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Member

memberpresspixI grew up in Sydney. I recall studying World War II in the western suburbs like it was a distant memory. I recall hearing about the Holocaust as if it was a side note to the war at school and at home as if it were an isolated and unrepeatable atrocity. I don’t recall ever contemplating whether such inhumanity could be perpetrated in the Sydney I lived in: it was simply beyond my conception.
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And yet, on so many nights when my parents tucked me safely into bed, men were beaten or murdered on the other side of the city because they were gay. The proximity of the horror is sobering. And it’s proximity that makes Member such a deeply moving piece of theatre.
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The protagonist is Corey, and we encounter him in an emergency ward, by the side of his adult son, who has been severely beaten. Encouraged by a pretty nurse to talk to his son, Corey describes a moment in his childhood that shaped his understanding of gay men, and determined his response to his son’s coming out.
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Ben Noble, who plays Corey in this one man show, delivers a brilliant, raw performance with his gut-wrenching script. He evokes a broad range of characters, many of them recognisable as archetypes and deftly held back from becoming stereotypes.
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Fairly Lucid Productions have failed, in this intstance, to live down to the standard their name describes. Indeed, the clarity with which this performance delivers its punch is amazing. I found it particularly difficult to walk out into the merriment of the bar, where everyone seemed oblivious to the horror that was just brought to life for us. I’ve long thought Sydney an ugly city with a heart of gold, but the Sydney I stumbled back into after seeing Member felt every bit as nasty as her neglected streetscapes have always looked.
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For me, the proximity of this story to my childhood home is deeply troubling. It further upsets my memory of what I perceived as a relatively tolerant and diverse society. But it also reminds us, and I think this is the intention of the title, that we are members of this society, and the responsibility for change rests with us.
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Plays like this are why theatre matters.
 
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Posted by on Saturday, 25 February 2017 in Blood Moon Theatre, Sydney Theatre, Theatre

 

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The Normal Heart

the-normal-heartAs the audience applauded outrageously, drawing the cast out for a well-earned third bow, I wondered whether it would be more appropriate, in this instance, for the cast to stand on stage as we all observed silence in honour of those who’d paid the ultimate price for their love. But of course, that would hardly work, given how deeply entrenched our social norms are.

And that, largely, is the point of Larry Kramer‘s play, very aptly titled The Normal Heart.

The ‘normality’ of the love portrayed is juxtaposed against the initial onset of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, where cultural norms prevented an expedient or even a compassionate response to research and prevention. The play portrays an increasing fear, and an increasing urgency to find a way to stop the as-yet unnamed disease, pitting allies against each other in their fight to arrest the disease’s spread.

The play broadly centres on the efforts of Ned Weeks, a character based on the writer himself, to spur both the gay community and governments to action. After failing to gain traction with the media, he manages to get a group together to establish an organisation aimed at building awareness of and fighting the growing epidemic. He is also spurred by Doctor Emma Brookner, a character based on Doctor Linda Laubenstein, a pioneering researcher into the epidemic. Weeks finds himself pushed in one direction by Brookner, and held back by his organisation, who seek to use more diplomacy than Weeks thinks appropriate.

The resulting conflict drives the play forward, and would present Weeks in a very ineffectual light, were it not for the love story that underlies his trajectory. While seeking media attention, Weeks instead elicits the attention of Felix Turner, and they develop a rather conventional (or as the title suggests, normal) affection, that grounds Weeks, and is, perhaps, the only thing that truly humanises the character. Inasmuch as The Normal Heart veers precariously close to being a mere polemic, Felix is most certainly the play’s salvation.

Will Huang honoured the role of Felix with a brilliant performance. His decline is measured, and his self-pity deeply empathic. I found myself often wishing the more polemic of scenes would zip by a little faster so Felix would come back. But then, in perhaps the most polemic scene, Michael Sparks delivers one of the most moving and convincing monologues I have ever heard, in the character of Mickey Marcus. This moment presented presents Weeks with his most articulate and encyclopædic challenge, and he is silenced. It is a truly remarkable monologue, if Weeks really is based on the author: moving and tragic, and so highly critical of its own writer that it stands out as distinctly un-American in its candour.

Indeed, the second act is awash with noteworthy speeches that cover the range of positions the characters took in response to the epidemic. Jordan Best brilliantly and emotively portrays the frustration of the medical fraternity. Christopher Zuber (as Bruce Niles) puts Weeks in his place without ever writing him off. And Jarrad West’s Weeks, increasingly frustrated and ineffective in his purpose, demonstrates the centrality of the heart, the element that shows this play to be something other than a mere documentation of a sad and sorry moment in human history.

This is a tragedy of Sophoclean proportions, and it is a story Karen Vickery should take immense pride in having directed.

So as this brilliant cast took their bows, I applauded along with the rest of the audience, and began to process the remarkable piece of theatre I’d just witnessed. The irony of being unable to honour both the performance and the story was not lost on me, and though the deep tragedy of the story had cut me to the core, I nonetheless felt it was entirely appropriate for the cast to be honoured as they were.

Still, it would be nice, just once, to forego the applause at the end of as tragedy such as this. To instead stand and honour the dead with a cast that has done them such an honour in presenting their story, would be a cathartic experience I suspect.

 

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Educating Rita

educating-ritaAs far as modernisations of classical mythology go, Educating Rita is a valiant effort. It has the pathos of Ovid’s tale, the wit of Shaw’s, and it’s nicely focused on the essential characters, so it almost works as a parable. To date, though, I’ve not seen a production that quite lives up to the ideal I suspect Willy Russell hoped for.

Maybe it was the timing. Written in 1980, Educating Rita sits at the very tail end of Britain’s kitchen sink era, where the profound was muted by reality.

Well, that’s certainly what HIT Productions have here. Though some of the books are clearly painted on the walls, we are in all other senses transported to a rather ordinary office in a rather ordinary institution, in a rather ordinary part of the British Isles, and presented with an extremely ordinary professor of literature. A rather ordinary woman walks through the door, and is gradually transformed into an extraordinary one, while the professor proceeds down a path of self-loathing that apparently leads to Australia.

While I might not be especially enamoured of Russell’s treatment of Ovid’s ancient myth, I nonetheless find it interesting, and it is made moreso in this instance by two brilliantly-talented actors. Colin Moody leaves no room to doubt Frank’s sad reality, and Francesca Bianchi is likewise entirely convincing as Rita. Their see-saw-like transitions through the play are presented with verisimilitude and they build into a brilliantly balanced crescendo.

Regardless of the flaws I see in the script, this is certainly an excellent production of it. It shows a strong commitment to character development on the part of director, Denny Lawrence.

In my wild, erratic fancy, I imagine a production of Educating Rita staged as Greek tragedy, with Frank as a rather sodden Plato, and Rita his Aristotle. The set an olive grove or agora, and among the poets they discuss, Ovid, just for the irony. But can I be bothered? Probably not. I don’t think this tale, as Russell has portrayed it, quite does justice to Ovid’s Pygmalion the way Shaw did. And so, maybe I’ll leave that idea for one of Russell’s true believers.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 26 October 2016 in Canberra Theatre, The Q, Theatre

 

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Death and the Maiden

death-and-the-maidenI’ve heard of Death and the Maiden for many years, but I had never seen it, so it was fitting that my first exposure to it occurred at the ANU Drama Lab, where I enjoyed so many lectures as an undergraduate (and a member of NUTS). I really had no idea what I was missing: what a thrilling little psychodrama it turned out to be!

Though it is set in the aftermath of Augusto Pinochet’s removal as president of Chile, it deals with universal themes of forgiveness and the pursuit of justice. Dorfman’s script is astutely sparse, leaving a lot of room for creatives to work these themes through.

And Sammy Moynihan has taken on that challenge admirably.

This production is suitably spartan, with white walls allowing for characters to play in the shadows throughout, a perfect symbol for their shadowy dealings and the uncertainty of their histories. In this era of dodgy dealings and questionable political machinations throughout the Anglosphere, this play is eerily relevant, and mildly disturbing.

Daniel Greiss gives a stand-out performance as Roberto in this production. He manages to elicit pathos without quite nailing down his innocence (or otherwise) for the audience. Georgia-Cate Westcott’s Paulina is suitably unstable and unnerving, and Regis Hiljekamp, as her husband Gerardo, meets her unbalanced mind with unnerving appropriateness and an increasing imbalance of his own.

While the timing was off for lighting changes and occasionally for dialogue, the cast maintained an air of uncertainty, aided impeccably by a spectacular string quartet directed by Enrica Wong. Actually, even if it weren’t for Dorfman’s script and some lovely performances, this production would be worth the effort just to hear the quartet.

This is an impressive production for NUTS, and I’m glad I got to see it.

 

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The Greek Project: Antigone

antigone 1It’s with some discomfort that I admit, despite reading it at uni quite some time ago, I never followed the story of Antigone. I have, I think, nodded my way through many conversations, wishing I knew what people were talking about (and I apologise, dear reader, if you’ve been the speaker and interpreted my nodding as comprehension rather than a timid shame). The truth is, apart from some vague awareness that Antigone is the centre of a great tragedy and that she epitomised the Ancient Greek ideal of womanly virtue, I never managed to follow the plot.

Until now.

Canberra Youth Theatre’s production is an engaging and moving piece of theatre that liberates the story and presents it in a manner that is accessible and clear to a twenty-first century audience. It also gives me the impression of being truly believable as a 2,500 year-old play from our antipodes. That in itself is an impressive paradox.

Kitty Malam, in the role of Antigone, is technically solid and anchors the action brilliantly. I would have appreciated, given how much the Thebans honoured her, stronger engagement with the audience. Richard Cotta’s Creon, on the other hand, was brilliantly balanced: truly arrogant and inaccessible one moment, he nonetheless elicited true moments of sympathy, having had his own pride back him into a corner. This was a theme that resonated particularly well this week in this city, as we’ve watched our prime minister severely humbled in circumstances that should have been within his control.

Between these two contenders for our sympathy, the remaining cast engage brilliantly. The decision to present as much of the story physically (eschewing the Ancients’ love of just saying many words while standing still, much like the aforementioned prime minister) was the right one: it liberates the story from the weight of words it was originally created with. Given the collaborative nature of the project, the production truly shows this to be an accomplished cast. Their performance skills do much to affirm the quality of actors coming from Canberra Youth Theatre’s brilliant program. None moreso, perhaps, than Isha Menon, who strikes just the right chord as the paternally-authoritative Tiresias.

But what is truly impressive is the depth of expression these young people have developed in presenting this story in modern Canberra. They have not merely been led by someone older and wiser to portray Sophocles’ characters, but have explored them with the curiosity and drive that most young Canberrans reserve exclusively for hunting Pokémon. Canberra Youth Theatre has done the hard yards, and no longer will I nod pretentiously: thanks to this production, my nods about Antigone will either be deeply meaningful or superficially polite, but nevermore pretentious.

 
 

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The Glass Menagerie

the glass menagerieIt’s truly inspiring when a design just breathes new life into an old script. Michael Hankin’s design for this production has as much to do with its success as the brilliant performers who embody Tennessee Williams’ dark and soulful characters.

Like Shakespeare did so many times, Williams has landed on some truly universal human themes. No matter how far removed from the American south we might be, we recognise the mother whose concern for her children and whose disappointment in her own life leads her to place unreasonable pressure on her son and fail to recognise when her daughter is overwhelmed. We recognise the futility of an existence that provides just enough comfort to persist with, but doesn’t offer enough hope to spur us to action.

Pamela Rabe’s portrayal of Amanda Wingfield, the faded southern belle, is energetic and ugly. She truly manages to balance portraying the caring mother with the desperately incompetent. This balance is in turn critical for Luke Mullins’ deeply moving portrayal of the hapless Tom.

Even at the point when Tom drags his mother to the floor and confronts her with her ugliness, it’s hard to criticise him. He bears her histrionics with patience until he no longer can, and we can only watch as their fate unfolds. All of these characters are worthy of both compassion and criticism. Victims of circumstance, their pursuit of their dreams is as valiant as it is futile.

This futility is beautifully presented by a truly exceptional cast, and demonstrated by the use of a set that isolates the action into an apartment that sits on the stage like a rigid box, then lets us inside with the use of cameras and screens, presenting images unmistakably reminiscent of Hollywood’s golden age. The melodrama, ironically undermined by drawing the audience’s attention to film techniques, holds a grain of truth that justifies the emotive excesses of the dialogue.

Perhaps it is simply the case that Laura’s life, spent obsessing over her long-gone father’s records and her collection of glass animals, is the most complete of them all, the interruptions of her family merely pointless intrusions on the only thing that brings her peace.

 

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The Pride

the prideContrasting the closeted lives of gay men in the twentieth century with the more open lives of gay men in the twenty-first has become something of a sport. There’s a lot to celebrate, more to change, and of course, plenty we can learn. But I think we need to be careful about the sensitivities involved. The Pride is not insensitive, but it does come a little too close to preaching for my liking. A symptom, perhaps, of biting off more than can be chewed in a single play.
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Two stories, one about a pair of gay men who have an affair in the 1950s, and the other about a gay couple who break up because of infidelity in the present day, are interwoven to present the contrast. Alexi Kaye Campbell’s play is at once a celebration of the liberation of sexual identities, and a polemic against the cultural relics of the closeted past.
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Though possibly a little on the static side (events are often described rather than enacted), the dialogue is thoughtful and engaging. There is enough left to subtext to give the play’s five main characters some real depth, and to let Matt Minto, Simon London and Alexi Kaye Campbell show us their considerable talents. Unfortunately, Kyle Kazmarzik isn’t given the same opportunity, as his three characters are little more than caricatures.
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Minto in particular shows marvellous sensitivity in transitioning between his discreet 1950s character Oliver, and his rather more raging queen, also called Oliver, in the present day. The use of the same name is, I think, a clever device to remind us that the way we live our lives is largely determined by our cultural millieux. Minto certainly carries this well.
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Against Simon London as Philip, his closest friend and possibly even his conscience in the present day, he is brilliantly vulnerable and empowered. The 1950s Oliver also finds Geraldine Hakewill’s Sylvia, as the wife of his lover, a surprising ally in his weakness. Her weakness in this context as a straight woman is likewise measured and exuding wisdom. It is a well-balanced nuance to give her the final voice in the play.
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Despite some brilliantly nuanced characters, in building a picture of the damage caused by centuries of community denial of gay identities, I fear The Pride has become overly negative. It lacks, to some degree, sensitivity to the positive lives that the queer community have eeked out for themselves since they were sent into the closets. It does explore with both sensitivity and cynicism the lingering cultural relics of the closeted centuries, such as cruising and cottaging, but it walks a fine line between preaching and remonstrating, which I think labours the point somewhat.
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Overall, The Pride is an engaging story, and it has enjoyed a very sensitive and thoughtful production at the hands of Shane Bosher.
 
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Posted by on Sunday, 6 March 2016 in Darlinghurst Theatre, Sydney Theatre, Theatre

 

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