Sunday, 23 September 2018

Melbourne Fringe: Sleepover Gurlz by Emma Smith & Vidya Rajan

Emma Smith & Vidya Rajan in Sleepover Gurlz

Theatre can happen anywhere. It can happen in big rooms, small rooms, warehouses, carparks and shipping containers. I saw a show on the streets of North Melbourne once. And one in the back of a car.

Sleepover Gurlz isn’t the first play I’ve seen performed in a bedroom, but this one uses its space and its premise to great effect; the intimacy is vital and this show is as much about the bedroom space as it is about the women sharing it.

Before the show, the audience is ushered upstairs to a living area to colour and paste and find their inner child. It’s an irresistible moment of pleasure that you almost regret being dragged into the bedroom for the party itself.

Creators and performers Emma Smith and Vidya Rajan are six-year-old girls, welcoming the audience to their sleepover party. We are the other girls at the party, sharing snacks and interacting with the friends who have invited us over. It’s charming and funny and silly. There’s a game of “Chinese whispers” and the uninhibited thrill of girls just wanting to have fun.

But little girls grow up and the seeds of their friendships and relationships are sewn at those earliest encounters. They keep having sleepover parties but there’s hierarchies built at six that might never change. It’s harder and harder for these girls to just have fun, especially when they hit puberty and they are worrying about looking the best and smelling the greatest.

And later, when these women’s sex lives begin, a sleepover becomes much more fraught – if he even stays at all.

For a show in a bedroom, with twelve audience members on chairs around the walls and the entire performance taking place on the bed, there was some impressive design choices made with lighting and sound (by Xanthea O’Connor) and video projection. These theatremakers didn’t slide by on a strange venue, they’ve developed a fascinating, complex theatrical work.

Sleepover Gurlz is funny on the surface but much more complicated underneath. This is a show about oppression and anxiety and women finding a way to function in a world that is not designed for them. It’s about retreat and safe spaces and joy and excitement.

In a world where the news and social media is a fuel for anxiety, this is a show about feeling tired and being tired.

And it’s incredible.


Thursday, 20 September 2018

Melbourne Fringe: Untitled No. 7 by Telia Nevile – Arts House




As a child, Little Darling is cursed with potential. She must walk through dark woods fighting evil pixies named Doubt and Fear, trying hard to find the golden key of success.

But what does success look like? Little Darling is sure that if she just completes her list of tasks, success will be hers for the taking.

Poet and performer Telia Nevile has crafted a confessional piece of theatre that takes classic fairytale tropes and runs with them along the yellow brick road, through the forest of years and finds herself… where?

If the monomyth is flawed and narrative is fucked, Telia is conscious that even inspirational quotes – from Mark Twain, Arthur Ashe and Dax Shepard – aren’t going to put her on the right path. And she’s not where she thought she’d be at forty-one years old.

Untitled No. 7 is storytelling, singing and interpretive dance. It’s heartfelt and heartbreaking. There are moments of pure joy in the show; a combination of silly songs and a limber physicality, even if Telia’s self-deprecating about that. But as doubt creeps in, she’s equally vulnerable, on the edge of tears. And not even the tale of Bruce Samazan can leave us with the catharsis we desire.

Without a neat bow on top, the present that Untitled No. 7 gives the audience is that we can be happy, even if we’re not on the path to where we thought we would be.


Untitled No 7 finishes on Saturday.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Melbourne Fringe: Alone Outside by Liz Newell – Lab Kelpie

Sharon Davis as Daphne in Liz Newell's Alone Outside
Photo: Theresa Harrison

Daphne is on the road home. She’s been driving for so long she thinks she might be dreaming; this trip she’s made so many times before has slipped by. She’s going home reluctantly; visiting her ailing grandmother before it’s too late. But everything else in town, she’d be happy enough to miss that.

Liz Newell’s Alone Outside begins slowly; the writing is hesitant, like Daphne is. This is a story we’ve seen before – an adult who doesn’t want to face their past but must, for their family’s sake, and for their own.

There are some delicious details in there, though. Daphne’s first return to the country pub, punctuated by short, sharp smiles by actor Sharon Davis, is a fun bit of business. Bumping into her old high school girlfriends is uncomfortably funny, as you might expect from life or from a play such as this.

Director Lyall Brooks does a good job at finding a way to highlight Daphne’s isolation and loneliness. A large truck tyre evokes the outback. Bright white tiles suggest clean linoleum floors, but also feel like a box that Daphne is trapped in. The late confrontation between Daphne and her high school boyfriend Aidan is a rich mix of drama and hilarity.

Davis digs deeply in to the emotion of the piece. She’s as compelling playing Daphne’s wry sense of humour as she is with the character’s rawness and vulnerability later on.

Lab Kelpie has built a strong reputation for their solid productions of new Australian text-based theatre. Brooks’ production is strong, but I didn’t quite connect with the script.  Newell’s play leans a little heavily on touchstones we recognise without really uncovering a fresh take on the narrative of returning home.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Melbourne Fringe: Lovely Mess by Morgan Rose & Katrina Cornwell - Riot Stage Youth Theatre



Lovely Mess, subtitled 48 stories of shame, is a new work by Riot Stage Youth Theatre that does find that exquisite kind of loveliness in the messiness of young lives.

Ten performers, all under twenty-five and one who is much younger, tell short stories of shame which are sometimes amusing and occasionally very dark. We’re told that the stories are true, mostly, but the way they are told they feel true – because variations on these kinds of stories must happen all the time. There’s not a moment that feels dishonest, even as we know this is theatre.

The set is just a line-up of chairs, with a few microphone stands to help these novice performers sound clear in the space. Even the smallest, nervous voices echo around the room.

The rhythm of the piece feels much like a group of friends sitting around at a party, telling their own truths about life. There’s some digital art on the back wall to remind us of how young these people were when these life moments happened. There’s a silent narrator to the side, illustrating the vignettes as they are told.

Occasionally one performer will interrupt another with a random question or interrogate them fully with a list of either/or suppositions supplied by the audience.

Lovely Mess reminds us of the superficial and the profound that happens to us in our youth, often at the same time and it’s far more lovely than it is a mess.

Melbourne Fringe: There by Elbow Room

Emily Tomlins & Angus Grant in There
as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival

In the beginning, there is darkness. A torch spotlights a pair of fingers walking across a black dais, exploring their domain. Another torch, another pair of fingers appears on the dais. It’s theatre and storytelling in miniature. It’s physical theatre reduced to the barest of elements. But this is only the beginning.

Elbow Room first performed There as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival in 2008. Ten years later, they are reviving the play, performing it in the same venue with the same cast – two of Elbow Room’s co-founders, Emily Tomlins and Angus Grant.

I didn’t see the original production of There but I have seen a lot of Elbow Room’s work since then, so it’s great to see one of their earliest shows, one that proves how strong their vision has always been. The show is almost deceptively simple in its way, as an exploration of the fear and elation of making and performing theatre.

It's not long before the two performers behind the fingers and the torchlight have discovered the rest of their bodies and their voices and each other. There’s a real frisson of energy and theatrical tension as the focus of the piece expands, gathering the full range of theatrical expression afforded by an indie theatre budget in the Loft at the Lithuanian Club.

Once dialogue is discovered the physical theatre piece evolves into audience interaction and something that evokes improvisation but is very cleverly scripted by another Elbow Room co-founder, Marcel Dorney. Now the performers are at odds; the typical generosity of an improvisors “Yes, and?” is weaponised. Is there a table there or not? Where’s the window? Has your brother even left?

There is a deconstruction of theatremaking that is genuinely funny and a celebration of what intimate, small scale theatre can be.


Thursday, 30 August 2018

REVIEW: Blasted by Sarah Kane – Malthouse Theatre

Fayssal Bazzi in Sarah Kane's Blasted
Photo: Pia Johnson
The dread sets in from the first scene. A foul-mouthed journalist (Ian) brings a young woman (Cate) to an expensive hotel room in the north of England. He wants sex and he believes, because she’s there with him, she wants it, too. They’ve had sex before, years before. She’s already much younger than him, so how old was she when this all began?

The play, at this point, is about expectation and transaction. Ian has brought Cate to this room for one thing and one thing only. It’s about consent and the dangers of the male ego. And you can see why the Malthouse programmed this now; in a time where we know violence against women has hit plague proportions, this one-on-one moment captures that violence in microcosm.

When Sarah Kane’s Blasted was first performed in 1995 at the Royal Court in London, it caused a scandal. This opening scene is confronting enough; Ian is racist, misogynist, homophobic and his work as a journalist does nothing to redeem him. And nothing prepares the audience for the show being torn apart at the end of scene two: a soldier arrives and Ian and Cate find themselves in a war zone.

Kane’s work is rarely performed because it is brutal and uncompromising. It’s easy to see how this play and Kane’s brief career (she wrote Blasted at 25 and died at 28) influenced so much that came later.

I had read the script and knew what to expect. This one room in Leeds becomes a commentary on war and what society’s expectations of men can lead to. And what it leads to is all based in fact, but that doesn’t make it easier to watch. And no wonder the warnings from the theatre are so comprehensive:

This show contains
EXTREME VIOLENCE, SEXUAL VIOLENCE, COARSE LANGUAGE, NUDITY, SMOKE AND HAZE, LOUD AND DYNAMIC SOUND, HERBAL CIGARETTES
AND CONTENT SOME AUDIENCES MAY FIND CONFRONTING

Not surprisingly, this show and the content warnings reminded me of another play that changed theatre, at least in Melbourne – The Hayloft Project’s Thyestes. (Read my review of the original production from 2010.)

Director Anne-Louise Sarks made her name as part of The Hayloft Project in Melbourne before moving to Sydney to work at Belvoir. I’m not sure how much involvement she had in Thyestes, but it feels right that one of the creative minds from Hayloft be the guiding force behind this production of Blasted.

Given the subject matter, Anne-Louise’s steady-hand ensures the play doesn’t feel at all exploitative. That’s an incredible achievement in a story that encompasses rape, war crimes, torture and cannibalism.

Marg Horwell’s set design and Paul Jackson’s lighting work together to underline the dread of the piece and keep the audience on edge, not knowing what will await us after each blackout.

The actors – David Woods, Eloise Mignon, Fayssal Bazzi – are put through the wringer with this one. They earned the applause that came at the end, though they looked ready to collapse from exhaustion as they took their bows.

In some strange ways, Blasted is absolutely a product of its time, but the ripple effects this show has created in the quarter-century since its debut are still being felt. Publicity would have you believe that Kane’s first play changed the world, but if that feels like a stretch, it definitely changed theatre in London and, by extension, given Thyestes felt like its progeny, in Melbourne, too.

Blasted is a searing work, hard to watch and impossible to look away from. If the play itself is about transactions and expectations between characters, this production is about the transaction and expectation between the audience and Kane’s work. Even if you know what to expect, you may not know what you’ll be left with. Somewhere deep in the devastation, there is hope.


David Woods & Eloise Mignon in Sarah Kane's Blasted
Photo: Pia Johnson

Friday, 24 August 2018

A Doll's House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath - Melbourne Theatre Company

Greg Stone, plus The Door, and Marta Dusseldorf
A Doll's House, Part 2
Imagining what happened after a story is over is natural, especially if the ending is ambiguous or unclear. There’s a lot of dramatic tension to be mined from the question “what comes next” - the audience will probably discuss the possibilities as soon as they leave the theatre.
When Nora walked out on her family and slammed the door behind her at the end of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, it caused widespread controversy when the play debuted in 1879. Ibsen’s German agent had him re-write the ending for that country, which he later regretted.
In 2014, Belvoir theatre produced Nora by Kit Brookman and Anne-Louise Sarks, a contemporary re-telling of A Doll’s House that followed her out that door. The concept of a sequel is tempting; writing it for a bone fide classic is a risky proposition.
Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2 picks up fifteen years after Nora left her family. She returns to finalise a divorce that her husband Torvald never formalised. In turn-of-Twentieth-Century Norway, Nora has become a popular novelist - but as a still-married woman, she could be arrested for fraud, having signed contracts and the like. Not to mention the many men she has slept with.
Centering the play around Nora trying to convince Torvald to give her a divorce feels reductive; to have one of the great heroines of theatre foiled by paperwork is maddening. Yes, the tale is about a woman's lack of power a century ago - and as a modern play, Part 2 brings up the question of how much has or hasn't changed.
And by bring it up, I mean Hnath puts some pretty turgid dialogue into the characters' mouths. There's no subtlety here, no nuance. What is this play about? Let Nora, Torvald, Anne-Marie and Emmy tell you. Over and over again.
At the centre of Sarah Goodes' production at MTC is a door. The door Nora slammed shut fifteen years ago. Perhaps that ending raises the question of what comes next, but a slammed door feels like a pretty definitive full stop. The door sits centre stage and recedes into the sparse pale-blue set of this house for dolls. (The door returns to the centre of the stage at the end. Is it there to take a bow?)
Marta Dusseldorp's performance as Nora is declamatory, both vocally and physically. She spreads her legs so defiantly so many times, I wondered if that was part of Hnath's script. The character has returned to explain her problem with the world and her belief that in fifteen more years the world will change. We know it won't. We know it hasn't. We wonder why this play is underlining this idea so vigorously; spelled out early on and explicated in the final moments of this never-awaited sequel.
Greg Stone's Torvald elicits some sympathy until he flails around claiming he's a good man, as so many oblivious men seem to do, thinking that absolves them of their many flaws. 
Zoe Terakes, as daughter Emmy, plays the comedy the whole endeavour tends to evoke; what else but satire does so much over-writing and over-acting suggest?
There's some widescreen video of the audience and of Nora approaching and leaving the house once more, off into a field that evokes nothing more than Julie Andrews twirling atop hills that are alive with music. The bird that flies by is probably an eagle. I'm surprised, given the heavy-handedness of this production, it wasn't a wild duck.