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.