Saturday, 15 December 2018

My Favourite Theatre of 2018

Blasted
It’s that time of year again, when I look back over everything I saw on stage and put together a list of my favourite shows. I saw over 100 shows this year, mostly in Melbourne and a small number on one visit to Sydney.

I will link to reviews if I wrote one.

TOP TEN (alphabetical order)

The Almighty Sometimes – Griffin Theatre, Sydney

Kendall Feaver’s extraordinary debut play is about Anna, dealing with mood disorders and medication and the complicated relationship she has with the treatments and her mother. Superb cast and beautifully directed by Lee Lewis

Blackie Blackie Brown – Malthouse Theatre

Nakkiah Lui’s work is always amazing but this production, directed by Declan Green, was another step up for her – the satire sharper and bleaker and more hilarious than ever before.


Sarah Kane’s debut play from 1990s London is a tricky beast tackling difficult subjects but Anne-Louise Sarks nailed it with a superb production.


I had heard amazing things about this Griffin Theatre production over the last few years and was so glad it finally made it to Melbourne. An exquisite piece of theatre.

Calamity Jane – Arts Centre Melbourne

Another production from Sydney I’d heard amazing things about, only to miss it on its Melbourne debut earlier this year. Glad I finally got to see it from on-stage seating. Last show of the year, in my top ten. As I described it on Twitter – “Like the Doris Day movie, but gayer.”

Calamity Jane

An exceptional piece of queer theatre at Red Stitch; challenging and hilarious. Daniel Clarke’s production was superb.

Prize Fighter - Northcote Town Hall, Melbourne Festival

Yet another show that has travelled the country and I am glad to have finally seen. A tale of immigration that was about physical and emotional toughness. Unforgettable.


A musical comedy about romance, sexuality, narrative convenience and the “dead lesbian trope”. I hope this has a long life. I’d love to see it again.


Daniel Lammin’s treatment of Tommy Murphy’s play was subtle, nuanced and deeply moving. Superb.


An important story of people from the Torres Strait, a joyous celebration of family. Beautiful.


THE NEXT TEN (alphabetical order)


Little Ones took to the MTC stage and turned it upside. Incredible design, stunning cast, excellent production.

Abigail's Party
The Harp in the South, Parts 1 and 2 – Sydney Theatre Company

An epic Sydney story given the epic Kip Williams/STC treatment. A day to remember. The classic novel is set to be a classic stage play.

The House of Bernarda Alba – Melbourne Theatre Company

Patricia Cornelius did a wonderful job adapting Lorca’s classic play. Beautifully realised by director Letitia Caceres with an unforgettable cast of women.


post performed themselves and years of recorded conversations were elevated into something profound.


Trying to adapt this film to stage seemed like an impossible task but leave it to Matt Lutton and Declan Greene to pull it off with a performance for the ages by Eryn Jean Norville.

Melancholia
The Mission – Arts House, Melbourne Fringe

Tom Molyneux’s ode to his uncle and his ancestry was insightful and vital and very touching.

The Nightingale and the Rose - Little Ones, Theatre Works

Little Ones simple, effective adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s short story.

Prehistoric – Elbow Room, Meat Market

Elbow Room’s rocking work on Brisbane’s punk scene and the oppressive Bjelke-Peterson government.

Sneakyville – 45 Downstairs

Christopher Bryant and Daniel Lammin’s complex take on Charles Manson, his followers and the public’s decade-long obsession with the cult leader. Seared into my mind.



In the midst of despair, Rawcus’ moving work found hope in darkness.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

John Barrowman - Arts Centre Melbourne
Wild – Melbourne Theatre Company
Cock – Meat Market, directed by Beng Oh
An Ideal Husband – Melbourne Theatre Company
The Children – Melbourne Theatre Company
Elbow Room: There/Here – Lithuanian Club, Melbourne Fringe



PAST YEARS

Monday, 10 December 2018

"In love with night..." and twilight: Melbourne Shakespeare Company's ROMEO & JULIET

"All the world will be in love with night..."
Melbourne Shakespeare Company's Romeo & Juliet
Burke Photography
Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair St Kilda, where we lay our scene… 

In amongst the rose bushes of the St Kilda Botanical Gardens, two families are at each other’s throats and two lovers are falling for each other. The audience is separated into two halves, like the congregation at a wedding – one side the Montagues, one side the Capulets.

We are welcomed by a pair of Friars, Laurence and Mary, and a small band of musical players – a trumpeter, a pianist and a third on banjo. A rotunda sits in the middle of the garden and is the main focus of the performance space for Melbourne Shakespeare Company’s Romeo & Juliet.

Outdoors in Melbourne can bring all sorts of drama, especially in the transition between seasons. Yes, it’s summer now, but the city can threaten storms even after blisteringly hot days. Sunday was mostly overcast and threatened to rain – and that was the backdrop when we sat down for this production on Sunday evening. The sun was two hours from setting, but the dramatic black clouds in the distance suggested storms on the horizon for these star-crossed lovers.

This production isn’t the original text; it’s Shakespeare by way of Baz Luhrman - though not his own Romeo + Juliet. This felt more like Moulin Rouge, modern songs used to elevate the mood, heighten the tension and amuse when deployed in an oddball context. The Montagues and the Capulets engage in Shakespeare’s classic taunts – they do bite their thumb at you, sir, but their song and dance battles reminiscent of West Side Story, also inspired by Shakespeare’s tragic lovers.

The comedy gets the audience on side early on; we’re amused by anachronistic music and local references. But we’re also treated to a female Tybalt (Emily Thompson) and a female Benvolio (Carly Ellis, who steals the show each time she’s on stage, especially post-party, when she’s recovering from a hangover). Another treat is Tref Gare’s doubling as the police Inspector and his show-stopping turn as the Nurse with a comically Scottish brogue.

This show hits all the romantic plot beats, but it chooses to slice out the political familial machinations. Montague and Capulet are tyrannical parents for their children to rebel against and that’s enough here. They are figures of fear, if not fully realised characters. But that’s fine; this production is light and accessible and full of inventiveness for most of its length.

Adapting Shakespeare, particularly cutting it down, is a tricky business. Turning much of Romeo & Juliet into a raunchy comedy, with matching slapstick, makes the dramatic turn a little harder to buy. Some of the local references took away from the dramatic moments; St Kilda feels like a suitable stand in for Verona, but as Mantua, Pakenham is too much of a distracting laugh line.

And yet, even if the cleverness of the production faded into the background, as the dramatic pieces started to fall into place, the power of the tragedy remains palpable. The audience got quieter. The ensemble pulled back from earlier antics. And Matthew Connell and Joanna Halliday, both striking in the central roles, take centre stage to fulfil the promise of the play’s opening stanza.

Melbourne Shakespeare has created a thrilling, memorable Romeo & Juliet; and the outdoor setting is an amazing backdrop. The sun set slowly last night, casting a pink light into the St Kilda sky. Nature is one hell of a lighting designer.


The cast of Melbourne Shakespeare Company's Romeo & Juliet
Burke Photography

Thursday, 22 November 2018

REVIEW: Lamb by Jane Bodie, Music & Lyrics by Mark Seymour - Red Stitch

Brigid Gallacher, Simon Maiden, Emily Goddard in Jane Bodie's Lamb


“You left a trail of broken bread
Across the old battle ground
Behind the veil of the living and the dead
You wrote your secrets down.”

There’s a song at the heart of Jane Bodie’s new play, Lamb. It’s the song of family history. A song full of heart. Of regret.

At times the music is a celebration of life. At times, it’s a meditation on loss. Mostly, it’s both. As great country songs can be or must be.

Farmland. Rural Australia. The wooden floorboards and the dust and the fridge full of beers.

Annie (Brigid Gallacher) has returned to her home town after the death of her mother. Sudden for her, but a drawn-out process for her brother Patrick (Simon Maiden) and their sister Kathleen (Emily Goddard).

Patrick sings a song in remembrance of his late mother, even though Annie is the singer of the family – she went to the big city to pursue her dreams. The reunion of the siblings is delicate, fraught.

Annie refuses to feel guilty for following her passion, but Patrick resents her for leaving him to look after their mother, whose last years were marred by dementia. Kathleen is also sick, mentally impaired somehow, a child in a woman’s body. It’s tough on a farm in any case. For Patrick, it’s been a living nightmare; maybe singing his father’s songs has got him through it.

Lamb is advertised as A New Play with Songs. It’s not a musical, let’s be clear. The songs are songs the characters have written; songs they sing as songs. With music and lyrics by Aussie rock legend Mark Seymour, combined with the moving work of playwright Jane Bodie, this is a stellar example of the “play with songs” genre.

The play starts with the funeral and inches back in time, in memory and then lurches back into another generation at the start of Act Two. Brigid and Patrick do double duty as parents Mary and Frank, whose early relationship is troubled by the fact that Mary really wants to leave town to go protest in the big smoke.

Although the first half of this play is captivating, it feels mannered in a way the second half does not. Director Julian Meyrick helps the actors find the hidden depths to their characters in Act Two and the layers of regret built into the family’s foundations are exposed. The children don’t really understand what their parents went through before they were born; and the siblings are at a loss to reconcile what they do know after Mary’s funeral.

Emily Goddard is captivating, as always, even if the conception of Kathleen feels a little bit like a cliché – the mentally-ill sister who is really wiser than her impairment suggests. Brigid Gallacher’s Annie is the archetypical prodigal daughter, but once we get to mother Mary, we see echoes of each in both; a subtle and striking performance. Simon Maiden gives us a laconic Frank and a taciturn Patrick, showing most passion through the song a father wrote and passed on to his son.

Lamb is an intimate tale that’s spread across years. It’s a story of a family history that is imperfectly passed along, and a song that is sung and remembered and a shared passion that binds them all together even as they slowly drift apart.

Lamb is on at Red Stitch until December 16th. A strong final show for 2018, just before their 2019 season is launched next week.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

REVIEW: School of Rock by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Glenn Slater & Julian Fellowes

Brent Hill as Dewey Finn with child cast in School of Rock

Based on the 2003 film starring Jack Black and Joan Cusack, School of Rock the musical follows the same basic premise – after being kicked out of his current band, Dewey Finn takes on the name of his teacher friend, Ned Schneebly, and gets a job at a private school. There, instead of educating the students in English, Math or History, he forms a band with the children so he can compete in the Battle of the Bands against his old band mates.

Dewey (Brent Hill) is a bit of a loser, but he’s a free spirit, who loves rock and roll so much that he wants to teach his students to find their voices, embrace their talent and as all edgy rock musicians must do in rebellion – he teaches them to “Stick It to the Man”. The villain of the piece is The Establishment, the private school they attend – Horace Green Prep. The principal, Rosalie Mullins (Amy Lehpamer), is a stickler for the rules and is uptight, both of which Dewey abhors, of course.

It’s a gender reversal on The Sound of Music; instead of a headstrong nun teaching the children of the uptight Captain Von Trapp to sing, rebel Dewey teaches the children of Roz’s private school to rock the status quo.

Unfortunately, School of Rock doesn’t have many memorable songs. “Stick it to the Man” is catchy enough, working as the Act I finale and reprised at the end. Roz’s solo “Where Did the Rock Go?” gives Lehpamer a chance to shine, when most of the musical wastes her in the role of principal. The actual musical highlight comes when a shy child finds her voice and sings “Amazing Grace” in Act II.

Brent Hill is charismatic and full of life as Dewey, but he’s channelling Jack Black, as I guess one must in this role. It’s so strange to see this approximation of a film role that so suited Black, but the creation is fun enough that I enjoyed Hill’s cover of the original.

Expanding a 100-minute film into a two-and-a-half-hour musical has led to fleshing out the child characters, in a small way. We get a sense that all their home lives are tricky; none of them can live up to their fathers’ expectations. (In a montage of their struggles out of school, we don’t see any of their mothers. A strange choice and more on that later.) But with so many child characters, there’s still not enough time to really make them into interesting people.

That said, the classroom scenes are full of life and fun; the young performers work well together and there’s nothing too precocious or saccharine about this lot. In contrast, the adults-only scenes – such as those in the Teachers’ Lounge – are leaden and dull. All of them are caricatures and most of the jokes in those scenes land with a thud.

School of Rock is a slick Broadway musical that is too long and lacks any real dramatic stakes; Dewey’s duplicity is hardly ever challenged and once the truth is exposed, the show still barrels toward a happy ending, the problems finally swept away without consequence.

You could take a kid to the show and they would enjoy watching kids rebelling in the classroom and forming a band and the ridiculous antics of Dewey Finn, but I really wish you wouldn’t. For one major reason…

School of Rock treats women very badly.

The two major adult female roles in School of Rock are the principal and the ex-girlfriend of Dewey’s friend, Ned. While Roz the principal is concerned about her students for good reason, she is still described as “ice cold” – a not-terribly-clever disguise for what Dewey is really saying, “frigid”. And she goes through the predictable story arc of learning to let her hair down and get her rock on.

Ex-girlfriend Patty is a shrewish nag, who doesn’t want Ned to be in a band anymore, for no other reason than she thinks it’s not adult. This means both Ned and Dewey must battle women to find their rock ‘n roll; and Ned’s triumphant moment over Patty is him screaming at her to “shut up”. It’s an ugly moment.

The show itself does throw in two lines of feminist commentary (two whole lines), perhaps as a way to balance out the sexism inherent in the rest of the script. But I’m not sure if I give book author Julian Fellowes that much credit here.

The show goes to great lengths to point out that The Man (who Dewey and the kids are sticking it to) can also be a woman – “but the woman would only get paid 70 cents on the dollar”, the girls of Horace Green shout. It stops the show, as does a later comment about gender representation in media discourse, but neither time feels genuine to the school girls’ characters.

The missing mothers from the student’s home life montage added to my sense that the show was so focused on venerating man-child Dewey and his battle against nagging women that women’s voices were being silenced or ignored. Comments on Mama Cass’ weight and a spit-take by Dewey into a female teacher’s face were just gross.

The low-point was a “stolen” non-consensual kiss by Dewey with Roz after which she jokes about giving “permission” – she’s really talking about consent to a field trip, not the kiss.

School of Rock seems like a feel-good show for kids and families, but this underlying suspicion of women not letting boys be boys was troubling.


Amy Lehpamer as Principal Rosalind Mullins in School of Rock

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Re-Member Me by Dickie Beau

Re-Member Me as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival

“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue…”

Creator and performer Dickie Beau isn’t here to speak the speech of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he’s here to lip-synch some of the great performances of Hamlet that have ever been recorded.

In the midst of his research, though, he became obsessed with Hamlets who have not been recorded, lost to the ephemeral nature of theatre – disappeared like the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

“Remember Me,” Hamlet’s father tells him before disappearing into the ether. It is the inciting incident of the play, leading the young prince to determine the truth behind his father’s death.

Dickie Beau’s Re-Member Me is about actors and acting and the performance of Hamlet, not about the play or the character itself. It is important to this show that this Shakespearean tragedy is one of the most produced play texts in the English language, because of the number of people who have played him and the various ways he’s been played.

The show revisits performances by Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ian McKellan and other British actors who have not yet been knighted. Beau performs as Stephen Ashby, a former dresser at the National Theatre, who was working the night Daniel Day Lewis left the stage after Act 1, Scene 5, believing he had seen the ghost of his own father while performing.

Day Lewis was so shaken by the vision, he did not go back on that night, and Ashby had to take what was essential from Day Lewis’ costume so he could dress understudy Jeremy Northam, for Northam to finish the play. Later, in the same production, actor Ian Charleson took over the role – and that’s where much of Beau’s show is focused.

Where Day Lewis’ performance was recorded, Charleson’s was not. Where Day Lewis got rave reviews, Charleson’s performance as the replacement in the role may never have been reviewed, if not for friends convincing the Sunday Times’ chief critic, John Peter, to write about it. If theatre shows disappear, one of the few ways they can live on is in reviews.

Many of the actors that Beau lip-synchs as part of this show are gay men, talking about Charleson, another gay man, whose performance as Hamlet would be his last before succumbing to an AIDS-related illness weeks later. The discussion of the acting fraternity evolves into a discussion of the LGBT community, and these men’s struggles even amid successful stage and screen careers.

I’ve talked a lot about what this show is saying and what it is trying to accomplish, because I admire the thought that went into this performance of performance, this deconstruction of the pieces of acting – and putting someone’s own words into another man’s mouth. I found it baffling, though. It was a strange kind of documentary, without really allowing me to connect with any of the speakers, beyond recognising Beau is able to capture McKellan’s mannerisms, without having to mimic his voice.

Blending in songs from the Village People and Barbra Streisand upped the queer content and lay the groundwork for the real focus of the piece, without feeling like a particularly interesting commentary on the work Hamlet or the work of these various Hamlets. The show is intellectually heady and the disco beats brought in another kind of familiarity, but I still felt emotionally distanced through much of the performance.

By the end, Beau has reconstructed – re-membered – a handful of mannequins which littered the stage early in the show. They stand as a fascinating tableau, in costumes that allude to Hamlet, but stuck in a hospital ward. It evokes both the Dane’s death scene (“the rest is silence”) and the AIDS epidemic (“Silence = Death”) that claimed a generation of gay men, and devastated theatre communities in London and New York. It’s a striking image.

The great Hamlets come and go. Ian Charleson is gone. Re-Member Me tries to resurrect both, but only does so superficially – stealing the voices of the men who knew them in a way that made me think hard and wish there’d been some other way to know this story.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Song for a Weary Throat by Rawcus


Song for a Weary Throat
as part of Melbourne International Arts Festival

“Dance with me,” she asked.

“Dance with me,” she insisted.

“Why won't you dance with me?”

She crossed the desolate space, walking from one ensemble member to the next, asking for a small moment of joy amongst the rubble and the carnage.

Some kind of cataclysm has occurred. The survivors are scattered around the stage. Whatever has happened, whatever trauma has taken place, it keeps happening. The deafening noise and the sharp explosions of bright light upends whatever moment of comfort we can glean when our eyes adjust.

And it happens again.

And again.

And…

How do you get up when the world keeps shifting below your feet? How do you find your voice and song again after it’s been drowned out by the din of destruction?

Rawcus’ new work, Song for a Weary Throat, debuted at Theatre Works in 2017 and has been programmed now as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. The work has been devised amongst a creative team and an ensemble of performers, under the direction of Kate Sulan.

The company creates theatre that draws on dance and visual arts and for this show has collaborated with the Invenio Singers, who lend their exquisite singing voices to this very moving experience.

Jethro Woodward’s sound design and musical direction create a particularly memorable soundscape – unnerving and upsetting at times, loud noises keeping the audience on edge. Emily Barrie’s set design suggests a possible post-Apocalyptic bunker, detritus scattered across the stage, chairs and ramps and ladders slowly being woven into the fabric of the performances and dance.

The Rawcus ensemble includes performers both with and without disability and all are fully committed to realising Sulan’s vision – an impression and a representation of people finding the strength to stand up and speak up in a world that insists on making that harder every day.

There were joyous moments when most of the ensemble took a running jump off the edge of a ramp. And equally upsetting moments when one half of the ensemble watched the others struggling to crawl up a steep incline, unwilling to help them.

In the midst of despair, Song for a Weary Throat finds hope – something we’re in desperate need of in 2018.

Witness Performance: Suddenly Last Summer

Kate Cole in Suddenly Last Summer
Photo: Jodie Hutchinson
My review of Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams at Red Stitch is up at Witness Performance. Here's a taste:

The production is an odd mix of the hallmark qualities of these two companies: Red Stitch’s commitment to text-based theatre, and Little Ones’ reputation for stylised camp. Eugyeene Teh’s design – walls draped with long leaves, plants hanging from the rafters – plunges us into the mystery of the garden district of New Orleans. Even in the confined space of Red Stitch, the set bows to the Little Ones’ proscenium-arch aesthetic, with a widescreen look that evokes a feature film and somehow makes the space look bigger. Katie Sfetkidis’ lighting is elegant and moody, with layers of smoke and haze emphasising the oppressiveness of this family meeting.