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Wednesday, 30 July 2014

BELVOIR’S ‘HEDDA GABLER’ dissected by me.

I think what I find most amusing about this production is that Belvoir consider me disrespectful of their artists and have banned me from their comp tickets list and yet nothing expresses more disrespect to artists than what Belvoir have done with this play.

Let’s start with the disrespect shown for the original writer of ‘Hedda Gabler’, Henrik Ibsen. Director and adapter, Adena Jacobs, has taken the strong messages of Ibsen’s work- liberation, self-fulfilment, duty, and produced a play that offered no clear message at all. What is the point of adapting a work if the new version fails to deliver any clear intention? I, and many others around me, questioned the mixed messages or dramatic meaning expressed (or attempting to express) in this play. Is this now a play about race? About transgender? About breakdowns? Because to me, it’s now a play about nothing… no one gives a toss. It’s so confused- it’s a melting pot of ideas and none of them have come to fruition because it lacks control and coherence. It’s like a slow cooker where you have thrown all the ingredients from the pantry into its base and then after it’s cooked, you have ruined the taste of every single flavour they once had.

And this play is slow. Painfully slow. The silence at the start lacks any real intention. It’s drawing out the boredom I suppose, of Hedda’s (Ash Flanders) new married life but instead it serves to bore me before the dialogue has even begun. By all means- take ten minutes before you allow anyone to speak if you want and try to create a realistic existentialist passing of time. However, it comes across as if you’ve run out of things to say as a writer or director before your show has even got rolling because you pushed it too far. I’m sure it was meant to show that Hedda and Tesman (Tim Walters) had run out of things to say and now, returned from their honeymoon, she is already bored. Unfortunately it shot itself in the temple at the very start.

Can we now address the design? The glass box? The luxury car? The pool? The American Dream apparently. First thing, if you were looking to pay homage to Simon Stone and Benedict Andrews and their consistent vision in the staging of any show they direct, well done. What I saw was ‘Death of a Salesman’, ‘Every Breath’ and every other play they’ve done, all merged into one very confused choice. Let’s forget the problems with sightlines and with sound and ask instead, if it’s okay to set this play in the today, in the United States, with Aussie accents, in boxes, have you really thought through what you’re trying to say and does it match the total vision? Designer Dayna Morrissey has rehashed some of Jacobs’ last show at Belvoir, ‘Persona’ and given Jacobs every opportunity to be as bad as Stone was when he youthfully embarked on a mainstage directorial career. At least it’s equal opportunity failure.

The nudity? Oh please. Why? Just why? What do we gain by Ash Flanders trouncing around in a fur jacket with no pants and then looking out of the glass box for a significant amount of time, naked? I mean…what? Why? Bertie (Branden Christine) stripping off to lie in the pool? I mean, if being naked is the strongest symbol you’ve got, let’s get Aunt Julie (Lynette Curran) to streak across the stage to show how much she’s relishing new life coming into the household, get Thea Elvsted (Anna Houston) to take off her gear to represent how the rejection from Eijlert Lovborg (Oscar Redding) has left her exposed or Judge Brack (Marcus Graham) can throw his tackle in the mix to show that he is ‘the only cock in the yard’. The naked metaphor is so overused that it’s almost become redundant. There must be smarter ways you can symbolise the characters’ plight than forcing the actors to strip off and stand awkwardly in front of your audience.

Now let’s talk about the elephant in the room- the casting of a man to play Hedda Gabler. Let’s focus for a moment on the disrespect to actresses everywhere that you are essentially saying that Hedda would be better represented by a man and no woman could deliver your (lack of) message in this production. I also love the program note that addresses the choice by Jacobs to cast Flanders as ‘This is not a place for explanations, as I hope the production speaks for itself….’ If casting Flanders upon meeting him, you thought he represented ‘the yearning of escape, the terror of difference, a person squeezing out of their environment...’ you have a limited view of what you have just done to this play. You have kicked Ibsen’s play in the guts and ripped out its soul, where the feminist through-line of ‘Hedda Gabler’ marries the themes so distinctly.

Flanders was wooden (perhaps directed so- he has been beautifully animated in other plays I have seen him in). The kindest thing I could say about his Hedda was how impressed I was with the tucking. The ensemble are good but they are in a play that died long before it hit the stage and I’d like to thank them for making me endure only one curtain call before we all got to wash ourselves of that experience.

It cost me $60 to see this play. Belvoir should be handing out more than Ralph Myers’ resignation letter after that show. They should be throwing bar vouchers at its audience so you can drink the memories of ‘Hedda Gabler’ into oblivion.

There is a brilliant short film by Stephen James King that, long before Belvoir made the choice to cast a man as Hedda Gabler, satirises this notion. Watch it. It may be the medicine to this show.


Tuesday, 29 July 2014

GRIFFIN & MALTHOUSE THEATRE’S ‘UGLY MUGS’ dissected by me

‘Ugly Mugs’, written and starring Peta Brady, is a gritty engaging play that deals with more than a murdered sex worker and a teenage girl. It is a play that delves into the sexualisation of girls and of the men around them, whose power is to brutalise or they are paralysed by it. In many ways, this play is more about the men but it is their interaction with the women that define them. It also deals with the way women are targeted and blamed for the actions of men. It’s a touch of Adam and Eve in the most sinful of circumstances, if you will.

‘Ugly Mugs’ is streetwise and current and Brady’s sophisticated understanding of her characters, especially after years of working as an outreach worker as well as actor, has transferred beautifully into a play that understands the ugliness of desperation pushed to its limits, invisible to justice and fighting for any power within its grasp.

Director Marion Potts has allowed Brady and a solid ensemble of actors (Steve Le Marquand, Sara West and Harry Boland) to connect with this play, flowing effortlessly from the voices and interaction of the dead with those who seek to hear them and action as it unfolds, retrospectively. ‘Ugly Mugs’, originally a pamphlet written by sex workers and distributed amongst them, is the catalogue of violent punters encountered by them with the intention of trying to aid workers in recognising and avoiding the dangers in a world where protection from legal and crime institutions was barely present. It is a chance for the disempowered to rely on each other for support.

As doom and gloom as this sounds, there is a lovely weave of humour, especially by Brady’s character, to relieve the tension. Resilient and gutsy, Brady gives dimensions to this role so that we feel that this tragedy is not just of one woman but representative of the many who have gone before her and will continue to follow her and there is an inevitability to their plight that makes us realise how immune we’ve become to what happens outside of our sanitised and safe little worlds.

Michael Hankin’s stage design strips bear the niceties of the space and leaves us front and centre with the gurney but it is what he does with his costumes (even Brady’s hair was completely convincing) that create the reality of these people and world without overstating the premise at all.

If I have a criticism of the play, it is the poetry of dialogue for the son, played by Boland. The lyricism tends to work against the play and even against the character at times and I found myself having to work much harder to be engaged with his story. Or maybe the people who snuck into the theatre at that point distracted me but it left me estranged from this new subplot for a while.

The ending is also abrupt and I am left with questions in regards to Boland’s character. Why does he keep silent? Does he blame himself so that this punishment is his redemption? I’m not sure I completely believed the arc of his character like I believed the others. But a good performance by Boland and a terrific one from West kept these two in the frame and Le Marquand’s ability to be both vulnerable and horrifying, in different roles, gave us the light and shade we needed.


This is a very good play, made more so by the outstanding performance of Brady. It’s well worth watching so catch it if you can. 

Monday, 28 July 2014

G.BOD & EMU PRODUCTION'S 'A VIEW OF CONCRETE' dissected by Hayley

This is a story we have all heard before. Drugs are bad. There is no happy ending when it comes to the use and abuse of illicit substances. We are told time and time again where the road most meth-ed inevitably leads to squalor, psychosis and death. Gareth Ellis' multi-award winning play illustrates this exactly without deviation. Four characters living on the fringes of society and I guess sanity, fall victim to their insecurities and fetishes aided by their causal, then increasingly habitual drug use. Basically a watered down version of ‘Requiem for a Dream’.

Not to say that G.Bod Theatre's production of ‘A View of Concrete’ was unsatisfying. Actually this was the most impressive piece I have seen at King St Theatre in quite a while. The corpses of flayed whitegoods are stacked across the stage. Centre stage an old washing machine spins around and Billie (Taryn Brine) is crammed inside and thus we slide into her drug-fuelled urban-fairytale.

After seeing Rebecca Martin in ‘The Mercy Seat’ at the Old Fitz a few weeks earlier, I was looking forward to seeing if  her vibrant presence would translate to another role. I was not disappointed. Martin was strong, believable and unwavering in her commitment to her character.  Matt Longman was also impressive but it was Tim Dashwood's portrayal of the puck-esque dealer that kept my eyelids from drooping. He managed to display a mixture of vulnerability and aggression, that made you want to fall in love with him, yet never invite him to your house.

Peter Mountford's direction was precise. His use of split focus to shift between each character's narrative was well executed. It is clear a lot of attention was given to the actor's blocking. The cast almost danced around each other, often using each other as props or becoming a part of the set. I will admit I wasn't completely sold on the Disney motif running through the piece. Don't get me wrong, I'm all about dipping productions into the glittery bucket of pop-culture references but the Mickey Mouse ears and the scoring of the more intense scenes with a Disney soundtrack felt a little tacked on and not fully integrated into the piece.

The biggest disappointment in this production was the size of the audience, with only seven of us in the stalls, I felt it was much smaller than it deserved.

I have always felt this play is unnecessarily long and it labours its themes too hard. We get it. Meth is bad. Drugs ruin lives. It just feels so didactic, like I am watching propaganda for the supposed 'war on drugs'. The characters and the scenarios depicted in this piece just feel so far from reality that it is hard to take it seriously. I do think that is important to give a voice to the negative side- effects of drug abuse, but I feel like this piece falls far short of being strong enough to have any impact. It is a story that has been told many times before in a much stronger and more dynamic way.

That said G.Bod Theatre and Emu Productions successfully bring the piece to life and although I clearly have some issues with the play, it is still a production worth seeing.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

LIES, LIES AND PROPAGANDA’S ‘PHAEDRA’ dissected by Rhiona

 Euripides is a personal favourite of the three great Athenian tragedians. His style is edgy and ambiguous, forward thinking and bold – much like this production. Director Michael Dean’s vision for the play was fresh and although it was messy at times, it seemed to align very well with Euripides’ original text, Hippolytus.

At the opening of the play, the goddess of love, Aphrodite, explains that Hippolytus has sworn chastity and refuses to revere her. Instead, he honors Artemis, goddess of the hunt. In vengeance, she inspires Phaedra, his stepmother, to fall in love with him.

The set and costume design was exquisite for the most part. It was baroque meets steam punk, a kind of decadent grunge. Unfortunately, this style only extended to three quarters of the cast – with Hippolytus and Theseus looking unusually out of place. However, to Catherine Steele’s credit, the design was nicely suited to the backdrop of the Tap Gallery – it was a very artistic approach to design. A little more cohesion between the actors and the design might’ve strengthened both – as it stands, the design seems to overpower the performance.

In this day and age of more frequent gender experimentation and role reversal it was an interesting concept to have Theseus played by Katrina Rautenberg, but not a new one. It does beg the question of why, if not for the betterment of the character (which unfortunately it wasn’t), should Theseus be played by a woman. Although Rautenberg’s emotional investment was strong, it wasn’t enough to convince me that it was a necessary or beneficial decision.

Melissa Brownlow was fantastic as the Nurse, but Phaedra (Danielle Barnes) and Hippolytus (Richard Hilliar) were sadly overshadowed by the chorus (Sinead Curry, Cheyne Fynn, Nathaniel Scotcher, Jennifer White), which was beautifully choreographed (Rachel Weiner) and performed with such intensity. The chorus carried the show, and made up for some of the main characters’ unclear intentions.

There were some interesting musical ideas, which occasionally surfaced, but at times it seemed to be competing with the performers and was slightly distracting. That was probably the overall theme – great ideas that competed too much with one another. There is a great vision that just needs to be edited.


ENSEMBLE THEATRE’S ‘RICHARD III’ dissected by me

I am on public record in regards to my feelings towards Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’. It’s my least favourite of his plays. I find it torturous to watch. I can’t believe this despicable villain, without redemption, crippled, ‘unfinished’, obvious. I can’t believe that a) he has killed anyone on the battlefield b) could manipulate any woman to marry him and c) that anyone would be stupid enough to believe his blatant lies. He is unforgivable and Shakespeare wrote him to appease the powers at the time and yet, as a writer, he could not reconcile what is recorded in history in regards to Richard’s achievements and still denounce him to the serving Queen. The play is propaganda that fails to offer dimensions to its antagonist, Richard III, because its intentions can’t serve both masters- literary and political. Shakespeare chose the latter and the play suffers, as do I, for it. Yes- there are some witty lines but as a narrative, it’s got more holes than a pre-election Liberal Party promise.

And it was in that moment, watching the Ensemble Theatre’s production of ‘Richard III’, that I had an epiphany. People can be that stupid, otherwise how do I explain the election of our current Government? To believe lies in the face of contrary evidence, to sideline blame, to be seduced by propaganda? Is that not the history of politics? What if Richard were Putin? Or what if Richard was a conglomerate of the Liberal Party leadership, if Birmingham was Rupert Murdoch, if Edward was Malcolm Turnbull and if every other victim, sometimes of their own stupidity, was, in fact, us- the electorate…well, I have a newfound respect for this play that didn’t exist before because we are living it, right now. We are that stupid, or that complacent, or that na├»ve.

This play is not a history play- not really. This play is a political play, taken to extreme. Director (and lead), Mark Kilmurry tries to examine that in his production in a much more arts based concept that my imagined version. In his concept Kilmurry asks, ‘What if the Arts were banished, illegal?’ What if the expression of our creativity, when not used for pro-government propaganda, had to take place in abandoned underground settings like basements or derelict theatre dressing rooms? It’s not that much of a stretch, given the danger the creative artist is perceived to be by regimes. Extreme, sure, but consider this, how much longer will the ABC survive unless it’s forced to be more Murdoch in its unwavering support of party politics?

I don’t know that I would have picked ‘Richard III’ to showcase this concept. Understanding the play better doesn’t mean that I like it any more than I did before. But the fact that this play is political gives it some sway in realising Kilmurry’s ideas. I wish that this little band of rebels, performing outlawed theatre in the dark, dank underground, watched each other as they were ‘offstage’ so that I could feel more of the tension in performing illegal art. But what I did enjoy was the gritty realness, the raw expression of the play. Kilmurry’s Richard is stripped bare and the artifice is made more real for it.

The performances are very strong. Kilmurry’s achievement in physicality in realising Richard is enough to make me want to send him on a yoga retreat post show. Matt Edgerton also showcases a variety of characters with great physical and vocal skill- each different and well-defined. Amy Mathews displays real depth of emotion, Danielle Carter's innocence and grief fill the stage with energy, Toni Scanlan’s skill in comedy is contrasted to her fine abilities conveying the tension of the drama and Patrick Dickson’s Buckingham captures his flighty conjoining with whatever power is greater at the time.

Nicholas Higgins’ lighting design, enhanced by the set, conveys the damp derelict world of the play and its players, with danger ever present in the play and outside its doors. This is a good production of a problematic play. It’s engaging and well-executed. Kilmurry finds the comedy in the words and actions which help redeem the play’s narrative flaws. This ‘Richard III’ is conjured for this moment only, piecemeal in protest, and then disappears, much like its characters.


Catch it as it gasps its last breath at Riverside this week if you can. 

Sunday, 20 July 2014

SEYMOUR CENTRE AND SPORT FOR JOVE’S ‘A DOLL’S HOUSE’ dissected by me

It’s a brave director these days who takes a play written and set in 1878 and keeps it there but director and adapter Adam Cook is more than brave. He’s also very smart because keeping the original setting of Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ only adds to the relevance of the disempowered female voice and identity over 130 years later. The changes Cook has made to Ibsen’s play are for the better and with the integrity of the work firmly in tact.

How is it that women shaping themselves, physically and ideologically, to secure themselves a man does not feel at all foreign to us today. For heaven’s sake, a lot of people have made a lot of money writing books telling women that this is how to find a husband in the modern world. Which, of course, is every woman’s goal, isn’t it?

How is it that a woman asserting opinions or ideas still counts for less than a man’s opinion? Or that a single woman of middle-age is tragic and that women are most defined by titles such as mother or wife before we recognise them as people in their own right? And how is it, all these years later, for how far we’ve come, that we are still having this discussion and trying to garner equality across every facet of society and culture?

Enter Sport for Jove’s excellent production of Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’. Cook has found a way to take this domestic and lively opening and transition into its inevitable breakdown with power and precision. Consider Nora’s (Matilda Ridgway) prancing, sneaking pleasure from the banned chocolate she has squirreled away, spending money on her children, her family, keeping the household light in mood, playful, happy, by remaining cheerful and childlike. Why, she’s adorable and adored by all because she is wispy and winsome. No-one expects more from her, including us as audience, because this is a scene played out in front of us in every form of entertainment for too long to count. And Ridgway is outstanding in capturing the contrast and depth of Nora so that the transition is as natural and necessary as it could be. When she performs the tarantella under husband Torvald Helmer’s direction (Douglas Hansell), the terror of her plight is heartbreaking, her life unravelling through the imagery of the wild dance. We feel the grief, long before the play’s conclusion and Nora’s epiphany. Hansell and Ridgway also have great chemistry on stage which makes their relationship believable and heightens our devastation at the unfolding events. As Torvald says, “You mustn’t be so wild and excitable. Be my own little skylark again” and if we’re honest, we kind of want that too. We want it to work out but we completely understand why it can’t. We feel pity for all these characters but are solidly in Nora’s corner as it is her journey that is the driving force of the play.

Anthony Gooley as Nils Krogstad was also terrific in Cook’s production. His nervous tension, energy, fear and sweat permeated every moment he was on stage. We felt the shift in the play’s direction once he entered the space, without it being overdone or forced, Gooley made Krogstad tragic without us ever needing to hear his story and his redemption later drew our compassion and emotions.

This is a great ensemble and I’d expect no less from Sport for Jove or Cook. Hugh O’Connor’s design with Gavan Swift’s lighting captures the superficial normality of the living quarters with the shadows haunting the corridors of this household that eventually emerge on stage. If there was anything to criticise, it would be Hansell didn’t quite capture Helmer’s panic of exposure with control and Barry French took a little while to warm into the role of Dr Rank but both achieved great moments for most of the production and so this is a minor complaint in what is a play I would happily view again.

This is Ibsen as it’s meant to be done and certainly for the teenagers we took to see it, no matter what their background, gender, education or persuasion, they loved it as much as the adults in the crowd and forced us to have a lunch meeting the next day so they could unpack the play’s ideas and debrief about its resonance for them. And if you can get such broad appeal and discussion across generations from a play written two centuries ago, to feel like it means something to us in 2014, you have made very good choices indeed.


Bravo. 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

SYDNEY INDEPENDENT THEATRE COMPANY’S ‘THE MERCY SEAT’ dissected by Rhiona

The play is set in New York on September 12th, 2001 – the day after the 9/11 attacks occurred. Playwright Neil Labute follows the story of a couple, struggling to come to terms with the disaster whilst also grappling with their own personal dilemmas. Questions of infidelity, commitment, gender roles and morals all come into play as Labute explores instinct in the wake of an opportunity, survival in the face of devastation.  Each of the characters has their own struggle but the burden they share is a particularly poignant one. They have a chance to erase everything and start over. Will they choose to abandon the responsibilities they had? Or will the randomness of survival, the guilt of the event, consume them – will morality kick in?

The writing is imbued with so many tensions of both a personal and political nature. Yet the complexity of the issues being dealt with weren’t always realised. It was an ambitious choice. Largely self-directed, perhaps a little more input from the collaborative directors listed in the program would have given this performance some more depth.

Although much of the plot is focused on the exploitation of tragedy for personal gain, the text is laced with so many layers of meaning that unfortunately seem to have been overlooked. Similarly, the characters were reduced to their most basic qualities and didn’t seem to change or develop as the play progressed.

Patrick Magee’s characterisation of Ben was, at times, immature – his breakdowns verged more on the side of neurotic than emotional, and what was intended to be a cowardly outbreak of indecision fell more in line with a childish tantrum. However it must be said that his characterisation was much stronger than Rebecca Martin’s portrayal of Abby, which was absolutely one-dimensional – the light and shade of the character was diminished to a bitter, power hungry woman.

The play does explore gender politics and does, to an extent, subvert traditional gender roles, however, this aspect of the text was over-emphasised and made for a real imbalance in the pair’s relationship. Martin’s overbearing and aggressive approach to her role alongside Magee’s weak whimpering was too much of a divide to convince me that these two would or could ever be a couple. Furthermore, this extreme polarization of characters made it difficult to sympathise with their situation. Instead, I found myself navigating through a discord of personalities. The tragedy of the circumstance and the struggle of the characters was thwarted by the characters themselves.

Although apologetic in the program, the minimal rehearsal time was an issue – not only for me but also for the actors. A lack of spatial awareness (made difficult due to an unfriendly set design) and a hesitance in a delivery every now and then threw off a few rhythms and interrupted the flow of the performance. Speaking of the set, no designer was credited in the program, but it seemed very messy and inconsiderate. A successful businesswoman’s apartment isn’t often adorned with worldly throws and oriental artwork. It resembled the flat of a bohemian uni student more so than a corporate New Yorker.

The pair were awkward together. There was zero chemistry. Yes, glimmers of good moments, I’m sure individually they have their strengths – but working together did neither of them any favours. It seemed more of a constant battle than a collaboration.


Labute’s writing is phenomenal; it is gripping and witty and utterly heart wrenching at times. But the personalities that Magee and Martin brought into the play were too overwhelming. It was difficult for me to invest in their stories when they were so locked into their idea of the characters. People aren’t always upset, or always on the offense, nor are they always submissive or cowardly. No one has one approach to every situation or one personality that defines them. It is the fluctuation between different emotions and states of being that makes us human and in the wake of disaster, every inch of our character is exposed –our response to the tragedy is only one aspect. Labute has encouraged the various character traits to surface, but unfortunately the pair were not able to negotiate the personalities.