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Category Archives: Canberra Theatre

The Judas Kiss

In the light of the civil rights movements of the last five decades, the various ways to interpret the facts of Oscar Wilde’s life seem almost kaleidoscopic. Even in the two decades since David Hare wrote The Judas Kiss, our perspectives on queer rights have moved so dramatically that material of this age frequently jars current sensibilities. Perhaps because of its subject matter, but probably more because of Hare’s focus on the people he was writing about, the play doesn’t suffer from any such awkwardness.

The first act is encountered in a single scene in which Wilde has the opportunity to flee England and escape arrest for gross indecency. Those who hold influence over him try to persuade him in different directions before it is too late, and the wordy dialogue presents a number of reasons for him to stay or to go. Whether Wilde allowed the police to arrest him in a misguided belief that he would never be incarcerated, or in a rather premature expression of gay pride, his courageous foolhardiness shines through brilliantly.

And it is this courageous foolhardiness that I find most inspiring about the Oscar Wilde presented in this production.

David Hare’s heavily verbose script is lightened by inspired direction from Karina Hudson (with the support of Alexandra Pelvin). Despite the weight of words Hare burdens the actors with, each of the three central characters shine through with a life and vivacity that is rare with such a piece.

What is perhaps most surprising is to see the conflicts that currently play out within the queer community about how we engage with the societies we live in, playing out in a story twelve decades old. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

For me at least, this was a deeply moving production of a carefully constructed play. It honours Wilde’s memory while also recognising his humanity, and you can’t ask for more than that.

 

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Oedipus Scmoedipus

Blood, as Stoppard’s tragedian says, is compulsory.

The auditorium at the Playhouse goes dark for a moment before the curtain shoots into the fly tower and two women wearing white are flooded with blinding white light in front of a white backdrop and a white stage. The audience gasps as their eyes react to the onslaught and giggle a little while they wait for something to happen…

The rest of this post is published on Australian Stage.

 
 

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Much Ado About Nothing

Canberra’s sunsets are a little short for Shakespeare, but the timing was pretty damn near perfect for Shakespeare by the Lakes’ debut tonight.

A bright and committed team of enthusiasts have brought back Canberra’s outdoor performances of Shakespeare, and they should be commended for the way in which they galvanised the community and pulled together such a great performance.

The costumes are reminiscent of Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 film, and Izaac Beach’s Claudio is, astonishingly, even more cloying than Robert Sean Leonard’s from that same film. Lexi Sekuless is the standout, I feel: one of the most beautifully balanced Beatrices I’ve ever encountered, and she’s matched brilliantly by Duncan Driver’s Benedick.

I especially appreciate the way in which the space is used. In front of Tuggeranong Town Park’s rather sad little stage, the performers engage the audience with direct address, entering the performance space through the audience and even extending in amongst the picnic rugs at times. It’s an authentic and relatable way to treat the bard we so often revere but rarely embrace.

I did have some sympathy for the poor sound technicians: the wind picked up in the afternoon and the performers’ mics told us all about it. It was at times difficult to hear the voices, especially when, to minimise the problem, the operators turned the mics off and back on as required, frequently suffering a lag in reconnection.

It is a big decision in this context whether to amplify or not. The use of microphones, even when there’s no need to compensate for wind, kills a lot of expression, and it is difficult to recover. But in an outdoor space like this, amplification is sadly necessary. It doesn’t help that the ACT Government, despite investing substantially in outdoor performance venues, couldn’t even be bothered applying the technology perfected by the Greeks 2,500 years ago. A simple amphitheatre would eliminate the need for soul-crushing PA systems, but we’re stuck with flat auditoria like a people who have no access to the wisdom of ancient civilisations! /rant

Despite this difficulty, a talented cast certainly made the most of the the deftly-trimmed script, and gave an appreciative audience a show worthy of the investment made by the show’s sponsors. I hope to be enjoying Shakespeare by the Lakes for many years to come.

 

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 14 February 2018 in Canberra Theatre, Shakespeare by the Lakes, Theatre

 

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Versions of Us

First show back in Canberra, and I’m impressed. In a performance that would be right at home as part of the Edinburgh Fringe (oh, how I miss Fringe!), Canberra Youth Theatre present a series of stories that evoke a sense of what it means to be one’s self in the way we relate to others.

The stories all centre on adolescents exploring the way they understand and present themselves. It’s an important theme in adolescence, but it is something we grapple with all through life, so the production has a broader appeal than I think was necessarily intended from reading the program. It is apparent from the quality of the end result that all contributors have put a lot into this production.

The one thing I’m less than impressed with is the use of snippets. This is a frequent result from group-devised theatre, as it allows a relatively purist way of including a large number of participants and a wide range of ideas without bending them. But I always find works that provide snippets of stories involving many characters less satisfying than plays with a contiguous plot arc and deeper characters.

In this instance, it is a relatively small gripe. The lighting and sound design does bring a range of experiences of the one theme together, and the play flows well from one plot to the next. It helps that these young people are natural performers experiencing the benefit of working with CYT’s excellent tutors. And it helps, too, that its theme and the plots chosen bear out a commitment to honesty.

The program says that the creators sought to avoid “the fake teen angst stereotype”, and they certainly achieved this. At every juncture, I found myself invested in the characters’ lives, and empathising with the angst they were expressing. The balance achieved to establish an angst that doesn’t feel forced is a worthy accomplishment, and the writer, director and performers should be proud of it.

Honestly, I’d have been grateful just to have an hour feeling like I’m back in Edinburgh’s dank, dark theatrical spaces; Canberra Youth Theatre delivered this and more.

 
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Posted by on Saturday, 14 October 2017 in Canberra Theatre, Canberra Youth Theatre, Theatre

 

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Talk

I was more than impressed by the set when I entered the Playhouse for tonight’s performance of Talk. Two levels and three separate spaces fill the stage, and I anticipate a masterpiece, judging by this work of art.

By halfway through, I’m disappointed.

Jonathan Biggins’ script deals with heady themes that are particularly pertinent in the current climate. News cycles, declining newspaper sales, irresponsible journalism and public broadcasters all come under scrutiny. And the resulting cacophony is as vague and impenetrable as the world it attempts to critique.

The complex set, while impressive, doesn’t help matters. It is broken, really, into three ‘panes’, which don’t interact with each other. Granted, the story takes place in three separate spheres that barely intersect, but the end result is a disjointed plot, and that’s something I don’t really find endearing.

Biggins’ naturalistic and humorous dialogue, even when it was delivered so well by the talented cast, doesn’t quite overcome the disjointed nature of the piece, and although I was engrossed enough to want to know what happens, I’m not sure I really cared that much about any of the characters.

Talk is a valiant attempt to critique this point in our history, and the journalistic forces that are shaping it, but it falls a long way short of a masterpiece.

 
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Posted by on Friday, 2 June 2017 in Canberra Theatre Centre, The Playhouse, Theatre

 

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The Addams Family

addamsI laughed along heartily at The Addams Family, mainly because the cast worked so well to engage their audience. If only the musical itself was a little more innovative, this would be a brilliant show.

There was a palpable shift a little way into this opening night. It felt to me like nerves were very raw at first, but within twenty minutes or so, that was gone, and the receptive audience had warmed them up. Tim Stiles, in the role of Uncle Fester, seemed to be at centre stage when they clicked into gear, but the whole cast rallied beautifully as an ensemble and it was a beautiful thing to see this shift.

I loved the sharp attitude Lainie Hart brought to Morticia, and Gordon Nicholson delivered plenty of laughs as a trapped Gomez (I am impressed that he balanced the script’s stereotypes with some more subtle characterisation). In all, the cast and orchestra delivered a receptive audience with a truly engaging night of entertainment, despite working with a second-rate script.

I felt slightly uncomfortable about the paradox of a Spanish-American family who’d apparently migrated in the eighteenth century but still had a a Spanish accent and identified themselves as immigrants two hundred years later. Writing in 2009, I think Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice could have attempted to be more respectful, but it probably didn’t occur to anyone involved to consider the imperialism inherent in classifying anyone who isn’t an Anglo American as an immigrant. And it’s hardly a central element of the plot.

Regardless of the unfortunate stereotyping, the story and the values it espouses remain strong, and this, after all, is a light, fluffy musical comedy that trades on the reputation of a classic sitcom rather than the competence or cultural awareness of the writers for its success. It’s not an exploration of metaphysical significance or even a reimagining of a classic, but a vaguely-reasonable attempt to capitalise on nostalgia and turn a profit. It’s fun, and this cast enjoyed themselves enough to take the opening night crowd on a bit of a romp.

Perhaps these characters don’t ring completely true to the TV show I grew up with, but do we really expect them to? In the fifty years since The Addams Family ceased filming, our culture has shifted dramatically. Certain values have held fast, and this musical makes a valiant effort to be relevant… I’m just not convinced that remaking classics just for the nostalgia value is a worthwhile pursuit. Profitable, perhaps: but hardly insightful. And as much as I appreciate the odd bit of fluff, these times call for insight. And the book just doesn’t deliver however much the cast attempts to redeem it.

 
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Posted by on Friday, 3 March 2017 in Canberra Theatre, The Q, 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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