To th’ wars: Sport for Jove’s All’s Well That Ends Well

Often grouped alongside his ‘problem’ comedies, Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well is a dark and peculiar play that binds itself around the double-edged sword of honour. Written around 1605, its bedfellows are the equally perplexing comedies Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida; the tragedies Othello, Macbeth, Timon of Athens, and King Lear; and the Roman plays Coriolanus and Anthony and Cleopatra. I mention all these plays not as a list, but as an indicator of Shakespeare’s range and stylistic concerns – on the one hand, his tragedies are also bound up around honour and right-action, as are his two Roman plays. His Roman plays also concern themselves with issues of war and battle, conflating it with portrayals of love and family. When viewed in this light, his ‘problem’ comedies – so labelled because their content is neither strictly comedic in the Shakespearean sense, nor are they outright tragedies – don’t seem so problematic at all; rather, they seem right at home, and are in many ways precursory stylistic experiments to what Shakespeare would do in his late Romance period.
Playing at the Seymour Centre, Sport for Jove’s All’s Well That Ends Well is a dark and beautiful stranger of a play, an unsettling “fusion of cynicism and idealism,” as A. D. Nuttall writes. Set in France, it is the story of Helena and Bertram and “a young woman’s overwhelming physical desire for a young man and the extraordinary lengths she will go to have him.” Juxtaposing issues of virginity and a maiden’s honour against the backdrop of war and military honour, it asks just how honourable both of them are when they are pushed to their limits. In typical Shakespearean fashion, neither issue is straightforward, nor are the answers clear-cut or easily resolved. Under Damien Ryan’s direction, this production is clear, crisp, fresh and quite deliciously sensual, albeit in a rather troubling way.


Eggshells: Old 505's Hilt

Jane Bodie’s Hilt is a play about connections made and lost, about home – defining what it is, and finding our way back there; it’s about doing the ‘right’ thing insofar as we are able to, and trying not to regret the decisions and actions we make. It asks just how much are we willing to sacrifice to live ‘the dream’?
Playing at the Old 505 Theatre, Hilt was (we are told) written out of a disassociation with urban living and apartments in particular, the disconnection and compartmentalisation of life – like living in milk crates stacked on top of each other – is very much apparent in Bodie’s play, from the frequent muffled interruptions by the neighbours through eggshell-thin walls, to the conversations Kate and Adam share over breakfast in the middle of the play.


Dreams are toys: Bell Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale

Written late in his career, Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is perhaps one of the stranger of his plays to wrap your head around. Essentially comprising of two very disparate genres – heightened tragedy c. Othello, and bawdy pastoral comedy c. As You Like It – it, today, works on an emotional level more than a dramatic level, and pushes the boundaries of what is possible on stage, both in the Elizabethan theatres and on contemporary stages. Deriving its title from the Elizabethan storytelling mode reminiscent of a fairytale, The Winter’s Tale is classified as one of the Romances by twenty-first century critics. While the term ‘Romance’ derives from the Greek stories from the second and third centuries AD, these stories were, for the Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences, merely continuations in a rich vein of storytelling; usually episodic, they utilised the processional ‘quest’ motif, and generally involved perilous journeys and final (impossible) recognitions and reunions.
Presented here by Bell Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s less performed plays throughout the world, perhaps because of its stylistic confusion. Directed with warmth and colour by John Bell, this production is enchantingly set inside a child’s bedroom, that of Mamillius, the son of Leontes, King of Sicily. Created out of white curtains, a white bed, and white floor, the austerity and winteriness of its design gives way to gorgeous washes of colour, deep blues and purples, vibrant pinks and yellows and ceruleans. The story unfolds very much from Mamillius’ point of view, yet for all its ingenuity and enchanting cleverness, something doesn’t quite sit right with this production.


It's about love: STCSA's The Seagull

It was about ideas. Big ideas.
What every play should be about.
 – Dorn

In a letter to a friend in 1895, Chekhov famously described the play he was working on as “a comedy – three f., six m., four acts, a landscape (a view of a lake), much conversation about literature, little action, and five tons of love.” While it is a rather simplistic reduction of the play, it is nonetheless quite a succinct summary. If you were to examine the play, peel back its layers and try to get inside each of Chekhov’s characters, you’d find that ultimately it’s a play about love in all its different guises; at the same time, however, in true Chekhovian fashion, it’s not particularly ‘about’ any one thing, except perhaps Life.
The play was, of course, The Seagull, and like the best works of literature, it transcends the centuries and is still as fresh and bold and groundbreaking as the day it was first performed. And, like the classics, every so often a production comes along that cuts to the very heart of what it is about that you cannot help but be struck by its beauty, elegance and rawness. For me, that production was the State Theatre Company of South Australia’s The Seagull, presented as part of the Adelaide Festival.


In the hood: Windmill's Fugitive

I grew up with the Robin Hood story (frankly, which kid didn’t?). I love its big epic tale of heroics and bravery, courage, action, romance and the ending which is only really the beginning. And it’s not hard to see why it’s such a good story, why it has lasted so long. It’s one of those stories which is both extremely simple and complex at the same time, a kind of two-way mirror or a kind of kaleidoscope that twists and magnifies the more you look at it. It’s about brigands and outlaws fighting injustice; it’s about social injustice and looking after the people who’ve fallen through the cracks in society for one reason or another; it’s about fighting for the underdog and standing up to those in charge, asking people ‘will you tolerate this?’ Yet, it’s a Romance, in the tradition of the quest stories from antiquity, the same essential story as that of King Arthur, another greatly mythologised figure.
Matthew Whittet’s Fugitive, playing at the Adelaide Festival as part of Windmill Theatre’s trilogy of rites-of-passage stories, is a comic-book fantasy hip-hop romp through a near-future dystopia. “The leaders have disappeared,” we are told. “It’s every man for himself. In the fog of his urban chaos, a young man returns. A guy with strange power and a backpack of destruction.” His name, like that of his legendary counterpart, is Robin. And he’s here to help.


Caught by grace: Griffin's Jump For Jordan

Like an archaeological dig site, a mound of sand intrudes upon Griffin’s corner stage, bursting through a window, cascading downwards onto the sandy carpet. Through the window, a garden, dark leafy foliage. And inside the house? Well, there’s an argument going on, an argument perfected and cemented over time, and we’re thrust headfirst into the world of Sophie, a twenty-something archaeology student, her “mad Arab” family and her girlfriend Sam. There is no question of where we are, familially-speaking, and as the play’s ninety-odd minutes unfold before us, we shift backwards and forwards through time, through memories and stories, half-truths and disguises, dreams, sleepless nights; family history, anxious projections and conversations with people who can’t be there anymore.
Donna Abela’s Jump For Jordan won the 2013 Griffin Award, and is presented here in its premiere production in conjunction with the Sydney Mardi Gras by Griffin Theatre Company. As described in the script’s notes, “the scenes in the play are often constructed of layers of narrative that collapse in on each other... Attention must be on context as well as content. The borders between scenes are intended to be porous.” To use the archaeological metaphor again (it is apt, after all), Abela’s play digs through several layers of accumulated strata, sifting fact from fiction, family stories from emotions and reality, and the result is a beautiful and moving exploration of identity, culture and relationships, both romantic and familial, and trying to reconcile all the disparate elements of your life with one another.


Keep calm and Carry On: STC's Noises Off

Playing farce is a dangerous business. Not only is the timing and hitting of marks crucial, but physicality is also a key element in the success of a piece. In a way, farce largely depends upon an audience’s knowing of things that the characters do not. “We know the vicar is behind the door, but the ingénue does not. We know why she’s in her underwear and the husband’s trousers have fallen down but his affronted wife does not,” writes Jonathan Biggins in the play’s program. Enter then, Noises Off, Michael Frayn’s seminal farce – nay, play – about a “third-rate production of a creaky bedroom farce” called ‘Nothing On’ as played by a less than fourth-rate troupe of actors. I say play because the plotting and precision of the writing is pure Stoppard, the collision of art-imitating-life is Pirandello’s, the characters’ awareness of a curtain that will never fall is Beckett’s. Yet for all its double entendres and mishaps, there lies at its heart the very real dilemma of not knowing your next line, your next entrance, your next move, and in that way it is very much like life – we never really know what (or, perhaps, who) is coming through the door next.
Staged in three acts, Act One depicts the final rehearsal before opening night (the first time they have ever run the show through head to tail in one go). Act Two is the production seen from backstage, four weeks into a national (regional?) tour (and played mostly in actions, “looks and gestures”), while Act Three is the production on its final night in Stockton-on-Tees, the last leg of the tour, and indeed on its last legs. It’s all a bit Groundhog Day in a way, the way we see the same one-act’s action played over and again, but with increasing variation and divergence from the prompt-book.