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Sunday, 7 September 2014

GRIFFIN INDEPENDENT & WHITE BOX THEATRE’S ‘UNHOLY GHOST’ dissected by Rhiona

The loss of a parent: something we have all faced or will face in years to come. It will never seem fair, or right, or time. No matter the circumstance, it will incite a myriad of emotions – some we didn’t even know we could feel. Unholy Ghost navigates through a world of grief and through this, emerges a familiar portrait of life – one pervaded by absurdity and unexplainable occurrences, at times endearing experiences and at others, heartbreaking ones.

Campion Decent’s remarkably real play highlights the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of a dysfunctional family. The play follows the story of a middle-aged playwright (James Lugton), who is faced with the imminent death of both of his parents. Lugton performs with warmth and confidence and interacts with the audience with ease. He is playful and conversational, bridging us to his story.

One cannot dismiss the Mother (Anna Volska) and Father (Robert Alexander), whose individual stories and performances reduced me to tears. They encapsulated the foibles and eccentricities of their characters - the slightly racist remarks, the irrational behaviour and the terribly frustrating conversations, all the things that mean nothing when we have to finally consider a parent’s eventual passing.

There were moments that played upon the sensitivity of the subject matter and at times it was all snatched out from under us. It was this cyclical and lifelike approach to the writing that made it so successful. 

Director Kim Hardwick brought the absolute best out of Decent’s writing and Michael Huxley’s sound design added sentimentality to the play, with glimmers of music in the opening scenes, recurring later in a bittersweet reprise. 

The production design by Martin Kinnane was a downfall though - the red velvet carpet felt kitsch and unnecessary. Also, the bubbles, disco lights and 80s music at the end wasn’t exactly the ending I was hoping for. It seemed to dismiss the sadness, undermine the reality and upset the natural course of the drama. It sort of flung it all away in one grand gesture of “carpe diem” when so much of the play seemed to assert a different attitude.

Having said that, it is poignant writing and it undeniably resonates with us all – it reminds us of the fragility of life, and rationalizes the complex and, at times, incomprehensible relationships we have with our parents.  Unholy Ghost is a beautiful trinity of mother, father and son; past, present and future; devastating, delightful and delicate.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

CIRCA’s “S” dissected by Rhiona

 A dim light hangs low centre stage, swinging gently side to side, illuminating the contortion of the artist below. I say artist because that’s what each of these performers were. S was not your average circus show with clowns and brightly coloured costumes. It was minimalist, simple, stripped back and bare. It is a performance that plays on the impossible, a show that pushes what we perceive to be human. It gave the performers (Jessica Connell, Gerramy Marsden, Daniel O’Brien, Brittannie Portelli, Kimberley Rossi) room to have their craft distilled, to highlight the sensitivity and artistry of acrobatics.

Created by Yaron Lifschitz, S used the shape and sound of the letter to produce something modern and unusual. It was a visual feast. The strength and dexterity of each of the artists was phenomenal, however, it was the fusion of contemporary dance and circus that set this show apart from others.

As for the acrobatics itself, it was unconventional and unique. It used elements of traditional circus acts such as balancing water bowls and spinning multiple hula-hoops (Jessical Connell), however, the combination of these with the music made entirely new acts out of classic ideas.  The show featured music from the Kronos Quartet, Kimmo Pohjonon and Samuli Kosminen, which combined eastern tonality with western structure, resulting in high intensity pieces that impassioned the performers and the audience too.

One thing that really struck me was the versatility of each of the performers. Each was able to carry at least two other cast members, flip and fly and contort themselves, and balance and control each of their movements. It was this characteristic of the cast that made for a cohesive performance – a sense of cooperation and interdependence that made the production fluid and uninterrupted.

Libby McDonell’s decision to put the performers in simple black leotards/pants was very effective and worked well with Jason Organ’s stark lighting– it left every muscle exposed for the audience to marvel at. That’s really what the show celebrated, the determination and bravery to push one’s body to its limit.


Circa’s S had the Riverside's audience on the edge of their seat – people ooh’d and ahh’d throughout regardless of age. It took me back to the magic of circus, otherworldly and impossible, but this time sinuous, sleek and sophisticated.  

BELVOIR’S ‘OEDIPUS REX’ dissected by me

Seriously? I mean, seriously?? This is how you want to represent the story of 'Oedipus Rex'? Belvoir and its director and co-deviser (with the cast) Adena Jacobs has given everyone a post-Oedipal Complex with this one by stripping the play down to its basest form and ideas and then flushing it down the sinkhole of theatrical sewerage. This is Oedipus after Oedipus after Sophocles, and Jacobs and her cast have created something where nudity is the last of its problems.

Look, I’m from Sydney and so we all know that I am a luddite or philistine and apparently I just don’t get avant-garde. I’m too Williamson to appreciate the five minutes of darkness that starts the show or the sight of Oedipus (Peter Carroll) with his singlet over his head, standing on a chair and flashing his tackle. Nor can I understand the subtleties of Oedipus wearing a bra as Antigone (Andrea Demetriades) humps her father. Well, may I suggest you take that shit back to Melbourne where the intelligentsia and luvvies can hail Jacobs as the new King and leave Sydney to get on with making watchable and engaging theatre?

Jacobs is deserving of her own bingo card these days- after just three Sydney productions, that’s quite a feat. Start with darkness. Silence. Tableaux. Childlike games. Assaulting music. Nudity. Disjointed dialogue. Glass box. Check. ‘Oedipus Rex’ might not have a glass box but its set from Paul Jackson, is the scaffold of a house under construction, complete with plastic covering, which is the next best thing I suppose.

Can I ask a few key questions here? Firstly, if this is directly after the events we know of the original play, how is it that Oedipus is so old? If Jocasta is his mother, how old must she have been when she discovered the truth? If Oedipus is a frail old man receiving a sponge bath from his daughter when not inhaling oxygen from the mask attached to the tank at the side of the stage, Jocasta must have received her telegram from the Queen by now wishing her a Happy 100th Birthday. I’m surprised she had the strength to hang herself.

Secondly…well actually…this is going to take so long, let’s just cut to the chase. It’s not clever. It’s not good. It’s seventy minutes and it feels like seven hours. Playing Hide and Seek with your blind outcast father, building a house of blocks, stealing from blind dad’s pile, knocking down the house, playing I-Spy, sitting eating a sandwich as dad prattles on about his tragedy…I swear- I wish Jocasta’s brooch could have done the rounds of the audience so we could all pluck out our eyes instead of watching this travesty of a tragedy.

There is no chorus in this version but at least when Demetriades as Antigone writes her frustrations of boredom on large pieces of paper and throws them around the space, I felt like it was an honest representation of chorus as audience because it was giving voice to exactly what we were thinking about this production. And as Jacobs sat up the back, barely able to control her amusement at her work, I realised that she genuinely thinks this is good. Even Benedict Andrews must have felt some sort of shame at ‘Every Breath’- or maybe that was just his cast, who gave up on the show long before its run was done.

So in this version of Oedipus, man is frail. Got it. We all return to childhood. Okay. Having sex with your parents is part of the game. Sure. Life is one big painful inescapable chore and happiness is a game that must end. Well, this production has all of it and it's as poignant and powerful as running over your cat.

Just don’t do it to yourself. There’s less than ten minutes of this show that you might find interesting and the rest is like internal organ failure or waking up to discover that someone stole your kidneys. It’s contrived. It’s one-trick-Jacobs at it again. I-spy-with-my-little-eye a cancellation of our student subscription to Belvoir. Thanks for the memories.


Let it slip quietly into the night and pray to whatever God you believe in that this is the last we see of this kind of work at Belvoir again.

NEW THEATRE’S ‘WOLF LULLABY’ dissected by me

Hilary Bell’s play, which was first produced in 1996, was Bell’s response to cases like the murder of toddler James Bulger by two ten-year-olds and another case involving a four-year-old killed by a thirteen-year-old boy. It is not so much the unfathomable death of toddlers at the hands of children that is Bell’s chief focus. It is our response, as society, to these young killers- our outrage, our hatred, our condemnation to blame their parents or to quantify it by stating that some people are just ‘born evil’. Further to that is trying to recognise how the parents of those children who committed these crimes manoeuvre through the media and public backlash and try to come to terms with the implications, roles and responsibilities as parents amongst the tragedy. 

It’s been sometime since ‘Wolf Lullaby’ was staged and so it was nice to see the New Theatre tackle this play. Directed by Emma Louise, there is integrity in this production that manages to find the tension in the dilemma and its relationships. Maryellen George was strong in the lead role as nine-year-old Lizzie Gael. Finding the childlike aspects of the character is a challenge for any adult actor but George was convincing in her playfulness, inquisitiveness and cheekiness.

Lucy Miller (as mother Angela Gael) and David Woodland (father Warren Gael) projected parents trying to do their best- fractured, fearful of the way ahead and the implications of their role as genetic creators and guardians of Lizzie. What does it mean now and in the future if they created this? Nature versus nurture debates abound as they step carefully around the minefield of public perception or try to profit from curious media scrutiny. Both Miller and Woodland were believable in their grief and confusion and their relationship had complexity and truth. Peter McAllum as Sergeant Ray Armstrong was part intimidation and part paternal in his portrayal, vacillating between wanting to condemn this child and protect her in the same action.

There are some nice touches to the set design from Allan Walpole and lighting designer Heidi Brosnan. The spirit of the wolf, shown at the end in the reflective paint and red hues that lie under our foundations, flashed with the sounds of heartbeats from designers Chelsea Reed and Alexander Tweedale, was a powerful metaphor for what lies under the surface for each and every one of us. As Warren states '..it was just games. All kids did it. You had to...But we stopped in time." 'Wolf Lullaby' takes us past the point of what might happen if we didn't stop in time. The visual and aural representation of the murky undergrowth of morality was a lovely finish to this play.

There are still moments when this production is finding its rhythm but it is a solid, faithful interpretation from a highly competent ensemble and they are invested in the text and its expression.


It’s worth a viewing. 

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

DARLINGHURST THEATRE’S ‘CONSTELLATIONS’ dissected by me

Nick Payne’s non-linear, non-traditional play that explores parallel narratives on repeat is a gamble for Darlinghurst Theatre and director Anthony Skuse. It’s string theory theatre which means that we keep circling the loop with the hope that we get a different outcome but the patterns tend to lead us back to the same destination…or origins, if you like.

‘Constellations’ can feel repetitive, because it is. Now that’s either going to fascinate you as we bounce between the same conversation with nuanced differences to see when and how or if we reach a resolution or it’s going to feel like the tension of this conceit quickly dissipates and in the end, we just don’t care about the narrative because we’ve been exposed to it for too long.

I was more in the latter category. I wanted to like it more than I did, just as I wanted to be more comfortable in the Eternity Playhouse seats (is it just me or are they very hard to sit in for long periods of time?). But that is not a criticism of the two fine actors on stage, Sam O’Sullivan and Emma Palmer, who were terrific in this show and I don’t think they (or Skuse for that matter) could have given it any more than they did. Put simply, I’m not in love with the text. It’s trying so hard to be clever and it either appeals or it doesn’t. It’s that easy. Yes, it’s won awards (but so did ‘War of the Roses’ so anything goes) and Payne is hailed as the new Stoppard, but this play, as creative and inventive as it is, felt like it needed twenty minutes shaved off its parallel narratives so the drawn out repetition still stayed fresh.

What ‘Constellations’ does give us is a mix of approaches, subtext, stories, opportunities and outcomes. It’s happy to mix intimacy with intimidation, fears with hopes, love and loss and then plays with ways in which you can react to the unravelling versions of truth and its implications. There’s great word play abound: intonation and intention is at the core of each version of the circling scenarios and we see how tiny variations are completely affected by each expression of old context through slightly altered delivery. See- this play is clever…it’s just not always interesting. And I haven't even started on the story-line of expressive aphasia, the disorder causing damage to the parts of the brain that control language and comprehension. Payne has managed to connect so many dots that I've blunted my colour pencils trying to fill them all in. 

I did love some of the scenes that relied on theatricality and humour or at least high emotion, such as the sign language conversation, which was another clever way to twist the expression of words and Skuse certainly found the chemistry between the characters in the quality casting of O’Sullivan and Palmer.


If you enjoy a foray into theatre that takes a risk moving away from the traditional, you’ll definitely get something out of this. But if someone took to this script with a pair of editing scissors, I would not be upset.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

BELL SHAKESPEARE’S ‘TARTUFFE’ dissected by me

It’s been a while since I took myself off to see a Bell Shakespeare production but I was very glad I bit the bullet on Friday night to see Justin Fleming’s version of Moliere’s ‘Tartuffe’, directed by Peter Evans at the Opera House.

Fleming has played with the rhyme and rhythm of the words and given it a contemporary and local flavour in language. At the start, it does feel caught up in the words and rhyme and it’s all you hear but it soon relaxes into a conversational flow and we, as audience, come to enjoy the cleverness of the rhythm, its tempo and anticipate the rhyme and beat. Fleming has smartly played with the variation of scheme and patterns and so it never feels repetitive or stale. This version has appeal and Evans has used an exceptional cast to highlight the freshness and playful aspects of Fleming’s writing.

Never for a moment did it look like this ensemble weren’t having fun and it certainly transferred into the audience and at times, literally. In the scene of the lovers’ fight, Valere (Tom Hobbs) and Mariane (Geraldine Hakewell) had a glorious moment when Valere turns to the audience to find a replacement for Mariane and the mischievousness of his seduction of very willing audience members is delicious in its humour and charm. Both actors knew how to work the contrast, commedia dell ‘arte style, of being in and out of love, of fighting and making up, of movement and stillness, and sound and silence.

I thoroughly enjoyed Jennifer Hagan’s Madame Pernelle and her ability to insult those around her and Leon Ford as Tartuffe was the right balance of sleaze and false piety and the scenes between Tartuffe and Elmire (Helen Dallimore) were crowd favourites. The cat crawl in stockings and heels were hilarious in capturing the idea of Tartuffe as the snake, hidden in the trappings of superficial and endowed wealth. He is smoke and mirrors, as evidenced in an impressive set design from Anna Cordingley. Antiques are askew, possessions appear and disappear, huge neon signs lower and expressing your Christianity is as easy as clicking a friend request. Evans, who I have forgiven for ‘Pygmalion’ after seeing this show, is not afraid to keep the show light and still smack social hypocrisy firmly on its rear. The voice of reason is irrelevant and even punished in a world where blind faith in appearance, duty and image reigns supreme.

The two cast highlights were Kate Mulvany (Dorine) and Sean O’Shea (Orgon). Mulvany’s comic timing and delivery and her mincing walk on perilous heels lifted every scene she appeared in on stage. O’Shea’s expressive physicality and vocals and contrast of unwavering believer and then victim of deceit, O’Shea’s Orgon is as likeable as he is frustratingly stubborn.

‘Tartuffe’ is witty and caustic and it makes this social satire infinitely watchable. There’s a fluidity of action from sheer slapstick (there must be a book each night in where Scott Witt’s pink slippers will end up) to classic commedia, farce and comedy of manners.

The ending is as contrived as it you can imagine. Witt (as the Figure in Judgement) declares Tartuffe as a hypocrite and sends him to the depths of Hell. Is this not the fantasy of life- that the bad be punished and the good rewarded? There’s the morality we want in our entertainment, even if we can’t get it in life, wrapped up in a satin bow and delivered to us. It’s as fake and superficial as Tartuffe and yet we applaud it, even though we know it’s as real as Tartuffe’s piety.


Bell Shakespeare’s ‘Tartuffe’ is pure entertainment and a pleasure to watch. Accept the ‘event request’ to the theatre and actually go. 

STC’S ‘MACBETH’ dissected by me

This is one of those evolving shows that the further into its season you see it the more fortunate you will probably be because by all accounts, the show I saw last week (and yes, it still feels like I’m sitting in a very crowded economy class flight) is not the show people saw when it opened.

There’s something to be said for director Kip Williams if he is taking feedback on board and constantly tweaking this show. It tells me that he is not precious about criticism and is open to the possibilities of how this show might theatrically be stronger and better. Of course, the idea that if I paid $80+ to see this show and it’s still a work in progress and I saw it long before it had cohesive working parts then I don’t know that I’d feel happy about it either. From what I understand, it doesn’t have a final working script over two weeks into its season, which is still being slashed each week, and they’ve expanded the use of the auditorium in the play's action much more than in previews.

So the question is- why is still undergoing significant work now it’s ‘live’? I think the answer lies in its concept. Williams seems to have decided on the concept of having the audience view a play from the stage, staring out into the empty cavernous space of the Sydney Theatre before he actually decided on the play. As a result, when you try to fit the play into the concept, you’re kind of working backwards and can struggle to make all the pieces form the whole. Williams’ ‘Macbeth’ is not quite whole yet but there are some really good things happening in this play at this stage and on this stage.

The first thirty minutes is hard going. It’s static and slow and adjusting to the Poor Theatre elements of a Grotowski-inspired vision with a dose of Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty takes a bit of time. The first impulse is to giggle at images of the witches sticking their heads in buckets of water and then towel-drying off to play other characters or chucking a cup of blood over yourself as you are slain and there was definitely snickering when the apparitions hit themselves with bread rolls. But at least I could distract myself with the workings of the stage before I was genuinely distracted by the woman in the second row who was pulling out her phone to take pictures of Hugo Weaving (Macbeth).

And then they killed Duncan (John Gaden) and, as bizarre and ironic as it sounds, the play came to life. The emptiness and stillness of the first Act was replaced by the spectacle and flourish of action, heightened by blinding fog and voices in the murky soup of the stage. The highlight came for me when Banquo’s (Paula Arundell) ghost sits at Macbeth’s table. Weaving’s breakdown as Macbeth was raw and confronting and it was there the intimacy of the contrived staging was a piece of magic.

Williams’ seems to have stripped ‘Macbeth’ of any humour. This version is dark and ghostly. It’s like watching a dream sequence. There’s something ethereal and ephemeral about it unfolding right in front of you, moving past you and yet, you’re not there. You are the empty seats, sometimes filled with the players (who is audience and who are we in this play?) and then they and we are gone. His vision encapsulates the temporal experience of theatre and we are at the heart of it in this experiment with proxemics.

There are times when the artifice is obvious but once you buy the vision that we are seated in the workings of the stage, amongst its trappings and mechanics, you give in to it. Williams is not after belief. He is more interested in the theatricality. So the gender-blind-casting of women to traditional male roles of Banquo and Macduff (Kate Box) is not an issue and feels almost natural in this ‘unnatural world’. The raining tinsel, the white face paint, the multi-purpose props, the dressing of Malcolm (Eden Falk), the apparitions, the assault of ominous creaks and mechanical groans from composer and sound designer Max Lyandvert, the shifts of lights from us to the ‘audience’ from Nick Schlieper and Alice Babidge’s design as we move from emptiness to opulence to downright mess before stripping the stage again- all serve to remind us that we are watching the artifice of art. We have been made a player in its action and there is some very fine acting happening on stage to complement the vision.

I’m not sure the expense of taking a 1000 seat classic proscenium arch theatre and then putting a miniscule amount of audience on the stage to sit with the actors as they play out ‘Macbeth’ for you can be thoroughly justified and I’m not sure if the experience could not have been achieved by just staging it in Wharf 2 but I still enjoyed it. Contrived and perhaps unjustified it may be but it was an experience that left me intrigued.