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Cannonballl

Cannonball starts well.

I’m impressed by the dialogue. I’m impressed by the actors. I’m impressed that it’s genuinely naturalistic and the media being projected is atmospheric and well coordinated.

Slowly, though, it unravels. Maybe I missed a thread somewhere, a vital piece of information that I needed to follow the plot. It started with two mates talking about girls, then one of them ends up with a girlfriend who becomes a wife and has a baby… and he slowly descends into a kind of depression, until the play peters out with us wondering whether he’ll take his own life or not.

By the end it’s feels terribly melodramatic without enough plot to carry the emotion. Which is a shame, given the promise the beginning held.

The quality of the performances don’t really decline, nor does the quality of dialogue, which is why I think it might be me who missed something. If you’re reading this, and you’ve seen it (as opposed to if you’re in it, or maybe even then!), let me know what you thought.

 
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Posted by on Thursday, 17 August 2017 in British Theatre, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Theatre

 

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Wordplay

From the moment you walk in, Jess and Nick insist that you feel at home. Straddling the line between theatre and cabaret, this clever and well-written little piece explores the way we use words and how they can shape us and our interactions, so that welcome is highly strategic.

They insist it’s a play, but with a static set, audience engagement beginning before they kick off, and interjections on the way through, cabaret seems a more appropriate descriptor. The truth is it defies labels, but draws the audience into a conversation between two co-workers, chews up their sense of semantic signification, and spits it back at them unceremoniously.

Whether the use of audience involvement (yes they dragged me up the front) really works or not, I am unsure. On one hand, it stilts the third character: but at the same time, the irony of using someone unfamiliar with the material to deliver the most articulate assessment of the theme in a manner that is highly verbose and completely impenetrable, is a delicious irony. And I’m a big fan of irony.

If you happen to be fringeside, check them out.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 16 August 2017 in Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Theatre, Uncategorized

 

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Play Something

I love the concept behind Play Something. There’s a DJ on stage, and when the characters need musical accompaniment, they tell her to play something, sometimes something specific, sometimes something general.

There are also only two characters, but they’re played by four actors, younger and older manifestations of the same person. And when they’re not on, they stand at a microphone, like a chorus.

these simple concepts are a refreshing way to tell a story.

And that story is relatively simple, but beautiful in its simplicity. Two guys meet in a club, one looking for Mr Right, the other for Mr Right Now. The one seeking Mr Right gives the other a blow job, then bugs him until more develops. What could possibly go wrong?

And there are some deeply moving performances, too. Jacko Pook, whose aggressive, monosyllabic character was only looking for Mr Right Now, develops lovely moments of humility, and as the older character who had been seeking Mr Right, Shane Whitworth is likewise compelling in grief.

But ultimately, despite some clever storytelling and truly golden moments, the story falls flat. There are moments when the stage feels crowded from all the non-characters on it, and others where the dialogue really doesn’t carry the emotion. I wanted the DJ to be up in the bio box, or for the chorus to be at the side.

Thankfully, there was enough in the performance for me to develop an empathy for the characters, and I was moved by the ending. I just wanted the piece to feel a little less jaunty and a little more wavy, if you know what I mean. Then I could have gone along for the ride.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 16 August 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Not About Heroes

My first show at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe was this rather intense exploration of the relationship between Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. And after flying from San Francisco to Edinburgh and coming directly to the theatre, it’s an achievement not to be understated, that the play held my attention throughout.

The simple set being used for this fringe run works brilliantly, and provides excellent scope for the two performers to establish varied locations and times. Daniel Llewellyn-Williams, playing Sassoon, builds a strong presence in the early stages of the play, and transitions well to the rather more fragile Sassoon who reminisces at the end of the war. Iestyn Arwel, playing Owen, marks an inverse transition. It would be easy to dismiss the strength of his performance in the early stages, but the character is brilliantly established.

This is a strong piece exploring the relationship between two historical figures who were passionate about showing the horror, and not the glory of war. It is especially pertinent in the world’s current state, though it could perhaps draw a slightly longer bow into the present to ensure it doesn’t merely register as a history play.

 
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Posted by on Tuesday, 15 August 2017 in Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Theatre

 

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13 Reasons Why

I’ve held off writing about 13 Reasons Why for some time. Why? Well, you might be pleased to know there aren’t 13 reasons.

I was impressed with it immediately. My partner and I watched several episodes each time we turned it on, and we got so caught up in the characters and their story that we knocked over the whole series in a matter of a few bleary-eyed days.

At the end, when I was ready to sing the series’ praises from the rooftops, a friend posted an article criticising it for the way it portrayed its prime protagonist. That protagonist (there are two) is dead as the series begins, having committed suicide and left thirteen cassettes for her schoolmates, who she collectively blames for her decision to take her own life. My friend’s post was quickly joined by a cacophony of condemnation for this series that had seemed to me remarkable in terms of its quality of dialogue, characterisation and cinematography. These criticisms, all of which were centred on its sociological context rather than its dramatic qualities, seemed well formed to me at the time, and left me feeling disappointed—maybe even guilty—that I enjoyed the series so much. Some felt that Hannah (the deceased character) should have demonstrated an average of journeys to suicide, rather than presenting just one experience. Others felt that her portrayal of the act of slitting her wrists, and the very explicit nature of her suicide, was a bridge too far, and that the act of killing herself should have been omitted. And some were deeply concerned with the fact that Clay (the other protagonist) accepts her laying the blame on her schoolmates.

Having thought about it for quite a few weeks, I now believe these criticisms almost entirely unfounded. I regret being swayed by them. This is truly a masterpiece of modern television, one that deserves every accolade. Indeed, I think the criticisms themselves a testament to the quality of writing, directing and performance on display (there would be no criticism if the show didn’t make an impact).

I think one of the reasons I may disagree with the show’s detractors is that I am principally concerned with the dramatic art form, whereas they seem more concerned with the sociological effects of the work. While that is a noble concern, and one I share, a critique of an artwork must remain couched in the terms of the art form. We don’t assess psychologists’ performance based on the dramatic tension in the room as they work, or their ability to convince us that they care, so why would we assess a dramatists’ work based on the psychological health of the audience? The fact is, dramaticised stories don’t deal in generalities. Hannah could never portray the full gamut of life experiences that may lead a person to take their own life. Likewise, Clay could never portray the full gamut of responses to suicide. These are two specific characters, living in a specific context, and they tell a specific story. Generalities are tolerable in literature or the visual arts, but they have no place in the dramatic arts.

In the course of telling their story, they should prompt more general discussion, but it is not the role of a dramatic work to lock down our response to suicide (or any other social concern); rather, it is our role to open it up. And on this front, 13 Reasons Why performs brilliantly. The characters present a broad range of positions and opinions. Their reactions and responses are diverse. Some of them are positive and helpful, others are less so, and some are downright dangerous. And in presenting this range in an engaging and forthright manner, 13 Reasons Why has opened conversations, allowed us to make judgements and form opinions that we might not otherwise address.

Clay, the protagonist we follow throughout the series, is a brilliant composition. He responds from the gut, sometimes with emotional intelligence, other times without, but he is genuine and relatable throughout. This is a remarkable achievement. We can be frustrated by the foolishness of his response, or by the slowness of his response, but we can’t criticise him for being an automaton or a mouthpiece for a psychologist. He’s an adolescent character that rings true with our emotions and reflects our values.

Perhaps it is because Clay is the narrative voice throughout the series that some of the series’ detractors feel that he must be an omniscient presence. As if he not only knows everything that happened, but also knows how to resolve it in the best way possible. Clay, though, is an adolescent dealing with a deeply troubling event. His narration must be read as his thoughts, and nothing more.

And because Hannah also bears the hallmarks of narrator, through her tapes, she, too, can be mistaken for an omniscient presence. This is an equally errant reading: Hannah is even more compromised in her ability to assess the actions of others. her narration, too, is just her reading of the situation.

Perhaps what annoys me most about the criticisms of this series is that too many people seem to be caught up on the notion that what the protagonists say is the whole truth. A protagonist can only ever speak their own truth. And most of the time, the truth is actually in between the lines; in the subtext. And the truth in this case is deeply complex, opening up challenges and dilemmas, and expecting the viewer to resolve them. Just like all good dramatic works do.

Ultimately, that is why I am so impressed by 13 Reasons Why. There is no apology. There is no hiding from the complexity. They don’t even hide from the blood. And as the player in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead says when he sums up the essential truth of all dramatic works:

“We’re more of the blood, love and rhetoric school. Well, we can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, or we can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and we can do you all three, concurrent or consecutive. But we can’t give you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory — they’re all blood, you see.”

 
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Posted by on Tuesday, 13 June 2017 in Netflix, Television, Uncategorized

 

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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 Age of Bones (Jaman Belulang)

On an island at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago, a boy complains that his mother feeds him only rice, and is sent fishing. When he doesn’t return, the distraught parents enlist the help of an ageing local fisherman with a reputation for knowing his way around the sea. So begins a compelling retelling of a story that got lost in the 24 hour news cycle.

Sandra Thibodeaux’s engaging script was developed with the help of the Indonesian families unwittingly caught up in a political game that could hardly be more remote from their world. Rather than a land girt by sea, this Australia, as experienced by this unprepared boy, is as confusing and hostile as a sea girt by ocean. Thibodeaux’s play utilises both Indonesian and Australian traditions and iconography as reference points, anchoring this confused boy’s experience for the audience.

The result is stunning. Set, costumes, video and puppetry combine smoothly to create a sense of simplicity that belies the many modes of communication being employed. The old narrator’s declining memory and eyesight provide slapstick relief from the story’s tragic ebbs and flows, and help to link us back in to the unfolding tragedy. Indeed, the play as a whole is inviting and riveting, and truly a joy to see.

You don’t have long left to get in to see it in Canberra, but if you miss it, you’ll be able to see it in Sydney next week. Don’t muck about.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 8 March 2017 in 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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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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Ladies Day

Matthew Backer and Lucia Mastrantone in Ladies DaySome Australians reject rural and remote Australia as irrelevant to modern life, while others seem to hold onto a nostalgic view of the country as a rough and rugged pastoral wonderland no matter how urbane the populace becomes. The truth, as usual, is somewhere between the opposing perceptions.

It’s surprising, in this context, that a 1990s film focused on a group of drag queens bridged the gap between outback Australia and urban Australia, busting outback mythology while also humanising and endearing the queer community to the rest of the country.

By contrasting the glitz of drag with the rugged beauty of the continent’s interior, Priscilla positioned the urbane and somewhat vacuous queens of Sydbourne and Melney as quintessentially Australian. As Australian, if you like, as pubs, red sandy deserts and big red rocks.

Alana Valentine’s Ladies Day builds on Priscilla‘s success in bringing these diverse experiences of Australia together. The plot centres on the experience of Mike, who is invited to shake things up on Ladies Day at the Broome Races by gracing the catwalk in drag. And grace it he does. Wade Briggs, as Mike, is spectacular in pink, with precarious gold stilettos and a fascinator that lives up to its name. The motive behind this unusual invitation is his friend’s mission to build Broome’s economy through queer tourism by uniting businesses in a fledgling organisation called Pink Broome. Liam, complete with a broom he painted pink, is really the driving force behind the entire plot, and Matthew Backer, who plays him, is the core energy on stage. He makes it easy to suspend disbelief, and along with the rest of the cast he delivers Valentine’s impeccable dialogue with the sophistication of a seasoned performer.

It’s not only Valentine’s dialogue that positions this play well. The interspersing of acapella vocals and direct address monologues, all of which are integral to the developing narrative, weave a complex picture of Australia’s political and cultural millieux at this point in history. Valentine doesn’t shy away from presenting the horror of sexual abuse, and I found myself so deeply engaged in the story at one point that I almost found myself shouting from the auditorium. I did have my wits sufficiently about me to remember that I was in a theatre, and that these were actors and that I should stay in my seat and keep my mouth shut (though I’m not entirely sure these customs are universally appropriate in the theatre: Shakespeare would probably have felt a sense of failure if he saw how modern audiences respond (or fail to respond) to his work).

I am impressed, more than anything else, with Valentine’s positioning of her characters’ experiences. No experience has a higher value than any other. Straight characters can be as damaged by assault as queer. Melney and Sydbourne are as risky and as endearing as Broome. But what matters is how we grow, either from our experiences, or in spite of them.

While I have some reservations about plot decisions late in the play that risk confusing the core narrative, this is truly one of the most vital and engaging works I have seen on stage this century.

 

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They’ve Already Won

theyve-already-won-belvoir-harriet-gillies-pierce-wilcoxI’m not sure what I’ve just seen, but I think I like it. I suspect, and I might just be a little dazed and confused, but it seems it was probably Facebook the Musical.

It’s certainly the closest thing I’ve ever seen to Facebook on a stage: a maze of garbled messages written in sentence fragments, political diatribes interspersed with soft porn and 39 Renaissance Babies Who Can’t Even. It’s the first time someone’s actually read a BuzzFeed post to me, and I kinda liked it. I’m no closer to knowing how to even, but I’ve certainly been convinced that we are all doomed by our inability to communicate.

The show is less play and more, well, I don’t know what it is. Five acts, apparently connected, featuring every kind of performance art from beatboxing to interpretive dance. Harriet and Pierce do everything themselves, it seems. The blackouts operated from a lighting desk on stage and a remote control, and the frequent use of a laptop and projector to remind us that we’re really focused on the internet’s true bottom feeders.

And dull moments? There were quite a few. Perhaps not as many as featured on the actual internet, but the odd creaking hinge could not have more potently reminded me of those moments when I find myself scrolling through masses of absolute rubbish on Facebook until I find myself wondering why I’m looking at something with yet another title like he churns butter in a suit, but when he clenches his buttocks… unbelievable! when there are far more interesting things to do.

I’ve certainly experienced more coherent shows. And more interesting shows. But I’m not at all ready to write this one off. Harriet and Pierce have a point. I’m just not sure what the point is.

Whatever the point is, the show is sure to get you thinking, and is an entertaining way to spend an hour.

 
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Posted by on Tuesday, 16 February 2016 in Canberra Theatre, Gorman House, Theatre

 

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Teddy Ferrara

teddy ferraraThough somewhat confused, Teddy Ferrara is an engaging piece with some intriguing characters and an excellent cast.

Set on a university campus that sees more than it’s fair share of suicide, it explores the lives of a range of gay and not-so-gay characters and how they intersect around stigma and social activism. It’s absolutely engaging, deals with important issues that must be addressed, but it doesn’t quite manage to hold together as well as I wanted it to.

I fear it may be too politically-minded to be of any practical good. It covers, I think, too much ground, and delves into so many political issues that its narrative is mired and somewhat unclear. It wants to be at once a story while also being a missive, and in trying to be both, it succeeds at being neither. The missive’s premise, it seems, is articulated by a minor character, rather than, as should be the case on stage, demonstrated by the central plot. The very title itself obfuscates the drama by implying that the central plot is that of Teddy Ferrara, which it is not, by any means. Far prettier characters (I’m not just talking about the actors portraying them, but also these characters’ charisma) steal the show, with Teddy ending up little more than a plot device. Or perhaps that’s not true: the stories they tell are also compelling.

And this is the play’s biggest flaw. The playwright, Christopher Shinn, has developed several compelling stories, all of them worth telling:

  • Gabe’s somewhat pragmatic romance with Drew, interrupted by personal traumas and mild betrayals, would make a brilliant variation on the usual romantic play where the central characters, instead of falling madly in love, fall gently into a mixture of like and lust.
  • Jay’s interest in Gabe could be more than a mere subplot to that story.
  • Teddy Ferrara could also warrant a play that was actually about him, exploring the multiple personas of those who live online to escape the trauma of actual human interaction.
  • The ostensibly platonic relationship between Gabe and Tim would be an interesting drama.
  • The university president, with his hilarious working relationship with the provost, and their interactions with student representative groups could make a brilliant comedy.

As it stands, none of these narratives really take centre stage.

Despite the mild confusion of the competing sub-plots, Gabe, portrayed annoyingly (which is entirely appropriate) by Luke Newberry, was front and centre as a character. He is a wet handkerchief. Ostensibly altruistic and kind, but born with the benefits of good looks, and white male privilege, and displaying them in the worst possible way. His membership of the LGBTIQ minority is really the only reason he comes across with any sense of altruism at all. He is a poor choice for the university’s diversity panel, and of course endears himself to the establishment.

He is supported by the noteworthy performances of Ryan McParland, who is brilliantly awkward and absolutely endearing as the Teddy of the title, Nathan Wiley as his closeted questioning friend Tim, and Oliver Johnstone, whose irksome portrayal of the principled and very controlling boyfriend is not in any way endearing but nonetheless very recognisable and absolutely believable.

So I am left a little flat. The play was engaging and the performances brilliant. But at the risk of being as annoyingly principled as Drew, I must remind myself that although a politician may articulate, a playwright must demonstrate. It is something I always try to remember when writing, though I, too, fail.

 
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Posted by on Saturday, 28 November 2015 in British Theatre, Donmar Warehouse, Theatre

 

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La Soiree

la soireeGobsmacked.

Many of you know I’m not big on variety shows, acrobatics or sight gags. Circus is all well and good, but I’d rather see a film usually. Well this is not much more than a circus, but it is so much more than a circus! La Soiree line up consummate professionals to impress and engage.

Take Captain Frodo, for instance. He’s billed as the son of a famous Norse magician, and brilliantly portrays a super nerdy and uber skinny buffoon. He doesn’t rest on his ability to pass through a tennis racket and a slightly smaller tennis racket, oh no! He plays the buffoon with the utmost professionalism, getting himself tangled up in a microphone cord, tripping over a stool and falling off the stage. It is this aspect of his routine, of course, that endears him so well to the audience, bringing a great round of applause when he returns in the second half. It is also why I was so taken with this show.

It’s just not about the amazing feats of acrobatics or the spectacle, no matter how impressive they are: it’s about the way they engage.

The English Gents perform some brilliant acrobatic work, but there would be nothing terribly interesting beyond the skill involved if they weren’t puffing a pipe or reading a newspaper while doing so.

And for those of you who usually like the circus, well you’re easily impressed, so there’s no need to bother with La Soiree, but if you do decide to come, be prepared to have the bar raised!

 
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Posted by on Thursday, 26 November 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Macbeth

macbethI fear I may be less impressed by this film than I should be.

The fact is, I think it’s very true to Shakespeare’s intentions. Had the muse of fire that we know as the cinema been invented during his lifetime, I expect this is very much how he would have imagined his play. A very Scottish Thane, rather than a slightly Gaelified English Lord, is met in battle, defeating King Duncan’s enemy in a bloodbath. He meets witches on the heath as it snows, and his wife is met in a rustic wooden cottage in a tiny village. When the king arrives, he stays in a tent. There is no hint here of English imperialism; Shakespeare’s English fable is as it should be: foreign.

In this aspect, the film distinguishes itself. It avoids the unfortunate assumptions of English and American producers which lead to a hybrid English/Scottish aesthetic, and presents The Scottish Play as if it were actually Scottish.

The performances also: spectacular! Fassbender is the quintessential Macbeth: astute, hirsute and when needed, a brute. He mixes genuine humanity with resolute barbarity. Marion Cottilard, too, is as conniving and “full of direst cruelty” as she ought to be, until her husband’s unerring barbarity tips her over the edge.

But still, I find myself craving a little more imagination. This is the Macbeth I read in high school and at university. I teach this Macbeth. It is the standard Macbeth. The Macbeth with factory fittings, or you might say, it is a Macbeth in original, mint condition. I don’t dislike it, but it’s hardly worth noticing.

At least with Geoffrey Wright’s film I thought it was disappointing. This is worse. Macbeth is protrayed absolutely perfectly, as is medieval Scotland, and I don’t care. I should care: Justin Kurzel, the film’s Australian director, should have given me a reason to care! I paid £14, an absurd sum, to be made to care, and yet, I don’t care. This is a perfect film for teaching Macbeth, unfortunately, and will probably be with us for many years to come as a result. I’m not unhappy about that. I just don’t care.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 25 November 2015 in British Film, Film, See Saw Films

 

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