Dinner And A Show

A Piece of Theatre Review with some Good Wine.

Tag: Sydney Theatre Company

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

Top of his Game: Review of STC’s Endgame

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Out of Samuel Beckett’s major plays, Endgame (1957) is possibly the most elusive. As with all Beckett’s works, whether theatre, novel, film or poem, the piece represents a deconstruction of his chosen media, and Endgame is particularly meta-fictive in this regard. But while Beckett is always interested in ruminations on the process and means of artistic representation, there are more curious things going on in Endgame than a mere breakdown of traditional plot or character structures.

Set in a small stone bunker, Endgame tells the story of the last living people on earth after an unspecified cataclysmic event. The tyrannical and chair-bound Hamm can neither see nor walk. He is tended to by his servant Clov, who limps around the stage and is physically unable to sit. All the while Hamm’s legless parents reside in two trash cans. Beckett was always fond of cripples, and here he offers a depiction of life’s gradual descent into degradation. In this setting, though, the portrayal is not merely confined to bodies, but life as a whole. Everything is in a state of decay.

In a world where there are no more bicycles, sugarplums or pain killers, the only thing anyone has left to cling to is other people.  Hamm is an invalid and so totally dependent on Clov. Clov serves his every whim, yet he does so unwillingly. ‘There’s one thing I’ll never understand. Why I always obey you.’  Throughout the play Clov constantly threatens to leave, yet he never does.  Here we have another example of Beckett’s pseudo-couples: two people bound together and unable to separate. We see them in Godot with Didi and Gogo, Happy Days with Winnie and Willie, and Not I with Mouth and Auditor. So why does Clov obey, why can he never leave? It’s because he is equally dependent on Hamm. Only through his interactions with another person, who can confirm his existence, is his life given any semblance of meaning. It’s the same reason why Hamm forces his father to listen to his story, when he could just as easily tell it to himself. Theatre of the Absurd is always concerned with questions of where meaning in our life comes from and Endgame represents Beckett’s attempt to get to its core.

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This could well be one of Andrew Upton’s finest productions. Nick Schlieper’s confined set design, equipped with dripping and reflected water keeps to Beckett’s original intention without falling into the overly familiar. Together the two have created some striking imagery. Endgame is not a play for the lighthearted, though, and without a strong cast the piece would be unbearably tedious. But Hugo Weaving has successfully made this one of the ‘not to be missed’ productions of the year.

Weaving is simply masterful in the role of Hamm; he is cruel and selfish, bound to a chair, unable to stand. Hamm has lost the use of his eyes and for the actor, it is a hard slog. However, you wouldn’t know this with Mr Weaving at the helm. Aided by only voice and gesture, Weaving commands the stage from his immobile position, no small feat. In a word, his performance is faultless as he weaves through the dialogue with effortless musicality, each syllable ringing in our ears, bringing the lyricism of Beckett to life. This is Shakespeare for the existentialist, and Weaving is in fine if not perfect form.

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Tom Budge plays Clov, servant to Hamm, who is unable to sit (so he tells us). Hunched over, Budge is a powdered clown, with agility and timing largely on point. Budge does not begin how he intends to finish and he finds his rhythm later than we would like, but once found, he fits well with Weaving’s pace.

Bruce Spence and Sarah Pierse have comparatively little to do in the script, as Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell, both of whom have no legs and live in dustbins side by side. Pierse is melancholic and sombre, her voice a morbid rhythm of time and hope running out. Spence shows Nagg to be a fading light, one that flickers every now and again at the thought of distant happy memories. Together they strike a chord, such as a church bell would at the end of a funeral.

If there was ever a moment to get acquainted with Beckett then it would be now, when a seasoned cast is able to do justice to this challenging piece. This isn’t easy viewing, Beckett demands a lot of his audience, but this is an occasion where the rewards are well worth the effort. Endgame is playing with the Sydney Theatre Company until the 9th of May.

For more information see:
https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2015/endgame

Lights, Camera, Williams: Review of STC’s Suddenly Last Summer

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Suddenly Last Summer (1958) was originally produced alongside Something Unspoken as a double billing. These days Something Unspoken is all but forgotten, and Suddenly Last Summer is left to fend for itself. While it may not be the undisputed masterpiece that Street Car Named Desire is, this darkly poetic and insightful allegory of human nature is still one of Tennessee Williams’ best.

Violet Venable is the wealthy matriarch of a well-to-do New Orleans’ family. Her son, the dashing, debonair poet, Sebastian, died under mysterious circumstances last summer, and the only witness, his cousin Catharine, has been spreading all sorts of awful rumours about his death. The girl is clearly deranged, so Dr Cukrowicz (Sugar) is summoned to hear the story. If he agrees that Catharine is unhinged, then steps can be taken to silence her and preserve Sebastian’s reputation. But the truth cannot be buried and the tale will be told to its shocking end.

Much like Orpheus Descending, Williams has structured the play around a classic Greek tragedy, in this case, Euripidies’ The Bacchae. As such, Williams always stressed that the play was to be read not literally, but as an exaggerated allegory. The point of which is to eschew an element of life that is usually over looked. Here, the central theme is that of devouring. Specifically, how we consume and discard people in our life.  ‘We all use each other,’ says Catharine, ‘that’s what we think of as love.’

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Every relationship in the play can be defined in this way. Violet is the archetype of this trait, willing to manipulate any character to her own end: she offers a bribe to Dr Sugar, and threatens to withhold the share of Sebastian’s will from Catharine’s brother unless she can be silenced. Of course, Sebastian was no better. He used his mother’s connections to procure young male company. When she was no longer able to do so, she was cast aside with Catharine taking her place. Catharine is the ultimate victim, used by Sebastian and even taken advantage of by a married man. In both cases she is discarded when her function has been served. In the years before his death Sebastian saw a vision of baby sea turtles struggling towards the sea before being devoured by gulls. He saw this scene as representative of the true nature of human relationships. Sebastian attempted to escape the cycle by disappearing into a Buddhist monastery, but Violet didn’t want to lose their lavished lifestyle, so she flung him back into society, and in doing so ensured his final demise.

Kip Williams has cottoned onto the fact that Suddenly Last Summer should not be read as a piece of realist theatre. His use of cameras and projection is a nod to this. He certainly ran the risk of reproducing the fiasco that was The Maids, but thankfully his use of film has a ready justification. To be sure, some people will find it off putting, and there’s no question that it is overused and at times invasive. At other times, it is simply brilliant: we pull away from an extreme close up of Catharine’s eyes to reveal a flashback of her and the disguised Sebastian (Brandon McClelland). The camera pans around, rotating faster as the story becomes more and more horrifying.

Not only does the film and visible camera crew draw attention to the theatricality of the performance, but it also draws attention to the idea of the fractured self. Sebastian obviously struggled to feed his animalistic appetites whilst also presenting a respectable façade to 1930s society; likewise his mother seeks to suppress some elements of his personality while emphasizing other elements. Ultimately, no person has a single, consistent being. The film also directs our attention to Dr Sugar, a character who could easily be over looked in this production, but whose role is crucial, as he significantly remains the only person not willing to consume others in a bid to advance himself. He is the beacon of hope in the play.

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But of course, it’s the actors that really make Williams’ lyrical dialogue sing. Our main trio is a sight to behold. The legendary Robyn Nevin reigns supreme as Violet Venable, Sebastian’s ever present mother. Nevin is voluble and unrelenting in her pursuit of the rose coloured image of her son’s homosexuality and death. Engaging as ever, Nevin nuances every syllable, and sets the stage for quality. Mark Leonard Winter as her companion, Dr Cukrowicz, is just as impressive. Winter brings a quiet gravitas to the role of Dr Sugar and provides a sound structure for the coherent and incoherent ramblings of his two leading ladies. Winter is quite simply the Montgomery Clift of the STC stage. And oh! How well he treads the boards. The arrival of Eryn Jean Norvill as Catharine, Sebastian’s poor and infatuated cousin, takes the story to a new, disturbing level. Norvill is fast becoming one of Sydney’s brightest, and her performance here is no exception. Norvill plays the hysterical tiredness of an ‘insane’ girl. You can see how exhausted Catharine is, presumably from being moved between asylums where still, no one will believe her. Norvill taps into the rawness of this Hitchcockian heroine; she is constantly compelling.

The play is punctuated by Paula Arundell as Sister Felicity and less successfully by Melita Jurisic (Violet’s nurse), Susan Prior (Mrs Holly, Catharine’s Mother) and Brandon McClelland (Holly’s Brother). Jurisic, Prior and McClelland seemed unable to maintain the suspension of disbelief. All three jarred the dialogue at times, as if unable to transform themselves into their respective characters. Overacting and poor choices proliferated. Arundell, on the other hand, suitably pitched Catharine’s holy carer.

This may not be a production for the theatrical purest, but Williams and the Sydney Theatre Company have attempted to do something different, and to their credit it is thoughtfully done and consistent with the text they’re working with. You’re not going to hit the bull’s eye every time you push the envelope, but they got close enough often enough with this production to make it well worth seeing. Tickets sales have been strong, so if you don’t have one already, you’d probably want to do something about that soon. Suddenly Last Summer is playing at the Sydney Opera house until the 21st of March. For more information see:
https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2015/suddenly-last-summer

Striving for Perfection: Review of STC’s Cyrano de Bergerac

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Originally written in verse (and then translated by Marion Potts), Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1897) has been adapted by Andrew Upton into straighter prose version which has largely retained its original lyricism. Despite Upton’s little modernisms, justice has been done to this famous piece.

Poet, playwright and romantic; the greatest duelist and bravest soldier that ever lived: Hercule Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac seems to have it all, and he does it all with his trademark wit and panache. But he is accursed, having been born with an abnormally large nose. Behind his joyful antics and boundless confidence lies a deep insecurity that no woman could ever love his disfigured form. And so when a young and handsome, somewhat vapid soldier, Christian, falls in love with the object of Cyrano’s affection, Roxane, he agrees to tutor the hopeless man in the ways of love. With the combination of Christian’s good looks and Cyrano’s dazzling rhetoric, the pair manage to capture Roxane’s heart. Such a deception can only lead to complications and tragedy.

Ideals are at the core of this production. Cyrano is a true romantic at heart and will not settle for anything less. It is for this reason that he agrees to help Christian – the promise and allure of creating the world’s perfect lover. Yet this longing for perfection finds its way into all aspects of Cyrano’s life. He refuses to let anyone tamper with his work and will never kowtow to have it staged. An unwavering commitment to ideals leads Cyrano into strife. He is largely unrecognized as a writer and his belief in his disfigurement truly prevents him from finding happiness. Even on the battlefield he insults De Guiche who discarded the scarf that identifies him as an officer because it makes him an easy target. Cyrano claims that he would wear it willingly; its symbolism is enough, though to wear it would drastically increase his risk of dying. Here we reach the point of the play. The only real choice we have in life is the ability to choose the source of our misery. Later in the play De Guiche confesses that each compromise he made weighs on his soul. It reminds him of the man he dreamt to be, but never became. Cyrano, clinging to every ideal he holds, is no better off. The world is not made of ideals and as Cyrano discovers, the world will eventually crush anyone unwilling to compromise. It’s a catch-22.

Yalin Ozucelik as Le Bret and Richard Roxburgh as Cyrano

Yalin Ozucelik as Le Bret and Richard Roxburgh as Cyrano

The marvellous Richard Roxburgh plays our title role with impressive timing and pathos. When he’s good, he’s very, very good. Yet we find ourselves waiting in anticipation for Cyrano’s panache to kick into a higher gear, and it never quite does. This does not detract from the deep sadness that Roxburgh portrays so well, but it does deny that extreme juxtaposition that pushes Cyrano from good to great.

Josh McConville plays the deliciously vain De Guiche, Count and Colonel to the French Army. McConville is a master of comedy in his own right, though his greatest strength lies in his catlike ability to slink between characterisations. McConville is almost unrecognisable as the older De Guiche. Formerly filled with naïve courage and confidence he has now faded, leaving an old man with only regret.

Eryn Jean Norvill plays the beautiful Roxane, displaying good temperament and comic restraint in performance. The role is somewhat thankless next to the pizazz of Cyrano but Norvill takes it in her stride and manages with gusto. She too has a penchant for character, best seen in her sharp contrast from a flighty, romantic youth to a worn and grieving elderly woman.

Chris Ryan plays the handsome but rather dense Christian, Roxane’s love interest. The role seems straightforward on paper but it becomes all too apparent that Ryan has worked tirelessly to shape the performance, displaying great awareness of character. Christian’s ‘stupidity’ is constantly teetering between subtle and overplayed, exactly where Ryan wants it.

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Eryn Jean Norvill as Roxane and Josh McConville as De Guiche

Amongst the supporting characters is the delightful Julia Zemiro playing Roxane’s Nurse, though the role is treated as a bit of a cameo within which Zemiro can do her shtick. Thankfully, this works. David Whitney is endearing and energetic as Raguenaeu the baker and dinner (breakfast?) poet. And fresh from his stint as Cyrano in the Sport for Jove production, Yalin Ozucelik plays Cyrano’s right hand man Le Bret with generosity and grace.

Upton offers a fairly straight staging of the play. There are a couple of visually compelling moments, such as the sleeping soldiers on a misty battlefield, or raining autumnal leaves under a red wash as Roxanne comes to terms with her loss. But these moments seem to have the fingerprints of the production’s associate director, Kip Williams, on them.

This is a funny, tragic and thought-provoking play featuring one of Australia’s finest actors in his element.  Cyrano de Bergerac is playing with the Sydney Theatre Company until the 20th of December. For more information see:
https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2014/cyrano-de-bergerac

Murder She Wrote: Review of STC’s Switzerland

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Patricia Highsmith (1921-1995) was an American novelist of psychological thrillers, who is probably best remembered for her adapted novels Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr Ripley. In Joanna Murray-Smith’s new play Switzerland, though, she becomes the central character of her own story.

Highsmith is a caustic, sharp-witted woman who has escaped to the Swiss Alps to enjoy her retirement away from the brash and shallow confines of New York, which she sees as populated by critics and sycophants. She instead prefers the company of animals, owning several cats and a colony of snails. These sexually ambiguous mollusks are a source of fascination for her. This all comes to an end when a young representative from her New York publishers, Edward, arrives at her home with the intention of getting her to sign on to write another novel. Highsmith is resistant to the idea, claiming that she’s done with Ripley. Edward doesn’t take no for an answer though, and his seemingly innocuous character becomes increasingly sinister, setting the stage for a battle of wits and wills. As the two duel it out the plot gradually comes to mirror that of her novels.

Murray-Smith’s writing crackles, and her wit is both cruel and by turns hilarious. At its core, this play becomes Highsmith’s process of coming to terms with her own death. Ruminations of mortality, legacy and murder, as well as the process of writing litter the text. Being a two-hander placed in a single setting, the play does tend to throw a lot of exposition at the audience with limited action. However, Murray-Smith’s characters are fascinating and well rendered, and her writing is tight enough to sustain this over the play’s 100 minute course.

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Both performances are first class. Sarah Pierse sparkles in the role of battered crime writer Patricia Highsmith. She is raw, abrasive, and thoroughly broken. Pierse rounds her characterisation with a perfectly eared whiskey accent, and pained gait. She is stiff, and this seeps into her personality. The cynicism is unrelenting, as is her deep-seated resentment for the river of white male publishers that she constantly fights against. She is the archetype of a revolutionary female writer, and yet with Pierse at the helm, we cannot look away.

Highsmith is confronted by young hopeful Edward played by Eamon Farren. Farren is now considered one of Sydney’s leading men, and with good reason. His transformations are textbook; showing versatility and dexterity in mapping the final reveal. Everything from demeanour and stance to the detail of speed of movement is carefully considered. Ultimately, Farren has a difficult task: he is expected to shift substantially over the course of the play, and he does so marvellously.

Together and separately, both actors have a dynamic presence on stage. It is a credit to director Sarah Goodes for weaving the two styles to create flawless chemistry.

Last year Murray-Smith brought us Fury. Switzerland is a complete departure in structure and theme. However, the same keenly observed characters and dazzling writing is still present. Her partnership with the Sydney Theatre Company has no doubt been a fruitful one to date, and one that will hopefully continue into the future.

If you want to learn about Patricia Highsmith and her infamous creation Ripely, Switzerland is playing with the Sydney Theatre Company until the 20th of December. For more information see:
https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2014/switzerland

Blocking out the Sun: Review of STC’s Children of the Sun

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While the Sydney Theatre Company’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun (1905) isn’t an awful production, Andrew Upton has tried very hard to make it awful.

Gorky set his play in the country home of a Russia family born into privilege. Professor Protasov works tireless in his laboratory, attempting to unlock the secrets of life. But his devotion has caused him to neglect the people around him. He barely notices his wife, who is possibly finding emotional solace in the resident artist, neither is he sensitive to his fragile sister’s despair, nor the almost obsessive devotion his best friend’s sister has for him. Prostasov claims that when set against the vastness of creation, petty human concerns pales in comparison. It is only by appreciating ‘the whole’ that humanity can hope to advance. Ironically, in doing so he has separated himself from that humanity, and as the play progresses we see that this impacts not only the people who love him but it highlights the burgeoning gulf that exists between the upper and lower social classes. Unrest is growing in the lower classes, but it is the ignorance that each has for the other that breeds it.

This is a play largely about ideas, and even in the original text there is little plot upon which these concepts hang. As a result, maintaining an audience’s engagement is always going to be a challenge when mounting this play. Although there are moments when this production grabs our attention there are long stretches that are just plain dull.

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Following on from The Maids last year, Mr Upton has had a crack at adapting (updating) this piece and all his old tricks are there: colloquial language and ready swearing, drawing our attention once again to the fact that he is at best a mediocre talent. While the language has been updated he has opted to maintain the Russian setting and turn of the century aesthetic, no doubt because he thought it looked pretty. In his director’s note Kip Williams states that this has created a tension in the piece. He may go onto to say that it is fruitful (what else can he say?), but this tension makes the whole production ring false. None of the characters speak, act or conduct themselves in a manner that is consistent with the world they inhabit. And the less said about the crude, clunky and embarrassing innuendos Upton has put in the characters’ mouths the better. There is nothing wrong with adapting a text, but if you’re going to make nineteenth-century Russian characters speak and behave like contemporary Americans is there any point leaving them in their original setting? In a way it’s insulting, as it suggests that the theatre-going public is unable to appreciate the anguish, reverence, love or joys of a character unless they are expressed in our colloquialisms.

Children of the Sun features an all-star cast, though it would be wrong to say that they were an ensemble. Whilst a great deal of talent features here, the production felt fragmented into a dozen tiny plays, each with a different actor starring as the lead. The cast lacked harmony, which made it difficult to endure through the dialogue-heavy, light-on-plot story.

The female cast tended to outshine their male counter-parts with Jaqueline McKenzie putting in a beautifully measured performance as the ailing Liza. Justine Clarke was credible as Yelena the neglected wife of Protasov whilst Helen Thomson was unfailingly charismatic as Melaniya, a Protasov devotee, though her portrayal bordered on caricature. This was arguably the case for Chris Ryan as Boris (would-be lover of Liza), Hamish Michael as Vageen (a Russian Hemmingway and admirer of Yelena) and Toby Truslove as Protasov (the oblivious chemist), though Truslove had moments of clarity and pause, in particular his monologue towards the close of the first act. Julie Ohannessian and Yure Covich played husband and wife, Avdotya and Yegor, peasants and servants to the illustrious family. Both Ohannessian and Covich brought a sense of hardship that revealed the Russian landscape of which Gorky wrote. Amongst the rest of the cast, however, much of the emotion attached to the Russian character was traded in for an American sense of joviality.

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Once again, Kip Williams (with set designer David Fleischer) has utilised the revolving stage, and a beautifully crafted set, filled with secret nooks and crannies for all to hide in. It is not overdone, and largely the set is used to enhance the storytelling. Of note was the final scene in which rioters storm the house, wonderfully illustrated by a burning fire behind the scenery, creating a sobering image to finish on.

This is a sloppy production in a lot of regards. The set may be gorgeous, but the adapted script is mediocre and the choice to maintain the original aesthetic seems arbitrary. While there are some wonderful individual performances, the cast doesn’t mesh. Kip Williams is a talented director, but you wouldn’t think it from this production. None of his usual flare is on display; no doubt he’s been channeling his energies into Macbeth. Gorky’s story and his ideas are still potent, and there are moments when they become apparent long enough to capture our attention, but these brief glimpses are punctuated by extended periods of boredom and the continual sense that the characters simply don’t belong in this world.

Children of the Sun is playing at the Sydney Opera House until the 25th of October. For more information see:
https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2014/children-of-the-sun

 

Weaving Magic: Review of STC’s Macbeth

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Shakespeare’s Macbeth has held a long fascination since it was first written in the early 17th century. Witches, murder, madness, manipulation, and at its heart a deeply political message, which, much like Julius Caesar, will never lose its relevance. With all Shakespeare’s work, though, there are profound ruminations going on beneath the story: is Macbeth the victim of fate or the architect of his own downfall? Questions of freewill and determinism are raised, and like any artists worth his salt Shakespeare provides no answers.

But what of this production? Well, we’ve long been calling for the STC to take greater risks with their staging, and it seems that in director Kip Williams they’ve finally found the man for the job. Anyone who saw his rendition of Romeo and Juliet last year will remember the breathtaking spectacle that he was able to achieve; but whereas Romeo and Juliet was done on the epic scale, Macbeth is on the intimate. But therein lays the genius of this production. Because it is on the intimate level: the usual 900 seat capacity of the Sydney Theatre is here only a third of its usual size and the main stage has been reduced down to a narrow platform, putting the audience right up near the action. But behind it rises a vast and empty auditorium, creating a cavernous space as a backdrop. Just like the ‘poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage’ we are reminded that each of our lives are played out in a confined sphere, while behind us looms a much larger world and society that encompasses us; and when someone is in the public eye, like a politician or a king, it passes judgment as well. Williams’ inverted stage invokes these feelings.

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But this is not the only treat Williams has in store. Although the play has a slow start, with the actors largely confined around a table on their narrow stage, it is midway through Act Two that the production kicks into gear. It begins with tormented knocking, as the cast starts thumping on the table, gradually raising the tone until it’s a thunderous noise that catches you in the chest. This is followed by an eerie, all-consuming fog that creeps up and completely shrouds both the stage and audience. Shafts of light cut through it, until it eventually comes to evoke a foggy Scottish moor. Williams’ ability to create powerful imagery is impressive: whether it’s something simple like the lone Macbeth standing on the stage’s edge, looking up at the empty auditorium, the staging of the witches’ second encounter, or a rain of sparkling plastic that falls from the rafters; it’s one visual treat after another. The only scene that doesn’t land is the final battle that is played out under a strobe light. Whether it’s because the sequence runs too long, or the frequency of the strobe is mistimed, the scene fails to affect in the same way that the rest of the play does. This is only a minor detraction from what is otherwise a brilliantly designed and innovative piece of theatre.

Hugo Weaving plays the title role. Weaving’s Macbeth is simply brilliant – he is human, volatile, and vulnerable. Weaving produces beautiful moments of tragedy; as he settles on Banquo’s ghost for the first time a collective shiver runs down the audience’s spine. When he hears of the Queen’s untimely demise, Weaving does nothing, and in doing so, we see everything.  It is a pleasure to watch an actor of such calibre flawlessly execute one of the meatier roles in Shakespeare.

Unfortunately, Melita Jurisic misinterprets Lady Macbeth. Jurisic denies any sexuality embedded in the role; there is no chemistry to speak of. This wild-haired Lady Macbeth swaps out strength and resolve for undifferentiated frenzy and lamentation. Jurisic sometimes makes sense of the language, though she is inconsistent, and the final ‘madness’ is largely incomprehensible and appears to be unsupported by the character’s journey (or lack thereof).

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Both leads are supported by a solid ensemble. Made up of Kate Box, Ivan Donato, Paula Arundell, Eden Falk, John Gaden and Robert Menzies, the cast weave their magic and prop up the many characters found within the Scottish play. However, there needed to be greater lyricism and clarity in their Shakespeare. The exception to this is Gaden, a veteran, who speaks this text with natural cadence. Menzies and Arundell also produced clearer speech, though, most of the cast fell back to speed, cantering through the language. Shakespeare should never be rattled off. Its greatest communication comes from an actor’s understanding. Weaving’s scene with the would-be Banquo assassin, is a fine example of crystalised meaning.

It is a credit to Kip Williams that his gender-blind casting is well thought out whilst never played up. Why shouldn’t a woman play Banquo? Or a man one of the Wicked Sisters? It works well without imposing upon the world created.

This is that very rare thing: an exciting and well thought out and executed piece of theatre. For those of you with tickets that are yet to see it you should not be disappointed.

Macbeth has currently sold out, but for more information see:
https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2014/macbeth

 

Bang On: Review of STC’s Noises Off

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It is a rare pleasure to see faultless theatre, and director Jonathan Biggins’ Noises Off (1982), now playing with the Sydney Theatre Company, is one such production.

Since it was first staged, Michael Frayn’s Noises Off has been branded an exemplar of theatrical farce, and it’s easy to see why. The piece revolves around a third-rate touring company’s attempt to stage Nothing On, a bedroom comedy. The action is broken into three acts, each focused on the first act of Nothing On as it is staged at various points throughout its run. Act one is the final midnight rehearsal before opening night and they are all drastically underprepared, plagued by missed cues, dropped lines and a plate of sardines that doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going. Act two picks up a month into the tour, only this time we witness the mayhem from behind the stage. Slapstick abounds as relationships deteriorate. All rush around attempting to keep the show together whilst also determined to sabotage each other’s performances. In Act three we learn that somehow they made it to closing night, and once again we witness the combustion (again from the audience’s perspective) as every conceivable thing goes wrong.

One can only marvel at the standard set by this ensemble. The performers are required to play the same act three times, only each time it has to go wrong in a slightly different way. The rehearsal process must have been a nightmare, especially when choreographing the second act. That the finished product looks so polished is a credit to Biggins’ directorial hand. The comedy is timed perfectly, the costumes are beautiful (garish 70s garb) and Mark Thompson’s set is a treat, both front and back.

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The cast were all in fine shape. From the outset, this truly was an ensemble production with absolutely no weak links to speak of. Particularly impressive was Josh McConville as Garry, a stuttering actor of jealous proportions. McConville’s athleticism was unrivalled; he’s the reason why acting looks fun again.

Genevieve Lemon (from Simon Stone’s Death of a Salesman) plays Garry’s sour love interest Dotty, a ‘late’ middle-aged actress. She is often forgetful though perfectly well-meaning until she is rubbed the wrong way. Lemon bounces around the stage, whilst being deliciously vicious behind, making for a riotously engaging performance.

Tracy Mann plays Belinda, the cheerful gossip, possessing a wonderful “glass half full” demeanour. Mann’s reliability enables the other players to hang by their fingertips, without risking unbridled chaos. Mann’s partner in crime, Alan Dukes is perfectly dim-witted as the high maintenance though rather pompous Freddie. His confidence is diminished every time he has a nose bleed (a nervous reaction to violence), making for a hilariously ‘battered’ outcome.

Josh McConville as Garry and Genevieve Lemon as Dotty

Josh McConville as Garry and Genevieve Lemon as Dotty

Ash Ricardo puts the ‘body’ in embody when it comes to Brooke, the young, blonde and unsophisticated actress hailing from London. Clueless to a tee, Brooke frequently loses her contact lenses, spending half her time on the floor looking for them. Ricardo has pitched the ‘bimbo’ factor perfectly – you know what they say, you gotta be smart to play dumb. Marcus Graham is marvellous as the fizzled director Lloyd Dallas, offering droll direction with a ‘Steve Coogan’ dry wit. Graham also nails Lloyd’s thinly veiled sleaze as he fawns over Brooke.

Ron Haddrick is delightfully senile as Selsdon the rickety drunk. At 85 years old, Haddrick holds his own amongst his co-stars. From behind the wings, Lindsay Farris is lovely as Tim the over-worked Stage Manager – think Alan Davies in the 70s. He sports the mullet with pride and is largely a deer in headlights when calamity ensues. Danielle King plays the over-sensitive Poppy, a young assistant to Lloyd, with whom she is hopelessly in love. King never overdoes ‘schoolgirl’ whilst managing to convince us that if she were around today, she would fit in easily with Justin’s ‘beliebers’.

Marcus Graham as director Lloyd and Alan Dukes as Freddie

Marcus Graham as director Lloyd and Alan Dukes as Freddie

Nothing can be faulted in this production. If you’ve got a night off and there are free tickets available this is a show you don’t want to miss. You never would have thought that battling sardines and slamming doors could lead to so many laughs.

Noises Off is playing out of the Opera House Drama Studio with the Sydney Theatre Company until the 5th of April. For more information see:

http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2014/noises-off.aspx

Bound For Success: Review of STC’s Travelling North

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Travelling North (1979) may be touted as an oddity in David Williamson’s oeuvre for its lack of satirical edge; however, those familiar with his work will still recognize the same style when it comes to scene construction, establishing characters and revealing their inner-lives. At times Williamson isn’t always the most subtle writer, and as a result he probably has as many admirers as detractors. Having said that there is nothing overrated about the Sydney Theatre Company’s latest production of Travelling North, currently being staged at the Wharf Theatre.

The play, set between 1969 and 1972, tells the simple story of Frank and Frances, a couple who have found each other late in life, fallen in love and now seek to enjoy the freedom that comes with retirement by travelling north. Frances’ daughters, Helen and Sophie are less than impressed with their mother’s plans and see Frank as an aging user who just wants a carer to look after him in his declining years. In the play’s beginning Frank appears the very picture of vitality, however, as the story progresses he develops angina. From there, the plot tracks his deteriorating health. At any rate, Frank is just as frustrated by the two daughters. He sees Helen and Sophie as wanting to use Frances as their emotional crutch when the two go through marital and child-rearing issues. Between the two positions, focus lies not only on Frances’ struggle to be with, and help the people she loves, but also on the idea of commitment; particularly when commitment means sacrifice.

Perhaps ironically, just as the north represents freedom, Frances is unable to reach either – the couple land just short of the Queensland boarder at Tweed Heads and never progress any further due to Frank’s failing health. Freedom in the north cannot be reached, and we come to see that Frances is completely smothered by her commitments to both Frank and her daughters. These burdens cause her great strain, but she continues to bear them in spite of it all: such is the strength of her love. Yet commitment rears its head in other ways throughout the play, whether it is a question of commitment to marriage, one’s political beliefs, occupation or children. Many of the characters abandon one commitment or another throughout the course of the play, and they, and the people around them, suffer the consequences. Frances though, stays strong until the end. We come to admire her for her strength and she is rewarded for it, in more ways than one.

Bryan Brown as Frank and Alison Whyte as Frances

Bryan Brown as Frank and Alison Whyte as Frances

Frank is an active senior citizen, though this is largely out of defiance. He is sensitive about his age, and is determined to defy the books. Bryan Brown was simply marvellous. He exuded an easy charisma as this cranky ex-communist, being both confident and lively whilst possessing the curmudgeon sass of a retired goat. When Frank’s condition continues to deteriorate, Brown played the arc for its comedy but also for its humanity. The increasing cantankerousness is littered with moments of enlightenment, which only an experienced actor such as Brown could pull off without being obvious.

As Helen, Frances’ Melbourne based daughter, Harriet Dyer fell head first into a sea of coarseness, and she was wonderful for it. With her big blonde hair, fetching platforms and abrasive edge, Dyer is an actress of versatility. She demanded of her audience a pace of her own choosing, so that when Helen’s inner turmoil surfaced, it was easy to see how being ‘uncouth’ is actually a defence mechanism.

Alison Whyte as Frances was an absolute trooper, having only been rehearsing the role for five days when the show was viewed. Whilst she was still script in hand for the majority of Act Two, Whyte did a deft job as this most compassionate lover and mother. It is written with confidence that Whyte will seriously impress as the run continues.

Andrew Tighe as Freddie, the obnoxious neighbour with a heart of gold, was a hoot from start to finish. The man wore his shorts well. More importantly however, Tighe captured the stereotype of the well-meaning but slightly misplaced Australian mateship envisaged by Williamson without making the character laughable in the wrong way.

Andrew Upton has offered a sound rendition of this piece. The choice to have Frances on stage throughout the entirety of the play, as a silent observer when not part of the scene, is a nice choice and undoubtedly representative of how attached she is to these people. The set is elegant in its simplicity, and one feels that with a play such as this, with scenes transitioning quickly between space and time, that David Fleischer’s multi-level timber deck design is exactly what is needed to fit the bill.

This is yet another solid production from the Sydney Theatre Company. It is an absolute treat to watch Bryan Brown on stage, and once Alison has her lines down it will be an amazing show. Give her another week. Travelling North is playing at the Wharf theatre until the 22nd of March. For more information see:

http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/productions/2014/travelling-north.aspx