Review: Saint Joan (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Jun 5 – 30, 2018
Playwright: George Bernard Shaw (additional text by Emme Hoy, Imara Savage)
Director: Imara Savage
Cast: Gareth Davies, John Gaden, Brandon McClelland, Sean O’Shea, Socratis Otto, Sarah Snook, Anthony Taufa, David Whitney, William Zappa
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Joan of Arc never even made it to her twenties. Executed at the age of nineteen, her story represents the worst of our misogyny, and in director Imara Savage’s version of George Bernard Shaw’s play, that absurd fear of powerful women is given elucidation, as we see state and religion go to great lengths to exterminate Joan, so that the threat that she poses to the patriarchy is banished. In Saint Joan, instead of the usual veneration and idolatry, a war hero is swiftly and mercilessly taken down, for the sole reason of her gender.

Men can have daring ambition and resolute faith, but in a girl, those qualities are turned into the charge of heresy. Shaw’s original vision proclaimed “no villains in the piece,” but Saint Joan is, on this occasion, thoroughly subverted, to expose the inhumanity of forces we hold in reverence, of those so much power is lavished upon. Church and government do not get off scot-free in this rendition of Joan’s legend. Their guilt in the historical episode, is brazenly exposed. Our father figures are rightfully condemned, made to own up to the brutal murder of an heroic warrior.

Full of passion, the work is powerful and gritty, made spectacularly riveting by the presence of its leading lady. Sarah Snook is an unequivocal sensation in the role, equally intense whether depicting vulnerability or majesty, marvellously incisive with the delivery of each line. She conveys meaning and emotion with admirable depth and a disarming authenticity, having us pining for her every artistic bestowment. Her interactions with the cast are replete with chemistry, and the men (all other players here are the culpable masculine) bring generous support, often brilliantly engaging in their own right.

David Fleischer’s set design is a restrained, highly sophisticated evocation of our traditional institutions, with a heavy curtain that encapsulates all that is required to express a simultaneous sense of awe and oppression. Lights by Nick Schlieper and sound by Max Lyandvert, take us through atmospheric and spatial transitions with admirable precision, manipulating our instinctual responses with great dexterity, so that our attention is focused always and only, on the exact resonating point.

Evil has a knack for hiding in plain sight. What was once a story about men being dutiful, is today revealed to be a site for the unravelling of abhorrent systems that thrive on ruthless subjugation. Where we were once entangled in the ambiguity of Joan’s assertions and behaviour, we can now depart from the doctrines that had given justification for the unforgivable persecution of a girl who had done nothing wrong. Corrupting forces will remain, but our ability to act virtuously with courage, truth and justice, is forever in ascension.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Blackie Blackie Brown: The Traditional Owner Of Death (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 2 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), May 12 – Jun 30, 2018
Playwright: Nakkiah Lui
Director: Declan Greene
Cast: Ash Flanders, Megan Wilding
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Dr Jacqueline Brown is a mild-mannered archaeologist, who spends her days looking for evidence of the Australian past. Aboriginal histories are often kept buried, so it only makes sense that she should take matters into her own hands, in order that the primal urges to connect with her cultural heritage could find gratification. Learning that some of one’s family had been subject to genocide however, will have quite extreme effects on any person’s psyche. Nakkiah Lui’s Blackie Blackie Brown: The Traditional Owner Of Death charts the rise of a new superhero. A parody of blaxpolitation and Hollywood superhero films, the play depicts the underdog’s ascent and revenge, in a wildly fantastical setting typical of those genres.

Inspired by 70s blaxploitation tropes, antagonists in Blackie Blackie Brown are characterised as the white establishment, but more radical is its requirement that we see regular white folk, those we are conditioned to think of as “ordinary Australians”, as the enemy. In our heroine’s audacious mission to kill 400 white people, each individual’s sins and transgressions fade into irrelevance, and we have to confront instead, the legacy of illegitimate occupation, and the ongoing usurping of space and privilege, by the ruthless project of white supremacy, to which this nation has fallen prey over the last two-and-a-half centuries.

The message is a hard one to swallow, for the predominantly white audiences who will find themselves directly and personally castigated, but as with all good works of comedy, it is the humour that provides magical mollification, as though its sense of absurdity provides relief from the harsh truth. The laughter that Blackie Blackie Brown delivers, is relentless and uproarious. Lui’s very astringent jokes are cutting, sometimes controversially so, offering its players plentiful opportunity to raise temperatures in the auditorium.

Megan Wilding is a mesmerising leading lady, effortlessly alternating between the earnest vulnerability of Dr Brown and her alter ego Blackie Blackie Brown’s extravagant vivacity. The character’s barbarous adventures could easily have us turning against her, but Wilding is impossible to dislike. Full of charm, and with a striking presence, we devour all that she brings, whether madcap, or profoundly authentic. In accompaniment is the high camp stylings of Ash Flanders, equally endearing in a range of screwball guises, each one hilarious and wonderfully inventive.

The pair is well-rehearsed, for an intricate production that involves extensive use of visual projections (animated by Oh Yeah Wow, designed by Verity Hampson), allowing the show to leap across spaces, geographical and metaphysical, with great efficiency. Filmic influences, particularly in relation to the cartoonish violence being portrayed, are cleverly incorporated in this live meets video amalgamation, by director Declan Greene, whose vision seems boundless in its daring and grandness. Also marvellous is the work on sound by Nate Edmondson and Steve Toulmin, who keep adrenaline pumping for the duration of the piece, having us under control with an exquisite blend of sounds that seems to have direct authority over our viscera. Technical aspects although not entirely flawless, are complex and precise, and there is no denying the scale of ambition necessary for this show to come together; the stage management team is worthy of commendation.

There are few places where minorities can speak freely about their own oppression. The nature of the beast determines that those under the thumb, are well-behaved and polite in the presence of their oppressor, or risk having to suffer even greater abuse. Art has the ability to let all voices be heard. A society that believes in art, will allow a space for a kind of honesty that other spheres are unable to withstand. Art encourages communication in ways that are truthful, and compensate where regular language proves deficient. To kill 400 innocent white people is a ridiculous proposition that anyone would disregard, but to be able to understand the idea beyond the literal, would bring us deep into a discussion that Australians need to have.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Kiss Of The Gallery Guard (Scene Theatre Sydney)

Venue: Sydney Philharmonia Choirs Hall (Walsh Bay NSW), May 11 – 26, 2018
Playwright: Carol Dance
Director: Murray Lambert
Cast: Justin Amankwah, Jesse Northam, Chloe Schwank, Cara Severino
Images by John Leung

Theatre review
After making the local news in less than dignified fashion, Amber leaves her rural town in shame, and lands a job in a city art gallery. Carol Dance’s Kiss Of The Gallery Guard asks if it is possible for the leopard to change its spots, and through its own discussions about the ever evolving meanings of art, the play looks at the constantly mutating quality of human nature, in relation to art objects that are characterised as stable and inanimate.

It is a concept worthwhile of exploration, but Kiss Of The Gallery Guard has a plot structure that tends to be overly tangential, with a writing style that mature audiences will find too expositional. Performers for the show are not short of conviction, although their exaggerated approach can interfere with the authenticity that they attempt to bring to the narrative. Cara Severino is a delightful presence as Amber, impressive with the detail she brings to the role, even if the excessively animated mode of presentation is a blemish.

The ephemeral nature of theatre, is what sets it apart from other art forms. A work can always be revisited, revised and remounted, and no two shows can ever be exactly the same. People will grow, and artists will transform. Much as we are inclined to hold unshifting opinions about others, we also know that the world is a surprising place, and people will always have the potential to evade underestimations.

www.kissofthegalleryguard.net.au

Review: Still Point Turning: The Catherine McGregor Story (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Apr 21 – May 26, 2018
Playwright: Priscilla Jackman
Director: Priscilla Jackman
Cast: Nicholas Brown, Andrew Guy, Chantelle Jamieson, Ashley Lyons, Heather Mitchell, Georgina Symes
Images by Philip Erbacher

Theatre review
For those of us who are transgender, the experience of life is always a little bit extraordinary. Radically othered, by virtue of the fiercely homogenising quality of gender, there is a part of us that cannot help but perceive things from the periphery, whether we feel ourselves to be accepted or marginalised. Catherine McGregor is a media star, in many ways Australia’s answer to Caitlyn Jenner, both sixty-something, both extremely privileged and established in their professional fields, and both coming out as trans in spectacular fashion in the 2010s. They are not trailblazers by any means, for we have existed since the dawn of humankind (assuming gender had existed from the very beginning), but their stories coincide with a particular time in Western history, when being trans is suddenly a thing to celebrate.

This new interest in our identities contains unquestionably, a hint of the freak show; we often find ourselves a curiosity that everybody else feels as though they finally have license to poke and prod at. It can be argued however, that we are the ones who have demanded attention be paid to our difference, in this, for many, lifelong battle for approval and recognition. In Priscilla Jackman’s Still Point Turning, a delicious balance is struck, in which the object of our gaze is simultaneously accommodating and commanding. The audience is intrusive, but at the protagonist’s insistence. She proclaims to not want the responsibilities of being a poster-girl for the movement, but presents herself with blunt candidness and a fearless embrace of the prying spotlight. The work is “based on interviews with Catherine McGregor”, and she is very forthright with her disclosures.

It is a political and benevolent act, but also narcissistic (as she admits), and that seemingly dissonant combination provides a potent vitality for playwright and director Jackman, whose creation here proves to be a remarkably rich piece of theatre. The show satisfies our need for the sordid and gossipy, allowing us into the profoundly personal struggles of a public figure, whilst offering some of the most informative and thought-provoking content of any biographical account. For a play about a personality whose interests are in sport and the military, Still Point Turning is perhaps surprisingly entertaining, relentlessly so, but its true value is in its frank and unembellished, and thus rare, depiction of a transgender experience.

We may not have arrived at a point where a story of this nature does not bear the burden of having to make that desperate plea for understanding, and we find McGregor’s suffering often occupying front and centre of the stage (alongside her charming sense of humour) but it is noteworthy that the show does go quite a distance beyond an exploitative depiction of trans tragedy. Societal progress can be observed in its ability to discuss its issues inquisitively and genuinely, offering perspectives that are less emotional and more sincerely exploratory. For audiences of all persuasions, the play’s statements and contemplations about how each of us negotiates gender (and other identity markers or constraints) is a rewarding opportunity for deep reflections about our places in social life; who we think we are, how we wish to be perceived, and the things we do to create a persona that each can be personally content with.

The production is passionate and polished, with clever lighting by Nick Schlieper creating comfortable shifts between time and space, whilst helping contain an unnecessarily large performance area. Music and sound by Steve Francis are conventional but highly effective in their calibrations of atmosphere. Designer Michael Scott-Mitchell’s costumes are simple but very smart, with the lead’s pristine white Carla Zampatti suit a breathtaking, memorable design feature.

Actor Heather Mitchell delivers a brilliant performance in the starring role; intelligent and insightful with her dramaturgy, impressively precise, bold in presence, and gloriously funny. Eminently convincing and disarmingly charismatic, we cannot take our eyes off of her. Her Catherine is fascinating and delightful, and we almost wish for the show not to end, if only to retain her company. A supporting ensemble of five effervescent players add to the fun, each one independently compelling and endearing, but wonderfully cohesive as a team, thick as thieves and marvellously engaging.

Even though Catherine McGregor has accomplished a great deal in her illustrious life as journalist, cricket commentator and military officer, the woman presented in these 100 minutes of Still Point Turning is defined principally by her transness. Whether or not this is an accurate depiction of McGregor’s own truth, it is an intriguing proposition that one’s fundamental sense of identity can be so firmly attached to ideas of gender. It is perhaps a consequence of unyielding persecution, of oppression and cruel humiliation, that what should only be an incidental element of a person’s being, is turned into a subsuming component.

McGregor puts blame on no one, talking only about transphobia as a personal demon, but the undeniable truth remains, that when we harm ourselves, it is always a result of conditioning by the outside. It is easy to think of McGregor as a person who has it all, and as such, we require that she expresses only humility and gratitude. However, the prejudice that all trans people continue to be subject to, range from insidious to barbaric. It is pervasive, even in progressive regions, and there is no doubt that we must always take the opportunity, to step up to defend the rights of our transfolk. To be visibly trans is crucial to our progress, and Cate’s indomitable capacity for attention, is to be admired and more importantly, emulated.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Going Down (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 2 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Mar 23 – May 5, 2018
Playwright: Michele Lee
Director: Leticia Cáceres
Cast: Paul Blenheim, Catherine Davies, Josh Price, Naomi Rukavina, Jenny Wu
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
After the publication of her first book, young author Natalie finds herself at a crisis of authenticity. What she had thought to be a good representation of her life and times, has turned out a commercial disappointment. In the search for success, she embarks on a process of self-redefinition. Michele Lee’s Going Down is a tricky story to tell. The play begins at a point where we have to watch our protagonist cave in, to societal pressures that are determined to tell her that she is inadequate. Early scenes feature a confident woman being attacked for not producing a commercially viable product in her autobiography, and although she does offer some resistance, the premise of Going Down is that society wears Natalie down, transforming her from self-assured to self-doubting. Although we discover that society is ultimately right in its estimation of Natalie, as her story does lead to a conclusion of greater fulfilment, it remains a matter of contention that a young woman’s self belief should be defeated by market forces and community.

The spirit of the writing however, is undeniably vibrant, and the production is accordingly energetic and colourful. Set and costumes by The Sisters Hayes, along with lights by Sian James-Holland, are humorous and playful, completely delightful in their interpretation of the world inhabited by a youthful Melbournite. Much of the show’s comedy is reliant on visual cues, and the creatives are certainly excellent in this regard. Music too, is incisively formulated to reflect the culture being represented. Composer and sound designer The Sweats does marvellously to tell us precisely who these characters are, and in the process keeps us invigorated and entertained.

The extraordinary Catherine Davies plays Natalie, feisty yet vulnerable, for a character memorable for her passionate full throttle approach to living life. We are convinced by all that the actor offers, whether portraying juvenile antics or deep awakenings, her performance of the role is utterly perfect. The supporting cast is also effective and very funny. They play a big range of personalities, many of whom are weird and whacky, and thoroughly amusing. Director Leticia Cáceres has put together an inventive show, charming in its quirkiness. Her ability to infuse each moment of Going Down with layers of meaning, keeps us engaged, with both our instinctual and intellectual capacities.

It is difficult however, to find Natalie’s story entirely satisfying. Maybe being an ethnic minority does prevent one from being unfettered and wholly buoyant. Natalie is not a white woman, and the play questions if she can ever write a book that is blind to race. We wonder if she can ever put race aside, or if she will forever be talking about her Asian heritage. This is an honest conundrum, one that is worthy of considerable analysis. Natalie must be regarded as autonomous, for she is a grown woman, but our relentless expectations of her as one of the tribe must influence her conceptions of autonomy. The matter is a troubling one, and it awaits further exploration.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Mar 21 – Apr 28, 2018
Playwright: Bertolt Brecht (translated by Tom Wright)
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Mitchell Butel, Peter Carroll, Tony Cogin, Ivan Donato, Anita Hegh, Brent Hill, Colin Moody, Monica Sayers, Hugo Weaving, Charles Wu, Ursula Yovich
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
A gangster film is projected on screen, as we witness it being shot on a sound stage. The action happens across not two, but three platforms. We watch a film, the making of the film, and a theatre production, all simultaneously and frantically taking place before our eyes. Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui is concerned with artifice and image, written at the time of Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel. Director Kip Williams’ decision for a multimedia presentation may seem initially, to be little more than gimmickry, but his profusion of Brechtian devices transcend academic tribute, proving themselves relevant and ultimately, highly effective.

Brought up to date by Tom Wright’s very shrewd adaptation, Arturo Ui’s story is now unquestionably of our time. A criminal hungry for attention, he stops at nothing to satisfy an interminable and narcissistic urge for notoriety. To make his presence a permanent fixture, Arturo takes on political ambitions in order that his influence may turn pervasive and inescapable. We can think of more than a few public figures who operate in a similar vein. It is a witty and wise transposition, taking Brecht’s meditations on the Hitler phenomenon and applying them to the current state of our world. Retaining the spirit of epic theatre, Wright’s work is dark but rarely pessimistic. A parable and cautionary tale, it demonstrates human nature at its worst, but is deliberate with its manipulations of our autonomy as audience and citizens. It always reminds us of our capacity to resist and reverse the actions of those with an appetite for destruction.

Williams’ production is sophisticated, often extravagant and flamboyant in its attitude and accompanying style. Its theatrical grandness is alluring; we find ourselves seduced by its many clever manoeuvres, and are surprised by our unequivocally political response to its ideas. The show knows what it wants to do, and achieves it well. Sections of dense dialogue might be lost, when we get distracted by the very busy stage, but the simple overall point of it all, is clear and powerful under Williams’ interpretations. The director’s ability to shift our attention between screen and stage becomes impressive, once we get over the shock of the unusual. Once we stop questioning the validity of the complicated form being presented, the efficacy at which information is being conveyed, through its complex amalgamations, is quite astounding.

The set takes the shape of an efficient film studio that accommodates complicated camera work whilst prioritising direct audience access, designed by Robert Cousins with appropriate restraint. Nick Schlieper’s lights are attractive and suitably dramatic, conspiring closely with cinematography to provide stunning live visuals with some very advanced video technology. Justine Kerrigan’s adventurous and imaginative cinematography is quite an amazing thing to behold. Also deeply satisfying is Stefan Gregory’s music, inspired by early genre films, and assisted by excellent sound engineering, to offer great drama and intrigue, electrifying from prologue to epilogue.

Hugo Weaving’s performance as Arturo Ui exhausts the gamut of emotions, as well as all the superlatives a critic is tempted to use in describing his brilliance. If there is ever perfection in art, Weaving embodies it here. The man is in charge every second, and we are putty in his hands, hopeless and lost in whatever he wishes to impart. His skill is second to none, and his mesmerising charisma is bewildering. It is hard to come close to the standard that he sets, but others in the cast too, are truly remarkable. Peter Carroll in particular, contributes extraordinary incisiveness as Dogsborough, depicting the blurred lines of good and bad with wonderful flair and persuasiveness.

If we see the natural world as an organism with tendency for chaos, and humankind’s insatiable need for creating order, in our own image, a kind of violation, then man’s obsession with power is an abomination. Arturo Ui goes against everything that we want to think of as good and right in the world, in his continual seizure of power and domination over every being, but it is likely that the only language he and his ilk understand is power, and to rival them requires that we take mirroring actions. Pacifism and the qualities of integrity that it encompasses, may be a more idealistic way of approaching peace, but in The Resistible Rise Of Arturo Ui it is hard to not see these romantic notions as ineffectual or much worse, calamitous. It is time perhaps to find better ways to fight fire with fire.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Lethal Indifference (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Feb 17 – Mar 10, 2018
Playwright: Anna Barnes
Director: Jessica Arthur
Cast: Emily Barclay
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Reema is an Indian bride, brought to Melbourne to be starved, bashed and raped by her new husband Ajay. We know this, because a white woman is onstage telling us the harrowing story. The intention in Anna Barnes’ Lethal Indifference is good, of course, as it shines a light on domestic violence, one of Australia’s biggest problems. The one-woman show however, affords no space to any of its Indian characters, only an unnamed protagonist who works as a media representative of an anti-violence organisation, struggling to cope with the weight of her vocation.

To place a white person at the centre of Reema’s story is deeply problematic. The removal of already underrepresented ethnic minorities from our theatres is reprehensible, especially when their stories are at the core of what is being discussed. If it were a woman of colour who takes to the stage, this issue might well be dissipated. It is noteworthy that in fact, there is no reason at all that requires our storyteller to be white, if we wish to examine the production from this perspective.

Also, Lethal Indifference unwittingly presents domestic violence as an “ethnic” problem, with its heavy reliance on Reema and Ajay, where we know for a fact that domestic violence occurs indiscriminately in all types of households. To single out a racial minority to facilitate this discussion, instead of having the unnamed woman “tidy up her own backyard” so to speak, using instead, stories of white families, is objectionable.

The heavily pregnant Emily Barclay stars, with suitable charm, leaving us feeling as bad for her character as we do the true victims of domestic violence. Barclay’s portrayal of second-hand “vicarious” trauma almost succeeds in stealing the thunder from Rameen, the invisible character who has clearly paid the much greater price for Lethal Indifference‘s melodrama.

It is a polished piece of theatre, with Mel Page’s ominous set design drawing us into the dark world that is being evoked, providing stark gravity to the space that is being explored. Director Jessica Arthur creates sufficient variation within the long monologue, to sustain our attention and interest. The production’s seeming ignorance about its own racial problem, is astonishing, considering the surface sophistication that it so proudly exhibits.

When we talk about women’s problems, we need also be sensitive to other forms of subjugation and persecution that people suffer in our communities. It is not a matter of white women’s problems being less worthy of analysis than those borne by women of colour, but in the process of discussing any prejudice and injustice from a context of Australian whiteness, we must fight for the voices of ethnic minorities to be duly represented. The disappearance of Reema from this production, one that boasts an all-white stable of cast and creatives, reveals so much about our failures in Australian art and society.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au