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Wednesday, 29 January 2014


I hate summer. Maybe hate’s a strong word and what I really mean to say is that I love winter. I love finding that toasty warmth in bed with a thousand covers over your body or the comfort of a slow-cooked dinner and the justified languor of popping into your jim-jams at 5pm and watching mindless television because it’s dark and cold outside. But if the Sydney Festival keeps producing seasons of theatre and entertainment like the one we’ve had in 2014, I may declare summer my new favourite time of year and I’m declaring Griffin’s/Performance 4A/Carriageworks’ ‘The Serpent’s Table’ my pick of the Festival.

Firstly, there is a beautiful and theatrical authenticity to the storytelling and voices of some of Australia’s prominent Asian celebrities. Who wasn’t moved by Pauline Nguyen’s bittersweet story of her relationship with her father or Darren Yap’s loss of his mother?

Next is the staging of each story, designed by Alice Lau, where audience are herded gently to a different area of the cavernous Carriageworks space to see Nguyen cook and slice (oh the tension of that knife) or Anna Yen’s hanging rope acrobatics or Indira Naidoo’s garden and dining area recreated so we are literally seated at her table.  

There was genuine humour aplenty- Jennifer Wong’s hilarious tales of fabricating the food diary so she might keep her true Asian identity under wraps or how Darren Yap’s mother bribed him into compliance through a flask of his favourite food or Indiria Naidoo's mum growing something in the garden that was certainly not the spice she thought it was. There is Chinese live music following us around the hall and the whole experience seems to pay homage to a culture that feels incredibly under-represented on the Australian stage.

On top of all of that was the delicious food. I would not let Darren Yap leave until I had his mother’s chicken and mushroom recipe. This was a complete sensory experience from fondling Naidoo’s spices (not a metaphor) to the sweet smell and taste of each dish, the visual feast of Lau’s design and Luiz Pampolha’s lights and Mic Gruchy’s projections and the aural delights of the sounds and stories of ‘The Serpent’s Table’.

Lee Lewis and Darren Yap as co-directors have produced such an encompassing and engaging piece of theatre that if you missed out on tickets in the raffle, you really have missed out on something very special. This was a communal and community show, inclusive and insightful, stylised and authentic with warmth of delivery.

‘The Serpent’s Table’ furnished me with those joys of winter in the middle of summer and I’m forever grateful that I got to experience this show. 

Sunday, 26 January 2014


Equating Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’ to the Indigenous community disputes over land ownership in Northern Australia, ‘The Shadow King’ borrows richly from Lear and intersperses it with its own dialect and language and culture and what we have as a result is a natural and Australian version of a familiar play. Lear’s army is his mob and the tragedy of a blinkered possession of the land makes us do desperate and dastardly things until nature reminds us that no-one has domain over it.

Co-created by Tom E. Lewis and Michael Kantor, who also directed the play, accompanied by live music and on screen film projections over an epic and imposing set, designed by Kantor, Paul Jackson and David Miller, ‘The Shadow King’ adds a new dimension to an old story of patriarchy, monarchy and sibling rivalry. The play does lack a control which means that vocals sometimes struggle to compete over the music and speech lacks clarity at times and although the premise is a simple and honest version of Shakespeare’s tragedy, the audience is working hard to give the language and rhythm coherence. But thankfully the energy of the show and the skill and authenticity of its performers, especially Lewis, Jimi Bani and Jada Alberts give the production an integrity that make it infinitely watchable and poignant.

Bay 17 at Carriageworks, my new favourite venue in Sydney, has been transformed into an Australian outback landscape and you literally have to tread over the red earth to navigate your way into your seat. The tank-like proportions of the movable set that connects to a grandstand and doorway of interior homes, jail cells and caves is one of the best uses of technology, metaphor and environment. The eyes of the tank look out onto the desert with a spot firmly on the abandoned crown, another creative idea expressed in the lighting design by Jackson.

I loved that the ghosts still have a presence on stage, which only seems right that the spirits of those killed still wander this land and led the living to find their way. I loved that ‘madness’ and ritual were closely connected and until you embraced the spirit-world and its lessons, your soul was as lost as your sense and sanity. Also interesting was the curse imposed by the father on his children for their treatment of him or that we see his daughters may ‘own’ the land's riches but in real terms, it does not provide them with wealth and they are just as desperate and poor as always. It is the potential of the land and its development that makes them embark on a villainy that sits like a rock of regret and fractures their ultimate intentions and life.

‘The Shadow King’ is a rough diamond with interesting parallels from an aristocratic English world to our own tribal connections. This play is epic, exciting and uniquely Australian and the inclusion of traditional Aboriginal and Torres Strait instruments and music with rock almost crosses this play into a semi-contemporary musical. There is humour aplenty and also a dig here and there, such as Cordelia’s (Rarriwuy Hick) and Lear’s (Lewis) imprisonment when she tries to comfort her father in the cell, reminding him that “prison is something our people are familiar with” or when we are told of Cordelia’s death in custody, made to look like suicide.

I commend this play to you as an insightful look at how relevant the themes of Shakespeare plays are in this local context and the play is a visual feast of ideas. Catch it as part of the festival season. 

Saturday, 25 January 2014


The last two nights I have seen two of Shakespeare’s tragedies reinvented for the modern stage and if you want to play with Shakespeare, here’s how you do it.

Imagine Othello, rising out of the hood and now reigning king of hip-hop. His crew, loyal and upbeat Cassio and hip-hop purist and hardcore Iago make up the triumvirate that tour with tension and humour at their base. Iago, the twisted Machiavellian villain, makes it his mission to knock Othello off his perch and embraces a gang style culture of violence, drugs, sex and blackmail to succeed. Whilst the play is not afraid of exploring the humour in character, situation and relationships, it equally delves into the tension and trauma of that world using Shakespeare’s play as a solid reference.

What you get in all of this is 80 minutes of terrific theatre, music, dance, beats and classic camaraderie of ‘Othello: The Remix’, written, directed and music by GQ and JQ (who also make up half of the performing ensemble with Jackson Doran, Postell Pringle and DJ Clayton Stamper). After missing their ‘Funk It Up About Nothin’’, much to my regret, I was not going to miss this show and I’m so glad I didn’t.

I was concerned in the first five minutes as the pace and rhythm of the rap seemed to fly by me like sprinter on steroids but then I sat into the groove of the words, music and action and nothing interrupted my engagement of the story of the moor from then on.

I had niggling doubts about Desdemona being implied and not directly represented but with the skilful work of the actors, with the overlay of vocals from Sophie Grimm as manipulated by DJ Clayton Stamper, clever lighting effects by Jesse Klug and a symbol here and there, I couldn’t have imagined it working as well any other way. Consider my disbelief suspended. A collection of terrific wigs, hats, quick costumes items, a nuanced change in physicality and a modulated voice and suddenly the whole world of Othello’s characters are present on stage using just the four exceptional actors and the DJ.

This rendition is transformative in every way. It’s contemporary, current and cheeky and it blends irascible with adorable. The tennis obsessed CEO Loco Vito, groupie Bianca, lighting designer fantasy-buff/nerd Rodrigo contrast Iago’s destructive anger and Othello’s later jealousy. ‘Othello: The Remix’ understands Shakespeare and its own world very well and there is a gentleness in its treatment of all its characters’ flaws.

The issue of colour seems secondary in this production but it doesn’t lose any power in its storytelling. It was a privilege to see it and my party of six, aged from 17-50, thoroughly enjoyed the show. It’s got such a limited run (it ends over the long weekend) so don’t delay. It’s on at the Seymour Centre as part of the Sydney Festival and you really are going to kick yourself if you miss it.  

Friday, 24 January 2014

BELVOIR and SYDNEY FESTIVAL'S 'Oedipus Schmoedipus' dissected by me

Oedipus Schmoedipus has a concept which is more interesting than the actual show. It's a clever idea to explore and analyse the big literary death scenes and to use a mass of amateur volunteers to bolster numbers for an audience keen to come and see friends and family die on stage in a professional show. I'm also told the day's rehearsal period for the volunteers is a tightly run machine and certainly the people I spoke to who were involved thoroughly enjoyed the process.

I wish I could say it was as much fun to watch. This is actually a 'fringe' show that has about 30 minutes (and that's being generous) of content drawn out to last for 70 minutes in an attempt to justify the $70 you just paid to see it. Whilst the initial death scenes opening was an interesting and potentially great start (desperate for an edit), the 10 minutes of cleaning up as part of the show that immediately followed it whilst our two protagonists could have a shower really pushed the friendship. If I recognise that every minute costs a dollar, I just paid $10 to see three people clean the stage.

And then enter the amateurs. And bless. That's what they were. Declaiming from the TelePrompTer/ big screen tv's mounted on the ceiling (and even that was a struggle for some) and had random acts of scratching and hair pulling and I still couldn't tell you for one moment what the function of that instruction was. I'm taking a punt that some of those volunteers were on the verge of death themselves and others certainly came to understand the idea of corpsing on stage.  It's all a bit of a mess and symptomatic of a half-baked idea unable to come to fruition. I will say that the volunteers for the most part fully embraced their chance to be on stage- my two friends crawled to the exit after their death scene so slowly just to make sure they got value in their stage time (and one volunteer's ample bosom in a low cut top that revealed her assets as she crawled across the stage almost deserved their own credit in the know who you are). There was one woman who just stood there and smiled because she had no idea what to do, even with prompting. I'll admit, I became obsessed with watching her to see if she ever spoke. She did not. Want me to think about your themes? Then don't push the sheep on stage without checking to see if they can jump a fence. 

We then had the rambling of our two main performers and devisers, Zoe Coombs-Marr and Mish Grigor which went for an eternity (probably only 20 minutes in real time) and it was enough to wonder if faking my own death was an appropriate way to exit the theatre. Those people who left after ten minutes were smart indeed. Why didn't I take heed? Because I'd spent $70 on a ticket. Bingo. It really did try to be clever and funny and briefly poignant but didn't hit any of those marks.

The dancing, the literary quotes, the people in sheets, the chorus, the death scenes, the entrances and exits, the pronouncements, the attempted stand-up, the flotsam and jetsam of this show: none of it hangs together. And when the creators call themselves  "very cool, subversive, contemporary theatre-makers"- tongue-in-cheek, I can't help but think that the risk they took staging this show needed a local version of an off-off broadway run, so to speak, in order to hone a decent enough concept so it doesn't face death by the critics (pun intended). It's got plenty of ideas just a dissatisfying amount of actual content.

I would not be spending good money to see this (oops- too late) and unless you have friends in the show (and ask them to tuck those puppies away) and you really, really love them so that you are willing to make the sacrifice to see this show, then don't waste your time or cash. It's about two workshops away from being performance ready.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014


I love that the Sydney Festival allows the convergence of great local works and also pieces from interstate and international companies to take up residence in our city during January. If you're not a regular subscriber or you're a little disheartened with the local big company offerings then this is the month to enjoy the summer feast of theatrical choices and take a punt on the calendar of works and I would strongly recommend that 'Black Diggers' appear on that list.

Queensland Theatre Company's Artistic Director Wesley Enoch, working with writer Tom Wright, researcher David Williams and dramaturg Louise Gough have created a devised-style documentary play that explores our Indigenous servicemen's experiences in WWI as well as their experiences post-war. The play asks lots of questions: why would a community who is denied citizenship and has suffered virtual tribal genocide want to fight with their 'invaders' for a country that has never served them? How were they treated in the field by a community that has often ostracised them? How can they enlist? What are the implications for the spirit if you die away from & are unable to return to your land? Did things change when they returned? How were they further oppressed in regards to land allocation and pensions for returned servicemen? The play's device is not to answer those questions but to allow its audience to become aware of what is being asked, the effects of the events and for us to become further enlightened in new perspectives on Indigenous oppression. This is echoed in Enoch's words in the program that "one purpose of Indigenous theatre is to write on the public record neglected or forgotten stories". 'Black Diggers' certainly does this.

'Black Diggers' is a theatrical narrative borrowing from Epic Theatre techniques. The use of the surrounding backdrop of the blackboard that allows for dates, names and memorials was an effective tool designed by Stephen Curtis and Tony Brumpton's soundscapes and Ben Hughes' lighting stakes of this dark, violent period in history and the circumstances of nothing changing upon return were constantly reflected on stage in the dim light and the sounds of war. 

In all of that we see the action brought to life by a talented ensemble who play an array of roles, form a chorus of united voices, find the balance of drama and humour and move through the play with pace and power. The first twenty minutes of the play in the pre-nation section takes a while to warm up but it hits its stride by section two's enlistment and the ending of the Last Post was extremely moving in making us consider the Anzac legend and loss in a whole new light. This is a play that sneaks up on you and offers a new way to view history that is not the dominant white version we know. 

The Australian War Story and heroism should not allow itself to be colour-blind and this play goes some way to right our perception. I was pleased to have my first official festival outing be such a strong and resonant play that warranted much foyer discussion post-show. I have previously voiced concerns over the repetitive yet vital voice of Indigenous stories that can sometimes foster a complacency in its audience when it feels it is on repeat but this one made me rethink history all over again. Bravo Enoch and team. 

Lest We Forget.