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Sunday, 13 April 2014

MAD MARCH HARE'S 'A MOMENT ON THE LIPS' dissected by Hayley

As I walked down the stairs to the Old Fitz theatre I was punched in the face with the acrid odour of pot. Or was it mould? I'm not sure I can tell the difference anymore. Years of shared townhouses in the inner-west has rendered these two odours indistinguishable. The more I think about it, the more I realise it was probably a mixture of both. By the time I walked into the theatre the smell had dissipated, replaced with another smell reminiscent of student living, smell of ply-wood sawdust and bargains, smell of Ikea.

The stage was set similar to Tyler Durden's condo. A beech, modular Ikea wardrobe, an ikea couch and floating floorboards. I knew this look well. It looked like the first house I lived in straight after uni. I can imagine set designer Charles Davis had a painful weekend with an allan key assembling flurgens.

The opening dinner party introduces us to the seven female characters. Claudia Barrie as Emma sets the tone with “I'm so desperate, I think I might spike my own drink.” We soon learn that the women live very separate lives, their only common link is their shared past. Their friendships are now straining with the added weight adult responsibilities. Their snappy chatter is playful and familiar. I feel like I am on the couch glass of wine in hand, watching my old friends try to drink away their initial discomfort of catching up with people you no longer understand.

Mad March Hare's production of A Moment on the Lips, attempts to tackle a variety of issues through its all female cast. Freedom of religion, third culture living, gay marriage, financial independence and female body images. Some of these issues are tackled more authentically than others. The character of Dominique felt flat and I don't think this was a result of Sonja Kerr's performance. Maybe director Mackenzie Steele could have spent more understanding the significance of her prognosticating character to give her more mass.

The rapid, quick fire dialogue was fun. However, there were times the piece flounced close to the line of cliché. I'd say this was mostly due to Jonathan Gavin's writing. Steele's mostly careful direction meant that the performances skirted away from what easily could have been eye-rollingly stereotypical portrayals of the seven women.

The scenes between the sisters Victoria and Jenny (played by real-life sisters Beth and Sarah Aubrey) were strong and deeply personal. I couldn't flaw either of their performances. Though, the standout for me was Lucy Golby as Rowena she gave a very realistic and nuanced performance as a character that could have very easily fallen into the long list of stereotypical lesbian portrayals in the Sydney theatre scene. Golby played Rowena in such a lovable way, that she became the heart of the piece.

A Moment on the Lips is a personal and sentimental piece of theatre. It made me want to call all of my friends from high school and remind them I love them, just in case they die in an unlikely bird related car accident.


UNHAPPEN'S 'COUGH' dissected by Hayley

107 Projects oozes something that always brings me joy, the confidence of youth. Everyone in the foyer was sweaty with it. Their enthusiasm for the future was infectious. Their excited chatter and loud clothing was contrasted by the concrete and steel of the project space. Sydney's creative youth (and by youth I mean under-30s) was full of beans and I couldn't help but grin.

In the theatre the smoke was thick, an asthmatic's nightmare. The performance started with three of the cast puppeteering dolls. I was skeptical. An hour and a half of dolls? I eyed the door. I didn't think I would be able to last. Luckily the dolls were only half the performance.

Emily Calder's 'Cough', tells of three parents revealing their anxieties about their toddlers various behaviours at a daycare centre. Things take a dark, surreal turn when three and a half year old Frank starts at the centre and tells the children of a monster that lives at the top of a newly grown tree. As a young and relatively new playwright Calder is impressive. I do think that 30 mins could be cut to create a tighter and pacier 60 minute piece rather than the 90 minutes of sometimes super repetitive dialogue. I am not sure if the repetition was meant to be nod to Theatre of the Absurd, but I think the play would be more engaging without it.

Although 'Cough' probably had less budget than a toddler's pocket money, the performance didn't suffer for it. James Dalton's clever direction meant the piece benefited from the lack of funds. The $2 remote control helicopter was a spectacular moment. I think it was meant to be a bird, but I was laughing too hard to hear. But by far the best low budget moment was the portrayal of Susan, the Day Care supervisor as a mannequin head on a mop handle. Voiced by Tom Chrisophersen her brief moments on stage and subsequent death was some of the funniest, albeit disturbing, moments of theatre I have ever experienced.

Benjamin Brockman and Tom Hogan's lighting and sound designs were inspired, almost becoming an entire character of their own.

Unhappen's production of 'Cough' will not be for everyone's taste. It may perhaps ring a little too true to those parents who refuse to let their kids get dirty or climb trees. It might force them to look inside themselves to realise that their own anxieties and refusal to let their children grow are the greatest dangers their kids face.


Thursday, 10 April 2014

STC’S ‘PERPLEX’ dissected by me

The end of a long and harrowing school term is not the time to watch an existentialist crisis take place on stage because chances are, you’re already having one. Absurdist comedy ‘Perplex’, written by Marius Von Mayenburg in a translation by Maja Zade is a one hour and forty five minute journey of rolling scenarios between two couples where reality is constantly redefined and rejected. A succession of entrances and exits that begin each new interaction as characters role-play their new personality, relationships and situation and the room fills with the flotsam and jetsam and clutter of each scene sounds and feels exactly like my classroom. Eventually the play breaks into meta-theatre, aware of itself and us but still confused as to its own existence and consciousness. Well there’s last period on a Friday with Year 8 in a nutshell.

Director Sarah Giles and her cast- Andrea Demetriades, Glenn Hazeldine, Rebecca Massey and Tim Walter embrace the complexities and absurdities of the script and audience beware, some characters are unabashedly exposed during the play. Designer Renee Mulder’s setting of the 1970’s brown and eucalypt lounge room on a box stage, strewn with garbage, heightens not only the sense of how long time has passed in this continuous phase of unreality but also the sense of life and art intermingling to profess the mundane repetition of the human condition. Sartre would be proud. Hell really is other people. Mulder’s costumes are probably the most striking aspect of the play-  it’s a fancy dress parade of characters on display.

I liked ‘Perplex’. I didn’t love it and it wasn’t always easy to sit through. The guy behind me loved it in a ‘laugh-through-your-nose’ kind of way. If you love Theatre of the Absurd, this is a really strong example of it. I think I’d rather suffer my existentialist crisis on a banana lounge by the pool with a cocktail in my hand.


Such is life. 

Sunday, 6 April 2014

SPORT FOR JOVE’S ‘TWELFTH NIGHT’ & ‘ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL’ dissected by me

Shakespeare is no walk in the park nor is it a gentle romantic stroll on the beach but Sport For Jove makes it look and feel exactly like that.  Having seen their productions of ‘Twelfth Night’ and ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ at the Seymour Centre in last couple of days I am in continued awe of the quality of the work produced by Sport For Jove under the direction of Damien Ryan.

Sport For Jove know how to turn Shakespeare into an experience and not just literature in costumes. Best of all Ryan knows how to use every piece of the space (on stage and in the text) to create a complete stage picture. He is the master of making the mise-en-scene communicate the story in every moment. From the opening scene of ‘Twelfth Night’ as we find ourselves Gidget-style swimming on the lazy shores of superficial love and waiting for the storm to hit and change the stakes for our indulgent pedestrian world, or in ‘All’s Well’ when the army are climbing, sweating, exercising and exuding the masculine energy that beautifully contrasts the entrance of their king, we are in the heartland of this man's world and understand what is valued much more than we understand what they're fighting for. Don’t even get me started on the powerful and moving image of Helena (Francesca Savage) healing the King of France (Robert Alexander) Christ-like in the hues of the red and white haze, lit by Toby Knyvett, with smoke bellowing from the sauna below. Truly breathtaking. My companion and I turned to each other, agape and sighing in respect for the spectacle created. We even revisited how much we loved that particular moment on the way home.

‘Twelfth Night’ has long been one of my favourites but I will confess that ‘All’s Well’ I had never encountered before now. There’s probably only so many Shakespeare plays about men discovering how much they love a woman once she’s faked her own death that you can fit into the canon of classics before something gives but I was very impressed with this production.  Whilst ‘All’s Well’ felt a little slow to take off, it hit its strides and burned into your heart like a soulful blues hit. ‘Twelfth Night’ is a lighter play- it can jump in the water and gently splash its audience with comedy. ‘All’s Well’ is darker and deeper and Ryan has let it take its time delivering its ideas.

In both plays, the text is still treated with respect but there is playfulness throughout. You find it between words and between scenes as well as in every line and action. I think Ryan expresses his directorial intentions as a sensory experience. David Stalley’s sound design- from radio edits, soundscapes of locations, music overlays, pulsing heartbeats and the crackle of fate all resonate and draw us into the world and tension of the stage. Knyvett’s lighting, as mentioned before, create a complete shift in mood and location. Even if you removed all of Shakespeare's words, the lighting and sound and visuals could tell the story of each play. It’s as I said earlier- these plays are an experience because each element has been thoughtfully constructed to complete the picture in the frame and stimulate every sense for their audience. This is probably a good time to mention the number of ‘members’ on display in ‘All’s Well’. If ever playful intention and thematic enhancement married, it was there.

The designers deservedly need a mention here. Anna Gardiner’s summery design of ‘Twelfth Night’, found in platforms, pergolas, roller skates and ice-cream vans captured the lightness of the play whilst Antoinette Barboutis’ design for ‘All’s Well’ of mutli-purpose slats, army camps and hospital wards gave the play the gritty edge of this makeshift and movable world.

Alright- let’s get to the acting. We see a lot of the same faces in Sport For Jove productions and no wonder- every play brings a new challenge and a chance to work with a creative team of such complex and rewarding vision must be very difficult to give up. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of their plays where James Lugton’s characters aren’t slapped or killed so if he’s still there I can only presume it’s addictive. There aren’t any weak links in the chain of performers in this Shakespeare double-header but there are a few mentionable stand outs. Anthony Gooley as Orsino has terrific comic timing and expressiveness, Megan Drury as Olivia performs with such energy and passion, Robin Goldsworthy (Malvolio) captures arrogance with such malevolence  that he was both delightful and terrifying. I had students in the audience on Friday night who suffered the cutting blow of improvised dialogue from Goldsworthy and the young man in question will wear that as a badge of honour for the rest of his life. Mike Pigott as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, James Lugton as Sir Toby, Abigal Austin as Viola and Tyran Parke as Feste were all terrific and drove much of the play’s comedy.

In ‘All’s Well’, Robert Alexander took the small but significant role as the King of France and taught everyone how you can be a giant of the stage and hardly appear. Francesca Savige as Helena and Edmund Lembke-Hogan as Bertram were lovely to watch and George Banders as Parolles captured the braggart in excess and his subsequent humiliation like a lovable and redeemable version of Il Capitano. And let’s acknowledge the ensemble because they each completely commit with utter joy to every moment on stage.Terry Karabelas had maybe less than ten lines and yet his work as the priest was priceless. The ensemble are the colour in the palette that allow our protagonists and antagonists to emerge with detail and dimensions.

Look, I could go on but I’m over a thousand words and this has already taken me hours to write because I keep reliving the golden moments of each show. If I keep going, this will take you just as long to read it as it would to see it. So see it. See them both. I really enjoyed ‘Twelfth Night’ but I loved ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’. It’s been a day since I saw it and it’s still taking up space in my thoughts- its images haunt me in a surreal, ethereal way. It crept under my skin and in the second half, time passed without me noticing. I don’t think I’d ever want to see anyone else’s version of it. Let it lie there as the only way I could imagine it should be done.

And that’s what Sport For Jove does. That's what Damien Ryan does. They show you Shakespeare and make it dance off the page in action and flavour and I want to taste every moment of it.

NEW THEATRE'S 'TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD' dissected by Hayley

I'm going to confess, I have never read nor seen 'To Kill a Mockingbird'. I know, what poorly educated wretch hasn't read 'To Kill a Mockingbird'? What can I say? I am a product of a country town public school education. Reading the full Tim Winton catalogue was a higher priority than the American classics. So when I entered the New Theatre to see 'To Kill a Mockingbird' I did so with no preconceptions.

As Scout, (a nine year old Teagan Croft) entered the stage it occurred to me how long it had been since I had seen a performance with young people playing the roles of children. Immediately I realised what a stark contrast this would be from every other production I had seen lately. In the first scene I am flooded with nostalgia. I feel like I am back at the theatre for the first time as an eager child. Sasha Sinclair's set design was quaint. Four doors mimicking the facades of Southern American homes, a white picket fence, a hint of garden and a solitary tree, nudge us into small town Alabama. A lady behind me sighed, “Oh, isn't that pretty.” She was right, it was.

There were no risks taken in this production. Everything was straight down the line from the blue wash across the cyclorama, to the some-times less than authentic Alabaman accents. The direction was safe and traditional. They weren't trying to re-invent the wheel. I really appreciated this. Instead of trying to stamp her style on an already widely known piece, Annette Rowlison's direction is traditional and gentle, letting the play speak for itself.

For those of you who haven't read 'To Kill and Mockingbird' or seen the 1962 adaptation, I'll give you the gist. A sleepy Alabaman town is divided when a cotton-field worker, Tom Robinson (Craig Meneaud), faces court on trumped-up rape charges. The central themes are loss of innocence and, of course, racism. The performances were delicate and endearing. I fell a little bit in love with Lynden Jones' portrayal of Atticus Finch. I won't lie to you, I cried a couple of times during his performance. He was so passionate and convincing in his defence of Tom Robinson; he truly walked in his character's shoes.

The performance was nice, the ensemble cast were enchanting. It had the feeling of family theatre. It was like a warm, toasty hug from the Sydney theatre scene. Despite its glowing charm, it was also a blunt reminder of our own civil rights struggles here in Australia. Some of my tears during the performance were perhaps less about  what was happening on stage but my own shame at how Australia has hardly moved past this type of discrimination in the judicial system with our treatment of the Indigenous population. With indigenous people representing only 3% of Australia's total population, it seems absurd that more than 28% of Australia's prison population is indigenous.

'To Kill a Mockingbird' should be something we smugly nod at while we watch it, knowing that these kinds of prejudices are far behind us. Instead it remains all too relevant, reminding us of our country's one hundred year inertia when it comes to race relations.

THE LITTLE SPOON COMPANY'S 'STITCHING' dissected by Hayley

Tap Gallery or the Artist's Paradise as it refers to itself, is tucked away down Palmer Street in Darlinghurst. An old converted townhouse, up the stairs to the right, you'll find yourself in what feels like someone's house. A million books paper the walls, smell of cat creeping up your nostrils. It feels like the living room of someone who owns a junk shop but won't part with the merchandise. I perch on the couch next to a young couple and fiddle with my iphone. The vibe is cosy but I feel hopelessly anachronistic. We are called into the theatre and I am a little relieved.
  
The audience is small but young. The Little Spoon Theatre Company is a young production company and the play is contemporary. Even so, I was not expecting an audience of millennials. The theatre space at Tap Gallery is small but I like it. It is like a mini-version of The Stables. Anna Gardiner's set is backdropped with chicken wire. Various objects hang from the wire, a teddy bear, a towel and large black dildo. What the? The lights fade up and I immediately regret sitting in the front row. I am illuminated. I'm now a part of the set. “Oh well, this will be intimate.” I think.

I had no idea.

Anthony Neilson's 'Stitching' revolves around Abby (Lara Lightfoot) and Stuart (Wade Doolan), a couple grappling with internal demons that are revealed to the audience though arguments and bizarre sexual encounters. Love, loss and unsettling sexual-desires scratch and scream their way from the characters in what culminates in a very dark, twisted ending. The script is aggressive and violent, the performances highly personal and frightening. Doolan and Lightfoot seemed very comfortable with the stage, using every inch of it as they debase and fondle each other.

Their simulated sex is brutal, demeaning and right at my feet. This was definitely the most awkward I've felt in a theatre. There were many times in this performance where I had to look away. Doolan and Lightfoot performed with an incredible intensity, some of which can be attributed to their real-life long-term relationship. Mark Westbrook's direction was faultless. I truly felt catapulted into their dark and raucous world.

The performances in many ways outshined the quality of the writing. Maybe some of the language works better in an UK setting where the play hails from. I just can't really see a twenty-something year old man bellowing “Christ” in frustration. However Doolan manages to sell it. I can understand why 'Stitching' was banned in Malta. For all its intensity, the reliance on shock-factor became wearing and a little unnecessary. I would have liked some breathing time between holocaust references and cries of the “c” word. As it is, it runs the risk of absorbing the audience into the surface hysteria and missing the deep trauma that lies at its core.

The music was appropriately somber and emotive. Chelsea Reed's voice rich and haunting. I think she was standing behind the chicken wire performing live but I actually couldn't see from where I was sitting, even though I was in the front row. Which is a shame.

'Stitching' in not a piece I will forget anytime soon. The images burned into my mind, this is some truly confronting theatre. Gritty and relentless, be prepared for the darkness.


Saturday, 5 April 2014

BELVOIR & MALTHOUSE THEATRE’S ‘THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR’ dissected by me

Well we all knew the play listed on the original subscription ticket, ‘The Philadelphia Story’ was no longer on the program after the estate of the co-author Ellen Barry would not release it to Belvoir. Oops. That’s a bit embarrassing. Belvoir had already cast the play and sold tickets to a show that couldn’t be performed in their season. Never mind…there’s always a solution. How about ‘The Government Inspector’ ala Simon Stone? Umm…didn’t excite me, nor many others who’d already bought tickets and many of them were probably calling the theatre for a refund. How can you rescue such a monumental cock-up?

And that’s the mindset I went in with when I saw the show this week. The theatre was half empty. Oh dear. ‘I've got tickets to a lemon’ ran through my mind. Enter actor Robert Menzies, dressed as a vicar and addresses the audience with an apology and named the elephant in the room. “This is not the play you bought tickets for. Feel free to leave. You’re not even going to see ‘The Government Inspector’. Feel free to leave.” OK, I’m intrigued and now I really do want to stay. I’m glad I did.

‘The Government Inspector’ is a wonderful satire on the situation they found themselves in, using the structure and premise of the original play to poke fun at itself, their director, each other and Belvoir. The play we are watching is the imposter and we are seduced by it. I felt like every criticism I’ve ever had of all of the above was woven into the play, written by Simon Stone and Emily Barclay with assistance from the cast. It’s a pity that Belvoir think I’m being disrespectful to the artists when I say it but when they own it, it’s hilarious. But it was a refreshing parody of ego, acting and entertainment.

Favourite jabs included nods to the youthful wankery of Stone, the inherent misogyny in the theatre, the arrogance of theatre companies, the theatrical over narrative, the desperate need for work as an artist and the power of the director in controlling a fixed vision of the play, the European influence on performance and the banter between the actors as they vie for control and assert their ego and reputation into the mix. It asks you to consider what's real and what's fake or contrived and what will we do or watch without question. It’s an entertaining blend of the backstage mundaneness of rehearsals, the workings of the theatre, the relationship between director and actors and like a version of ‘Noises Off’, it then throws them all together to create a farce of epic proportions, culminating in a devised musical parody of ‘The Government Inspector’, written by Stefan Gregory. 

But nothing topped my favourite line, as actress Zahra Newman storms off stage, after a huge fight with the foreign ‘director’, played by Gareth Davies, and yells “I’ve been directed better by set designers”. I laughed a little too long and quickly, paying homage to the travesty that was their ‘Private Lives’, directed by designer and artistic director Ralph Myers. And kudos to Myers for the set of ‘The Government Inspector’. Yes, it’s a Simon Stone revolving stage (anybody counting how many of those we’ve seen in his productions so far?) but to capture the backstage and on stage, it’s the perfect device, particularly when you see how they use it.

The ensemble, and they truly are- Fayssal Bazzi, Mitchell Butel, Gareth Davies, Robert Menzies, Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill and Greg Stone do a terrific job in being absolutely heightened and twisted versions of themselves with their tongue-in-cheek characterisations. It’s Stephen Colbert on stage. Stone has proven with this production and with the assistance of Barclay that he has a great sense of humour and when the chips are down, laughter will be a much better remedy than a glass box (and I’m counting the washing machines and dryers on stage as several glass boxes).


If you had any doubts, rest assured that this play will alleviate them. Malthouse and Belvoir have staged a play that goes some way to addressing the crisis they found themselves in and I think have come out of the ‘wash’ all the better for it. The play runs for ninety minutes without interval and it was thoroughly enjoyable. It’s much better than perhaps you could have hoped.