Dinner And A Show

A Piece of Theatre Review with some Good Wine.

Tag: Nathan Finger

Hei(di) Expectations: Review of New Theatre’s The Heidi Chronicles

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I find myself returning to the New Theatre (in Newtown) due to its habitual staging of interesting, dare I say important, plays. Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Heidi Chronicles, about a sensitive woman’s efforts to find meaning in her life, is no different. Yet having watched this piece, I also find myself wondering whether Wasserstein manages to do what she sets out to.

The Heidi Chronicles follows Heidi Holland throughout the decades, from high school to middle age (1964 – 1989), charting the changing role of women (primarily through feminist sub-strands) in parallel. The play begins at the story’s temporal endpoint (1989) where Heidi is an accomplished art historian lecturing a group of students about forgotten yet important female painters from previous centuries. From here we flash back, then forward again, tracing Heidi and her friends through a dozen or so scenes, exploring love, sex, politics, careers and society’s idiosyncrasies towards women.

When it premiered in 1988, Wasserstein was hailed as a pioneer feminist playwright, who gave a voice to the disappointments that accomplished, well-educated women were reluctant to air. Unfortunately for us, this lingering melancholy about our place in the world remains all too relevant. To this end, the piece finds great pertinence in being honest about the movement. Whilst Feminism is unquestionably the most important thing to happen in the 20th century (after all, it’s half the human race!), the piece acknowledges the movement’s continued struggle to elevate (and embrace) varied individual experience, where instead, Feminism casts a feeble net around the idea of the collective. It is here that Heidi finds form and wit.

Nevertheless, the piece falters in presenting Heidi the person. Whilst it certainly lunges towards a wholesome portrayal, it refuses the jump at its conclusion. Heidi feels like a partial shadow, one we think we know (and could know) if it weren’t for the wall flower mentality written into the character. Undoubtedly, this is an issue with the writing. The play ‘sort of’ manages to juggle the two strands, right up until Heidi’s alumni speech (wonderfully performed by Lauren Dillon), but tapers off, rather sharply, leaving an unsatisfactory and slightly contrived ending. Perhaps if Wasserstein had let us see Heidi discover, through her changing relationships, the type of person (and feminist) she wanted to be, we may have been left satisfied, even inspired, by her individual experience (you do you).

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Despite these concerns, director Alice Livingstone (and set designer David Marshall-Martin) present a confident, colourful production which utilizes the small space creatively and appropriately. Taking inspiration from last year’s Broadway revival, Livingstone projects background news slides and photographs onto the white walls, faithfully aiding the audience as to the decade and its corresponding concerns (Nixon, Kennedy’s Assassination, Civil Rights Movements, the Iranian Embassy siege, Reagan – just to name a few). The soundtrack is Wasserstein’s domain however, with a collection of script-specified pop songs that feature female artists from the time: Betty Everett, Janis Joplin, Fleetwood Mac and the fabulous Stevie Nicks. The design combinations work, and with some flashy retro costume design from Famke Visser, we are easily transported from decade to decade.

Livingstone also draws some good performances from her cast, where the only blanket criticism would be that the intellectual riffs occasionally got the better of them. Lauren Dillon presents a thoughtful Heidi, though at times appears to blend into the scenery. Nevertheless, Dillon impressively reconciles Heidi’s introversion with her quiet confidence, an essential, if not key, component to the character. Darren Sabadina shines as Heidi’s best friend Peter Patrone. He is quick, sarcastic, loyal and camp as a row of tents. Sabadina hit all the right emotional peaks (especially during his ‘coming out’ scene), but had a tendency to garble dialogue – the more lengthy punchlines in particular. Matthew Charleston worked well as Scoop Rosenbaum, a charming playboy that never quite gets away.  One wishes however, that Charleston was just that bit more charming, enough to offset his arrogance. This might improve the conceit that Heidi continues to stick around (though perhaps his moments of sincerity did the trick). Caroline Levien makes a good fist of Susan Johnston, Heidi’s gal pal through the ages, and really comes into her own during Susan’s 80s powerhouse phase – superficial and never really present in conversation.

Of the supporting cast, Sarah Aubrey is by far the standout. Her chameleon-like ability to switch between Fran the militant lesbian feminist, April Lambert the spurious TV presenter, and a variety of other bit parts was impressive and seamless. Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame was particularly watchable as Jill, the apprehensive mother of four and Lisa Friedlander a ‘secure six’ and children’s books illustrator from the Deep South, whom Scoop eventually marries (despite being in love with Heidi, a ‘ten’). She penetrates the hesitation with which some women approach feminism, as it is unknown, and often less secure. Both Olivia O’Flynn and Benjamin Winckle round out the cast with their sound performances in the other varied roles (particularly O’Flynn as Debbie Friedlander, Lisa’s more successful though impressionable sister).

Many scenes hit hard, and you are guaranteed to hear a murmur of all-too-knowing outrage from female audience members, where in one scene, the men constantly speak over and for Heidi, only then to turn around and tell her that she should have talked more. Thankfully, she corrects them. Ultimately, The Heidi Chronicles still feels like it has something to say, and sends a message that regardless of their chosen path, women have a right to expect more from the world. That alone is enough to keep staging it (though we must continue to work through its ‘looser’ threads).

The Heidi Chronicles is playing at the New Theatre from 7 June to 9 July (Thursday – Sunday). For more information and tickets please visit http://newtheatre.org.au/season-2016/the-heidi-chronicles/.

Snow Globe Trotting: Review of Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Good Works

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Good Works (1994) by Nick Enright is an exploration of intergeneration pain, and works to unveil how the mistakes and decisions made by one generation will be perpetuated into the next.

Set across some sixty years, we begin in a Sydney gay bar with Tim who is instantly drawn to a rough patron who introduces himself as John. Tim though, is convinced that John is his childhood friend Shane. The two became separated after a violent incident involving a brother from their Catholic school. What follows is a series of short scenes that bounce around chronologically, beginning with their mothers as children, focusing on their childhood, early romances and the difficulties they faced as parents. Central to the play is an exploration of small town morality informed by religion. Characters either attempt to abide by these values or rebel, and although they’re always trying to do what they believe is best, it doesn’t always lead to happy outcomes.

The production has been blessed with a uniformly strong cast that is almost without fault – especially necessary with this intricately wrought, at times confusing, play. Both Anthony Gooley and Stephen Multari excelled in their respective roles as boyhood friends, Shane and Tim. Shifts from puberty to adulthood are often difficult to portray, but each player tackled theirs with aplomb. Multari was particularly effective at embodying Tim’s glowing, boyish innocence, whereas Gooley brought great menace to the broken adult Shane. Alongside them, Taylor Ferguson (of Belvoir’s Miss Julie fame) played the brazen Australian beauty Rita (mother to Shane). Ferguson is quietly captivating; intelligently, she hardens Rita with age, mapping all of life’s disappointments with every interaction. As Rita’s childhood friend Mary Margaret (mother to Tim), Lucy Goleby has arguably less to do. Nevertheless, she provides a steady contrast and tragically she captures what ‘a good second choice’ looks like. Toni Scanlan effectively delivers the slightly caricatured dank pretention of Mrs Donovan (Mary Margaret’s Mother) whilst enjoying the cute gimmick of the Irish Catholic nun, Mother John. Finally, Jamie Oxenbould goes from strength to strength playing several characters, including an elderly gay gentleman (Alan), the sadistic Brother Clement, the slimy pub owner Barry and the conservative Mr Donovan.

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Good Works, Darlinghurst Theatre. Photo by Helen White.

Our set has been made to resemble the interior of a snow globe with several raised pillars, which creates a visual delight. The added vertical performance space gave time an almost physical dimension, as the text’s numerous and overlapping time-slips are designed to give us a sense of the parallel and interconnected nature of the story’s different threads. These time-slips, when combined with the added doubling of characters, created the looming threat of confusion setting in; but to his credit, director Iain Sinclair has deftly navigated this, and for the most part the audience is able to keep up. Having said that, this play demands effort from its audience; and once we work through the jagged chronology, untangle the doubled characters and move past the dazzling set, we may decide that all of this is covering up a rather familiar story that is largely without the payoff that Bovell’s similarly structured When the Rain Stops Falling delivers. Nevertheless, it is plainly evident that a great deal of intelligent design has gone into this production, and for that alone the cast and crew should be congratulated.

Good Works is playing with the Darlinghurst Theatre Company at the Eternity Theatre until the 29th of November. For more information see:
http://www.darlinghursttheatre.com/whats-on/good-works

The Real Stoppard: Review of New Theatre’s The Real Thing

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New Theatre brings to stage Tom Stoppard’s exploration of the authentic and the fake in The Real Thing (1982). It also turns out to be somewhat autobiographical, which only adds an additional layer to the game he plays with us.

Henry is a middle-aged playwright who starts out having an affair with an actress, Annie, before the two eventually get married. He likes to think of himself as an intellectual and is determined to present as such. Sad truth, though, is that Henry is a lot better at talking about life and love in the high-brow abstract than he is at experiencing or genuinely expressing these emotions. This is reflected both in his writing and in his approach to relationships. There is some drama along the way, particularly focused around an incarcerated soldier, Brodie, whom Annie is working to have freed. We are also introduced, again and again, to other imitations and illusions, be it in art or politics. Ultimately though, the play is really about Henry learning to see the world from a different perspective, enabling him to move from being a bit of a phony to being the genuine article.

The Real Thing is infused with Stoppard’s trademark wit, which he even draws some satirical attention to, and of course there is an insightful speech or two about cricket bats, literature and carnal knowledge. For the most part director, Alice Livingstone, has put together a fairly faithful restaging of the play. The scene changes and lighting cues could have been a little snappier, but the all-around solid cast more than made up for it.

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Like it or not, the Henry character carries the show. An intellectualizing snob, who thinks Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders is the best thing since Bach, Henry talks the talk but never walks the walk when it comes to comprehending the true nature of love and relationships. For him, the phrase ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’ is particularly apt. It is a difficult yet rewarding task for Christopher Tomkinson who strikes just the right balance between flashy academic wit (just enough to be desirable) and pathetically needy. His partner in crime, Annie, played by the petite Ainslie McGlynn, is, by contrast, effortlessly alluring and passionate about life in all its mud and glory. In a nut shell, McGlynn must sell infidelity to the audience – and surprisingly, she more than manages. She is raw and emotional, craving real connection in a now flat marriage, and we see how, little by little, the heart may (even unintentionally) wander.

As Henry’s first wife Charlotte, the fabulous Emily Weare is highly watchable, possessing a naturally momentous energy that keeps throughout. Playing their quietly rebellious daughter, Debbie, Charlotte Hazzard finds great clarity in a sea of ideas and ideals. Peter Eyer, as Annie’s wet sock first husband Max, is warm and unassuming, whilst packing a real farcical punch as his ‘play-within-a-play’ snooty character. Despite the occasional accent wobble, Benjamin Winckle provided a much needed contrast as the earthy young actor Billy, doubling as the boofhead Scottish prisoner Brodie. Both the actor and the Billy character breathe fresh air into the somewhat stuffy middle-aged pairings, and reminded us of just how easy it is to fall for charisma and authentic connection.

Although The Real Thing is almost universally seen as one of the centerpieces of Stoppard’s career, its plodding first act will always be a detraction; nevertheless, there is great enjoyment to be derived in this production from a cast that can hardly be faulted. Once again the New Theatre delivers the goods.

The Real Thing is playing at the New Theatre until the 7th of November. For more information see: http://newtheatre.org.au/the-real-thing/

Duties and Lies: Review of Sport for Jove’s Edward II

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Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II (1592) is one of the earliest examples of a historical drama indicative of the style that Shakespeare would later make famous. Sport for Jove has taken this play, originally set during the fourteenth century and brought it to a time reminiscent of the late 1920/30s.

Edward II chronicles the reign and tragic fall of King Edward II of England. Upon taking the throne, Edward orders the return of the formerly exiled Gaveston. Although the original text left the manner of their relationship veiled, today most productions choose to highlight its supposed homosexual nature; director, Terry Karabelas has kept with this tradition. Gaveston is disliked by Edward’s parliament of lords and barons, and Queen Isabella is jealous of the affections she has been robbed of. They see Gaveston as distracting the King; they claim he has been liberal with the nation’s treasury and as a result war has broken out. Although during the fourteenth century the Church fiercely condemned homosexuality, this doesn’t appear to be the source of the lord’s antagonism towards Gaveston. Rather, it is his influence over the King’s personal life. Indeed, Marlowe complicates the theme, for while it may be possible to see the play as portraying the destruction of those who transgress moral order, compared to his conniving councilors who plot to remove Gaveston once and for all, Edward appears as the innocent party.

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Edward II actually becomes an interesting exploration of the conflict between the desire to follow one’s heart and the duties that one owes to the nation. Throughout the play Edward is tormented by this. The tragedy comes from Edward’s mistaken belief that the power he holds as king will allow him the free reign to follow his heart, even against the will of his council. He comes to learn though, as indeed do those who plotted to overthrow him, that a person is only able to hold power as long as others choose to recognize that power. In the light of recent political upheaval it is a lesson we should all do well to remember. Bob Carr was at opening night; maybe Tony Abbott should come along, Mortimer’s final words as he is led to execution may provide him with some balm:

‘Base Fortune, now I see, that in thy wheel there is a point, to which when men aspire, they tumble headlong down: that point I touch’d, and, seeing there was no place to mount up higher, why shall I grieve at my declining fall?’

Interestingly, by placing the play in the early twentieth century, some parallel is drawn between Edward II and his distant relative Edward VIII. Both men were faced with the question of holding onto their kingdom or following their heart. Both chose their heart and lost a kingdom, but with very different results.

As is always the case with Sport for Jove, performances are strong. Julian Garner is a perfect fit for many of Shakespeare’s roles and other leading men of the age. His Edward II is therefore no exception. Garner possesses a royal quality, one which makes him appear effortlessly virtuous yet deeply flawed at the same time. This Edward wants nothing more than to love as he pleases; the conflict that follows is mapped beautifully by Garner – we feel his anguish though we question his methods. Acting alongside Garner is Georgia Adamson as Isabella, his French Queen, cast aside to make way for Gaveston. Adamson has always been an impressive performer, so to call Isabella a victim would be to offend the character and the actress; there is much more going on. Marlowe gives us vengeful and opportunistic; Adamson responds with a side of ambition and femme fatal. She and Garner are both performers who possess a great presence, individually and together. The same could be said of James Lugton as Mortimer, Edward’s fierce enemy. Lugton is a quiet professional. His performances are always subtle yet incredibly diverse. Here, the ‘bad guy’ suddenly becomes layered and vulnerable. Angela Bauer was also impressive as the Princess of Kent, the conflicted sister of Edward. A towering familial presence with every appearance, Bauer was raw, tender and loyal (mostly).

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Now, Michael Whalley plays Gaveston, the ‘friend’ (read lover) of Edward II. Gaveston is an interesting character – he is somewhat of a mystery; we don’t always know what Edward sees in him. He seems bitter and defensive, hypersexual and boyish at times. As such, it is a difficult character to pull off, but Whalley canvases Gaveston perfectly. He is the boyfriend you really don’t want your daughter (or in this case, your son) to be dating, though they just can’t stay away. Of the supporting cast, Gabriel Fancourt was excellent as Prince Edward – the increasingly hardened nature with which the young Prince views the world was unnerving to behold. Barry French was dogmatic as the Bishop of Canterbury, lacing his performance with a tinge of cowardice. Belinda Hoare was aggressively resolute as Warwick whilst Richard Hilliar was stout as Lancaster. Edmund Lembke-Hogan presented a sharp Spencer, one of Edward’s loyal followers and Simon London (as Baldock, another loyal follower) was once again incredibly watchable – there is a soft quality about London that makes him so.

Sport for Jove has produced a powerful portrayal of a tormented and ultimately doomed king. Edward II is playing until the 17th of October. For more information see: http://www.sportforjove.com.au/theatre-play/edward-ii

 

Shaw Fire Hit: Review of STC’s Arms and the Man

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Arms and the Man (1894) was one of Bernard Shaw’s early commercial successes, although today it is maybe less well known than some of his other pieces; but as the STC and director, Richard Cottrell, show, this is certainly not due to any deficiency. Raina is the daughter of a wealthy Bulgarian family and engaged to an equally wealthy and heroic soldier who has just won an important victory over the Serbian army. That night, a retreating Swiss officer in the Serbian army, Bluntschli, sneaks into her room to escape death. She agrees to hide him from capture and saves his life. Peace is soon declared and her fiancé returns home. When Bluntschli also turns up, the stage is set for farcical adventure.

Although everything is handled with a decidedly light touch, Shaw deals with a raft of subjects. Most central of which is Raina’s idealized and romantic notions of combat and life that come up against Bluntschli’s more pragmatic understanding of reality. In the late Victorian period romantic portrayals of war were common place, and to suggest that the man who led a cavalry charge was really a coward would have been quite the divergent claim. Shaw also handles issues of class structure and seamlessly interweaves ideas of courage and cowardice between both the civilian and military spheres.

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Set design by Michael Scott-Mitchell also contributes to this reading. We are treated to a stunning white stage, with intricate lattice walls and trees that look as though they were cut from paper to resemble snowflakes. The effect gives the stage a fairy-tale feel, which feeds into the initial ideas of romanticism. It also creates a world that gives the actors leave to play up their roles, and in this Arms and the Man has been blessed with a cast that cannot be faulted.

This production brims with precision and effortlessness across the board. Andrea Demetriades plays Raina, our Bulgarian heroine. Demetriades brings great spirit to the role. She is light, youthful and playful yet capable of sincerity when the moment calls for it. Mitchell Butel plays our Swiss dreamboat, Bluntschli, a professional paid-for-battle soldier attached to the Serbian army. As Raina’s restrained older suitor, Butel is handsome, tolerant and forever endearing. Both performances were perfectly pitched and their scenes together made love at first sight completely appropriate as a conceit. Raina’s fiancé and unexperienced soldier-general Saranoff, performed by the dashing Charlie Cousins, could only be described as the Bulgarian Johnny Bravo, but with a little more clown. Sporting hair as large as his ego, Cousins-as-Saranoff was delightful to watch, and laced the show with some wonderful gimmicks to great comedic effect. Despite the fact the Cousins’ time in television may have worked against him (since his presence could never quite match that of the stage actors), he managed the character with great aplomb. Skilful performances were also given by the booming Deborah Kennedy and the fluttering William Zappa as Raina’s parents. Olivia Rose was captivating as the dark beauty Louka, Raina’s servant. Her sex appeal and sharp tongue was undeniable, and made for a steamy sub-plot with Saranoff. Finally, Brandon Burke brought up the rear as man-servant Nicola, an unapologetic opportunist. His performance was full of colour and beans, nicely rounding out the ensemble, and the production as a whole.

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Costumes are often a hit or miss kind of venture, but here, Julie Lynch has outdone herself. Costumes are lavish and exotic, with lace and silk screen patterns, the colours appearing as vibrant as a peacock’s tail. The designs are of period, with wonderful trailing skirts and military boots, making for all the characters to appear as if they were dolls signifying the national dress.

George Orwell called Arms and the Man Shaw’s finest play, and it is difficult to disagree. It is a skillfully wrought story that deftly interweaves several important ideas without ever weighing the play’s comedy down. This is one not to be missed. Arms and the Man is playing with the Sydney Theatre Company until the 31st of October. For more information see:
https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2015/arms-and-the-man

Updating the Present: Review of STC’s The Present

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It’s becoming a bit of a sad tradition that we’re seeing a lot of main-stage plays be subtitled with, ‘by some-would-be-writer, after some-undisputed-master’, as if the works of Ibsen, Chekhov and Miller were pretty good starts, but really hadn’t quite reached their full potential. It’s either an indictment against Australian playwrights who don’t have the balls to write something of their own, or Australian audiences who are unwilling to see anything they haven’t already heard of. Possibly a bit of both.

The Sydney Theatre Company’s The Present, ‘By Andrew Upton, after Anton Chekhov’s Platonov (1878)’ is another member of this ever growing club. However – and it is a big ‘however’ – of all the plays out there this is possibly the best one to do it to. Written when Chekhov was just eighteen, the piece originally ran to five hours, with Chekhov himself never considering it complete. It was never staged in his own life-time, and when performed today usually appears as an abridged or edited version. Upton has condensed the story and updated the setting to Russia of the mid-1990s (yes, we remember, VHS was a thing). Having said that, the sensibilities of the characters within the piece are undeniably Australian, even setting aside the accents; Upton’s use of dialogue and even the mannerisms of the actors all place the aesthetics of the piece squarely in this country. At one point, a character even picks up a meat pie from the local servo. The occasional references to Russia jar at times as we’re reminded that this isn’t Oz, and one wonders how difficult it would have been to have found a comparable time in Australia’s history where the story would have worked. Thankfully, though, this is not a deal breaker.

Credit must be given where credit is due, though, because for its faults, The Present is an engaging piece of theatre. It may not sound much like Chekhov anymore, but for the most part the writing works; the comedy inserted into the text and accentuated by Director, John Crowley and his cast, turns what might have been a slog of three hours into something entertaining.

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The play opens on the day before Anna’s 40th birthday. Gathered for the first time in years is a group of friends who are all connected through the friendships forged by their own parents many years ago. The relationships are complex, but Sergi, Nikolai and Mikhail are three sons born of the previous generation who spent their childhood together. They all started out with the potential to change the world, but following one compromise after another they have lapsed into a lack-lustered middle-age. They are surrounded by the stories of the glorious past, and listen to the plans that the youthful have for the future. But when you’re middle-aged you only have the present: whatever you were going to do, whatever you were going to be is what you now are; it’s only at 40 that people begin to fully realize this. Mikhail had big plans for his life, and even though he holds down a respectable job as a teacher and has a newborn child he feels unfulfilled. Enter the women. Mikhail is a bit of a babe magnet, and over the course of the play there are four who believe themselves to be in love with him. Each represents a different aspect of his life that he feels is lacking: Sasha, his wife, is warm and nurturing; Sophia is ambitious and wants to improve the world; Maria is young, sexy and vibrant; and Anna is the person who understands him. Mikhail’s frustrated life, his attempt to recapture a lost youth and potential in one of these women, and his inability to choose between them, makes up the drama of this piece.

Even with Upton’s stripped down and rebuilt version of the play, it’s hard to disguise some of the limitations in this early Chekhov. The four female love interests are a little pigeon-holed into their character-types and what they mean to Mikhail’s crisis than they are fully rounded characters. This is more so the case with Maria and Sasha, but all four suffer from this limitation to one degree or another. Likewise, the first two acts are a little over drawn and not as tightly wrought as the back end of the production. It is fascinating to note, though, that Chekhov, at eighteen, managed to write what is a detailed study of the mid-life crisis.

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But let’s face facts, at the end of the day this is a little bit of a show piece of the STC. As such, there is no lack of star power in this production. Cate Blanchett takes on the role of Anna Petrovna, birthday girl and widow to a late General. Blanchett heads this production with A-list stamina, once again demonstrating the energy and skill required to successfully navigate theatrical marathons, such as this. Blanchett is always transfixing, though one laments the missed opportunity to see her tackle Chekhov’s heavier drama over Upton’s amusing but light comedy stylings. Richard Roxburgh is similarly magnanimous as tortured womanizer Mikhail Platonov. Roxburgh could make a shopping list seem interesting and natural in conversation. And it is this performance, one of great ease and ochre charm, that sees us once again delight in Roxburgh’s treading of the boards (though he leans perhaps a little on the character of Rake for guidance). Whilst all the other actors put in some good performances, both Roxburgh and Blanchett left them a little in the dust. Chris Ryan was sweetly naïve as the lovesick Sergei Pavlovich. His best moments occurred when he moved out of daft comedy bits and into wrenching desperation. Toby Schmitz was suitably jarring as the sarcastic and indecisive Nikolai Ivanovich, though one would like to see him do some further character work. Jacqueline McKenzie was surprisingly unrecognisable as the quiet though enthusiastic Sofya Yegorovna, wife to Sergei and an old lover of Mikhail. Hers was a wonderfully measured and subtly nuanced performance. Susan Prior was also excellent as the plain Sasha, doting wife to the often uninterested Mikhail. In the role of her father, Marshall Napier was barrelling and jovial; a joy to behold. Also worth a mention is Brandon McClelland as the Demitri, son to Porfiry, who struck a chord as the outspoken, sullen youth who challenges Mikhail’s antics.

The Present is a great opportunity to see a raft of Australia’s stage talent strut their stuff on stage. It would be unwise to go in expecting to see a Chekhov play, but nevertheless, this is an engaging and entertaining piece of theatre. Get tickets if you can.

The Present is playing with the Sydney Theatre Company until the 19th of September. For more information see: https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2015/the-present

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