Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Theatre: I Am My Own Wife (★★★★)

by Doug Wright
Black Swan State Theatre Company
Director and sound designer Joe Lui
Set and costume designer Cherish Marrington
Lighting designer Chris Donnelly
Voice and Dialect coach Luzita Fereday
Performed by Brendan Hanson
STC Studio
Until October 29
(pic: Daniel J Grant)

Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for drama; it’s perhaps a little more surprising that it won the Tony Award for best play the same year.
I say that because we associate the Pulitzer primarily with journalism (although its drama prize is an august award voted on by distinguished theatre critics), and Wright’s work feels as much a long-form character piece, in, say, The New Yorker or on This American Life, adapted for the stage, as a fully formed play.
That’s not to say that its subject, the German transgender personality Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, isn’t a fascinating character, or that her story lacks drama – the mere survival of a public transvestite under both the Nazi and East German regimes could hardly be without that. It’s more that its dramatic form is more akin to reporting a life rather taking us inside it.
This is partly because Wright’s narrative vehicle is the story of his research into, and extensive interviews with, Mahlsdorf shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Wright’s various tribulations – his grant funding running out, his disconcerting discovery of Mahlsdorf’s connections to the Stasi – are incidental to the story and add little to it.
But left to her own devices – and those of Brendan Hanson, who plays Mahlsdorf, Wright and perhaps a dozen other characters in a tour de force performance, and the director Joe Lui, whose conviction and command clicks into gear as soon as they get her alone – the show lifts instantly and to great heights.
Hanson is a natural fit for Charlotte; he has the charisma and subversive Kit Kat Klub glamour for her (I can’t see the Emcee in Cabaret on his resumé – some producer has missed out there) and this allows him to give a surprisingly understated performance with moments of quiet tenderness quite without the histrionics and flounces you might expect from Mahlsdorf and the terrifying world she navigates through. Hanson is capable of hugely entertaining extravagance – it’s a credit to him, and to Lui, that this performance is almost entirely devoid of it.
This restraint is echoed in Cherish Marington’s set of high vertical panels that loom over Mahlsdorf’s domestic collection, and the little gay nightclub she operated in the basement, like the searchlight pillars of the Lichtdom at the rallies in Nuremberg (though, happily, there is not a swastika or hammer and sickle to be seen). Chris Donnelly’s lighting design creates angular glimpses of figures in side streets and cells, bursting into garish colour to frame the talk show interrogation of Mahlsberg’s ambiguous past.
While I Am My Own Wife could be a more dramatic and gripping play than it is, its window into the queer demi-monde of totalitarian Mitteleuropa, and Brendan Hanson’s marvelous performance, makes it a considerable success and well worth your seeing.       

Monday, October 9, 2017

Cabaret: Chiquitita and Fernando (★★★½)

Adele Parkinson and Darren Mapes
Downstairs at the Maj
4 – 7 October
The cabaret season Downstairs at the Maj is a welcome, and underappreciated, respite from the serious stuff up on street level. While a fair bit of its programme can be formulaic, it has a habit of throwing up little gems, sometimes from unlikely places.
Adele Parkinson and Daren Mapes’s Chiquitita and Fernando is one of them.
It’s fairly obvious from the title what you’re in for: an hour and a bit of Abba and a few bits and pieces of Scandipop from Roxette and Ace of Base, among others.
What you mightn’t have expected is its tongue-in-cheek shenanigans and a wacky story laced with on-and-off stage mischiefs.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Proximity Festival


Curated by Kelli McCluskey and Sarah Rowbottam
Cathedral Square until November 5
Tyrone Robinson (pic: PAVLOVA)
I’m something of a Proximity veteran, having tramped around the Blue Room, PICA, the Fremantle Arts Centre, AGWA and, now, Cathedral Square since 2012 in search of the amusement and however big a slice of enlightenment you can get from a quarter hour or so in the hands, or at least the company, of a single performer.
That’s the idea of Proximity; an encounter of one performer with an audience of one, multiplied anything up to twelve (this year a more manageable nine) times, in one precinct.
It’s a challenge for performers, their curators, Kelli McCluskey and Sarah Rowbottam, the producer Megan Roberts and stage management, led by Donelle Gardiner. There’s no disputing it’s also a challenge for the audience.
That challenge for us isn’t logistical – the Proximity team know exactly what they’re doing and how to do it, and you’re shepherded from site to site with practiced skill and a small army of vollies.
It’s more about what you do when you get there. There are some pieces that require your proactive interaction with the artist, some where the artist leads and guides that interaction and some where you need only observe proceedings.
The trick is knowing what you need to do, if you need to do something, and the success of a piece often depends on how clearly that is communicated.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Theatre: Hypatia (★★★)

Devised and performed by The Open Lid Ensemble
The Blue Room Theatre until August 26

What an interesting pair of plays are now on at the Blue Room Theatre.
Scott McArdle’s Laika (reviewed in last weekend’s West) took us inside the Soviet space programme of the 1960’s, and now The Open Lid Ensemble’s Hypatia takes us back to Egypt in the 5th Century CE.
Both plays grow from historical fact and the actual people who made it; both employ imaginative theatrical processes to deliver narrative drive and draw insight from their subjects.
Hypatia (Kat Shaw), the Neoplatonic philosopher, mathematician and astronomer was a leading figure in the intellectual life and political disputes of Alexandria, the ancient melting-pot of ideas, ethnicities and religions, famous for its great library and schools.
And Hypatia was a woman.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Theatre: Laika: A Staged Radio Play (★★★★)

No escape: Soviet brass pay their respects to the remains of cosmonaut Komarov
Written and directed by Scott McArdle
The Blue Room Theatre until August 26

I grew up with spacemen.
They would appear in their white spacesuits and be gone, impossibly upwards, and we would gaze up at the Great Beyond and wonder at the thought of a human riding across it.
The greatest of them was the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (St John Cowcher), the first man in space. It was two days after my seventh birthday, and I was lost among the stars.
Scott McArdle’s Laika: A Staged Radio Play is a gripping and inventive tribute to the men and women (and dogs) of the Soviet Space Programme who lived and died behind the secrets and lies of that shadowy empire.
McArdle has taken some liberties with history, but he’s done so with excellent control and to the great benefit of his story. It was the cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, not Gagarin, who died when his spacecraft plummeted back to earth in 1967 (Gagarin died a year later in a fighter jet crash) but the terrible story is brilliantly told. There were no cosmonauts aboard Sputnik 7 and 8, but we grieve for them nevertheless as they burn and drift into the dark.
The play’s main narrative creation is Natalya Volkov (Taryn Ryan), a technician and candidate cosmonaut who lives through the triumphs and failures of the space programme. Through her we meet the legendary “Chief Designer” Sergei Korolev (Arielle Gray), the feuding missile designers Mikhail Yangel (Cowcher) and Vasily Mishin (Daniel Buckle), and the cosmonauts.
Volkov is a terrific character, brave, wounded, full of hope and fury, and Ryan is a star in the making. Cowcher and Gray are already stars, and are well supported by Buckle and the Foley artist Andrew David, whose sound effects, along with Robert Woods’s compositions and George Ashforth’s historical projections on Sara Nives Chirichilli’s moody set give the play a most impressive look, sound and feel.
As its title suggests, McArdle’s conceit is that this is a radio play, read by a group of friends who stumble across an old script in a deserted studio. There’s no reason to get particularly excited about this top-and-tailing expedient, but it’s a brief and inoffensive vehicle for the telling of a story of real power and quality.


This review appeared in The Weekend West Australian 16.9.17  
 

THEATRE: TILT 2017

WAAPA  3rd Year Performance Making Students
Blue Room Theatre
August 30 - September 9

The Blue Room Theatre is the perfect venue for TILT, the annual showcase of WAAPA’s Performance Making course’s graduating class. It’s exactly the sort of venue these artists will first venture into in the big, wide world outside the academy.

All the pieces in TILT, which is presented in two programmes, are self-devised, and brand new. You look for the talent and personality of the creator/ performers, and the potential for their pieces to take the leap from a half-hour showcase to the hour or so of a full Fringe/Alternative theatre production.
Other TILT shows have made that leap with mixed results; finding character and narrative development, light and shade, is no easy task. Pieces that are essentially skits can be quickly found out in longer formats.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The 2017 Turnstile Awards


Arts minister David Templeman points out the bar to
supremo Duncan Ord at this year's Wild West-themed
(but still glittering) Turnstile Awards ceremony.

There’s been something of a return to form for this year’s Turnstile Awards after 2015/6  saw only three Turnstiles find a new home in the trophy cabinets of their deserving winners.
This year more than double that number have taken home the silverware, while another baker’s dozen would have been deserving winners.
There were over thirty local productions I would have warmly recommended to theatregoers; just as impressively, I did not see a single local production you really needed to avoid. Honestly!

There’s a caveat, though, to all this enthusiasm, and it’s a nasty one.
Going back over the past five years or so I would consistently review somewhere in the high fifty to low sixty “eligible” local productions for The West and/or this blog. This year the number is 45. That’s a really significant drop off in the output of the local theatre business.
(I don’t think it can be explained by a drop-off in my coverage; changes in the newspaper business have meant a severe reduction in the opportunities for freelance contributors, but I’m not aware that it’s changed my efforts to cover locally-produced theatre  – there simply hasn’t been as much of it.)
When you consider that the programmes of the three main theatre outlets in this town – The Blue Room, Black Swan and WAAPA – have roughly the same number of productions each year, and our hot-as-wasabi globe-trotting wunderkinder, the Last Great Hunt, grow ever more productive, that indicates a potentially catastrophic falling off in other parts of the sector.
I constantly argue the case for content; we can build all the infrastructure we like, and cut as many ribbons as we want, but without content – and especially locally-created content – to fill it, it’s all expensive back-slapping.

The Turnstile Awards acknowledge outstanding WA produced (or co-produced) stage shows opening in Perth between September and August each year. They are inclusive, rather than proscriptive, when it comes to eligibility.
There is no set number of Turnstile winners, and no attempt to rank them in order of merit. The Turnstiles are a pat on the back, not the prize in a competition.
Here, in chronological order, are the seven productions that got up for a Turnstile in the past year:
  • Grounded Alison van Reeken, the very best of our actors, was taut and sinewy as the fighter pilot cum drone operator in George Brant’s horrifyingly real journey into bloodless, abstract, modern warfare.
  • The One The arc of a love affair told as a blues by the white-hot writer Jeffrey Jay Fowler and Georgia King and Mark Storen, who both gave career-best performances.
  • The Lighthouse Girl Hellie Turner overcame the intractable untheatricality of fact to fashion a touching and very real love story in the shadow of war and death, highlighted by an outstanding rookie performance as the girl from Daisy Coyle.
  • End Game The pedigrees of the play, the director Andrew Ross, the designer and lighting designer Tyler Hill and Mark Howlett and a fine cast were impeccable, and they delivered Beckett’s bleak vision with wonderful clarity and control. 
  • The Irresistible A singular, wholly-realised theatre experience by the writer and director Zoe Pepper and the performer/collaborators Tim Watts and the ferocious, highly-charged Adriane Daff,
  • Good Little Soldier Ochre Dance Theatre’s Mark Howlett took his text about the scars of war and, working with a talented team of deviser/performers, broke it down into a cross-disciplinary performance that, miraculously, was even greater than the sum of its parts. 
  • The View from the Penthouse In the very last hours of the Turnstiles year, WAAPA Performance Making students Isaac Diamond, Cam Pollock and the genuinely terrifying Sam Hayes concocted a brilliant, noxious cocktail of carnality and addiction.

As always, my selections are inevitably subjective and often idiosyncratic. Better judges than me would no doubt have have seen a Turnstile heading in the direction of these other fine productions: 

By and large the last year of Kate Cherry’s programming for Black Swan has (so far) been impressive. Apart from its two Turnstiles, an archly funny Tartuffe and the talented Will O’Mahony’s Coma Land were especially notable.
WAAPA churns out battalions of talent, and, as a felicitous by-product, some fine productions each year; this time around as well as a Turnstile, their yummy
Present Laughter was one of the best nights out in town.
The Hunters, either individually or collectively, delivered a whole swag of rolled-gold shows this time around; they add two more Turnstiles to their trophy cabinet, and their sharp, sweet shaggy-dog story,
New Owner, was right up there.
No-one, though, comes close to the year the Blue Room and its cohort of independent producers delivered; as well as the two Turnstile-winning shows within its walls, there was a slew of fine productions:
the finely-crafted bar-room blitz PORTO, Samantha Maclean and Timothy Green’s dazzling, sexy Tissue, Mr Greg Fleet’s adroit, profane Signifying Nothing, Izzy McDonald’s touching, truthful Bus Boy and Daisy Coyle’s second star turn of the year in An Almost Perfect Thing.The tiny company that can, Holland St Productions, hit again with the irresistible Gutenberg! The Musical, Azaak Lim’s Malpractical Jokes was the pick of the Downstairs at the Maj season, the Fringe brought us the dark tomfoolery of When He Gets That Way and the little gem, Odd Socks. 
   

 

Let's also hand over honorary Turnstiles to some great visiting shows:
Christopher Samuel Carroll was a tortured, eloquent Satan in
Paradise Lost at the Fringe. Another power-packed PIAF theatre programme was highlighted by  Dmitry Krymov’s savage Opus No. 7, Complicite’s Amazonian aural feast  An Encounter, and, especially, the revelatory, magnificent The Gabriels. Compagnia TPO and Insite Arts took kids, and us, on a wonderful journey across country in Saltbush.
  

 

 


Friday, August 25, 2017

Theatre: Switzerland (★★½)

Giuseppe Rotondella (pic: Philip Gostelow)
by Joanna Murray-Smith
Black Swan State Theatre Company
Director Lawrie Cullen-Tait
Set and costume designer Bruce McKinven
Lighting designer Lucy Birkenshaw
Composer/ Sound designer Ash Gibson Greig
With Jenny Davis and Giuseppe Rotondella
Heath Ledger Theatre
Until September 3

This is the fourth time I’ve gone to Joanna-Murray-Smithland, a favourite destination for our State Theatre Company, and my struggles with her continue. On this occasion altitude sickness is compounded by frustration, because she’s come up with a killer idea, arranged it expertly, but failed to pull it off.
None of the improbabilities and inconsistencies that marred Black Swan’s 2013 production of her Day One, a Hotel, Evening and destroyed 2011’s awful Ninety are here.
This is partly because this Switzerland is not a real place, and the skirmishes between her characters, the real-life novelist Patricia Highsmith (Jenny Davis) and the imagined publishing executive Edward Ridgeway (Giuseppe Rotondella) are phantasmagorical.
In this shifting reality, improbability and inconsistency becomes, if anything, a blessing rather than a curse.
Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Price of Salt/Carol, the five Tom Ripley novels) is boozing and smoking her way towards a lonesome death in grumpy self-imposed exile in Switzerland. She is visited by Ridgeway, a young man from her American publishers. He brings a contract for Highsmith to deliver a sixth and final installment of the Ripliad.
She’s aggressively disinterested in the project, and scornful of Ridgeway, his employers, other writers (the better the more) and anything and anyone else she turns her mind to.
She wants rid of Ridgeway, but he manages, somehow, to stick around. He plies her with gifts, those she demanded he bring with him and one, a beautiful dagger for her collection of antique weapons, unasked for.
He knows these weapons, in surprising detail. He knows her, and he knows her anti-hero. Like a book.
As the idea for the new Ripley story takes shape, it’s Ridgeway rather than Highsmith who brings its snakes and ladders to the table.
From there Switzerland wriggles its way to a climax to the Highsmithian manner born.
That’s the good news. Despite the play’s artfulness, the recruitment of Lawrie Cullen-Tait, a director with a real gift for staging the interplay of two people (Red, Venus in Fur), and a powerful creative team, the play founders on the rocks of Murray-Smith’s dialogue.
It’s highfalutin and self-indulgent, emotionally shallow and psychologically unconvincing. It leaves Highsmith, even in the hands of the admirable Davis, sounding strained and rote (if she’d yelled “G’wan, get out or I’ll call the cops!” at Ridgeway one more time, and I’d been on an aisle, I’d have been tempted to take her advice). All the acidity and wit is drained out of Highsmith, and with it any feeling – admiration or repulsion – we have for her.
Davis’s problems are compounded by an odd set (by Bruce McInven) that required two physiotherapists to be credited in the programme. A trapezium of grey granite with a rake for the performers that would struggle to pass an OH&S inspection – at one point Davis dropped a pencil that proceeded, unsettlingly, to roll away from her down the slope – it impressed initially but demanded too much attention from us, and far too much care from the actors, as the play wore on.
At least Rotondella’s character, and so his performance, goes somewhere. When we meet him he’s determined but a bit of a puppy, very like Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin in The Graduate. By the end he’s someone – or something – that looms much more dangerously. Guess who.
Rotondella is a young actor with a genuine talent and real appeal. Sadly, he’s one of very few reasons you should consider a trip to Switzerland.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Theatre: Arteries by Ancestry (★★★½)


By James McMillan
The Blue Room Theatre until Sept 2

On a white traverse stage, in a bleached pink glare, are two performers almost within touching distance of the audience.
One is staggering under the weight of a massive plastic ball, like Atlas crushed by the weight of the world. The other, wielding a whip, berates him…
Plastic!  Bad! (Crack!)
It’s a relationship of sorts – or a battle to the death – between self-destructive mankind and nature. It’s also a metaphor for what we pass down to each other, the ancestry of blood, of thinking and perception.
We see this played out in the relationships of fathers and sons, of lovers, of us and the world. The core of the story is the arc of the love affair between Avery (Noah Jimmy) and Sebastian (Haydon Wilson), a gay couple who have to deal with inherited preconceptions.
Avery also has his father’s ambitions and disappointments to contend with. In the piece’s most powerful scene, the father (Wilson) parades his son, driven almost to the point of collapse, in front of us: “A MAN…Look at him…A MAN”. In an extraordinary performance by Wilson, the father is at once a gorilla, a goat, a dog; primal in both anger and fear, confronted by the reality of the son he cannot bend to his will.
In the end, the father is chained by his son, the inevitable fate of all generations in the face of their successors.
Jimmy is terrific throughout; a dancer, but a fine actor as well, he conveys emotion through movement, a glance or a tone of voice. He is lithe and flexible, a tight fit for the larger, more powerful Wilson.
The violent power of their physical theatre is augmented by an impressive technical achievement from the designer Sally Phipps, sound designers Alex & Yell and lighting designer Rhiannon Petersen. The writer/director James McMillan delivers the accurate staging without which it would have foundered.
Arteries by Ancestry is a challenge to its audience, and it’s not always clear where you are in its complex, layered narrative, but the energy and skill of its creators and performers makes it well worth the effort.


Read the complete review in The West Australian of 19.8.17    

Theatre: An Almost Perfect Thing (★★★★)

By Nicole Moeller
Directed by Gabrielle Metcalf
Set and costume designer Tyler Hill
Lighting designer Rhiannon Petersen
Sound designer Christian Peterson
Performed by Daisy Coyle, Andrew Hale and Nick Maclaine
The Blue Room Theatre until August 26

The abduction and imprisonment of young girls holds a fascination for the media and public.
Apart from the purely sexual voyeurism that inevitably accompanies these cases, there’s a devil’s brew of other allurements; the psychological mysteries of “Stockholm Syndrome”, the personalities of victim and perpetrator, the titillating thought that these outrages could be happening right under your nose – even (hush now) right next door.
And when these children emerge, freed from a dark basement or recognised walking down the street with their captor, their story becomes somehow even more chilling by the shock of their very survival.
The Canadian playwright Nicole Moeller tackles the subject with considerable dramatic precision in An Almost Perfect Thing, and manages to wrap many of the issues around abduction into a compact and gripping narrative (at 110 minutes over two acts the play is long by Blue Room standards, but it’s time easily spent).
An 18-year-old girl, Chloe (Daisy Coyle), suddenly reappears after six years in captivity. For a struggling journalist, Greg (Andrew Hale), who’d been following the fruitless attempts to find her, it’s as though she dropped out of the sky.
Chloe, who’s read Greg’s stories while she’s been held, agrees to talk to him, but not to reveal the identity of her captor, Mathew (Nick Maclaine), or where she was imprisoned.
It’s clear that Chloe enjoys her fame, even when it turns to notoriety in some quarters, and is determined to play it out to her best advantage.
She realises – and it’s a fascinating insight – that once the perpetrator is exposed and captured, he becomes the focus of attention, not her.
As Moeller’s story plays out, and she moves us back and forward in time, she spins a web of interdependence, shared pain, hope and fear between captive, captor and reporter that delivers compelling theatre and psychological veracity.
Hale and and Maclaine are experienced and skilful actors, and Gabrielle Metcalf gives them a tight frame in which to deliver complex and impressive performances.
And Daisy Coyle, who recently announced her arrival in her starring role in the Black Swan hit The Lighthouse Girl, confirms her great promise here in a performance of terrific emotional suppleness and charisma. She’s a keeper.


This review appeared in The West Australian of 13.8.17  

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Theatre: Sista Girl (★★★★)


By Elena Carapetis and Alexis West
Yirra Yaakin and State Theatre Company of South Australia
Directed by Kyle J Morrison
Designed by Miranda Hampton
Composer/sound design by Andrew Howard
Lighting design by Rick Worringham
Performed by Sharni McDermott and Nadia Rossi
Subiaco Theatre Centre
 
Sharni McDermott and Nadia Rossi (pic: Kate Pardey)
It’s hard to find something to criticise about Sista Girl, but I have; it’s not long enough, and it stops short of the rip-roaring, “Sistas are Doing It for Themselves” climax it was beautifully poised to deliver.
Not that it fails to make its point. Not that it fails to be a satisfying – more than satisfying – story of connection across ethnic, economic and emotional divides.
It’s morning. Georgie Morelli (Nadia Rossi) and Nakisha Grey (Sharni McDermott) are both caught in the same bloody awful Australia Day holiday traffic jam, and are both heading for a shit of a day.
And that, though they don’t know it at the time, isn’t all they’ve got in common.
Nakisha has an aboriginal mother and a white father; Georgie an Italian migrant mother and a white father. Nakisha is affluent (although an Aboriginal girl in a BMW gets hassled just the same), Georgie is skint, but she’s still having a good time bogan-watching on the bus.
Both of them get a call. Their dads have collapsed, and have been rushed to hospital. Before they arrive, the news is even worse. Their dads have died.
Alone together in the waiting room, the two girls make a shocking discovery – their dads are the same man.
It’s a delicious set-up, and the writers Elena Carapetis and Alexis West are marvellously sure-footed as they play it out. Naturally, the circumstances (one family abandoned, the other imperilled, the collision of white, migrant and indigenous ethnicities) are pregnant with issues current and deep-rooted. The play does canvass them, but without weighing it down.
What is really important is reconciliation of a ground-level, intensely personal kind, and that’s the journey Sista Girl takes Georgie, Nakisha and us on.
Rossi and McDermott are great company on the trip. Rossi is feisty and appealing, giving her embattled Georgie a terrific rough-diamond appeal, and McDermott deserves high praise for her success in a very tricky assignment. For Nakisha to work, she has to first lose our sympathy to gain it back, and McDermott does both in a performance of great quality.
Sista Girl is an efficient, no-nonsense play, from its tidy writing to Miranda Hampton’s merry-go-round set and Kyle J Morrison’s adept, unobtrusive direction. That in no way, however, diminishes its quality or importance.
And my complaint? Give those girls another 10 minutes and they could re-draw the contract their dad had mucked up, blown their potential partners away with a hot-shot presentation and both driven off in Beemers.
Laughing their heads off and singing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” no doubt.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Theatre: 1984 (★★★)

The novel by George Orwell
Adapted and directed by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan
Associate Director (Australia) Corey McMahon
Designer Chloe Lamford
Lighting Designer Natasha Chivers
Sound Designer Tom Gibbons
Video Designer Tim Reid
With Molly Barwick, Paul Blackwell, Tom Conroy, Terence Crawford, Coco Jack Gillies, Ursula Mills, Renato Musolino, Guy O’Grady, Yalin Ozucelik, Fiona Press
His Majesty’s Theatre August 8, 2017

Those mavens of modern manners and mores, Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb, have been trolling the swamps of dystopia on their Chat 10 Looks 3 podcast lately. Inevitably the conversation turned to the two current celebrities of that grim genre, The Handmaid’s Tale (SBS On Demand) and 1984 (Sydney Theatre Company at His Majesty’s Theatre).
As it turns out, I was eight episodes into the riveting trials and tribulations of Elizabeth Moss’s Offred, so tearing myself away to the theatre took some doing (a subject Sales and Crabb also ponder).
George Orwell’s 1984 occupies a signal place in our consciousness – or at least, that of my generation and education. Along with Orwell’s other portent, Animal Farm, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, it lurked about our consciousness with its grim messages of the cold evil of the state and our powerlessness against it.
It’s also a chilling and memorable read. And it takes us where, perhaps, only books can go, into the heart and mind of its subject.
And that’s the problem with this staging of 1984.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Theatre: The Merchant of Venice (★★★)

By William Shakespeare
Bell Shakespeare
Director Anne-Louise Sarks
Designer Michael Hankin
Lighting designer Paul Jackson
Composer and Sound designer Max Lyandvert
Featuring Jo Turner, Damien Stouthos, Fayssal Bazzi, Shiv Palekar, Jessica Tovey, Catherine Davies, Mitchell Butel, Jacob Warnet, Felicity McKay and Eugene Gilfedder
Heath Ledger Theatre
Until August 26

The first clue to how this Merchant of Venice was to be treated was not long in coming, and impossible to miss.
The characters kneel in sombre rows for the Lord’s Prayer, while, in their midst, two figures, non-participants in the rituals of devotion and power, stand faithless the midst of the faithful.
Shylock, the Jewish financier, and his daughter Jessica.
So, as it has been for two centuries at least (though it was not intended to be originally), Shakespeare’s crafty little romantic comedy is, instead, made to be about the grinding against each other of culture and belief and the scouring of the outsider.
Harold Bloom puts it perfectly; The Merchant of Venice is not a play about Anti-Semitism – it is simply a profoundly anti-Semitic play. And the problem when staging it, the clash of modern sensibility and four-centuries-old theatre-making, is wrapped up in Shylock.
It’s worth remembering that the next play Shakespeare brought to the stage was Henry IV; Falstaff, the great deviser, was just around the corner. Shylock is no Falstaff, but the power of independent personality, soon to explode in the fat old knight, is in him, and, ironically, he fatally unbalances the play.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Theatre: Coma Land (★★★★)

Black Swan State Theatre Company and Performing Lines WA
Written and directed by Will O’Mahony
Set designer Patrick James Howe
Sound designer Rachael Dease
Lighting designer Chris Donnelly
Performed by Humphrey Bower, Kirsty Marillier, Amy Mathews, Morgan Owen and Ben Sutton

In Will O’Mahony’s carefully delineated and finely performed drama, coma is a place.
By logical necessity, it can only be “about” one character – a startling young girl named Boon (Kirsty Marillier) – but O’Mahony’s achievement in Coma Land is to people the strange place she is in with figments of her imagination that have their own stories, memories and ambitions.
There’s a chirpy girl of Boon’s age, Penguin (Morgan Owen), who is trying to fly according to Malcolm Gladwell’s tendentious 10,000 Hour Rule (practice something for 10,000 hours and you will become expert in it). There’s Penguin’s dad (Humphrey Bower) who might be working towards their escape but keeps a dark secret. There’s the chummy party planner Jinny (Amy Mathews) and a panda named Cola (Ben Sutton) who pretends to be a man.
This place, and these people, are treacherous dramatic territory, but O’Mahony (who also directs) has shown that he’s up to the challenge before, most notably in his 2013 indie hit Great White and in last year’s The Mars Project.
His great talent is controlled incongruity, and much of the humour – and there is plenty in Coma Land – springs from it. There’s no earthly reason why Cola would suddenly ask what our favourite font is (his, he says, is the obnoxious Comic Sans), but, then, there’s no reason why a panda would be in Boon’s coma. And so on.
Coma Land isn’t about all this, or coma, at all. It’s about success and failure, dependence and independence, families and their fault lines, and these themes weave around, and progress through, the metaphor of coma to a powerful conclusion.
For this to be an entertainment, though, or to work on any of its levels, you mast have performance of high quality, energy and control, and all five actors rise to the challenge.
Humphrey Bower is a master of the unlovely, and he conveys a kind of careworn peril that gives the play a taut thread throughout, while Mathews and Sutton expertly deliver much of its absurdity and comedy.
Owen is chirrupy and magnetic as Penguin (you’re allowed to be reminded of Jane Horrocks’s Bubble in Absolutely Fabulous, but smarter), and Marillier makes the play her own in a wise and feisty leading performance that leaves plenty of room for those around her to shine.
The show looks and sounds great; Patrick James Howe’s set of dark distances around a square riser of brown shag pile gives it both mystery and focus, as does Chris Donnelly’s exposed, meticulous lighting design. The remarkable Rachael Dease brings music of great simplicity and beauty to the play.
Coma Land is another milestone in O’Mahony’s steadily developing career, and another success in Black Swan’s impressive 2017 season.

This review appeared in The West Australian 25.7.17 


 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Theatre/Dance: Good Little Soldier (★★★★★)

Ochre Contemporary Dance Company and The Farm
Devised and directed by Mark Howett
Devised and dramaturgy by Phil Thompson
Devised and performed by Gavin Webber, Grayson Millwood, Raewyn Hill, Ian Wilkes, Otto Kosok
Music by Mathew de la Hunty and Dale Couper
Designed by Bryan Woltjen
Sound design by Laurie Sinagra
Lighting design by Mark Howett
Subiaco Arts Centre
Until July 30

Gavin Webber and Raewyn Hill (pic Peter Tea)
The purpose of theatre is to say something, and its challenge is to find the best way to say it.  Good Little Soldier succeeds completely in both.
Mark Howett’s story of a man and his family swamped by the devastating effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder needs telling, and this mighty production uses every creative asset that can be brought to the stage, delivered with a skill and commitment of the rarest kind.
It is free of any convention, and refuses to stay on any path. I understand the piece began its life as a regular text, but, over its evolution, words were replaced by movement or audio/visual effects whenever those alternatives more effectively told the story or conveyed the emotion.
This organic process delivers a work of immense sensory and cogitative power, and one with extraordinary narrative and dramatic clarity. It’s a revolutionary achievement.
Frank (Gavin Webber), a Vietnam veteran, lives with his wife Trish (Raewyn Hill) and teenage son Josh (Otto Kosok). But he is only partly, tenuously with them.
He constantly conjures up the ghosts of his army mates, Max (Grayson Millwood) and Mike (Ian Wilkes), both killed in Vietnam, who delight and torment him, and march him away to a broken interior landscape of guilt, pride, irresponsibility and disdain.
(Whether they are real or symbolic and whether Frank needs to feel responsible for their deaths are not explained and don’t need to be. A brief interlude when Max and Mike talk directly with the audience about the rights and wrongs of war and the long resistance of Aboriginal people to the invasion of their land is tangential to the story, but appropriate in its own right.)
Max and Mike’s intrusions are brilliantly realised, but even more powerful is the bewildered terror of Trish and Josh who cannot see what Frank is seeing. The representation of this double reality, these parallel worlds, is completely convincing and often genuinely frightening.
One grim, violent dance, caught in a claustrophobic circle of light, throws the characters, living and dead, against each other like sumo wrestlers – but while Frank, Trish and Josh, grapple and pivot, the ghosts just plough through, inexorable and unforgiving.
There is great ferocity in the choreography throughout the show, from Frank’s early manhandling of his son that threatens to break the boy’s neck to Frank and Trish’s fractured dance in its final scene that starts as reconciliation and ends in smashing catastrophe.
That violence is captured and amplified by Hewett’s shrapnel-shredded lighting design, Laurie Sinagra’s tearing, rumbling sound bed and the jarring music composed and played live by Matthew de la Hunty and Dale Couper.
I’m not sure I can recall a cast better fixed in their characters. Millwood and Wilkes are demon barbers, bush lawyers and bushrangers, sinister and magnetic as Chopper Read.
Co3’s artistic director Raewyn Hill returns to the stage for the first time in a decade, and she gives Trish a battered warrior spirit, her words only terrified mumbled thoughts, her body all determination and courage.
Webber captures all the swirling contradiction of Frank; manly and un-manned, tender, brutal and truly helpless, uncompassed, lost in place and time.
And the seventeen-year-old Kosok is extraordinary as Josh, the boy who will inherit the deep, horrible truth of his parents’ lives. At the end, he spins, skipping rope whipping, sending everyone and everything around him crashing down.
And that’s what Good Little Soldier has to say. When it all comes down to dust, we will all reap the whirlwind.

Ochre have taken a brave calculated gamble extending the season over three weeks. This means there is still time – until the 30th July – for you to see this thrilling, important and utterly unmissable show.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Theatre: Saltbush (★★★★★)

By Compagnia TPO and Insite Arts
Directed by Davide Venturini and Jason Cross
Lyricist/musician Lou Bennett
Designed by Elwyn Mannix
Sound Design by Spartaco Cortese
Digital design by Elsa Mersi
Preformed by Sharni McDermott, Caleena Sandsbury and Sani Townson
Studio Underground
12 - 14 July

 In the hands of committed and skilled creative and technical artists, theatre for children, and especially very young children, can be a thrilling and engrossing experience.
Never more so than with Compagnia TPO and Insite Arts’ Saltbush, a faultless, fantastically inventive introduction to Aboriginal art and philosophy, and much more beside.
Perhaps it’s not so surprising. Theatre for the very young works in pure realms of the senses and imagination, and, with the aid of digital technology, previously unimaginable sights and sounds can envelop and entrance like never before.

Saltbush is a wonderful experience for adults too. Its technical achievement is gaspingly powerful, the stagecraft (directed by David Venturini and Jason Cross) precise, the skill of its three performers wonderful.
I simply can’t think of anyone who shouldn’t see this mighty, perfect show.


Read the complete review in The West Australian

Theatre: Biryani (★★★½)

Directed by Jay Emmanuel
Performed by Kali Srinivasan
Music by Tao Issaro
Upper Burt Hall
Until July 15

Bread is the staff of life, music is the food of life, and food, and the cooking of it, loves the stage.
Whether it’s Amanda Muggleton knocking egg & chips together in Shirley Valentine, Georgia King baking cakes in Scent Tales or, tastiest of all, the cast of The Gabriels preparing three family meals during that marathon, wonderful trilogy, there’s something about the experience of cooking that dovetails with the experience of theatre.
Never more so than in Biryani, a delicious little show about Indian lives and life choices that revolves around the preparation, cooking and – happily – consumption of the food of that great culinary nation.

Theatre: The Eisteddfod


By Lally Katz
Black Swan State Theatre Company
Directed by Jeffrey Jay Fowler
Set and costume designer Tyler Hill
Lighting designer Lucy Birkenshaw
Sound designer Brett Smith
Until July 9

Lally Katz’s The Eisteddfod takes us down into a tale of sound and fury.
It’s a disturbing experience, though undoubtedly a gripping one. It left me feeling a little sullied, considerably impressed, but with many more questions than answers.
I’m sure (as sure as I can be) that it signifies something. What that is, though, remains frustratingly elusive.