Review: Black Is The New White (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), May 5 – Jun 17, 2017
Playwright: Nakkiah Lui
Director: Paige Rattray
Cast: James Bell, Kylie Bracknell [Kaarljilba Kaardn], Tony Briggs, Luke Carroll, Vanessa Downing, Geoff Morrell, Melodie Reynolds-Diarra, Shari Sebbens, Anthony Taufa
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Charlotte worries about being too white, or to be more accurate, she carries shame about her life not being black enough. The blood in her veins is Aboriginal, but having been born into great privilege, she can only observe, what she considers an authentic black experience, from afar. In Nakkiah Lui’s Black Is The New White, we visit a wealthy black home, through what could be the whitest of storytelling genres possible, the Christmas family comedy.

The show is very funny. Indeed, the jokes do at times, sit on a level of superficiality characteristic of the format, but Lui’s relentless need to interrogate the state of Aboriginal politics allows her show to speak in any tone it wishes, while always retaining a gravity that justifies the exercise, along with providing an extraordinary level of intellectual involvement that keeps us firmly engaged. The work has a specificity that feels completely of the moment; its language, its concerns and its ideas are thoroughly modern. It articulates what we are thinking, but have hitherto been unable to discuss with great fluency. It allows the convoluted disarray of contemporary Aboriginal perspectives surrounding issues of colonialism, be magnificently displayed in all its unresolved vexations. The play is an important timestamp that chronicles the discontent inherent in today’s social dynamics, and a fantastic piece of entertainment with a surprisingly wide appeal.

Paige Rattray demonstrates excellent flair for the sardonic with Black Is The New White. Very pointed observations are made agreeable, and dark subject matter is turned satirical; we are all compelled to have a sense of humour, at Rattray’s insistence. Big conversations between its characters about Australian morality are finely gauged, so that we receive the full impact of what each person is saying. We analyse their upper-middle class lives as their stories unfold before us, but cannot escape shades of complicity, while we inevitably recognise ourselves in so much of the blistering dialogue.

A spectacular cast of nine is fiercely present, determined to enthral and educate. Each vibrant actor offers up a personality that is detailed and authentic, and we get to know them with extraordinary familiarity. Not all are picture perfect and several prove themselves to be quite nasty people, but we fall head over heels nonetheless. They are all very charming.

Charlotte is played by Shari Sebbens, a performer especially effective when things gets politically combative. The conviction she brings is impressive, leaving no room to doubt her very edifying intentions and desires. Melodie Reynolds-Diarra is commanding in her maternal role, incisive with her humour, but adoringly warm as leader of her pack. Remarkably elegant, she delivers some of the play’s biggest laughs with what looks to be little effort. The narrative’s pivotal parts of duelling fathers, are played mischievously by Tony Briggs and Geoff Morrell, both imaginative and effervescently confident with what they introduce to the stage. Their bickering is hilarious, and the actors’ chemistry as an unexpected pairing, is a highlight.

Set design is brilliantly conceived by Renee Mulder, who establishes five separate performance spaces within the interiors of a very glamorous house. Aesthetically refined and superbly functional (without relying on moving parts), it presents comfortable aspects to all seats in the auditorium, although decoration and costumes could benefit from a bolder, more adventurous style.

There are many ways to talk about race and Indigenous experiences, and in Black Is The New White, we find several of them co-existing. The joy of being able to partake in its pluralist approach to these difficult matters, makes the play uniquely refreshing. The people we meet have differing views, but they are all likeable. As audience, we are then given permission to agree with contradictory points of view, or at least, are encouraged to take moments to appreciate what our adversaries value. It is a messy affair at the Gibson household (complete with an epic food fight), and although the stories all conclude nicely, à la Hollywood (and Bollywood), the issues that had been brought up do not diminish. Money can solve many problems, as we witness at this spirited Christmas gathering, but it is how we move our rich resources around that will bring about the improvements we desperately need.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: The Popular Mechanicals (Wharf 2 Theatre)

Venue: Wharf 2 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Apr 6 – May 13, 2017
Playwrights: Keith Robinson, William Shakespeare, Tony Taylor
Director: Sarah Giles
Cast: Lori Bell, Julie Forsyth, Charles Mayer, Amber McMahon, Tim Overton, Rory Walker
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
When embarking upon an artistic project, possibilities could be endless, but there is almost always a view to an end result. At the theatre, a show is eventually performed for an audience, after a period of rehearsal and creative exploration. The Rude Mechanicals are a group of amateur actors from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, remembered for their comical incompetence. In The Popular Mechanicals, they take centre stage as we watch them go through the anxious, and absurd, process of preparing for their evening of entertainment for the royals. It is a work that puts focus on what happens before opening night, giving validation to all the thrills and spills that inevitably happen, while reaching for the penultimate goal. We often say that nothing is wrong in art, and The Popular Mechanicals certainly places all of its trust on that belief.

The silliness inherited from Shakespeare’s vision of the troupe is fully embraced, for a joyful show that owes a lot to clowning traditions (complete with rubber chickens). The cast goes through sequences that range from pointless and frightfully cheesy, to moments of genius hilarity that will prove unforgettable. It is all deeply amusing, even though its inconsistency can be trying. Appropriately effervescent in approach, six quirky performers take us from one ridiculous scene to another, with mischievous charm and surprising nuance. Rory Walker and Tim Overton are especially memorable, not only for the repellent bodily functions they gleefully demonstrate, but also for an unusual air of ethereality they bring to the stage.

It is natural to want to present our best sides, but nothing is more human than our foibles and blunders. The point of art is that it reflects humanity, yet we so often expect it to be perfect, when humanity is clearly anything but. In its celebration of imperfection, The Popular Mechanicals grants an opportunity for artistic expression that seems more authentic, as a representation of our experience of life, which is almost always stranger than fiction, but incontestably true.

www.statetheatrecompany.com.auwww.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: The Play That Goes Wrong (Roslyn Packer Theatre)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Apr 5 – 23, 2017
Playwrights: Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields
Directors: Mark Bell, Sean Turner
Cast: Darcy Brown, Adam Dunn, Luke Joslin, George Kemp, James Marlowe, Brooke Satchwell, Nick Simpson-Deeks, Tammy Weller

Theatre review
When embarking on any project, passion is a key propulsive ingredient that will make things happen, but nothing will go well if passion is the only positive quality it has going for it. A community theatre group in Cornley, UK puts on a 1920s murder mystery, with little more than the fire in their bellies. The lack of talent and skill onstage and off, generates a series of fantastic mishaps that constitutes the high energy comedy brilliance we find in The Play That Goes Wrong.

It is pure farce and slapstick, at their maximum amplification. Stories and characters are barely relevant, in this ambitious exploitation of high octane physical comedy, involving people and objects falling about constantly, in the most satisfying manner. It is an old-fashioned style of show, made new by its unusually voracious need for speed and excitement. Directors Mark Bell and Sean Turner may not be visionaries in the conventional sense, but what they brings to the stage is extraordinarily precise and wildly imagined. The laughs on offer here are ceaseless, limited only by the audience’s ability to respond with a sustained level of energy that could match the hilarity that unfolds on stage.

The charismatic cast gives an exceptionally tight performance. In the presentation of a play where everything goes wrong, nothing is allowed to falter, and the actors are simply impeccable. George Kemp and James Marlow display no limits to their capacity for silliness, proving themselves to be very endearing indeed. Brooke Satchwell and Luke Joslin impress us with their physical presence and agility, allowing their beings to flail and flounce about with great force and ingenuity, for unimaginably powerful comic effect.

Stage managed by Anneke Harrison, the production’s technical excellence is crucial to its success. The Play That Goes Wrong can be seen as a love letter to stage managers everywhere, the unsung heroes of all the great shows we have ever seen. These women and men make themselves invisible, so that we can lose ourselves in the illusion of every staged moment. We fawn over actors and the words of playwrights, but forget the operations out of sight that allow magic to happen, until they draw attention to themselves when things do go wrong. The character of the inept Cornley stage manager (played by Adam Dunn) is a hoot, but also a constant reminder of the magnificence that has to take place backstage in order that theatre can do its best.

www.theplaythatgoeswrong.com.au

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, 2017
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