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

Review: Cloud Nine (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Jul 1 – Aug 12, 2017
Playwright: Caryl Churchill
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Matthew Backer, Kate Box, Harry Greenwood, Anita Hegh, Josh McConville, Heather Mitchell, Anthony Taufa
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Betty takes a long time to grow up. In fact, it is centuries before she becomes her own woman. In Act I, she lives in Victorian era Africa, having moved from Britain with her husband, a “colonial administrator”. In Act II, we find that not only has she advanced in age, time itself has moved abruptly to the current day.

Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine is about the way gender, with all its associated contrivances and constraints, is imposed upon individuals in Western societies, ruthlessly reinforced time and time again, in service of a white patriarchal project that seems to have no beginning and no end. It is a scheme that benefits few, and as we see in the play, no one is left unscathed by its oppressive nature.

The absurdities inherent in the practice of gender and whiteness, are shrewdly re-purposed for all of Cloud Nine‘s outrageous comedy, as well as its very scintillating drama. Churchill’s creation might be near on 40 years old, but its uncompromising boldness remains deeply affecting. Ensuring that the work’s confrontational qualities are retained, is director Kip Williams who pairs a flamboyant theatricality with a keen eye for detail, to deliver a show that is as entertaining as it is challenging, and quite surprisingly, profoundly moving.

Actor Heather Mitchell is phenomenal in the production. Playing Betty in Act II, and Betty’s young son in Act I, she works her magic to elicit our compassion, demanding that we respond with the best of our humanity, even when her characters are going through the most precarious of story lines. Whether playing a woman her own age, or a boy of nine, we believe all that she offers, and allow her to take our emotions on an intense but rewarding ride.

Also very memorable is Josh McConville, effortlessly but uproariously funny, again in dual roles of adult and child. As Betty’s husband Clive, he amuses us without giving access to any empathy for his despicable character, and as little Cathy, we fall for the wonderful innocence and irresistible cuteness he introduces, never mind that he looks nothing like a 5 year-old girl. The show is remarkably well-performed. Each member of the ensemble feels a star, and we connect with every personality being presented.

A pristine glass box sits upstage, tightly shut, desperately trying to enclose and protect itself. Representing a Western civilisation that insists on maintaining its incongruity with nature, Elizabeth Gadsby’s set design is a simple concept that speaks volumes. Times can change, and our societies have made progress, but that instrument of containment stays resolutely in place. As our efforts to erode structures of injustice and inhumanity continue, and as we observe transformations occur slowly, we can reach for ourselves, the experience of personal emancipation, so sweet, so wonderful, even if it is actually, no more than a state of mind.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

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 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: 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: The Hanging (Sydney Theatre Company)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.sydneytheatre.com.au