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.