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Saturday 10 August 2013


Stoppard. Beautifully wordy, clever, manipulator of language, artful existentialist. Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. All of the above.

I saw the first preview at STC’s Sydney Theatre on Tuesday night and I was very glad I did. Normally first previews, that first desperate taste of an audience, are rocky affairs. But if Tuesday’s show, with few very minor, almost unnoticeable hiccups, is a sign of things to come, STC has a genuine hit on its hands with Simon Phillips' direction of Stoppard’s play.

Any director will tell you that if you’re working with good material, 70% of your success on stage will come down to casting and STC has got this one in the bag. Phillips' must be doing a happy dance at not only his leads but also with the strong supporting ensemble.

As part of Sydney’s 2013 Festival of Schmitz, Toby Schmitz gets to dabble in both perspectives of this story, as the lead in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, produced by Belvoir later this year, and as Guildenstern in this play. I can’t help think it’s like sweeping the pool at the Oscars. Yet whilst some may bemoan the glut of Schmitz, you can’t deny how good he is in this role. Whilst Tim Minchin is also lovely to watch and the interplay between them emanates a joy and energy, Schmitz is completely convincing as Guildenstern, having poured himself into this role. Minchen just plays himself, very well.

But the real surprise for me was Ewen Leslie as The Player. Leslie’s broad acting range was fully realised in this production and I relished every moment he was on stage delivering his witty, downtrodden, hopeful, heroic yet dastardly gamut of emotions and skills. He made The Player sympathetic and sexy. Oh dear…I’ve got a Ewen Leslie crush and I’m not afraid to admit it.

The tight ensemble of players and court characters were the right blend of spectacle and Shakespeare. Phillips really has done a great job at finding a thousand little moments and turning them into a domino drop of deliciousness. The only question that was left hanging for me was that of the direction of Gertrude, as a brainless Elizabethan bird but I accept that the play lends itself to it completely and the issue is more mine in reconciling the treatment of female characters on stage.

Gabriela Tylesova’s design was one of the first times I have felt that the stage of the Sydney Theatre has been effectively utilised by a local production. The (incredibly expensive) hydraulic stage, the mechanical (almost Eisenstein-inspired) archways indicate all the paths and possibilities, entrances and exits that all lead back to the paralysing knowledge of life’s own existentialist dilemma, the mechanisations of life itself. Tylesova’s costumes probably cost more than the stage itself. There was enough leather on stage to start an S&M club and there’s some fancy finery there too. But it all suits perfectly and I can’t imagine a more appropriate expression of the characters and the weathering of their journey.

Sound designer Steve Francis has finally solved the acoustic hole of the Sydney Theatre by subtly amplifying the actors to hit those back walls and if you didn’t see the occasional strapped cord on the actor, you would never have known. Nick Schlieper’s lighting design also adds to the feeling of this world, ebbing away as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern struggle to find their ways out of the shadows or at times, try to hide in them.

This is a show I’d be happy to see again and I strongly suggest you avail yourself of seeing it.

Give in to the Schmitz Blitz.

Tuesday 6 August 2013

GRIFFIN’S ‘BEACHED’ dissected by me

Griffin Theatre’s latest local premier is of Melissa Bubnic’s play, ‘Beached’, directed by Shannon Murphy. ‘Beached’ explores a grossly overweight teenage boy, Arty (Blake Davis), his feeder mum JoJo (Gia Carides), his Pathway’s mentor Louise (Kate Mulvany) and the reality unmasking of Arty's world as captured in the show ‘Shocking Fat Stories’ by the producer (Arka Das). The show counts down the days until Arty’s gastric bypass surgery and unravels Arty's relationships, identity, hopes and fears and those of the other characters in this story.

I found this play very engaging and appreciated the attempt to use a medium now so prominent in the entertainment industry- complete with its manipulation of ‘reality’ itself through a quick edit, a staged scene and capturing or manufacturing the truly private moments we encounter. Bubnic’s play is a great vehicle to explore this taboo topic and polarising for society at large (excuse the pun).

The production still fell some way from being perfect but I did enjoy it and most of its audience seemed to as well. However, I found myself wishing the production played less with the superficiality of the characters as I think the writing offered more dimensions than the production suggested. Of course, I know it’s ‘reality’ television so I understand the point that’s being made- but in those moments when the camera is ‘off’, the real reality of the illusion of theatre can exist! I think if Murphy had pushed the ‘truth’ or belief of each of the character’s predicament, it would have punched way above its weight (excuse the pun).

Gia Carides was a strong casting choice in this play and I think she tried to find the light and shade of JoJo’s intentions but the directorial choice in heightening the absurdity of situation, especially  in regards to the public demonization of the obese, meant that Carides couldn’t push too far without looking out of place. Bubnic evocatively writes about this in her notes and it feels like Murphy didn’t quite get there in this production.

But Murphy did make some fine comic choices as Kate Mulvany captured in her physical and vocal expressiveness of Louise throughout the show. ‘Beached’ does have some wonderfully funny moments and the play certainly allows for that. Unfortunately Davis, who has a genuine niceness exude from his every pore, was never really believable as understanding what it must be like to be morbidly obese. It’s a hard ask to imagine being trapped inside your own body and to have no control over the response of people’s public disgust towards it. So I understand what an obstacle this presents for a director in plunging for depth and conviction so it is easier to play for laughs and allow us to empathise based on the sweetness of Davis’ interpretation of Arty.

Clever design of the stage by James Browne made for hidden places to be captured by manipulating the use of camera and meant that every part of the stage (and off stage) were potential spaces of action. I thought the use of the fat suit rolling bean bag was incredibly inventive and although distracted by the moving of the scaffolding at times, it meant that even a slight shift opened up a new angle and way of seeing things. There was also the dilemma of whether to watch the actor through the lens or on stage. What an interesting choice to be given. Consequently it seemed as if we prefer the comfort of the close up instead of relying on the bigger picture unfolding in front of us.

‘Beached’ is worth watching and the younger demographic will especially enjoy the medium and satire of the reality genre and its familiar form used in this clever way. And the play did inspire me to roll along to the gym the next day so there’s something to be said for that (excuse the pun).

Saturday 3 August 2013


Grotowski-oriented group, Impulse Theatre, had their debut of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo & Juliet’ at the King St Theatre this week. It’s a mixed bag and continues a trend of community-based theatre at this venue that doesn’t quite succeed in producing fully developed work. Yet, there are some solid moments in this show that carry it to the end.

Director/Producer Stephen Wallace has chosen the 2005 Cronulla race riots as the backdrop or pretext to Shakespeare’s well-known play. Although this idea sets the scene for the two famous families and establishes time and place, it’s probably under-utilised in the overall vision of the play. It did allow for a few opportunities to play with cultural differences, such as the dancing in the party scene but it rarely pushed far enough in showing differences in characterisation or action. Perhaps there’s a fear of stereotyping. Whilst the ‘Lebanese’ Capulets were more obvious and developed, the Aussie Montagues didn’t have the same complexity and seemed to be only Aussie in costume. More exploration of choices here could have been interesting.

In regards to the performances, the stand out performer by a mile was Alan Faulkner, who took small roles such as the Prince or Peter and delivered the biggest performances of the evening. His mastery of the language was also evident and impressive.

Apart from Faulkner, it was the women of the cast who made a fist of keeping the show alive. Special mention goes to Rainee Lyleson’s Juliet. Dan Webber’s Romeo was hot and cold in characterisation but when he had the strength of Lyleson to bounce off, he was better for it. At least the chemistry and connection between them was believable.

The language was a hurdle too hard to ‘o’erleap’ for most and there was also some very dodgy and unfortunately amusing fight choreography executed on stage. Belief was mixed and there were a number of eye-rolling moments. Thankfully any sighing was muffled by the noise made by the obsessive crisps eater in the second row. And then sometimes they had moments that lifted the play in intensity and engagement and made the questionable performances or choices more forgivable.  

Allan Walpole’s set allowed for a variety of ways to use the stage, although sometimes, as evidenced by the use of the balcony, the set was used far too literally and a little more experimentation wouldn’t have gone astray.

But in all of that, the cast were committed and there’s lots of energy and love for the play within it. It doesn’t always transfer out but no doubt its audience will find a few moments of redemption in the viewing of the play and its passionate delivery.