Water: a watershed moment, or not quite watertight? (Theatre)

I went into the intermission wondering what in the world Water was doing in Black Swan State Theatre Company’s Studio Underground. This should be on the main stage, I thought, it’s brilliant! I went home a bit clearer – the play’s not ready yet.

Written by Jane Bodie, Water has the potential to become not only a ‘classic’ but Australia’s greatest play ever, becoming perhaps what Death of a Salesman is to American drama.

By the end of the first act – or was it the second act – I was on the edge of my seat: an Australian politician was potentially (there’s that word again) going to be tried for war crimes in the International Court of Justice for the role he had played in the deaths of countless refugees as a consequence of his immigration policy: turn back the boats. Alas, the high drama, the high court, the trial and its outcome – the moment that would have the world watching in anticipation – never came. Instead, we were subject to a moralising history lesson: two relatively undramatic scenes that served to communicate 1) some white Australians were treated rather impersonally by US immigration officials in the 1920s, and 2) Queensland made use of cheap black labour on sugar plantations in the early 1900s.

But let me sing the praises of the first half of the ‘play’ – the half that was the drama – and return later to, well, let’s call it the ‘experiment’ that was the second half.

It is indeed a joy and privilege to watch seasoned theatre actors live on stage. Glenda Linscott as Beth was the fulcrum of the drama – the amicable but anxious, honest but slightly overbearing, polite but slightly prejudiced, sincere but slightly racist, naive but slightly scheming mother we all know and love – and loathe. The reliable and always compelling Igor Sas, as Peter, initially appears as the browbeaten husband but we soon learn that a lifetime of guilt is what is weighing him down. Amy Matthews as Gemma and Emily Rose Brennan as Joey are perfect as the contrasting sisters, the former a conformist who has, perhaps unwillingly, ended up as a lawyer, the latter a rebel who had taken off around the world years earlier with nothing but a backpack. The conflict and the humour between the sisters keeps the relationship between them on a knife’s edge, and this goes back to good writing. The relationship between husband and wife, Peter and Beth, was also genuine – no holds barred but a deep love for each other.

Into this picture comes Yize, played by Richard Maganga – the African refugee whose mother and sister had drowned at sea just off the Australian coast as a result of Peter’s ‘keep Australia safe’ policy. Brought home as a friend by pro-refugee Joey, Yize cheerfully bears a number of racist gaffes and other prejudicial statements until the moment he subjects Peter – with one of the greatest speeches I’ve ever heard on stage, spoken with a remarkable balance of passion and poise by Richard Maganga – to such a castigation that, upon hearing it, any Australian who has ever been, or is even remotely, complicit in the suffering of refugees who seek asylum in our country would be deeply ashamed of her/himself.

The ‘water’ (read: drama) runs out at this point.    

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It is surprising that dramaturg Polly Low allowed such an unfinished product to hit the shelves although she is to be commended, together with director Emily McLean, for overseeing half of an award-winning play.

Set and costume designer Fiona Bruce has done an impeccable job of creating the slightly dystopian coloured, eco-friendly bungalow that housed the under-sieged family. The set was good enough to accommodate both the crucible (a play I’d like Jane Bodie to draw inspiration from when she re-writes the script!) of the drama and the disparate scenes that made up the second half. She has done a remarkable job with costumes as well, each costume speaking loudly of the character.

Lighting designer Lucy Birkinshaw and Sound Designer & Composer Dr Clint Bracknell transported us as if in a dream to different eras, different parts of the globe, at different times of day. I must admit the lighting for the US holding cells occupied by the two hopeful Australian émigrés, as well as the darkness evoked in the digs of the plantation worker, compounded by Dr Bracknell’s underscoring were rather disquieting elements and communicated well the sense of isolation and despair. 

Yes, Water, as per the synopsis, ‘explores three families, born in different times’. That those families are ‘united’ however, by (their) ‘stories of immigration and transportation’ is a bit of a stretch – this is no When the Rain Stops Falling (by Andrew Bovell). ‘Epic’, yes, slightly, but let’s not dilute the word by having as the only prerequisite for using it the presence of historical matter.

Water is absolutely worth seeing – it is, for better or for worse – (Australian theatre) history in the making – but what the creatives need to do, starting with Jane Bodie, is to go back and rewrite the final act. The play will quickly be forgotten if left as it is, unless it spawns a new genre of theatre, which I doubt.

As experimental as theatre can be, I think people always have and always will crave a cohesive story.

The (irresistible) Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui – a review.

In true Brechtian style the cast and crew of Curtin University’s Hayman Theatre Company deliver a play of epic (pun intended) proportions at Curtin’s Hayman Theatre. The play, overall, was, (another pun?) irresistible. A cast of 17 playing 24 characters worked together fairly seamlessly to tell the story of a bloody megalomaniac. 

Kudos to Tim Lorian who showed he had the balls to play the villain, Ui. Tim could back himself even more and not fall prey to the clamour that swirls around him as he rises to the top. Ui knows what he’s doing – trust him, Tim, as he expects his henchmen to trust him.

Malek Domkoc was an imposing Ernesto Roma, a wonderful foil for Ui. Malek was never more Ernesto than when he was Ernesto’s ghost, back from the dead, like Banquo, with literally a grave warning for Ui. It was perhaps because Malek played the ghost of a character that he was fully able to let go and become that character. All actors, in fact, might do well to remember that characters are merely spirits to which they must give themselves up. Actors often interfere with a character when they try, literally, to be somebody else.

Dockdaisy, played by Jasmine Valentini, was present but her character could be distinguished even more. And more distinguished it will become, I’m sure, as Jasmine settles into the run.

Alex Comstock, as Emanuele Giri, was a force to be reckoned with – somebody not to get on the wrong side of. Alex could be even more menacing if he remains exactly that – more menacing – less overtly violent when he doesn’t need to be, and more potentially violent. Alex was a little shouty at times – as were some other actors – and he doesn’t need to be. He’s got the size, the snarl and the murderous look in his eye, and he needs to use his voice to intimidate – not to annoy.

Taylor Beilby hit on the right note and style for Giuseppe Givola, the mobster florist – and styled nicely he was by costume designer Kiri Siva, who, along with costume assistants Pauline Rosman and Jane Tero, did an outstanding job of individualising and contextualising all the characters without resorting to stereotypes.

Christian Dichiera, as James Greenwool, was every bit the gangster, serious about his job as a thug and relishing the spotlight in the courtroom.

Nelson Fannon was extraordinary as the washed up actor called in to give Ui some lessons on bearing and elocution. Nelson was slightly overbearing as the Master of Ceremonies, who opened the show, which may be the result of a combination of direction and nerves. The purpose of the prologue is invite the audience to listen and to see a story unfold – to settle the audience, make them comfortable, and to encourage them to enter the world of make-believe – not to force the story upon the audience. Then again, it would be consistent with the world of Arturo Ui to make the audience comply. At any rate, Nelson showed himself to be a versatile actor. He played to perfection a prosecutor in one of the courtroom scenes, which again makes me wonder whether actors hit the right note when they’re not trying too hard: the ghost of Ernest Roma, played by Malek Domkoc, the prosecutor, played by Nelson, and Ignatius Dullfoot, played by Sebastian Boyd, were the ‘other’, we might say ‘second’ characters each of these actors had to play (although one could argue that playing the ghost of Ernest Roma is nothing more than playing Ernest Roma himself) and the actors seemed to play these ‘auxiliary’ characters flawlessly. I suspect that being conscious of the ‘main’ role assigned to each of these actors led them to give special attention to what we might call their ‘primary’ role resulting in a combination of actor and character ‘rolled into one’.  Granted, Sebastian Boyd, presumably no more than 23 years of age in real life, had to play an 80 year old man and that is tough – going the whole hog, with makeup, a wig, and a young person’s old person’s voice can be comic but not doing enough to show the character is elderly can be confusing for the audience. A silvery wig was chosen to give some indication of Old Dogsborough’s age. Indeed, the wig was enough to signify Dogsborough but Sebastian added well to this by sensitively embodying the upright yet feeble man.

Young Dogsborough, played by Calum Christie, was believable at every moment. Could it be, once again, that the actor, not burdened by the fact he had a ‘major’ role to play simply allowed himself to ‘be’ the character?

Kyra Belford-Thomas was also entirely believable as the demure and dutiful Mrs Dullfoot. She perhaps overdid grief at the funeral scene. Kyra would do well to remember that Ui had been quite charming with her before he murdered her husband so perhaps more disbelief and fear could add colour to her meeting with Ui at the funeral. 

Clodagh Berryman, Kailea Porter and Emily Bell played the levelled-headed, conspicuous Businesswomen of the Cauliflower Trust. The choice to have women play these roles, traditionally intended for men, enhanced and contextualised the story for our times. These three actors, reminiscent of Macbeth’s witches (perhaps a deliberate choice given the play’s many allusions to Shakespeare) were strong, maintaining character on stage given little dialogue.

Emily Bell held stage very well as Defence Counsel in the court scene, rising to the occasion both as actor and character, flying in the face of danger, outnumbered by – literally and metaphorically – ‘the mob’ – all while knee-deep in the corruption of the court, presided over by Thomas Bach as Judge. Thomas played well the role of ‘judge as puppet’ – not too domineering but putting on enough of a show to convince all and sundry he was there to uphold the law.

Upholding the faith was Jack Blumer, who played the pastor, speechifying at Ignatius Dullfoot’s funeral. Jack was strong but he could take his time a little more in order to set the scene. With so many changes of scene and one relatively unchanging set, the actors do need to set the scene quickly but the audience needs time to adjust. Jack could do better by really imagining a church full of both sincere mourners and curious onlookers and, calmly and pastorally, draw our attention to the fact that we are indeed in a church, at a funeral.

Bryan Chin, as Fish, could also slow down a bit to draw us in to his world, his character. His character is there but he shouldn’t be dismissive of it.

Sacha Emeljanow was appropriately dismissive as journalist Ragg. She could go after her goals even more tenaciously – like journalists do – in order to bring out even more of Ragg’s cheek and humour.

But cheek and humour the play did not lack. Choreographer Jade Woodhouse, together with sound and lighting designers John Coughlin and David Cooper, respectively, as well as A/V designer John Congear, have combined brilliantly, under the direction of Leah Mercer, to give us a true Verfremdungseffekt experience – the ‘estrangement’ or ‘alienation’ effect popularised by Brecht – by regaling us with a number of jarring though thoroughly entertaining interludes that leaned heavily on 90s dance and music. Also jarring but totally right was the amazing set designed by Chloe Palliser and Cameron Norton – think seedy nightclubs in the 90s – black yet fluorescent dingy places. The set was something you really couldn’t take your eyes off and greatly contributed to the play’s dynamic. As if it couldn’t get any better, the set was gradually covered throughout the play by propaganda-style posters of Arturo Ui ultimately giving us the full dystopian – or was it fascist? – experience.

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All in all, this production is worth seeing. This play could reach award-winning levels if the actors but settled more into their roles, which I think will happen. The actors, I think, need to try less. Brecht has already taken care of the story, along with its irony. The actors need to remember that they can inadvertently short-circuit a play if they take upon themselves – usually by means of their voices – the job of communicating the irony to the audience. An ‘ironic’ voice delivering an ironic line is akin to a double negative – the two phenomena tend to cancel each other out. The irony is already there in the script so there’s no need to treat your character ironically. Treat your character seriously – the irony will take care of itself. 

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui plays at the Hayman Theatre until May 25.

Feel it in your veins: a review of Cracked (Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company)

Barbara Hostalek’s aptly named Cracked is the story of cycles: the cycle that is drug addiction, the cycle that is incarceration, and the cycle our well meaning institutions ironically call ‘correction’ – removing ‘offenders’ from society, locking them up, giving them time to think about what they’ve done, depriving them of, well, almost everything, and issuing them a plan for how they will reintegrate into society before they’re released. We then shake our heads when they relapse and reoffend. As the director of Cracked (also Artistic Director of Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company) Eva Grace Mullaley so poignantly puts it in a poem that prefaces the program, this is ‘not at all how it’s meant to be’.

Eva Grace Mullaley, together, I assume, with playwright Barbara Hostalek and dramaturg Polly Low have hit on the correct pace and style for this production. Barbara, Eva and Polly have highlighted a world of comings and goings, where stakeholders and ‘loved ones’ seem to orbit yet ‘act on’ convicted assailant and drug addict, Frances, played by Bobbi-Jean Henry. The assailant becomes the assailed, albeit psychologically, during her stay behind bars, where help and support seems to be something more than  offered. ‘Help and support’, in this case, seem part of the sentence – something the offender must endure, as we see Frances urged, at times obliged, to accept the help and support being ‘offered’ to her. However, it is questionable whether Frances actually wants help and support – or perhaps she’s not ready for it, or too proud to receive it. Perhaps all Frances really wants – consciously or despite herself – is her next hit. Frances is broken but does she really want to be ‘fixed’? The fact she has two children would indicate she has something to ‘live for’ and indeed she cites her children as the main reason she wants to get out but she passes up an arranged opportunity to see them while on parole by taking off with an acquaintance in order to score. Is Frances a prisoner to meth, or does she have a completely different worldview of how life is worth living? One would hope it’s the former and that she could eventually free herself from the drug’s clutches but the ending of the play suggests she won’t. The ending, in fact, grounds the play in such reality I would highly recommend seeing it if only for the powerful truth it communicates.

Barbara, Eva and Polly show us a human in a largely un-human (I deliberately avoid using the word ‘inhumane’) world despite the presence of a number of people who surround her, each of whom is not without a heart. Even the prison guard, solidly played by Luke Hewitt, has feelings – but despite all their yearnings and good intentions, the efforts of those who want the best for Frances are often thwarted. No matter how empathetic they are to Frances’ plight, the institution, with its structure and schemes, its policies and procedures, its forms and formalities – and the fact that Frances can’t read – make it difficult for them to help Frances change for the better. And they don’t seem to understand that getting Frances safely out of the prison that confines her physically is the least of their problems.

Bobbi-Jean Henry’s portrayal of Frances (‘Frankie’) might be a little too endearing. At times, she is more the capricious teenager, the rebellious high-school student railing against the school rules. Though we necessarily sympathise with the protagonist of a play, it is a bit too easy to side with Frances – she seems hard done by from the start – ‘society has failed her’ and the ‘system has failed her’, it seems. And, well, maybe it has. The bias isn’t helped by the other characters, all of whom seem to abide by her petulance for some reason. No-one really tells her in to pull her head in and we never really see her bear the full brunt of the institution that has deprived her of her liberty. In fact, Frances often seemed comfortably ‘above the law’ despite her angst, the result being that we never quite feel her plight though we can understand her circumstances. Bobbi-Jean Henry – indeed, Frances – seemed to hit her straps when she had her first argument with her estranged partner, Dwayne, played by Bruce Denny. ‘Frances’, the character, seemed to emerge strongly after she had told Dwayne to f#ck off. When Bobbi-Jean is in full flight as Frances, it is impossible to look away so I can only encourage her – as Frances, of course – to send them all to f#cking hell.

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Dwayne was also fairly endearing – we all love an unpretentious bogan – but although the facts about Dwayne were grim – no job, no money, no house, nothing really to offer Frances – he didn’t really seem to have any flaws other than his naïveté. Somehow, I think the ‘real’ Dwayne, if there is, or ever was one, would be a lot more dangerous. 

Three very well rounded characters were played by Holly Jones and Matthew Cooper (‘Edwina’, and ‘Joel’, two Corrections Officers) and Rayma Morrison (‘Aunty Pat’), who reaches out to Frances with the offer of support and accommodation. Holly Jones brings a good deal of empathy to the role of Edwina, Matthew Cooper communicates some of the stress, confusion, and frustration that go along with being a Corrections Officer, and Rayma Morrison shows Aunty Pat to be a woman of heart and wisdom – a woman to which the term ‘tough love’ could be applied.

Sara Chirichilli’s steely, jagged, and dissociated set works well to evoke prison and the impersonal office of the Correctional Officers. The central, turntable piece worked so well, I wondered if the steel steps in the background were actually needed. Going to and from Frances’ cell might have been represented simply by rotating the turntable to show the outside walls of the cell when the scene was not set in the cell. But this is a minor point. The desk was an essential item but the moving of it was arguably excessive. Perhaps other devices such as lighting – or no devices – could be used to represent the fact the desk was a different desk in different scenes. 

Karen Cook and Mia Holton were instrumental in rendering Frances’ dream sequence – a brooding ambience (thanks to lighting designer, Karen Cook) and a beautiful and bizarre landscape (courtesy of projection designer, Mia Holton) I’m sure the audience felt very much part of when Frances was dreaming. This was accompanied by sound designer Mei Swan Lim’s haunting and, at times, disturbing soundscape. Mei Swan Lim enhanced the visceral experience of the audience at other plaintive and piteous moments of the play as well.

This is a brilliant story with a very strong cast and it’s something I would gladly watch again both to enjoy it and in the hope for more. Despite the clearly competent acting, the play, overall, feels a bit safe. We, the audience, feel safe, and we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t be limited to understanding the tragedy that is played out – we should be feeling it. And I think this can be achieved by making the smallest of adjustments: as actors, cooperate; as characters, don’t. 

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