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Thursday, 4 June 2015

BELVOIR’S ‘THE WIZARD OF OZ’ dissected by me

There was a woman in the front row of the performance I saw of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ that spent the entire show with her jumper over her head and it felt completely in keeping with what’s been happening at Belvoir over the last few years. Can you imagine the poor punter who thought they were coming to see ‘The Wizard of Oz’ who walks into a Belvoir production and instead sees an asylum-like set, semi-nude cast, water-bombing witches and a glass-boxed version of Dorothy being finger-raped by the Tin Man? I think the woman in the front row may have felt the same thing was happening to her. If you’ve been to Belvoir under the reign of Ralphie or have witnessed the works of director Adena Jacobs, of course you can.

It’s got more substance than her production of 'Hedda Gabler' because at least this wasn’t reliant on badly crafted dialogue or tried to follow a narrative and then butcher it by removing any messages from the play. It had less cock than her production of 'Oedipus'- just a wealth of exposed breasts.  Dare I say it, there’s something intriguing about her ‘The Wizard of Oz’ which meant I didn’t hate it at all. Didn’t love it, just to be clear, but it allowed me to mull over what the dramatic meaning of Jacobs’ production might be. I don’t think I have any answers but it was engaging to watch at times and I got flickerings of feminism, of the outcast, of the lost and lonely, of self-loathing, pent up anger and a comfortable jumper that you can escape in when the production becomes too much.

Like a one trick pony, Jacobs can be relied upon to start the play with elongated silence and continue with disjointed dialogue, nudity and simulated sex. But like 'Persona', there’s something there in this expressionistic concoction that will have you intrigued by parts, laughing (perhaps inappropriately) in parts or perhaps walking out early or grabbing for the nearest sweater to seek solace until the whole thing is done.

It’s actually not the show itself that annoys me. It’s Belvoir’s attitude that if you didn’t like it or other shows of this ilk that somehow you, as audience, are the ignorant ones; that your opinion is as worthless and boring as a playwright’s work, which is why reinventing classics has been a favourite at Belvoir for so long. Ditch the words, swing the message, insert an animal into the mix, play with transgender, throw in a game, a smattering of violence, body parts, a glass box or scrim and leave the doors ajar so the audience can sneak out mid-show.  

I’m not going to dwell anymore on this review. This play is meant to be divisive. You’re probably going to hate it or find it stimulating so it surprised me that I wasn’t more polarised and sat firmly on the yellow brick road of whatever. However, I’m bored by the predictability when it doesn’t have a consistency of ideas to back it up. When the experimental feels mainstream, I think I need to rest from theatre for a while and take up French lessons.


Ho hum. Ho hum. I’m sick of beating this drum… 

Thursday, 28 May 2015

SPORT FOR JOVE’S ‘THE MERCHANT OF VENICE’ dissected by me

It’s not always easy to sit through the anti-Semitism of Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and Sport for Jove don’t shy away from it but what director Richard Cottrell does really well in this version is find the humour in the play to release its tension when we most sorely need it to.

Set in the 1920’s/30’s we are witness to the events of the play in a new context- dabble in the stock market and see prosperity crumble when your ‘ships’ crash. Antonio (James Lugton), rich and generous to his own, falls victim to his creditors in the form of Jewish money-lender Shylock (John Turnbull) and Shylock, angry and spurned by betrayal and religious persecution certainly wants his pound of flesh.

There are a number of things to commend this production to an audience. Firstly, the fine performances of its cast- especially Lizzie Schebesta as Portia, whose comic timing is impeccable and contrasted to her ability to portray status and gravitas. Turnbull and Lugton were also highlights and Damien Strouthos’ whiney and childish Gratiano captured the petulant traits of entitlement perfectly and Aaron Tsindos as the Prince of Morocco was a genuine crowd pleaser.

The play also created lasting images that pack quite the punch. There was an audible gasp from the audience when Antonio gives Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Lucy Heffernan) a look in the closing moments that suggested that her conversion and marriage to a Christian made her no less despicable in his eyes. The hate was palpable and disturbing and made each and every one of us uncomfortable. This juxtaposes with the humour of the marriage proposals to Portia and the colourful characters that attempt to win her fortune and heart.

Anna Gardiner’s set suffers a little from the need to be portable and lacks the lustre of other Sport for Jove productions but its versatility also gave it a few surprising conversions that allowed us to be transported to interior and exterior spaces easily; its art deco fa├žade also serving the play’s setting effectively.

This play has not always sat well with me but this is the first production of it that I have seen that has captured both sides of the play and allowed us to feel the gamut of emotions that are inherent in its content. This is a faithful and colourful rendition of Shakespeare’s problem play and well worth the effort to see it. 

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

HURRAH HURRAH’S ‘TRADE’ at the OLD 505 dissected by me

New company Hurrah Hurrah have taken the story of Jerome Kerviel, French rogue trader who lost €5 billion in illegal future tradings and have devised around the notion of greed, guilt, blame and redemption in a physical manifestation of the themes inherent in this story, more than a retelling of the narrative.

It’s a nice ensemble piece and although it lacks coherence in its form- how we get from one idea to the next is tenuous- it does produce some lovely images: the cocaine snorting, the violence, the use of the door frames to create new spaces and games, standing on the ledge. What Hurrah Hurrah do well is take the essence of the idea and play with its physical form to create committed, interesting characters with intensity and dimensions.

What is lacking from the performance is the critical eye of a director who can see the big picture and how it sits as a whole. The gorilla theatre style of the actors’ cooperative certainly allows for the group to input ideas as a collective experience but it has not yet mastered the art of finding the cohesion it is searching for. This means that the rhythm is disjointed; the engagement of audience is as inconsistent as the connection between images and we find ourselves working hard to stay with the ideas and message. But there is something animalistic about what is being expressed on stage that outweighs its inconsistency and  allows us to sometimes simply sit back and enjoy the message of man as primitive beast whose survival in a contemporary world thrives on lust for money and power, regardless of its effect on the community.


Trade is a piece that allows the company to showcase their skills and experiment with ideas in an interesting way. Once they refine its expression and cohesion, their work will hopefully become a sophisticated physical manifestation of current world issues that will appeal to a broader audience that moves it beyond the small community space and into the mainstream. 

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

THEATRE EXCENTRIQUE'S 'ANTIGONE' dissected by James

'Antigone', directed by Anna Jahjah for Theatre Excentrique at PACT in Erskineville, is the first show I’ve reviewed where I’ve felt a little unsure of how to approach it. I’ll start by saying that I saw the opening night, which felt like a preview, and perhaps, like many productions, a substantial amount will be reworked and changed over the following nights. I certainly hope that this is the case.

There were many elements of the performance I think which worked. Conceptually the piece is kind of interesting; responsibilities, rebellion, family, youth, ritual. All these ideas are apparent in the production and to a large degree seem to be something Anna Jahjah has sought to explore and find something within. However I think the performance struggled to fully engage with anything meaningful due to a mixture of poor dramaturgical decisions, lazy acting and some quite dangerous set components.

The play features a chorus and Jahjah decided to keep it. I’ll be honest, a chorus interests me, though it’s not for everyone. I want to see an ancient form, such as the chorus, revitalised with something new. So often it’s a drab, boring affair full of monotonous droning and expressionless faces. Jahjah’s chorus was composed of students from Blacktown Girls High who spoke their lines in French. At first I didn’t know what to make of this, but eventually I just grew disinterested. I could not understand a word they said. I have no idea what their purpose is, if not to comment as a collective on the dramatic action, and hopefully provide some form of dramatic entertainment. I guess I just watched a bunch of young teenagers speak French in front of their parents while dressed in white togas? I was so confused. It was so confused. What were they trying to tell me? And given that no one else in the play, save the Chorus Leader, wore ancient Greek clothing, I didn’t even know where they sat in relation to the world of the play which seemed a mixture of contemporary society and some kind of pseudo-1940’s military. I don’t even know. I thought maybe they were going for boy scouts or something, particularly with the use of so many children, but none of that made sense. It was a mess of signifiers and meanings.

The acting was mixed. I was happy with Ellen Williams (Antigone) though at times it felt a little ‘samey’ and Philippe Klaus (Haemon) was also pleasant to watch though I had the feeling he wasn’t quite comfortable in what he was doing. In particular the first scene with the two of them, performed as a quasi-love scene was sort of odd and alienating. It felt forced. Apart from these two performers however, I believe every single actor struggled to remember their lines, aside from those with close to none. It was a plague upon the performance. The show would begin to gain momentum, perhaps engage me, and then suddenly an actor would stand ‘umming’ and clicking his fingers frustratedly. Neil Modra (King Creon) was chronic. I lost all trust in him as a performer and spent the whole time worriedly hoping he wouldn’t stuff up.

Gerry Sont (Guard) was also a victim of the lineless-plague, though his performance featured some of the strangest acting I think I’ve seen in some time. He was kind of mesmerising in an odd way. At one point I actually felt like he completely and utterly believed he was speaking to King Creon concerning Antigone, however all the other emotions that would accompany such a revelation were likewise present; confusion at having transcended time and space, horror at now existing within an Ancient Greek myth, despair at perhaps never seeing his loved ones again. It was a frantic and enjoyable Guard, though I felt perhaps for the wrong reasons.

All issues with the acting aside, I think it is an incredibly tall ask to get actors to perform using dangerous and unwieldy set pieces. Core to the set design were two portable revolves that were taken on and off stage during transitions and often manually turned throughout scenes. The revolves comprised of circular pieces of ply with wheels attached to the underside. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, save that none of the wheels had locks on them. As a result, actors would end up struggling to balance as they stood unsupported on what was effectively an oversized skateboard on PACT’s sloped stage space. It was appalling and dangerous. Not only that, at the end of the performance, both revolves were brought out and an attempt was made to turn them simultaneously as the majority of the cast stood on them. As a result they ended up slowly colliding with the seating bank and groaning against each other unhealthily. After the bows, the revolves were left at the base of each seating bank which resulted in two audience members stacking it unceremoniously as the revolves skittered out beneath people who attempted to walk over them.

In closing, the performance requires more work and the set urgently needs to be re-evaluated. The acting laboured under the performers not knowing their lines, and scenes became tedious (as evidenced by the lady in the front row who fell asleep for twenty minutes). The show has potential, but it needs cuts, tighter transitions (so much up/down with the lights and lengthy pauses) and it desperately requires the actors to get on top of their lines.

'Antigone' runs at PACT Erskineville from the 23rd of April till the 2nd of May.


Tuesday, 31 March 2015

MUSE'S 'A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC' dissected by James



'A Little Night of Music', written by Stephen Sondheim and directed by Alexander Andrews, at the Seymour Centre’s Everest Theatre is a charming production put on by MUSE. It’s MUSE’s ninth year of bringing theatre to us and the standard of their productions is definitely rising. While I find this musical one of Sondheim’s least accessible, I found the overall experience of the performance rather pleasant. 

The set was comprised of a raised platform resting upstage adjacent to a grand piano, above which hung a tree branch suspended from the ceiling. A three piece table setting and bed were moved on and off stage depending on the scene. Lights were used on the cyclorama to produce startling silhouettes and deep sunset hues. It was a simple, sleek vision of the text’s world and wisely sought to preference the performer’s abilities rather than produce a spectacle.

While there were of course some weak performers amongst the bunch, as is expected from any volunteer based production, there were some fantastic stand out performances. Anna Colless, as Petra the maid, negotiated her character marvellously and her solo ‘The Miller’s Son’ was easily the highlight of the production. Additionally, Christie New as Charlotte Malcolm was a stand-out performer, and while perhaps not the strongest singer, her comedic timing and dry delivery was wonderful especially in relation to Stuart Bryan, whose Fredrik Egerman was light and charming. Other honourable mentions go to Louise Flynn (Desiree Armfeldt) and her softly sombre ‘Send in the Clowns,’ Gavin Brown (Mr. Erlanson) and his striking tenor voice amongst the chorus lines and Sarah Gaul who played the elderly and often scathing Madame Armfeldt.

It was a production where you really felt the love and passion of the performers on stage. It is pleasing to watch actors have fun performing, and the whole cast listened well to each other, committed themselves to their actions, and enjoyed the cleverness of the text. Likewise the orchestra was delightful, and comprised of members from the conservatorium and elsewhere, they were a talented and tight bunch of musicians.

The atmosphere of the production was light and enjoyable and it was a good night out.
I look forward to what MUSE bring us next.

Show Dates:
25th – 28th of March

NEW THEATRE'S 'WHEN THE RAIN STOPS FALLING' dissected by James



'When The Rain Stops Falling' written by Andrew Bovell and directed by Rachel Chant at New Theatre in Newtown, is an ambitious piece of theatre.

The production has many good things going for it; an experienced cast and creative team, an accomplished writer and an emerging director. However these quite substantial boons to the production did not quite live up to their expectations. That being said, I was surprised to find there was no Director’s Note in the program. I went into the production feeling somewhat blind, which isn’t always that unpleasant I suppose.

Bovell’s text is a large, sprawling piece of writing that spans three generations of a family. It negotiates each generation through a fragmented storytelling trope – flicking between short scenes to paint a picture of the greater whole. At first this is pleasantly confusing; we wonder who is who, and eventually work it out through subtle hints, however Bovell and perhaps Chant take it too far. It became obvious, sometimes through lines and sometimes through action, and once obvious it seemed to be continually reiterated as if the audience wasn’t expected to have worked it out. The horse was well and truly dead despite all efforts (see: beatings) to finish the race.

Part of the way in which these relationships between characters in different timelines were made was through the use of repetition. Phrases and ideas were repeated, sometimes word for word between scenes that take place 20 years apart. While a quaint and sometimes amusing piece of writing, this too was drastically overused. It ended up turning from somewhat amusing to terribly cringe-y and seemed to continue the whole way through the two hour piece. I’d like to mention that there was no need for Bovell to rely so heavily upon such a writing device. His dialogue is interesting, his themes bold, and the monologue at the commencement of the performance showcases his talent for text. His text is at times light and hopeful, and at other times disturbingly dark and sad. 

However, Chant’s interaction with such subject matter was confused, as if she didn’t really want to put on a show that deals with paedophilia in the first place but realised towards the end that it’s probably important. Paedophilia ends up being a convenient means to an end attached onto the home slope of the production. The topic’s inherent darkness felt like it sat completely outside of the world of the play, despite being so intrinsically connected to it – It’s the root cause of all the damage in the production. I think it’s kind of an odd thing to think about dramaturgically, and a difficult hurdle to jump certainly, however I don’t believe Chant or the creative team truly made the jump unfortunately. Perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed as much had the performance not run for what felt like a Lord of the Rings marathon. I think by the clock it was two, but it definitely feels longer. This could have been avoided through snappier transitions I think. There were a lot of pauses, watching stage hands move tables into position.

The set, designed by Tom Bannerman, was impressive, given the size of the space. A broad rake rises to the back wall, covered in a loosely bunched fabric, while an alternate ‘rake’ is suspended from the roof above it. This ceiling rake could change its angle through the use of a motor which raised and lowered its upstage side. What results is a clever trick of the eye, making the set appear to be longer than it is, and we the audience are looking off into the horizon, either over the ocean or across the desert. There are moments in the performance where this is used to great effect; the lighting shifts and the landscape changes dramatically. Where it felt tacky is mostly in the fabric. The entire floor was covered in a red sheet which not only seemed an uncomfortable surface to act on, also made moving chairs and tables across the space difficult. 

There were problems with the lighting as a result of the hanging set piece, as the majority of the performance had to be side lit from booms. The production encountered problems with this, as often members of the cast were unable to find their light, or were often obscured by other performers. Truthfully there wasn’t much Benjamin Brockman, the Lighting Designer, could have done with these issues given the nature of the set.  All things aside, however, the lights interaction with the set was at times beautiful and both Tom and Benjamin are to be commended for their efforts.

The acting across the board was quite refreshing, however it felt like many of the more experienced performers rested a little on the laurels. It was the younger performers, Renae Small (Gabrielle York) and Tom Conroy (Gabriel Law/Andrew Price) that really stood out in this performance. They developed a really nice chemistry together and listened well to each other. They were believable performances if perhaps a little nervous. 

Additional mentions go to David Woodland (Gabriel York/Henry Law). His opening monologue was impeccably performed and gave the show the momentum it needed to get through into the second half. Hailey Mcqueen (Elizabeth Law) dealt with the realisation and horror at discovering her partner’s affinity for children superbly and Peter Mcallum’s (Joe Ryan) patience and tortured love for his slowly declining wife was moving.

When The Rain Stops Falling runs Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays with the final production on the 18th of April. There is no performance on Good Friday, 3rd of April.

Monday, 30 March 2015

EPICENTRE THEATRE COMPANY'S 'THE REMOVALISTS' dissected by Lauren



I've never been a huge fan of Williamson's text. I often find myself questioning why this play, in particular, is staged so often. I understand the play's themes of masculinity & violence, domestic violence, and corruption of those in power are more relevant today than ever, but it's the way in which Williamson's play treats these themes that makes it problematic: it trivialises them, turning them into something to laugh at which, given the current political and social climate, seems counter-intuitive and a little regressive.It is probably its inclusion in the school curriculum that gives it such a good workout but I wouldn't mind seeing it rested for a while.

There was an attempt to modernise the piece by updating the scenery (adding an apple macbook, printer and digital camera to the police station set) and costumes but, if the text is left unedited, certain phrases become anachronistic in this 21st century setting. 'The Removalists' does read like a period piece, firmly entrenched in the 70's and updating it can feel contrived.

Despite this, I thought this was a production made up of strong technical elements. The moments of comedy I enjoyed most arose via the juxtaposition of representative masculine hegemonies in the forms of the tough talking, punch throwing sergeant Simmonds; the sensitive, young constable Ross and; the witty, macho ape-man, Kenny Carter. It is mostly fun to watch them staking out their territories (and their women). Some might argue that Simmonds seemed too old in this production and so the sense of menace might not read as strongly.

There was some nice acting on display, which I was glad for. Although I must say, I did have to suspend a bit of belief with both female characters, they just read a little young - particularly Kate. Don't get me wrong though, it was forgivable as both actors were a pleasure to watch. The arrival of the removalist character was a strange experience. It was overacted and there was some upstaging happening which took away from the scene, although at least it kept the younger audience engaged.

Despite my earlier protesting of Williamson's text, this is a well-put-together production. It's nicely paced, the space has been well considered and so the blocking feels rather logical and unforced. 

The ensemble have worked hard and produced something pretty solid.