent theatre history. His experience is ubiquitous but virtually never brought to light. There is shame, fear and danger associated with his story, so our impulses tell us to keep it buried, for we are afraid of the controversies he represents, and we worry about the people he offends. Performing the role is Sachin Joab, exhilarating, authentic and alluring in his depiction of the Pakistani-American caught in a moment of crisis. Joab brings extraordinary illumination to the tremendous complexity of his part, presenting a great deal of insight into a psychology that we all need to know. His work is emotional and vulnerable, but the actor is also able to convey an unmistakeable menace that is central to the play’s effectiveness. Joab overwhelms us with his talent and conviction, and leaves an indelible impression with his remarkable grace. Also exquisite is Elizabeth Gadsby’s set design, providing a backdrop of sophistication and class to a tale about social status and division. The configuration of spaces caters cleverly to all seats in the auditorium, offering excellent perspective and a beautiful vista from every angle.

This is a show full of tension, with its drama derived from issues of the day that are usually too unseemly to discuss in frankness. The action happens in an exclusive New York apartment, but we all have a stake in the subject matter. Peace will benefit everyone, but in its pursuance, we all seem to be losers. In the middle of a war, we are never sure if anything that we say or do will contribute to making things better, but regardless of context, art must always reveal the truth. We cannot mend what is broken without knowing its problems and although a bitter pill is hard to swallow, there is no escaping it. In Disgraced, characters have to drop their pretences and acknowledge the cold, hard fact that their world is in turmoil, but whether they can bring about improvements, or revert to their previous delusions, is not a question anybody has a definitive answer for.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au