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

Review: Muriel’s Wedding (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Nov 6, 2017 – Jan 27, 2018
Book: PJ Hogan
Music & lyrics: Kate Miller-Heidke, Keir Nuttall (with songs by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, Stig Anderson originally written for ABBA)
Director: Simon Phillips
Choreographer: Andrew Hallsworth
Musical Director: Isaac Hayward
Cast: Annie Aitken, Prue Bell, Ben Bennett, Briallen Clarke, Justine Clarke, Hilary Cole, Tony Cogin, Helen Dallimore, Dave Eastgate, Manon Gunderson-Briggs, Jaime Hadwen, Sheridan Harbridge, Mark Hill, Madeleine Jones, Caroline Kaspar, Adrian Li Donni, Luigi Lucente, Stephen Madsen, Maggie McKenna, Kenneth Moraleda, Laura Murphy, David Ouch, Tom Sharah, Connor Sweeney, Gary Sweet, Aaron Tsindos, Michael Whalley, Christie Whelan Browne
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
Like legions of girls through the ages, Muriel was brought up to believe that life is incomplete without a man. It is a fallacy so deeply ingrained into our consciousness, that many are never able to outgrow the absurd notion, that marriage is required as a fundamental validation of our very being. In PJ Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding, we see a young woman responding to her subjugation; it is a coming-of-age story, an underdog story, and a feminist proclamation. Once a much-loved feature film, now 23 years later, it returns to prominence in the guise of a dazzling new stage musical.

Genuinely funny, and irresistibly moving, Muriel’s Wedding is an unequivocal triumph. Original songs by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall are brilliantly conceived, telling the story of an everygirl, by rigorously combining the many facets of Muriel’s universe. Her thoughts, desires and emotions, along with the people and places that attempt to define her, and the symbolic cultural emblems of her epoch that she cannot escape (including her tremendous affection for ABBA); all are present in the songs that passionately depict her narrative of emancipation, and that envelope us with a remarkable sense of immediacy and pertinence, to have us hopelessly invested.

Direction by Simon Phillips and choreography by Andrew Hallsworth, conspire to deliver an unabashedly sentimental journey, taking us through a seamless blend of happy and sad moments that constitute all of Muriel’s bittersweet experiences. We never lose sight of the gravity so essential and universal in her painful story, but every episode of false hope and disappointment, brims marvellously with theatrical hilarity. This is Australian humour at its best, ironic and self-effacing. Supporting players Michael Whalley (as brother Perry) and Christie Whelan Browne (as arch nemesis Tania Degano) create some very sharp comedy, and we greet each of their appearances with rapturous laughter. These are ugly images of who we are, but there is no denying the authenticity of what we see, and the embarrassing social dysfunctions that they embody.

Maggie McKenna exceeds every unrealistic expectation, in taking on the role of our all-new singing Muriel. The performer is quite simply perfect for the part, with a glorious voice that drives each lyric powerfully into our minds, an extraordinary quotient of charisma that disarms and opens wide our jaded hearts, and an incredible likeness with our memory of the old film version that has proven unshakeable. The more we fall in love with the protagonist, the more we can enjoy the show, and on this occasion, McKenna has us head over heels, completely bowled over. No less wonderful, is Madeleine Jones as Rhonda, bestie and catalyst for Muriel’s self-discovery. Jones is a strong, gutsy presence, who brings in full force, the rebellious spirit crucial to Muriel’s awakening. The two make a formidable pair, invulnerably tight in harmony and chemistry, for a portrayal of a resplendent friendship that lucky ones will find deeply familiar.

There are a small number of forgivable flaws in the production, including the earless casting of Muriel’s father, a strangely flat set design involving the Sydney harbour bridge, and early portions of the book that seem to require a cursory knowledge of the film. These aside, the artistic accomplishments here are significant and monumental, not least of which, are costumes by designer Gabriela Tylesova, who draws joyful inspiration from the original, and from the work of fashion notables like Viktor & Rolf, Roberto Cavalli and Camilla Franks. Straddling opposing ends of glamour, from kitsch to exquisite, for a visual sensibility informed by a derivative and hodgepodge aesthetic, that our colonised nation is never able to rid of.

Muriel’s Wedding is the greatest Australian musical yet. Full of character and inventiveness, it is unceasingly entertaining whilst capturing so much of who we are, and who we wish to become. More than a successful reboot of a modern classic, it brings together some of our biggest talents, for the birth of something that feels new and important, having arisen from adventurous negotiations of what is usually a restrictive art form. It is a big day, and we are more beautiful than we had ever been.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: The Father (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Aug 19 – Oct 21, 2017
Playwright: Florian Zeller (translated by Christopher Hampton)
Director: Damien Ryan
Cast: Faustina Agolley, John Bell, Marco Chiappi, Glenn Hazeldine, Anita Hegh, Natasha Herbert
Image by Philip Erbacher

Theatre review
André is getting on in years. He remains in good physical condition, but his mind is failing. The protagonist’s disintegrating memory in Florian Zeller’s The Father brings us through a narrative that vacillates in its reliability. We are constantly disoriented, like its subject, confused by the incoherence of people, place and time. Without any dependable means to decipher and interact with the world, André struggles to maintain a cogent sense of self; if the external cannot be appropriately explained, so too will the internal begin to lose meaning.

Zeller’s depiction of that mental decline, in its theatrical form, offers a valuable opportunity for the condition to be better understood. What could only be an abstract concept, that hitherto relied only on our emphatic imagination, becomes a much more powerful appreciation of an unfortunate state of being. Damien Ryan’s direction makes us feel as though we experience it firsthand. The 90-minute play however, has little new to say besides. After early scenes of quite thrilling revelations, things get old quickly. The show dissolves into predictability and repetitiveness, and when we arrive at what should be an emotional zenith, a surprising placidity is encountered instead.

The roles are performed well, each one lucid and believable. John Bell’s star quality keeps us firmly engaged with André’s plight. It is a robust portrayal, with an emphasis on the character’s dignity at a time of hardship, although a greater sense of vulnerability would make for more poignant drama. Daughter Anne, is played with an admirable realism by Anita Hegh, but the writing seems to restrict the actor to a slightly monotonous interpretation of her role. In the absence of a congruous timeline, characters are prevented from developing very dynamically. They appear in fragments, and the players are accordingly concise.

The production is simple and elegant, with Alicia Clements’ set design placing us confidently, in an upper class existence, where carers and nursing homes are matters of remorse rather than cost. André and Anne have the financial means to ease the pain of fading health, so we are protected from real catastrophe in The Father. Age and death however, will come to all, and as we watch a good man deteriorate, it should only be with resignation and acquiescence that we regard the closing scene, yet we resist, instinctively rejecting the truth of our mortality.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Velvet (Roslyn Packer Theatre)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Jul 26 – Aug 20, 2017
Director and creator: Craig Ilott
Musical director: Joe Accaria
Choreographer: Lucas Newland
Cast: Joe Accaria, Kaylah Attard, Emma Goh, Marcia Hines, Mirko Köckenberger, Rechelle Mansour, Tom Oliver, Craig Reid, Stephen Williams

Theatre review
The show begins when a young man appears on stage with luggage. Dressed as a Jehovah’s Witness, or maybe a Mormon, the wide-eyed innocent finds himself in a new city, and we imagine that he encounters disco for the first time. This would mean that the action takes place in the late 1970s, when Donna Summer and the Bee Gees ruled the charts, and in New York, the notorious night club Studio 54 was the epicentre of society and culture. Craig Ilott’s Velvet is essentially a variety show, an homage to the era of the hustle, the afro and cocaine. All is light and frothy, with the protagonist’s journey offering a vague sense of narrative, that holds everything together.

At the centre is a slew of hits, unforgettable songs that defined a generation, marvellously reassembled and executed by musical director Joe Accaria, who ensures that their sparkly appeal is always accompanied by a deep appreciation for the soul and funk roots of these dance-floor stompers. Living legend Marcia Hines plays the diva with effortless grace, trusting that her exceptional voice to take us away from daily humdrum to her realm of sequinned ethereality. Leading man Tom Oliver works harder to prove himself, in archetypal musical theatre style, energetic and earnest in his efforts to reach out to everyone in attendance. Acrobats and circus performers provide excellent spectacle and thrills, each of them accomplished and beautiful. The production relies heavily on two very versatile talents Kaylah Attard and Rechelle Mansour, to maintain its effervescence but later sections require more surprises, perhaps in the form of bigger costumes or additional dancers, to sustain our enthusiasm.

Colours of the rainbow flag make more than a few appearances. We cannot be sure if our boy comes out as gay, but he certainly does come out of his shell in the process. Disco may be about debauchery and hedonism, but we remember it also, for the liberation it inspires and represents, even today. At its best, disco is uplifting while it keeps us feeling dirty. It makes us think of sex as salvation, and creates a space where heaven and hell can meet to reveal so much that is dichotomous about being human.

www.velvettheshow.com

Review: Australian Graffiti (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 2 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Jul 7 – Aug 12, 2017
Playwright: Disapol Savetsila
Director: Paige Rattray
Cast: Gabrielle Chan, Airlie Dodds, Peter Kowitz, Kenneth Moraleda, Mason Phoumirath, Srisacd Sacdpraseuth, Monica Sayers
Image by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
Asian restaurants are a familiar sight in Australian towns everywhere, but what we know is restricted only to their dining rooms and service areas. In Australian Graffiti, Disapol Savetsila presents a fantastical, but bleak, look at what happens behind the kitchen door of these inscrutable spaces.

It is a story about Thai-Australians, both immigrants and native-born. Ben is a teenager, born in Sydney but who has since moved to an unnamed country town with his mother Baa, proprietor of the local Thai restaurant. Boi, Loong and Nam are employees stuck in the kitchen, with only work as salvation, completely cut off from mainstream society. When graffiti appears on one of the local churches, bearing Thai characters, the town takes the opportunity to carry out their racism, boycotting and harassing the group of five outsiders.

Savetsila’s seamless interweaving between surrealism and realism, creates his own universe of storytelling, where fact and fiction, tangibility and metaphysical, coexist to reveal truths of Australian life from the perspective of cultural minorities. Australian Graffiti is a play for the marginalised, speaking to and for communities with a voice rarely represented in our artistic landscape. It is a sign of the times, a valuable work that heralds the arrival of a new generation of creators that can only materialise with a certain level of social maturation.

The production is sensitively rendered by director Paige Rattray, whose gentle melancholy allows the play’s poignancy to sing through, with a deep and painful authenticity. Australian Graffiti is often darkly humorous, and Rattray’s depiction of its personalities is suitably nuanced, revealing both the good and the faults of the people we meet, even the ones who experience persecution.

Tenderly and imaginatively lit by Sian James-Holland, with music by Max Lyandvert and sound by Michael Toisuta that take us through subtle fluctuations of emotional states, the design creatives do an excellent job of turning a vast auditorium into a surprisingly suitable stage for Savetsila’s intimate writing.

Mason Phoumirath is impressive as Ben, passionate and convincing with what he presents as lead actor. His relation to place and people feels remarkably genuine, even though the circumstances are highly unusual. There is a psychological accuracy in his portrayal that gains our empathy, and the stories we hear become believable as a result. Gabrielle Chan and Kenneth Moraleda bring vulnerability and sentimentality to the show, with intensely moving expressions of the migrant experience, bringing attention to the play’s humanitarian concerns.

Underneath so many of our world’s surfaces, resides a threat of violence. Australia’s colonisation, our history of it and the continuing project of it, is rarely spoken of with sufficient honesty, and like any human defect that is left unattended, disease inevitably transpires. Ben’s family is of Thai origin, and their enemies are European. The lack of an Indigenous presence in their battle, is symptomatic of our inability to recognise what is fundamentally true of the land that we share, and whenever we are unable to acknowledge the root of our problems, they can only persist.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au