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Sunday 16 December 2018

The Jungle @ Darlo Drama, dissected by me

When I first received an invitation to Louis Nowra's 'The Jungle' no less than a week ago, the concept was intriguing but confusing. Maybe in my sleep-deprived post-$4.50-cup-noodle state at Melbourne Airport the concept of 'being invited to spend 24 incredible hours in the heart of Sydney's underbelly [Kings Cross]' was taken a bit more literally than it should have been. I mean, I don't have the strongest memories of pre-lockout law-era Sydney (for reasons that won't be explored here), but I thought I got the gist of what the show was going for.

Now as I look back on what I saw, I still kind of think I get it. At its very roots, we as the audience are flies-on-the-wall in a sleazy Kings Cross landscape (well-set by Alex Holver's lighting design of sultry red lights, neutral blues, and blinding phosphorous-hued sunlight), treated to vignettes of corrupt policemen, drug-addled sex workers, timid men with highly questionable fetishes, gay sons, abusive fathers, extremely unstable 60s pop stars, adulterous work colleagues, 'aliens', and people who wear jean shorts. What an incredible Australia Day lamb advertisement that would make. However, from those foundations, the show moves between satire, drama, and a combination of the two in a perplexing fashion, attempting to tie all its loose ends together whilst continuing to introduce new characters and concepts even at its very latest stages.

Before any criticism, the show has to be recognised as an impressive acting feat - 11 actors play 26 characters over the course of two hours. Just the thought of that is exhausting to me. From my understanding, the action tying most of the vignettes together revolves around Cameron's (Gaurav Kharbanda) attempt to kill the person responsible for killing him (at least in what I believe is his drugged-out opinion), with the only lead a light blue jacket. In that process, a can of worms opens that brings more guests (with varying connections to the ever-complicating situation) to the figurative Australia Day BBQ. Of these guests, the audience can find solace in washed-up star Cynthia Page (Nicole Florio) and her assistant Vince (Hugo Schlander); as the show's most commonly recurring characters, their tumultuous pethidine-addled-master/constantly-scrambling-servant relationship is a recentralising (and therefore welcome) presence. Thankfully their acting and voice work is strong enough to not only keep the audience entertained but also engaged. Equal praise must go to Benjamin Pierce; his scene-stealing performance as Jason makes for one of the show's early highlights as he recounts his move from pethidine-dealing to abalone-dealing (somehow not the show's weirdest progression). Guarav Kharbanda does what he can when he acts as homosexual AIDS patient Cameron, taunting his father Mark (Timothy Rochford) with a sort of crescendo as he graphically describes his various sexual experiences, but unfortunately receives a less than adequate reaction from his unnecessarily stiff and unresponsive scene partner, somewhat diluting the power of his standout performance. However, I have to give special praise to Mark J. Wilson, who plays 5 different roles (though mostly that of Tony, Fisheries and Wildlife inspector, son of Jo-Ann Pass' Gloria, lisper and golden shower enthusiast). Socks and sandals footwear aside, he holds the show down at some of its strangest moments, dealing with the frankly bewildering (and variably-strong) sequences outlining his mother's adoption of an 'alien' (Gabriela Castilo) and his own golden shower-turned-twisted-Kurt-Cobain-memorial with wet worker Hope (Romney Stanton) with the only semblance of relatability in the whole performance. When he was on stage, the audience knew how to react, and for that guidance (plus those fresh socks and sandals) he was warmly received.

In my opinion, though, the show faces significant difficulties in moving from vignette to vignette and attempting to connect them. Director Glen Hamilton and playwright Louis Nowra definitely know the basic idea of what they wanted to present, but it feels like they developed their characters more so than any kind of main story. This gives rise to scenes that, even though entertaining, could likely be shortened or done without. Take Mark Fisher. After addressing the obvious dispute with his son in the performance's first half, this character's only scene in the second is to make 13-year-old Holly (Castillo) and the audience very uncomfortable with a prolonged (and frankly rapey) slow dance. At this point, the show is a drama - but this moment or these characters are never referenced again, not contributing to any discernible plot point. Same goes for an affair between business owner Austin (Wilson) and finance professional Toni (Annelies Tjetjep); a subplot established early in the show but only referenced very close to its end, with both characters only strenuously attached to (what I think) is the main sequence of events and subsequently lacking any real development. Add in an investigation over crooked (and cheesily-moustached) cop Metzger's (Andrew Singh) stolen heroin, in which his threats towards hooker Nikki (Castilo) - in what I can only assume is a brothel, based off the occasional offstage moan (courtesy of Sound Designer Damian Ryan) - are lines and actions I'm still not sure whether to consider as satire or drama, and my misunderstanding is clear. As vignettes, they're great; but together, they lack a unity I think was (somewhat) intended by the show's leading crew.

Ultimately, I think it best to consider 'The Jungle' as a particularly strong set of individual stories that are better viewed whilst avoiding the natural urge to figure out exactly how they fit together. The idea is definitely there, and the performances are more than watchable, but it must be approached with that mindset if one is to get the most out of it. If you can do that, then brave the rain, throw on your most promiscuous top, strappiest sandals, cheesiest fake moustache and enjoy.

Or maybe just see it in normal clothes. Surry Hills is a bit of a weird place.

Tuesday 6 November 2018

Freud's Last Session @ Seymour Centre, dissected by Matt

Having grown up with a mum who reads the likes of Freud and Jung for fun and enjoyed occasionally analysing my childhood mishaps I was all too well aware of the psychoanalytical underpinnings this dynamic play presented. Having also attended a church school I was well versed in the thinking of the other great man: C.S. Lewis. I was genuinely excited to explore the clear dynamic tensions that would underlie a hypothetical meeting between Sigmund Freud (Nicholas Papademetriou) and C.S. Lewis (Yannick Lawry) as seen in this ground-breaking play, Freud’s Last Session by Mark St. Germain and performed by Clock & Spiel Productions.

The play is set in Freud’s apartment in London and is grounded in the build-up toward World War II in 1939. Freud, now in his 80s and plagued by terminal oral cancer, extends himself beyond the realm of psychoanalytical analysis to deal with deep philosophical debates surrounding the human experience. On the day World War II breaks out Freud invites the middle-aged C.S. Lewis to his London apartment to discuss why after being an atheist like Freud, he became a devout Christian. No doubt the catalyst for this was in relation to his own encroaching mortality. The dynamic between these two characters is very entertaining as Freud is staunchly dogmatic, whilst Lewis continually attempts to convince him through logic of the existence of God, winning few victories. As an audience member it felt like we are all a fly on the wall in Freud’s apartment, following tit for tat the two’s arguments.

Indeed, with such strong and distinct personalities, finding the right actors to fill their shoes must have been a challenge in of itself. Luckily in Papademetriou and Lawry they found two actors able to decode and translate these historical figures who are largely bound in their contributions and not so much their humanity. Papademetriou’s interpretation gave off a very revealing physicality that skilfully offset the dogmatic, closed-off persona of Freud. His performance brought something very special to Freud, endowing a very visceral connection between the audience and the character. Lawry’s performance is also commendable, providing a believable embodiment of the upper middle-class Lewis. However, while I found it believable, I failed to establish the same visceral connection with him as Lawry’s physicality often felt self-conscious, revealing to me shades of the actor, not the character. However, that being said I felt that there was a genuinely good synergy between the actors that reflected the dynamism of the character’s relationship.

The play was well executed. The set (courtesy of designer Tyler Ray Hawkins) made me feel intimate and cosy in the space, which is essential for the limited cast and the level of direct focus needed to get to grips with the material they were debating. The props (again Hawkins) were well utilised, notable were the radio which was well positioned to good effect and Freud’s classic chaise lounge, which was used to provide simultaneous symbolic and humorous effect. Important to note that while there were a number of set pieces and props they didn’t excessively clutter the space as they so often do. 

I was fairly impressed by the script written by Mark St. Germain. It was well written and came off as witty and smart. It did an excellent job depicting Freud for all his complexities: the good, the bad, and the ugly. However, I couldn’t help thinking that Lewis was portrayed far too simply. There were no contradictions or major doubts in Lewis and therefore it was impossible not to escape the conclusion that the character was very one-dimensional. Lewis is a sounding board for Freud, which adds an element of deeper complexity to his character, but no doubt this is at the expense of Lewis’ characterisation. Otherwise, the script skilfully delves into some of the core philosophical debates pertaining toward the human experience, exacerbated by fears of mortality. Issues of love, sex, God, morality, and (more broadly) the meaning of life are discussed within the entertaining relationship dynamic between the dogmatic Freud and the more accommodating, but still orthodox, Lewis. I thoroughly enjoyed the ending which was very well executed, having dealt with Freud’s fragile humanity and encroaching death. Fundamentally, there is resolution in that despite all the debates and theorising at the core the facts of humanity are indisputable and that our various dogmas often escape the truth.

I was impressed by this production. Despite some weaknesses in the script, it felt intimate and real, with an appropriate synergy between Papademetriou and Lawry that provided a thoroughly refreshing take on the pressing debates that still very much exist in our time.

Sunday 14 October 2018

Sport for Jove's Ear to the Edge of Time, dissected by me

There is one main reason why I am apprehensive about writing something about Sport for Jove's new show 'Ear to the Edge of Time'. It is that I am a man, and much of this show deals with the victimhood experienced by women in science, particularly astrophysics. Therefore I write on this issue from an outsider's perspective, one that cannot (and does not attempt to) understand the complex process of internalisation that women undergo in many aspects of their lives as a result of the nature of some men. Weary of the notions of toxic masculinity and mansplaining, unlike for what I've seen before I felt a strong need to assert my position before I get into this review. I welcome the opinions of any woman or non-male figure that are different to mine - the show is just as much for them as it is for me.

With that being said, I believe the show works. 85 percent of the time.

10 percent of those issues come not from Alana Valentine's script or Nadia Tass' direction, but the performance of it by some of the cast. I'm certain the script will pick up even more acclaim than what it has already accumulated, having won the International STAGE Award for the best play about science or technology, and I am more than happy to add to that - it is a tight piece of work that turns its scientific foundation of radio astronomy (which isn't rocket science, but something more complex) into an accessible concept for a non-STEM educated audience (or in my specific case, an audience member not even finished with formal education yet). Its emphasis on duologues, occasionally interrupted by moments of mesmerising performance poetry (reminiscent of what was done in their earlier production of Moby Dick), keeps the plot progressing at an engaging pace. I was, however, finding myself craving for an interval at times - the play deals with so much, (usually) so adequately, and so quickly that it feels longer than it's letting on. I also would've liked an interval from Tim Walter's overly dramatic performance as Daniel Singer, the scruffy truth-bending poet assigned to take the research done at the play's observatory setting and give it literary justice. There was this unusual lack of realism to his delivery which fit his recital of the aforementioned performance poetry but felt out of place elsewhere.

Luckily, much of this is avoided by the rest of the cast. Belinda Giblin as the cheated (but nonetheless successful) female scientist Geraldine Kell-Cantrell is a joy to watch in her role, creating great chemistry with every cast member as she weaves a subtle web of influence over everything. Gabrielle Scawthorn as Martina Addeley, the fiery-haired but also cheated PhD student (side note: when you pick up a program with her face on it, fold it vertically in half immediately for a whole new person) can be a bit split-personality at some times but ultimately gives a performance that connects strongly with the audience. It would be unfair, however, to not give top credit to the immensely watchable Christopher Stollery. Primarily taking on the character of Steven Sarvas, observatory director and hijacker of Adderley's miraculous discovery (but also an unnamed Uber driver and book launch organiser), he manages to deliver the most nuanced and entertaining performance. Bar some very minor physicality issues early on in the play, it is incredibly satisfying to watch him steal scenes. Too bad his slightly thicker-haired doppelganger is having a bit more trouble stealing the Prime Ministership over in Canberra.

Now to the remaining 5 percent that doesn't work. Unlike previous Jove shows, there are far less props or set pieces. In fact, there are only two memorable set pieces from designer Shaun Gurton - a glass panel on wheels, which isn't around for very long, and (what I think is) half a satellite dish centrestage left, taking up a considerable amount of one's view of the stage. On its semicircular frame it hosts various images - staircases, planets, and fields, among other things. Even though it stays for the entire performance, there was never a discernible reason for it to be there in the first place. References to what it projects are limited. Its actual inclusion in any action even more restricted. It is very 'Old man yells at cloud'-esque I recognise, but I can't see its use. It was just unnecessary.

In any case, even as a man, even as a non-STEM person, and even as an individual who is ambivalent about performance poetry, there is much to praise in 'Ear to the Edge of Time'. Do yourself a favour - come for the show, stay for Kell-Cantrell's, Scawthorn's, and (most notably) Stollery's performances, and keep your eyes off that nasty half-satellite dish.

Saturday 6 October 2018

Lie With Me @ Old 505, dissected by me

Serial killers have often been a weird subject of fascination for me. I suppose with my mum being a trained psychologist it’s in my blood to want to understand how and why people think the way they do. But in Liz Hobart’s Lie With Me, the fact we’re asked to go beyond that and consider not only why serial killers do what they do, but the impact this (and the deserved media bashing they receive) has on their closest relatives and what forces go into the making of the ‘mother of a monster’, makes the entire concept even more thought-provoking. For a man whose name literally translates to deep thinker, it’s quite fitting I’m interested. 

But we’ll deal with complexities later. On its face, the play takes inspiration from the life of US serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, the closeted homosexual whose necrophilia and obsession with biology brought about the deaths of 13 men in Milwaukee in the late 1970s-1980s. Whilst the audience never sees Sebastian Jenkins (the Dahmer equivalent), they gain an understanding of him through his mother Janice’s (Lyn Pierse) recounting and reliving of her life with him. Hobart’s script moves in a non-linear fashion that leans towards absurdism at points, blending scenes exploring Janice’s troubled family past with ones detailing the tumultuous internal politics of her housewife social group in flashbacks and moments of media-induced social hysteria to detail how Sebastian’s past actions affect his mother in the present. Switch Milwaukee for Newcastle and American stereotypes for Australian ones, and that’s the working idea. It’s awfully reminiscent of STC’s earlier show The Testament of Mary, if Jesus was replaced with Jeffrey Dahmer and Jerusalem with Newcastle. 

That's just the working idea, mind you. 

When applied practically, it took some time to adjust to the constant movement between flashbacks and scenes set in the present. Whereas the flashbacks are mostly comedic and light-hearted, scenes in the present are morose or dramatic - the interplay between them takes time to sink in. Only when I realised how important the flashbacks were in setting up later-addressed plot points (such circularity being one of the play’s quiet strengths) did the flashbacks make structural sense. That being said, a better balance between comedic relief and moments of tension in Hobart’s script would have been more ideal. Laughing at ‘mum’ jokes after learning how Sebastian sexually interacts with his victims post-mortem is dead hard (morbid pun intended).

On a performance level, this issue of balance is also somewhat evident. In what seems to be the ‘in’ thing these days, we’ve got an all-woman cast and majority-women creative team (which, given the play’s subject matter, is  fitting choice by director Warwick Doddrell). As referenced earlier, Robertson and Murray take on a flurry of roles. At some stages they are media professionals, at others Janice’s housewife friends, and (in the case of Robertson) even her own family. The lack of time they have to develop their characters in each of these contexts makes such performances sometimes shallow, particularly when at moments when I needed to figure out who they were playing. This is mostly the case with Murray - she just kind of hangs around, only really making the most of one of her roles (as a housewife) late in the performance but constantly plagued with an under-whelming physicality and stage presence elsewhere. Robertson experiences less of these issues (but still some) by virtue of the script’s emphasis on Janice's weatherman husband Len, but even this performance lacks enough passion. We certainly get a sense of his toxically masculine character (which Robertson deserves attention for; how are women playing men so well these days?), but simply not enough - there’s a slight lack of aggression in him that is needed to frighten the audience like it hypothetically does his son. That being said, I enjoyed Pierse’s lead performance - realistic, reserved (bar one scene where she melodramatically defends her son’s actions and some minor physicality issues) and again morally flawed, she shines because she maintains one constant character, able to flesh it out non-verbally and really carry the play in moments of chorus or collective. 

Whilst there were many moments of chorus work (what with a 3-woman cast), it is the more psychological I want to name-check as the play’s overall highlights - Production Designer Isabella Andronos and Sound Designer Ben Hinchley go above and beyond in their craft and make this show much of the good that it is at these points. Through the aid of a flickering yellow light and long white material, a rendition of Sebastian’s birth is presented mid-way into the show. As the light flickers, all of the women stichomythically chant lines from earlier in the play as Janice delivers on a table just off centre-stage, having this material drawn out of her. A soft but powerful music plays over this short scene. But it wasn’t this visual sight I was drawn to. It was the shadow made by the light on the set’s bare upstage wall - recreating the birth in an almost silhouette-like fashion. Two visuals to focus on, one horrifying birth of a killer. Brilliant. By the same virtue, Janice’s shock departure from the lives of her son and husband near the performance's end, driving alone in her car shrieking ‘I’ve done it!’ as loud music plays. Joined by Robertson and Murray as voices either side of Pierse (miming this drive downstage centre) to turn this shriek into a crowded crescendo of confusion, elation and second-guessing, this progresses from comedy to drama incredibly well. We are left to question Janice's selfish actions within this incredible, symbolic moment.

Ultimately, the Old 505 has again shown me why I love coming back to them. Lie With Me is a complex play, where every character and persona is as flawed as they are perfect. I loved the sound and production elements - Pierse’s performance almost as much. For the most part, I liked Hobart’s script. Whilst I found the play’s non-linear structure confusing at times, my eventual understanding of their importance to quickly-revisited plot points made me at least recognise that I needed to pay attention and deal with the poorly-timed jokes within them. And when I’m listening to characters I know, that’s easy. When I’m left to guess who is playing who until halfway through the scene, not so much. If you’ve got 90 minutes to kill (dear god please not literally), this is well worth your time. 

Friday 5 October 2018

What the Butler Saw @ New Theatre, dissected by Matt

Having both never seen this play (or been to the New Theatre) before, I had little idea about what to expect of my upcoming thespian experience. I can gladly say that, notwithstanding this initial anxiety, I have not been so pleasantly surprised in many years.

Despite the world feeling more absurd than ever, the English black comedy farce ‘What the Butler Saw’ feels witty and refreshing. Indeed, in a time when we take ourselves far too seriously, it is liberating for our world to be hyperbolised through an absurd lens, producing an effect similar to breaking the ice. In a genre that is far too underutilised these days, farce provides a lovely method for communicating the inverse absurdity of a different context to provide a refreshing insight into our own. This is exactly what we see here. The play’s uncomfortable moments are skilfully balanced by its humour to strengthen its broad criticisms of the hypocritical orthodox upper-class establishment. It was refreshing to sit through a play where I didn’t have to think too hard, have quite a few laughs and yet still manage to find meaningful insights into myself and society by the end.

The plot of the play quickly develops into a complex maelstrom. Opening in a private psychiatric clinic, Dr Prentice (Ariadne Sgouros) convinces Geraldine Barclay (Martin Quinn) to take her clothes off as part of her job interview as his new secretary. From that moment on, the farce is unleashed as Prentice attempts to seduce Barclay - with repeated and increasingly escalating shifts into sexual and psychological exploitation, gender confusion, lost and mistaken identities, nymphomania, transvestism, incest, blackmail and bribery increasingly getting out of hand. From Dr Prentice’s upper-class morality subverted by deep sexual repression to his foil manifestation, Mrs Prentice (Jake Fryer-Hornsby), dressed in just a black trench coat and high heels with a sexually aggressive aura, the formula feels mathematically perfect. The manifesting calamities brought on by the mad Freud-esque Dr Rance (Amrik Tumber) adds to tantalising absurdity of the play. The more ‘normal’ characters (Geraldine Barclay, Madeleine Carr as Nicholas Beckett and Andrew Guy as Sergeant Match) make the audience feel roped into the mess with a series of cross-dressing and false admissions, corrupted by self-serving interests.

Playwright Joe Orton’s vision feels viscerally anti-establishment. He overtly critiques big government, the intelligentsia, orthodox morality, and the upper-classes. Despite being written in a different epoch, his criticisms seem somewhat distant, but yet at the same time it feels oddly familiar to a contemporary modern Australian audience; institutionalised gendered hypocrisy concerningly still rings true in our context (see: Brett Kavanaugh). Interestingly however, some elements appear more absurd due to them being somewhat dated in our context, such as the diagnose of nymphomania for Mrs Prentice, which paradoxically strengthens the play.

The cast were superb, with excellent chemistry, connection and intimacy between their diverse characters. Notable standouts include Sgouros’ Dr Prentice and Jake Fryer-Hornsby as Mrs Prentice for their excellent stage presences (both together and separately). The employment of the accent coach Alistair Toogood proved a worthwhile masterstroke with the accents by each actor being of a superior quality in comparison to many other excellent productions (see: Luna Gale). 

Ultimately, this show didn’t disappoint in the slightest, with many clever laughs from an excellent cast that each had a solid grip on the play’s intention. The play’s content itself was refreshingly different from many other productions, setting itself apart in a deeply memorable way. Clever choices from the production team and director Danielle Maas made this play a carefully constructed and nuanced treasure. Very well done.