2014, the verdict


Event(s) of the Year
The Seagull – STCSA, Adelaide Festival
Tartuffe; Henry V Bell Shakespeare
William Shakespeare’s Reservoir Dogs – Russall S. Beattie at The Vanguard
Children of the Sun – Sydney Theatre Company
Once – Melbourne Theatre Company, Gordon/Frost

Honourable Mention
On The Shore of the Wide World – Pantsguys & Griffin Independent
Noises Off; Switzerland – Sydney Theatre Company
Jump for Jordan – Griffin Theatre Company
Platonov – ATYP, MopHead & Catnip Productions
The Legend of King O’Malley – Don’t Look Away
Sweeney Todd – New Theatre
A Streetcar Named Desire – Young Vic (NTLive)

Dishonourable Mention
Cain and Abel – THE RABBLE, Belvoir
Hedda Gabler – Belvoir
Nora – Belvoir
Oedipus Rex – Belvoir
Rupert – Melbourne Theatre Company, David Sparrow Productions
Truth, Beauty and A Picture of YouHayes Theatre Company

Best (New) Play
Jump for Jordan, Donna Abela
The Effect, Lucy Prebble
Procne & Tereus, Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Joan, Again, Paul Gilchrist

Henry V (dir. Damien Ryan)
All’s Well That Ends Well (dir. Damien Ryan)
Richard III (dir. Mark Kilmurry)

The Red Curtain Award for Most Prodigious Use of Red Curtains
Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin & Co. – Strictly Ballroom The Musical

The Most Restrained Deployment of Trademark Style
Benedict Andrews, A Streetcar Named Desire (Young Vic; NTLive)


The Playlist: 2014 at the theatre

If you’ve followed my blog or read any of my theatre reviews throughout this year, you might have seen a numbered song at the bottom of the page. Collected together, they form ‘The Playlist,’ the idea being to find a piece of music that encapsulates either the production or my response to it (often both). So, as with last year’s round-up of the theatre-year, here is The Playlist for 2014.


The kindness of strangers: Young Vic’s A Streetcar Named Desire (NTLive)

Director Benedict Andrews needs no introduction to Sydney audiences. Over the past seven years, his productions have garnered considerable critical and popular acclaim, and not without detractors. Known for his striking theatricality as much as for his reliance upon certain stock examples of stagecraft – glass boxes, confetti falling from the ceiling, loud noises or music, bodily fluids (blood, urine, faeces, vomit, spit) being spread across the set, gratuitous nudity and/or drug-taking – it has almost become predicable as to what you’d expect to encounter in a production directed by Andrews. But in his recent production of Tennessee WilliamsA Streetcar Named Desire for London’s Young Vic, currently screening in cinemas as part of the National Theatre Live program, it is the distinct lack of these effects which makes it such an engrossing and relatively ‘straight’ interpretation of Williams’ play. This Streetcar is visceral, dangerous, strangely seductive and undeniably compelling. 


Follow your dreaming: Bangarra Dance Theatre’s Page 8

First staged in 2004, Belvoir’s production of Page 8 – the autobiographical one-person show by David Page – toured the country and internationally for the next five years. Presented here by Bangarra Dance Theatre on its tenth anniversary, as part of Corroboree Sydney, the show is a collection of stories from the Page family’s rich goldseam of experiences, peppered with fragments of home videos, direct audience address, re-enactment, and song-and-dance numbers.


Power to the people: Mongrel Mouth’s The Age of Entitlement

As digital content seems to reach a saturation point, and new ways of telling stories are sought out, the frontier of immersive theatre is a brave new world of possibility. Sitting somewhere between art installation, theatre, and real-life do-it-yourself adventure storytelling, immersive theatre can be created on as large or as intimate a scale as the space and resources allow, with the intention that no two experiences are identical. British theatre company Punchdrunk are game-changing pioneers in this scene, and their work is nothing short of phenomenal, bringing “cinematic [levels] of detail” to large-scale installations in often unexpected locations.
Part of The Rocks’ Village Bizarre festival, Mongrel Mouth’s The Age of Entitlement is a home-grown piece of immersive theatre set in a turn of the century world where the audience is given semi-autonomy to wander in and out of rooms, building the (a?) narrative from the fragments and scenes we glimpse. You are invited to follow a character and/or storyline, because the ending is purportedly in the audience’s hands every night. The Age of Entitlement is about power, wealth, ambitions and love, about trying to achieve your dreams in the face of adversity, and how even the strongest and best of intentions can be corrupted. Expanding upon the format of and experiences gained from their first show earlier this year, The Silence Came, Mongrel Mouth’s new production has flair and verve, but there still feels like there is a way to go before the concept is perfected to the degree of unpredictability which the form demands.


Swing your razor wide: New Theatre’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Based on a nineteenth century penny dreadful, the story of Sweeney Todd, the ‘Demon Barber’ of Fleet Street, is the stuff of legend. Whilst a largely fictional character, he is often likened to Jack the Ripper as a figure whose mythology is larger than that of any real person from the time. First published in serial form in 1846-7 as The String of Pearls, a romance, the story was quickly adapted and appropriated into different mediums, with the name Sweeney becoming ubiquitous with that of a barber. A deliciously Victorian melodrama, it has captured the imaginations of millions across the world, including those of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler who adapted Christopher Bond’s play into their successful 1979 musical.
Playing at Newtown’s New Theatre, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is the story of Todd, a man who is sentenced to life imprisonment in Australia under a trumped-up charge and makes his return to London, vowing vengeance upon those who removed him in the first place. Straight off the ship, he makes his way to his old stomping ground on Fleet Street, where he meets Mrs Lovett, a pie-maker with a failing business, and the result of their two devilish wits and cunning schemes is nothing short of, well, delicious. Written with panache and flair by Wheeler and Sondheim, the musical has a dark and lyrical momentum which keeps the story moving, as it combines a story of jealousy, love, horror, thrifty business. It is, by turn, a full-blooded melodrama, a Grand Guignol concoction of blood and hellish deeds, but also a pointed social commentary that is gripping, emotional and, at times, quite darkly funny.


The world of the news: MTC’s Rupert

First staged by the Melbourne Theatre Company in 2013, David Williamson’s Rupert is a cabaret-style ‘This Is Your Life’ of Rupert Murdoch, a man who needs no introduction. The second richest Australian who ever lived, as Williamson’s note in the program tells us, Murdoch is everywhere – in the films and television we watch, in the news we consume, in the way we think about the world – whether we are aware of it or not, whether we like it or not. Williamson’s Rupert is “a kind of Rupert Cabaret, in which he invites the audience to sit down and listen to the real story of his life, not the story peddled by lefty, inner-city, latte-sipping, acai berry-eating critics.” Directed by Lee Lewis, it is a carousel indicative of the media-saturated age we live in, where information is at our fingertips, where everything is apparently bigger bolder faster louder higher stronger better.


Pandemonium: National Theatre's Frankenstein (NTLive)

We all know Frankenstein’s monster – the block head, the shock of dark hair on its flat top, the bolts in the neck, the ill-fitting clothes, the immense iron shoe-clad feet, the lumbering gait, arms outstretched. We erroneously call this monstrosity ‘Frankenstein,’ not realising that is actually the name of the scientist who created him; the creature is, in fact, unnamed, although as this production illustrates so clearly, both creature and scientist are two halves of one being – creator and created – thus the title of Frankenstein being applicable to both man and creature. But underneath the myth and horror-appropriation of the story is Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, and this production – created for London’s National Theatre in 2011 – springs forth from Shelley’s novel into full-blooded life, first upon the stage and now upon cinema screens as part of the popular National Theatre Live program.
First published in January 1818 when Mary Shelley was twenty years old and pregnant herself, the novel is often credited as the first work of science-fiction. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the age of science was beginning – surgeons and anatomists were plumbing the human body for its secrets and workings, the discovery of electricity was almost visible on the horizon, and the modern world was about to explode in all its hulking smoking burning glory into full being through the Industrial Revolution. There was much less of a distinction between art and science as we know them today, and for many writers and thinkers of the time, the two were intertwined. At the heart of Shelley’s Frankenstein is not Hollywood’s idea of horror, but a very morbid and human fear of being born.


Who’s afraid of Yasmina Reza?: Twisted Tree Theatre’s God of Carnage

Yasmina Reza’s 2006 play, God of Carnage, has been performed to critical and popular acclaim around the world, and is now produced by independent company Twisted Tree Theatre at the Tap Gallery’s Downstairs theatre.
The story of two families who arrange a meeting to discuss the appropriate action required after one child attacked the other with a stick in the park, God of Carnage – appropriately – descends into a chaotic and increasingly childish evening of name-calling, taunts, accusations, drinking and vomit. Described recently in The Age as being “like a simpler incarnation of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap, [the] chief joy of the play is the way it slides into an Edward Albee-style marital free-for-all, as the adults begin to act worse than the children who brought them together.” Like Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Tsiolkas’ The Slap, there is something positively delicious and bordering on schadenfraude about watching two couples tear each other to pieces as they try to come to an agreement.

The return of The King: Don’t Look Away’s The Legend of King O’Malley

The ‘legend’ of King O’Malley is as colourful as the man himself, and a cursory look over his Wikipedia entry will only confirm this. Born in the United States (or Canada) in 1854, O’Malley was educated in New York City, founded a church in Texas, and contracted tuberculosis before sailing to Queensland in 1888. Once recovered from his illness, he walked the 2100 kilometres to Adelaide, and eventually became a member of the first parliament of a newly-federated Australia, voted against the introduction of conscription in World War I, was instrumental in the creation of Canberra and the Commonwealth Bank and, when he died aged 99 in 1953, he was the last surviving member of the first parliament.
In 1970, Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis wrote – or perhaps devised – The Legend of King O’Malley under the direction of John Bell for NIDA. A burlesquing Faustian story, full of pantomime, vaudeville, revivalist preaching, Australian politics and music-hall turns, O’Malley is a rambunctious beast that refuses to sit still, rampages about the stage with its uncontainable verve and showmanship. A kind of predecessor to Casey Bennetto’s hit musical Keating!, O’Malley is here produced by Melbourne company Don’t Look Away at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald theatre, and is a sharp, irreverent and timely examination of the larger than life characters we seem to attract in Australian politics.


Cyranose: STC’s Cyrano de Bergerac

His is the nose that launched a thousand quips. A famous literary swashbuckler in the same league as Dumas’ musketeers, Cyrano de Bergerac was, incredibly, a real writer and philosopher in France in the early seventeenth century. Imbued with the famous proboscis and a life much embellished beyond reality, Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac is a romantic swashbuckler like no other. With an uncanny gift for words – his pen, they say, is as mighty as his sword – he is both heroic and hopeless in the face of love, and his story is one of love – lost, won, and unrequited, and is as humane as his nose is larger than life.
While Rostand’s play was written in 1897, the Sydney Theatre Company’s production uses Andrew Upton’s adaptation from 1999 in an updated version, and is set in Cyrano’s own mid-seventeenth century world with much flair and panache. It is the story of Cyrano, a man who is blessed with an unfortunately large nose, and who is in love with Roxane. Roxane is in love with Christian. Christian is in love with Roxane but cannot express it anywhere near as adequately as he’d like. Cyrano agrees to help him and, well, I’ll leave the rest up to you. But as lofty and as word-drunk as the play – as Cyrano – is, there is still a sparseness, an disconnection between the period flummery in the costumes and the occasionally spare mise-en-scène (designed by Alice Babidge with Renée Mulder), and Upton’s adaptation.


Indefiniteness*: ATYP, MopHead & Catnip Productions’ Platonov

After Shakespeare’s, Anton Chekhov’s plays are perhaps the most human. Literary critic James Woods believes Chekhov’s characters “act like free consciousness, not as owned literary characters, [that they] forget to be Chekhov’s characters,” such is the way the playwright allows them simply to be. Both Shakespeare and Chekhov, as playwright David Hare writes, “respected the absolute complexity of life [and] never allowed their creations to be used for any other purpose than being themselves.” Not only a humanist, Chekhov was also a political writer, as socially and specifically pointed as Tolstoy, Gorky, Shakespeare. But while everyone celebrates Chekhov’s mastery in his four most well-known works – the plays The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard – his short stories are also exceptional, as are his rougher earlier plays, Platonov and Ivanov.
The story of a group of young idealists with the whole world ahead of them, Platonov – like so much of Chekhov, as in life – is about love, relationships, the people who get under our skin, and the extraordinary lengths we go to rid ourselves of feeling too much. Specifically, it is about Platonov, a provincial schoolteacher, “who faces up to the implications of being irresistibly attractive to four different women.” Presented here by MopHead and Catnip Productions in conjunction with ATYP Selects, this Platonov is bursting with passion, sexual energy and desperation, and in Anthony Skuse’s adaptation it explodes across the ATYP Studio stage in a riot of colour, emotion and drinking.


No fairytale: Belvoir’s Cinderella

Matthew Whittet’s previous works have included School Dance and Fugitive (two thirds of the Windmill Trilogy). In each case, Whittet takes a well-known story and tweaks and incorporates it into a larger work which interrogates the original as well as making it resonate for a contemporary audience. While School Dance was an extended homage to Eighties high-school dramas, Fugitive was a critique of the Robin Hood legend (complete with Stormtroopers), and both plays were engaging and clever pieces of theatre, both from a script perspective as well as being accomplished and sometimes remarkable examples of stagecraft. Whittet’s imagination is no doubt a very fertile place, capable of grand statements as well as more intimate, smaller-scale pieces such as Old Man – a tender portrait of fathers, sons, relationships and loss – which played at Belvoir’s Downstairs theatre in 2012.
Belvoir’s Cinderella, then, is very much in the same mould as the Windmill trilogy, despite not being a part of it. It is, however, a peculiar play. Created from an original concept by Anthea Williams (Belvoir’s Literary Manager, who also directs this production), it feels as though it is only tangentially related to the story of Cinderella, and as though it is still halfway through its dramaturgical fruition. As a play, Cinderella seeks to use the time-worn fairytale as the basis for a piece which examines psychological strength, determination, grief, and the transcendent power of transformation. Unfortunately for Whittet and Williams, this ‘fairytale for adults’ doesn’t really delve into the deep wellspring of its myriad sources as much as it could, nor does it really progress dynamically from the first two scenes where we meet Ashley, Ash and (briefly) Richard, and the whole crazy train of the night’s events are set in motion. Nor is it terribly ‘adult’ at all.


The Christmas spirit: Belvoir’s A Christmas Carol

Each year the signs of Christmas seem to be visible earlier and earlier. With forty-two days until the day actually arrives, Belvoir’s A Christmas Carol is one of the more human and beautiful evocations of this time of year, and its magic creeps up on you unawares, like the sleep that steals upon you as a child sitting up in bed determined to see Father Christmas. Directed by Resident Director Anne-Louise Sarks, a self-confessed Christmas tragic, this Christmas Carol – drawn from the Dickens novel – is imbued with that Belvoirian brand of stage magic which previously infused Peter Pan and The Book of Everything.


Murder, she wrote: STC’s Switzerland

This review appeared in an edited form on artsHub.

A sharp triangular fragment of a room – a lounge room, a roaring fire, a couch, armchair. To one side, a desk stuffed with papers and a typewriter. A spiral staircase winding through the ceiling; a book-lined room off the side. This is the world of author Patricia Highsmith as envisaged in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Switzerland, a new play by Joanna Murray-Smith originally commissioned by Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. Here, on a set purportedly based on Highsmith’s home in Switzerland, it is always dark outside, while inside all manner of murderous deeds are concocted alongside plots for future novels. Featuring many nods to her body of work, as well as drawing upon the rich connotations and associations of the genre and period itself, Switzerland sees Highsmith – the author of the Tom Ripley novels as well as Strangers on a Train and The Two Faces of January – becoming the subject of an enthralling two-hander stage-thriller set late in her life.


Band of brothers: Bell Shakespeare’s Henry V

Synonymous with British patriotism, Shakespeare’s Henry V is a play full of contradictions and ambiguities, powerful rhetoric and hollow promises, and is the concluding statement in an epic double-tetralogy of ‘History’ plays. Written in 1599, it came at a time when English theatres were rife with war dramas celebrating England’s success on the battlefield and ocean. On one hand, Henry V plays to the audience hungry for another war play – a “tribute to English courage, underdog spirit and a blessing of its current exploit in Ireland” – while simultaneously undermining these nationalistic associations, with “acts of cruelty we struggle to forgive… and an epilogue that makes the whole jolly rumble seem pointless in the first place.” Damien Ryan’s production of Henry V for Bell Shakespeare, on its last leg of a six-month national tour, plays with these ideas and more and gives us a harrowing piece of theatre about war, sacrifice and leadership which stands head, shoulders and torso above the rest.


Power or the passion: Griffin’s Emerald City

Growing out of the age-old ‘Sydney-or-Melbourne’ debate, David Williamson’s Emerald City is a timely look at the struggle any artist faces – maintaining artistic integrity, or chasing money and fortune – and sets it against the backdrop of Sydney in the 1980s, with all the big brash audacity that makes Sydney what it is today. Produced here by Griffin Theatre Company almost thirty years after it was written, Williamson’s play is a helter-skelter tennis match between acclaimed screenwriter Colin and his wife Kate, between Colin and seemingly well-connected hack-writer Mike, between Mike and his girlfriend Kate, between Colin and his agent Elaine, between… You can almost see each serve, each rally, each shot, every palpable hit (and miss), every point won and lost; it’s a giddy sparring match between equals, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the whole argument – even if it is, by turn, scintillating, bitter, snarky and futile.


Do you hear the people sing?: Les Misérables

Les Misérables, as a phenomenon, needs no introduction. Victor Hugo’s novel was first published in 1862, and was hugely successful – critically and popularly – changing the reading public. In the guise of Boublil and Schönberg’s musical it, too, became a popular and critical success following its English-language premiere in London in 1985, and similarly changed the musical-theatre landscape. One of the longest running musicals in history, it first came to Australia in 1987 at Sydney’s Theatre Royal, before touring the country over the following five years. Reconceived and restaged in London in 2010 to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary, ‘Les Mis’ has been given a new lease of life and is again touring the world, and is now playing in Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre prior to its Perth and Sydney seasons in 2015.
“[It] is still playing to full houses and regularly breaking box office records after almost [thirty] years,” producer and impresario Cameron Mackintosh writes in the program. “New audiences are discovering the extraordinary impact of this exhilarating and emotional tour de force while existing Les Mis fans come back again and again for more.” As an international brand, it is impregnable, untouchable. As a piece of musical theatre however, it is not without its flaws. And therein lies the problem with this production, the experience, and the whole Misérables thing.


Falling quickly: MTC’s Once, the musical

In 2006, Once - a little unassuming Irish film, directed and written by John Carney and starring musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová - won over everyone’s hearts and quickly established a name for itself as one of “the most delicate invisible love stories,” to quote Irish playwright Enda Walsh. As a film-musical, it seemed to go against the stereotype of big numbers, big names and big emotions, and for aficionados of the musical genre, it was perhaps only a matter of time before it was in turn translated into a stage musical.
Developed by the American Repertory Theatre, and originally produced Off-Broadway in 2011, it soon found itself on Broadway. Produced by the Melbourne Theatre Company and John Frost in its Australian premiere at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre, Once is a beautiful tender love story, and the perfect antidote to the big-budget musical juggernauts which dominate Broadway and the commercial musical scene. 


Spectacular Spectacular: STC & Malthouse’s Calpurnia Descending

Melbourne theatre-duo Sisters Grimm are a force to be reckoned with. Having built a name for themselves with their rambunctious theatrical genre mash-ups (last seen in Sydney with Summertime in the Garden of Eden), they return to the Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse stages for their second mainstage production, Calpurnia Descending. While remaining true to Sisters Grimm’s ethos of gay DIY drag-theatre productions gloriously played to the hilt but never to excess, Calpurnia plays with all the resources, support and panache of one (rather, two) of Australia’s leading theater companies and the result is every bit as astounding and audacious as it is entertaining and vicious.


The laugh time: Belvoir’s Is This Thing On?

Billed in the season book as a “kind of Don Quixote for the female comic,” Zoë Coombs Marr’s Is This Thing On? is the story of one woman’s journey as a stand-up comedian. As we follow her career from her awkward first gig to her mid-career crisis and her eventual comeback some years later, not only do we see a character and person grow, but we also see Coombs Marr’s skills as a writer become apparent, because Is This Thing On? is essentially five overlapping and intersecting comedy routines, performed by five different actors, in five different moments in time.

Monkey magic: Theatre of Image’s Monkey… Journey to the West

This review appeared in an edited form on artsHub.

The Chinese legend of the Monkey King – purportedly born from an egg on top of a mountain – is the stuff of legend. So, too, are the 16th century novel based on the story, Journey to the West, and the popular television show from the 1970s, Monkey Magic. The story of the chaste monk Tripitaka and his quest to gain enlightenment, and bring the teachings of Buddhism from India to China, like all great road-trip stories, it is not so much the destination but rather the journey which is important. Here, as Tripitaka is accompanied by her three trusty disciple-cum-chaperones – Monkey, Pigsy and Sandy – it recalls the grand quest stories that form the cornerstones of the literary canon – Don Quixote, The Canterbury Tales, The Odyssey, and Orpheus in the Underworld.
Produced by Kim Carpenter’s Theatre of Image, Monkey… Journey to the West is a grand musical adventure, featuring richly textured costumes, a simple and inventive set, and a healthy dose of theatrical flair. Incorporating large- and small-scale puppets and physical theatre with a hint of pantomime, it is a show in the tradition of commedia dell’arte, heavily influenced by clowning and buffoonery and play-fullness; with a heart of gold, and a seamless blend of mythology, adventure, action and wit, there are echoes here with the work of other theatrical dreamers such as Julie Taymor.


All worth fighting for: STC & STCSA’s Kryptonite

In the early hours of June 4 1989, tanks rolled into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and declared martial law, shooting and injuring thousands of civilians and students. In the intervening twenty-five years, there has been a degree of cultural distance between China and Australia even though the fortunes of our two countries are interlinked. Across the cultural divide, Sue Smith’s Kryptonite seeks to find a common ground of understanding and compassion, and through her two characters, we slowly navigate this relationship between glimpses of personal and global exchanges of love, information and resourcefulness.


The night I was turned into a white mouse*: Griffin’s The Witches

Every child reads Roald Dahl at one point or another at school. Anarchic and more than a little bit brilliant, Dahl’s stories operate in a world where children are victims and heroes, where adults do bad things, and there is danger inside every glance, every smile and every heartbeat, but more than anything else, Dahl’s stories are about the unexpected, and revel in a kind of child-like logic where everything can be something equally different, unique and brilliant. Perennial favourites include Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and, my favourite, Danny the Champion of the World. Dahl’s books have also undergone a resurgence in recent years, with several making the transition from the page to stages around the world: Tim Minchin wrote the music and lyrics for the RSC-produced musical of Matilda; Sam Mendes directed a musical of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; and now The Witches bursts onto Griffin Theatre Company’s tiny Stables theatre just in time for the school holidays.
And what a play it is.

Blue roses and unicorns: Belvoir’s The Glass Menagerie

Tennessee Williams described The Glass Menagerie as a “memory play” – a play based on memory as much as one which unfolds from and like one. Its world is a private one, where “desire clashes with obdurate reality, [and] where loss supplants hope.” It is a play borne out of sadness and perhaps regret, a play about what might have been, what could have been, and it is in many respects a quiet play, Williams’ “first… and perhaps [his] last.” But out of this quietness, this inwardness, comes a desperate cry for help, for compassion and understanding, “so long as we are there to listen.” Belvoir’s The Glass Menagerie, directed by Eamon Flack, plays with the illusion of memory and truth, indeed with the illusion of illusion, and it is a play – a production – that is very much haunted. Haunted, autobiographically and in performance, by the character of Laura. Based on the plight of Williams’ sister Rose – whose fate had been decided by institutionalised care following a lobotomy – the play, and Laura, blossoms where Rose can and could not, and even though it is a heartbreaking portrait of a brother trying to give the outside world to the sister he loves even if she isn’t able to leave her own private world, it is a play ultimately about love, relationships and dreams.


Gorking: STC’s Children of the Sun

In his writer’s note titled, appropriately enough, ‘Grappling with Gorky,’ Andrew Upton talks about the optimism of Russian writers. “But not blind optimism, an optimism despite the obvious impossibility of salvation.” You can see it the work of Tolstoy, Pasternak, Chekhov, Gorky. Not just optimism but a need to tell stories, to examine and investigate the dynamics of human interactions and the world they find themselves caught up in. Earlier in the year, I had the good fortune to see State Theatre Company of South Australia’s production of The Seagull in Adelaide, and between that production and Sydney Theatre Company’s Children of the Sun, there is a precious kind of alchemy at work, a resonance in style, a conversation between plays and ideas which is beautiful to behold.


Play-fullness: An Australian approach to the classics

This article was first published on NITEnewsSpotlight website in September 2014. 

In 2010, the Bell Shakespeare Company toured Shakespeare’s mercurial comedy Twelfth Night around Australia. Directed by Lee Lewis, the production was grounded in the context of the Black Saturday bushfires of February 2009; the actors emerged out of the blackness, exhausted and covered in soot, and proceeded to tell each other a story, assuming the identities and roles of the characters in Shakespeare’s play. Using costumes drawn from a large pile of clothes donated to charity set in the centre of the stage and a scattering of cardboard boxes around its edges, Lewis delighted in the playful theatricality of disguise, the simple answers to switching identities at the drop of a hat, and made sure that joy and an effervescent sense of life were never far away from the very tangible sorrow, melancholy and heartbreak that sits at the core of all Shakespearean comedy. I mention this production for two reasons: first, it was the first time that I saw a production of Shakespeare and understood – felt – the story and the very real humanness at its heart; and second, because Lewis’ Twelfth Night felt like a fresh new play, a play written now, for a contemporary audience.


The collector: Two Peas' Jennifer Forever

Jennifer Forever, playing at the Old 505 theatre space as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival, is not an easy show to watch. The story of an unnamed Man and Girl, it delves into the grey area of right and wrong, goodness and badness, societal definitions and behavioural quirks, and asks where we draw the line between tasteful and perversion?


Philomelagram: Montague Basement’s Procne & Tereus

I’m not normally one for the Greek tragedies. I don’t quite understand the validity and motivations behind the spate of recent modern adaptations of these stories or myths, especially the wider ethical and human ramifications of such stories when they are removed from their mythic settings. In his Director’s Notes, Saro Lusty-Cavallari discusses this very issue, asking “how do you tell this story? Why do you tell this story?” In trying to answer these questions, Lusty-Cavallari and his cast have created a piece of theatre which unfolds in degrees of increasing horror until it erupts in a revengeful rage.
Procne & Tereus is the debut production from new Sydney collective Montague Basement, and tells the story of Tereus who lusts after his wife’s sister Philomela. Unable to control himself, he brutally rapes and mutilates Philomela, hiding it from Procne, his wife, until the discovery reaps an unspeakably shocking revenge. As with other Greek tragedies, Procne and Tereus is by turns epic, human, full-blooded and, well, tragic. Where the story could have become garish or carnivalesque in another’s hands, Lusty-Cavallari keeps this production simple, clean and affecting, and it is all the more powerful for being so.


All you need is love: Slip of the Tongue's Europe

This review was written for artsHub.

First performed in 1987, Europe is one of Michael Gow’s earlier plays, but to pass it off as merely an ‘early work’ is to do the play a disservice. Presented by Slip of the Tongue as part of the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre season, Europe takes you on a grand journey of the heart to the cities where love lives larger and, well, more romantically than perhaps anywhere else on the planet. But at the same time, it asks us whether we are truly content with what we have, or whether we need to chase something else, something bigger to make us feel alive?


How do we fix Country?: ATYP’s Sugarland

This review was written for artsHub.

In 2011, ATYP began a series of residencies in the Northern Territory town of Katherine. Using experiences and observations gained overt the next two years, writers Rachael Coopes and Wayne Blair have created a play in an attempt to understand what growing up in a remote Australian community is like. That play is Sugarland. Sugarland is not sugar-coated, though, nor should it be. True to its origins, it is about worlds colliding, about issues that are not so much clear-cut black-and-white as they are big, immediate and extraordinarily real. Following the lives of five teenagers, it is about growing up in a country where rules and government schemes are often counter-intuitive and do more harm than good. But amongst the politics and racism and bureaucracy, we witness five young people navigating their way through this uncertain terrain with love, grace, humour, resilience and a desire to keep going.


The time of your life: White Box Theatre & Griffin Independent’s Unholy Ghosts

I don’t know how to begin talking about this production, so I’m just going to start somewhere and hope it all makes sense. I believe there are two constants in life – birth and death. They aren’t necessarily always in that order, and there mightn’t be all that much time between them, but on average, there is about seventy-odd years between the two events, seventy-odd years to grow and love and feel and hurt and laugh and cry and reach out to other people and try and make it the best you can. What Campion Decent achieves in his Unholy Ghosts is something like a reflection or a meditation upon a life-lived, a grand statement upon the resolution of two lives well-lived to the fullest, to see what lies beneath and what we can glean from surviving the passing of our parents.
Presented by White Box Theatre and Griffin Independent, Unholy Ghosts is mostly told through scenes featuring the son and one of either parent, and direct-audience address. It is a namless family – the characters are known and referred to as simply Mother, Father, Son, and Daughter (though she does not make an appearance in the story.) Obviously autobiographical to a degree, we’re not quite sure of what’s real and what isn’t; perhaps ‘creative autobiography’ is a useful term here, seeing as – in Decent’s own words – it was “written from a space of grief in an attempt to honour yet complicate the past.”


Golden summers: Opera Australia’s The Elixir of Love

“Once a jolly doctor rode into a country town
Handing out potions and pills for a fee
And he sang as the soldiers and gentlefolk all gathered ‘round
Who’ll come a-wooing Adina with me?”

You could say that Australia grew up on the sheep’s back. The pastoral dream of an idyllic Arden beyond the cities and town centres persisted until relatively recently – ‘over the hills and far away’ was where the pastures and grazing land were, where the romance of an unhurried lifestyle lived on and off the land was tantalising. Dorothy McKellar wrote “I love a sunburnt country,” and not so long ago the same could be said for many people. In Simon Phillips’ production of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love for Opera Australia, we are transported to the summer of 1915, a country town beyond the mountains, when the Heidelberg School’s vision of golden summers was still conceivable; an Arcadian moment on the cusp of the “imminent loss of innocence.”

Crime and punishment: Kathy Petrakis’ Black Rainbow

Black Rainbow is a new play from writer Kathy Petrakis. Set in a fictitious suburb in Sydney’s south, it is a kind of Romeo and Juliet story, in which a boy leads a double-life as scholarship-student and lookout for a gang of drug-dealers.
Staged in the Tap Gallery’s upstairs theatre, there is an earnestness and heart to this production which is missing in other, high-profile shows across Sydney. Petrakis, a self-published novelist as well as an actor, director and dancer, has created a play about choices, the grey area between right and wrong, and about family.


The Misconception of Belvoir’s Oedipus Rex

Black carpet. A single chair. A wall made from wooden frames covered in plastic sheeting. Harsh fluorescent light.
Lights up slowly on a man sitting on the chair, blindfolded. He wears an oxygen mask, his breathing laboured, rasping; catching. Slow, sometimes painfully loud. A long beat.
The man stands on the chair, his singlet over his head, screaming wordlessly like a Bacon pope into the void.
Suddenly from nowhere, the sound of a hurricane envelopes us, total, all-consuming; a great sonic roar of wind and fury and anger. Like a plane crashing over our heads, like a building collapsing, like a world falling apart. The man stands on the chair, naked in the dim light, chanting wordlessly.
The lights snap to full, the fluorescence blinding, cruel. The man stands on the chair, naked; ashamed. Alone and suddenly very small. A woman enters the space carrying a large and somewhat heavy bag and proceeds to wash the man from a tub of warm water. He tries to retain his dignity, but in the small intimate Downstairs theatre, it’s not entirely possible.


Who’s afraid?: New Theatre’s Wolf Lullaby

Like so many other students, I first discovered Hilary Bell’s Wolf Lullaby at school. Set the task of designing a set and costumes for the play, we became engrossed in the hypnotic darkness, the encroaching claustrophobia which runs through so much of the play, and I think it was one of the first plays that made me think that maybe theatre was something I should consider spending my time on (pre-dating my Shakespeare-lightbulb-moment by about fifteen months.)
Currently playing at the New Theatre, it’s quite strange to see a play that you’ve got a history with performed in front of you, brought to life as it were. It’s like watching an old family story made real – you’ve seen or heard it so many times that you know exactly how it goes, but when it moves there’s just something about it which feels eversoslightly surreal, as though the lens isn’t right or the details are slightly blurry… I guess what I’m trying to articulate is that having studied it at school, having known it for nine years, the Wolf Lullaby in my head is naturally not the one others see, but it is still unmistakably Bell’s ‘Lullaby.


Negative incapability: Belvoir’s Nora

Ibsen’s work has been getting a bit of an airing in Sydney in the past eight weeks: first, Hedda Gabler at Belvoir, then Sport for Jove’s A Doll’s House at the Seymour Centre, and now Nora, a sequel of sorts to A Doll’s House, also at Belvoir. Not helped by inevitable comparisons between it and Adena Jacobs’ Hedda Gabler which immediately preceded it in the same space, Nora – written by Kit Brookman and Anne-Louise Sarks – is the story of Ibsen’s eponymous character after she leaves the doll’s house and ventures forth of her own accord.
Set on a blank black stage with the rooms and walls of the Helmer’s house made from wooden frames criss-crossing it like a modern flat-pack labyrinth, we first see Torvald sitting at the kitchen table reading the paper, while Nora reads stories in their children’s room. Lit in pools of bright and golden light, there is a darkness and a shadowyness to the rest of house, a suffocating claustrophobia which harkens back to Ibsen’s play, and it seems that this time around, following Hedda Gabler at least, there is to be more Ibsen and more of a sense of restriction.

Tender as the night: Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Constellations

I first heard about Nick Payne’s play Constellations soon after it opened in London in January 2012. If I had been in London a week longer, I probably would have seen it. Hailed variously as “virtuosic, intelligent” and “beautiful,” Constellations is essentially a “boy-meets-girl romantic comedy” which uses a healthy dose of quantum theory to become something quite profound and moving. Presented here by the Darlinghurst Theatre Company in its Sydney premiere, Payne’s Constellations, like Lucy Prebble's The Effect, is intelligent, beautiful, and as tender as the night.


Another cup of tea: SUDS’ The Bitterness of Pomegranates

Over the past couple of years I’ve seen a number of productions set largely in kitchens or houses, and have read numerous books in which important conversations are had in kitchens, and many conversations with my friends have been shared in their kitchens. You could dismiss it as “everything including the kitchen sink” but that’s not it; it’s not the sink that is crucial, nor the kitchen itself if we’re being honest, but rather the rawness and unguarded nature of the conversation which happens when you’re in a place you feel safe in. Helen Garner knows this, which is why in all her books you’ll find kitchens as little theatres of life, crucibles of thought and action, meeting places, familial communal spaces; ordinary theatres of mundanity where extraordinary things happen. And so it is with SUDSThe Bitterness of Pomegranates.
Written and directed by Julia Clark, ‘Pomegranates’ is a (new) play set in a small (unnamed and unlocated) Australian town, and follows a family as one sister befriends the town odd-bod (or ‘lunatic’ as we are told on the production’s website, but I don’t like the term). It’s a play about the small-town rumour-mill, about babbling gossips and secrets that never remain so, how privacy is everyone’s business, and even though it’s a short play – no longer than fifty minutes – there is something in it which sticks to you.


Don’t shoot the messenger: subtlenuance’s Joan, Again

Many years ago, I discovered the story of Joan of Arc in the school library and was struck by the innocence and the passion, the overwhelming sense of conviction (in every sense of the word) that lay at the heart of her story. While I was later to rediscover her in Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (very much the ‘definitive’ portrait), Paul Gilchrist’s Joan, Again – playing at the Old Fitz Theatre – gives us a new imagining of The Maid of Orléans, a more mercurial, personal and contemporary Joan than we have met before.
As its title suggests, Joan, Again is not the story of the girl who became the legend. Set in 1441, ten years after Joan was burnt at the stake, it is a play about truths and lies, stories and legends, identity, fame and Being. While a historical drama in the loosest sense of the term – that is, being a drama that is based in historical events – it never purports to be history, and should not be mistaken for such; rather, it is a clever, smart and enchanting play that asks us if we are truly who we say we are, if we can believe everything we see or hear, and whether in the end we are all just stories to be told to other people.


Molière this!: Bell Shakespeare’s Tartuffe

Following in the wake of the tiresome and convoluted adaptation/new version vs. new plays-and-textual fidelity debate (most of last year), comes another of Justin Fleming’s versions of one of Molière’s plays. Last seen in Bell Shakespeare’s The School for Wives in 2012, Fleming’s skill lies not just in translating Molière’s (French) rhymes into modern Australian ones, but in the panache, flair, wit and verve with which he carries it all off. In Fleming’s Tartuffe, currently playing at the Opera House’s Drama Theatre, director Peter Evans summons up every inch of baroque stateliness inherent in Molière-via-Fleming’s script, and runs with it, creating a sugary confection which simply must be seen to be believed.


In the Valley of the Kings: Opera Australia’s The Magic Flute (Regional tour)

Fifteen or sixteen years ago, I loved a series of books about an archaeologist (and little-known poet) called Cairo Jim who had as companions a blue-and-gold macaw and a telepathic ‘wonder camel.’ The brain-child of author Geoffrey McSkimming, the intrepid trio criss-crossed the once-ancient world, foiling the nefarious schemes of Captain Neptune Bone, restoring wrongs to rights, discovering immeasurable wonders and falling in love with Jocelyn Osgood. My favourite was the very first volume in the long-running series, Cairo Jim & Doris in Search of Martenarten – there was something about it that grabbed my nine-year-old imagination and kicked it into the stratosphere. There was adventure by the bucketload, sand (lots of sand), and some very silly puns; it was almost like an Errol Flynn film, or the Indiana Jones films, except in a book, for younger readers. Like a lot of kids (and, I suppose, adults too), I loved the mystery and intrigue that surrounded Ancient Egypt, all the gods and tombs and treasures, the mummies wrapped in kilometres of bandages, the colossal temples, pyramids, statues. Once I discovered the series had ended (at least for the time-being, or so we are reassured), I read them all again, and ‘Martenarten’ is still the best.
Imagine, then, my delight when I discovered Opera Australia’s regional touring production for 2014 was a new version of Mozart’s immortal The Magic Flute, set in 1930s Egypt a la Indiana Jones. Inevitable quibbles of Hollywood B-movies and Saturday afternoon serials aside, this Magic Flute, directed and adapted by Michael Gow, is full of the adventure, danger, romance and magic that Mozart’s music so perfectly captures, and is an inordinate amount of fun.


Sound and Fury: STC's Macbeth

You don’t need an introduction to Macbeth, the play or the character. It is studied (almost to death) at school, he is cited as one of tragedy’s key tyrants, and the play’s unspooling trajectory is more of a bee-line into a waking nightmare than any kind of vague saunter downwards towards hell. Played out against the vast backdrop of the (now-empty) Sydney Theatre, Kip Williams’ production emphasises the poetry and creates many arresting images in the moody darkness. And in many ways, it is one of the most human Macbeth’s I’ve seen, both in performance and in impact.


I swear: Griffin & Malthouse’s Ugly Mugs

There is nowhere to hide on the stage of Griffin’s Stables theatre, just as there is nowhere to really hide in the two banks of seats on either side of the diamond-stage. Like hands holding a shard of glass or a jewel, we are drawn into the story and world of the play whether we like it or not and you cannot help but be moved by it. Here, the stage is stripped back to its barest elements – bare black walls, rough asphalt floor – and is offset by a white plastic chair, nothing more or less, save for a metal trolley. It is brutal and unflinching, just like the play itself, and doesn’t apologise.

Brief candles: Bell Shakespeare’s Macbeth

…out went the candle, and we were left darkling.
King Lear, I.4.197

Macbeth is without doubt one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, not to mention one of the shortest; it is also his most claustrophobic and (literally) darkest. Yet despite its immense popularity, there is a robustness to it that withstands this very proliferation – no matter how many cuts or omissions are made to it, the inherent thrilling downward spiral of it still stands intact, as Macbeth drags everyone down with him, fighting all the while. Presented here by Bell Shakespeare for a schools audience, this Macbeth is characterised by a bleakness and minimalism, a blasted heath signifying nothing, and is as malleable and as changeable as Macbeth’s moods and visions. Emerging out of the darkness of the bare stage, Shakespeare’s words bounce out at you in a tale “full of sound and fury.”


Miracles don’t happen everyday: Sport for Jove’s A Doll’s House

Ibsen’s work is going through a bit of a renaissance in Australia at the moment. To be more accurate, specifically A Doll’s House. Presented here by Sport for Jove at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald theatre, A Doll’s House will also be seen at La Boite in Brisbane in September (in a new version by Lally Katz), as well as in Nora, a ‘sequel’ of sorts, at Belvoir in August, written by Kit Brookman & Anne-Louise Sarks.
In Sport for Jove’s production, director Adam Cook has stressed the period setting and location of Ibsen’s text as being crucial to the play’s success and impact. “We read or watch this play and think, well, here is a recognisable character, a recognisable woman… There’s a richer dialogue to be had with our own times if you set the play in its original period, prompting us to wonder if we really treat each other any differently today, have we evolved in our thinking at all?” It’s an important question, though (unfortunately) I don’t think Cook’s production comes close to answering it.


What is love?: STC's The Effect

What is love? People have struggled for centuries – no, millennia – trying to articulate an answer to this fundamental question without too much clarity one way or another. When you’re in love, it’s the most beautiful feeling of sharing yourself with another person; when you’re not in love it’s cruel and bitter and ugly. It’s something so deep it’s unreachable and unavoidable; something so intricate, yet so easily manipulated and crippled; the most blissful, merciless torture ever experienced by anyone on this earth; that’s what love is. And yet, apart from all of these emotional descriptions, love is a chemical process in our bodies and brains, a chemical which stimulates and colours our senses, moods, actions, bodily processes and decisions. In Lucy Prebble’s latest play The Effect, produced here by Sydney Theatre Company with Queensland Theatre Company, the clinical and physical reactions to love are examined amidst a drug trial for a new antidepressant, as real emotions and biophysical responses collide with chemically-induced stimulants.
Prebble’s play unfolds across a span of about six weeks, from the first day of the trial to sometime in the near future following its apparent conclusion. We first meet a two young people in their late twenties – Connie is a psychology student, while Tristan is a charismatic young man who has participated in a number of drug trials previously. Observing them are Dr Lorna James, a clinical psychiatrist, and Toby, her superior, but they too have a history; soon, the four of them are embroiled in a clash of ethics and perceptions, and it’s clear that nothing in life, as in love, is ever truly objective.