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.

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.

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.

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.

Review: Disgraced (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Apr 16 – Jun 4, 2016
Playwright: Ayad Akhtar
Director: Sarah Goodes
Cast: Paula Arundell, Glenn Hazeldine, Sachin Joab, Shiv Palekar, Sophie Ross
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
We can all agree that everything is not quite coming up roses in the world today, with terrorists blowing up cities everywhere, and people waging war against one another, all in the name of race and religion. There is no denying that at the root of these catastrophes is hate. Hate that comes in a manner of guises and a range of justifications, but ultimately it all boils down to the simple truth that people are prejudiced and destructive. This is difficult to hear, because life is impossible without believing that humanity is good, so we embrace hope with a kind of blind naivety and evade the truth in order that we may get out of bed and be happy.

Ayad Akhtar demolishes those delusions with Disgraced, in which racist hate is served up plain as day. The characters are intelligent, successful and glamorous, tailor-made so that they are irresistible to bourgeois theatregoers, but their ugly sides emerge, increasingly aggressive over time, and we find ourselves in a state of violation, caused by this transgressive mix of seduction and repulsion. It is at the point where we become intimate with protagonist Amir and the people around him that we see their racism. We are unable to dismiss them because we had already submitted trust, having decided that they are good people, so our minds are in conflict, made to juggle the puzzle pieces that refuse to form an easy picture. In that process of confusion, we reach for a new depth of understanding about our nature and how hate resides in our beings, and how it manifests. In the face of Akhtar’s explicit honesty, we are presented a challenge of interpretation. We recognise the reality of the situation, but we have no convenient way of dealing with the information. The big mess of life is truer than the circumscribed narratives we use to arrange our thoughts, and in this play, that chaos is allowed to rear its ugly head, without a false sense of resolution to contain our anxieties. Bad things happen because there are people with hate in their hearts. Getting to know them is important, but not having anywhere to go thereafter is the conundrum.

It is a stunning and explosive script that drops bombs at regular intervals to unnerve, to disarm and most of all, to confront. It is a response to the undeniable horrors around us that involves no sugar-coating, and no rose-tinted glasses. It is a brutal piece of writing, made only more powerful by its ability to tell us the worst while it secures our unwavering attention. Sarah Goodes’ direction delivers that brutality with a blunt but measured force. Her ability to communicate details no matter how subtle, makes this staging an enriching and enlightening experience. She draws attention to nuances that are missed in our daily interaction with the subject matter, dismantling our habit of two-minute sound bites and 140 character tweets, in exchange for a more thorough study on the state of our world.

Amir is among the most important characters to have appeared in recent theatre history. His experience is ubiquitous but virtually never brought to light. There is shame, fear and danger associated with his story, so our impulses tell us to keep it buried, for we are afraid of the controversies he represents, and we worry about the people he offends. Performing the role is Sachin Joab, exhilarating, authentic and alluring in his depiction of the Pakistani-American caught in a moment of crisis. Joab brings extraordinary illumination to the tremendous complexity of his part, presenting a great deal of insight into a psychology that we all need to know. His work is emotional and vulnerable, but the actor is also able to convey an unmistakeable menace that is central to the play’s effectiveness. Joab overwhelms us with his talent and conviction, and leaves an indelible impression with his remarkable grace. Also exquisite is Elizabeth Gadsby’s set design, providing a backdrop of sophistication and class to a tale about social status and division. The configuration of spaces caters cleverly to all seats in the auditorium, offering excellent perspective and a beautiful vista from every angle.

This is a show full of tension, with its drama derived from issues of the day that are usually too unseemly to discuss in frankness. The action happens in an exclusive New York apartment, but we all have a stake in the subject matter. Peace will benefit everyone, but in its pursuance, we all seem to be losers. In the middle of a war, we are never sure if anything that we say or do will contribute to making things better, but regardless of context, art must always reveal the truth. We cannot mend what is broken without knowing its problems and although a bitter pill is hard to swallow, there is no escaping it. In Disgraced, characters have to drop their pretences and acknowledge the cold, hard fact that their world is in turmoil, but whether they can bring about improvements, or revert to their previous delusions, is not a question anybody has a definitive answer for.

Review: Machu Picchu (Sydney Theatre Company / State Theatre Company Of South Australia)

STCVenue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Mar 3 – Apr 9, 2016
Playwright: Sue Smith
Director: Geordie Brookman
Cast: Elena Carapetis, Darren Gilshenan, Luke Joslin, Annabel Matheson, Lisa McCune, Renato Musolino
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
What we understand mid-life crises to be, seems relevant only to the privileged. Gabby and Paul are a middle class couple, both independently established and intelligent, reaching a point in time where their mortality suddenly comes into focus. Machu Picchu is about their reassessment of priorities and values, and although the threat of death is thankfully more than an abstract construct in Sue Smith’s play, the problems they face can often feel hyperbolic. Their struggles are honest, but also indulgent. Where others have had to just keep calm and carry on, Smith’s characters have the luxury of excessive rumination, which in turns disallows much drama or comedy to transpire. There are opportunities for philosophy, but those tend to be subsumed by domestic situations that prevent intriguing ideas from developing with satisfactory depth. Although emotionally distancing, the text has an enjoyable and innovative plot structure that reveals flair in the way its non-chronological timeline is formed. Scenes unfold unpredictably to keep us attentive, with surprising elements appearing at regular intervals for added variety.

We never quite warm to the characters in Machu Picchu. Director Geordie Brookman maintains an understated tone to proceedings, which gives an air of sophistication but also detracts from the story’s gravity. Gabby and Paul’s catastrophic state is comprehensible, but only intellectually so. The fears and trauma that they experience do not connect beyond the cerebral, and the work’s inability to encourage greater empathy gives the impression that its concerns are probably less meaningful than it wishes to be. Dramatic tension never becomes taut enough for us to feel strongly about the characters’ woes, and themes surrounding relationships and ageing, although earnestly portrayed, are not presented with sufficient ingenuity. The only people who are surprised by the effects of time seem to be on stage, and they add little to our own understanding of those ravages.

Lisa McCune’s performance as Gabby is focused and intense. There are many moments of authenticity in her depictions of disappointment, frustration and anguish, and her energetic approach helps sustain interest in her narrative, which can at times be lacklustre. The role of Paul is tackled by Darren Gilshenan who introduces an instinctive levity to the production. Gilshenan is a charming actor with tongue always firmly in cheek, but who proves capable of more serious material with this character’s adversity. It is not an entirely convincing coupling of actors, but the pair finds good rhythm with dialogue and together create imagery evocative of a bourgeois Australian identity that many will find familiar.

Clichés persist for their truth. Life is about the journey, not the destination. The Machu Picchu in Peru represents an ideal that exists in Gabby and Paul’s imagination, a place they have never experienced but that they believe to be special. In our lives, we often long for what we have yet to encounter, thinking that salvation lies therein. It is human to dream, but how much of dreams we allow to interfere with reality, is deeply personal, and determines the shape of each individual’s existence. It is ultimately inconsequential whether the protagonists get themselves to the location of their aspirations. What they are able to create and discover in their time before that fateful day is of great value, if they choose to recognise it as such. |

Review: The Golden Age (Sydney Theatre Company)

stcVenue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Jan 14 – Feb 20, 2016
Playwright: Louis Nowra
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Rarriwuy Hick, Remy Hii, Brandon McClelland, Robert Menzies, Liam Nunan, Zindzi Okenyo, Sarah Peirse, Anthony Taufa, Ursula Yovich
Image by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
At the time of The Golden Age‘s original première in 1985, we talked about multiculturalism. 31 years on, that buzzword has evolved into the contemporary concern for diversity, and a real need for societies to address pervasive inequities, whether they be surreptitious or conspicuous. Since the middle of the previous century, we have seen the rise of political agitation, most significantly in the realms of race, gender and sexuality, that attempt to remedy the injustices of the world, to varying degrees of success.

In Louis Nowra’s play, two cultures collide, with one being an overwhelming and dominating force that instinctively requires anything contradictory to surrender, assimilate and conform. The other is a community of six people, a lost tribe descended from outcasts in the Tasmanian wilderness, admittedly rustic but undeniably peaceful. The idea of an Australian mainstream is explored bitingly by Nowra, who juxtaposes what we have come to think of as normal, against something quite literally extraordinary, to expose the systemic failings of the way we organise life, in the belief that our idea of civilisation is the only one legitimate and proper. The Golden Age reveals how we fight tooth and nail to hold up an ideal that is ultimately of service to no one, and that has an appetite for destruction so voracious that it causes devastation even unto itself.

We can interpret Nowra’s writing in a myriad ways, and apply his parable to any context of power imbalance, but its relevance to the immediate and pressing matter of Aboriginal lives in colonial Australia cannot be ignored. The subjugation of The Golden Age‘s lost tribe, in the name of protecting them, is a painful parallel to the many governmental initiatives that have transpired and continue to be devised, claiming to be in the best interest of our First Peoples. The way power disguises its self-serving objectives behind façades of charity and convenient slogans like “the greater good”, is scathingly deconstructed and laid bare in this production by director Kip Williams. This is highly complex theatre, yet Williams delivers nuance, clarity and power while retaining the poetic, and challenging, spirit of Nowra’s writing.

Williams’s show is profoundly hypnotic, coalesced with brilliant dramatic chemistry and an air of intriguing mystery so fierce that we are left still wanting more after its generous three-hour duration. The Golden Age works on all levels; entertaining, emotional, spiritual, intelligent and meaningful, it fulfils everything the theatregoer wishes to experience, and leaves an impressive political message that implicates every one of us. David Fleischer’s design brings beauty, both raw and refined, to the stage, along with surprisingly flexible spacial configurations that provide excellent variety for the many scene transitions. Sound and music by Max Lyandvert is the clandestine master manipulator of atmosphere and the author of the show’s sublime mythical dimension. He works with our imagination to take us to wondrous spaces never before encountered, but are viscerally familiar. The aesthetics of the production is dreamlike, simultaneously splendid and cruel, almost quintessentially Australian, but completely enchanting.

The cast is ethnically diverse, with several actors playing parts that are of different races to their own (an oddity for Australian theatre even though we are well into the 21st century). Ursula Yovich as Elizabeth Archer in particular, performs with great acerbity, her character’s increasingly oppressive European presence in the play. Yovich’s utterances of prejudicial statements resonate with startling potency, perhaps informed by the actor’s personal experiences as an Indigenous woman. The heart wrenching lead role Betsheb is played by Rarriwuy Hick, who provides a focused and strong centre to the piece. She balances Betsheb’s wildness with a natural warmth to deliver an endearing personality responsible for the show’s many poignant moments. Brandon McClelland is similarly likeable, creating a Francis that is agile and vibrant, with an emotional depth that makes relationships believable. He figures between both sides of the story’s cultural divide, and is convincing throughout.

The flaws in dominant ideologies stare at us straight in the face every day, but most of us accept them as par for the course. Along with that sense of resignation, many underprivileged lives are allowed to remain in disadvantage, injustice, and hardship. In The Golden Age, the powerful are with the assumption that alternatives will be detrimental to their personal lives, and the powerless suffer the consequences of being outsmarted and outnumbered. There are many occasions in Australia today that we think of the need for a revolution, but our majority is crippled with fear, and the minorities are left in sacrifice. Things can change, and they do change, but with each appearance of sensational work like this, our minds are enlightened and refreshed, and a new sense of urgency can be ignited.