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