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Sydney theatre weekend, March 2017

Justin Smith on the set of A Strategic Plan at Griffin Theatre
I love this fake door!

I have some Melbourne theatre reviews I still need to post, but I’ll catch up with those later in the week. This weekend, I saw three shows in Sydney and as I always try to do, I shared the love around: one Sydney Theatre Company show, one at Griffin Theatre and one at Belvoir.

Chimerica by Lucy Kirkwood (Roslyn Packer Theatre, STC)

British playwright Lucy Kirkwood’s drama about the rapidly evolving relationship between China and America (thus the portmanteau title, though with allusions to the chimera of Greek mythology) is constructed around a mystery: who was the mysterious “tank man” in Tiananmen Square? And where is he now?

Focused on a photographer (one of seven to get a similar photograph from June 5, 1989) played by Mark Leonard Winter, who is astonishing as always, the play begins in 1989, but focuses mostly on events in 2012. It plays out in the lead up to the Presidential election of that year, which gives it some parallels to recent events, though this play is far more wide-ranging than that.

History plays always fascinate me, particularly recent history, where my memory of events play a part. The play focuses on a fictional photographer because it has bigger things on its mind that what led that man to stand in front of those tanks; Chimerica wants to look at the push and pull between these two great super powers and where that’s led in the past (almost) thirty years.

Kip Williams plants much of the action on an empty stage, set pieces being rolled in and out in stunning displays of choreography with the help of twenty NIDA students who act as the show’s ensemble. With a cast of twelve, Williams’ uses all of these actors to populate Tiananmen Square, to protest both in China and in the post-GFC era on the streets of New York.

The cast is uniformly excellent, the stage work is clear and evocative and the script itself is a beautiful puzzle that clicks perfectly into place in the shows final minutes. A three-hour show that doesn’t waste a second.

A Strategic Plan by Ross Mueller (Griffin Theatre Company)

Writer Ross Mueller has written a complicated satire about office politics versus art, with an hilarious – and later quite affecting – play about what happens when the state government takes over the running of a live music venue in a “second city”. The Griffin production is ostensibly set in Newcastle, though the original text is probably meant to evoke Geelong, where Mueller lives.

The advertising for this show suggest a workplace drama, but the set evokes a live music venue that feels so authentically 1990s – with black walls and terrible carpet – that it was exciting just to sit in the space. Griffin is such an intimate venue that you might feel like you’re in the smoky back room of a pub waiting for the band to start. Except there’s no smoking allowed now and the government is being stingy with its support of the sector.

Yes, it’s not just about how workplace language seems to have no room for creative innovation, it’s about how government wants to step away from supporting live music specifically and art in general. As someone who has an office job and a creative outlet, A Strategic Plan hit me on two fronts.

Mueller’s dialogue is rapid fire and the cast – led by the remarkable Justin Smith, who is full of life until its almost drained from him – is so great with the pace and the shifts in mood and tone. A thrilling piece of biting comedy that packs an emotional punch by the end. Brilliant.

Mark Colvin’s Kidney by Tommy Murphy (Belvoir St Theatre)

I don’t know who Mark Colvin is or why I should care about his kidney. This play didn’t really illuminate this in any meaningful way, either. Well, it’s simple – Colvin is a journalist for ABC Radio and he was offered a kidney by a woman he met on Twitter. It’s a true story, but in typical theatre fashion, most of the incidents of the play have been dramatized, some have been invented and some are merely recreations of tweets and texts and emails.

The focus of the play isn’t actually on Colvin or his kidney, but on Mary-Ellen Field, the woman who offered the kidney. Her life is pretty remarkable; an Australian business consultant, she was Elle Macpherson’s brand manager, until she was accused of betraying the secrets of her clients to the press. She was tangled up in the News of the World scandal, where News Corp was accused of hacking people’s phones – which led to the Levenson Inquiry.

It’s a rich milieu in which to base a play, I would guess. Tommy Murphy’s script doesn’t really give us reasons to care for either Mary-Ellen or Colvin, beyond a general sense of “what a strange tale” to hear told. There is a scene late in the play between Mary-Ellen and her husband which teased out the reasons why she offered the kidney to Colvin, but the play should have explored them rather than leaving them as a kind of dramatic reveal at the end.

A two-and-a-half-hour play needs justify its length, especially when you could tell a great version of this story over a couple of beers in a pub in under an hour. It has a terrific cast but they were mostly wasted. A strange tale given an oddly unfocused treatment. Disappointing.

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