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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.