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.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

On Broadway – Presented by Flourish Productions

The Cast of On Broadway

Flourish Productions has been putting on concerts of songs from musicals for the last few years, mostly focused on particular composers: the songs of Cy Coleman, the songs of Ahrens & Flaherty, the songs of Alan Menken and the songs of local composer Matthew Robinson.

This weekend they presented On Broadway, a selection of songs from the last few decades of Broadway hits. It’s an eclectic mix shared among a cast of eight singers, four men and four women.

Director/choreographer Leanne Marsland has done a wonderful job pulling together a strong ensemble of performers to belt out songs in chorus or in pairs or as solos. There’s a seamless transition between songs; the ninety-minute concert flowed from one song to the next, without the usual feel of song, pause, song that can happen in this kind of group cabaret.

Starting out with “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story got the show off to a strong start. This is a promise of something to be fulfilled and “Lucky Be A Lady” was a fun follow up.

Some of the songs worked better out of context from their shows than others. “Someone to Watch Over Me” is a classic from the Broadway songbook, beautifully performed by Catherine Langley, one of the producers of the night. Alec Steedman’s “Wilkommen” and Ellie Nunan’s “Cabaret” from Cabaret made me want to see them in a full production of the show.

“Agony” from Into the Woods seemed strangely lacklustre, not garnering the laughs it would have in the show itself. Danielle O’Malley nailed “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and “If You Got It, Flaunt It”.

“Cell Block Tango” from Chicago was one of the absolute highlights of the night. The rendition itself was strong – everyone in full voice and embodying the merry murderesses of the musical. Of course, with a cast of four men and four women, this number was four women and two men, which gave it an added queer element which made it more delicious.

Much to my surprise, the later medley of Andrew Lloyd-Webber songs from Song & Dance, Aspects of Love & Jesus Christ Superstar was really thrilling. Kudos to Ellie, Lachlan and Danielle for their harmonies there.

Most of these songs are absolutely classics of the genre and it’s always a pleasure to hear them. But to have such a strong concept for the concert itself – solid choreography elevating the songs and helping the transitions, On Broadway was Flourish’s strongest concert series yet.


Flourish Productions presented On Broadway this weekend only at Chapel Off Chapel.

My Name is Jimi by Dimple Bani & Jimi Bani

My  Name is Jimi

Artifacts and symbols of Indigenous Torres Strait Islander culture sit in glass cases around the stage, high above us, out of reach. Museum pieces kept a long way from the world where they were created. This is colonialism in its simplest form - culturally destructive but explained away as keeping history preserved.

As Jimi Bani explains, though, the history and culture of his people, the Wagadagam of the Western part of the Torres Strait, is kept alive by storytelling and language. Jimi’s father Dimple, who was at the forefront of creating this show before he passed away, was a linguist and the latest in a line of Wagadagam Chiefs.

Dimple spent a lot of his life finding ways to tell the story of his people, through documentaries and plays and stories and performance. He also tried to get those artifacts of his people returned from the museums of Europe, but even after promising they would return them, they never did.

Jimi is a performer in his own right, in a way that we recognise that term – having performed in theatre companies across Australia and in film and television. He has taken up his father’s mantle and has toured this production extensively to get the word out. And the history out. And the dance out.

He’s not alone on stage, though. There are three generations with him: his mother and aunt, his brothers and one of his own children. Director Jason Klarwein has harnessed the joyful energy and truth of Jimi’s family and created a beautifully devised piece theatre that in moments is simply the performance of ritual dance or the donning of traditional costume and headdress.

There are moments of predictable culture clash – times when son Dimtri won’t put his phone down to listen to stories of his people’s history. But the idea that technology is merely a distraction to tradition is dramatically undermined by its use in the show – cameras used to film dioramas, to film dances, projectors used to retell ancient stories or project a vision of the night sky.

Jimi goes through a lengthy process of explaining his family tree early on in the show and promises there will be a test later. It’s a well-worn joke that actually works dramatically later on; we the audience have learned a little of his history and culture and the fact we can recite back some of the Wagadagam language late in the show is proof that a shared culture will never die.

This is a beautiful show that began at Queensland Theatre and has traveled to Darwin and Sydney and now is at the Melbourne Festival. I hope it continues to travel all over this country, because we need to hear Indigenous voices telling their history. And I hope it travels to Europe, because if stealing artifacts is part of their history, Jimi telling his story back to them should be part of it, too.

Watt by Samuel Beckett – adapted by Barry McGovern


Watt by Samuel Beckett
Adapted and performed by Barry McGovern
Samuel Beckett once described writing Watt as “a means of staying sane” while he was on the run from the Gestapo. From that experience, Beckett and Watt are grappling with experiences that they can't quite understand.

In this stage adaptation of his novel, you can see the character of Watt trying to make sense of the world, in all its fascinating complexities. This is a simple story, told in a simple way, through a performance that feels lived in and true.

Writer and actor Barry McGovern has spent lot of his career performing in Beckett plays. He’s been Vladimir in Waiting for Godot and Clov in Endgame and appeared in half a dozen other works by Ireland’s pre-eminent dramatists.

Watt travels on a train to Mr Knott’s house and becomes his manservant. He works on the ground floor and then moves on to working on the first floor. Then takes a train to somewhere, though perhaps this last train journey – to the farthest end of the line – is really just taking us back to the beginning of Watt’s story, where he climbs out of poverty to make something of himself.

The stage is almost bare. A chair that is almost never used. A small hand trolley. Watt carries on luggage and takes off a bowler hat. Before a word is uttered, Tom Creed’s production feels Beckettian – revelling in a long silence before we know a thing about this lanky man and where he’s headed.

The Beckett Estate is very particular with how his stage plays are produced; they insist his stage directions are followed precisely. I wondered if adapting his prose allows for any chance to push boundaries, though the sparse action doesn’t call for anything more elaborate in set or costume.

Sinead McKenna’s lighting design is very effective, enhancing Watt’s journey – making us feel the coldness of the train platform or the cosiness of Mr Knott’s house without distracting from McGovern’s superb performance.

This show reminded me a lot of Eamon Flack’s production of The End, the Beckett short story that was performed by Robert Menzies. In both cases, I was captivated by early moments, felt a little lost in the middle, but was drawn back in as the shows ended.

I wondered if perhaps they might have been more effective as radio dramas and then remembered that the precise movements and subtle lighting state transitions and the bravura performances at the centre will be what I remember. This is theatre at its most minimal – where nothing seems to happen but a lot is said.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Witness Performance

The Harp in the South at Sydney Theatre Company

In September, I had two reviews published on the Witness Performance website. I'm really pleased to be able to add to the conversation over there.

The first was a review of Sydney Theatre Company's The Harp in the South:

The Harp in the South tells a vastly different story to David Williamson’s Emerald City or Gordon Graham’s The Boys or Jane Bodie’s This Year’s Ashes, but it feels fitting that the city itself finally gets an epic play – a prequel to the plays of Sydney that are a central part of Australia’s theatrical history. This production stands proudly and deservedly alongside its forbears.

The second was a review of Malthouse Theatre's Ich Nibber Dibber:

The formal poses of Hellenistic statues relax throughout the show and permit us to see the apparatuses upon which they’re posed. At one point, Natalie unstraps herself and pops off to the loo and the fa├žade cracks a little. These figures aloft on pedestals aren’t angels or Venuses de Milo. They are women turning their gaze on themselves and asking us to actually listen to their experience. 

The details of the conversations might seem mundane but the accumulation of those experiences turns into something profound.

Friday, 28 September 2018

Melbourne Fringe: The Mission by Tom Molyneux

The Mission by Tom Molyneux
Photo: Sarah Walker

The widespread use of Acknowledgement of Country throughout the theatrical community is a good reminder that we live and work and tell stories on a land that has been home to Australia’s Indigenous people for forty-thousand years. Any Fringe show presenting work on the lands of the Wurundjeri people in the Birrarung are continuing a very long tradition.

Performer Tom Molyneux’s Acknowledgement of Country feeds directly into the story of The Mission; “sovereignty has never been ceded” is a strong jumping-off point for a story about our Indigenous population’s autonomy.

This personal history begins thirty-thousand years ago at the forming of Budj Bim, a volcano in Western Victoria. The Budj Bim area is a very important one to the Gunditjmara people, a site where they developed a system of aquaculture, thousands of years before European settlement.

After European settlement, it was the site of Eumerella Wars, where the Gunditjmara were overwhelmed and killed by colonisers who had the support of Native Police – Aboriginal troopers under the command of a white police officer.

Around the same time, Budj Bim was renamed Mount Eccles after William Eeles; the original Indigenous name was displaced by the misspelled name of a war buddy of Major Thomas Mitchell.

The scene is set for Tom’s more recent ancestors to take their place in the story, the particular focus of which is Uncle Allan McDonald, who was born in the late 1800s and later fought in World War I.

The Mission explores Allan’s life in Western Victoria on the missions in and around Budj Bim and Warrnambool. And then we join him on the ship to Egypt where he will train along with other soldiers before fighting at Gallipoli and Beersheba, two of the most famous campaigns involving Australian troops during the first World War.

As a “half caste,” Allan is accepted into the military because he looks closer to white than black and has grown up around the “good influence” of white colonisers. His brother is deemed “not white enough” to enlist.

Tom’s performance is quite gentle in its approach to difficult history and incendiary topics, taking us along as a guide and, for most of the piece, giving a stellar performance as Allan McDonald. There’s a gentle burn of fury underneath; the way Allan is treated on his return is utterly heartbreaking and completely expected.

Director James Jackson gives Tom the space to move and play and explore this very personal story. John Collopy’s lighting design is subtle when it needs to be and striking in moments of surprise; Allan’s first view of Egypt is bright and overwhelming – for him and for the audience.

The script is strong; this land’s history is so integral to Indigenous culture and it’s vital to this piece. Tom builds a full picture of Budj Bim and the Christian missions and parts of Western Victoria I know so little about – and you can feel the distance from home when Alan travels to Egypt and the Middle East.

At the centre of the piece is a family story that is rich in culture and in place, but Tom admits has moments that wouldn’t be out of place on Neighbours. Allan lived a long life and saw his home and his country change a great deal. Early in his life, he was a young man fighting for his land overseas, continuing a tradition of his people fighting for that same land but losing it.

He may not have been respected when he returned from the war, but he lived long enough to see the day when Australia finally considered him a person – decades after he sacrificed so much for the colonisers of this land.

The Mission is a beautiful, touching and rich tribute to a man and his people and the land they fought and died for. A land his people keep fighting and dying for. Sovereignty was never ceded and Tom Molyneux’s new play and performance carries this truth with it. I hope it leads a long, strong life.

The Mission plays at Melbourne Fringe tonight and tomorrow night and will be part of a regional tour in 2019.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Melbourne Fringe - Eggsistentialism by Joanne Ryan

Joanne Ryan in Eggsistentialism
Photo by Ken Coleman

Irish performer and playwright Joanne Ryan doesn’t know if she wants to have children. Don’t get her wrong, against the backdrop of Ireland’s history of restrictions on reproductive rights, she loves having a choice, she’s just having a hard time making a decision.

Eggsistentialism is a funny and frank look at a series of questions that must occur to all women at some stage in their lives. Do I want to have children? And what will that mean for my life? And what will it mean for the child?

Joanne knows that women from her mother’s generation had less choice in the matter; another woman her father got pregnant had to carry the child, only to have it taken away and given up for adoption. Her own mother would have been in the same situation, but she ran away to London and slept on a friend’s couch. That was in 1980.

One woman, one couch, a phone, a multi-media presentation and a brilliantly blunt voiceover from her mother, Joanne’s show is simple in its presentation and powerful in its execution. It explores her relationship with her parents and with a relatively new boyfriend. It explores the role of men in the household, both traditionally and how things mostly haven’t changed. It’s deeply personal and aggressively political.

The history of Ireland’s laws relating to contraception and abortion is tied closely with the Catholic Church and on these issues it was a particularly regressive Western country even up until this year. Placing Joanne’s decision-making against this backdrop gives elevates the show, although the writing itself and her laid-back Irish demeanour can make you laugh and cry without the oppressive history that comes from the country where she was raised.

Eggsistentialism is a beautifully-formed autobiographical show that Joanne Ryan has given birth to. I’m glad she’s taken this baby of hers out into the world.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Melbourne Fringe: Broke by Rowena Hutson



Rosie loves D.I.Y. She loves to fix things. She likes to bake cakes. She likes to work with her hands when she can no longer trust her mind.

Broke, much like Rowena Hutson’s earlier show Strong Female Character, feels very personal – even if she’s hiding behind Rosie the Riveter overalls and Princess Leia’s hair-buns. The anger and the passion could be acting but it feels blisteringly real. The details don’t feel written, but lived. The shouting is fueled by pain and confusion and a genuine need to name her illness and share it.

Ro cares about her audience, though. There are trigger warnings at the start and a concern that her description of a panic attack might bring on a panic attack. But there’s really been no panic attack quite like this showstopping rock number with a large rubber brain and flying tendrils of tinsel. Hutson, as one of the Fringe Wives’ Club, knows how to theatricalise even the most painful of truths.

This is a smart show that could use a little tightening in some areas – certain phrases recur to the point of feeling repetitive. And while the connection between the patriarchy and Rosie’s anxieties seem clear, I would have liked that fleshed out a little more – especially in the moments when she projects her experience on the population at large.

If fifty percent of the audience will experience mental illness in their lifetime and two million Australian’s each year suffer some level of depression, Broke’s message of bringing things out into the light is essential and I look forward to seeing this show evolve to the next level.

All the pieces are there – hilarious, painful, feminist, confronting and comforting – Rosie and Rowena just need to find a way to construct this house a little better. But it's almost there.

Melbourne Fringe: HERE – Elbow Room

Emily & Angus are HERE at Melbourne Fringe

In the beginning, there is darkness. But it’s not the beginning. It’s ten years after THERE first premiered at Melbourne Fringe and a week since I first saw it. Emily and Angus are getting the band back together, but is that a good idea?

We’re in an era of film and television revivals. Star Wars is no longer a nostalgia trip. Twin Peaks has reawakened nightmares from a quarter of a century ago. And theatre’s ephemeral nature means you can never go back, not even in a remount with the same creative team. Things have changed. Emily and Angus have changed.

Elbow Room has changed.

Our two intrepid performers are trapped inside a machine that feeds off narrative; it takes and takes and takes. Emily figures it out early on, but she’s been inside the machine longer. She recognises the signs and the theatrical trickery of THERE is turned back on to figure out where they are and where they must head next.

HERE is about nostalgia and the fear of looking back. It’s also about context and the empathy gap and how an audience perceives a performer and how we perceive ourselves. It mines the history of THERE but also alludes to other shows Elbow Room have made, like Prehistoric and We Get It.

You can feel the history, even if you weren’t there. Angus knows. Sometimes Angus has watched from the dark and he knows what he’s been missing out on.

It’s hard to critique these performances; they resonate with such truth that it’s easy to believe these questions were wrestled with in the rehearsal room as much as they are on stage. Emily and Angus are Emily and Angus. They are in complete control, even as the machine groans away, ready to take another bite.

The original Elbow Room team, including director Marcel Dorney, have found their way back together. Their latest show is absurd and funny and moving and knows nostalgia is about pain as much as joy.

Mmaybe they aren’t playing the same music they once made, but the echoes of the past can be heard clearly and they’ve forged a new work that resonates with age, wisdom, experience and a deep love of theatre.

HERE runs until September 29th. Don’t miss it. It may be another decade before they do it again.

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.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Melancholia – Adapted to the Stage by Declan Greene, Malthouse Theatre

Eryn Jean Norvill on Marg Horwell's set, lit by Paul Jackson,
Melancholia at the Malthouse
Photo: Pia Johnson

Confetti, or maybe ash, falls from the sky. Justine, in a wedding dress, the trim of her skirts stained with mud, trudges out into the soft deluge. This is meant to be a day of celebration, but she can’t quite bring herself to be happy.

“You had one job,” her brother-in-law yells at her later, after an uncomfortable speech at the reception, where he reminds her of things she didn’t get done before she left work two weeks ago.

He’s talking about her happiness and the tagline for the campaign she was working on. Justine has failed at delivering both. It’s hard enough that her work life and her family life are intertwined. She is also suffering from depression. And the planet Melancholia is on a collision course with earth.

Based on the film of the same name, written and directed by Lars Von Trier, playwright Declan Greene and director Matthew Lutton have translated this epic story to the stage in a confronting and striking way. Their previous collaborations, Pompeii L.A. and I Am A Miracle, took the mundane and placed those stories into an epic tableau.

Melancholia feels like a companion piece to those earlier works; frail humans elevated to the sublime. But much like the flawed characters, the production is not flawless, it has faults or maybe just fault lines.

Before an actor steps foot onstage, Marg Horwell’s exquisite design tells us this is the story of the upper classes, a wedding inside a grand home, decorated with floral carpeting and a chandelier. The figure of Justine then appears, the first glimpse of Eryn Jean Norvill’s complicated, unforgettable performance.


Eryn Jean Norvill as Justine, Melancholia
Photo: Pia Johnson
Justine has moments where she is fully in control of her life and we see this most clearly in the lyrical, poetic monologues that Declan has crafted. We are captivated by this perfectly-coiffed, grandly-styled bride who holds our unwavering attention for many long minutes during the first act. She may not be wholly thrilled by the events of her wedding day, but she can see the beauty of the world and the darkness that is on its way.

Her family is there, of course, but not exactly to support her. Her mother doesn’t want to make a speech but then she drunkenly stumbles through one, in a scene-stealing performance by Maude Davey. Her brother-in-law wants to talk about work. Her sister, Claire, tries to wrangle everything so the day goes off without a hitch; she’s the control-freak of the family but maybe this is to mask a hidden pain, too.

The play, much like the film (which I haven’t seen), is divided into two acts. If Justine has any semblance of control in act one, she loses it to an extended episode of depression in act two. This troubled articulate woman fades into a figure who needs help to walk and to sit and Norvill’s abilities are even more impressive in the second half than the first. She has such a command of the language and of her body that each articulation, each twitch and movement, tells a deeper story. It’s a performance that will stay with me.

The second half of the production drags just a little, even as the story heads toward cataclysm. Brother-in-law John mostly attends to his and Claire’s child, after making such a strong impression in the first half. Steve Mouzakis plays him as mercurial; one minute he seems to be joking, and the next he’s going for the jugular. The mother character hangs around to little purpose later on.

The relationship between Justine and Claire is central, though, and fascinating. Norvill may be allowed to command the stage more often, but Leanna Walsman proves her match when they go one-on-one, dealing with their fractured family and the end of the world.

Horwell’s set goes through simple, subtle changes, while Paul Jackson’s lighting does a lot of the heavy lifting as moods and planetary alignments shift and change. There was a moment late in the show where subtle alterations in set and lighting states made it feel like things were undulating in front of me, as if parts of the theatre itself had become unstuck, unstable. It was deeply unsettling.

Melancholia is another arresting collaboration by Declan and Matthew, where beauty and darkness collide and both the epic and intimate can be mistaken for one another.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

The Antipodes by Annie Baker – Red Stitch

The cast of The Antipodes at Red Stitch
Photo: Jodie Hutchinson

A group of writers sit around hoping to devise the perfect story. It’s purgatory with fluorescent lighting. It’s Satre’s No Exit. Hell is Other Writers.

It’s a creation myth birthed onto a boardroom table.

It’s the writers’ room of a television show.

Actually, who they are and what they are doing is not made explicit, but it’s a commentary on storytelling by committee, which playwright Annie Baker seems suspicious of, even as she recognises the connections of telling stories in a group.

At the head of the table is the showrunner, Sandy; revered by every writer in the room. And he’s one degree of separation from a screenwriting legend – a man who knows how to create stories forwards and backwards.

Each writer in this team knows how lucky they are to have this job. To be able to create stories. To be able to tell stories. And, best of all, to make shitloads of money.

The close-quarters, pressure-cooker environment is played in traverse in Red Stitch’s always-intimate space. Eight actors squeezed around a long table, occasionally visited by Sandy’s assistant, Sarah (Edwina Samuels, in a thoroughly energetic and exciting performance). The production is cramped and uncomfortable, getting messier as the show goes on.

Baker’s play has a lot on its mind. In some ways, the characters themselves might be aspects of a single writer trying to put words on a page. I wondered if this was some kind of “Inside Out”-style deep-dive into the creative process; brainstorming ideas, throwing out every personal detail and trying to make sense of the wildest thought on a whiteboard.

The play also tackles the commodification of storytelling and the inherent risks of a workplace where people are expected to bare their souls and pick apart their personalities for the good of the script.

One of the most interesting aspects is the spectre of a writer who used to work in the room: Alejandra, a woman who the men remember only as a complainer. Not surprisingly, they never listened to her concerns about this unhealthy work environment.

The text itself asks a lot of those who collaborate on it. This isn’t only a commentary on writing as team sport, it is also an ode to the importance of storytelling in an era where we’re so distracted.

Sandy warns his underlings early on to put their phones away, to be present – and that is the double-edge of the writer’s life; we must write but we must live life. Trapping yourself in a room isn’t necessarily the most productive way of finding the perfect story.

Director Ella Caldwell has chosen to play the naturalism of the piece, missing Baker’s tendency toward heightened naturalism which later evolves into magic realism. This production seems so concerned with the details (the food orders, the drudgery of plotting, and the cans of LaCroix mineral water) that it misses moments of the divine.

The cast of characters is frustrating, on the whole. Ngaire Dawn Fair’s Eleanor is reserved throughout until she finds a moment to relate the first stories she wrote in childhood. George Lingard makes the most of Danny M2’s monologue about vulnerability, before becoming another outcast because he’s not ready to put his life on the line in service of the show.

Are all these writers islands in a stream-of-consciousness? They rarely connect with each other, determined that their addition to the fabric of the story is paramount. Brian (Casey Filips) has some amusing trivial asides. Harvey Zielinski is the right amount of desperate as Josh, who is not even getting paid to be there.

Late in the play, we realise these writers are trapped. It’s not just the repetition of days. They cannot go. They cannot move on. Not until they realise the perfect story. Never grasping that perfection is the enemy of the good. And that until they make choices, they’ll be spit-balling forever.

Annie Baker’s The Antipodes is about people telling stories about telling stories. It knows how important that is to help us define ourselves, our experiences and our lives. Baker knows it’s what we have when we have nothing else.

Red Stitch’s production captures the feeling of being trapped; the claustrophobia and the inability to measure time. Unfortunately, some of its other choices strangle this play’s apotheosis. The tone is stultifying naturalism. The magic realism doesn’t feel magical at all.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Melbourne Cabaret Festival: Fire Walk With Us - The Music of Twin Peaks



This week was the first anniversary of the premiere of Part 8 of Twin Peaks’ third season. Titled “Gotta Light?” the episode delves into the past of the world of the series, diving deep into the mythology of the creatures that haunt mankind from the woods around the titular small town.

It also contains two memorable musical moments: a performance by Nine Inch Nails of their song “She’s Gone Away” and an eerie sequence of a small town being infested by woodsmen, scored by The Platters’ “My Prayer”. Twin Peaks, as ever, is a study in contrasts.

The music – both songs and score – of the most recent season was a long way from the world of Angelo Badalamenti’s evocative compositions for the original series. The new episodes were a critique of nostalgia; viewers were denied much of what they wanted twenty-five years later.

Badalamenti’s theme song was retained, but his work is only selectively used throughout season three. But with each moment of reprise, memories rush back. Music helps us to re-enter the world we left so long ago.

Fire Walk With Us: The Music of Twin Peaks, a two-night only event as part of the Melbourne Cabaret Festival, plays on that nostalgia, but with various twists and a large ever-changing seven-piece band.

For an hour, the group showcases the songs and score of classic Twin Peaks and the prequel film, Fire Walk With Me. It begins with a fast version of the opening title theme for the film, music that haunts me when it’s deliberately slow.

A selection of female vocalists (Tylea, Lucinda Shaw, Mia Goodwin) take it in turn to tackle Julee Cruise classics like “The World Spins,” “Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart” and “Falling”. There’s also some welcome gender revisionism when S.S. Sebastian tackles “Into the Night” and Lucinda Shaw sings “Under the Sycamore Trees”.

Also welcome were a rocking version of “The Pink Room” and an odd but intriguing take on “Audrey’s Dance”. Trickier to get right was a performance of “Just You and I” (while from the original show, this performance felt more like a hat tip to the season three appearance) and an encore of “No Stars” – the only song on the set list from The Return.

Badalamenti and Cruise’s styles are so particular that covers of these songs are often difficult for me to appreciate. The originals are so set in my head, variations have a hard time convincing me. But Fire Walk With Us didn’t try too hard to reinvent the wheel and with a big band and rich ambiance and some truly haunting vocals and arrangements, this was another highlight of the Cabaret Festival.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Melbourne Cabaret Festival - What Doesn't Kill You [blah blah] Stronger

Tyler Jacob Jones and Erin Hutchinson
at the Cabaret Festival Gala


The genre of cabaret can be a lot of things, which What Doesn’t Kill You [blah blah] Stronger proves – it’s a lot of things all by itself. Focusing on a wide variety of real-life stories of people surviving near death experiences, the show is an historical, comedy, drama, documentary musical. It features an army of cats, man-eating hippos, the Titanic’s sister ship and to help us along the way: a series of survival tips throughout.

After winning a couple of awards at Fringeworld in Perth, the team brings their perfectly-executed piece of cabaret to Melbourne. Performers Tyler Jacob Jones and Erin Hutchinson are charming and witty, transforming themselves into dozens of characters, all while belting out clever, insightful and toe-tapping tunes. Jones’ lyrics are very sharp, playing with audience expectations and telling some fascinating stories.

Inside the one-hour show, which barrels headlong from song to song, there is also a fifteen-minute musical about a woman in a small rural American town who is hit by falling space debris. It’s a riotous story about fame and fortune and features an hilarious “I want” song from the meteorite itself.

What Doesn’t Kill You [blah blah] Stronger is a wild but tightly-crafted piece of theatre. Get along for the survival tips alone. Because, as Tyler and Erin warn us, some people might not even make it out of Chapel Off Chapel alive.


Second and final show tonight.

Melbourne Cabaret Festival: Nancy Sinatra - You Only Live Twice

Danielle O'Malley as Nancy Sinatra
at the Cabaret Festival Opening Gala

It’s 1973 and Nancy Sinatra is filming a new television special; a night of classic hits and a touch of behind-the-scenes gossip.

After her sell-out showcase of the music of Cilla Black, Danielle O’Malley dazzles at Chapel Off Chapel with Nancy Sinatra - You Only Live Twice. The audience at home will see a slick television experience, with all the songs they know and love, but those of us in the room get something more personal and candid.

There’s a bit of fun talking about her parents, Frank and Nancy, and her brother Frank Jnr. She takes some pre-arranged audience questions about her hair style and her personal life. But even as we get to know her and her distaste for sponsor, RC Cola, what we’re here to hear is the songs.

O’Malley brings the right 60s go-go boot disco energy to Nancy, entertaining with “Something Stupid” and “Summer Wine”. She turns up the sultry for “Bang Bang” and Nancy’s Bond theme, “You Only Live Twice”. And we all know what those boots are made to do and O’Malley doesn’t disappoint there, bringing the house down with “These Boots are Made for Walkin’”

As with nearly all the shows at the Melbourne Cabaret Festival, Nancy Sinatra: You Only Live Twice, is a short taster of a season. Two shows only. 

Take your boots down to Chapel Off Chapel tonight. YOLO.