Review: Top Coat (Sydney Theatre Company)

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

Theatre review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: City Of Gold (Sydney Theatre Company)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Triple X (Sydney Theatre Company)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Julius Caesar (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Nov 15 – Dec 23, 2021
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Geraldine Hakewill, Ewen Leslie, Zahra Newman
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
When the Roman leader is assassinated in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, it is the very nature of democracy that comes into question. Two millennia after the fateful incident, we are still pondering, and living, the delusive meanings of democracy in our political realities. The men in Shakespeare’s play continue to bear a certain ambiguity in terms of their being good or bad, right or wrong. Fortunately for audiences of Kip Williams’ modern day adaptation, it is the all too familiar malevolence of 21st century communications technology that takes a lot of the unequivocal blame.

Mobile phones and social media, in addition to traditional news platforms, are the convenient new villains in this regeneration of the old classic. Video monitors occupy centre stage with an aggressive dominance, and actors are virtually never without their phones, always with camera on, pointing at themselves and at one another. We have to consume the play in ways that are similar, to how we consume the daily news about politics. Devices and screens overwhelm our senses, so that whatever is live and actually material, becomes secondary to digital transmissions.

We struggle to distinguish, the important from the distracting, and the truth from fake news. Williams’ direction makes the unrelenting noise that is so pervasive in our media habits, a central feature of his theatrical presentation, and the more he indulges in histrionics, the more we are seduced by all the frenzy. The story escalates along with our gleeful enjoyment of sequences that become increasingly hideous, and we begin to wonder if all the heartache and bloodshed, can only exist because of our audienceship. Our passive attention is made to take responsibility, in this salient reminder that under capitalism, the consumer is king.

David Bergman’s work on video design is humorous, detailed and dynamic. The abundant cultural references made therein, form a subtext for this version of Julius Caesar that not only updates the tale for contemporary sensibilities, it reframes the discussion about democracy to include technology and capitalism, so that the discourse feels urgent and strikingly intimate. Correspondingly, Stefan Gregory’s music and sound design takes charge of our nerve centres, in order that we can only respond to the series of egregious events, with appropriate revulsion. Also noteworthy are Elizabeth Gadsby’s set and costume design, offering efficient and unpretentious solutions to an otherwise complex staging. Lights by Amelia Lever-Davidson too are unobtrusive, yet satisfyingly dramatic in its various manifestations.

The three stellar actors called upon to play all the roles, are undeniably sublime. Geraldine Hakewill, Ewen Leslie and Zahra Newman impress with their thorough familiarity with the material, but it is their ability to engender an air of unpredictability that keeps us enthralled. It is live theatre in which everything is planned to the most minute, yet we experience it as though everything is coming from visceral impulses of each moment. Each performer is independently magnetic and powerful, but as a singular unit, they deliver a theatrical experience remarkably bold in its inventiveness, and thrilling in its capacity to make the story feel so immediate and involving.

The camera’s omnipresence strip the characters in Julius Caesar of their sincerity. Aware of being on screen at all times, their every word and deed can only appear performative, if not completely devoid of authenticity. It comes as a surprise then, that some of us still believe in our leaders, even when they are unabashedly hamming it up for our screens, shamelessly spouting nonsensical hyperbole and harmful rhetoric. The effectiveness with which media personalities (politicians and others) can use capitalism and technology to manipulate our sense of truth, to their advantage, is now a foregone conclusion. The end of the production is grim, as though proclaiming that resistance is futile, a statement only a scant few would dare refute.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: The 7 Stages Of Grieving (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), May 21 – Jun 19, 2021
Playwrights: Wesley Enoch, Deborah Mailman
Director: Shari Sebbens
Cast: Elaine Crombie
Images by Joseph Mayers

Theatre review
In popular understandings of psychological processes, there are well-known stages of grief, that relate to loss and anguish. Less commonly spoken of, are the sorrowful experiences of our Indigenous, that stem from over two centuries of colonisation. In The 7 Stages of Grieving by Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman, a veil is lifted with great generosity, on the burdens of Blackness in this country.

A one-woman play in which the soul of a people is laid bare, The 7 Stages of Grieving offers a valuable opportunity to obtain a condensed overview of challenges faced by our First Nations. Although living in divergent communities, these marginalised voices are given a unified focus, in order that we may cultivate an appropriate attitude and response, for the critical improvements needed for Black lives on this land.

The storyteller takes us through seven phases of Aboriginal history, namely Dreaming, Invasion, Genocide, Protection, Assimilation, Self-Determination, and Reconciliation. Performed by Elaine Crombie who takes on the daunting challenge of representing an entire non-monolithic culture, we see her indomitable and joyful spirit shine through, even as she makes her way through one catastrophic anecdote after another. Crombie resists being defined by adversity; demonstrating that it is in fact a combination of defiance and resilience, that is truly formative.

Directed by Shari Sebbens, the show is memorable for both its gravity and its levity, juxtaposing hardship with humour, to deliver what are arguably the most important messages of our time. Set design by Elizabeth Gadsby (inspired by the work of Megan Cope) too, contrasts shimmering surfaces against earthy shrines, to communicate a sense of struggle in those who fight harder than most to survive. Verity Hampson’s lights and video projections, offer impressive visual variety, while Steve Francis’ work on music and sound, take our minds to ethereal places, as though creating a momentary paradigm shift, in this communal sharing of theatrical magic.

At the show’s conclusion, we are spared the indignity of walking away with little more than melancholy or worse, resignation. The artists urge us to take action, even prescribing “The 7 Actions of Healing” to assist in transforming what is normally a passive audience, into an activated one. Indeed, there is always a danger that the hard work of minority communities, is consumed as a kind of perverse entertainment, or a vehicle to raise awareness at best, but nothing besides.

The labour of presenting one’s trauma, to those directly and indirectly responsible, is rarely received with any comparable urgency. 26 years after the first staging of The 7 Stages of Grieving, we can now take this time to acknowledge the advancements that have and have not been made, since 1995. Whatever we decide is the current state of affairs, it is hard to deny that the room to improve, remains infinitely vast.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Playing Beatie Bow (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Feb 22 – May 1, 2021
Playwright: Kate Mulvany (based on the novel by Ruth Park)
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Tony Cogin, Lena Cruz, Claire Lovering, Heather Mitchell, Sofia Nolan, Rory O’Keeffe, Guy Simon, Catherine Văn-Davies, Ryan Yeates
Images by Daniel Boud
Theatre review
Two Sydney girls connect across centuries, through supernatural means, leaving indelible marks upon one another’s destinies. In Kate Mulvany’s brand new revision of Ruth Park’s 1980 novel Playing Beatie Bow, teenager Abigail wormholes from 2021 to 1873, meeting young Beatie Bow and her migrant Scottish family, in a story that broaches the sensitive subject of our colonial history. It also touches upon themes of female solidarity, of matrilineality, and on the nature of love, for places and for people, in a three-hour long epic that is as expansive as it is adventurous.

Abigail and Beatie are able to time travel, because they were born spaewives, ready to transcend physical realms of earthly existence. Mulvany as writer too, ventures beyond the obvious, so that the audience is never allowed to linger in the mundane. With Playing Beatie Bow, she insists that we look under every surface, to reach for a deeper appreciation and understanding about the people we like to think we are. The action takes place at The Rocks, where our history is especially rich, and where its cultural influence is particularly far reaching. To excavate at that location, is to uncover the gems, and the dross, that shape our Australian identities.

Direction by Kip Williams takes care to address both the issues, of who we are and who we ought to be. His work is honest, but also highly aspirational. It provides so much that is warm and fuzzy, through the nostalgia of the piece, and the saccharine sweetness of the relationships being depicted. The notion that we are good people, is reinforced through the classic, if slightly hackneyed, salt-of-the-earth tone of the staging. Concurrent though, is the refreshing incorporation of Aboriginal and Asian perspectives, that prove fundamental in encouraging a reimagination of community. The inclusion of people of colour within this context of an “Australian classic” addresses the exclusionary strategies, that have informed the ways we have been permitted, and not permitted, to conceive of ourselves, over centuries of white imperialism. Williams’ reformation of our collective attitude, is somewhat surreptitious but undoubtedly political.

David Fleischer’s set design takes full advantage of a very deep stage (at the extravagantly renovated Wharf Theatres), utilising configurations of sparseness to communicate elements of time and distance, that are central to a story that has us frequently thrust into moments of magical abyss. Lights by Nick Schlieper are appropriately ethereal, reliably transporting us through one translucent apparitional scene after another. Renée Mulder’s costumes provide great assistance, so that characters are convincing from the get-go. Music by Clemence Williams and Matthew Doyle, are sentimental and beautiful, and along with David Bergman’s restrained sound design, provide us with meditative spaces so that our thoughts and emotions can be activated, in the audience’s pursuit of interpretation and introspection.

A remarkable warmth emanates from the cast; they seem to be saying that this tale is for all of us, and that we are in this together. Catherine Văn-Davies is powerful as Abigail, an urgent and compelling presence whose sense of precision, keeps us attentive to all the valuable dimensions of what we discover to be a surprisingly complex exercise. Văn-Davies brings an authentic earthiness that anchors the production in a place that feels universal and meaningful, even when its flights of fancy take us far away from reality. It is often a deeply moving performance, one that tethers us to humanity, of the self and of others.

Guy Simon is unforgettable in his various roles, but as Johnny Whites, his controlled delivery of an Indigenous man whose daughters have been stolen by the crown, is utterly devastating. Heather Mitchell is a sheer delight as two vastly different matriarchs, both wonderfully comical, yet profound with what they convey. The precocious Beatie is played by Sofia Nolan, with excellent timing and a formidable exuberance. The show requires of its actors, a high level of technical proficiency, but they are unrelenting with the heart and soul of the piece, and as a result, the audience cannot help but be thoroughly affected.

We need to know our origins, in order that our destinations can be properly mapped out. We have for the longest time, misunderstood our past, and therefore so many have to suffer painful consequences. This is a task that has no room for delusions. We can no longer pretend to be wholly benevolent. People need to own up to their mistakes, make reparations, and correct our pathways. Travelling back in time to face the demons is hard, but for the brave, it is the only way forward.

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

5 Questions with Priscilla Jackman and Charles O’Grady

Priscilla Jackman

Charles O’Grady: What’s the most significant or surprising thing you’ve learned about trans people and gender identity through the process of making this show?
Priscilla Jackman: I’ve learnt so much on this journey but probably the most obvious thing has been correcting my previous misconception about the homogeneity of the trans community. In my
ignorance as a cisgender white woman, I assumed that trans people share common ground, common values, options etc. Of course, just like all facets of society there is enormous range and diversities within the trans community. Getting to know Catherine McGregor has been such an extraordinary revelation, because her experience and her journey has made me think, quite deeply about humanity and the commonality of our experience, as much as those aspects of her life which are so different to my own.

I find that every time I do a show like this – this one in particular! – I come away having learned or re-evaluated something about myself. Is there anything you’ve discovered over the course of this production that’s changed how you understand your own identity?
I guess a chief understanding and development for me has been an affirmation of the extraordinary collaborative process that making theatre is all about. Often as a director in the past, I have felt solely responsible for overseeing every aspect of a project, feeling I should have all the answers to everything. The most wonderful and humbling experience of working on this show has been to realise that in terms of my identity as a director, actually, the creative solutions have often been born through a deep and rich collaboration with all my team. Recognising the power of this collaboration and the creative strength and collective experience in the room has led to some of the most important creative break-through moments during rehearsals.

You and I have talked a lot about how beautiful and resonant Cate’s voice is. If you could have her read one book or play aloud to you, what would it be?
Apart from cricket, Catherine’s chief obsession is language – her love and faculty for language and storytelling is precisely what captivated and inspired me in the first place. She loves Shakespeare, the Greeks, can rattle off any number of famous military and political speeches verbatim, in a heartbeat. I love to hear her recount famous speeches – Robert Kennedy is a favourite. I love her love of poetry. But perhaps my favourite is her rendition of St Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. So to answer your question, I would love her to read Henry V to
me.

What element of this show are you most proud of?
There is so much to be grateful for, being involved in bringing this production to life. For me, one of the greatest gifts has been to work with the team. I have never felt as supported and connected to my design team and have absolutely loved and adored working with Michael Scott Mitchell and Nick Schlieper. I have learnt so much from them both. Working with Heather Mitchell has also been one of the most inspiring experiences of my professional life – all members of our team have given so much heart and soul to the work, it has been extraordinary. The day Cate arrived at our rehearsal room, unexpectedly and played cricket with the cast, was one of the proudest days of the rehearsal process – because in that moment everything made sense – the journey that
we have been on together, the importance of telling this extraordinary story, the grace and generosity of both Cate and the cast and the team. I think we all walked away from that day feeling very affirmed that this is indeed, a very special project and special opportunity.

How has making this show differed to other shows you’ve directed in the past?
There are many differences and many similarities. Differences lie in the experience of the team I have around me – including working with you Charles – my first ever Assistant Director! I have created new work in the past using adaptation processes, but this is the first play I have written using a verbatim methodology.

Charles O’Grady

Cate talks frequently about her idol and ‘talisman’, Indian cricketer Rahul Dravid. Do you have a ‘Dravid’ in your professional or personal life, and if so, who?
I feel like I have several Dravids – most of whom would hate to be mentioned by name here! – in the sense that there are a lot of people in my life who have directly or indirectly kept me going, pulled me back from the edge in darker periods, reminded me there are reasons to keep surviving, or just been there when I needed calm and clarity. They all know who they are and they’re all rolling their eyes because, as Dravid says to Cate, “it was nothing” for them to show me kindness and support. I think often we don’t know who the “still points” in our chaos and turmoil are going to be until we find them and we’re clinging on for dear life. In terms of celebrity talismans I’ve carried with me in my life as a gender diverse person, Laura Jane Grace (lead singer of Against Me!) was a big one, as her album Transgender Dysphoria Blues was what gave me the courage to come out to my family. One time she tweeted me saying we were “BFFs”. It was amazing.

What about the text or the concept most excited you when we first discussed it?
There were two things that most got my blood running when reading the script and chatting to you about it. The first thing was that, despite our very different lives and worlds, I found a surprising number of similarities in my story and Cate’s story – something I wouldn’t have necessarily expected from someone who transitioned later in life, and who is involved in sports and the military! There’s so many moments in the script – some big, some minute – that felt to me like a hand reaching out and touching mine, like someone saying “I was there too, you’re not alone”. The second and possibly greater thing was that I saw a nuanced and complex portrayal of a trans person whose opinions I often disagree with. I love that I’ve been forced to re-examine some of my own pre-conceptions, that this is a play that constantly demands more from me, that gets me fired up and passionate. As a younger queer person, I can sometimes fall into the trap of forgetting there are multiple views within my community. Engaging with the words of someone who sees certain things differently to me, who also expresses her views so eloquently, has been as much an intellectual challenge as an emotional one.

Cate talks about cricket being a space for her where “everything just dissolves” and she feels congruent in her identity. Do you have any passions that have the same effect on you?
For me it’s always been dancing. I did ballet from age five to eighteen – I was never very technically proficient but I knew a lot about dance and loved every moment of it. For me, ballet, and dance generally, became a space free of gender – odd, as I was in classes exclusively with girls and we were constantly feminised. But the physical act of dancing was always about being a body moving in a space, and not being a gender – it was about making shapes and evoking stories, and I didn’t need to be a girl OR a boy to do that. Now, though, I find that I get the same euphoria of congruence when I sing.

What’s your favourite iconic ‘cricket sledge’?
Now that I’ve quite literally read the book on the noble Art of Sledging, I’d have to say my fave sledge is by Stephen Harold Gascoigne, better know as ‘Yabba’, who said to a fumbling batsman: “Bowl the bastard a grand piano and see if he can play that instead!”

Sum up this play in five words or less.
Chaos. Congruence. Cry-inducing. Cursing. Cate.

Priscilla Jackman is director, and Charles O’Grady is Assistant Director for Still Point Turning: The Catherine McGregor Story.
Dates: 21 April – 26 May, 2018
Venue: Wharf 1 Theatre

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