Review: Going Down (Sydney Theatre Company)

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

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

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

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

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

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Lethal Indifference (Sydney Theatre Company)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: The Father (Sydney Theatre Company)

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

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

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

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

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

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: 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