It don’t matter if you’re black or white – a review of Black is the New White (Black Swan presents a Sydney Theatre Company production)

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The standing ovation given at the end of Nakkiah Lui’s Black is the New White should be enough to inform you this play is worth seeing. Indeed, this comedy – not without farce – can hardly be faulted. It’s imperfections, moreover, if there are any, only add to its charm.

I can only describe playwright Nakkiah Lui as enlightened given the script. The debate surrounding aboriginality, whiteness, class, privilege, wealth, and power, all of which Lui shows are non mutually-exclusive categories, is nuanced, necessary, and ‘now.’ The utterances that clearly lack sophistication, are naive, or downright cringeworthy are arguably the result of a master craftswoman (Lui) who knows exactly what chord she wishes to strike and when. The moment we believe Lui is simply an aboriginal woman championing her race, we are wrong-footed by that same woman criticising her race. Indeed the ‘white’ voices in this play are as strong as the ‘black’ which makes for thoroughly interesting listening. This is no piece of black propaganda. Indeed, it is thanks to Lui’s critical analysis and avoidance of any patent pro-black/anti-white sentiment that the play ultimately achieves a pro-black stance that suggests rather than prescribes.

The appellation ‘master craftswoman’ must also go to director Paige Rattray who has managed to successfully stage this comic whirlwind that had at times up to nine characters on stage, all of whom at a certain point were involved in a massive (spolier alert) food fight.

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A character I loved but whom I sadly think was superfluous to the action was the ‘Narrator’, beautifully played by Luke Carroll. The play would arguably work just as well without this character. The expository interjections made by this character did shed some light on the story and help to keep the audience feeling light (we were encouraged to stand up and dance to Mariah Carey’s All I want for Christmas… immediately after intermission) but again, this character does not significantly enhance the story. Characters reacting to this ‘ghost’s’ ‘presence in the house – hearing a noise or feeling a wind – did not work at all. 

Designed by Renée Mulder – another master craftswoman – the house itself (the set) – an ultra-modern, white (the colour, not the race) minimalist holiday home owned by Ray and Joan Gibson (played respectively by Tony Briggs and Melodie Reynolds), and brought into high relief by Ben Hughes’ lighting, was superb.

Tony Briggs played the loveable but very proud Ray Gibson, an aboriginal man who has ‘made it’ through hard work and determination. But Ray’s gains, despite his hard work, are questionable – what effect has his politics had on the aboriginal community he has always claimed to champion? And does he realise just how instrumental to his success his wife has been? 

Joan Gibson, played with a beautiful balance of warmth and spirit by Melodie Reynolds-Diarra, is the supportive wife and mother but her patience has limits and she delivers a wake-up call to her husband that’s been years in the making.

Kylie Bracknell (Kaarljilba Kaardn) plays Rose Jones, the sophisticated, successful, fashion-designer daughter of Joan and Ray. Rose is at once pro-black and anti-white. She gives an icy reception to her sister’s fiancé, Francis (played by Tom Stokes), when he is introduced to the family. Bracknell (Kaarljilba Kaardn) successfully walks the line between ignorance and prejudice; between awareness and acceptance. She shows her naivety by her frequent malapropisms (perhaps overdone but, hey, it’s a comedy) and shows her sophistication when she exemplifies what a strong-willed (aboriginal) woman can create and achieve. However, her sense of what culture is – including what her own culture is – is still developing (as it is for all of us, Lui makes it clear) and she finds herself in the middle of a contradiction: the man she married, (Sonny, played by Anthony Taufa), the man she always believed was aboriginal – in fact, he had always believed it himself! – turns out to be (spoiler alert) Tongan. (Don’t worry, it all ends well.) Taufa played the hypersensitive Sonny without falling prey to slapstick, cliche, or other base devices.

Miranda Tapsell as Charlotte Gibson was excellent. Carrying a torch for aboriginality, for women black and white, and I dare say for a society – again, black and white – striving for equality, inclusivity and harmony, Miranda as Charlotte embodied everything that is human: hope, commitment, frustration, anger, disappointment, sadness, and renewed hope.

And the white fellas? The love-hate relationship between Dennison Smith, played by Geoff Morrell, and Ray Gibson (Tony Briggs) is evident as soon as Smith enters Gibson’s house only to find that his son is dating the daughter of his old political arch-enemy. Morrell’s ability to embody both the character, Dennison, and ‘whiteness’ (think: can’t dance) was outstanding. The play was stronger for all his antagonism, and his comic timing was exemplary. The funniest character, however must go to Vanessa Downing as Marie (pronounced ‘Maree’!) Smith. How she maintained a deadpan expression when everyone in the house was rolling in the aisles I’ll never know. Downing portrayed well an ageing – but still very attractive! – woman not fixed in her ways, open to the merging of cultures – and discovering her sexuality on the side!

The Smiths are clearly strong, perhaps overly stern, conservative parents, which might explain why their son Francis is so emasculate. Granted a young man is usually deferent, even obsequious, when meeting the father of the girl he wants to marry, but I wondered why, in the face of such caustic attacks from Ray, Francis never offers a firm word back. Francis’ character, for better or for worse, reflects on Charlotte – what kind of man has she fallen in love with? Does she want a puppy dog? That said, the comedy was better for a bumbling, can’t-do-anything-right kind of character. Unfortunately, however, although he often argued, Francis didn’t really seem to have an argument. Every other character did.

But as I suggested earlier, any imperfections in this play somehow seem to work in the play’s favour. This is definitely a case of the whole being worth more than the sum of its parts, and people – Australian theatre audiences, at least – don’t give a standing ovation for nothing.

Tragedy? A review of Medea. (Black Swan State Theatre Company and WA Youth Theatre Company)

Co-written by Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise SarksMedea is a unique and meaningful adaptation of Euripides’ Medea, the latter first produced in 431BC.

This adaptation – perhaps a better word is ‘reimagining’, or even just ‘imagining’ – focuses almost exclusively on Medea’s sons. For those not familiar with the Greek classic, Medea kills her own sons in order to take revenge on her husband, Jason (Golden Fleece guy) for arranging to marry Glauce, the daughter of King Creon. Jason couldn’t pass up the opportunity of marrying a princess, he tells his wife, a mere barbarian, but he hopes they can all live happily together one day, Glauce as his wife and Medea, his mistress. 

‘Over my sons’ dead bodies!’ says Medea. (Well, she doesn’t actually say that but you get the point…)

The Mulvany-Sarks adaptation suffers slightly from a lack of story. We observe for most of the play two boys fooling around in their bedroom – a modern-day bedroom rendered wonderfully by Designer Bryan Woltjen. The desire to depict Medea’s sons as perfectly normal boys comes at the expense of a strong through-line. This is not to say there is the absence of a through-line but a stronger sense of foreboding needs to underscore the boys’ frivolity – and the sense of foreboding needs to start right at the beginning. Just look at the first line/s of the following classic Greek tragedies:

From Medea: Ah! Would to Heaven the good ship Argo ne’er had sped its course to the Colchian land…

From Oedipus the King: My children, latest generation born from Cadmus, why are you sitting here with wreathed sticks in supplication to me, while the city fills with incense, chants, and cries of pain?

From Agamemnon: The gods relieve my watch: that’s all I ask. Year-long I’ve haunched here on this palace roof,

From Antigone: Ismene, dear sister, you would think that we had already suffered enough for the curse on Oedipus. I cannot imagine any grief that you and I have not gone through….

We shouldn’t feel comfortable at any stage during a tragedy and I assume the Mulvany-Sarks adaptation is a tragedy given two innocent boys are killed.  The authors would do well to think ‘transfuse’ instead of ‘adapt’ when it comes to repurposing an existing play – infusing the new work with the spirit of the old before placing it in a 21st-century context.

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The ‘normality’ presented to the audience was at once excessive and cautious. When audiences can quickly understand, thanks to the set, that two unremarkable boys are presented for our consideration, further action and/or dialogue whose purpose it is to communicate the boys are ‘perfectly normal’ is superfluous. The excessive ‘normality’ might have been more tolerable if the normality were, well, more normal. (The kind of sibling rivalry presented was the kind a parent could only dream of!)

That said, Jalen Hewitt, as Jasper, and Jesse Vakatini, as Leon, looked extremely comfortable as brothers on stage. Their lack of self-consciousness brought a good deal of of authenticity to the relationship, the family, and the situation. 

Alexandria Steffensen, as Medea was strong throughout, superb, especially, when it came to playing the grieving mother. It was Alex/Medea who drove the story forward in the absence of any real plot early on. From the moment she steps on stage, whether we’re familiar with the Euripides version or not, it is clear a cloud has descended on the boys’ bedroom, and, indeed, on the boys themselves. Alex’s final scene – getting the boys dressed, offering them poisoned cordial, and clinging to her eventually dead sons – was refreshingly confronting. Indeed, the play is worth seeing only for that.

When the play does start hurtling towards its denouement, it is theatre – tragedy – at its best. It’s a shame the inexorable movement towards the horrible conclusion did not start earlier. Sally Richardson has directed this piece admirably although she could elicit more antagonism between the boys. I wonder whether what each boy wanted, given he was cooped up in a bedroom with his brother, was considered, or whether the priority was given to making the boys, and the relationship between them, as ‘real’ as possible. At any rate this production is underpinned by a script and it is the script that needs some work if this is to be a modern classic reminiscent of the ancients.

The actors are come hither… A Review of Much Ado About Nothing (Bell Shakespeare Company) at the Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth

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Perth is once again privileged to enjoy high-quality Shakespeare thanks to the Bell Shakespeare Company, who have this year brought Much Ado About Nothing to the State Theatre of WA.

Largely a comedy, the play does not lack poignant moments. The poignancy could have been played a little less by Will McDonald, as Claudio, who, with his own tears, robbed us of catharsis, at times. Other than that, Will was brilliant as Claudio, gentle, but hotheaded when he needed to be. Will’s rejection of Hero, played by Vivienne Awosoga, was particularly convincing. Will also played Borachio, one of the schemers, whose plan, carried out days before Hero and Claudio’s wedding, is to make Claudio believe that Hero is unfaithful to him. Will could not have drawn two more distinctly different characters. 

Danny Ball was another actor who regaled us with two very well-conceived characters. Strikingly handsome, suave, and upright as Don Pedro, the Prince of Aragon, he situated himself at the other end of the socio-economic spectrum to play the First Watchman, one of those who would eventually bring in the culprits bent on ruining the marriage between Hero and Claudio.

Another actor who doubled was Marissa Bennet, whose Margaret (a waiting-gentlewoman, attendant on Hero) was every bit the witty, sexy, sassy woman she needed to be. Margaret’s Verges, (Constable Dogberry’s partner), unfortunately fell victim to caricature.

Yet another actor who played two roles was Paul Reichstein, whose Don John was deliciously villainous. It is indeed a pleasure to see an actor acting even unto his eyebrows! Reichstein’s Second Watchman was sufficiently comic. With his pot belly, stance, and fixed facial expression,  Reichstein could have even pulled back a little for this (Watchman) character.

Perhaps the most striking transformation between one character and another was that of Mandy Bishop, whose extremely lively Dogberry, the constable in charge of Messina’s night watch, contrasted wildly with the mild-mannered Balthasar, an attendant on Don Pedro, and a singer. Towards the cartoon-end of funny, Dogberry was a character that stood out, perhaps a little too much so. Yes, Dogberry is a comic character but with most other actors playing quite real people, the almost caricature Dogberry seemed a little at odds with the world of the play.

Duncan Ragg was a star. Captivating as Benedick, Duncan milked the role for all its angst and comedy. His appeals to the audience got a bit tedious at times but this might come back to Director James Evans. We need to laugh AT Benedick – we don’t need to, nor do we want to, laugh WITH Benedick, and we certainly do not want to laugh with Duncan. Moments in which the audience share a laugh with the actor/s are fun and can be beautiful – we all, for a moment, realise we’ve gathered like children to make believe – but audiences arguably do not want to be conscious of this for the most part because it’s not what they ‘signed up for’. 

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Bell Shakespeare have done well to make Shakespeare accessible to Australians over the last 20 years or so. They have done that by, among other things, appropriately contextualising the plays they produce and highlighting, often with clear action, the humour to be found in the lines. The desire to highlight such humour has probably led to a few Bell Shakespeare-isms over the years, the thrusting of the hips to indicate sex is being discussed being one such example. Adopting broad Australian accents for characters of lower socio-economic class seems to be another. While all of these well tried-and-tested tricks undoubtedly work, especially with the uninitiated, these  ‘markers’ can wear a bit thin for seasoned ‘Bell-goers’.

The physical world of the play, while functional – partitions and platforms were used to conceal and reveal characters – didn’t seem to add much aesthetically to the world – Messina, (Italy) in this case. One wonders why green banana-leaf-print curtains and bamboo? frames were used but there was undoubtedly a rationale for it. What worked very well were the simple synthetic mats, rolled out to represent different locations – green synthetic turf to represent outdoors, and a pink runner, along with an arbor (wedding arch) to represent the wedding. At any rate, Pip Runciman (Designer) made it all work well and the set certainly did not detract from the production. Something that enhanced the production to no end were the costumes – divine! The costumes did indeed speak of Messina, Italy, and brought the characters into high relief.

The music and sound design for this production did add to the aesthetic experience. Andrée Greenwell’s synthetic sonifcation was very effective for signalling changes of scene, tone, and emotion, and the music for the masquerade ball translated particularly well for our times. Niklas Pajanti’s lighting, moreover, made the party a place to be.

Vivienne Awosoga, as Hero, seems to have had a strong debut with Bell Shakespeare. Vivienne was entirely convincing throughout the play – beautiful, graceful, shocked when accusations of faithlessness were levelled against her, appropriately weak when she could bear no longer those accusations, and strong in her resurrection when she rightfully admonished Claudio for his own lack of faith. Vivienne also doubled as Conrade, a fairly nondescript delinquent, who helps Don Jon to carry out his plans.

Zindzi Okenyo, as Beatrice, also impressed although I’d encourage her to have even more fun with the role. Beatrice, in ‘Much Ado’ is not Katherine, in The Taming of the Shrew although similarities can be found. Shakespeare’s championing of women is already in the script so playing the feisty feminist can sometimes lead to a kind of ‘double negative’ – the feminism in the script and the feminism brought to bear by the well-intentioned actor can cancel each other out. More genuine surprise and less scorn would have made Beatrice more of person, less of an idea, or ideal. At other times, Zindzi was as smooth as silk, running rings around Benedick and often leaving him check-mated. I don’t think Zindzi realises just how smooth she is – she should trust her instincts more.

Two other naturals were David Whitney, as Leonato (Governor of Messina), who brought all the joy and sorrow a father can feel because of his daughter, and Antonio (Leonato’s brother), played strongly by Suzanne Pereira The play was better for the superb diction, pace, and posturing these two actors brought to the part.

James Evans (Director) has done a remarkable job (together with the cast and crew, of course) in achieving a clear, cohesive, and thoroughly entertaining production. For those from WA, if you missed it at the State Theatre, be sure to catch this wonderfully enjoyable production at Albany Entertainment Centre (Aug 13), Bunbury Regional Entertainment Centre (15th Aug), or Mandurah Performing Arts Centre (17th Aug).

A woman’s place is wherever she wants it to be: a review of The Torrents (Black Swan State Theatre Company)

We will have come far when that statement is as well known a truism as ‘a woman’s place is in the home’ was ever held to be.

A woman’s place is centre stage: Celia Pacquola plays J.G. (Jenny) Milford, the young, capable journalist who joins the team at the Argus (newspaper) in the fictional gold-rush town, Koolgalla, much to the surprise of the all-male team. A surprise, even, to Editor-in-Chief, Rufus Torrent, played by Tony Cogin, who, not for a second thinking the ‘J’ in ‘J.G Milford’ stands for Jenny, employs her, rightfully, based on the credentials communicated by her resume. Realising his ‘mistake’, Rufus considers Miss Milford’s immediate resignation a moot point. He is amiable, and apologises for any inconvenience. He is almost out the door, coat and hat in hand, when Jenny speaks up: she shan’t be resigning simply because she is a woman. And she puts it to Mr Torrent that he does not prove himself a man when he dismisses a woman out of hand, but when he shows the courage to employ a capable woman when most other men would not. Whether it is male pride that precludes Torrent from shying away from this challenge, or his courage, given the times, to maintain Miss Milford on his staff, Rufus agrees Jenny can stay on. 

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Celia Pacquola played Jenny Milford with the right amount of restraint and decorum but she seemed overconfident and even glib at times. The modern woman then would have been quite different to the modern woman of today and it was, unfortunately, the latter with which Celia imbued the character, resulting in a Jenny Milford slightly incongruous to the world of the play. Yes, this is a play that champions women but it does not offer the strength of women as a foregone conclusion. A champion needs to falter, fail, fall, then rise again, overcome obstacles, and emerge, eventually, victorious. Never really vulnerable, ostracised, or in danger, Miss Milford always seemed to have the upper hand, which is arguably not what playwright Oriel Gray intended. Ms Gray was far too sophisticated, I think, to write a panegyric on the superiority of women.

A woman’s place is the Artistic Director of a premier theatre company: Clare Watson, Artistic Director of Black Swan State Theatre Company, and Director of The Torrents, has once again shown her ability to unearth and realise stories of great importance. Her direction of The Torrents is broad in scope, fearless, sensitive, and clearly considered. The sense of ensemble, unity, and cohesion are by now markers of a production headed by Clare.

The homage Clare pays to playwright Oriel Gray is conspicuous. ‘Oriel Gray’ in pink neon lights graced the stage both at the beginning and end of the play. The applause given to this neon light feature by the cast at the end of the play was both touching and telling. Clare’s admiration for Gray may have led to some bias as far as how the male characters were portrayed with respect to the females – or vice versa. The men in this production were skewed slightly towards the bumbling-fool end of the ‘real-man’ spectrum, which, again, is arguably not what Gray intended, and is what arguably made things easy for Jenny Milford. The Black Swan team would do well to remember that almost all of the men in this play are highly intelligent, highly educated, or both, despite their respective flaws – an editor of a newspaper, an engineer who has designed a sustainable irrigation scheme; a gold-rich tycoon, who, despite his rough exterior, has worked hard to strike it rich and has clearly shown himself to be no fool when it comes to investing; a promising journalist, who, despite suffering from a lack of confidence, caused, it seems, from living in his father’s shadow, is considered good enough to head up a new newspaper  in opposition to his father, a proposal put to him by that same gold-rich tycoon. This is a world of accomplished men, not oafs, into which Jenny Milford has stepped.

The play was skewed, also, towards comedy. While there is much humour to be found in The Torrents, and more than enough irony, the production was diminished by playing for laughs and apologising for the chauvinistic inclinations of its male characters. It was disappointing to see Ben Torrent’s (Rufus’ son) lowest ebb, thoroughly drunk after failing to measure up to his father, treated as if it were all a bit of fun (though this is not to say it is the fault of Gareth Davies, who played Ben). And it was disappointing, inasmuch as the drama was poorer for it, to see such lines as ‘a woman’s place is in the home’ said tongue in cheek. Very few men, I imagine – and very few women, I would argue – would have found that statement humorous in those days. Virginia Gay, as Dramaturg, really needs to watch for these things.

That said, praise must go to all the actors. Tony Cogin as Rufus Torrent embodied perfectly the at-times tempered, at-times fiery Editor-in-Chief of the Argus. His bearing, accent – and his beard! – were superb. 

Gareth Davies as Ben Torrent showed once again his mastery when it comes to comic timing (I have seen him in a number of productions in Sydney and he has impressed me every time). Gareth’s comic prowess on this occasion, however, might have come at the expense of the pathos needed for the role.

Luke Carroll played very well the enthusiastic Kingsley, who has a clear vision – and workable plan – for a sustainable future for the town. Enthusiasm, however, seemed to be Kingsley’s only trait. Kingsley might be a more rounded character given some extra gravitas. Carroll, as Kingsley, might do well to remember that he is not simply spruiking his wares. He is, at the same time, issuing a grave warning: if we don’t do something sustainable, we all suffer – we all perish. Carroll, as Kingsley, needs to hold more sway over the men who are listening to his ideas. He should remember that he is an authority in his field.

Geoff Kelso, as Christy, was an appropriately comic, if not stock, character, a faux sage who regaled his younger colleagues with stories of his life, real or imagined. Rob Johnson, as 16-year-old Bernie, was one of Christy’s willing listeners. Still naive, the seed of the future man – one who treats women with respect, and as equals – was clearly within him. Rob, as Bernie, struck the right balance between boy and man, formed, but not so much that he couldn’t explore ways of thinking and being beyond those he has been inculcated with. Jock McDonald, embodied by Sam Longley, also shows he is capable of growth (pun intended!), able to reconcile the mores of society with the revelation that a woman’s place can quite easily be in burgeoning newspaper organisation. These three loveable larrikins – Jock, Bernie, and Christy – unfortunately portrayed as a kind of ‘three stooges’ at times, stand up for Jenny Milford when a well-intentioned act of hers arouses the ire of Editor-in-Chief, Rufus.

Another character whose wrath was certainly felt was John Mason, played strongly by Steve Rodgers. Not a man to mess with, Rodgers, as Mason, brought power to the stage – the power of wealth and the consequences of those who oppose it.

A fairly weak, though no less instrumental character, arguably illustrative of the pre-emancipated woman, bringing thus into high relief the progressive Jenny, was Gwynne, played by Emily Rose Brennan. Emily as Gwynne was one of the few characters who could actually have been from the 1890s. I have seen Emily play a very progressive woman in another Black Swan production (see also my review of Water) and to play convincingly such a naive woman from over a century ago just goes to show her versatility as an actor. When asked by Jenny Milford what she could do (i.e. what talents she had), Emily as Gwynne, could have pulled a thousand faces in order to show her bewilderment, drawing, in turn, the standard chuckles from the crowd. But Emily is no amateur. Genuinely searching her mind for an answer to Jenny’s question, Emily as Gwynne visibly came up with a blank, which both authenticated her character and evoked riotous laughter from the audience.

A woman’s place is as Set and Costume Designer: Renée Mulder is literally a creator of worlds. An amazing, wonderfully detailed box set transported us to the 1890s, inside the offices of the Argus newspaper. The period costumes, thanks also to Costume Makers Jennifer Edwards and Nicole Marrington, were remarkable, and simply need to be seen. Indeed, I’d highly recommend seeing this production if only to appreciate what Renée’ has done as a standalone work of art.

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A woman’s place is as Lighting Designer: The passage of time between scenes was perhaps rendered most clearly by Lucy Birkinshaw’s lighting. Fast-forwards of sun-ups and sun-downs gave a very clear sense of time. The external world, moreover, was palpable thanks to Lucy’s design.

Changes of scene were also enjoyably rendered by the banjo stylings of Joe Paradise Lui. The hiphop music at the start of the play, while ‘cool’ didn’t add much to the experience despite its irresistible groove and strong feminine lyrics.

A woman’s place is as Voice and Dialect Coach: Beyond Renée Mulder’s masterpiece and Lucy Birkinshaw’s lighting, without which we would not have had our ‘theatron’, the believability of this piece was enhanced by a number of authentic accents, most notably Irish (Rufus Torrent), Scottish (Jock McDonald), and broad Australian (John Mason), thanks in large part to Voice and Dialect Coach, Luzita Fereday.

This is a must-see play and a must-see production. I sincerely hope it tours because Australia would be richer for it. I would even go so far as to say this production would enjoy success in London and New York but for that to happen I think the tone of the production needs to be more serious. Modern theatre audiences (note I did not say all of modern society) are already sold on the idea that a woman can do whatever she likes – and do it as well, in most cases, as any man – and that any suggestion to the contrary is by now not only passé but erroneous. Deliberately highlighting the irony, therefore, will do more harm than good. I think modern women will be empowered more by seeing their present struggles reflected in Jenny Milford’s than any patent message of their equality with, or superiority to, men. I think women will be strengthened more by understanding better the legacy left by their foremothers than any exhortation – deliberate or subtle – to stand their ground and exact their rights. And I think men will not benefit from simply being shown the ignoramuses they were – and still are, I’m sure some women would argue. I think men will benefit more from seeing what was – and is – required to overcome their ignorance in relation to women, despite all the things they have going for them – and that is, playwright Oriel Gray, I think, makes it clear, courage. 

Oriel Gray does not condemn men – she simply shows us a better world – one that lies beyond misogyny. Indeed, Oriel Gray’s championing of women is all the stronger for her role as the devil’s advocate in the play she wrote.

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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Review: Our Town

We live, we get married, then we die – the seemingly simple premise of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town, staged under the stars, in the courtyard, at the home of the Black Swan State Theatre Company.

Clare Watson has made a wonderful decision to use the courtyard as the playing space. The almost in-the-round configuration and glimpses of Perth’s surrounds contributed literally to a sense of ‘Our Town’. Clare brings some clear and sensitive direction to bear on this production capturing simultaneously the hustle and bustle of the town, the stillness of gardens, and the intimacy and tensions of homes. The balcony of the courtyard was put to good use to represent upper bedrooms. The sense of ‘Main Street’ could have been rendered more clearly. While it was pointed out and nominated by the ‘Stage Manager’ (narrator) at the beginning of the play its prominence was slightly diminished by its physical dimensions (a 1-2m wide strip of floor that ran the length of the courtyard between the stage and the audience) and the fact that members of the town, for example the paper boy and the milkman, made their rounds around the stage thus evoking, at times, a sense of a ring road. Granted, these delivery persons do normally go around a neighbourhood but the thoroughfare of Grover’s Corners may arguably have come into better focus if the human traffic of the stage was confined to two directions. 

Tyler Hill has captured well the essence of Wilder’s chef-d’oeuvre by choosing wood (it seems) as the prime material on which the story plays out – along with some wooden tables and chairs – wood that silent witness of humanity, often in the form of dwellings and the objects found in them.

With such a bare set, settings were at times rendered beautifully and poetically by Chloe Ogilvie’s lighting design – a dawn, a moonlit night, a ‘normal day’…many people take for granted lighting at the theatre and forget just how much of an impact this element can have on storytelling.

Ian Michael’s tone and bearing were entirely appropriate for the role of the ‘Stage Manager’, who acted as a kind of narrator throughout the play. Ian was well-in tune with the moods of the play. Ian also seamlessly doubled as George Gibbs, a typical teenager who would go on to marry his friend and neighbour Emily Webb, played by Abbie-lee Lewis. Abbie carried the climax of the play brilliantly when she returns (spoiler alert!) ‘from the dead’ to relive her 12th birthday. Playing  exhilaration and sadness at the same time is extremely challenging for an actor but Abbie pulled it off beautifully and left us all wondering why we do indeed go through life blind, never stopping to appreciate the truly beautiful things life can offer. What perhaps didn’t come off so convincingly for Abbie was the portrayal of the younger, naive, and wide-eyed Emily. Abbie is probably far more worldly than the character she plays and while actors often thrive playing a character who is beyond their own level of experience, I have not seen many actors who can play well below it. How does an actor see the world as if they haven’t seen it yet?

The intimacy of the relationships in the town was enhanced by the headphones audience members were asked to wear. Sound Designer Russell Goldsmith did not miss the opportunity to make us dream with a stirring soundscape. Hardly noticeable at times, quite conspicuous at others, Russell should be thanked for giving us wings.

Conductor Jonathan Paxman: Rhythmos Choir are also to be thanked for bringing a beautiful sense of prayer and ritual to the story. Their pieces both compelled the drama forward and made time stop for a while, it seemed.

Time – life, in fact – was also stopped by the other-worldly voice adopted by Shari Sebbens towards the end of a play as she played her post-life self commenting coldly on mundanity. Shari was all the more ‘dead’ given the quite contrary way she played Julia (‘Mother’) Gibbs in life.

A wonderful production featuring a large number of other actors, and some actual members of the community, who but enhanced the story. If the play suffers from anything it might arguably be from a lack of pace at times. Wilder’s dialogue can suck one into thinking that the characters politely take their turn to speak. If the actors don’t pick up their cues, ‘life is boring in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire’ can be the message but the banter in the town among all and sundry is anything but, and I imagine that’s why Thorton Wilder had the urge to capture it for the ages.Screen Shot 2019-02-22 at 10.50.36 am

Creative expression Or, The paradox of catharsis

When I think of the term ‘creative expression’, I think of vivid colours, beautiful objects, putting words together in strange, new ways, exploring the potentialities of a musical instrument, reimaginings of the mundane, and other whimsical, non-utilitarian stuff all brought about by… inspiration, I suppose.

The term makes me think of other ideas like chaos, disorder, elusivity and ethereality. It makes me think of undefinied and undefinable processes; of unidentified and unidentifiable methods; of that ‘certain something’ that can’t be taught but can be developed, we are told, if only we look inside ourselves, or ask the universe, or summon Mephistopheles – I can’t remember which.

Well, that’s what I think. Now, here’s what I know.

 ‘Creative expression’ is spending endless hours seemingly doing nothing, frustrated, hoping, despairing, alone more often than not, reiterating an idea that, for all I know, may have been caused simply by an anomaly in the brain.

Creative expression is, I have learned, nothing but the persistence to get something right. Because coming up with an idea is easy – just imagine a flying pig – there you go, not too hard. Now write a story worth telling about that pig; write a song about it, paint it in such a way that passers-by in a gallery are compelled to stop and look at it; make a life-size sculpture of it in white marble – but it has to look like it’s flying – not just a heavy pig with wings on it – a flying pig that makes you forget it’s made of stone and takes you with it on its flight of fancy.

The great actor, Sir Laurence Olivier, once said that a stage actor should never enjoy himself. (I’m sure he meant to include women in that statement.) He said the audience should be the ones enjoying themselves. And rightly so – they’ve paid for a ticket, after all! Olivier’s claim is consistent with the old theatre adage: If you cry, they won’t; if you laugh, they won’t. If the audience sees an actor truly enjoying him/herself, they will resent it. If the audience sees an actor truly upset – truly crying, for example, they will also resent it. They might feel sorry for the actor but they will resent having the illusion of character broken by an actor who suddenly starts showing his, or her, own character. The audience wants to see Hamlet – not the actor, playing Hamlet – in despair.

RainbowSo why am I saying all this? It’s because paradoxically, ‘creative expression’ is not about you – it’s about them – your ‘audience’ – the people you affect. Creative expression occurs when another person has had a cathartic experience because of something you’ve conceived. Anyone can create a flying pig in some shape, or form, but the truly creative person creates a flying pig that carries with it the potential to induce paroxysms of laughter, or to reduce someone to tears.