Dinner And A Show

A Piece of Theatre Review with some Good Wine.

Ladies and the Tramp: Review of New Theatre’s The Women

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Claire Boothe Luce’s 1936 comedy of manners, The Women, is something of an oddity.  A deeply conservative piece even in its own time, it is today positively archaic; however, the New Theatre has dived headlong into this production and the result is an entertaining and fun filled romp from yesteryear.

Mrs Mary Haines has it all: two children and successful New York broker for a husband, a stylish wardrobe, lavish house and a circle of close friends. But this all gets turned on its head when she learns that her husband is having an affair with a trashy, albeit attractive, shop girl. This leads to divorce, but Mary isn’t about to go down without a fight. Although the piece is a bit sprawling at two hours length, Luce has a keen eye for situational comedy and her wit is razor sharp.

Mary Haines, our protagonist, is soundly played by Helen Stuart, though, compared to some of the roles, the character is less exciting. This is by no means the fault of Stuart, who dutifully shows Mary to be a naïve romantic, and the one who suffers for it. Stuart paints Mary with a noble brush, and manages (as much as the piece will allow) to downplay her ‘doormat tendencies’ to suit a more modern audience. Sylvie, by contrast, is a majestic feline. Jess Loudon gives the role it’s much needed punch, which allows this Sylvia to be the most conniving of the women. We certainly enjoy her thinly veiled backhanded compliments, but Loudon also laces the role with doses of insecurity that hide just beneath the surface. Overall, Loudon was fun, relaxed and knew how to deliver a line – truly one of the evening’s standouts.

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Alexandra Plim plays Nancy, a progressive feminist author, who is fitted with pants, a blouse and a blunt disposition, which Plim pulls off with great aplomb. Emma Louise was hysterical as Edith, a blatantly unaware socialite, who, whilst constantly pregnant, is wise to the realities of marriage. Louise was confident in the role and almost stole the show with her sharp, barrel mouth deliveries. As Crystal Allen, the mistress of Stephen Haines, Eleanor Ryan was aesthetically perfect. Her cold emotional exploitations are hard to manage as this is essentially a two dimensional femme fatale, but Ryan made the most of what she had. Joy Miller was deliciously cougar-esque as Flora, the Countess de Lage. Described as somewhere between forty and death, Miller’s Flora was outrageously decadent yet secretly lonely; a generally exuberant performance. Special mention must be made of Jade Potts, who plays Little Mary, Mary’s daughter, who delighted on every entrance. So too must we mention Sandy Velini as Maggie, Mary’s cook, Annie Schofield as Olga the chatty manicurist and Nell Nakkan as the irritable gym instructor for putting in some wonderfully comic supporting performances.

The Women is a play that doesn’t bear thinking too hard about.  Thematically it is very much out of sync with how we would think about marriage today, and Luce paints society with a very broad brush. All men are cheats, but women have to accept it their inherent nature, since the alternative of being without a husband is much worse. If you are able to set aside these jarring aspects and just go along for the ride, you should have a good time. And to the credit of director, Deborah Jones, this production throws itself at the text. It is performed with such gusto that it won’t be until well after the final bows that you’ll start to question the social position of the piece.

The New Theatre has put together another fine production; it’s rare for them to disappoint, and this is no exception. The Women is playing until the 12th of September. For more information see: http://newtheatre.org.au/the-women/

Beckett Fourplay: Review of Glorious Thing Theatre Company’s Metafour

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If Glorious Thing Theatre Co were looking to choose the four most challenging Beckett plays to stage, Quad, Come and Go, Rockaby and Catastrophe would have to be close to the top. Of course, they could have gone with Not I, Ohio Impromptu and That Time, but hey, it’s Beckett, nothing is easy. These works are rarely staged because they ask a great deal of an audience who is most likely to come away from the experience perplexed or bored, so the risk is always high. To the credit of director Erica Brennan and her quality team of actors (Aslam Abdus-samad, Bodelle de Ronde, Gideon Payten Griffiths, Pollyanna Nowicki, Sophie Littler, Victoria Griene), Glorious Thing has actually managed to put together an engaging evening of theatre that does justice to the lesser known works of the Irish master.

Quad I and Quad II (1981) are movement pieces, with no dialogue or characters to speak of. Originally written for television, it consists of four actors dressed in robes, hunched and silently walking, around and diagonally, across a stage (lit as a ‘quadrant’) in fixed patterns, entering and exiting one after the other. Each hooded figure has their own itinerary; a pattern emerges and collisions are always avoided. In Quad I, each actor wears a different coloured robe (one white, one red, one blue and one yellow) and walks to a musical structure. Quad II – an abbreviated version of Quad I – is performed after a moment’s pause, though the actors are now in white robes, rhythmically slowed and without accompaniment. For certain, it is a strange piece of theatre, but this geometrical mime is somewhat captivating. The piece could be said to depict four figures who pace in search for an ‘Other’, in a world of faceless, emotionless existence where one is simply born, and eventually dies. Is this ‘Other’ a person, or an omnipresent being? The extreme abstraction of the movement appears ritualistic, without purpose almost. Is this what the habit of living is, or will become? Quad is a difficult piece to make sense of, though the ‘sensation’ is arguably the most alluring thing about it. For all this, however, the piece becomes tiresome, through no fault of the actors, but through the incessant repetition of a limited pattern. Audiences ultimately need narrative that personally engages.

Come and Go (1966) is frequently lauded among Beckett scholars as his finest piece, both in regard to its structure and economy. Three women, all friends since childhood, sit together on a bench, a different coloured hat casting a shadow over their eyes. Each has a secret about the other, seemingly pertaining to their failing health. Throughout the play their movements mirror a trinity knot, which is repeated at the end when they hold hands. Ideas of unity are called to mind, thoughts of nostalgia for times past, and a shared history that is interwoven between the three as they protect each other from an uncomfortable truth. Again, striking visuals are created in what was arguably the highlight of the evening.

Rockaby (1981) is possibly the least remarkable of the four pieces, if not also the shortest. An old woman sits in a rocking chair recounting the final moments of her life in the third person. It details her search to find another living soul, before giving up to sit in a rocking chair, as her mother did, and die. Beckett had a couple of pet themes throughout his career, and Rockaby taps into quite a few: ritualized story-telling, a search for meaning, a movement towards death; it just so happens that his other works deal with these ideas in a somewhat more entertaining and insightful manner than this one.

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Catastrophe (1982) is a short scene depicting an autocratic Director and his female Assistant putting together the final touches of some kind of dramatic presentation, which consists entirely of a man (The Protagonist) standing still onstage. This is one of only a few Beckett plays that deal with a political theme; the piece can be viewed as an allegory on the power of totalitarianism (political or theatrical), capturing the struggle of those fighting to oppose it (both ‘the people’ and the actor). It is a comical piece, which was performed to great ‘over-dramatic’ success, though one cannot help but feel that it doesn’t entirely fit (thematically) with the other three pieces.

There are a few questions that needs be asked of Glorious Thing, such as why these four plays? Indeed, all of them contain an element of precision, and stillness, which no doubt lent itself to the Suzuki method of acting deployed during rehearsals, but this could be said of almost all of Beckett’s later works and short pieces, of which there is no shortage to choose from. Additionally, the attempt to unify the four pieces with the concept of ‘time’ is a valiant effort, even if it is a bit of a long bow. True, most of Beckett’s plays are interested in time: ideas of recollection and the past are crucial to Come and Go and Rockaby and the precision of timing is certainly central to Quad, even if it isn’t exactly the same thing. The concept of time is harder to find in Catastrophe, which is the outlier here; possibly it was picked to mix things up for the audience. But again, ideas of time can be found in most of Beckett’s work and certainly isn’t unique to these four pieces. Nevertheless, the four have been put together with a conscious effort to turn the show into a cohesive whole (watch out for the Beckett ‘stagehands’), and for the most part it works.

The important thing about Beckett’s later theatre, and what Glorious Thing manages to truly hit home, is that he was the master of creating distinctive and lasting imagery. True, we may not always fully comprehend what we are seeing on stage, but the power of the imagery can never be denied. From the mesmerizing movements in Quad to the final defiant stance in Catastrophe we are left with a collection of images that will not quickly leave us. This is a rare opportunity to see four of Beckett’s lesser known works, and although it may not be a traditional night at the theatre, it is well worth the price of admission. Get along if you can.

Metafour is playing at PACT Theatre until the 15th of August. For more information see: https://gloriousthingtheatreco.wordpress.com/current-work/metafour/

A Sudsy Summer Eve: Review of SUDS’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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For their major production of the year SUDS has decided to stage the perennial Shakespearian favourite, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Everyone knows the story of the misguided lovers, lost in the woods and beset by fairies, the hapless players and the fun-loving sprite, Puck.

However SUDS and director, Bennett Sheldon, have taken a radical approach in recasting Lysander and Helena in opposite gender roles. It made for an interesting conceit. When Hermia and Lysander first enter (as two women) with Demetrius, it looks as though an interesting commentary is being made on a society that doesn’t want to acknowledge a homosexual union, and one which is instead content to enforce gender norms. This is all shot to hell, though, when Helena comes in as a man in love with Demetrius. The powerful social commentary is, not necessarily lost, but greatly reduced with this casting choice as it makes same sex relationships seem more normative in this world (then again maybe that’s what they were going for). However, to their credit, SUDS managed to extract some of the most genuine moments in the play with this choice, with Demetrius shown to be struggling to accept his homosexual identity.

Taken as a whole the production had some very funny and moving moments, but the piece didn’t quite gel. It was evident that some scenes had received greater directorial love than others. The result was to make it a little half-baked and uneven. A costume designer was also sorely missing from the production, which could have used a stronger contrast between the fairy and human world. Puck should never be seen in plain black. Our hearts also went out for the four poor actors who had to stand on stage for two hours with nothing to do. They appeared to be used as set dressing, covering some of the ‘costume’ changes which took place on stage, but surely some other solution could have been found.

The changes made to the sexuality (and gender) of the lovers worked in oscillation. Lysander, now a gay woman (played by Jane Hughes), was the most successful transition. Hughes brought an effortless (often genderless) portrayal of Lysander to the stage, though sometimes her performance relied on a series of practiced gestures and expressions. Helena, now Helios, a homosexual man (played by Tom Mendes), was less successful in terms of the gender transition. This was not the fault of Mendes, but rather the role is more grounded in the female form. Nevertheless, Mendes did the best he could; however, in choosing to go camp in the first scene, Mendes needed to commit to this all the way, or instead play the piece without it. As Hermia, Jessica Orchard was given a straight rendering, though her performance was well pitched and very pleasing generally. It was Michael Cameron however, that stood out amongst the lovers, playing Demetrius, now a homosexual man. Demetrius is here fighting against his nature and what is being asked of him (a marriage to Hermia); Cameron grabbed this by the horns which made for a very touching (and revealing) scene where he casts off Helios, unwillingly, in search of what society wants him to be.

Another strong presence on stage was Dominic Scarf, doubling as Theseus and Oberon. Scarf has wonderful stage presence, and a good grasp of the language. He was funny and engaging throughout. Tess Green played opposite Scarf as Hippolyta and Titania – Green had more to give in the role of Titania, particularly where her physical presence was almost perfect for the role. As Puck, Eloise Westwood delivered the dialogue well enough, though her rendition lacked some colour and playfulness. Her entirely black costume may have worked against her, though. Anna Della Marta played Peaseblossom, the head fairy, and appearing to double as most of the other fairies in the text, was delightful and humorous in all incarnations. Of the Mechanicals, Jim Southwell put in a delicious rendition of Bottom, the over-zealous actor, and was particularly funny during his time as an ass. Of note too was April Saleeba as Snug the Joiner, portraying this Mechanical as the sweetest and most timid of Lions.

For the most part, this production is worth a look in. When it’s funny, its laugh out loud; and the management of the queer reading is interesting enough to hold an audience’s attention. More work and thought was needed to pull the piece together, but from a young troupe of actors and artists it’s a commendable effort.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is playing at the Seymour Centre until the 1st of August. For more information see: http://www.midsummer2015.com/

Welcome to Wasteland City: Review of Eternity Playhouse’s Detroit

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Detroit (2010), by Lisa D’Amour, is set in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, but while this beast looms over the characters, the play isn’t chained to its quarry. Instead, the piece is built around the personalities of its people. This makes for a far more engaging play than if it had been grounded in the quagmire of credit and debt, and no doubt is the reason why it was nominated for a Pulitzer.

In the heartland of middle-America, Mary and Ben are hosting their new neighbours, Kenny and Sharon, to a BBQ dinner. Ben has recently been fired from his job as a bank loan officer and is trying to start up a new financial planning business online. Kenny and Sharon are renting a house with literally nothing in it. They’re recovering drug addicts and are struggling to get their lives back on track.

Since The Great Gatsby, the American Dream has been a popular subject for examination and D’Amour takes up this perennial issue here. Mary and Ben’s life is falling apart around them, both financially and romantically, yet through it all they try desperately to cling onto the impressions of success. At a dinner, Mary brings out a platter boasting caviar and a special variety of pink salt. Kenny and Sharon are more honest in how they project their life, but even they fall victim to some self-conscious vanities. They buy drapes, but only enough to cover the front facing windows of their house. Against this, though, is a deeper desire to cast off these hollow trappings and get back to basics. Mary harbours a deep desire to go camping and be in nature (for instance). Importantly, through their encounter with Kenny and Sharon, Ben and Mary are offered the potential to let go of their tattered remains and start a fresh.

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Detroit intricately, though, often jarringly captures two American couples from completely different walks of life – Ben and Mary are middleclass white folk who ‘crave’ the tidy picket fence, whereas Sharon and Kenny are young, impulsive pleasure-seekers who met in rehab and are as working class as it gets. Delightfully, all performances are excellent. Heading the pack is Lisa Chappell, in this brilliantly rendered portrayal of the fear-haunted Mary. Chappell lathers the dialogue with brittle smiles and forced niceties, never missing an opportunity to milk the comedy. Ed Wightman as her deflated husband Ben manages to create some deliciously awkward tension and together, Wightman and Chappell are a disturbingly accurate picture of daggy, out of touch and increasingly sexless suburbanites. Nevertheless, it is Claire Lovering who produces the show’s standout performance. Lovering perfectly pitches the daffy exterior of Sharon, the recovering addict, glossing the character with a warm naivety that captures the audience. She is loveable trailer trash, though her youthful insight is refreshing for the exhausted-by-mundanity Mary. Lovering intertwines her performance with great timing and poignancy, allowing for real connection to be felt with her co-stars, particularly James O’Connell as Kenny, her handyman boyfriend and fellow addict. O’Connell feels authentic – he really could be from the streets of Detroit, trying to make a new start – though haunted by the past and his life’s current restrictions. These are good neighbours with bad credit, and the chemistry is a sight to behold.

For the most part this is a tightly wrought text (and a tightly wrought production, thanks to director Ross McGregor); D’Amour certainly knows how to set up a scene and walk the line between comedy and genuine feeling. However, the second Act is much weaker than the first. D’Amour spends a great deal of time developing her characters and setting up the plot, which keeps the audience engaged. But the second Act feels overstuffed, and the final monologue, although delivered perfectly, lacks thematic direction and is overwritten. The fact that Kenny and Sharon’s story also feels unresolved adds to the disappointment. This makes for a deflated finale (albeit, a fault in the writing) to what is otherwise a wonderful production.

Detroit is playing at the Eternity playhouse until the 16th of August. For more information see: http://www.darlinghursttheatre.com/whats-on/detroit

Jove’s Gentle Giant: Review of Sport for Jove’s Of Mice and Men

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John Steinbeck’s novella, Of Mice and Men, tells the story of two migrant workers, George and Lenny, as they travel from town to town looking for work during the Great Depression. In 1937, Steinbeck adapted the prose to theatre and the story more than lends itself to stage.

George and Lenny have been recently run out of the last town they were in after the gentle but simple Lenny scared a girl who had a soft dress he ‘wanted to touch’. The pair dreams of one day having enough money to buy their own piece of land and don’t have to answer to anybody.

Loneliness, though, is something all of the characters suffer from. Most of the workers tramp around alone and the experience makes them more guarded of their privacy: Candy, an old one handed worker’s only friend is an ailing dog, and after it’s killed, he is left with no one. Crooks, the ranch’s Negro is kept segregated from the other workers, and Curley’s wife is starved for companionship. Each character yearns for company, yet it is (ironically) their own prejudices and hostilities that keep them isolated. This is what makes George and Lenny unique, for as dimwitted as Lenny is, he provides a willing ear, and having someone else to look out for gives purpose to what is otherwise a hollow existence. This of course lends itself to the play’s ultimate tragedy.

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Steinbeck’s story is certainly a moving one, but it’s brought to life by a skilled cast with hardly a weak point among them. The entire cast put in a stellar performance, but it was the central partnership that stole the show. Andrew Henry plays the Samsonesque simpleton Lennie Small and Anthony Gooley is his quick-witted guardian, George Milton. The two have an incredible chemistry, which makes their on stage relationship feel warm and genuine. Henry is captivating as Lennie. The character’s well-intentioned but thoroughly misguided nature is stunningly captured, the infantilism never overplayed, and one believes that this giant man is disastrously unaware of the damage he can do with his bare hands. Gooley, as his counterpart George, gives an equally impressive performance. Gooley maps the clash between George’s care for Lennie and his need to survive, making for a truly heart-breaking finale. This George is suitably understated, which guards against caricature and allows the audience to connect.

Christopher Stollery is solid as Slim the ‘jerkline skinner’ – bringing both humanity and nuance to the role. Laurence Coy makes for an endearing Candy, an aging ranch handyman, who has lost his hand in a previous accident. Coy’s performance with his canine counterpart is soft and deeply touching. Andre de Vanny gave a great character performance as Curley, the Boss’s son. He was small, bitter and incredibly unlikeable. Anna Houston is virtually unrecognisable as Curley’s wife, a mistrusted, though, misunderstood newlywed. Houston made the intelligent choice of ensuring that she didn’t seem flirtatious, but rather lonely and in need of some company. Charles Allen brings delicious cynicism to Crooks, the black stable-hand, whilst John McNeill gives Carlson, a ranch hand, suitable coarseness and aged weathering. Tom Stokes adds nice touch as Whit, a young labouring man and Terry Serio gives great authority as Curley’s father or ‘The Boss’ of the Ranch. He also provides beautiful sliding guitar and haunting harmonica.

Sport for Jove and director Iain Sinclair has offered a straight, yet affecting, rendition, and with it, a simple though versatile set: gravel covers the stage floor, basic slat bunks are brought in and out and four wooden poles have been staggered across the stage – they present the production’s only failing: a few are situated so as to occasionally block the audience’s view of the action.

Overwhelmingly, however, this is quite possibly one of the finest productions of the year and not to be missed. Of Mice and Men is playing at the Seymour Centre until the 1st of August. For more information see: http://www.sportforjove.com.au/

A Walk on the Seedy Side: Review of Two Peas’ Edmond

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So we all know David Mamet is something of a big deal. Whether we actually enjoy his work is another story. But what of this play in particular, Edmond (1982), which independent company Two Peas is currently mounting at the Old505?

The story of Edmond is told through twenty three short scenes. After a fortune teller informs him that he ‘isn’t where he’s supposed to be’, Edmond leaves his wife and starts out on a journey through the seedy underworld of New York. The first half of the play charts Edmond’s search for sex. He is largely unsuccessful. He is taken advantage of by conmen and pimps at every turn and becomes increasingly unhinged until he eventually commits murder. Unsurprisingly he ends up in gaol, which isn’t exactly a boon for his prospects.

So what’s the point? Well, the piece seems largely interested in issues of destiny and free will. Edmond is told that he doesn’t belong at the start of the play and so he makes a break in an attempt to find himself. At every turn, though, Edmond’s efforts are frustrated by the people he comes into contact with. He lands in prison, but is this because of his own doing or is he the victim of forces beyond his control? These may sound like interesting talking points, but unfortunately this piece spends so much time stuck up its own back side that even the most skilled gastroenterologist would be unable to dislodge it. Mamet seems to think he’s giving us something profound, but it comes off as pretentious and shallow. The quick fire scenes play more like a workshop and the characterization and story arch for Edmond is so thin that it leaves us unfeeling for the predicament he finds himself in. No doubt Two Peas selected this piece for the challenge it offered of having four actors playing twenty seven characters. If this was indeed their intention, they at least managed to pull it off with some success.

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Our protagonist, Edmond Burke, a sheltered white-collar worker in New York City, is dutifully played by Oleg Pupovac – one half of Two Peas. Pupovac brings quiet reason to the role, whilst navigating the emotionally rocky terrain of Edmond’s experiences. In doing so, Pupovac (impressively) makes sense of Edmond’s long philosophical ramblings, many of which detract from the general impression this character makes on the audience. It is hard to care about Edmond, beyond his deep desire for something more poignant. This is inherently a writing flaw, not a performance one. This is similarly the case for Two Peas other half, Tara Clark (here in multiple roles). Clark is always compelling; she has amazing clarity on stage which lends to a natural command of all the roles she plays. Both Cheyne Fynn and Naomi Livingstone also did exceptionally well, given the number of ‘short-lived’ characters each had to play. Both Fynn and Livingstone have an ear for comedy and played out occasional dramatic moments when the script gave them the chance. Livingstone is particularly watchable and fluid in her roles, and Fynn possessed a natural gravitas, lending a much needed heavy weight to the show. Overall, the actors were only hampered by the writing. The performances in and of themselves, were of a high standard.

Director Glen Hamilton has put together a simple, yet practical set. The space is littered with coloured moveable cubes, lit up by the actors as they shift in and out of their scenes. The light also throws itself onto the two white curtain wings on either side of the stage, making for a highly malleable and atmospheric theatrical arena. The actors largely managed the transitions, which blunted the potential for static and constant scene changes.

A more dramatically satisfying play may have been preferable for Two Peas’ adventure into the multi-character challenge, but Edmond is thankfully short at only an hour, the performances are topnotch and you certainly won’t get bored watching it.

Edmond is playing at the Old505 Theatre until the 26th of July. For more information see: http://www.thetwopeas.com/#!up-next/c1pa3

The Misterman Upstairs: Review of Siren Theatre Company’s Misterman

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Misterman (1999) is the second work by Irish playwright Enda Walsh that Siren Theatre Company has produced in recent years (the other being Penelope). For this piece the Old Fitz Theatre has once again been transformed: dark curtains drape across the back wall, and old reel-to-reel recorders litter the set, creating visuals reminiscent of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.

Misterman was first staged in an earlier version in 1999, with the playwright as the lead. After a series of rewrites, Enda Walsh directed Cillian Murphy in this one man show in New York (2011), and it was heavily praised by the critics. The play opens on Thomas Magill who is alone, playing back his reels, recounting a single day from his past: he knows them all by heart. Thomas believes that he is a godly man, sent to Inishfree to mend the sinning ways of the populous. Thomas seems the perfect example of saintliness and cheer, as he sets out on a mission to buy his ‘mammy’ some biscuits. Soon after however, he flies into a rage upon seeing a salacious calendar and later beats a dog to death. We start to realize that this guy is a bit unhinged. If Kate Gaul‘s direction has a fault, it’ll be this realization. We quickly work out that we’re on the bus to crazytown; the only question is how long it’ll take to get there. And sure enough, get there we do. While it always takes a certain skill to play crazy, the risk becomes finishing the play with a ‘so what.’ If a character is written off as a crazy then we need not attend to the broader happenings of the piece. For the piece to work more broadly, we need to see the character’s instability as a product of their surrounds. In the case of Thomas, it is possible to see his descent as the result of a cry for human contact, which is continually denied him. We are offered snatches of this when he goes to visit his father in the graveyard (as well as the fact that he is physically alone), but a little more help from the performance wouldn’t have been a miss.

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Thomas Campbell plays our Thomas Magill. He is the town do-gooder, ready to have a yarn with any who comes his way; he will even throw in a friendly piece of advice. One might say that Thomas is creating the world in his own image. Campbell brings great competence and concentration to the role; there is a breadth of movement and depth of field that is wholly comforting. His lyricism flies over the crowd as does the perfect Irish intonation that runs like thick caramel. Campbell is especially impressive as he transitions from the clear, crisp choir boy to the utterly cracked and deeply disturbed tyrant.

It is not uncommon for Irish narrative plays to have one or several people transform themselves into a large cast of characters. Misterman is no exception. Pleasingly, Campbell gives complete and specific life to the various other townsfolk that Thomas encounters: from the jovial Dwain Flynn, really a miserable drunk, to Timmy O’Leary who is lazy and enslaves his lovely mother, and ‘sweet’ Mrs Cleary who is secretly a blasphemous flirt – well, according to Thomas anyway. Campbell is exceptionally clean in his characterizations and produces great comedy and insight as he does. The only thing, for which Campbell might be criticized, is the lack of pity that he elicits from his audience. Thomas would appear to be a product of his circumstances. Whilst certainly unhinged, he is a boy (hardly a man) crying out for help, for some attention. Though the piece would appear to be Thomas’ retelling, the actor must help the audience to go on the character journey too, regardless of whether he has ‘technically’ done so already.

Misterman is an intriguing little play, featuring a standout performance from Campbell. The Old Fitz continues to deliver fresh and engaging theatre, but many people may leave this production with a few lingering questions.

Misterman is playing at the Old Fitz Theatre until the 27th of June. For more information see: http://www.sirentheatreco.com/misterman/

Where’s Your Courage?: Review of Belvoir’s Mother Courage and Her Children

11536121_10152754213901710_7257518955579652426_n Mother Courage and Her Children (1939) is considered by many to be Bertolt Brecht’s masterpiece, as well as one of the most important plays of the twentieth century. It tells the story of Mother Courage, a business savvy canteen lady, as she tries to bring her children through the war whilst making a tidy profit along the way. Of course, her business dealings end up playing a role in the deaths of each of her children. Unfortunately, it is one of those great plays that almost never plays great. This production might be said to fit into this category.

Of course, Epic Theatre is not everyone’s cup of tea. The Alienation effect, done right, can be alienating, making it difficult to empathize with what’s happening on stage. Mother Courage is itself a challenging piece, and at three hours in length, if every engine isn’t firing it can make for tiresome viewing. To Eamon Flack’s credit, he has put together a well-designed show. The piece has been broadly updated: the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century now has the look and feel of a Russian invasion into the Ukraine, although location and setting is left ambiguous. This is undoubtedly the right decision, as the play is meant to operate as an allegory: its relatability and translatability should be fluid of time and space. And if there’s one thing that will never change, its society’s capacity for conducting war, whether it’s the seventeenth century, the Second World War or today. Brecht had intended for his plays to be the catalyst to enact social change. How successful this has been is difficult to say, but Mother Courage is still sadly relevant today.

Although Flack presents a fairly straight interpretation of the piece, the design can hardly be faulted. From the cheerful red wagon that Mother Courage operates from, to the black approximation of the backstage area where the cast change costume and perform songs, everything feels in place. However, there were limitations to this production, mainly to be found in the musical numbers, and some of the performances. Untitled Mother Courage has often been referred to as the female King Lear. In the present production, there is some irony to this. In 2012, Robyn Nevin played the title role in Queen Lear, a spectacular bust of a piece, directed and ‘adapted’ by Rachel McDonald into a half-baked Shakespearean flop. Of Nevin, it was said that her performance suffered from the lack of directorial vision, though, every now and then sparks of brilliance shot out into the darkness. Now as the ‘female King Lear’, she has not gotten away so easily. Nevin doesn’t appear to know how to embody this tireless entrepreneur, beyond the rough-and-tumble and verbal jousting. Certainly, Nevin rattles through her homespun philosophy as would a travelling salesman who fears his act will go dry if he ever slows down. But by all accounts, the performance is evidence of an actor straining to inhabit an ill-fitting role. Perhaps Nevin herself is tired. Mother Courage demands everything of an actress – physical and vocal prowess, dramatic and comic expertise, yet Nevin seems unable to meet this demand. Nevin struggles uncomfortably through the songs (and appears at times not to know the lyrics) and seems to have forgotten the need for pace, pause and annunciation. The comedy she pulls off well enough and, for a few brief moments, there are some dramatic heights, but overwhelmingly, Mother Courage tends to lack her courage. It is possible that Nevin’s wrong foot has had a ripple effect on the rest of the cast.

Certainly, some individual performances are solid, but there lacked an air of Brechtian comradery between them. Generally though, the younger members of the cast better managed the play. They were perhaps less fazed and as a result, better focussed on fostering the emotional authenticity of the piece. This was the case for Richard Pyros as Eilif, Courage’s eldest son and Tom Conroy as Swiss Cheese, Courage’s youngest son, with Pyros demonstrating an excellent set of pipes during the songs. Emele Ugavule was also particularly affecting as Courage’s mute daughter. Her performance of the battered-beaten-and-bruised-by-life Kattrin was beautifully restrained. Paula Arundell was nicely grounded as the camp prostitute Yvette Pottier, and her rendition of ‘The Fraternization Song’ was demonstrative of how Brecht’s songs should be done (achieving the necessary combination of detachment and engagement). This could also be said of Anthony Phelan as the Chaplain, whose ‘Song of The Hours’ achieved a ghostly growl enough to move mountains. Double points must be given to Phelan who was particularly adept at the comedic stylings and the bumbling cheek of the Chaplain.  The rest of the cast was solid in various roles, (Lena Cruz, Michael McStay, Alex Menglet and Hazem Shammas), though Arky Michael was a bit lacklustre as Puffing Pete, the Cook.

Flack clearly knows his material, but the production needed stronger performances and tighter ensemble work during the musical interludes. Given a Broadway budget and a cast to match, this could have been an amazing show. Mother Courage and Her Children is playing at Belvoir Street Theatre until the 26th of July. For more information see: http://belvoir.com.au/productions/mother-courage-and-her-children/

Venus in Chains: Review of Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Venus in Fur

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David Ives play Venus in Fur (2010) has fast become one of the most performed shows in the USA of recent times. And now it has hit the Sydney stage, with the Darlinghurst Theatre Company.

As regards themes and narrative, this is a layered piece. Playwright/direct Thomas has just come through a horror day of auditions. He’s looking for an actress capable of playing his Wanda. When late comer Vanda bursts onto the scene it seems unlikely that she is going to be any more impressive. She is brash and vulgar and seems to have only a superficial understanding of the text. Yet, when he reluctantly begins to read against her, she suddenly seems perfect for the role. The play within the play is Venus in Fur, itself an adaptation of the 1870 novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch Venus in Furs; it is even suggested at one point that this story is itself a type of inverted re-telling of The Bacchae. As such, we’re given a seesawing collection of power moves as the pair becomes increasingly swept up in the play they’re enacting. But who is Vanda exactly? Ives is ambiguous on the subject. Is she a figment of Thomas’ imagination: the dominatrix he yearns to surrender to, just as his protagonist does? Or is she an extreme feminist who has taken exception to Thomas and the sexist play she believes he is trying to stage. Or is she an embodiment of the Goddess Venus, come to torture this mortal sinner? Given the layers of story in the play and the various thematic allusions, this may well be the most satisfying reading. But any two-hander’s success hinges on the strength of its performances, and here the Darlinghurst Theatre Company does not disappoint.

Anna Houston is electrifying in the role of Vanda Jordan. For her first entrance, she blunders in (late) to Novachek’s audition, and shows Vanda to be brash, vulgar and unschooled. She is pretty sure of herself and her abilities, but is she a bit stupid, we ask ourselves. Our jaws quickly drop, however, as Vanda assumes the role of Wanda von Dunayev, the German protagonist of Thomas’ play. Houston is nothing short of intoxicating as Wanda – measured, perfectly pitched, though, sexually alluring as this ‘1870-something’ mistress of desire. The changes in and out of character are seamless and Houston demonstrates much skill in maintaining her pace. Not only is she vocally exquisite, but it is also evident that Houston has carefully choreographed each moment with great precision; her performance can hardly be faulted.

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Gareth Reeves is our Thomas Novachek – the struggling, slightly elitist writer-director of Venus in Fur. Reeves has the more difficult job of the pair, as the script gives him less to do. Nevertheless, he is unfaltering in performance and produces the necessary force required to match Houston and together they really pack a punch. Reeves particularly brings great chemistry to the pairing; of course they work well as a team, but Reeves gives much in the way of conflicting passion, which is both tempting and forbidden in its own right. Yet even Reeves (who is very good) can’t quite make the sexist outbursts appear natural. This is certainly not Reeves’ fault, but instead suggests that the apparent sexism of Thomas doesn’t quite sit with the character that Ives has eventually presented to us.

Director Grace Barnes, has provided an airy rehearsal space for the action of the play, that neither overbears, nor feels sparse. The play is elusive. Is Thomas a sexist? Is his play basically ‘S and M porn’ or is it a great romance? Who is in charge and who submits, and who holds the real power? Your mind will flip back and forth and that’s the delight of this production, it will keep you questioning until the very end.

Venus in Fur is playing at the Eternity Playhouse until the 5th of July. For more information see: http://www.darlinghursttheatre.com/whats-on/venus-in-fur

Merchant of Mirth: Review of Sport for Jove’s Merchant of Venice

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In recent times Sport for Jove has proven itself to be one of the most exciting companies in Sydney. While the STC has trodden a less adventurous path (with some exceptions), Sport for Jove has consistently pushed the envelope; and while Belvoir has been gutting classics, Damian Ryan has been giving masterclasses on how to deliver thoughtful and original adaptations. Apparently the dog ate Simon Stone’s homework for that lesson.

Enter now The Merchant of Venice (1598), and make no mistake, this is a good piece of theatre, but it isn’t quite great. First, what makes it good: The Merchant of Venice is a possible contender for one of the all-time great comedies, because, as with all of Shakespeare’s writing, there is a lot going on behind the laughs. Bassanio is in love with Portia; however, he lacks the necessary funds to meet the high expenses of a suitor. He turns to his friend Antonio the Merchant, but the man is cash-poor as all his investments are currently overseas. Instead the pair goes to the moneylender Shylock in order to secure a loan with Antonio as the guarantor. Shylock has no love for Antonio: for years Antonio has disparaged Shylock’s Jewish faith, and his habit of lending money without interest has meant Shylock has had to keep his rates low. Yet, Shylock offers them 3000 ducats without interest, on the condition that if it cannot be repaid, he may take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. So off Bassanio goes to woe and win Portia’s hand. In the meantime (of course) all of Antonio’s investments fail, and Shylock comes to demand his bond. A court case follows in which Antonio is saved by an unlikely heroine.

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From Elizabethan times until the nineteenth century the Jew, Shylock, was traditionally portrayed as the straight antagonist, and while it’s easy to read the play as anti-Semitic or racist, as some reviewers have, this would be overly simplistic. The beauty of Shakespeare is that he never just writes about people as a group or a race, he writes about people of flesh and blood. Shylock has spent his life as a scorned second class citizen, the hatred of others has twisted him and made him lust for revenge. And so he turns to the courts to use the law to give him the justice he has long looked for. It is extreme no doubt, but to his mind justice all the same. The court and the judge plead that he practice mercy, but he is adamant that he will have his bond. What is interesting, though, is through this court scene Shakespeare is making just as much a comment about Christians as he is the Jews. Those Christians that counsel mercy in turn have their own opportunity to show Shylock mercy once his contract is deemed void, yet they do not give it. Shakespeare shows the hypocrisy inherent to people. This message is still more than relevant today and it asks us to think about how we should treat others we would label as different to ourselves, less our deeds create monsters where there were none.

Director Richard Cottrell set his piece during the 1920s, and this seems a fine choice. An art deco screen acts as a back drop, and the costumes are all impeccably selected to match. The roaring twenties mark a time of lavish excess; here we think of Scott Fitzgerald and his string of tragic characters with outwardly glamorous lives that mask a deeper hollowness. This is a big theme within a play so interested in money, as highlighted by Bassanio’s dilemma over which chest to select to win Portia’s hand. All that glitters is not gold, and is oft insubstantial when compared to the things that truly matter. This all sits well with the text, and shows good understanding of what is going on. There are no problems here.

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Next, why The Merchant of Venice fails to be great: and in this case the fault lies with some of the performances.

Lizzie Schebesta plays the infamous Portia, a wealthy heiress from Belmont. By far one of the cleverest characters, the actress is required to display an enduring strength and intelligence that persists throughout the play. In this way, however, Schebesta mischaracterised Portia. Whilst aesthetically pleasing for the role, Schebesta’s Portia was emotional and casual, whereas Shakespeare’s Portia is rational and thoughtful. The mistake with the former is that Portia’s role in Act II comes out of left field and feels entirely unjustified. That most incredible ‘the quality of mercy’ speech is unmeasured and fails to land. This has a ripple effect on the entire courtroom scene. We miss the deep seated hypocrisy contained within it – a most crucial aspect. To this end and further still, Schebesta’s Portia lacked the punch required to reach the poignancy inherent in the play.

For the most part, though, the performances were generally acceptable. Playing opposite Schebesta was Christopher Stalley as Bassanio. As Portia’s true love, Stalley was warm, resolute and lovely to watch. Similarly pleasing was Damien Strouthos as Gratiano (a friend of Bassanio) and Erica Lovell as Nerissa (Portia’s lady-in-waiting and confidant), both of whom provided solid comic relief (individually and as lovers). Michael Cullen also demonstrated wonderful timing and flavour in the role of Lancelot, a ‘fool’ and Bassanio’s servant.

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Other performances though managed to hit some heights. James Lugton presented a quietly measured performance as Antonio, the merchant, being entirely more grounded than his younger counterparts. It is a difficult and thankless task to prepare a character for impending death with very little dialogue to match, yet Lugton was more than up for the challenge. Noteworthy also was Aaron Tsindos as the Prince of Morocco who stole the show – his farcical performance of the arrogant monarch was uproariously funny, indulgent and deliciously over the top.

The real heavyweight and star of the show was the vivacious John Turnbull as Shylock, the perilous Jewish moneylender. Turnbull’s command of the stage was virtually unmatched as the audience remained enraptured by this vengeful, spiteful little man. His Shylock was akin to a Faustian devil – slippery, elegant, fast talking yet wholly unsympathetic. Further still, Turnbull’s Yiddish Italian dialect slithered across the room like a poisonous serpent, ready to strike at any moment. He moved, we watched. He spoke, we listened.

Credit too should go to Ensemble members Jonathan Elsom in various roles, Darcy Brown as Solanio (a Venetian gentleman), Pip Dracakis as Beatrice (the maid), Jason Kos as Lorenzo (a friend of Bassanio and Antonio) and Lucy Heffernan as Jessica (Shylock’s daughter). All worked wonderfully together and within the space, making for a pleasing effort overall.

The Merchant of Venice is still a fantastic piece of theatre, and it has been done to a professional standard. You will not be disappointed in this show. But the tragedy of this comedy is that it could have delivered an extra punch that was pulled at the last moment.

The Merchant of Venice is playing at the Seymour Centre until the 30th of May. For more information see: http://www.sportforjove.com.au/theatre-play/the-merchant-of-venice